If you’ve ever wanted to walk the walk of somebody other than yourself, Humber’s Kelly McEvenue is the person to help you.
As a movement coach for the Theatre Performance program and the Stratford Festival and Soulpepper Theatre Company, she’s had 30 years’ experience helping actors and actresses literally walk in someone else’s shoes!
“It’s all about what’s going on inside the actor’s body and their ability to make a wide range of choices – but with ease. Because they have to act like something that they’re not. I give them strategies so they can make the choices they want to make in their creation of this character while also taking care of themselves.”
The Alexander Technique
Kelly does all this using the Alexander Technique, named for Shakespearean orator Frederick Matthias Alexander, which helps people stop using unnecessary muscular and mental tension during their everyday activities. Kelly has also written a book on the subject The Actor and the Alexander Technique.
But what does this all mean in theatre? Perhaps Richard III is a good example. The actor has to find a way to evoke – “it’s evocation, not imitation,” Kelly clarifies – a hunchback who is variously described as "rudely stamp'd," and "deformed, unfinish'd” without breaking his or her back in the process!
“It’s a long play and Richard III has a big fight at the end, so the actor can’t take on playing the character’s tension with tension. It’s got to be intention. In Stratford we do repertory, which means you play Richard III in the afternoon and something else in the evening. So you can’t afford to make a choice that, one, might injure you and, two, that you can’t get in and out of absolutely freely and with as little cost as possible. Because it’s just a play.”
And so Kelly helps the actors find a way to create the character they envision, while preserving their bodies. Of course, Richard III only comes around so often. But Kelly says she has her work cut out for her with unwieldy costumes, wigs, period shoes, period tights, and “pumpkin pants” for the men. As she says, “How do you act sexy and wear an outfit that is so strange?”
Challenges on Stage
Kelly also helps people play dead, deal with raked (angled) stages, play high- and low-status characters, and, as in the case of this year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Stratford, she helps men act like women and women act like men.
“It’s a very simple thing. The centre of gravity is different. You get them to shift where they move from. The male centre of gravity is higher that the female centre of gravity. You might think it was lower because of what hangs off, but it’s not, it’s higher. And when you raise up your centre of gravity as a female it takes away some lateral swing in the hips and makes you move differently instantly. It’s a little thing, but it makes a big difference. And vice versa in the men – we get them to drop their centre of gravity – they sit in their hips a little differently and we ask them to swing a little bit more.”
Helping actors overcome these sorts of habitual actions as well as helping them create the physical manifestations of the characters they want to portray is part of what Kelly loves about her job.
“It’s never the same journey – contact with the actor and their imagination and what they’re wanting to do and the variety of things that come up in the theatre – it’s a great job. A lot of fun.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Kelly says frustration comes when somebody isn’t open to the unknown: “But that’s just fear. And fear is just something to respect, but to coax out.”
“My work is in the moment. I guess the challenge might be to stay in the moment of the learning with something you know well and to be sharing with somebody who’s learning it for the first time. To stay in the present of it, and not in the end of it. And that’s an Alexander principle. So, even though I might see the potential of the student not yet realized, their growth and their learning is going to have its own process.”
Students and Professionals
At Humber, Kelly works with the students to help them “tune the instrument” that is their body. At the same time, she is working with professional actors at both Stratford and Soulpepper. In many professions, there’s a large gap between the way one might work with students and professionals, but Kelly says that isn’t the case with theatre performers.
“You treat the students like professionals and you treat the professionals like students. Actors are endlessly curious. And the good ones are endlessly willing to explore and experiment, the way a student should. They are ever the student because they have to learn things with every new project.”
In fact, she says, she teaches fundamentals throughout the career of an actor.
Humber’s Theatre Performance program tries to train actors for a difficult industry, where, as Kelly puts it, somebody else decides what parts you will play, in which shows, and with whom.
“Unless you devise and create your own material. And that’s where Humber is unique in Toronto: there’s an emphasis on creating, and that gives the actor much more creative voice as to how and what they might do. They don’t have to wait and get approval; they create something.
Kelly says Humber’s theatre program is “ahead of the game compared to some of the others when it comes to this shift in theatre culture.” As she puts it, Humber’s theatre grads “don’t just become actors; they become creatives.”
Along for the Ride
Kelly says it’s a privilege to be allowed to witness and guide students’ growth.
“To be an actor is to dive in the pool. The water might be cold or the water might be hot or the water might be wavy and there might be somebody else taking up space in the pool and you have to work around that. The point is, theatre is in the experience. So you have to give over to allowing yourself to be in the experience. Jump in and be wrong. And fail.
"The most interesting part of teaching is being privileged enough to be along on that exploration. Even though you might have more insight as to how and where it might go, it’s still the actor going through it. You can’t do that experience for them. You can go along the ride with them and encourage them and give them some strategies, but when it’s all said and done, it’s their experience.”