On Monday this week, a group of fifth and sixth formers were treated to an interview with OV, Bella Merlin (Co 81-83) who is Professor of Acting and Directing at University of California, Riverside. Bella herself is also an actor, a director and a writer, with her latest book, Shakespeare & Company, When Action is Eloquence, being co-written with Tina Packer who is a founding Artistic Director of Shakespeare & Company.
King’s Head of Drama, Shara Parry, was delighted to have the opportunity to talk with Bella and invite King’s students to ask Bella any questions relating to her career, which has spanned a number of different strands. Bella talked to the students about the three strands in her life: acting, directing and writing. She told them, “I always followed whatever door is opened; if a door opens easily, I believed that is the direction I should go in”.
She goes onto say, “it was really at King’s that I understood how vital and vibrant acting, and theatre, was and that gave me the confidence to decide that I would do this at university”. On leaving King’s Bella went to the University of Birmingham to study ‘Drama and Theatre Arts’ and later, she was very lucky to do a PhD in Moscow, at the State Institute of Cinematography. She talks about the “doors” that “kept opening” and advised the students that, “if a door opens with ease, go through it…”.
She also advises, however, that it is wise to have a ‘safety net’ if you are thinking of going into the Performing Arts and how the ‘safety net’ that she has, in being able to teach, has served her very well, especially in this time of lockdown, when she has been able to work remotely. Bella has found that there are certain joys of lockdown, when she can hold a video call to King’s students at 5am and talk to someone in the Philippines at 6pm.
Bella was asked about her interest in Konstantin Stanislavski and she says that she was first introduced to him at Birmingham University and later, at the Russian cinema school, where her teacher had been a student of Stanislavski’s and so she felt she was three degrees removed from him. In the Russian drama field, “you can’t escape Stanislavski” with all his questions that one should ask, “What do I want? How do I go about getting it? …….” And how one’s body reacts to the text of a play.
When talking about the tools that actors use, Bella remarked that, “If you’re reading a script and you understand the character, you may not need any tools, however if the character is very alien to your experience that’s when it’s useful to use tools to help shape the character. And you don’t always have to use all your tools available” Out of this, came her book, ‘the Toolkit’ which examines this concept in greater detail.
Bella was also asked about her experience as a director. She explained how the first thing she does, is to break the script down into “bits”, or “chunks” or “beats” and looks for where the “flow of the river changes direction, eg when new characters enter or when the subject matter changes or where the energy in the script changes.” This helps her, as a director to understand the rhythm of a scene. Bella’s brother, Jonathan Nott (Br 71-81) is a conductor and she has absorbed this idea of different “beats” from him. Next Bella will ask lots of questions of the script, looking up references she doesn’t understand, so that she can pose these questions to the actors, explaining that “the actors shouldn’t be any less informed than the characters they play.” She talked about the “hours and hours of text analysis, which I love”. Throughout this process, Bella concentrates on the four themes of Relaxation, Concentration (or Focus), Imagination and Observation, all of which are relevant no matter what role you play: whether you are actor, director, style designer or writer. Bella also mentioned the importance of the actor-audience relationship: how the actors ‘own’ the words and what effect those words have on the director and therefore ultimately, the audience.
There were also questions about the impact of social media on individuals’ ability to observe and Bella said that, being in lockdown and using videos to communicate, has given her a different view on our ability to observe: “as humans we evolve how we observe and how we feel.”
Shakespeare has been another important part of Bella’s life, “you can’t get a much richer scope of story and scope of expression than Shakespeare.” And she asks herself the same questions as of any other text: “What is the text doing to me? What is the rhythm?”
King’s Development Director, Liz Elliott, asked Bella about her time at The King’s School and what advice she received both during her time at School and subsequently throughout her career. Bella talked about the passion she experienced in her teachers at King’s: Peter Diamond (Hon OV), Tim Crow and Roger Hunt. She could see how her teachers followed their passions, so much so that “we couldn’t help but get excited about the subject.” And she was inspired to find the things that she was passionate about. At Birmingham University she was encouraged to keep reflective journals and explains that these were instrumental to her having the career that she has had, keeping notes on her preparation for performing, her experience of performing and her reflections afterwards. She continued to take these reflective notes and used the journals as the basis for writing her various books.
Bella’s final advice to the students was to “find your passion, reflect on what you’re doing and ask what reaction do you want to provoke in your audience?” If all this works, your audience will come back time and again.