STEP UP Creatives Ensemble: Ollie Smith (Actor)

What’s the best way of expressing an idea or concept?

Explaining with words or demonstrating by doing?

As a self-professed “creative” who uses “apostrophes” to try and be “funny” whilst writing a “blog”, I would normally lean towards the latter – demonstrating – however, last Sunday I’d tasked myself with illustrating to the group how not to do something – and showing absence is tricky.  So, prior to the session, after sitting at the foot of my bed for a while (I don’t have a desk) and grasping aimlessly into the ether for an inspired “creative” idea about how best to articulate the concepts I wished to express, I decided I’d take the easy route and just talk for a bit.  I didn’t do that.  I talked for a lot.

A lot. [1]

When I get asked what I “do” (a question which never fails to send very real shivers down my spine) I generally offer a weak smile to fill the inevitable pause before tentatively referring to myself as a live artist, a performer and/or a theatre maker, depending on the day of the week, what the weather’s like or how hungry I am.  The so-called “studying” I’ve done during the following of such a (“creative”) path lead me to become particularly interested in the differing layers or levels at which a performer can act.  Or more interestingly (at least to me) – not act.  I offered the STEPUP kidz a session on “acting” and “not acting”, which I hoped would touch on performing the “self” on stage. [2] The kidz seemed interested.

I didn’t want our session to be a lecture, but having failed to come up with any alternative method of concept expression whilst sitting at the foot of my bed, I sat rather pretentiously behind a desk (real this time) and opened the session with a question for the group: What is acting?  This sparked a lively debate and I breathed a visible sigh of relief as I realised the kidz were up for an argument.  We talked about character for a bit before the conversation naturally meandered towards the social personas that each of us wear day-to-day dependent on situation.  I didn’t have to say anything.  Sweet.

I eventually offered that perhaps “acting” was when a person comes on stage (“stage” being used rather loosely in this context) whilst employing some layer of pretense: something feigned, simulated or represented.  Then pow!  We launched full-throttle into Michael Kirby’s “scale of acting and not acting”.  [See fig a.]
















fig. a


For copyright reasons I’m not about to repeat the lecture-that-I-didn’t-mean-to-give in irritatingly painstaking textual detail.  I’m not one for waffling inanely for no good reason.  I will say, however, that I thoroughly enjoyed engaging with such a varied group of individuals from such different backgrounds, some of whom were aware of Kirby and/or the Wooster Group and/or related material from previous study, some of whom had not touched on such theories in the past at all.  The exciting thing about that session for me was that everyone delved straight in, debated, challenged and downright disagreed with one another.  Which was brilliant.  And this followed throughout the day as Selina offered many fascinating musings on the science of acting (delving into the psychology of the complex end of Kirby’s scale), and during Georgie’s much more practical teaser on methods used within physical theatre. [4]

I did have one or two exercises I wanted to try out during my session (honest, I did) but we didn’t make it that far because the group was too busy being awesomely engaged in thinking. [5] BUT if we had done them I would’ve used them to illustrate some key elements of live art as a darned slippery nigh-on indefinable practice. [6] These key elements would have been as follows:

  • Perhaps most importantly that group collaboration advocates a shared democratic experience, resulting in joint authorship and ownership of the work.
  • That solo work is often intimate, often one-to-one, often durational, etc.
  • That material is often devised, sometimes initially using improvisation techniques, and is often (at least partly) autobiographical, self-reflexive and uses varieties of presence as cited above on Michael Kirby’s badass scale.
  • That it makes use of rules and tasks and chance moments.
  • That it is often not supposed to be precisely repeatable, but rather each performance is unique.
  • That time is played with in terms of duration, repetition, speed, etc.
  • That the physical body is utilised often in uncomfortable ways.
  • That the performer-audience relationship is made central – drawing the audience directly into an experience, rather than building the “fourth wall” and pretending the spectators are not there.  (Indeed it’s pertinent to question whether performance can even exist without an audience.  They’re pretty important.)


Last night I attended the first Performance in the Pub night in Leicester with Tilly, Lesley, Gareth, Ria (of The Gramophones) and Bianca (of Theatre Writing Partnership).  Writer and artist Hannah Nicklin had programmed two excellent shows: Jimmy Stewart, an anthropologist from Mars, analyses love and happiness in humans (and rabbits) by Tassos Stevens, and Keine Angst by Ira Brand.  Both shows illustrated perfectly many of the concepts and styles that we’ve been discussing – and whilst sitting there watching I wished all the other STEPUP kidz were there too – because demonstration by showing people what you mean is so much better than telling them.  So I’m not going to tell you what happened.

Perhaps we can reflect on this next time.


[1] I’m sorry to anyone in the group who developed deep vein thrombosis during the session.

[2] These apostrophes not used for comic effect.

[3] That was fig a.  Scroll up if you missed it.

[4] The highlight of my day was, hands down, getting a massage from Tallie.  Thanks Tallie.

[5] Although to be fair, it’s probably best that way: my exercises did involve more sitting.

[6] ‘Whether challenging orthodoxies of fine art practice, exploring the limits of theatricality, appropriating the idioms of mass culture, pushing at the boundaries of choreographic conventions, or exploring the performativity of cyberspaces, Live Art practices occupy all kinds of mediums in a volatile state’.  From Fluid Landscapes in Live Culture at Tate Modern Catalogue, Live Art Development Agency 2003
[7] At this point during blogwriting proceedings I stopped writing for a bit because I didn’t know how to end.  Then I went on a school trip and all became clear.

Follow Ollie on twitter: @ollie_d_smith – or the whole STEP UP Creatives training ensemble in one handy list.


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