Louise Mellor is originally from Manchester, England and was a part of the first MFA in Physical Theatre Cohort. Since her time in the MFA, she has performed with several companies doing all types of theatre, from children’s to devised works. She recently toured “The Jungle Book” throughout China. Louise took the time to tell us about her favorite moments at the ADA, her tour and what is next for her.
– When did you attend the Accademia / What did you study there?
I was part of the inaugural MFA Physical Theatre cohort from 2009-2011.
– What University/School were you coming from?
Prior to the Accademia I studied Performing Arts (BA Hons) at the University of Salford in the North of England.
– What was your favorite thing about the program?
As the first cohort, it really felt like we were helping to define the shape and direction of the programme. The faculty were very much open to our suggestions and opinions, with an ongoing dialogue and exchange of ideas between students and staff. Speaking with students who have studied on the MFA since I left, and seeing how the programme has changed and grown over the last few years tells me that it is continually evolving. Unlike some larger educational institutions, the ADA, and in particular the MFA course allows you to carve out your own course. There is a lot of space for personal growth and artistic development, at the same time as receiving high level technical training from a wide variety of experienced and inspirational industry professionals. The programme also nurtures a sense of ensemble spirit at the heart of every project, which in my opinion is an essential element for any successful theatre practice.
– Can you share a favorite memory or story from your time in Italy outside the classroom?
Relaxing in Parco Valentino along the river Po in Turin, after an intensive days circus training at FLIC. And performing at the Teatro Signorelli in Cortona was a pretty magical experience. Oh and being invited for a late night ‘spaghettata’ in the Aurora bar after closing hours, with our Sicilian chef friend Pietro, bar owner and local legend Cico and lots of lovely Arezzo folk.
– Do you have any “must sees” while in Arezzo?
I used to love relaxing with a book in the Roman amphitheatre. I believe it’s no longer left open, but if you ask in the museum office they will unlock the gates and give you some time to look around. The ‘fortezza’ is also well worth a visit, stunning views across Arezzo and the Tuscan countryside, and such rich history! My favourite gelateria is Sunflower. And favourite bar is – of course – Aurora, where I made many special friends, including Maria who now works at the ADA.
– What were some of the biggest “take aways” from your time at the Accademia?
The importance of breathing – the first step for anything! A connected breath allows for strong, centered foundations, from which the possibilities are limitless. And to learn by doing. Not to worry about failure or let fear of the unknown stop you from diving into a new or challenging situation. Mistakes are blessings in disguise that allow us to learn, grow and discover. As well as being clown comedy gold.
– What artistic projects have you been engaged in since you graduated?
My first job after graduating was for a Theatre in Education company called ‘Theatrino’, based in San Remo, touring 8 different shows for Italian children across the length and breadth of Italy. More recently I did a similar tour, though this time just with one show, ‘The Loch Ness Mystery’. This was with Turin based physical theatre company ‘Action Theatre in English’, whose artistic director Rupert Raison trained at the Lecoq school in Paris, together with Andy Crook (director of our final MFA performance project ‘The Judgement of Don Quixote’).
The last two summers I have worked with ‘Chapterhouse Theatre Company’, performing multiple roles in ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘The Jungle Book’ . In Jane Eyre my characters included Rochester’s young French ward Adele, the tragically deranged Bertha Mason, and the aristocratic socialite Blanche Ingram. This was also my first time playing the accordion on stage, after a couple of years learning. In The Jungle Book I operated two puppets, Kaa the Snake and a cheeky little monkey called Paneesh, and I also played Mowgli’s wolf sister Nisha (half mask), and a village girl/Mowgli’s love interest, Amira. I originally performed in the two shows as an outdoor theatre tour around the UK and Ireland, before being invited to take the Jungle Book to China the following summer.
More recently I performed as an accordion/kazoo playing wise old owl in an interactive family arts experience, ‘The Enchantment of Chester Zoo’, by ‘Wild Rumpus’. And I am just finishing a tour of ‘The Elves and the Toymaker’ with ‘Pendle Productions’, a children’s Christmas show with lots of physical comedy and a couple clown-esque elves.
– Tell us more about your recent tour in China. What did you find particularly interesting or challenging about this tour and show?
For a collaboration between the UK based Chapterhouse Theatre Company and Chinese based Milky Way Productions, myself and five other lovely actors were invited to perform the Jungle Book in China. We started in Beijing, worked our way down to Shanghai, Wuhan and Nanjing, and finished all the way South in Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Before we got there, even during rehearsals, we knew very little about what to expect of the tour: what the set would look like; would we have a translator; how would we travel within China; would the audience understand the show?
We rehearsed in Lincoln with the set that had previously been used for the outdoor tour, which theoretically the Chinese set was to be based upon. But with no photos or confirmation of what we’d be working with, it was all to be expected. On the first performance day in Beijing, we decided to get to the theatre very early, to allow for any eventuality. And luckily we did. The set itself was similar enough, if a little, smaller than we were used to working with, but an essential part of the set/props had somehow been missed off the list. My character Amira is first seen making broth at a stove in the village, and learning about fire here is a key part of Mowgli’s journey which is directly referenced on many occasions throughout the play. We considered a number of options including miming/being the fire, (and boy do I know how to act the element of fire thanks to Marcello Bartolli and the teachings of Lecoq), but we quickly came to the conclusion that we’d have to get innovative and make one. While the cast got to setting up with the tech team, two of us ventured off to see what the nearby shops had on offer… this is China after all, they make and sell EVERYTHING here… but it was somewhat more difficult than expected. The ‘great mall’ across the road sounded promising, but turned out to be a strange plastic surgery hospital, and the shops we did find were far from anything we were familiar with. In the end we managed to make the fire our of a wicker basket, some coloured paper, foil and spray paint, and we found an interesting looking pot for our broth cauldron. Only much later, however, after a few unexpected giggles from the audience, did we question the original purpose of the pot… made of plastic so not for cooking, and the wrong shape for flowers… then it dawned… some houses in China have communal toilets for the whole block or street, and I was actually eating ‘broth’ from what turned out to be a Chinese chamber pot. Oops!
Communication was, as to be expected and perhaps more so, incredibly difficult. Luckily the Chinese producer spoke English and was with us to translate while at the theatres and traveling between cities. But in our free time we were left to our own devices, where we discovered that many things get miscommunicated and lost translation. As hard as we tried to muster a few essential sentences together with the help of duolingo and a phrase book, a lot of the time we were met with blank, confused stares or fits of giggles. This forces you to fine tune your communication skills, speak clearly, and get creative with gestures. Though you do need to be careful with the gestures, as they often have a totally different meaning to what you may expect. Communicating in Italy during the first few months was difficult, but at least there are some shared linguistic roots. China took feeling like an alien to a whole new league. And I think that the experience of being a misunderstood outsider and the minority is invaluable, particularly for an actor!
When it came to the audience understanding the show, there weren’t may problems. We had Mandarin subtitles on screens at each side of the stage, and particularly in Shanghai the audiences seemed to have a good level of English (lots of international connections and bilingual children). However, we did also have lots of audience members who spoke absolutely no English. In Wuhan, a group of students from rural Hubei come to watch the show, and even though they spoke very little English and the whole concept of going to the theatre was completely new to some of them, they absolutely loved the show. It is a universally loved story, told in a very accessible way. Even if you don’t understand the dialogue, it is visually enchanting, with bold colors, beautiful puppets, and lots of movement, music and physicality. The simple gesture of being bitten or kicked in the backside may seem silly, but little moments of slapstick physical comedy like that really are universal and can make an audience laugh regardless of age or background. A little bit of clown can go a long way!
Major challenges included doing get-ins in 40 degree C heat with no air-conditioning, and trying to be vegetarian in a society where meat (in all its forms) is a major part of the diet. The Buddhist restaurants were a saving grace! Highlights were performing in some huge and beautiful theatres, to audiences of up to 1000 people. And of course, performing our finale song and dance on The Great Wall during a torrential rain storm. We were the only ones stupid enough to brave the wall in such terrible weather, so we had it all to ourselves – epic!
– What has been your favorite experience as an artist since Graduation?
It’s so hard to choose just one. The whole China experience was an incredible, eye opening adventure. Performing at Glamis Castle in Scotland was also an amazing experience. I guess the things I love most about my job are the variety of strange and spectacular places I get to visit and perform in, the people I meet while doing so, and seeing the powerful and positive impact that performing can have on an audience. Even a show in a little run down school or humble village hall can be greatly satisfying and heart warming, and often audiences at these venues have the most to gain. Before going out on tour with the children’s Christmas show I am currently performing in, our director pointed out that children’s theatre is often undervalued and looked down upon. On the contrary, he believes it really can and does change lives for the better (and it is a great feeling to work with people who you know are genuinely passionate about their work and their art.) For many children watching this show, it is their first experience of theatre, some struggling under academic pressures and others coming from troubled home lives where there is little space for play. This production gives them the chance to laugh, smile, dream, imagine, and just be children. And seeing their faces light up during the show, or chatting to them or the teachers afterwards, you realize that most of them do take a little bit of the joy and magic of the show away with them. All of these little moments are favorites too.
– Do you have a clip you can share or link to?
A bit of a random one, but here is me as The Wise Old Owl, delivering a final thank you message to audience members and participants for saving the endangered species and unknown nocturnal animals at the zoo:
– What difficulties and triumphs have you encountered in your work?
Touring can be exhausting, with multiple shows in one day, heavy equipment to move around, set up and take down, topped off with constant traveling and living out of a suitcase. But as I mentioned earlier, the perks of the job make it all worthwhile.
I also find that finishing a tour can be quite a shock to the system. You go from being completely immersed in a project with hardly any free time, working and living with people who become like family, to having to start all over again. Working freelance means constantly being on the look out and apply for the next job. The number of cover letters I have written doesn’t bear thinking about, and the process of auditioning can be very draining when you get rejection after rejection. Strangely and annoyingly, work seems to be like busses. Nothing at all for a period of time, and then all of the opportunities come together and you can’t fit them all in.
A couple of months ago I had a rather stressful, busy week of auditions, but fortunately it paid off with a few ‘triumphs’. I met the wonderful company ‘Wild Rumpus’ and had a great couple of weeks working with an amazing team of creatives at a conservation zoo, of all places. I am also hoping to work with them again in summer as part of the ‘Just So’ festival. I also participated in two days of workshops/auditions a with leading full mask theatre company, ‘Vamos’. Much to my delight I was offered a job to tour with them in 2017, which I am very much looking forward to! During that week of auditions I also met ‘Proper Job Theatre Company’ who specialize in Meyerhold’s Biomechanics. I didn’t get the job at the time, but just last week they contacted me to see if I was available to help devise and trial a new adaptation of Medusa that they are working on. Unfortunately, the dates for this one clashed with other commitments. I guess you can’t have it all, after all, but it’s nice to know that there may be the opportunity to work with them in the future.
– What kind of person might be interested in similar work and how might they go about pursuing this?
Who? Somebody who is interested in devising and creating theatre, and finding creative ways to tell a story and connect with an audience. And how? Perseverance! My audition story above goes to show that trying, trying and trying again usually does pay off. Be curious and daring. Don’t doubt in yourself (though don’t be a giant ego either!) and just go for it. Be bold, but also humble, and try to learn something new from every situation you encounter and person you work with.
– How has the Accademia helped shape who you are as an artist/creator?
It helped me to find and tune my theatre making tools – physical, vocal, creative and ensemble. It also opened my mind to alternative ways of working and living, that I wasn’t aware of before.
– What would your advice be for people considering attending the Accademia?
If you want to be a star, maybe it’s not for you. If you want to collaborate with other artists to make thought provoking, powerful theatre, then do it!
– Anything else you want to add?
Info and tour dates for my next performance ‘The Best Thing’ can be found here: www.vamostheatre.co.uk/shows/show/the-best-thing
If you can make it I’d love to see you! And if you know any venues who might be interested in booking this or another Vamos show in future, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with the right people. I am particularly interested in the potential of mask theatre to communicate across borders and boundaries, as it doesn’t rely upon language. How universal can a story be? In my future work I am also keen to do work for and with refugees, so if anybody has any experiences with clowns without borders or any other similar projects, or would like to collaborate, please don’t hesitate to contact me via the ada alumni.
Thanks for reading, and happy theatre making.