GSM London programme leader on the Business Management with Creative Industries degree, Ann Healey interviews Michelle Barwood on her experience within a creative industry. Part 1 of 2 of this interview, which is part of Ann’s strategy to bring the experiences and challenges of the creative industries into the classroom.
Tell us a little about yourself and your journey that lead you to where you are today.
The story goes, according to my mum, that I was dancing before I could walk. I am not sure if it’s true, but I liked it and have kept it. But then I am a story teller, and these little clichés are very pretty. My mother was not a native to the UK. She was black South African and met my English dad on a trip to the UK in the 70’s. A brief and secretive courtship in South Africa led to a proposal, which meant my parents had to leave South Africa to marry here in the UK. In between then and now I grew up: I danced a lot, played a lot, read a lot. My parents were supportive, but incredibly busy. I sensed that we weren’t quite ‘normal’. And I always felt an outsider throughout school and compared to my friends. I taught myself how to get about in the world. I had a fascination with acting and writing, but I felt very removed from it based on what I saw in the media, i.e. no one that looked like me or represented me. So I didn’t really entertain that I could be part of that world. Because of that and the usual societal pressure to conform, I somehow found myself at university. On graduation I then did all kinds of different jobs and lived all kind of various lives. To the point where I hit 30 and I realised I didn’t actually know who I was. I felt very fragmented, empty and unknown to myself. I no longer knew what I liked or wanted or needed.
After one very unpleasant year, I upped and left my old life. Then I began to put a new one together. And it was only then I realised that all the little fragments, that never made sense, began to: being the outsider, being a watcher of other people, I had worked in sales, I had travelled as a tour guide to Poland, German and France, I had taught English in China, I had hostessed in Ibiza, I had served my time working in the corporate world in The City. And they all added up to life I had wanted to live as a child. As an actor. I had spent my career studying and fascinated by human behaviour and interaction.
I was lucky. I had been encouraged by my mother, she took me to dance, drama and whatever she could. But as time and society wore into me. I felt very silly and foolish for following this dream of mine. And so, finally, I decided to take my dreams seriously and my life seriously. So I worked back in the city, to pay for me to start drama classes. I spent a year avidly watching any theatre I could, I knew nothing about theatre and was terrified that all the people around me where smarter than me and therefore better than me. And inadvertently through this, I found my style. I loved watching and performing physical theatre, music, songs, the use of bodies and words. I loved political and feminist theatre mostly. That feeling of coming out of theatre with my brain going crazy with thoughts and ideas. It was inspiring because I saw where I wanted to place myself in terms of the theatre I wanted to be in and wanted to create. And I found little groups and classes that fitted with that. And they connected me to further groups and I kept going with that until now.
Right now I am still in training. I have dedicated myself to a new theatre training called, Perdekamp Emotional Method (PEM) developed for over 20 years by a genius, Stephen Perdekamp, and brought to London by Sarah Victoria. It is a revolutionary training that will literally change the way work and perform in theatre. And it feels great. I finally feel like the adventuring pioneer-woman I always dreamt of being as a child. This acting method is unlike other method acting that relies on the brain and thought. We begin the acting process with developing and training our biological energy and impulses. Because of this is it reliable, safe and repeatable. In an industry where we hear of actors such as Heath Ledger, Robin Williams and Phillip Seymour Hoffman committing suicide dues to the pressure of the actor’s life using the old method acting. You can probably understand why we are so keen to promote this new and safe method of accessing deep and real emotional truths without psychological harm to the actor. It is something I feel strongly about. I believe as artists we must feel the world more keenly in order to create art. However, that is not the same as suffering, and I don’t believe we should suffer personally like this. We are developing theatre (and drama therapy) that physically connects with audiences on a biological and emotional level. We are training, performing and setting up our own theatre company. I am also working on writing a play and my own one-woman show based on The Greek Play, ‘Medea’.
What are you most proud of, creatively, to date?
I am most proud of finishing a screenplay. And most importantly of all: not caring if it was good or not. I think, along with so many people, I am subject to the fear that everything we produce must be ‘perfect’ or ‘right’. This is a deep-seated fear of mine that has kept me from producing any work or acting for many many years. It’s an unfair pressure society puts on us. How can we learn to do anything if we are too scared of failure to even try? I was. So I did this. I did submit it to a competition, but the deadline was for me to get my butt into gear. Win or fail, good writing or bad. I am just proud that I completed it, the process and way I worked in that space of writing. And I discovered that I did love the writing process!
Have there ever been times when you have been tempted to give up and if so, how have you dealt with this?
About once a week. If not more. Life would be easy, so much easier to choose another path. But then I remember I have been on that other path and that literally almost killed me. On the occasions that I remember that, it helps. Perhaps as an actor you are lucky. We get paid to be emotional. So when you are having these moments, no one really bats much of an eyelid, or you have lots of support. So Usually I phone a friend. But other practical things I have done are; setting up a picture board or wall of all my tickets to plays I love, watching inspiring films, or reading about actors who inspire me. The quickest thing is to take a walk and look at the sky, the buildings, the world and the people in it. Watching human interaction usually inspires me again. The tender moments make me want to write them down so they last forever, and the uglier moments make me rail with anger, which is usually a good emotion to take into writing or a character.
People often perceive the creative industries as glamorous. What’s the least glamorous part of your job?
The cold. You are always in the cold. On set you are usually underdressed, or in a rehearsal space with no heating. And learning lines is literally more boring than re-reading the back of a cereal box a million times. And if you are bad at it like me, it’s compounded further. Oh and of course you wouldn’t be an actor without the rejection. I go to a lot of castings perhaps one a week, and maybe get one good job a year. You are expected to be emotionally open and vulnerable as a character, yet hard as nails with your own emotions. That’s tough.
With writing, it’s the waiting for the inspiration to strike.
Oh and I almost forgot the worst thing about working in the arts is the not working in the arts. Having to work another job to pay the bills to fund your theatre. There seems to be a belief that when you love something you should be ok with working for free.
What would you like to do, (or who would you like to work with) that you haven’t yet been able to, so far?
No idea really. Oddly, I have never had those kind of aspirations. Just being able to work consistently and with enough money to live is all I really want to do. Oh dammit, I lie. I am from Burton-On-Trent and a local hero of mine is the director Shane Meadows. I would love to work with him and Paddy Considine also. There is something wonderful about the work they have produce in spite of and due to the place we came from. There is something special and unique, that I only saw after leaving and looking at it though their eyes.
If you had one superpower for a day, what would it be and what would you do?
I think I already have mine. I can see and feel people’s thoughts and feelings. The superpower bit I would like to have, is the power to help approach these people compassionately, heal the hurts I see and in turn create a healthier and happier human species. And I do hope that as an actor I get to do that onstage. By feeling and showing these emotional states, perhaps people can see and deal and purge their losses and pain and realise their hopes and dreams.
How has technology changed the nature of your work and do these changes present any challenges for your industry?
Again, I am lucky in that unconsciously or not, I have avoided mainstream theatre. I have worked with European theatre companies, for example, groups born out of the Polish poor theatre. Which are driven by content of the bodies of the actors and performers and the audience. I am currently working with the group PEM in which we train in using our very own bio-energy to create emotion. We use this within the acting and beyond. And we can literally change the temperature and mood of the room with the harnessing and awareness of our own body energy and power. However, and back to the point, this seems to be at odds with technology, as it requires real time audiences and the connection without the barriers of technological mediums.
That all said. On a general scale, being able to download theatre and plays to cinemas and the home is incredible. I feel that anything to encourage people to watch more theatre is good.
Contact and keep up-to-date with Michelle’s work
Spotlight: https://t.co/ajfDSczXd2 (showreel)
Agent: Robot Fish https://t.co/XXXlhTkBdK