Parlay a marketing need into an art project and acting exercise.
Assign acting students a Shakespearean character they must portray in a single moment…underwater.
Prepping as if for a scene, then staying open to direction and exploration in the moment.
Too bad a heated pool wasn’t available.
The images are now part of the photographer’s portfolio; the actors will apply lessons learned to future roles (and publicity shoots).
Every year, the MFA acting students at the Old Globe/University of San Diego Graduate Theatre Program do a professional photo shoot to promote their annual showcase; they also participate in studio shoots for Old Globe productions. “I have noticed over the years that most actors have a difficult time with still shots,” notes Llance Bower, the graduate program’s coordinator. “We teach them tools to act using language and movement, but the idea of expressing anything in a static moment throws them off, and many seem to struggle with their first professional shoot.” Bower concludes, “The actors who have worked in front of a camera before really stand out.”
In an industry that relies on headshots and publicity stills, grad school is unlikely to be the last time these students will need to acquit themselves well before a photographer’s lens. But how to develop a skill that—as anyone willing to admit they watch “America’s Next Top Model” could attest—rarely comes naturally?
One of the photographers who had been hired for a showcase shoot, Tim Tadder, recently approached the Old Globe/USD with an artistic notion that could give the students some practical experience in that area. Tadder had been experimenting with underwater photography, playing with textures of surface tension, and wanted to take it further for his portfolio. Would the MFA students, he proposed, be willing to portray Shakespearean characters for him—while plunging their heads repeatedly into a swimming pool? The resulting project, titled “Immersion,” challenged the students to use their theatrical training to crystallize character and intention, while struggling to respond to in-the-moment feedback and to maintain focus in extreme conditions.
Eight students had their turn posing for Tadder, who shot underwater with the help of an oxygen tank and six crew members. In costumes and makeup of their own devising, the actors balanced on their stomachs alongside a pool that was draped in black fabric and lit by strobes. Some actors incorporated props into the shoot (a dagger, a bottle of poison), but in many cases they had only their faces, and the kinetic energy of watery collision, to tell their split-second story.
Says Bower, “They all commented how fast and furious it was…and all came out of the shoot with huge grins on their faces wanting to do it again.”
The final product was suitably dramatic. Tadder proclaims himself “surprised and delighted with how cool it looked. It was an experiment—you never know.” In general, he remarks, he prefers shooting actors to models. “They follow direction really well, and lose themselves in what they are doing rather than worrying about how they look. They become part of the creative process—it’s more of a collaboration.”
Student Kushtrim Hoxha recalls the various approaches he tried while portraying the fairy king Oberon for the shoot, starting slowly at first: “We continued to raise the speed of the actual dive of the upper body into the water, then tried to stay still on the water for a good amount of time, just trying to have a very neutral look.” Summoning that stillness of expression, he relates, was the hardest part.
Rachael Jenison, embodying a Witch from Macbeth, found it helpful to prepare as she would for a scene: “We were told to think of the water as a membrane through which you could see what you wanted on the other side, but you really had to dive in, in order to get it. So I came up with the idea of Macbeth’s soul sitting just on the other side of that membrane, just out of reach.” She adds, “At times Tim would put out his hand so that I had something to aim for, a focus I could endow with my objective.” That focus helped her surmount the physical discomfort: “Hitting the water with both your eyes and mouth open is a shocking sensation. In order for the photo to work it couldn’t look as though you were holding your breath. So the biggest challenge was staying true to this character while performing an action counterintuitive to the way in which we generally protect ourselves.
“It was a concrete example,” she reflects, “of the figurative theory of acting we so often discuss: What do I want, what are the actions I take to get it, and what are my obstacles?”
Allison Spratt Pearce believes she discovered new dimensions of a familiar Midsummer character by encountering her offstage. “Titania came to life in the water,” she says. Enmeshed in quick takes, with no immediate way to evaluate her own performance, she had to trust the photographer’s direction and her own instincts for finding new ways into the moment. Pearce recalls, “Since the photographer was in the water and doing four things at once, it was hard for him to be patient and expressive with what he wanted and needed. He had a very clear idea of what look he desired. With one word or quick idea he hoped we could grasp what that was.” She came away, she says, with “a unique experience to draw from onstage”—and “the surreal picture to prove it.”
Hoxha found that with the lighting and the character study, “The photo shoot felt like some sort of a performance, only this time the stage was the pool.” But for Matthew Bellows, who tackled Henry V and prepped by reading the “once more unto the breach” speech, the endeavor felt nothing like live theatre. “The interaction is with yourself and the photographer, and you can’t see him anyway. There’s no audience. You’re really working in a very isolated way. Even more isolated than film or TV, as there is no feedback until Tim comes out of the water.” For him, it came down to the mechanics of the moment. “It’s all about hitting your mark. For me it was necessary to find the right angle of the sword, as well as the right depth to hit each time.”
According to Richard Seer, director of the Old Globe/USD acting program, this soggy and seemingly outside-the-curriculum assignment in fact fits neatly within the school’s educational philosophy: “Having our students work with leading arts professionals is one of the hallmarks of this program. The chance for them to work on such a challenging and dynamic photo shoot with Tim was one that we were especially excited about.”
The students say the experience will inform their future work onstage as well as in front of a camera. “It’s a good opportunity to see the importance of showing up with a good attitude, anxious to be a team player. Be directable and willing to work hard in adverse circumstances, with a genuine desire to do good work,” Bellows sums up. “Even if you have to get slapped in the face with water hundreds of times in the cold night air.”