Alternative Training with Fourth Monkey: A Discussion with Artistic Director Steven Green
Insight into the Fourth Monkey rep training programmes based in North London
By Christina Care
Fourth Monkey offer a rep-based training programme founded in the principles of ensemble, prioritising work with active practitioners in the arts. Students complete a one or two year training programme, culminating in performance at the Edinburgh and Camden Fringes.
They all tend to move, or want to move – it’s very physical training, it has a physical underpinning. We aren’t trying to create cerebral actors. Moving from the body first as opposed to the brain... Some people sweat loads and think that’s fantastic, others don’t fancy that.
How did Fourth Monkey start?
I did the normal thing: worked as an actor, started directing. I worked extensively in a number of different drama schools, but I just felt there was something missing. That nagged at me. It got to a point where you have to put your money where your mouth is. There is an alternative way of doing [drama training]. I’m not saying ‘better’, but differently. The whole drama school thing was geared towards a showcase moment. There was a real lack of clarity about what to do when you don’t have an agent, how to sustain yourself in the industry, how to access the industry, etc.
I went to Middlesex University back in the day in preference to drama school. I had quite a few offers from conservatoires, but I liked the experimental approach of Middlesex, where we were never told the word ‘no’. It was all about creating your own work, improvising, exploring. It felt somehow dangerous. We did things in bizarre places – like on a lake. It was very much about people embracing creative energy. I was very lucky, coming out of a school, getting an agent quickly and working, but that wasn’t the norm, and it’s certainly not the norm now. How do you put something together that is selling the reality, in a more tangible and accessible way, as opposed to selling a dream that only a few people can fulfil? That was the objective.
What do you think it is about the Fourth Monkey programme that prepares an actor for the real world?
In the simplest sense, we bring the industry to the building. As opposed to being this inaccessible quagmire – it’s a core policy of ours that everyone who is working here is currently working in industry. In a very engaged, active and front-foot kind of way. In other words, they’re challenging things, pushing boundaries. They’re contemporary thinkers as opposed to traditionalists. There are so many schools, so many ways of training, and it’s a saturated industry. The vocabulary that interests me is “I want to train to be an actor”. Let’s train you to be the best actor you can be in the most versatile way - I use the word ‘dangerous’ positively, the most dangerous actor you can be. That’s what I want to see when I go to the theatre! That’s what theatre should be about. It should be a visceral, passionate experience, not a passive observation. That’s the core of what we try to produce – the work we want to foster. New voices, which I think are so important.
How do you decide what productions you programme?
We always programme at the start of the academic year. This season, we’ve had the Greek season with our 1-year programme. We always wait to see who is in the room - we always commission the writer to write a season of work based on who we have in that year group. This year we had a very female-dominated group, which has been great, so it felt apt to write three very strong, quite often untold, female stories. And tell them in a contemporary way. We have plays we’d love to put on that sit on the shelf until the right year group comes along. I don’t agree with starting the training process knowing what the programming is for 2-3 years down the way. With the 2-year programme they do a classical season and a contemporary season. And the Fringe gives us a chance to do something a bit different.
Is there a common quality to the actors who come through Fourth Monkey?
They all tend to move, or want to move – it’s very physical training, it has a physical underpinning. We aren’t trying to create cerebral actors. Moving from the body first as opposed to the brain. They tend to be very international, which is brilliant. I like hearing different accent, voices – giving people the opportunity to work in French or Italian, whatever it might be. It’s always interesting when you’re devising. It’s a very eclectic bunch of people. With us, everyone who is here is here because they understand it. This isn’t going to be training at RADA or wherever; we all have our individual way of working. Those who get through the audition process are invigorated by that. Some people sweat loads and think that’s fantastic, others don’t fancy that.
It’s collaborative. They work with Guillaume Pige, who is Artistic Director at Theatre Re, and a mime artist, with Will Pinchin, a phenomenal movement practitioner and wonderful Le Coq artist. [They develop work] that enables use of as much of the training as possible. Utilising things in a practical way. Stuff can’t stay in the classroom.
The stuff that really gets me is when people form their own companies, they have the drive to do it and have their own voice... It’s about the family – sounds trite, but I really buy into the philosophy. Whether you’ve got an agent or not, you can’t sit back. You’re going to need to keep yourself networking, and you might want to write your own stuff at some point, that’s the reality of this industry. The truth is that it won’t be easy. That isn’t said enough.
What is it about rep that preps actors so well?
The ability to be malleable, I think. That’s invaluable. And the generosity that requires. We make sure it’s balanced – everyone plays a featured character, and then a chorus and ensemble member. When they get into a rep season, the progression [is huge]. You’re changing hats all the time, you’re responding to different ways of working. As an actor, I was lucky to work with Derek Jacobi and we got into conversations about rep, and he’d always say that’s where he learned his craft. You can learn so much in the room that is valuable, but ultimately you have to get off your arse and do it.
Why take shows to the Edinburgh and Camden Fringes?
It’s about putting [our actors] in the mix. Surrounding them with the opportunity to see stuff. It’s a really good way for them to get a sense of what could be. And it’s putting them on the spot, in front of an audience of paying punters.
What advice do you give to the actors about surviving Fringe month?
We have a massive pre-festival briefing session, where we go through lots of practical things – what to take, what not to take, etc. – right through to the minutiae of why you’re there. It’s going to be hard on your voice, your body, etc. It’s really important to not see it as a party, as you can go do that as a punter next year. Remember why you’re there. A lot of them learn that lesson quickly, going very hard straight away! But then realise they can’t sustain that. We always have understudies, as invariably something happens, so we always have someone to step in. But it’s learning professional discipline, looking after yourself. We try and do as much as we can, but it is a hard slog.
What do graduates of the Fourth Monkey training tend to do next? What do you hope graduates come away with?
On the 1-year, some of the guys will stick around and do the 2-year course afterwards, which is great. Equally, they go out and work as well. Our 2-year course is our equivalent of a full drama course, and the graduates work everywhere. Retention in the industry is about 94%. Whether they’re working in film, theatre, or creating work themselves, it’s a large pool actually working. All at various stages of development, but because there’s a likeminded pool of thinkers, there’s a natural gravitational pull. If they’re having a difficult time or they’re not getting work, there’s always an opportunity to do stuff with us in the ensemble, to do scratch stuff here, or work with alumni companies. I don’t feel they finish here and go, “That’s me done.” I love it when someone gets a nice gig, that’s brilliant. But the stuff that really gets me is when people form their own companies, they have the drive to do it and have their own voice. It’s not more important, but it’s incredibly important. It’s about the family – sounds trite, but I really buy into the philosophy. Whether you’ve got an agent or not, you can’t sit back. You’re going to need to keep yourself networking, and you might want to write your own stuff at some point, that’s the reality of this industry. The truth is that it won’t be easy. That isn’t said enough.
Thank you to Steven for giving us his time! Catch the Fourth Monkey performances on now at Camden Fringe, tickets online here.
Photo credit: Fourth Monkey © 2017