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The Essentials

Actor and writer Naomi Joseph demystifies the research and development (R&D) process for actors.

We can be playing with balloons in the morning and researching the banking crisis in the afternoon
Kat Joyce
Co-artistic Director at Tangled Feet

The Research and Development process (R&D) is one of my favourite parts of being an actor. It’s where the world of a show – characters, style, story – is explored. It provides space to experiment with ideas and adopt blue-sky thinking.

Although they provide great opportunities to play, R&Ds can be a strange experience for actors who are used to rigid rehearsals and sticking to a script.

Read on to discover insights into the R&D process, where I’ve drawn from my experiences as an actor and as a writer. I also include contributions from Kat Joyce, co-artistic director of physical theatre ensemble Tangled Feet, to glean her perspective on an actor’s role in an R&D.

Every R&D is Different

If the project is writer-led, actors might be asked to interrogate a script whereas, for a process that centres on physical theatre, the approach might be to devise around research.

Tangled Feet have a performer or performer-director led process and they devise. “There’s an ethos of collaborative authorship,” explains Kat, “which underpins the work we make and how we make it. There’s very much a sense in the room of the performers having a very strong voice.”

The practical activities within an R&D are also rich and varied. “At the beginning it’s about really exploring, chucking everything at the wall and seeing what sticks,” explains Kat. “That can be a really exciting process – and really mystifying and confusing! We can be playing with balloons in the morning and researching the banking crisis in the afternoon.”

Speak Up

“Performers in their first few years out of training always seem surprised that we genuinely want them to contribute,” says Kat, “A lot of performers get told you have to be a blank canvas. We try to get past that and see the actual person. If we’ve got a performer in an R&D, it’s because we think they bring something that’s going to be really useful in that show.”

As a writer, I welcome questions and suggestions from actors. Sometimes writers lose perspective if they’ve sat with a script for a while so an actor’s contribution can be useful in identifying areas where further development is needed.

Be Resilient

In an R&D the creative team is figuring out the piece together. So, by all means, ask questions, but accept that they might not be answered straight away!

“An ability to trust in the process is really important,” says Kat. “Sometimes we feel really stupid or we do things that don’t lead anywhere productive. Other times we’ll find something really magic. We often say it’s about making a jigsaw puzzle in the dark, pulling on different pieces.”

Be Generous

Actors are often encouraged to see each other as the competition but this is destructive to collaboration. Working together means offering opportunities to your colleagues, like providing openings during an improvisation, rather than showcasing your talent and shoehorning your suggestions in.

Take Responsibility

If you draw on personal experiences to relate to the themes of the piece you’re developing, ensure that you take care of yourself emotionally with what you choose to share. Whilst the room should be a safe space for you to be vulnerable, it isn’t a substitute for therapy.

Build Relationships

Don’t view the R&D as an isolated project, but rather as an opportunity to make long-term connections. “We go into a relationship with a performer thinking that we want to work with you for the next ten years, not just that we want to work with you on this show,” says Kat. 

When It’s Over

A harsh reality of the R&D process is that sometimes an actor is not brought on board when the show goes into production. This occurs for various reasons: maybe it was discovered during the R&D that a performer with a very particular skill set is needed, one that a current collaborator doesn’t have.

For Tangled Feet, this situation is extremely rare, due to the collaborative way they create. As Kat states “I want to make the kind of work where people don’t feel disposable and where performers are such an integral part of the process.”

Tangled Feet is a physical theatre ensemble who have been making shows together for 18 years. Their shows range from large-scale spectacles outdoors to touring schools and young people’s settings, making performances indoors for one person, and everything in between.

Naomi Joseph is an actor, theatre-maker and writer. Naomi’s work includes ‘Criteria’, an award-winning spoken word short about cultural identity and bereavement. ‘Criteria’ is available to watch now on Vimeo. Its companion piece ‘Motherland’ is a dark comedy theatre show which played at various festivals across the UK.

Headshot photographer: Robert Boulton

Main image by Alex Charilaou