Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I want you to learn.Alan Bennet, The History Boys (2004)
Sarah Davey-Hull (1965-2022) was luminous. When she entered a room, you knew ‘it’ was going to be alright. At the celebration of her life, a huge red balloon was passed between the 200+ guests; floating, bouncing, flying, teasing, playing, challenging. We kept the game alive together.
Sarah’s thirty+ year career as a teacher/director transformed the lives of countless actors, actor trainers and directors. Continuing in the tradition of familial apostology in acting, her knowledge was passed between those who were fortunate to have been taught and/or directed by her: starting at Kensington and Chelsea College in 1995, then at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (RCSSD) on the MA in Actor Training and Coaching and the MA Acting (2005 – 2020) and with her companies Bold and Saucy (1996-2019) and BOLD (2020-). Her teaching has and continues to produce ripples of affect, passed on by the creatives whose practice she has influenced now scattered around the globe, many with leading positions in the field. However, like many practitioners, she never documented her practice and so we, her students, friends and colleagues, have come together to try to document it – to pass it on; a legacy project to celebrate her teaching. In the spirit of collective endeavour and reflecting the fragmented, multi-faceted and layered experience of teaching and learning, we share a pedagogy patchwork of signature exercises, life-changing feedback and observed qualities.
The are some core ingredients which make a standout and memorable teacher: the ability to be inventive, imaginative, and inspirational; to know when to challenge and push students that little bit further, when to nurture and when to balance praise with honest feedback; to be a generous communicator; someone who also learns from their students and continues to challenge and develop themselves; to be student centered, to listen, to give support and guidance but also to be boundaried. Sarah possessed all of these qualities. But there was one particular aspect of her work which made her especially impactful – her focus on collaboration. This was woven into everything she did as a teacher, trainer and director. It is evident in her expertise in the classroom, in the many shows she directed at Central and at her company BOLD where she continued to offer opportunities for her alumni to grow as professionals, making space for them to rehearse, refine their skills and create new and exciting work.
She had her own spin of tried and tested exercises: made skipping fashionable; had the courage to try things that may not work but in the trying discovered new approaches. She was witty. She knew how to make things happen – how to create out of what appeared to be nothing but was always very well thought through. She was quirky, funny, technical. She dazzled like precious jewel. She was just brilliant. She invested in the power of the imagination and shared her gift with us all.
The Positivity of Difference (Memory exercise)
RCSSD, MA Actor Training and Coaching, 2009
Sarah did this exercise with our cohort on the first day of the course. I’ve never forgotten it. It was fun, simple and yet profound. It taught me that we all process information in different ways. We are all different types of learners and this message/lesson has stayed with me throughout my own practice as an actor, director and teacher. Actors process differently. We all remember things differently as individuals.
- Present the group with a tray containing a number of random items. The goal is to remember as many things as possible, training the memory for performance.
- Depending on how many items there are on the tray, give them a set number of minutes to observe it.
- Take the tray away and ask the group to make a list of the items on a piece of paper. They must do this individually.
- After writing the list of recalled items, put the lists away and ask the group to name items out loud from memory. Anyone can contribute. As a group it is likely that almost all the items can be recalled. After recalling the items, share the different strategies used to remember.
- Use the items as stimuli for improvisational games or storytelling
I remember this being a potent message that I was now in training to be a teacher/coach and that I had a responsibility to communicate and be open to impactful ways of bringing the best out of people and instilling a sense of curiosity and play. Essential for actors.
RCSSD, MA Classical Acting, 2005
Sarah came into Central to cover for Martin Wilde when we arrived on the MA Classical Acting course in 2005, and she remained with us during the year. One phrase of hers that I have always remembered was during the rehearsal for Volpone, the end-of-year show, when an actor was mildly grumbling that a scene was being changed quite late in the day. She said, “You must remember that this is the Director’s rehearsal too.”
A more personal note was her review after a truncated version of A Winter’s Tale, when I was playing Leontes. We were mid-year, so a lot of focus was on voice projection, verse speaking, movement, energy and similar technical skills, and I made complete hash of the role, getting quite shouty and over-acting. She firmly pointed out that I had “let the performance get away from me”; that the aim was to embed the technical skills so that they became instinctive, and that focusing on the skills in the immediate run-up to a show would undermine performance and kill any relationship with the audience.
Readiness (Skipping exercise)
Bold Elephant, 2022
“Jumping rope can teach us many things about impulse, effort, relaxation, readiness, flow, ensemble…an opportunity to explore our actor relationship with self and others. For those who have jumped rope regularly or never before. Please wear trainers.”(Sarah Davey-Hull)
- Name Game – each person says her/his name, then everyone repeats the name of each person around the circle. Then you pick someone to introduce ‘This person is…this person is…’ until everyone has introduced everyone.
- Two people start holding and skipping the rope. We have to go through one by one without interruption. Observe your apprehension. Observe how you prepare, how you keep going.
- Then go in two by two, exchanging eye contact beforehand
- Then two by two, one behind the other one and lead him/her by touching his/her shoulder. Observe if you prefer to lead or be led.
- Then going in and calling someone by their name to join in – jump together for 3 jumps then call someone else etc…
This game generates adrenalin and focus. We felt like we were back in the playground but with a lot more awareness. It bonded the group. SDH threw many humorous comments while holding the rope, which made the whole evening exciting and refreshing.
Observing SDH teaching RCSSD, BA Acting, 2017
The students were working in pairs and it was a very cold January day. A female student was shivering during her partner exercise and I watched as Sarah quickly assessed what the student needed, then silently covered the students shoulders with a warm scarf. She took it gratefully and continued to play. That one move improved the well-being of that student in that moment and her work benefited! It was simply kindness but the care she took is something teachers could all learn from. That simple gesture continues to inspire me as a teacher and as a human being.
Energy (Text exercise)
RCSSD, MA Classical Acting, 2005
We were working on Sonnets. This exercise taught me the importance of carrying vocal energy to the end of the line and wrapping our thoughts around the line to land on the punctuation.
- Remove your shoes and place them about 12, 15 feet apart in the room.
- Recite the sonnet and walk towards your shoe.
- At the end of the line arrive at the shoe and kick it.
- Move towards the next shoe and repeat.
RCSSD, MA Actor Training and Coaching, 2010.
Looking over some assessment feedback I am reminded of Sarah’s generous words of encouragement coupled with her incisive eye for detail.
“The session was assured and well led. You should work to ensure that there are variety of paces in your exercises and teaching, it was slightly one paced which was steady and calm but a little slow.”
As I reread this I smile and chuckle. I recall, at the time, initially being a little put out by this ‘criticism’ not ‘feedback’! “I wasn’t slow, I was pacey and energised…dynamic even…just like you Sarah”. But the denial of the acute truth of Sarah’s observation was short lived. The learning I took from it into my teaching has remained with me to this day. Yes, my default behavioural mode is both steady and calm so beware of that and shake it up. Employ and utilise variation to generate a learning environment that encompasses all energies in the room. Have a heightened awareness of how your presence impacts on establishing a space that embraces inclusiveness of all learning styles and all learning tempos. The ambience of the classroom should raise student confidence to question, comment, and challenge; part of that confidence comes from them recognising their presence mirrored and acknowledged in yours.
Embodied Clarity (Events and Intensions exercise)
RCSSD, MA Actor Training and Coaching, 2009
This was such a clear and direct way to teach given circumstance and events and intensions, which some students can find difficult to embody.
The game requires the whole group to stand in a circle with two volunteers who will be in competition with each other. The volunteers are blindfolded. They search for two batons placed somewhere inside the circle. They need to find the baton (rolled up paper) and hit the other person with it, before being hit themselves in order to win.
- Explain the game.
- Group create the circle, players are blindfolded, batons are placed.
- Players search for the baton.
- Once a player finds the baton, they then search for the other player.
- The first player to hit the other wins.
- The group identify the events that changed the circumstances for everyone – e.g. finding the baton, getting hit.
- The group consider the tactics used by individual players in between each event.
So much is condensed in the tight framework of this exercise and it is fun!
Choice and Creativity
Observing RCSSD, MA Contemporary Acting 2018
She was one of the most playful and clear teachers I have ever had the privilege of watching. She was able to inspire a class to make choices that they hadn’t even considered and have them want to explore even more. I remember watching a group perform a scene for her and every time they stepped up there with something different. This was with relatively new actors, and she had already facilitated a group that were so fearless that they were making new choices every time they stepped on the stage, rather than just sticking with their habitual. This is something that can take actors years to master, and she had achieved this within a couple months!
An exercise that really stuck out to me, and I think is indicative of SDH’s teaching, was when she had the students play a game of musical chairs. They started playing and then she added in the framework of actions and objectives and let that affect the game. This sounds simple but seeing the ease of combining a complex Stanislavski element like objectives to a childhood game and having students understand what she meant was phenomenal and a testament to her sheer skill as a teacher.
RCSSD, MA Acting 2005
Sarah was challenging, uncompromising, always unexpected. She was invariably supportive and encouraging, but always felt it was for the actor to find the way into a role or a scene. She would provide guidance and responses, but the choices needed to be yours. For me, this was a very new way of approaching acting. I had worked with many ‘blockers’ who had plotted almost every step around the stage, and freewheeling directors who dealt only with the large concepts and cast their shows with performers who they knew would get on with the detail.
Sarah would turn up to a rehearsal with a different prop. Sometimes it looked like she had just dropped off one of her kids (perhaps she had), but we had to incorporate the prop into the scene. It could be a very 21st century item in a 17th century period piece, but the challenge was there. Sometimes she had a plan for it. Sometimes, she didn’t (or so she said). The challenge for the actor was to accept any gift and run with it.
I learned this idea of gifting from Sarah and I use it in every area of my life now. We would stand agape as she threw another curve ball into the scene and it worked. ‘Aren’t you worried someone will steal your ideas?’ we asked. She grinned that lovely, big open grin and said, ‘it’s my gift to you.’ Theatre to her was for sharing, an inclusive pursuit with no secrets, where everybody shared and benefited from each other’s strengths and ideas. I used to think she was always so impulsive, but I learned that she planned meticulously. She had so many ideas and experiences that she was never at a loss for something to do. The only blockage was an actor who absolutely did not get her or who was not open-minded enough to try something new and adventurous.
When working with teams, casts or my daughter, I know that any knowledge I share with them is part of their future. And the great thing about these gifts is that, once given and received with grace, they can be used or discarded as you wish. Sarah was never annoyed if you didn’t take her advice. She would be firm with her instructions (there comes a point when you have to settle on something), but free with her ideas, as long as you gave them a try.
RCSSD, MA Acting Contemporary, 2018.
I’d like to share just one of many pieces of advice she shared with me and my cohort. This advice was given to help us ease our tendency to be harsh self-critics
“Try to develop a self-acceptance which allows you to be simultaneously critical and compassionate towards yourself, your work, and the world at large.”
I keep coming back to this in my career and my life – compassion, compassion, compassion – For myself, for others, for the work. What is acting if not compassion for life?
As Adriana Cavarero suggests, perhaps someone’s identity, in this case Sarah’s teaching identity, comes into existence through the words and memories of others after they have gone – a supernova exploding into the atmosphere bringing them to light.
In curating our fragments I have found myself trying to pin down the core ingredients that Amanda mentioned at the start– the knowledges, qualities and skills that enable a transformative pedagogy. Of course, the problem is that these qualities are intangible, fleeting and relational – felt senses, experienced in and through the teaching exchange, leaving their traces in both teacher and student. But words leave a different type of mark – a mark that can be shared with those who weren’t able to experience Sarah’s pedagogy first-hand. Therefore, in the spirit of mark-making I add to our communally devised list (the positivity of difference, collaboration, readiness, energy, care, embodied clarity, choice, creativity, gifting, compassion) the qualities of humility, passion, playfulness, and breadth of knowledge. One of Sarah’s extraordinary skills was her ability to draw on a wide variety of exercises and translate them for the particular needs of her students; her diagnostic iterations making them contextually relevant.
It strikes me that the core ingredients of transformative pedagogy that we have experienced in Sarah’s teaching are the same knowledges we are passing on to our students in actor training. This then is a relational exchange, built on mutual respect and, I would hazard, rooted in love. As bel hooks puts it, ‘No matter what direction from which love emerges in the classroom, it transforms’ (hooks, 2010, p.163). Sarah’s pedagogy will continue to transform others through those she has moved to keep the game going and to pass it on.
Cavarero, A (2005) For More Than One Voice: Towards a Philosophy of Vocal Expression USA: Stanford University Press
hooks, b (2010) Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom New York: Routledge
Curated by Lisa Peck and Amanda Brennan