The hard work of making acting fun

Shane Nestor pitches his Act Up company at people who want to act, but don’t necessarily want to be famous

WHERE I went to school, everybody wanted to be a doctor or an engineer, so I told the career guidance counsellor I wanted to be a bomber pilot. I guess, in school, I had been yearning for something different… an exploration.

I studied engineering at UCC and gave the career the old college try, before fleeing for San Francisco. Acting wasn’t an option for a serious-minded human being. I hadn’t tread a single board in Cork.

In San Francisco, I was allowed to take chances, to fail if I wanted. I took up acting. That was 21 years ago. Sanford Meisner said, ‘It takes 20 years to become a master!’ Maybe he wasn’t considering the slow students, but it was in San Francisco where I learned the founding principles of what I teach today.

Act Up was set up in 2012 with the pitch, ‘For those who want to act, but don’t necessarily want to be famous.’ Since then, we have done 12 productions, most of which were new writing or were improvised.

The actors come from all walks of life. Mechanics, architects, teachers, social workers. Some come for a release from the everyday routine, others secretly harbour notions of stardom, but, mostly, they come for the laugh. I try to fast-track them to the stage: a bit like taking inexperienced climbers to the top of Everest.

With any Act Up project, I start with a hint of a vision. More like a mirage that disappears as you get closer. I get ideas and jot them down. The adrenaline rush of improvisation has begun to consume one of the troupes, of late, so I had to acknowledge that, if I was going to devise a show for them. It evolved into a show called ‘Shooting Stars’.

We put it on in Griffith College, in Cork, recently. Worries were: nobody would turn up; if they did, they wouldn’t like it; the performers would hate me for not preparing them properly and it would all end there. But the duck’s legs were moving frantically beneath the water.

The joy is in the creativity, but 90% of what I do is persuasion, making it happen. There never seems to be enough time for creativity. I rely on a lot of favours, which I’m very thankful for. On show night, my brother’s hope of a fun evening with family and friends is stripped off him. ‘Our cameraman can’t make it.’ My brother should have known he’d be roped in. You need someone to take photos and shoot the performance, because that promotes the next show, in Dublin. This is all apart from rehearsals, sound and light, and set design… and before a board has been treaded. The show is a sell-out and ends with a standing ovation.

If I’m not designing classes or devising and selling a show, I’m writing. There’s a temptation to avoid that all day. I cycle miles to Marlay Park, walk the woods, and climb to the top of Kilmashogue. Only then do I have the lightness of mind to trust what’s going to come out. If only I could be bothered to write then, when I’m in the perfect place to do so. There’s no anxiety. I’m sitting by a stream and dipping my toe in pristine water. I take out a folded A4 sheet from my inside pocket and scribble — panning for gold. ‘Don’t forget to get milk and bananas.’ On other days, I’m much more productive. I have to be. Especially when there is a troupe waiting.

The balancing act of art to commerce is tricky. It is a struggle financially, sometimes, but I wouldn’t do anything else. Also, I’ve begun to venture into the underworld of corporate, where the feedback has been excellent. There’s nothing like a dose of laughter to open staff up, and the tenets of acting and improvisation are easily applied to developing relationships and adapting to new situations.

Seamus Heaney said it’s about survival. I feel that I have to. I’d love to be able to sit still and do nothing. It’s not like I’m a workaholic. I just can’t sit still, unless I’ve walked for hours and am on the brink of exhaustion. Otherwise, there is a hankering in me. A niggling feeling that I’m wasting my life. Self-esteem, for the artist, is to keep going. There’s a quote from Samuel Beckett. You even see it on t-shirts now. “I can’t go on…ah, I’ll go on.”;

Shane Nestor

pitches his Act Up company at people who want to act, but don’t necessarily want to be famous


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