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In which I monkey around for my art...

THE craft of acting was once described as "standing up naked and turning around very slowly".

I was recently one of 20 participants on a weekend-long residential acting course and, looking back, I would have been only too happy to run around naked had it been offered as an alternative to what it is I actually had to do.

Acting training is all about unlocking inhibitions. But there is a difference between feeling uninhibited and undressed.

The uninhibited actor can leave behind their body, and with it those two bickering bedfellows: self-doubt and self-reproach.

They are free to truly transcend and discover that the best art doesn't come from you, it comes through you.

The inhibited actor, meanwhile, can't shake off the self-imposed shackles, or silence the relentless chatter of the mind.

They can't act because they are too busy trying to direct. 'Did I give too much there?' they think. 'Or too little? Should I move my arm? Yeah, I'll move my arm. Did I turn the immersion off? Oh sh*t, is that my cue?'


This is before they've even delivered a line, which is when the real fun begins...

I understand the plight of the inhibited actor because I am one of them. My performances are tempered with self-critique, my lines punctuated by second-guessing.

My mother thinks I need more training. I think I just need to get over myself, or give it up. But every so often I see a performance that pummels my solar plexus. A performance so raw and honest and brilliant that I instantly forgive actors everywhere for their swollen egos and whackjob tendencies, and decide that I'm going to give it one last shot.

"But you need training," insists my mother. So last weekend I decided to do just that and join her on a two-day acting course.

The finer details of the trip had escaped her. She failed to tell me that I had to pack a pair of slippers (house rules); that I had to pack runners for long walks, and, most importantly, that I had to leave my inhibitions in Dublin because we would be becoming animals for the better part of the weekend.

Yes, she had failed to mention that we would be studying the Stanislavski System, specifically the 'Animal Exercise'. The idea is to find the essence of an animal and later bring that energy to a character you are playing.

Marlon Brando channelled an ape when he played the coarse and carnal Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. The first actor to play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Lee J Cobb, studied elephants in order to bring a world weary maturity to the role.

Those who saw his performance couldn't believe he was almost 30 years younger than the character he was playing.

Our tutor didn't want an imitation of an animal. No, she wanted us to find something "organic". The objective – there's always an objective – was to become the animal.

She chose animals for us, animals that she considered furthest away from the characteristics we actually embody.

A very slight, graceful young girl was told to become a bull. A shy and retiring woman was told to become a lion. An ex-Garda, all 6ft 5in of him, was to become a puppy. While I was to become a chimpanzee.

Obviously, my initial thoughts were 'what's so un-chimpanzee about me?'

I've always had an affinity with my simian cousins. I love climbing and eating bananas. I get where they're coming from.

At least I thought I did. Has my whole life been a lie?

But there was little time for self-analysis as I soon learned that we would have to stay in character for 25 whole minutes.

I surreptitiously Googled 'chimpanzee' on my iPhone. There was a video of one sucking its thumb. I can do that, I thought.

My mother, meanwhile, was affixing a cushion to her back.

"What are you doing?" barked the tutor. "It's my shell," my mother, a turtle, answered matter-of-factly.

The tutor shook her head and eyed her like you would a local lunatic. Apparently, there is a line: it's perfectly sane to pretend to be an animal in front of a room full of strangers. But with props?! That's just crazy.

And so we got into our positions. The birds of prey among us cleared ledges so that they could 'swoop' upon them.

Big cats were reminded that they would occasionally need to "gain speed... or else there would be no difference between them and a domestic kitten".

I wondered if I could pretend I had a tummy bug and go and eat crisp sandwiches in my room.



But it was too late. The experiment had begun. I decided that chimpanzees need a lot of sleep, so I would start with a light doze. But the ex-Garda, clever dick, was already onto this one.

So, instead, I hunched over my shoulders, sucked my thumb and let out the occasional 'ah-ah-OOH-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah'.

I was a chimpanzee in an animal sanctuary with severe space constrictions due to lack of funding. This wasn't good enough, apparently. "I'm not buying that the chimp doesn't want to explore, and I'm certainly not buying that the puppy has already gone for a sleep," the tutor hollered.

The puppy/ex-Garda and I made eye contact. The only animals we were evincing at this moment – our lowest moment – were deer in the headlights.

The tutor told me to squat down lower, and lower, and lower, until my knees were splayed outwards and my knuckles were dragging along the ground. "Ah-ah-ah-OOOOOH-ah-ah-ah," I yelped. And this time I meant it.

There is a phrase in the common parlance, 'to make a monkey of' someone. Nobody wants to be made a monkey. It's something you prefer to do on your own terms, in which case you're 'acting the goat'.

I could be wrong here, but I suspect that the best way to make a monkey of someone is to ask them to pretend to be a chimpanzee for 25 minutes.

I attempted a sideways run and, instead, I got a self-fulfilled prophecy. Not a tummy bug, but a dislocated knee.

This time I really did need to go back to the animal sanctuary where I shuffled papers, scratched my head and banged a bin on the ground for the last 15 minutes. Strangely soothing, I might add.

I was glad I did it. I was also glad I had an excuse not to do all of it. I bowed out of the next exercise – rhino fighting on the front lawn – and spent the rest of the day nursing my knee and reassembling my dismantled ego.

The monkey is still on my back and I can barely move my legs.

That's showbiz.