“Breath is where it all starts”

Graham Richard —

Fledgling actors took to flight in workshops led by acting coach, Cowboy Smithx and voice coach, Trish Allen from May 8 to 12 at Kay Llnagaay. The actors were preparing to shoot the full-length feature film Edge of the Knife, which will be spoken entirely in the Haida language. Film director, Gwaai Edenshaw says facilitators designed workshops to draw out actors’ emotion and teach them to channel their own personal stories. The actors worked together to get used to the spotlight, adapt quickly as a team, and focus on the shape, weight, direction, and feel of their movements and speech.

“I got a real good feeling from the bottom of my gut,” said actor Sphenia (Jane Kristrovich). “I used to have so many butterflies. Now I can feel the words in the bottom of my heart. They used to get stuck, but now they come right out.”

Voice coach, Trish Allen brought 20 years of voice, speech, dialectical, and text coaching in universities to her workshop. She led the actors through a series of activities focusing on their voice and breathing, helping them to “explore each sound by letting it flow through the entire body”. Breathing is the foundation of acting she said. According to Allen this primary skill is the most difficult to master and often one of the most neglected.

Allen aimed to train the actors to protect their voices from over-use, showing them how to laugh, scream or cry without hurting themselves. More importantly, she focused the cast on nurturing interdependence. In one training activity Allen sent the cast around the room making whatever noises they pleased, but they were only allowed to breathe, once they had rejoined a group of chosen partners. The activity helped actors to measure their breaths, to grow aware of where their fellow actors were, and to focus on their own needs, as well as the needs of fellow actors. She distilled the lesson of the activity to a simple phrase. “You need to be able to depend on your fellow actors. You need your fellow actors for survival.”

In another room documentary-maker, podcaster, and talk-show host Cowboy Smithx of the Blackfoot Nation complemented the breathing classes with a suite of acting activities. He aimed to give actors the confidence to embody a full range of emotion, from extreme laughter to extreme crying. Additionally, he taught more concrete techniques, like how to ‘block out’ a sequence in a scene, requiring actors to plan how they will move through a set.

Like Allen, Smithx also put interdependence at the core his training. In a variation of the Haida game Daaxanaay, actors were required to pair up and walk a ‘gauntlet’ of laughter. With the remainder of the cast arranged in parallel rows, partners had to walk slowly towards one another from either end of this ‘gauntlet’ without smiling. The four challengers endured the humourous scourge together as the remainder of the cast tried to crack them up. While the trial was great, by maintaining focus and eye contact all the participants eventually managed to withstand the onslaught of silliness. This activity was one of dozens that built openness and trust between actors, afforded individuals with more control over their emotions and enabled everyone to wear a greater measure of vulnerability.

“Even the principal actors are playing a supporting role,” said Edenshaw. “That’s something Cowboy really stressed again and again. He tied it back into our Haida formline. We think of the lines themselves as the principal story telling element of each design. However, that whole design falls apart if the negative spaces aren’t properly considered. Every single piece is as integral as the others.”

“One of the big themes that we’re working with in this film is the idea of finding a voice,” said Edenshaw, “and that’s something that I see in our cast. You could say superficially you see that in the language and in their lines. But beneath this is an emotional process. People are connecting to the story and speaking more deeply with each other. There is a sense of family building inside of the cast. Actors are able to lean on and rely on each other more and also express themselves to each other more.”

Actors and crew are filming Edge of the Knife throughout June at Yaan, a Haida village site on the western shore of Gaaw Kaahlii Massett Inlet.

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