Actor and Director Alex Dower: We need to start a movement around more “long term decision making”
- January 18, 2019
- Marco Derhy
The most important movement today is the fight for our earth — the fight against environmental destruction and climate change. It’s easy to give up on these things, or think it’s too big and leave it to others, but it doesn’t matter how difficult the challenge is, we have to face it and take action. At the moment, huge financial interests are allowed to have their own way. But we need to breathe and have drinking water, and preserve a habitable planet. Everyone can take responsibility: campaign, stop eating so much meat, travel with public transportation; and don’t work in an industry that you know is destructive, like oil & gas, meat production, mass-clothing. It comes down to both individual responsibility and holding businesses and governance to account to be responsible and think in the long-term. A friend recently described it like this: a tragedy is where a low-value supersedes a higher value, causing destruction. In Othello, jealousy supersedes love. In this case profit, greed and convenience supersede the value of a healthy environment. We need to think in the long-term, and focus on harmony both with others and with the environment that sustains us.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Dower, an actor and director who focuses on deep understanding of character & consciousness. In his nearly 20 years as a teacher of acting and directing at the School of the Science of Acting, and work in settings all around the world, he has developed an applied methodology of drama instruction that has produced incredible results in changing lives and shifting consciousness for people with disabilities, prisoners in rehabilitation, and people in mental health institutes. Alex has acted in Hollywood films and at the Royal National Theatre in London, and he also works with several organisations in delivering drama programs for social change and mental health.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Well, I knew I wanted to be an actor from the age of around 6 or 7 when I was in a school play. From then on I was in every play I could be and started creating little plays at home with any friends I could get to be involved. When we were about 10 a friend & I even created our own theatre company: Gooseberry Jam Theatre Co! Then I remember when I was 12, we had a supply teacher for sports one day and he asked us to write an essay on what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I wrote this idea of myself being an actor but also being involved in using theatre to make a difference to people. I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but it just felt possible. I love people and I love theatre & film, so it just always made sense.
I was fortunate enough to get a job working in prisons in the UK after my first degree in theatre. While that was rewarding, the job itself left me completely burned out. Working five days a week touring prisons is intense and exhausting and at weekends I was out partying in the UK rave scene. Sometimes if you burn the candle from both ends you just use up all the wax! I ended up in a mess and suffering from anxiety and depression.
I moved to London, and though for a while I was crying every day, I started working as an actor. I had met an agent at a party and was getting some good work, but I was pretty dissatisfied with my acting — I knew I was more or less just showing off with different costumes on, winging it — so I was looking for proper acting training and luckily I found Sam Kogan and The School of the Science of Acting.
The Science of Acting is a body of knowledge that allows any actor to create any character in any style without fear. I realised that I was going to be able to have the character’s ‘state of mind’ (rather than my own) on stage or in front of the camera, which is something I’d never experienced. It simply leads to good acting: enjoyable, fascinating and memorable for the audience, and liberating for the actor.
As a student you learn the detailed, accurate workings of Consciousness. The first “character” you look at is yourself, understanding yourself; so within a few months I was able to completely end my destructive habits and my depression.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?
I was brought in to direct a play in a Russian prison, with 35 prisoners of mixed offences — robbers, murderers, prostitutes and drug addicts. The production I decided on was three short-story adaptations, including Chekov, Isaac Babel, and one story by a prisoner (I had the prison run a short-story writing competition before we arrived); and we had just two weeks for the project! So, I’m in a prison with all these male prisoners who have no theatre experience, and I wanted them all to have speaking roles, mainly as characters from a hundred years ago — Cossacks, peasants, poets, soldiers — and we had the full special effects going on: swords, smoke, live geese… it was amazing. There were some female roles too; a couple of ‘old lady’ characters were played by the men and the producer brought in his friend, a young woman who was a cover-model, and who was brave enough to spend a week with the prisoners for the rehearsals & performances. The whole project was one of the most mind-blowing experiences; and I learned that The Science of Acting was brilliant for this context not just because the men were able to achieve such a high-level of acting in two weeks — the technique is very clear, direct and achievable — but also because of the other outcomes the prisoners got.
The prison Governor said I’d achieved more with his men in two weeks than the prison’s team of five psychiatrists had achieved in five years! Half the cast were given early release and the project has kick-started a movement for theatre in rehabilitation in Russian prisons.
You see, through the process of preparing a play, the participants need to learn real life skills: they need to work with others, show up on cue, restrain themselves from speaking at the wrong time or saying the wrong words, listen etc. They do something positive, as a team, for the benefit of others. And through using The Science of Acting, they get to have an experience of thinking “someone else’s” thoughts and therefore to see that other ways of thinking and behaving are possible for them. They learn something about themselves, and start to understand others and why they live the way they live; so compassion, empathy & tolerance emerge.
I gave one of the lead roles to a young man who had terrible scars on his neck from where he had tried to hang himself in the past. His offence was not serious, but he was in a desperate state, and also never able to pass the parole board because he had a habit of giggling when he was nervous. Whenever he was up for a sentence review, he would start giggling and get thrown out. Of course this was a ‘complex’ or habit of mind he had, and he would also giggle when he thought he was under pressure being on stage, so I taught him a technique that we call “going limp”, where you allow your thoughts to pass without reacting to them or repressing them. His next sentence review happened to be the day after the first performance, and he was able to get an early release because he had his giggling under control. Not only that, but based on his dedication in the project, a local theatre, our partners in the project, gave him a job when he got released. I’ve seen these kinds of results over and over again with this work.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was in my early 20s, I was working in a prison in Ireland with these IRA members. There was one guy who had a 5-year sentence just for putting up posters of IRA propaganda. The other guys would tease him because they were all in for things like arms smuggling and terrorism. These guys were hardcore. They had attempted an escape a couple of years earlier. There were 14 gates to this prison and they had got through all the way to the last gate, with an armored truck waiting to pick them up, and the only mistake they had made was using too much explosive on the 14th gate — the main gate to the prison — and the gate melted and fused shut.
So here I was with these tough men, who even in the prison maintain a military hierarchy, and we were creating a play together. The creation of the script was a joint effort with the men and they came up with this play called “Together”. It was about a group of people who were on an island and creating their own society. I completely missed the fact that the entire play, which was written in a surrealistic style, was a parallel for Irish republicanism. I was just so excited about how creative they were and encouraging them and so on. It was only a few years later when I was rewriting my resumé, and it just came to me how they had — unsurprisingly — used the project (and this naïve 23 year old English kid) to create this piece of art that was supporting their political cause. You have to be careful when you are encouraging people to “express themselves”!
Nowadays I work with material that is usually deliberately designed to be nothing to do with the issues people are facing, whether criminality or disability etc. I want them to experience thinking in a completely different context. It’s a powerful experience. I’ve made some films in a mental health rehab in the UK where we shot scripts I wrote that were set in the Napoleonic Wars and in the time of the Crusades. The participants, diagnosed with chronic, persistent schizoaffective disorders and/or psychosis, had an opportunity — using clear points of reference — to create characters in a new, shared, co-created reality. They had amazing breakthroughs, many of them speaking for the first time in months, or completely dropping their manic, bizarre behaviour patterns. The nurses and care-coordinators would be standing around open-mouthed. We managed to organise a film premiere in a West End theatre — the Harold Pinter Theatre — because I happened to be in a play there at the time and the theatre let us host the screening one afternoon. So the cast came up from the rehab and had a brilliant experience & got recognition for their hard work. And we got the films shown at International Festivals and won awards for them too!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Well, I’m working on a screenplay for a television drama called The Throne, and we’re looking for a commissioner. It’s a metaphysical thriller focused on Climate Change and the oil industry. It’s very exciting and we’ve got a teaser made.
In a couple of months I’m working in villages in Ethiopia and Tanzania, with my company ActingforHealth.org, using theatre to help the people there to explore issues & find solutions for Bilharzia, the parasitic-worm disease. Using role-play and other exercises we are able to draw out the subtle, nuanced cultural issues involved; facilitate an exploration of ways to change things; and break down the barriers to communication both within communities and also between them and the ‘powers-that-be’. It’s a project with Imperial College London and the Natural History Museum. Pharmaceutical and engineering companies are starting to realise that they need to engage with communities and get people’s in-put to creating solutions, and we are there to help with that. We need to make sure people don’t get ignored or exploited, and that their real-life experiences are taken into account.
I’m also part of the management team re-launching The School of the Science of Acting in London, which is the best drama school in the world — www.scienceofacting.com. Students learn clear points of reference for creating characters for stage, TV, radio and film. Learning properly how to act and/or direct is the most inspiring journey. To act you need to think the thoughts of the character, so you need to be able to let go of your own thoughts, and let go of your patterns and habits; be mentally free. It’s a joyful experience, and anyone can learn how to act (if they are taught properly). If anyone wants to learn how to act or direct, that is the place to go.
Next year I’m also going to be working with victims and perpetrators of ‘bride-kidnapping’ and domestic violence in Kyrgyzstan, with my other company CreatingFreedom.co.uk. And we are starting to do some very interesting work helping create powerful teamwork and leadership in Crypto and other start-ups, with daoleadership.com. I’m also developing a programme for young people suffering from, or at risk of mental health issues.
I call my work using theatre to make a difference for people “Theatre of Joy”, and I’m slowly writing a book that I hope will give inspiration & ideas for others working — or wanting to work — in this domain. I’ve done a few projects with children with disabilities and learning difficulties in Russia; and have also been training people there how to deliver this developmental, creative work. A couple of them have now set up small theatre companies with groups of children & young people over there and are doing fantastic work; it’s very moving & exciting.
What about your acting work?
Well, acting is a strange profession; you never know what might be around the corner. I’ve played everything from Hamlet in Hamlet to Shaggy in Scooby Doo. I was in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, this year, playing a Russian bad-guy; and I’ve just played a part in a low-budget British movie. Next I’d really like to have a regular part in a good TV series.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Sam Kogan who created The Science of Acting was an extraordinary human being, a genius. Like most brilliant people he was also very funny, but what was most fascinating about him was that he was constantly observing people and understanding more and more about Consciousness and how people think and learn. These discoveries are directly applicable both for acting and for understanding your own mind and behaviour. Sam had studied with one of Stanislavski’s protégés — the great Russian actress & teacher Maria Knebel, but when he began to teach the Stanislavski technique in UK drama schools he found there were inconsistencies, and that the results of teaching and using the ‘Stanislavski system’ weren’t reliable. The Science of Acting was a result of his own observations and very thorough, conscientious work with his students. The understanding of Consciousness he developed is profound. His book, The Science of Acting, published by Routledge, distinguishes the foundations of the discipline: it is the clearest exposition of acting technique available today, that is, if you don’t want to enroll at the School. It also has exercises anyone can apply to their own life to transform their own thinking.
One of the most important things that Sam discusses is purposes. Every person, every character, has a purpose: at any given moment you have a medium term purpose (what you want to achieve within the circumstances) and long-term purpose (your pictures & impressions of what you think will bring you happiness in the future). Sam described how he discovered that one could change purposes, or ‘the screen you are looking at life on’. He was sitting in a plane at Romania’s main airport and looking at the security staff out of the window. He saw one of them ask a tourist for a cigarette and noticed that he himself was gloating at the security officer — who was clearly very poor — because, growing up in the Soviet Union he had so often been made to suffer by these kind of people. Sam realized his own purpose in that moment was I want to be superior, but that, by seeing this — by being aware — he was able to change the purpose to I want to find out. He noticed that this new purpose gave him a completely different view of the world; new thoughts, new questions. How is this security guard behaving? Why? What does he think of others? Of himself? What is his life like? And so on. Part of what we teach in The Science of Acting is how to change your purposes, as well as, of course, how to adopt the purpose of any character you are playing. If you change your purposes, you change your life and your experience of life.
The best director I ever worked with, apart from Sam, is Isabel Lynch, who works here in London. I was in a production of the Opera The Barber of Seville she directed — but performed by great actors who could sing a little, rather than great singers who can act a little! It was an amazing production that regular theatre audiences loved, and some Opera-buffs found, let’s say ‘challenging’ to deal with. I played Don Basilio and had my own aria — an amazing experience. Isabel always knows how to bring the very best out of her actors, and make sure the story is told, and in such a way that the audience leave with their lives enhanced.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I would say the most important thing is to put yourself in environments where you can thrive. If you do take on work that is in a difficult environment, like I do work in prisons and mental health institutions, make sure you aren’t doing that all the time, or that you have a nurturing home life — like my friend Saul Hewish who works mainly in prisons but takes long country walks, spends time on a barge and with his family and cooks amazing food — he keeps a balance and looks after his own well-being.
Another important recommendation is to keep learning — this will bring you inspiration. Always be developing yourself. That could be by taking up a sport, taking part in personal growth courses, or professional development. Growth is the antidote to burnout and stagnation.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would start a movement for more long-term and harmonious thinking & decision-making — for the benefit of ourselves, other people, generations to come and the planet.
First, harmonious: I think we need to be more in tune with one another, more respectful and mindful. Imagine you are singing in a choir and you have to ensure everyone’s voice is heard equally. You have to listen to and hear everyone at the same time that you sing and contribute to the whole. Sing too loud and you drown out others, sing too quietly and the choir loses value. That should be our sensibility and sensitivity. Try and think of it this way: if you are winning an argument, the other person is losing; and if they lose, you lose. So stop arguing and find a solution in which everyone wins. I use the choir metaphor deliberately — there actually are existing ‘primitive’, egalitarian societies where government, social agreement & cohesion occurs through group singing.
The UK and USA seem obsessed with debate, opposition, winners and losers. In arguments and debates people rarely change their mind and the decisions that come out seem mainly poor, and very short-term. Even the way the UK Parliament is physically set up is to have conflict, argument. And that affects how we think as individuals: the structure of individual consciousness reflects the structure of family, society & state. I think there needs to be a revision of structures for decision making. Technology is making that possible; blockchain for example may have something to offer in that area — creating structures for decision-making that allow all interests to be considered and represented, resulting in ‘win-win’ rather than ‘I win-you lose’.
Now, long-term thinking. Modern politics is also set-up to be very short-term, and that is both one of the sources of the biggest problems we are facing, and the reason we are failing to address them. And short-term thinking has become endemic. It’s why people allow themselves to get caught up over the ‘news’, what’s new today: the latest twist and turn of Trump’s Presidency or the Brexit negotiations; while the long-term issues that will decide the future of our species fall to the bottom of the agenda. It’s absolutely shocking.
The most important movement today is the fight for our earth — the fight against environmental destruction and climate change. It’s easy to give up on these things, or think it’s too big and leave it to others, but it doesn’t matter how difficult the challenge is, we have to face it and take action. At the moment, huge financial interests are allowed to have their own way. But we need to breathe and have drinking water, and preserve a habitable planet. Everyone can take responsibility: campaign, stop eating so much meat, travel with public transportation; and don’t work in an industry that you know is destructive, like oil & gas, meat production, mass-clothing. It comes down to both individual responsibility and holding businesses and governance to account to be responsible and think in the long-term.
A friend recently described it like this: a tragedy is where a low-value supersedes a higher value, causing destruction. In Othello, jealousy supersedes love. In this case profit, greed and convenience supersede the value of a healthy environment.
We need to think in the long-term, and focus on harmony both with others and with the environment that sustains us.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Don’t do recreational drugs. See above. It messes with your clarity and energy.
2. Study The Science of Acting. Not everyone needs to do the rigorous three-year programme, but the best actors, directors & teachers I know have had some training with the discipline. It will also cure or protect you from a lot of the psychological problems and issues that can come with being in this industry, and even non-actors/directors benefit hugely from workshops.
3. Don’t underestimate yourself, what you can create or the difference you can make in the world. Be big and bold in your plans. Not all your plans will turn out, so learn to be persistent. People with bolder plans will usually go further, as long as they don’t let disappointment get in their way.
4. Associate with good people who want to do good things and don’t drive you crazy or want you to fail. The people in your social and professional circles will determine your destiny, so make sure to have great relationships with people who have the same habits, ambitions and accomplishments you want.
5. Don’t sulk. It doesn’t matter if you are justified and you’ve been wronged. Sulking will keep you mired in the past instead of creating the life you want.
Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The actor Eddie Marsan, who also studied with Sam Kogan, quoted Sam as having said: “Have an ordinary life; and an extraordinary career”. When I went to study with Sam I felt anything but ‘normal’. I was depressed and anxious; I experienced confusion and stress; I felt awkward and disconnected from people. I had had a series of relationships with beautiful, amazing women that I sabotaged. But I remember, after studying The Science of Acting for a few months, one day I experienced the thought: “I’m normal”. It may not sound like much but that had a huge impact on my life.
Nowadays it’s all the rage to try to be ‘special’, or ‘unique’, or to ‘express yourself’, or be ‘diverse’ — but this causes people to feel detached and lose their sense of security and belonging, their peace of mind. Half the things that people ‘express’ nowadays are just done to show they are more different, special or outrageous than someone else. Nothing productive comes from this. It is just ego and the escalation of sensationalism. No contribution comes from trying to be different, better or special. Just be human. You aren’t better or worse than anyone else. Fulfillment will come from doing positive things, relaxing, enjoying your time, doing the right thing, ideally things that make other people’s lives better.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Sam Kogan. He created the most beautiful body of knowledge in existence; he was the da Vinci of our age. And personally, he pushed me through the eye of a needle.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Well, someone reading this who is a producer or commissioner, let’s make an amazing TV series around the oil industry & Climate Change, I am writing the script. Justin Trudeau: stop it with the pipelines. Arianna: let’s talk about how to change the world over brunch (after a good night’s sleep ☺). Bill Gates & George Soros: my friends Grace & Marco and I have a new model for democratic decision-making. Prisons & Government ministers: if prisoners learn The Science of Acting we can cut crime by 50% — no joke! And anyone: if you’ve always secretly wanted to learn how to act — or if you want me to come work with your people — call me.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational!
The pleasure was mine. Thank you for creating this platform for people in the industry.
Actor and Director Alex Dower: We need to start a movement around more “long term decision making” was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.