Artists In Isolation - Robyn Wilson on small-town dreams and the transcending power of stories.
Robyn started acting whilst studying English at Bristol University, and subsequently trained at Drama Centre London on a scholarship. Since leaving Drama Centre, she has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, Arcola, Park Theatre and Donmar Warehouse. Most recently, Robyn performed in the one-woman show Easy at the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell with Paradox Theatre, which was nominated in the Off West End Theatre Awards 2020. She is currently working as a Production Assistant for Tall Stories.
Where are you right now and how has this impacted your work?
It's so up and down. Which is such a cliche, but it's true. I mean one week I feel as positive as you can be and then the next week I can't see any way out of it and can't seem to see the future.
There are positives. It makes you collect yourself and kind of re-evaluate things, that's something that can come out of this. And some weeks I feel so grateful for the pause. But then I'm also like, will life ever be the same again?
I agree. It's a mental juggle of either "The world is ending" or "this is maybe a gift"
I recognise that. It's a character trait of mine anyway! I'm either "this is amazing" or I'm totally catastrophising. So yes a pretty typical response here.
At the beginning it was clear: everything is cancelled. We knew where we were. But now it's unclear, tiresome and knotty. It's confusing and you feel like should be looking ahead. But maybe next week will be a great week!
I took a new job in producing just before this started, which I felt really excited about but also a bit nervous as it was a slightly new direction for me. This situation has freed me up in a way because I can solely focus on producing for a while. I'm learning so much (I'm lucky to still be working on the job I'm on), I'm using the time to develop skills and I'm so grateful for that. I’m also going to read scenes with friends online to stay creative. Maybe we will record it too!
What's your story? How did you end up where you are now?
I wish I could be like "oh since the age of 5 I knew I wanted to be an actor", but I was in a tiny drama club and did drama GCSE but then I dropped it for A-level! Because I wanted to apply for Oxford, so my school suggested I drop an A level just do 3 and probably not drama. My school also just didn't have a drama department really. There was one teacher who was part-time and I never really thought about it properly. I also didn't know anyone who was in theatre or in the world of acting as a career.
I remember people at University asking me if I was doing NYT, and I was like what's that?
Sometimes you have to learn on the go, and I think if you have parents or family in it or perhaps if you grow up in a big city like London you're exposed to it more at a young age? You can see it more. In your mind.
But then when I went to Bristol and after the first week I went to auditions for the drama society, for anything I could audition for and it was just magic. I couldn't believe you could do all these things - plays, musicals, Edinburgh. I just went for it and that became my life really. I was like "oh these are the people that really get me and I get them". That was the gamechanger. I was meant to be doing an English degree, but spent all my time in the theatres there!
Then I got a scholarship to Drama Centre and did tons of research for funding, lots of grants through charities in my hometown. I learnt so much, I'm learning so much still now. It never stops.
What is it about Theatre that compels you?
I think it's telling stories. For a long time, I didn't know who I was, and wanted to escape myself. I was confident if I could be somebody else. Other people were just clearer to me, playing them. Being Thomasina (In Arcadia), or Lyra (His Dark Materials) I knew exactly who that person was.
Definitely. But then something Drama School really gets to is that central thing of "look, you can't always use characters to escape yourself". That really serves you in the long run. I had to flip that and use myself to fill the characters. They hold a mirror to you and say this is you. It's painful but you learn more about yourself and bring that to the character. And you can still do that thing of morphing into someone else but also be happy being yourself too!
What are your favourite activities for feeding your creative process?
I do still just love going to the theatre! I find it so magical. Growing up it was my grandma taking me or a school trip. I remember loving ballet - that was my first storytelling really. I still get really excited about going to see a show like that. I'm not great at reading scripts, buying them is just to recreate the magic of seeing it really!
I seek out shows that do something with classics. A concept of a classic, like when someone reinvents As You Like It - I'm there. Often I follow writers I like the voice of or a director with a specific taste I love. Like Simon Godwin, his Hamlet at The RSC was incredible (and I should know I saw it 5 million times working as an usher there, so I see his work a lot.
Also, I'm so inspired when I see what my peers and friends are doing. Keeping in touch with people I learned with. You can bankrupt yourself doing it, but it really inspires me. Your film festival (Chalkfest) was a really memorable experience for that reason!
How do you think these experiences inform your work?
I was watching The Barbershop Chronicles last night on NT At Home and I got this thing, that happens often but even more now, where I just can't remember how people do a play! Like how people do a show. And even though I've done shows - like I did a one-woman 50-minute monologue - I just can't even think how they make it look so easy. And then I get this point where I remember the feeling of doing it. And it refills me with that belief, that I do know how to do it.
It's like, when people make it look effortless it reminds me of how much work we put into what we do. Hours of rehearsing and work and effort. They've done their research and they practice and practice. And that comes out in them being able to have fun. You can see that they are smiling in a way. Ok, there's no smiling in Hedda Gabler, but when you see people who are really in it. It's effortless. And that's really inspiring.
So it's both a challenge and an affirmation?
I doubt myself and theatre then makes me remember it can be done. When I worked as an usher, you watch the shows so many times and you notice when actors are in rep and what changes. Some actors would just play and change every night - not so much they would piss off the director - but keeping it fresh and exciting. That's what you want!
Being confident enough to sit in what you've practised and rehearsed and then just enjoy it.
It's like Jazz. I want to be a Jazz actor. One of the directors at Drama centre would always bring this out of us, stuff that surprises you in the moment and it's so truthful and having the freedom to riff that's so great.
Are there any performances that stick out for you in this way?
Paapa Essiedu in Hamlet at The RSC. He was so alive and it changed throughout the run. It made it interesting to keep watching over the run. I also found that with Three Sisters at The Almeida. It was a real actors production, so much of the focus was placed on the characters and their relationships and it was very free. That line between being too naturalistic and just really interesting!! It was almost too free, people just lolloping around on stage! Pushing what they could do with the characters. Being so within that character that they could do almost anything they wanted. Jenny Rainsford in the RSC was also outstanding to me, fucking amazing. She made me hear so much in the language.
What have you taken with you into your production work?
In a nice way, it made me take stock of everything I had learned. When I first interviewed I had to tell them what I would do in a worst-case scenario with the van breaking down and all these bad things happening. I knew way more than I thought, like the technical side and I knew who everyone in the team was and how they could come together.
Which doesn't sound like a huge thing, but I think if I think about where I came from, not knowing anything or anyone and learning it all really quickly, it was really moving actually. I wouldn't have known what a stage manager was let alone a producer. At work now I have ideas and knowledge already, as well as learning A LOT.
It's called show business for a reason right?
Yeah! I mean I'm guilty too we just throw that to one side, as it's "scary" I think. But now more than ever it's probably really important. And actually this side is more creative than people think for sure. We have to plan ahead for the summer and really think about what an audience would want to see. You are still putting yourself in the head of someone else.
How do you tend to work?
I was auditioning and teaching drama before this. Both of which are currently not happening. The teaching stopping was really sad and quite dramatic! We told them to keep going, be nice to their parents and keep creating. It was really emotional. I was doing a show before this recently too, Easy.
It can be really tough balancing everything. Trying to find money and creativity together. And living in London! So I decided I wanted to take more of my time to work in theatre on a more full-time way, not just concentrated chunks. Which has been really nice for me. Especially now I have more of a 9-5 role. Freelancing is amazing but can be really stressful. I now feel my "office hours" are way more clear than before.
I used to struggle a lot with ‘bothering’ people, but producing has really helped me to become better at this! I've had to call up agents now and it's really a case of just not being afraid. I was bold with the company I work for now, when I bumped into my contact in the street I just offered her my services should she need them. And that eventually got me this job!
Do you think there is a new breed of actor? One that isn't just cornered to one role?
Definitely. I had anxiety that people would stop thinking of me as an actor if I did anything else. But now so many people are becoming actor-writers and producing their own work.
If anything I think it just shows your absolute love for what you do, and what you work in.
I guess there's still this old stereotype of the "suffering" actor who only does that one thing and just waits. People are turning things on their head. But there's definitely anxiety around it. So many people are starting their own companies, and it's not just about being the "hot young thing" anymore. It makes us richer as creatives I think.
What will you take away from this time in isolation?
I think I will probably take away trying to not seek approval or affirmation of what I'm doing from others. To just do it. Whether that's because it's for me or someone else, or it will help someone else. Be kind to your friends and do good work, because it's the good thing to do but not because of what you hope they will feel about you in return if that makes sense?
Be kind because it's a good thing to do. Not because you want people to think you are good. Just try and forget what people think of you, don't do anything for applause or affirmation, because doing it and just radiating positive vibes will always be more rewarding!
I don't know if I explained that very well? I used to be stressed going to parties worrying about what people would ask me or think. So trying to not associate your worth with what people think of you. All you can do is be kind.
Also, call your mum more.
Robyn's Top 5:
Book: Little Women - I've never read it and it's perfect for this time because they just make their own fun all the time!
Film: La Belle Epoque - It's about a company that makes any time for you, so you can visit other time periods, which I'm obsessed with. Nostalgia by the bucket load.
Series: The Marvellous Mrs Maisel - Bright joyous and fun. (The truth is I've been watching CBBC's Mallory Towers...please don't tell anyone. It's 1000% for kids but I want to know what scrapes Darrel got into this week)
Podcast: Films To Be Buried With - Like desert Island discs but for films. Its lush.
Wildcard: Breakfast in bed - two slices of toast that's it really. But it's just really lovely isn't it?
As told to Olivia Foan (over Zoom you'll be pleased to hear. Sadly not over breakfast in bed.)