Acting with animations – an interview with Shamira Turner

Shamira Turner plays lead character Robert Robertson in 1927's new show 'Golem', now on at London's Young Vic. Here we quiz her about what it's like to act with animations.

Shamira, tell us about 'Golem', the story and the aesthetic, and how one informs the other.

1927’s story takes the concept at the heart of the Golem myth – of a clay man who (supposedly) protects you and obeys your every command – as a springboard to tell a story that explores our growing and intense relationship with technology, by looking at how technology has become our personal ‘Golem’ today and how that relationship might continue to evolve.

The aesthetic, text and music are generated in conjuncture with one another and in response to each other, and communally have a sort of enchanting wonkiness, expressiveness and consistently handmade quality. All elements work together and reinforce the same journey. Even the colours within animation and costume, for example, are geared towards communicating the shifting tone and events of the story. The colour palette of the show begins warm, autumnal and messy and over the duration of the story becomes sharper, brighter, tighter – like the lens is tinted and lines brought into harsh focus.

As the show has developed, has your acting and the animation evolved independently or together?

Ultimately the acting and animation have to evolve together and inform one another. Mostly your performance is led by the animation designer Paul Barritt has created for you to interact with and inhabit, but usually that animation has been initiated through an idea generated in rehearsal and through director Suzanne Andrade’s writing. And both elements will be tweaked and adapted based on what’s needed for you and the animation to work more effectively visually and together in the scene. It’s one of those classic chicken and egg scenarios. The text, performances, animation and music are continually gently shifting around until we reach the favourite version.

What are the joys and the challenges of acting with animation?

My very first opportunity working in the space with 1927 made me realise I would be learning a whole new discipline – an idiosyncratic mash-up of 1920s silent film acting and physically embodying stop-frame animation or cartoon logic with crisp placed gestures – but one always rooted in the truth and movement vocabulary of your character. In reality, it becomes a lot more instinctive and less complicated than it sounds!

The animation does take place on a two-dimensional screen that is technically behind you, but it is very much alive – it is both the visual world of the show in which we all exist, and a whole host of the characters. A huge part of your job is to bring the animation on the giant screen out into the playing space as a three-dimensional texture for the audience experience. Some of this involves technical tricks, like looking at the space in front of the screen rather than actually at the screen. And our gestures and shapes need to be heightened and stylised enough to match the aesthetic and dimensions of the animation. We have to pull quite a few unnatural or extreme poses, but these read as normal from the audience perspective. In the early days working on ‘Golem’, I got quite a lot of neck and shoulder ache! But with more practice I’ve learned better ways of achieving the same effect and need to reach for the tiger balm less frequently nowadays!

One trick to working within the animation is finding opportunities during a scene to sneakily peak down to the floor and check you are still within in your ‘spikes’. These are tiny marks of glow tape stuck all over the floor like a crazy constellation of seemingly random lines, crosses, little arrowheads and so on, which tell us exactly where we can stand in order to fit perfectly in the vignette shaped for our body within the animation. Often if you’re just a centimetre off your spikes you could risk your head dipping into a lampshade or your arm swinging into a passing pedestrian. Not only is this not a good look, it also spoils the illusion for the audience.

How does acting alongside an animated character compare to working with a live actor?

As soon as I began working on the show, I completely fell for the claymation Golem, his gestures and voice, and I wanted to spend time with him on stage. His physicality has also inspired and informed much of how Robert moves – especially since the more time they spend together in the story, the more alike they become. In fact, a simple way of showing their friendship is synching up their movements. Compared to actors, Golem might always deliver his lines and gestures the same way, but there is still an organic energy to his timing and when he speaks and moves, since Helen Mugridge (our production manager) is always there cueing him on the desk – and she is responding to my delivery and the music as much as I am responding to Golem and the music. All three of these elements – animation, actor(s), musician(s) are using each other as markers and adapting to each others’ slightest changes – so from my perspective, it feels very much ‘alive’ on stage. As if everything is being created together.

What excites you most about this new show? And what scares you?

The show is a whirlwind experience as a performer. Even if we’re not onstage, we are constantly whizzing around out of view moving bits of set in the wings or doing speedy costume changes ready for the next scene. As an audience member I feel that high effort and energy can be contagious and exciting: seeing the performers work really hard for you – making demanding transitions with finesse (if we’re doing our jobs right!), suddenly breaking out into a punk band number, a small ensemble swapping between many characters to communicate a whole world, and finishing up with a heap of sweaty costumes. Both as a performer and a spectator, I enjoy theatre that is non-stop and surprising; disciplined but high energy.

What scares me…? Well, I play a keytar in the show, a hilarious (and we might say dorky) keyboard-guitar hybrid, hence the snazzy name. It has an automatic drum machine function at the very easy touch (or accidental knock) of a button. In the early days of working on the show, navigating very quick changes backstage I was often involuntarily setting off a pumping techno or reggae beat – which there is basically never a good moment for in the show. Luckily my character Robert is a bit hopeless, so I think we could get away with it, but hopefully I’ll manage to steer clear of that pesky drum button every show!



"The show is a whirlwind experience as a performer. Even if we’re not onstage, we are constantly whizzing around out of view moving bits of set in the wings or doing speedy costume changes ready for the next scene... Both as a performer and a spectator, I enjoy theatre that is non-stop and surprising; disciplined but high energy."

Additional Info

'Golem' plays at the Young Vic, London, until 31 January 2015.