Hessian mats – a gift for someone having to stay at home?

I made some handmade coasters at Christmas for family and they went down very well.  The inspiration came from the olive trees in the Mizala valley.  I thought it might be a good idea to offer them more widely, so if you are interested in buying any for yourself or perhaps for someone stuck at home, please let me know.

They are hand made from hessian with a soft fabric padding.  One side of the mat has a decoration of leaves and the other side can feature any name or message in the colour of your choice. Size is approximately 5×5 inches/12×12 cm.

I can send them to you – or directly to someone else with a little gift card with your name and short message.

The price is £5 which includes post, packing and small gift card.

Please get in touch if you would like one or more!


Tackling nerves

Being nervous before a performance or an audition is perfectly normal.

Most performers get nervous, however experienced they are.  If you look around a waiting room where people are waiting to audition, you may not be able to tell whether people are nervous or not, because we all deal with it differently.

You will need to work out your own way to deal with your own nerves.  Make sure you are in control of your breath, because this will affect your speaking voice. If you find your breath is high in your chest and you feel light-headed, try concentrating on the outward breath for a while and let the inward breath take care of itself.  It may help to think of nerves as “excitement” and let them fill you with a buzz and a sparkle.  Some people are able to embrace their nerves and go on the roller coaster ride, others need to calm their nerves and concentrate on relaxing.

Auditioners are well aware that auditionees get anxious, but, while they may make some allowances for dropped lines or tripping over your own feet, and won’t mind an occasional lapse of memory if your audition is good/exciting/interesting, they will expect you to be able to deal with your nerves during the audition.  If you can’t, how can they be confident that you will be able to deal with nerves during performance?

There is nothing more painful for an auditioner than watching auditionees paralysed by fear and looking as though they are hating every minute.  Try to look as though you are pleased to be there and allow the auditioners to relax and to enjoy meeting you. Give them the opportunity to concentrate on the audition, rather than worrying whether you are about to burst into tears.  You are there to show them what you can do and they honestly do want you to be confident and relaxed and at your best – their life is so much easier if you are!


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What to wear in an audition

Quite a lot of people worry about what to wear for an audition…

I’ve run quite a few auditions and I have been present at many more. I usually only really notice what someone is wearing if it is blatantly unsuitable, so it might be more useful to think about what not to wear for an audition.  You want your auditioner to be able to concentrate on you, not what you are wearing.  That doesn’t mean that you have to arrive all in black, you can come dressed as you.  A reasonably neat, unfussy, clean version of you, but still you.  Make sure you can move naturally and easily. Avoid clothes that rustle or creak and any jangling jewellery.

If I know the role I am auditioning for, shouldn’t I come dressed as the character?

I think you should use common sense about this.  You shouldn’t dress against the character.  If it’s an audition for the school cross-country champion, don’t go in a business suit.  If it’s for a young Victorian girl from a wealthy family, don’t go in torn jeans and a t-shirt with logos on it.  It’s fine to give a flavour of the character: so you might choose a high-necked blouse for the Victorian girl audition or sporty clothes for the runner.  I wouldn’t advise going in full Victorian dress or running gear with a number on your front.  If in doubt, look at the clothes you own and think “what would I feel most comfortable in if I were this character”?

I’ve read accounts of people who have hired full period dress for film castings and they’ve got the part.

Yes, I’ve read this kind of thing too. I’m not sure what I think of this to be honest.  I suppose if you really feel it will help you, then you can consider it, though I think it’s less common here than in the US.  The other thing to be aware of is that anecdotes like these ignore those who didn’t dress up and still got cast and conveniently ignores those who also got dressed up and didn’t get the part.  If you arrived for a theatre audition “dressed as the character” I think this would be most likely to produce embarrassed laughter rather than anything more positive. For theatre auditions I think you should go looking ready to work, not ready to go on stage in performance – you probably won’t know what the director/designer’s vision is for the character in any case.  TV, films and commercials are rather different because your audition will be put on tape and viewed by others and “looking the part” will be an important step towards getting the job or getting a recall.  However, I think that a “flavour” of the character is a much safer bet than going the whole hog – you do need to give the casting team a sense of who you are and you don’t want to insult them by appearing to think they have no imagination.

Granny moment:

The most common “what not to wear” mistake I have seen is the fashion for jeans or trousers that don’t stay up by themselves.  This means that to stop yourself showing your underwear to the auditioners (or even what is under your underwear) you have to constantly tug at the waistband of your trousers.  In some cases, you even have to hang on to the trousers to prevent them ending up half way down your thigh.  If you often wear jeans/trousers like this, it’s quite likely that you make a grab for the waistband  all the time without even realising it.  It’s enormously distracting!  Any item of dress that you have to adjust all the time should stay in your wardrobe.  Look at yourself in a full length mirror and try sitting, standing, leaning forward to shake hands, perhaps even kneeling on the floor or squatting and then getting up again.  Are you showing more than you intended?

It’s a good idea to make sure that your top covers all the bits you want covered too.  Looking at lots of bare flesh can be very distracting for the auditioner – and what looks perfectly respectable when you are looking at yourself straight on in the mirror can be a bit of an eyeful if you bend forward, so don’t flash more than you intend.

Be sensible about shoes – they should be clean, for one thing – but make sure you can move in them really easily: that’s likely to be more important than how fashionable they are.

Don’t wear too much make-up and go easy on perfume, aftershave and bodyspray.

If you’re like me and don’t have a huge wardrobe of clothes to choose from, I think it can help to relieve stress to have a “go to” audition outfit that you always keep clean and ready to wear.  Something that brings out the colour or your eyes and suits your complexion.  That way, if you are really not sure what to wear for a particular audition, you can fall back on your “audition outfit” and you know you can feel secure and comfortable in something that suits you.

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Why can’t I find out about auditions?

Finding out about auditions or job opportunities.

Information about auditions for most paid, professional jobs never make it into the public arena.  This, of course, is not what aspiring actors want to hear and consequently there is a lot of money to be made by companies who wish to exploit an actor’s desire to find out about job opportunities.  Don’t be under any illusion about this – casting information services, even the good ones, exploit this desire to “find opportunities” and make money out of actors.  If you have an agent, I would advise trusting them to find out about the opportunities that appear on casting information sites and save your money (though you will need to pay for Spotlight) – unless you are willing to pay for information about unpaid/profit share or low budget work.  Your agent is less likely to be interested in this kind of work, for obvious reasons, so it will probably be down to you to find out about it.

This does not mean that if you have an agent you should just sit back and wait for your agent to “find you a job”.  This is a common mistake that actors make, believing that once they have an agent the audition offers will come rolling in – it doesn’t usually work like that. If you are a child actor, you may need to rely on your agent to find out about professional work opportunities, but you could still explore amateur opportunities, contact student film makers, make the most of any contacts you have , keep in touch with anyone you have worked with and keep an eye on any free information services.  Not a Pushy Mum is a particularly useful site as information is freely and generously shared between members on its excellent forum.

If you are an adult actor and you want to try to make your living as an actor, you need to be much more pro-active.  Keep your own database of theatre companies and film companies.  Keep up to date with theatre and film news. Find out about independent film companies.  Seek out people who make corporate videos.  Go and see lots of theatre – talk to people.  That doesn’t mean “ask for a job”, that means talk to people about their work, find out about the company, ask intelligent questions, be friendly and pleasant and don’t wave your CV at them (unless they ask you for it, and they probably won’t).  Have a business card available in case it’s appropriate to hand that over. You can follow up the contact at some later stage if it becomes relevant and you will have something to say in your covering letter!

Casting information services are many and varied and used by different people.  If you are interested in student films, low paid or expenses only work, you will probably be able to find this without spending a lot of money.  Casting Call Pro and Kids Casting Call Pro (now merged with Mandy) are free to use to search for and apply for unpaid work.  Shooting People is a useful network (and not hugely expensive) if you are interested in low budget and student films. The Stage newspaper carries some information about auditions. Arts Jobs is a free email service from the Arts Council, though the jobs advertised are only rarely for performers. Facebook and Twitter are useful sources of information – and plenty of Facebook pages carry “opportunities” (also known as working for no pay) for actors.

The most important thing to realise is that many professional acting jobs are never advertised anywhere especially for adult actors.


It’s not that you can’t find them, it’s that they are not advertised.  Casting Directors know who they want to see most of the time and contact agents to see whether their clients are available. In addition, they may well call in some actors they have not seen for audition before, but they are still likely to know of them, because they have seen them perform before on stage or on TV/film.  Getting in through the door to see a Casting Director isn’t always easy, but once you have been seen the CD is likely to remember you – they’re good at that!

So you see, the reason it’s hard to find out about auditions is that most of them are not open to everyone.  Tough but true!

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Being an Extra

Being a supporting artiste/background artiste/extra can be interesting, lucrative and educational.

You can meet interesting people, work on fascinating sets and in wonderful locations and you can learn a lot from it. You sometimes get great food!  It can also be very dull, hard work, soul destroying, badly paid, cold, wet and miserable and in some cases extras are treated like sheep and given very little respect or consideration.

Don’t choose it as a “stepping stone” to featured/speaking/lead roles.  Very occasionally a background artist is given more to do and very occasionally a background artist has progressed within the same organisation/soap opera and had a speaking role.  This does not normally happen and you shouldn’t go into background work hoping that it will, as you are likely to be disappointed!  Not only that, but if you try to get noticed as a background artiste you are likely to make yourself very unpopular.

If you are an adult actor you should not include background credits on an acting CV.  Treat the work as an SA like any other part time job, like working in a pub or in an office.

If you are a child actor and you feel you want to mention your experience, just be a bit careful about how you use the credit on a CV and ensure that you make it clear that you understand that it is different from an acting credit.

The reason for this is not really to do with snobbery (well, perhaps a little bit) it’s more to do with how actors and background artistes are chosen/cast.  The work you do as a background artist is valuable BUT  in most cases the background artists are not auditioned, they are selected and sent along as a “type”.  This means that your acting skills as an extra have not usually been assessed by anyone (even though you may be brilliant) and so the work  is not regarded as an acting credit.  It’s really important (if you are hoping to work as a professional actor) that you recognise that the people you hope will eventually employ you as an actor will not regard SA experience as relevant.

The truth is that you don’t have to have any acting skills to do SA work.  Many SAs are actors (some may be brilliant actors) but they could be on set with someone who has no acting skills at all – and they’re both employed to do the same job.  That’s why telling someone you’re an SA (or that you’ve worked on some big blockbuster) doesn’t give anyone in casting any kind of clue about your acting ability.  Mentioning your SA work when you are pursuing acting work won’t do you any favours .  It could work against you, because you will give the impression that you don’t understand the industry (or casting).

Some people get really upset by this, but it’s important not to take it personally.  Just keep the two experiences separate and enjoy them for what they are.

If anyone offers you an “IMDB credit” as an incentive (especially if they offer it instead of pay) then they’re taking you for a ride.  IMDB credits for SA work don’t mean anything and once you get into acting work, they can do you more harm than good.

I cannot see any advantage in doing extra work for no financial reward – unless you’re helping out a friend.

The best way to get extra work is to join an extras agency – or more than one.

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Shot from scratch showreels – an opinion.

Several opinions, if I’m honest.
Pull up a chair.

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I love screen acting.

I haven’t done much of it compared to many actors, but I’m fascinated by it.  I love to watch actors’ showreels and I’m constantly intrigued by what makes actors “stand out”.

Really good showreels are a wonderful combination of terrific acting and great editing.  From a casting point of view the best ones are those that show both great acting AND that people have already been cast in broadcast work.  It’s a useful filter for casters and obviously reduces risk: as a CD or Director you can be reasonably confident that the actor has a clue, knows how to behave on set and has already been judged capable by someone in the industry.  As an agent, it shows that the actor is employable…

However, for lots of actors starting out you can’t showcase your screen acting to a caster unless you have at least something on screen – hence the explosion of “shot from scratch” showreels.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have seen some absolutely shocking examples of shot from scratch.  Some of them are so bad, I can scarcely bring myself to watch them all the way through – even for research purposes.

If you are considering paying for a shot from scratch reel then you are likely to be investing a lot of money.  It’s worth spending plenty of time doing some research.

I think the very best research you can do is to watch lots and lots and lots of showreels one after the other.  It’s what casting directors do.
CCP is quite a good source of showreels, but I’d also suggest looking at the Spotlight pages (and showreels) of some more established actors – you can often get access to these via agency websites.  Watch the showreels put out by shot from scratch companies by all means, but make sure you compare them to those actors who have showreels compiled from broadcast clips.

Imagine you’re an agent, deciding whether or not to take on a new client.  What helps you to make a decision?  What annoys you, gets in the way?  If you watch scores of showreels in one sitting, you’ll soon see why CDs and agents will often only watch a few seconds before moving on.

I’d also suggest getting some screen acting experience before you try a shot from scratch reel.  Do some student films, or get together with friends and shoot some footage on your phone.  Do a short course if you can afford it.  Having some experience is likely to help you to get the best value for money in a shot from scratch reel.  It’s important that you know what you want – and what you hope to capture.

I think there are some obvious pitfalls and reasons why some shot from scratch reels are terrible – and perhaps some less obvious ones.  Some of the following don’t make them terrible acting showcases – but some of them do make them very obviously shot from scratch. Where possible, when trying to interest a caster (and therefore from an actor’s point of view) I think it’s preferable to avoid announcing its shot from scratch nature.

1.  Bad acting.  Sometimes it’s that simple and quite possibly there’s not a lot that can be done to rescue these.   However, I think that sometimes – maybe more than sometimes –  it may be a case of reason number 2 – or at least that number 2 can be a huge factor:

2.  Lack of direction OR lack of direction by someone who understands the acting process.  Shot from scratch showreels – by their very nature – are undertaken by actors with little professional screen experience.  Actors may have had very little screen acting training.  Some will have only done theatre.  Some will have only done amateur theatre.  Some may have done very little acting before at all.  Helping actors get a good shot from scratch reel means understanding their limited experience from an acting and technical point of view and watching for the pitfalls.  Sometimes “talk faster” is all that will be needed for the scene to work better  – but there needs to be a way of helping actors to do that without making them self conscious.

3. Bad writing.  Oh my word, there’s a lot of this!  I could write an entire essay on this subject – but I won’t… at least, not now 😉

4. Cliched scenarios.  Oh good grief, there are SO many of these! If you watch lots of showreels, you’ll soon see what I mean.  Guns and people tied up in cellars feature remarkably often – but there are plenty of others that are likely to make a CD squirm.

5. Actors choosing “characters” (or scenarios) they’d love to play – rather than acting in scenes that allow them to showcase something in their acting/casting bracket.  This is such a giveaway of shot from scratch.

6.  Over-ambitious scenes.  Choosing something that requires far more time/money/expertise than is available.  Period drama (without the budget or design skills/knowledge to match) is one of those I see most often in shot from scratch.  Casting Directors are interested in your acting – not how pretty your frock (or frock-coat)  is.

7. Poor production values.
This happens occasionally when an actor hasn’t chosen the company wisely.  Sound/lighting can be crap and/or the company doesn’t have much technical expertise.  I suspect this is what annoys the good showreels companies the most .

However, unless it’s *obviously* bad (and sadly sometimes it is, and therefore detracts from the acting) then I think this is actually less of a problem than most of the other points  – from a caster’s point of view.

In any case, this is an easy thing to watch out for when you’re researching companies.

Many shot from scratch companies spend a lot of time in their marketing telling actors how great the equipment is – I sometimes wonder whether this means that they don’t concentrate on other equally important elements.  Most showreels are viewed on computer screens – not on cinema screens.  It’s important that showreel companies recognise this fact too.

8. Lack of background/extras in locations where there definitely SHOULD be background.  Another dead giveaway of shot from scratch. So many empty cafes and streets…

9. Lack of screen acting technique from the actors (but see point 2). Inability to hit marks, poor grasp of continuity etc etc.

10.  Bloody guns being waved around by people who have no idea how to even hold one (see point 4!)

11. Wooden acting partner – ruins the scene for the capable actor.

12.  Scenes that are basically a monologue with someone sitting in and nodding in response…

13.  The same locations used in lots of different showreels; the same bridge, window, sofa, potplant – even the same mugs.  When you watch lots of showreels this is horribly obvious.

14. The same scripts used for different actors’ showreels.  This is also horribly obvious if you watch lots of showreels.

15.  Having the same screen partner in different scenes on a showreel.

16. Recreation of an already-released film or tv scene.

17. Lack of time – especially the time to help inexperienced actors to improve their on-screen performance.

There are probably more. ☺

Then there are the editing issues:

1. Bloody montages…
2. Not knowing who we’re supposed to be watching until 20 seconds in.
3. Not enough dialogue or close ups.
4. Inclusion of clips with “famous people” even when it doesn’t show the actor in question actually acting …

Other pitfalls:
In my opinion the following three issues are pitfalls that you may need to insist on the company addressing for your benefit – because addressing them may not be in the company’s immediate interest:

The resulting showreel is far too long.  Between one and two minutes really is plenty for a shot from scratch reel – and the scenes don’t need to make narrative sense.  I think companies like to think they’re giving “value for money” when they provide a reel with 3 scenes each 60-90 seconds long, but it’s so much better to have a minute of excellent work than 4 minutes of adequate work.  It costs the company the same to deliver the one excellent minute – and it’s important for actors to recognise this too.  Don’t judge the worth by the length.

The resulting showreel publicises the company as well as the actor.  If you’re paying for it, you shouldn’t need the company’s details anywhere on the showreel – or certainly not prominently displayed.

There is not enough time on the shoot for you to practice/rehearse as an actor (not just the technical stuff).  On a real shoot you probably wouldn’t get much rehearsal time at all – but if you’re paying, you should be able to insist on it.  Whether or not you choose to have a look at a “take” before moving on should also be the actor’s decision if the actor is paying . You don’t usually have this option on a shoot either, but you’re paying, so you should be able to decide, providing it’s been agreed beforehand.  There are pros and cons to looking at your work as you go along – the more screen acting practice you get, the more you’ll become aware whether this is likely to help or hinder you.

If I had to choose just one thing that would improve most shot from scratch reels, it would be the writing.  Good screenwriting isn’t easy – and of course it’s not just dialogue that makes the difference. Good dialogue is a doddle to deliver and can help to make everyone look good – but a credible, original, interesting scene is far more that just great dialogue.

As part of the research you do before choosing a company and script, it would be worth looking at some TV screenplays (BBC writers room has a great selection).  You can see just how much goes into them.



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Wonder walls – and wonder workers

There’s so much to do at the Cactus Patch: walls are crumbling and after the heavy rain we are surrounded by weeds.  Some of them shoulder high!  We’ve been very fortunate to have had help from some wonderful friends who have cleared paths, rebuilt walls, painted, mixed cement and tackled the very unfriendly vegetation.

Sometimes it feels like one step forward and two steps back – but looking at some recent photos we can see just how much progress we have made.

A huge thank you to our energetic friends!IMG_0130

Preparing the outside seating area. Photo (and a lot of the hard graft!) courtesty of Mat and Jen.

Photos (and work) courtesy of Kevin Percival.Avebury-34



Pawshank or Pupillon?

We are attempting a new regime for Pod and Rosa.  Not really through choice, but due to a traumatic event a couple of weeks ago.

Rosa and Pod on look-out duty
Rosa and Pod on look-out duty

Rosa and Pod have been more or less free to roam since they came to adopt us.  We’ve fitted a tracker to Pod (Rosa wasn’t keen!) and we can see where he travels most of the time.  Some days they would disappear for hours at a time – and they have occasionally stayed out all night.  We believe that they enjoy this freedom as well as enjoying going out with us.  We also recognise that there are risks attached to letting them roam.  Unfortunately for Rosa one of those risks hit hard a couple of weeks ago.

Rosa and Pod returned as usual after a couple of hours exploring.  They hungrily ate their food and settled down for a sleep.  Suddenly, Rosa got up and Mark did too as he realised there was something wrong with her.  We had heard of a dog in the valley who had ingested poison (from an unknown source) and had sadly died – Mark immediately guessed that this had happened to Rosa.  She was sick and then started having dreadful spasms.  We phoned the vet, bundled Pod into the car and I strapped myself in to the back of the car and held Rosa in my arms as Mark flew down the motorway to Turre.  Neither of us thought she would make it that far.  She had convulsion after convulsion in the car and I thought I would be taking a dead dog through the door of the vets.

We could tell that Ellen, the vet, was not very hopeful – but she acted so swiftly that Rosa did survive.   Pod was fine – Ellen checked him over and gave him the all-clear.  Ellen took Rosa home with her that night and we picked her up the next day to discover that she had rallied remarkably well.  She had a course of Vitamin K and we walked her on the lead for a week to prevent her injuring herself (we had to watch for bleeding or any risk of it).  She was soon back to full health and (of course) very keen to resume her roaming life.

We decided to build an enclosure for them and only let them out when we could go out with them.

Jonny (my daughter Anna’s boyfriend) came out to help Mark to create the dog euro (geddit?) and the two of them worked incredibly hard to build a safe outside garden area that could be accessed from the terrace and the back of the house.

It sort of works…

We haven’t yet made it escape proof – Pod has found his way out a few times – but it’s a start.

We now take them out for a walk morning and evening well away from any kind of habitation , and well away from the hunting grounds where we suspect the poison was (illegally) laid.  They don’t always come back home with us, so it’s not the perfect solution, but it’s the best compromise we can come up with.

So, suggestions for names for their new compound most welcome:

So far, Pawshank and Pupillon are the front runners.

The new enclosure
The new enclosure

Blossom and snow (may you bloom and go)

One of the few things I miss about being in the UK is the way the seasons change.  Admittedly, in the Peak District, the seasons seemed to change out of kilter with some other places:  the winter could hang on and on – but eventually the spring would arrive.  The vivid green of the new leaves on trees in spring, the (intermittent) blue skies and sunshine in summer, the autumn leaves and then the crisp, snowy winter days.  They could all have their charm.

Here in the Mizala valley the changes are more subtle.  There aren’t many trees – and many of them are olive trees which keep their leaves year round.  It’s very dry and sunny and winter days can be as warm as UK summers.

This year has been rather different though.  The storms of last December were followed by the first snow in the valley that we had ever seen.  We found out later that it was the first snow here since 1939!20170119_083013

The sun soon returned and with it came the almond blossom and the most fabulous array of spring flowers.  My photography isn’t good enough to do it justice, but olive and almond groves are now covered in a lilac carpet and tiny yellow and white flowers are everywhere you tread.20170228_102222


Even the cactus is getting in on the act:20170228_102605


Stormy weather

Living next to the desert means that we have to be very careful with our use of water.  We get very little rainfall here – usually.

However, in December 2016 we had rather a lot…

Roads were washed away and bits of the landscape were completely transformed.  The dry river bed became a roaring torrent and vegetation was swept away.  Terraces collapsed and huge holes appeared seemingly out of the blue.20161231_145711

Fields turned into lakes20161218_105656

and landslips occurred all over the place20161231_151840

(that’s the house in the background).