Graduating Actor, Tessa Chalmers reflects on Laura Harling’s inspiring Industry Talk

A DSL alumna herself, Laura has enjoyed an extensive acting career across theatre, film and television. In 2016 she founded The Dot Collective, a charity who provide innovative theatre of a high, professional standard that’s accessible and cognitively stimulating for those living in care, particularly with dementia.

‘Dot’ is in memory of Laura’s Grandmother, who was a loyal supporter of Laura’s acting career. When Dot was moved into a care home, it became apparent that the activities provided did not suit her interests or abilities. When asked what she would rather do, Dot replied that she wanted to watch Laura in her most recent production. There did not seem to be enough stimulation for people in Dot’s condition, and so the idea for the Dot Collective was born, from a determination to create lasting and joyful emotional experiences for those in care.

“It is not a lesser form of theatre, but it is what the big theatres cannot provide. Reaching specific audiences in different venues, performed by specialists informed about their audiences’ needs.”

After their first tour of The Snow Queen, doing just this, Laura had found her passion. She was challenging the perception of theatre in the community as something amateur or less respected than professional quality productions, rather it has a valuable impact on their audiences. She also laughed, saying it seemed to open up such a predominantly untouched pool of captive and (largely…) appreciative audiences, versus the struggle of convincing people to come to fringe theatre for example. They do not hold back just because it is a care home, creating a fully immersive experience and atmosphere by transforming spaces from living rooms to gardens to doorways. This helps audiences feel included without pressure.

“We go as far as we can with what we’ve got.”

In terms of the kind of actors they look for to work with, Laura’s requirements were simple – skilled is a given, but open-minded is key.

“You’ve got to be prepared to lift things out of a van. You can’t be worried about fame and success as a company, that is not the aim or where the satisfaction comes from. Your values have to be what you want to achieve and your passion to provide something for an audience.”

Over the years, these casts have produced shows with numerous visually stimulating elements: Shakespeare, circus, puppetry and music, working alongside those living with dementia and their families to devise new stories. Devising provides the opportunity to experiment with ideas through a Research and Development process, sometimes in collaboration with different directors or companies.

The rehearsal period is often fast-paced and intense, rarely more than three weeks, and within that, being open to feedback and alterations is important. However, you can never be completely prepared. “Expect the unexpected” Laura says, “it is rare for it to go as planned”. Rather than a panic-inducing situation for actors to find themselves in, this was framed as one of the best things about community theatre. It creates a very different show every night!

“It is the most live audience you can experience. There is an immediate response – direct, present, reactive – it is uplifting as a performer.”

Laura gave advice about funding which is especially important to graduates who hope to create their own work. Her advice was to have a clear manifesto, to make applications easier, as your passion for what you want to achieve will come across.

The Dot Collective has been working in collaboration with DSL’s BA actors to devise two new Christmas productions – The Snow Queen and The Elves and the Shoemaker. These productions will tour residential care homes and community performance spaces in London.

By Tessa Chalmers, BA (Hons) in Professional Acting