Monthly Archives: October 2014

Interview With The Director… Joe Harmston – part 3

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Chris Naylor: Can you remember particular performances that inspired you?

Joe Harmston: Lots of things. I went to the National just endlessly, and the RSC in the Eighties, so for about ten years I saw everything that was on. I remember seeing a lot of things at the Cottesloe – things like ‘Lark Rise To Candleford’, ‘The Mysteries’, and actors who had a wild but also playful energy, people like Jack Shepherd, and Brian Glover –

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CN: Real people.

JH: Real people, and very, very exciting. No tricks, no fuss, no pretence about what they were doing; it was really simple. And then I remember seeing Ian McKellen’s show for London Lighthouse, ‘Acting Shakespeare’.

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CN: I didn’t know about that.

JH: Yeah, it must have been ‘87, ‘88 something like that, at the Playhouse – he had this show raising money for AIDS research, and it was just him.

CN: Was it like Gielgud’s ‘Ages of Man’?

JH: Yes, but it was a bit more anarchic than that. At the beginning of the second act, I remember the house lights were on, and we were all chatting away, and a lot of people didn’t notice, but he just walked on and stood in the middle of the stage and he just gazed at his hand, and very, very slowly just raised it, and suddenly he literally had the audience in the palm of his hand. And it was just a wonderful moment.

I remember directing and producing a gala for John Gielgud’s centenary at the Gielgud theatre, and my cast was Paul Scofield – bizarrely, I was the last person to direct him – and Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, and Ian Richardson – I mean, it was just everybody who had ever worked with Gielgud. And Scofield was on doing ‘I’ll burn my books’, Prospero’s last speech, it was just unbelievable. And he came off and said, ‘Any notes?’

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But while he was doing his bit, I remember Judi was crouching there, Ian Richardson peering over her, and Ian McKellen down the side and everybody was just watching him. Then somebody did a bit of chat in between, and Judi and Ian and Ian were all sort of pissing about and giggling and gossiping about people, and then Judi heard her cue, kicked her shoes off and just turned round, stepped on stage and was Titania. I think all the actors that I really love, they could be, you know, swigging on a bottle of beer, or having a gossip about somebody, and turn 180 degrees and step on stage and be Macbeth or Titania –

CN: – and their concentration would 100 per cent.

JH: And it would be utterly real. I’m always dubious about actors who turn up two hours before the performance and start warming up and say, ‘you can’t talk to me until I‘ve done this’, because acting is about real people.

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This is a terrible confession, because you know, he’s so popular – but I can’t bear Simon Russell Beale. I never believe anything he does. I can never believe that this man has ever got on a bus, wiped his arse, had a cold, f***ed anybody, gone to Tesco’s to buy some milk, and therefore I don’t care. Technically wonderful actor but I just don’t connect with him. I love actors to be messy, to be human, to be real, to be vulnerable, and dangerous and frightening and fearful and I think sadly now our fixation is with actors who are sort of superhuman in some way, I mean Benedict Cumberbatch is a kind of uber-human –

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CN: – and Tom Hiddleston.

JH: Something very interesting has happened in the period that I’ve been going to and working in the theatre. I‘m an old-fashioned, unreconstructed lefty with working class parents, who fell in love with the theatre because it was about people, and seemed to be dealing with issues. It was messy and exciting and human, and it was about communication. And the people who were part of the word I fell in love with were all kind of ‘working class heroes’. I mean, it was Jack Shepard and it was Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney. Actually it went too far – you know, you had to have a father who was coal miner in order to play a part on stage, whether in fact it was Caesar or a coalminer. Now we’re going through this much more patrician thing, where the only people who can play any part, whether it’s Caesar or a coalminer, have been to Eton. And casting directors I know stop going to drama schools, they go to Eton or Lancing.

CN: How do you think that affects casting? I can remember being very inspired when I was at school, by going up to Stratford – we saw loads of shows, and the one that really struck me was Gerard Murphy playing Doctor Faustus. It was incredible, a really visceral performance, but nobody knows who he is – nobody had heard of him; at the time he was an RSC actor, I guess.

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JH: I remember seeing Gerard in Henry IV parts 1&2 at the Barbican – they were the shows that opened the Barbican – and I thought he was just stunning. And interestingly, he was playing Hal, and his Henry IV, his father was Patrick Stewart, and then Patrick Stewart was the solid dependable actor to play those slightly dull parts. And very good. But you looked then and thought that Gerard was the person who was going to be… I mean he was, God, electric.

CN: I remember him crawling up, trying to get away, and being pulled down this wrought iron ladder back to Hell; it was extraordinary. But now, would you cast somebody from the ranks, an RSC regular, or would you cast Jude Law?

JH: Or Daniel Radcliffe. Simon Russell Beale, if you were at the National.

CN: But do you feel – as a director – that you have pressure on you from producers?

JH: Oh, endless, endless. I mean the first question that anybody ever asks is, ‘Who’s in it?’ and that means which of the 12 acceptable people are in it, and that‘s it.

CN: Are you aware of projects being constructed around somebody?

JH: Oh yeah. I mean look at the Mamet play with Lindsay Lohan.

CN: I wonder if audiences feel the same. Maybe I’m being completely naïve but I would have thought that audiences go to the theatre because they want to see the story that the play is about. Do you think that’s true?

JH: Well, I think some of the audience do. I think these days, particularly in the West End we’re in a period of sort of cultural materialism in a sense, that people have this idea that the next big show is a thing to acquire. Which I suppose is not a new thing, you know, ‘Have you seen O’Toole’s Hamlet?’ – I mean that’s always been there, but it’s back with a vengeance now.

CN: Thank you Joe.

Interview With The Director… Joe Harmston – part 2

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Chris Naylor: You were part of the evening of three Pinter plays at the Donmar in 1998. I wrote about Penelope Wilton’s performance in ‘A Kind Of Alaska’, but that whole evening was wonderful. I can remember seeing Pinter himself in your production of ‘The Collection’, and being amazed by him.

Joe Harmston: He was stunning.

CN: You worked with him a lot, didn’t you?

JH: I did, yeah. I directed him in his own play twice, and I was his associate director four times. I loved working with him. Interestingly, he was utterly anti-prescriptive. I remember when we were doing ‘The Collection’, we were in the last week of rehearsals, and I gave my notes and then said, ‘But we’ve got to a point now really where it’s just louder, faster, funnier.’ And most of the other actors looked with absolute horror, as if I’d rubbed shit all over their faces, and Harold just went, ‘Too f***ing right’. And he was so much of that kind of world, just sort of, ‘Get on with it’.

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CN: And from a rep background.

JH: Yeah. I saw him not long before he died and he said, ‘What are you doing,’ and I said, ‘Well, you know, I’ve been doing a lot of Agatha Christie recently,’ and he said ‘God, I love Agatha Christie! Which one are you doing?’ and I said, ‘I’ve just done ‘The Unexpected Guest.’ ‘Oh, fantastic, I played the part of…’ and I suddenly realised how much of the sort of Agatha Christie-style thing actually appears in Harold’s plays, you know – strange characters step through doors and just start talking…

I think it’s very, very unfashionable unfortunately, but so much of my interest as a director has always been about the basic practicalities of ‘get out there and get on with it’. I remember Greg Doran once rang me when I knew him a bit years ago. I’d just directed a show at the Old Red Lion in 3 weeks, and Greg rang me and said, ‘This is a slightly embarrassing question, but I’m in week seven of rehearsals, can you think of anything I can do?’ And I thought, that just says everything.

When we did ‘Hay Fever’, I think we had three weeks, didn’t we? There’s always a great deal about the white heat of rehearsals that makes you get up, try something, decide whether or not it works, try something else – and I think particularly the really, really long rehearsal periods can become a bit of a navel-gazing exercise, where the danger is you forget about the fact that we are there to put it in front of an audience.

CN: I don’t think I’ve ever had anything longer than about five weeks.

JH: I can remember as an assistant director working with people who would say, ‘Well, in the first week I can’t possibly get it on its feet, we have to sit round a table,’ and by the end of the first week, it was magnificent, just fantastic, the performances were brilliant – and then the Monday of the second week, everybody stood up and it all fell to pieces. What was the point of doing that? So I have always felt, rehearse on your feet – you know, read that scene and then get up and do it, but don’t spend two days pontificating about it.

NPG P490(63); J.B. Priestley by Yousuf Karsh

CN: Priestley was the same, wasn’t he? On the original production of ‘Dangerous Corner’, he rehearsed for three weeks, and had another two to go, so he gave them a week and a half off, then came back and tech-ed it, because he thought, ‘well, we’ve done it, what more is there to do?’

JH: Well, interestingly, it’s something I’ve done a lot recently, because I’ve always rehearsed a show over Christmas, so it has tended to be the case that we’ve done, say, two weeks before Christmas, had a week off, and then come back and done the final week and then gone into tech. I’ve found that very, very useful because it gives people the time to go away and learn the lines, but also it all sort of percolates down, and when they come back it’s almost as if they’ve already been running it for a week.

CN: It’s like an extension of that thing that all actors understand, when you’re trying to learn your lines and you think, ‘Oh God, it’s awful’, then the next morning, you know it somehow. Did you start as an actor?

JH: No, I didn’t. Interestingly I’ve had the experience recently – we ran out of actors for ‘Murder On Air’, so I had to do it for a week in Manchester, so I found myself acting in my own show.

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CN: That’s a script-in-hand show, isn’t it?

JH: Yes, although because I’ve been doing the show for seven years I knew most of it anyway. But it’s very interesting experience. I kept finding myself on stage watching people thinking, ‘Yes, I must talk about that after because I think we could improve on that,’ or, ‘That’s a good idea!’ and then thinking, ‘Who’s dried? Shit! It’s me!’

CN: But do you think it’s a useful thing for a director to have been an actor?

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JH: I think it’s probably more useful for a director to do a bit of acting than it is for a director to have been an actor, because when I was an assistant director I watched some actors directing, and if they were good actors, they tended to be pretty awful directors. I remember watching Derek Jacobi directing, and the bizarre thing was, Derek’s a sublime actor and he therefore doesn’t really understand why people can’t do it. Which is a big problem with a director. I don’t think I did anything that was at all embarrassing on stage in Manchester, but there are plenty of other people I know would have done it even better, because I don’t find acting an instantly effortless thing. I think that’s possibly one of the things that makes me quite a good director, because I can see what an actor is having a difficulty with, whereas if you’re a brilliant actor, you just spend your time thinking, ‘Why can’t you do it?!’

Interview With The Director… Joe Harmston – part 1

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Joe Harmston is a British theatre director, whose career spans nearly twenty years.
Highlights of his career have been the world premiere of ‘King James’ Ear’, ‘The Lover’ and ‘The Collection’, which he directed at The Donmar Warehouse starring their writer, Harold Pinter.

With Bill Kenwright he created the hugely successful Agatha Christie Theatre Company, while at the other end of the spectrum he continues to champion new writing projects on the fringe.
In spring 2012 he commissioned and directed a landmark re-interpretation of Strindberg’s ‘The Father’ at the Belgrade in Coventry, where he is Associate Creative Director, and for which he was nominated for Best Director in the 2012 TMA Awards.


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I first worked with Joe on a tour of Noel Coward’s ‘Hay Fever’ for Bill Kenwright, starring Stephanie Beacham and Christopher Timothy.

Chris Naylor: The acting business has changed a lot since I started 16 years ago – in those days when I got an audition, my agent would tell me about who was directing it and what they’d done, but it wasn’t as easy to research people – I’m not sure Google existed in 1998. But when you meet an actor for an audition now, what do you expect of them?

Joe Harmston: Well, not a lot, actually. I think the most I expect of them is that they have read the play, understood it and have some sense of who I am – not in a terribly grand way, but occasionally you have a meeting and an actor will say to you, ‘sorry, who are you, what have you done?’ and that’s not really the best way to make friends and influence people. But personally I’m not interested in a great deal of preparation on the part of the actor, because what I want to do is see if I like them as a person.

CN: So you see it as a microcosm of the rehearsal room?

JH: Yeah, I’m trying to find a group of people who I think are going to get on well in rehearsal, and therefore be creative together. So I guess what I’m looking for is people who are going to ask themselves the right sort of questions about the play and are going to be engaged and interested. For example, I don’t want people to come into an audition having decided on a performance.

CN: So, off-book, for example – you’d never want that?

JH: I’m impressed by it but it doesn’t make any difference to me. Sometimes people come in off-book, but actually they’re not really off-book –

CN: – and then they throw themselves.

JH: I mean, I’m working on the basis that actors can learn lines – that’s not always right, of course – but essentially that’s not a skill I expect an actor to feel they need to prove to me. What I do want them to prove is that they can have ideas about the play and the part, and that they can also respond to my ideas. So even if somebody comes and does something beautifully, I will always say, ‘Well that’s lovely – let’s try that again, but perhaps we could do this’, even if the things I’m suggesting are not things I actually would suggest. Sometimes you ask them to do something slightly different, and they do exactly the same and you think, ‘Oh, I see, that’s all I’m ever going to get from them.’

CN: Are you surprised by that lack of flexibility?

JH: Yes, endlessly. I’m also endlessly surprised – especially with young actors – with how voluble they can be about the play and the performance, and then be unspeakably awful. So sometimes you spend five minutes having a chat beforehand and you think, ‘Wow! You’re going to be stunning!’ and then they do it and you think, ‘Did you just get up and leave the room and somebody else came and took your place?’

CN: So they can talk the talk?

JH: Yeah.

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CN: I can remember meeting Guy Retallack for my first ever theatre job. It was ‘Dangerous Corner’ at the Watermill, and I had a brilliant time – and I was talking to the actor who had sat in at the audition who told me that one of the reasons I got it was that Guy had asked me to make a particular choice about the character, and I said, ‘No, I think that’s the sort of thing I would leave for the rehearsal room’! For some reason that made him think, ‘This person is interesting’! Would you have cast me?

JH: I would have done as well, yeah, I would be interested in somebody who’s showing that they had ideas. I don’t want an actor who’s just going to do what I tell them to do. I think good directing is knowing what are the right questions to ask, and you‘re stupid if you think you’ve got all the answers.

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CN: I imagine one of the key things about directing is that you need to be able to adjust your method to each particular actor?

JH: I always think that at the beginning in the rehearsal room, you’ve got 12 people who all speak different languages, and your job is to speak to them in their own language. The process of rehearsal is about creating a shared language so that at the end you’ve got everybody speaking the same language. The first part is always very difficult because you’re speaking Russian and German and Flemish, and sometimes you forget which language you need to speak to someone in.
I remember doing a play where one of the actors I’d worked with a lot – we’d known each other for a decade – and I gave him a really brutal note, it was something like, ‘Don’t do it like that, Simon – your character’s supposed to be dull and ineffectual, not dead, you stupid c***’. And Simon just went, ‘Oh yeah, sorry, sorry’, but everybody else looked at me in absolute horror. That was absolutely the language that I needed to speak to Simon in at that moment because of all of our shared history, but it was sort of inappropriate that I allowed other people to hear it. Actually by the end of it, I could speak to everybody like that, but at that stage there were many other people where I needed to be saying, ‘Darling, I love what you’re doing, that’s a terrific idea – I tell you what, let’s just try something completely different,’ which actually means, ‘Please don’t ever do that again.’

 

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CN: I can remember when we worked together there was an actress who was cleaving very closely to a method at the time…

 

JH: Yes, it was that book by Declan Donellan. It was so fascinating because when she began, instinctively she was just perfect for the part, but then it started getting odder and odder and odder and more disjointed, and we all realised she had this notebook. The method that she was slavishly adhering to was more and more of a block, because it became not about instinctively responding to the actors in the room with her, but about doing this thing – I mean, it was very odd…

CN: Particularly for a very light text like ‘Hay Fever’.

JH: Yes. I seem to recall we actually got her to burn her notebook – we had a sacrificial burning of it. It wasn’t that actually the work wasn’t useful, but it was all just about that, rather than what else was happening. She couldn’t be in the moment.

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CN: I can remember when I was at LAMDA, David Mamet’s ‘True and False’ came out and we all just loved it and devoured it; it became the new Bible for us, for a while anyway.

JH: I think the good thing about ‘True and False’ though was that it was less prescriptive.

CN: It was anti-prescriptive.

JH: Yes, and it was very much an overview and an approach, where as so many of the books like Declan’s are about, you know, on page 26 there is the exercise you do, and you know, any text you can treat like this – and you think, ‘Ooh, no no no.’ But you’re right, the Mamet – suddenly there was a real vogue for it. I remember Bill Nighy giving it to me and saying, ‘Have you read this? You’ve got to read it’. Everybody was on about it.

CN: Do you find that sort of things crops up mostly with young actors?

JH: Yes, but sometimes it’s older actors who have that panic of the mid-career, suddenly thinking ‘I’ve found this book which is the great thing I must do – this is why things haven’t been happening, because I haven’t been doing this!’

Coming in part two: Joe talks Pinter, Doran and Jacobi

Heading for the light…

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Last Friday night I spent 90 minutes watching a truly magnificent performance – moving, accomplished and thoroughly enjoyable. I wasn’t at the Old Vic watching Kristen Scott Thomas in ‘Electra’, or Harriet Walter in ‘Henry IV’ at the Donmar – actually, I was sitting at home watching ELO on BBC4.
Now 10 or 15 years ago, to make an admission like that would have been social death – it would have invited waves of derision to pour on my head. But now, it seems, we have happily bade farewell to those shame-filled days of the ‘guilty pleasure’ and we are able at last to enjoy things for their own sake – simply for the pure pleasure we find in them – in music, at least. But I wonder if this amnesty extends to the humble actor.

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The acting profession has for some time been subject to a rather inflexible system of classification. There are ‘classical’ actors, i.e. the serious ones, like Ralph Fiennes, Tom Hiddlestone, Fiona Shaw etc.; the ‘musical theatre’ types such as Michael Ball, Julia McKenzie and Ruthie Henshall, and then there are the ‘light comedy’ actors. An interesting bunch, this one – over the years it has included such people as David Niven, Terry-Thomas, even Jennifer Aniston.
I suppose the implication is that the work produced by those at the serious end of the spectrum is somehow more significant, that it carries a greater cultural heft – that it is in some way better than what issues from the lighter end. It’s a bit like saying a serious music fan will be listening to Leonard Cohen, Captain Beefheart or Scott Walker rather than the Bee Gees, Kylie or – yes, ELO.

hughrm023cary-grant0Personally, some of my greatest joys in the cinema or theatre have come from ‘light’ actors: Hugh Grant in ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’, Roger Moore in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, and perhaps the king of them all, Cary Grant in just about anything. These were all tremendously skilled performances, perfectly tailored to fit what was required of them, and consequently giving their audiences hours of pleasure.

To this end, it was very encouraging to read the film critic Anne Billson’s glowing profile of Hugh Grant in The Telegraph, in which she describes him as ‘an accomplished character actor who makes everything look so easy, and whose most extraordinary accomplishment has been hoodwinking us into thinking he doesn’t even try.’

Actors like Grant have always tended to be overlooked when it comes to critical recognition – indeed, when his illustrious namesake Cary was finally given an Oscar, it was an honorary one awarded four years after he had made his last film.

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Some of the hardest work I’ve done in the theatre (and frankly, some of my least successful performances) have been in ‘light comedy’ roles. I was an instantly forgettable Sandy in ‘Hay Fever’ and a wholly unremarkable Tom the vet in Ayckbourn’s ‘Table Manners’ – the same role which, when it was originated by Michael Gambon, caused an audience member to actually fall out of his seat with hilarity. So I know how hard this stuff is.

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Of course, I have spent many happy hours sitting in the dark contemplating the futility of life and the monstrous cruelty of man, as I watched Fiona Shaw butcher her children or Ian Holm descend into madness. But I’m not sure I found as much true pleasure as I did at ‘Noises Off’ in the Comedy Theatre, watching the magnificent Derek Griffiths sliding all over the stage.

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What are actors for?

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People have always needed fantasy lives – often we daydream about an imagined version of ourselves, imbued with all the attributes we would most like to have – more beautiful, bolder, less bound by convention. These days those fantasies can be played out in the virtual world, in the form of an online avatar: we might have a Second Life persona, for example – a square-jawed gladiator wielding his sword against his lizard overlords, or a voluptuous dominatrix keeping her minions in thrall – which enables us to play out scenarios and situations that we could never experience in reality, and to express emotions we might otherwise suppress or contain.

I’ve often wondered if actors fulfil the same role in some way. I don’t just mean on stage – although there is much vicarious pleasure to be found in watching one character exert power over another – but maybe we should accept that what we represent off-stage is almost as important. Perhaps in a sense we also serve as avatars for those who walk a more conventional path.

Strolling players

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Actors have always had a reputation for being outsiders – doing outrageous things in public, surviving without money, enjoying our work for its own sake – and while that has meant we have faced a fair amount of prejudice and discrimination over the years, it has also lent us an attractive air of mystery and glamour that still persists to this day. Viewed from the outside, actors can seem to represent everything we wish we could do in life, if only we had the nerve. People can fantasise safely about the life of a strolling player without having to risk their own security. Most actors will have met people who wish they had done what we have – who feel they missed the chance to seize control of their destiny and follow their dreams. Just the other day I had a phone call from a woman who had what I would consider a thoroughly worthwhile job, working for a charity. She asked me what I did for a living, and when I told her, she wistfully said how wonderful it must be to have a creative job and not be stuck behind a desk on the phone all day.

Hi-Diddle-Dee-Don’t?

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Of course, the reality of pursuing an acting career doesn’t always live up to the fantasy. But at some level, I think people need us to preserve that dream version. A few years ago I visited a school to assess a performance for the National Theatre’s Connections scheme. It happened to come at a time when I was out of work and feeling thoroughly fed up with the whole acting business. Just before the show, the headmaster came over accompanied by a young man on crutches. He introduced this chap as the school’s best actor, who had broken his leg and so couldn’t appear in the play I was about to see. Apparently he wanted to be an actor and was very keen to learn what it was like from a real professional. Now, at that precise point in time, my honest response would have been:

‘It’s a total nightmare. Don’t waste your time. You’ll probably never make it.’

But as he gazed up at me, wide-eyed, I knew there was only one possible answer:

‘It’s the best job in the world.’

He was utterly delighted, and perhaps more surprisingly, so was his headmaster. Maybe I should have been honest, and saved him (or his parents) £30,000 in drama school fees. But he needed me to reinforce his dream, just as I would have done at this age – and anyway, if he does pursue the career, he will find out the reality for himself. Besides, a few weeks later I was working again and I remembered that acting truly was the best job in the world.

And do you know who that young man turned out to be?

No, neither do I. At least, not yet…

I think the dream version of an acting career is just as important as the reality, and even though we know what a harsh profession it can be, I’m sure most actors still carry that dream with them. Who knows, maybe both versions are the truth.

Send in the clowns

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There is another side to this, of course, which comes when people want an actor to be the fall guy, so they feel justified in choosing a less action-packed, more conventional existence. They need us to be ridiculous, reckless clowns.

My partner’s uncle finds the very fact of my being an actor endlessly hilarious:

‘You don’t make any money at all? That’s wonderful! Ha ha ha!’

– while a fellow worker at my day job is determined to see the negative side and smother me with sympathy even when I don’t seek it:

‘Are you out of work again Chris?’

‘Yes, but I’m used to that by now Billy.’

‘But it’s such a hard life though, isn’t it? Always unemployed, never having any security…’

‘Oh, it goes with the territory Billy.’

‘But you must find it so tough Chris.’

‘No, really…’ etc etc.

These days, of course, few actors could really be described as vagabonds or outlaws. We all have rent and council tax to pay; many of us have children to support. Acting has become a respectable, middle-class profession. But in spite of this, there is still an aura of ‘otherness’ around the actor’s life, and I think it is justified: we aren’t motivated by money, we are continually seeking to test ourselves and we live with the constant threat of ridicule. But maybe, in order to function and stay productive, a structured society needs someone to take the role of the licenced fool – and if we won’t do it, who will?

The Whites Of Their Eyes

Mayfair's Pollen Estate As Norway's Wealth Fund Buys $576 Million In London Properties

Actors, as a breed, spend a lot of time being observed while pretending to be unobserved. Many of us have perfected the art of utter indifference to our spectator, be it human or mechanical: Michael Caine, in the wonderful BBC masterclass he gave on screen acting, described the film camera as “the most faithful lover, while you, for most of your career, look elsewhere and ignore her.”

When I was a boy, I would nominate a random piece of street furniture to be the camera and attempt to stroll nonchalantly past, aiming to walk as naturally as I could under the post box’s unyielding glare. Once you arrive in the theatre, these skills are eminently transferrable, as most plays are in the Fourth Wall tradition. We will often find ourselves having to gaze wistfully into an imagined middle distance, our minds filled with thoughts of Moscow, or watching in horror as Birnam Wood starts heading our way, while actually looking straight at someone munching through a packet of Revels, checking their Twitter feed or frowning into the programme. It requires the full force of our concentration not to be thrown off-course when someone sneezes, coughs, or indeed, joins in with the play.
Embracing the enemy

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But there are times when the opposite is called for. We will probably all have tussled with a monologue at some point, or thrown out the occasional barbed aside, but this nothing compared with having to spend the whole play talking straight to your audience – actually looking into their eyes and trying to make a connection.
My first significant experience of this came in ‘A Christmas Carol’ for Creation Theatre in Oxford, which involved lengthy passages of Dickensian description and meant we sometimes had to work hard to convey the meaning, especially to an audience of fidgety primary school children. But I have a fond memory of picking a small boy to receive one line: ‘the firm was known as Scrooge and Marley,’ and watching him nod back at me to show he was following the plot.

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A few years later I was lucky enough to land a West End stint in ‘The Woman In Black’, and I found it to be a theatrical education (or re-education) in many ways. Perhaps the most useful lesson was in the great benefits of direct address. As the character ‘The Actor’, you are ostensibly alone on stage for long passages (not counting Spider the invisible dog), unable to acknowledge your fellow performer, and are required to share the narration between you. So essentially you are telling your story directly to the audience. There are many speeches and shorter interjections which have to be played straight out, in particular a long speech at the start of the play, ‘it was nine-thirty on Christmas Eve’. I was thrilled to discover that, once I surrendered myself to the goodwill of the audience and truly told them my story – actually picking out individuals and making eye contact – it became far easier and much less daunting. I felt completely supported. Even when we had an audience consisting of fearsome-seeming schoolchildren, once I began really to talk to them, in a way they became part of the play too – implicit in the action – and shared my journey through the story. After ten months of this, it was rather a shock to the system to return to a Fourth Wall play. In a way, it seems absurd to stand up in front of hundreds of people and ignore them.

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Perhaps the purest direct-address experience can be found with the solo show. I was recently talking to my friend Jonathan Guy Lewis, who tours a very successful show called ‘I Found My Horn’, which, like many solo shows, calls for constant direct address. Jonny told me how liberating it is to open yourself up to the audience – to make yourself vulnerable and invite them in. As Gareth Armstrong puts it in his book ‘So You Want To Do A Solo Show’, “it is in effect a two-hander, with the audience as the other, silent player.”

These days I treasure those moments of pure connection with the audience; psychologically it must be healthier to talk to all those people than ignore them. It’s certainly more polite.