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
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.
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.
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.