Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Comeback Kids – # 2: David Whitworth

David Whitworth

David Whitworth and I acted together in ‘Mary Goes First’ at the Orange Tree Theatre in London in 2008. After 20 years as an actor, David and his wife, the director Jane Glassey, took over the running of the Richmond Drama School from 1987 to 2007. He then returned to acting and has worked extensively since, in productions such as ‘London Assurance’ at the National Theatre, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in Regent’s Park and ‘The Second Mrs Tanqueray’ at the Rose Theatre, Kingston.

Chris Naylor How did you end up moving from acting to running a drama school?

David Whitworth There was a sort of gradual process, I guess. I was just a jobbing actor for 20 years, but I’d always done a lot of teaching to exist as an actor.

CN Where did you train?

DW I didn’t train, I just went to university and did plays, and then got a job as an acting ASM at Leicester. So I went through the repertory system and spent about 3 years working in different towns – Leicester, Bolton, Harrogate. When I got back to London, we’d got our first mortgage and so suddenly there was this responsibility of actually paying 30 quid a month.

CN You’d got married…

DW I was married when I was a student.

CN So you went into the career knowing that you were part of team.

DW Yes. Jane did the proper thing and trained as an actress, and I did the improper thing and went to university, and I became the actor and she became a director. We went to Leicester, and Jane got pregnant, and then I got Pitlochry

pitlochry festival theatre

– our first child was born – I was going to say on a croft, but we were living in a croft. He was born in Perth hospital.

CN Did you feel any pressure – now you suddenly have a very important person in your life to support, in what was even then a very precarious profession?

DW When you’re that age, I think you just cope with whatever comes at you. Once we’d got a mortgage I sometimes used to wake up thinking, ‘How am I going to pay this every month?’, but I’m very glad I took the advice of my tutor at university, Dr Worth. I remember she said, ‘You must stay and get your degree, because that will help you to be an actor’. In those days, if you’d got a proper honours degree you could be a teacher. So I did years of supply teaching.

CN In regular schools?

DW Anywhere really, but I was lucky enough to make a very good relationship with a school, and any time I was out of work, they always took me back as a floating teacher. So I would cover for anybody who was away, teaching everything. In fact, at one point they offered me Head of English, which would have absolutely changed my life, because I had just been doing bits of teaching when necessary and acting whenever I could. And I did agonise for about 10 hours.

CN It’s an interesting dilemma. It does happen doesn’t it, when they say, ‘Stay on’, and you think, ‘Well, I could get benefits, I could get security – ‘

DW A pension…

CN But you said no to that.

DW Well, that was in the early 70s. I’d only been acting for about 5 or 6 years, and I just didn’t feel I’d done enough, I was still burning up with ambition. I did about 20 years of anything else I could to earn money. I used to mark ‘O’ Level papers – these kids whose parents had paid a fortune for their education, and there was I, sitting in the dressing room at Bath Theatre Royal marking their ‘O’ Levels. But we needed the money – it think it was something like 10 shillings a script, so you’d make a few hundred quid at Christmas, which was…

CN Not to be sniffed at.

DW It wasn’t to be sniffed at. Supply teaching was so much better paid than acting – I mean, you’re hard pressed to find anything as badly paid as acting – but it did enable me to be an actor.

CN So you got to the point where your mortgage was pressing on you?

DW It was the children – we had 3 you see, and by the time our youngest was about 9 or 10, the others were coming up to university age. Children going to university, they’re going to cost you money.

macbeth new shakespeare company
I’d been working from London and doing tours occasionally. My main employer was the New Shakespeare Company, Regent’s Park, I did an awful lot of work with them.

There was a period of my life when I was very involved – because when I was working for them once, David Conville, who used to run it, came into the dressing room and said, ‘I don’t know what to make of this, there’s a man at Lloyds Bank and he wants to give us some money, but he wants education work. You know about that sort of thing – go away and draw up some plans.’ So I started writing workshops for a group of actors within the company – interactive workshops with students, but entertainments in themselves. I wrote a script which included great chunks of the Shakespeare which we were doing, illustrating themes, and this was the idea I sold to Lloyds Bank.

david conville new shakespeare company

I spent years doing this all over the place when the company was on tour. The very first one was ‘Julius Caesar’, and we did it in different theatres, packed with students: I got half of them supporting Brutus and half supporting Anthony. They were a huge success, and Lloyds Bank started just throwing money at us, because they thought, ‘We could develop this, you could do educational videos’. The Inner London Education Authority had their own television studio in a converted school in Battersea, and so they linked us up with them, and I spent the next 2 or 3 years writing and directing videos – distilled theatre workshops, on the Roman plays, the Tragedies, the Comedies. As we went on, they started entering these for festivals, and we won some gold gong at the Chicago Film Festival, so Lloyds Bank thought, ‘That’s even better, we’ll give you some more money – you can try and get other actors in’.

Renee Ashersonjohn nettles

I got Renee Asherson playing Volumnia, and John Nettles playing Coriolanus. So this was wonderful – it would take up a great chunk of my year, writing and planning and usually working in the summer for the Shakespeare company.
Then the new guy came in and said, ‘No, we don’t want to spend money on theatre, we want to spend it on music’. And suddenly, this regular second career which kept the acting going and was very good to do, it all stopped.

richmond drama school
CN How did you end up running Richmond Drama School?

DW I had been working for Sam [Walters] at the Orange Tree Theatre, and he was trying to run this drama school across the road, the De Leon drama school, to see if he could make it work. But he didn’t really have time, so he got Jane and I involved – Jane as the acting teacher and me directing plays, and I gradually got more involved. We loved doing it.

CN Was your attitude that you were preparing people for the profession?

DW We ran it as a professional training course, because we thought some of the really good ones could make a go at of it.

Tom-Hardy
Tom Hardy went on to huge fame and success – he was great for me and Jane, we got on really well.

CN Could you tell he had a target in mind?

DW I don’t know whether he had a target, but he had a huge talent. I remember him standing up in the first week and doing the first exercise, and he was shaking with apprehension… He has got a kind of magnetism, charisma, especially on film.

CN What sort of ages would you take?

DW All ages. I had an actor who was very good, worked in business – a very cultivated, interesting man, but he’d always wanted to be an actor. He was the oldest I ever had, he was 60-something, and he went on and had a bit of a career. I saw him in some good plays on the fringe; he was doing what he wanted to do all his life.

CN When you weren’t acting yourself, were you able to get satisfaction from bringing it out of other people?

DW I found I loved teaching, I loved working on texts with students and introducing them to Shakespeare. One South London boy – who is now a film actor and writer, doing really well – I remember him shaking my hand and saying, ‘I never did any of this at school – what an eye-opener to have this world of Shakespeare opened up, thank you’. When we look back and think, ‘What were we doing all that time?’ you think, ‘Well, it if we hadn’t, those people wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing now’.

CN When you went into it, were you thinking, ‘At some point I’m going to go back?’

DW Well, I thought I’d just do it for 2 or 3 years. I naively thought I could combine acting and this job. But that’s very difficult; I mean, teaching is a huge commitment.

CN I imagine you started to think, ‘Well, I’m here now, there’s another term coming up…’

DW Yes, it creeps up on you, but I always thought, ‘There’ll come a time when I’ll be able to go back,’ because acting is like that.

CW It’s very seductive, isn’t it?

DN There isn’t a career path, is there? People do come in and out of the business.

CN At what point did you think, ‘Right, I’ve had enough, I want to act again’?

DW There was a combination of circumstances – they were gradually getting rid of things that were not going to bring the college money, all the creative stuff was disappearing. Music, art and drama were being squeezed because there was always pressure on us to take more and more students and charge higher and higher fees.

CN So you were becoming more frustrated?

DW Yeah, I became more and more disenchanted – not with the job I was doing, but with the place. Every few years in these institutions, they restructure and you have to apply for your job again, and Jane was forced out, her job disappeared, so my ally had gone. Jane had been the heart of the drama school really, so I knew the students weren’t getting the same good basic acting training. I staggered on for another two or three years; in the end, I sort of forced them to make me redundant, so that gave me the statutory redundancy payment, which was enough money for me to have breathing space. I immediately had some photographs taken, wrote to everybody I could think of and tried to get an agent.

CN So, in a way, you were starting from scratch. Was that daunting?

Timothy Sheader by  David Jensen

DW Yeah it was, but my attitude was, everything’s a bonus, even if it’s just a little bit in a TV series. What I really wanted to do was plays, but I wasn’t sure how. I wrote to people I knew, like Tim Sheader and Sam, and both of them came up with jobs. And once I got going, it was easier to get an agent. I thought I would just get the odd days’ work here and there – I was absolutely amazed that I earned more money than in the previous year teaching. That was just my first year back.

CN A wonderful year, to welcome you back.

DW It was, and that’s because of calling in favours.

CN It must have been very strange – returning after such a long time. Did you notice a difference in yourself?

DW A big difference. I’m much more confident now than when I was young, because I haven’t got so much riding on it, and although it’s hurtful not to get work, as it always was, it doesn’t bother me in the same way.

CN How do you think the business has changed?

DW Well, the most marked thing is all this unpaid or very low–paid work. When I started as an actor, you weren’t paid a lot, but you were paid. And you didn’t work if you weren’t paid. Now there’s been this explosion in fringe theatre work; I think, should we be doing any of this? But these young people trying to start acting, they won’t get any experience if they don’t do that, unless they’re lucky enough to get into the RSC or something. There aren’t any theatres where you can go for 6 months, doing play after play.

CN Do you think your priorities in life have changed?

DW Oh yeah, I’m sure they have. I’m still very keen to do it, I mean it’s so exciting to get a job isn’t it? When they phone up and say yes, they want you.

CN I find there are enough wonderful points of delight and joy amongst the terror or the grind to pull you through.

DW Especially in theatre. My experience of going back has been mostly theatre. I’ve done one advert in Romania, and those are ridiculous jobs, aren’t they? They fly you out, put you in an expensive hotel, you go to some studio and you do a day’s work, and then you come home again and it’s several thousand pounds. Those are silly jobs.

CN That’s one of the many wonderful things about this profession, that it will take you somewhere you never expected to go.

DW It’s a treat really, a little holiday.

CN Would you say that’s how you viewed your return? Because I suppose you didn’t have to come back to acting, did you?

DW No, I had a pension, and then very soon I had my old age pension.

CN Which must help in terms of taking jobs.

DW Yeah, it really does. I couldn’t have done most of the work that I’ve done without that. If I was still having to pay a mortgage, it wouldn’t be enough money.

CN Do you think it benefits an actor to take some time out?

DW Well, it might make you a better actor, but I don’t think it helps you get more work, because I’m up against people who are my age but didn’t take that break, and are much better known. So I’m very much an unknown quantity.

CN There’s this big debate flying around about middle-class acting – I think it’s a fairly middle class profession anyway, and probably hasn’t ever really been open to everybody.

DW I was working-class, I didn’t have any sort of connections to theatre at all, hardly ever been to the theatre.

CN Did you have a teacher that inspired you?

cosy nook theatre ian grundy

DW When I was at Newquay grammar school, a teacher got me involved in the school play in the first year or second year, ‘The Miser’ by Moliere. And I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I can do this.’ But as a child I’d been in ‘Peter Pan’ at the Cosy Nook Theatre in Newquay, so I trod the boards very young. I did know quite early on that that’s what I wanted to do.

CN It’s terribly exciting isn’t it? It’s like a little secret, thinking, ‘Wow, I could do this’.

DW I remember my Uncle John – we were talking about what I might do with my life; I said, ‘I might be a barrister or something like that’. He said, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that, you wouldn’t be any good. But you might be an actor’. I can remember where we were walking when he said that – and I thought, ‘Yes of course, that is what I want to do’. And I just seized every opportunity I could – my three years at university were spent doing plays, and doing a bit of Beowulf on the side.

CN It’s a very good use of three years, isn’t it?

DW I think those years are important for any young person to find out what you want to do. Most people in life don’t find what they really want, and end up compromising and being generally unhappy. You can be unhappy as an actor, for different reasons, but when you’re working it can be fantastic. I mean that job I’ve just done in Sweden, it was the best thing.

The Woman in Black  David Whitworth Gary Whitaker

CN ‘The Woman in Black’! What a job, what a play.

DW I just absolutely loved it. To play that part, or those parts, it’s wonderful. I felt quite bereft when it all came to an end. I loved being in Stockholm, but what I carry with me will be doing the play, and the effect it had on the audience. It’s just a fantastic piece of theatre.

CN I always felt like it was pure theatre in many ways; it was almost like a lesson in acting, and a lesson in how to be an audience.

DW How to use your imagination. Because there’s nothing there, a few props.

CN When I’d got the part, I went to see the play – I’d started to read it, I’d started to learn it – I knew what was coming, and it still terrified me completely.

DW I’d much rather be in it than watch it, because it’s too frightening.

CN Absolutely. There was a point when I was covering my ears thinking, ‘Please let this stop, because I don’t think I can cope’.

DW When the door opens…

CN Oh God! So wonderful, I loved doing that show.

DW it’s almost spoilt me for anything else, I enjoyed it so much.

CN Thank you David.

EXODUS! Movement of the thespians… (or Why Actors Should Leave London)

exodus!

London. Wonderful place, greatest city on Earth. When you’re tired of it, etcetera etcetera.

I grew up a half-hour train journey outside London, and spent all of my youth dreaming of the day I could finally leave the provinces behind and arrive in the Big Smoke to make my fortune. My school made frequent trips to the National Theatre and to see the RSC at the Barbican, and my dreams were filled with thoughts of moving to London to study at drama school.

LAMDA at tower house

Happily enough, this came to pass – the Three-Year Acting course at LAMDA, from 1995 to 1998. A wonderful, inspiring time, surrounded by amazing actors who became amazing friends, spending our days immersed in the one thing we all wanted desperately to do. We used to rehearse in Chiswick, so naturally I rented a flat there – or, to be specific, a knackered bedsit. In fact, most of us ended up renting flats or rooms in West London as we trained. It seemed sensible enough – in those days, LAMDA was based in Earls Court and there was no sense in straying too far. Gradually though, as we left training and money started to be more of an issue, people started to flee to the less-expensive parts, or leave London altogether – although this often seemed to coincide with them also leaving the profession.

And there’s the rub. It has always been an accepted fact of the industry that if you want to be a working actor, you have to live in London. After all, that’s where the work is, isn’t it? All the top drama schools are there, all the best agents; it’s where all the important auditions are held, and where you’ll find the headshot photographers, the show reel and voice reel studios, Equity, Spotlight, the Actor’s Centre – Theatreland itself. How can you even contemplate being an actor if you don’t live in London?

But let’s look at some rather scary figures. According to an Equity survey from 2013 quoted in the Daily Telegraph, 56% of its members earned less than £10,000 in 2012/13. Anything less than £13,000 a year is deemed to be below the poverty line. To rent a flat in London (let’s not even bother talking about buying a house in the capital) you will be paying an average of £1,160 per month (September 2014 figures).

For many of us, something has to give, and that something is usually acting. After a few years of trying to establish yourself, the financial burden becomes too great, so you pack up and leave London, knowing that probably means leaving the profession too. It’s hard to justify persevering with such a precarious career when you see your bank balance emptying, especially as the years go by, and you become conscious that this might be your last chance to make a career change. Hard too if you have a family, or want one.

Priyanga Burford 2 by Michael Shelford

I spoke to actress Priyanga Burford recently about this: ‘I think it’s a ridiculous demand to make of people to be living in one of the most expensive cities in the world on the off-chance that they might get some work,’ she told me. Pri and her husband Tom have two children, and made the decision to leave the capital: ‘We couldn’t afford anywhere in London that was big enough or nice enough to have the family life that we really wanted. You just have to make tough choices.’

Paul Miller Photo Mark Douet

Paul Miller, artistic director of the Orange Tree theatre in Richmond, told me: ‘I think there is a lot of burn off. You can see that in the proportion of people who are in Spotlight of a certain age. The people who get burned off are the people who can’t afford to pay rent in London.’

The Stage recently quoted Justine Simons, head of culture for the Greater London Authority on this issue: “London is now the biggest it’s been… and that has put a real pressure on housing. We all know how expensive it is. It means we are facing a crisis… which is compounded by low wages.”
She added: “We don’t want a city where there are no artists or creative people, but left to its own devices, London has a habit of extinguishing creativity.”

london is changing

We thesps are not alone, of course. Across the professions, there is an exodus from London as people battle the curse of gentrification, and the rising rents and cost of living that follow it – see the London Is Changing project, set up by Rebecca Ross, MA communication design course leader at Central St Martins art school.

But if leaving London means stopping acting, who is left behind?

The media has recently become preoccupied with the apparent rise in middle- and upper- class actors, something I have written about before, and the suggestion seems to be that there are simply too many posh people being accepted to drama schools. These stories, and the subsequent eagerness of various drama school principals to parade their working class students, seem to me to be missing the point. Getting through drama school is one thing – there are student loans, part-time jobs and willing parents to help.

The real problem comes after graduation, when all those students are propelled into a harsh profession. It’s fine if you immediately get work – provided it’s well-paid, and provided it’s followed by more. Even better, of course, if you already have money behind you – and this is where the ‘class’ issue comes in. Who can afford to live from day-to-day in London, waiting for the phone to ring, unless they either have one of those elusive super-flexible day-jobs, or they are somehow liberated from the pressing worries of finding the rent and the council tax? It seems that increasingly it is only those with parents willing to subsidise them who can afford to sustain a career based in the capital.

So are we really seeing a trend emerging in which the business comes to be dominated by people from wealthy families? That doesn’t sound like a recipe for a healthy and diverse artistic community to me. What about a vibrant industry, made up of people from different backgrounds, with different influences?

Some will no doubt argue that this is natural selection at work, and that those who can’t afford to be actors deserve to drop out. I mean, you chose the job, didn’t you? You know the score – if you were any good, you would be getting the work, wouldn’t you?

Let’s say you’re one of those drama school graduates who works a fair amount, but can’t stomach the cost of living in London any more. Like so many before you, you decide to pack up and leave.
But what if you don’t want to stop acting? What is it like to live outside the capital and still pursue an acting career?

sushil chudasama

I studied at LAMDA alongside Sushil Chudasama, who moved to Manchester to work (near his home town of Blackburn) shortly after we graduated. His experience is very informative, both in his frustration with the pressures of living and working in the capital, but also as a great lesson that it is possible to break away from London and still have a thriving career.

Chris Naylor How long after LAMDA did you decide to leave London?

Sushil Chudasama It was the first year after drama school, 1999. I got three jobs in a row all in Manchester, and all near to where I am originally from in Lancashire. I was not planning to leave so quickly, but as I was paying rent for a room where I hardly was, I thought it made financial sense to leave. I was planning to come back at some point but the opportunity never arose.

CN Did you have any doubts yourself about moving?

SC At that time I was excited about working as an actor – if I needed to move back to London then I would, and probably easily could. Other friends however did express that it could be detrimental to my career if I moved back ‘Up North’, but I was just thinking short term at that time.

CN Do you find the majority of your meetings are still in London?

SC With the BBC now in Manchester, I find I audition equally up North and in London. I am probably in London once or twice a month and have 2/3 auditions a month outside of London the rest of the month.

CN What effect do you think it has had on your career – for example, have you turned down auditions in London because of travel? Or have you missed out on work because you’re not London-based?

Four_Lions_poster

SC The only time it has really been an issue was when I was auditioning for ‘Four Lions’ by Chris Morris. I’d already had 5 auditions for the film and I’d had to travel to London for each one of them. I even met Chris Morris for the last of these, and filmed a couple of improvisations with him. I was equally delighted as annoyed that they wanted to see me yet again; I had already paid out about £300 in travel fees for this one job, so I asked my agent if she could ask the production company to reimburse my travel, which I thought was a reasonable request – normally if you get a recall you get your travel covered, but I’d had none of my travel reimbursed at this point. To my disgust they decided they didn’t want to see me either way – not just a no to the money, but they didn’t want to see me at all now – probably because I’d asked for my costs to be covered! That was the one time I felt discriminated against as a non-London-based actor.

CN Is there a good actors’ network in Manchester?

SC There is an amazingly supportive network in Manchester. Everyone is always posting about jobs and events on social media, and I even started a network on Facebook called mAnCTORS, which started out just for Manchester actors, but now anyone in the industry can join. The scene is very different to London. When I was in London, I found people were very cagey about what they were being seen for and what they were doing next, which I didn’t really warm to or agree with. There seemed to be a very individualistic attitude from people in London and in their attitude towards others. I find people have less time for each other, and that really turns me off. Up in Manchester, everyone is always trying to get their mates involved and putting each other up for jobs, and genuinely wants everyone else to be working. I think we have more of a social attitude towards work, and I definitely prefer that model than the London one I know. We really do believe we’re all in it together and we try and keep each other struggling together too.

CN Have you ever considered moving back?

sushil as scooter

SC With average rent hitting £1500pcm now, that option has been taken away. Even when I was on Corrie that rent would have been a stretch, so now I don’t think I will be back. When I am in London I look around and think to myself, “How are you all living here, and what have you had to give up to live in these conditions?” I absolutely love visiting London but it drains me of my humanity for others, and my money seems to fly out of my pockets quicker than I can earn it. It’s a shame, as I would consider moving back one day, but what would I have to give up in order to live that lifestyle? At the moment there is nothing that would drag me back to that. The arts scene is unrivalled there, I know, and I love that something is always going on, but I don’t think I need to be there to work, and most importantly, be content.

CN Thanks Sushil.

Let us try and develop some real respect for acting and actors. We need to tell our agents, casting directors, directors and the rest of the profession that if we choose to leave London, and thereby actually achieve a decent quality of life (a garden perhaps, a room for our child to sleep in, some fresh air) we don’t expect this to signal a change in their attitudes towards us.

Most importantly, the industry should be prepared to support us – it profits from actors, and relies on having a steady supply of talent, so it ought to do something concrete to prevent a large proportion of that talent disappearing. On a practical level, this might include things such as arranging auditions for later in the day when it is cheaper to travel into London, or expanding the practice of auditions via Skype – then everyone can stay at home and nobody has to pay for train tickets or room hire.

And for those occasions when we must travel long distances to audition, how about paying expenses? Sushil’s experience of travelling to audition for ‘Four Lions’ is a glaring example of the financial burden this can place on actors. I’ve made journeys up to York and Liverpool for meetings – I even once endured two hellish National Express trips in one day from London to Manchester to audition for a rehearsed reading – my journey home was accompanied by the sound of the man behind me vomiting into a plastic bag. Not a penny of my expenses from those trips was reimbursed.

How about more auditions outside London? In particular, let’s encourage those companies that receive a lot of public funding to be truly National, and hold auditions at different regional centres around the UK – casting days in Manchester, Glasgow or Plymouth, for example.

Perhaps this is all a fantasy. But why should acting be just a London profession for rich kids? Why should we just accept that London’s dominance as the centre of the acting industry can never be challenged, and that if you really want to be an actor, you have to live here and take the financial hit?

Actors should leave London, if they want. We shouldn’t have to put up with living beyond our means, probably in less-than-desirable accommodation, or if we do leave London, be forced to shell out to travel back in for auditions all the time. We should be able to find a better quality of life, and still pursue the job we love.

Dressing up as Dracula

 

Dracula-christopher-lee

Dracula has died? Impossible.

Christopher Lee is immortal! His incarnation of Bram Stoker’s vampire will stay with us for as long as cinema exists. As Robbie Collin of the Daily Telegraph put it, ‘He was the shadow at the top of the stairs, the smiling predator beckoning you in, the flash of silver in the dark.’

The image of Lee as Count Dracula had a deep effect on me as a boy, and played a big part in teaching me how important dressing up could be to the fledgling actor.

Self as Dracula c 1982

Hallowe’en was always a great excuse for me to get the cape and teeth out (please note the high quality top hat). But generally speaking I didn’t need a reason. To start with, Saturday nights were the best dressing-up time, and specifically at about 6.10pm – or in other words, just after Doctor Who had ended. Out would come my long scarf (brown, tasselled) and into the wardrobe (or TARDIS) I would clamber, ready to emerge, transformed into a toothy Time Lord. Here you see me as a Dalek, for our 1977 Silver Jubilee street party. Yes, I am that old…

Self as Dalek c 1977

The King of the Vampires came later, and I arrived at my Christopher Lee obsession after first dabbling in a bit of Bela Lugosi. By the time I was 12, I had become determined to see all the Hammer Draculas, a complicated task in the early 80s. In those far-off days, video tapes were mostly available to rent and weren’t yet widely available to buy in the shops, certainly not Sixties and Seventies vampire films anyway, so I had to scour the TV listings and set my video recorder. Gradually my imagination (and my walls) filled up with a gallery of gruesome pictures from films such as ‘Dracula Has Risen From The Grave’ and ‘Dracula, AD 1972’.

dracula has risen from the gravedraculaad1972

There was a definite connection between my absorption of all those wonderful, evocative images of Christopher Lee striding about in Gothic surroundings, and my growing interest in acting. I would seek out the most realistic fangs, the most convincing fake blood, the most suitably Draculine cloak, determined to be as authentic as possible. I wanted to feel what it was like to be Dracula. To feel my cloak flowing around me, to know what it was like to reveal my fangs. I wanted to inhabit a different personality.

And this, of course, is one of the great thrills of being an actor – dressing up as someone else. It is often sneered at as being too superficial a route into a character, as though it is somehow not as legitimate as a ‘Method’-based exploration, and while there’s a lot more to acting than simply putting on the right hat, I think ‘dressing up’ is a far more direct way to achieve a transformation.

I’m sure we have all felt that frisson of delight when standing in front of the mirror the first time we try on a new costume – seeing ourselves looking utterly different. If there’s a wig or a moustache involved, it can be even more startling. If you see yourself looking like someone else, it is easier to think yourself into a different mind-set. The old cliché of ‘starting with the shoes first’ carries a lot of truth, to me at least; it’s one of the reasons why I love technical rehearsals – you walk onto the set in your costume for the first time. I find that I stand and walk differently; I stop feeling like myself.

oresteia nt programmechristian darley

This sort of surface-in transformation is as old as theatre itself, of course – just think of the masks of classical Greek theatre. Any of us who have worked with masks will know what an immediate change they can bring about, and what that can teach us about developing a character. I remember a class at LAMDA with our much-missed Movement Theatre tutor Christian Darley (the finest teacher I have ever had) where we had made our own very simple masks from pictures cut out of magazines. Christian encouraged us to study and contemplate our masks alone to start with, then, once we had put them on, to look at our new faces in the mirror, and allow our physicality to be gradually influenced by what we saw. I can recall one member of our group, an otherwise mild and non-confrontational fellow, seeming to change entirely into a red-faced, furiously angry and scary character – very unexpected and shocking for us, and quite a breakthrough for him to discover that he could affect an audience in that way.

It is very easy to feel limited by the way we look as actors; sometimes it takes a physical change to show us what sort of a transformation we are capable of. I think a costume can be like armour – it can give us courage.

ruby as bayonetta by Mikael Buck REX Shutterstockblitz kids

And we see this all over the place in other areas of life, not just on stage. How differently we feel about ourselves with some new clothes or a radical new haircut. Look at the sci-fi and comic book aficionados at Comic Con in their astonishingly detailed, often home-made costumes; their absolute otherness giving them the fearlessness to march across the London Underground. It makes me think of the drag world and of those club kids of the 80s, who used androgynous clothes and make-up to play around with identity and gender roles; even of the bizarre world of English folk customs, such as the various Green Men and ‘Obby Osses that cut a caper across the countryside, and which are usually played by members of the local community who otherwise lead relatively ‘normal’ lives. Look at the Whittlesea Straw Bear festival, for example:

Straw Bear, Whittlesea Straw Bear festival

– played here by a student called Christian. But when he is being led through the town in that odd, other-worldly costume, a transformation has taken place: no one sees Christian the local student, they see the Straw Bear. The Bear dances for food and drink, and the next day is burned, to make way for another Bear the following year. Very odd, very English – a Christian, wrapped in straw and set on fire… Rather like ‘The Wicker Man’, really – which brings us back to…

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features ( 604703d ) 'The Wicker Man' - Christopher Lee 'The Wicker Man' film - 1973

 

Requiescat in pace ultima…

The Comeback Kids – # 1: Priyanga Burford

Priyanga Burford by Michael Shelford

Actors are much like sharks. If a shark stops swimming, it sinks to the bottom of the ocean and drowns. In the same way, if an actor stops acting, his career dries up.

Except, of course, this is nonsense. Plenty of sharks seem quite happy to laze about on the sea bed while delicious-looking fish swim by, only to resume their sharking activities wholeheartedly when so inclined. Might the same be true of actors? Is it possible to take time out of an acting career – even a few years – and revive it successfully? Could such a hiatus even be beneficial?

I recently had a break of my own to help look after my father, who has dementia, and having returned to the fray I was keen to speak to other actors who have made a similar choice.

Hair LAMDA 1998 - Me and Pri

Priyanga Burford and I were in the same year at LAMDA (class of 1998). Since graduating, Pri and her husband Tom have had two children, Danny and Oscar. After taking time to raise her sons, Pri has made a successful return to the acting world, with TV appearances in shows such as ‘Silent Witness’ and ‘Veep’. Earlier this year she took the lead role of fictional UKIP candidate Deepa Kaur in the Channel 4 spoof documentary ‘UKIP: The First 100 Days’, and is currently in rehearsal for the Sheffield Crucible production of Lucy Prebble’s play ‘The Effect’. I wanted to speak to Pri about choosing to step back from acting to raise her family, and her experience of returning to the profession after a long time away.

CN So, how did it work? Were you intending to have children and take a break, or did Danny come along and you just…

PB I didn’t have a plan. We knew we wanted to have children. I think I had a slightly unrealistic idea that it would somehow all fall into place without too much trouble. Because of course, before you have children you can’t know what it’s like – I hadn’t accounted for the physical tiredness and all the rest.

CN How long had you been acting after LAMDA when you had Danny?

PB Four years. I went back far too soon to do things, I really did, I think I went a bit nuts, because your whole life just turns upside down and you become a different person. You have this different identity suddenly as a parent, and there’s this whole other part of you. So I wasn’t ready to go back to work, then when I did, I felt like an alien and it went quite badly.

CN What did you do?

PB I did short film, which I had a very small part in, but even the small part was too much.

CN Did you think there was an element of panic that things were slipping away and that you had to do something?

PB Yes, there was definitely that: if I disappear for five minutes, everyone will forget who I am and I will never be able to act again. And nobody contradicted me, actually, nobody professionally said to me, ‘Don’t worry, it’s fine, go away and be a mum for a bit, and when you’re ready, come back’. My agent certainly didn’t say that – he’s not my agent any more – and I wish he had, because he knew the way I was feeling.

CN Can you remember what his reaction was when you told him you were going to have a child?

PB Well, he was delighted, but I remember him saying to me the first time I went to see him after we got married, ‘Don’t have kids, not yet,’ and I thought, ‘Wow, you’re really running my life here’. So yeah, I know I went back too early, but I’m very glad that I did the little bits I did, even auditioning.

CN What would you audition for?

PB Just little tiny bits of telly – a scene or two in ‘The Bill’ or something like that.

CN And radio?

PB Yeah, that was brilliant – when I was pregnant, I had the contract with the Radio Drama Company to cover me over the time when I was, you know, unfilmable, and I couldn’t be insured.

Priyanga Burford and Fenella Woolgar in Ambassador B on BBC Radio 4

CN Thank God for the BBC, as ever.

PB Exactly. It was just really hard – and I think it’s moments like that when you really say to yourself, ‘How much do I actually want this?’ I remember trying to take a little baby in a pushchair on the tube, up the steps of the underground station, and actually by the time you’ve arrived at the meeting you’re exhausted… The meeting seems like a complete sideshow, and of course it’s what you’re there for. But the big achievement, I started to realise, was actually getting both of us there, getting ready, learning the lines for the meeting, and getting home safely. So I didn’t get a lot of work during that time.

CN So you had in your mind a return to the profession?

PB Yes, if they let me!

CN Because then you had another son…

PB Yes, five years later I had Oscar. And in that interim period again it was just dribs and drabs, so actually most of my thirties has been about having and rearing these two boys, with a bit of acting thrown in.

CN But it’s a good use of your thirties, isn’t it?

PB Yeah, making people, that’s good! But at the time I didn’t see it that way, at the time I did panic. There wasn’t anyone saying to me, ‘No no, it’s fine, people have kids, it’s life’. There was always rather this impression that actors don’t have lives, they don’t have children, relationships – you know, they’re just machines.

CN It’s a strange thing isn’t it, it’s almost like actors are children – that we aren’t suited to a life of adult responsibilities.

PB There’s certainly a part of an artist which is a child, because they need to play and be vulnerable and open, so you need to have those child-like elements, but they need to be encased in an adult, professional framework, and that comes with maturity. That doesn’t mean necessarily age, but perhaps maturity of attitude – you know, I could have been 26 and had a mature attitude, I just didn’t. Actually, half of what you do is maintenance and work creation, keeping your networks going and all that, which is something I learnt from my brother, who’s a freelance journalist. I spoke to him about his life, and realised when he’s not working, when he’s not being paid to write something, the rest of his time is pitching ideas and sniffing around to see what’s out there.

CN Was there a point when you thought I could leave this, I could stop?

PB Yes, I became very angry, very demoralised, and the only place that led me was to more of the same, just feeling worse and worse, angrier and angrier and I had no one to shout at.
I’d fallen into this trap of throwing my hands up and going, ‘Oh well, it’s all just a kind of boys’ club’. I had started to ignore the resources there out there, so I got back in touch with Spotlight and actually read the emails they were sending me. One of the turning points for me was a casting symposium at the BFI with Lucinda Syson and Reg Poerscout-Edgerton.

Lucinda Syson by Sean SmithReg Poerscout-Edgerton

The atmosphere was very professional and I thought, ‘This feels right’ – it’s really good for the soul to go to something like that. I hadn’t realised, after taking time out, how much the industry has changed – they will get people sending their iPhone video stuff in from all over Europe and America and Australia for the same role. So you are competing globally. Just talking to my agent today – in America it’s far less common for people to be in the room; they might sift through 500 tapes from all over the world for a TV series. That was a big eye-opener for me.
I feel like the industry’s progressed a bit; it does demand that when you walk into a room, you’re ready, you’re prepared and you’ve done your homework.

CN It’s a lot more professional.

Shonda Rhimes by Patrick Ecclesine

PB Yes, particularly in America. You hear about someone like Shonda Rhimes, who is a massive showrunner over there for ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ and ‘Scandal’, and she just sacks people. She’s not having any actor shit, any egos; she’ll go, ‘OK, ‘bye then. You’re not doing this to this piece of work’. And I think the more professional our industry gets, the better for everybody. People won’t tolerate that sort of behaviour any more. I suppose I’m harking back quite a few years, but you can’t just turn up pissed, having had a couple of fags and just sort of create.

CN Do you think having taken some time before you returned to the profession – I wonder if that was useful as a sort of recalibration, a re-adjusting of your attitude?

PB Definitely, I’m really glad I had that time, because I see it almost as professional development. I think it’s true of most artists actually, that the richness of your life experience does feed your art, and those years that I was doing other things – life stuff – has meant that I’ve got a very different perspective on what I do.
I used to always feel slightly ashamed of being an actor, that it was a slightly laughable thing to do with one’s life, and actually having taken that time out, spoken to other artists, having time to think about my own attitude to my whole industry and a re-examination of why I’m in this in the first place, I’ve found it really strengthening. And I learnt more about my process.

CN Doing something as important as raising a family, I wonder if that shift in your life allows your perspectives to shift as well? The sort of things we get hung up about, like a bad audition or a bad rehearsal, does it make it easier to deal with those things?

PB I don’t know if it makes it easier, but it certainly stops you from indulging it. It still hurts, but it becomes more like a bad day at work, because you have kids and you realise that you cannot bring it home to them, because why should they have to deal with it? It’s not their problem at all. So it’s still upsetting and frustrating but you have to learn to put that away. You can’t be grumpy and stomp around, and I certainly think that takes you out of yourself in a very healthy way.

CN And maybe it allows you to truly take responsibility for choosing this job – the buck has to stop with us, doesn’t it?

PB Yes, no one’s holding a gun to your head – at the end of the day, you don’t have to do this.

CN As you said, the rewards, maybe not financially, but the rewards from the work are so great.

PB I think that’s why people get so pissed off with actors when they start moaning. Because really, who else gets to follow a passion – or even know what their passion is?

Luvvies - Jeremy Irons

CN I wonder if you come to realisations when you take some time out that you wouldn’t otherwise have come to? So it’s actually a way of appreciating the job more.

PB Yes, and I have more of a sense of who I am as me, rather than just as an actor. There’s a richness that’s happened with life experience and having kids – just getting older – that has built a lot more confidence to be able to walk into a room and do the job, without all the extraneous useless thoughts of, ‘Oh maybe everyone thinks I’m crap, maybe the director’s regretting casting me’. That just really doesn’t happen to me any more. I used to feel very unsure of myself early in my career. After drama school, when you get into a professional context you’re so keen to prove yourself, you’re so acutely aware of the fact that, ‘I can’t piss this director off because they’ll never work with me again’, and actually that takes away from the really important process of trying stuff out and failing. You need to have confidence to be able to say to a director, ‘I really don’t know what I’m doing here, you’re going to have to help me’.

CN Which ties in with the idea of understanding that it’s work – that discipline that you were talking about, being able to balance that play with the serious point of, ‘There’s an opening night’, or someone’s going to say, ‘Action!’ at some point.

PB The more I thought about it as paid work, that’s a really good way of getting over yourself, because you just think, ‘Look, they are paying me to do this, so I’ve just got to shut up and get on with it. No one gives a shit if I’m feeling insecure’. And why should they?

CN I’m sure most productions don’t grind to a halt if an actor can’t do it. There’s always another actor.

PB I’m about go up to Sheffield and do a play called ‘The Effect’ by Lucy Prebble. I haven’t actually done any theatre in 5 years, and that’s because I’ve had to say, ‘No I can’t, because my kids are too young and I just don’t feel like I can leave the family at this point’. There’s something quite empowering about being able to say that – you feel as an actor that you have to say ‘Yes’ to everything.

The Effect poster

CN How are you feeling about it? Will you be attempting to commute in any way?

PB No, I’m going to live up there and they’re coming up for weekends. That’s the other thing, you’ve got to have a partner who gets it, and Tom really does get it. We just work as a big team: ‘Is this going to work?’ – and you try it and see. Professionally I’m a little bit nervous about going back on stage after 5 years, but also it’s a new phase in our family life, it’s the first time I’ve been away away – you know 2 months, it’s a long time.

CN It will be an interesting test to see how you can accommodate everything.

PB And actually I couldn’t do this if I hadn’t done telly at the back end of last year, because theatre wages are still so rubbish, I could not have afforded child care at all. I think that’s another way things have changed; it’s why so many TV actors are on the stage, because how else can you afford to live on theatre wages unless you’ve got money?

CN It’s never easy, is it? It’s never going to be easy, but you have to find a way to make it work, if you want it to.

PB You do, you have to find a way. That’s what I said to my agent – if it’s worth it we’ll find a way. I think the whole thing is about just working bloody hard.

CN And it’s a good way to spend your life, isn’t it? You may as well.

PB You may as well, because there are so many people who hate their jobs, who would give a limb to have my problems. The other thing about taking some time out was the people I met with ‘ordinary jobs’ who really hated them, or going to work was so perfunctory. I have never woken up for a day of my work and felt anything other than really excited about what I was off to do, and I got a true sense of how rare that is and how incredibly fortunate I am.

‘The Effect’, directed by Daniel Evans, opens at Sheffield Studio Theatre on June 25th 2015.

Between The Lines

goons scripts

Learning the words

This is, let’s face it, a major preoccupation for all actors. So it’s rather liberating once in a while to do a bit of acting without having to be off-book.

Of course this happens at the read-through too, but that’s often as terrifying as the first night, as you size up the rest of the cast, try to work out your place in the company hierarchy and pray the director isn’t wishing he hired the other bloke instead.

A play-reading is a far healthier, happier affair – and can be a joyous thing; a tremendously useful and creative environment.

For a theatre company or director it is a great way of looking for the next project, for trying something out and seeing if it works aloud – as so many of us found with Shakespeare at school, there is a big difference between reading words on a page and hearing them spoken.

For the actor, too, a play reading can be a very valuable exercise. I think in our case it comes back to the knotty question of how we keep ourselves match fit – how we practise our craft effectively when we’re not working.

As we all know, a writer can always write, even if they aren’t commissioned. An artist can carry a sketch book with them everywhere and scribble as they go. And, of course, most musicians can practise happily at home, although there are exceptions to this – a drummer can make himself very unpopular, for example, and it often makes a big difference if you are a learner. I was determined to learn the violin by the time I was 40, but was sadly derailed from this path one afternoon as I sawed my way through the G Major scale, when, in a pause between badly-formed notes, I heard my poor neighbour upstairs scream ‘shut UP!’, in the tone of someone only a sliver away from nervous collapse. I laid my bow aside…

crushed violin

But I digress. My point is, all these creative types can cheerfully practise their art alone, and accept their next gig or commission fully ready to create.

But what of the poor actor? If a well-turned phrase falls from an actor’s lips and nobody hears it, is it still funny? By all means practise your vocal warm-up before breakfast – you will be wonderfully articulate and resonant when you pop out to buy a pint of milk. I suppose we can learn some new speeches – brush up your Shakespeare, and all that – it’s probably good for the memory, but beyond that, who asks for monologues any more? Watching plays is a great way of keeping up with what everyone else is doing, but can be hugely frustrating when you aren’t working yourself.

We can’t just sit at home and act by ourselves. No, we need an audience, and preferably, some other actors too.

I do believe that when the opportunity comes along to put yourself in a room with some fellow thesps and a good script or two, you should grab it. I recently had a thoroughly satisfying week, grappling with complex and unfamiliar texts in rather different situations.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

First of all, I was lucky enough to take part in a great day of play readings for Presence Theatre at the Calder Theatre Bookshop in London, organised and coordinated by my old LAMDA friend Jack Tarlton, an Associate Artist with Presence. Directors and theatre companies will receive many submissions from writers, and a reading is the most effective way to discover if something has promise. Indeed, for the writer it is the best possible chance to get some distance from your writing and see what works and what doesn’t.

Presence Theatre developed from a regular reading group, established about 10 years ago, and today has grown into a fully-fledged company presenting performances and rehearsed readings. The reading group itself was recently revived, and on this occasion we encountered a number of intriguing plays, all of which were new to me. I was particularly taken with the blackly comic ‘Little One’ by Hannah Moscovitch and Nis-Momme Stockmann’s ‘The Man Who Ate the World’, which took us to some very dark places indeed.

griselda gambaroHannahmoscovitchStockmann
We also read a number of fascinating, powerful plays by the celebrated Argentinian writer Griselda Gambaro and we were privileged to be joined by her English translator Gwen MacKeith.

One of the great joys of reading a play ‘blind’, as it were, comes from finding out who your character is and what the play is about as you speak it, in the same way an audience does with an unfamiliar play. There is also something quite liberating about working on a script with no thought or hope that it’s going to lead to a job somewhere down the line, so that troublesome competitive instinct isn’t roused. You can wrestle with the text purely for the satisfaction of doing so, and you often find yourself reading a part you would never play in the real world – at Presence, I played, amongst others, a German man with dementia and an American teenager.

Lewis Hart at Presence

The other pure pleasure is in meeting other new actors, as well as old friends. It was a revelation to me to find that most of us were using tablets or phones to read our scripts from. This prompted an interesting debate about the best platform for a script: I still cherish the tactile nature of paper, and like to scrawl, scribble and cross out, although, as a fellow actor Ben Addis pointed out, apps such as iAnnotate allow you do all the same stuff digitally. It sounded thrillingly modern but made me fear for the future of the highlighter pen industry. Paper doesn’t go to sleep, lock you out or run out of batteries, and there is no reflection of your confused face as seen from below – not a flattering angle. But paper also has its own potential for disaster, as I once discovered towards the end of a public reading of Jim Cartwright’s ‘Two’, when, at the pitch of tension and drama, the actress I was working with managed to sweep both of our unbound scripts off the table and into a blizzard of disordered pages. Hard to recover from.

pen

Reading in front of an audience, rather than in the safety of a circle of actors, is another matter altogether, and presents a subtly different set of challenges to proper, off-book performing as well.
My second script-in-hand experience of the week was for a lovely company called Poet In The City. I have been involved in a number of their poetry recitals, ranging from P G Wodehouse to C P Cavafy, and this one, T S Eliot (poets – so many initials…). The Eliot recital took place in the glorious Southwark Cathedral, and also touched upon the sermons of an Elizabethan cleric called Lancelot Andrewes, who was a direct influence on Eliot’s work.

poet in the city at southwark cathedral

It’s a surprisingly nerve-wracking experience, in spite of having the script in front of you. There is no room for hesitation, particularly when the poem has a strictly formal structure, so you have to be very sure, when you take your eyes off the page for a bit of contact with the audience, that you will be able to return to the right spot without stumbling. It requires a lot of preparation in order to familiarise yourself with the words and rhythms, but also to unlock the more obscure poems. Eliot’s work in particular is littered with complex references and elusive meanings, and can sound like an abstract word collage. An hour of this can be bewildering for an audience, so the reader needs to mine the poems for meaning, however ambiguous. Even if the poem remains open to interpretation, as long as the actor has a meaning in mind, they will be communicating something specific to the audience.

A script is merely a blueprint – reading it in isolation does nobody any good. Plays and poems demand to be spoken aloud, and acting is a sociable occupation after all, so find a friendly bunch of actors and flex your muscles.