Category Archives: Musings

Fringe benefits

royal-mile

Just back from a thrilling week at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Lots of good stuff, some not-so good… Such an exciting place to be; it’s so wonderful to see young actors – often students – striking out and gathering experience of performing, and also of the buzz and whirl of Edinburgh at Festival time.

I’ve never performed there myself, but have always enjoyed the atmosphere of the place – the obstacle course of the Royal Mile, the spontaneous street performances, the risky business of choosing which shows to see, never quite sure if it will be a hit or a dud… Anyway, here are a couple of picks:

annabelle

For my first choice, I have to declare an interest – I am very good friends with the writer/co-performer, the wonderful Howard Read. But his show is still an utter delight: ‘Annabelle’s Skirting Board Adventure’ at Just The Tonic at the Community Project – a fantastic kid’s show which follows the trials of Annabelle, the smallest elephant in the world, as she tries to make her way across Arthur’s (Howard’s) living room floor, with the help of her easily-distracted friend, Icarus the moth. Hopefully touring soon to a town near you… Here are Howard and Annabelle being interviewed on STV:

Second choice, the very impressive ‘This Will End Badly’ by Rob Hayes at the Pleasance Bunker One:

this will end badly

– a tremendously exciting and darkly funny new solo show about the state of modern man, with a fine performance by Ben Whybrow. I would call him ‘one to watch’, if everyone wasn’t already watching him. Wonderful stuff.

So, to the deafening sound of the Tattoo fireworks exploding overhead, we bid the Edinburgh Festival farewell once more…

tattoo fireworks

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To Take Arms Against A Sea Of Mobiles

cumberbatch hamlet

Once again, tonight at 7.15pm, the lights will go down and a certain Mr Cumberbatch will begin to intone the most famous words in theatrical history.

I haven’t landed a ticket for ‘Hamlet’, sadly, although plenty have (I’m looking at you, Naomi); the rest of us are awaiting the critical verdict in a couple of weeks’ time. But then, maybe we don’t need to wait – ‘Hamlet’ may be sold out, but it sounds like the whole thing will be up on YouTube soon.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s new show is the latest victim of the entertainment world’s most virulent blight: the unauthorised use of the mobile phone.

The theatre can offer many examples of device-based bad behaviour, and we frequently hear about actors stopping the show to complain.

Richard Griffiths in ‘The History Boys’ at the National

history boys richard griffiths

Kevin Spacey in ‘Clarence Darrow’ at the Old Vic

clarence darrow kevin spacey

and, famously, Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman in ‘A Steady Rain’ on Broadway were filmed (in character) berating an audience member whose phone rang repeatedly:

And, like most actors these days, I have many of my own stories to tell.

me and julian in the woman in black

I spent a year in The Woman In Black in the West End, and we often had great hordes of school parties in the audience. Their theatre etiquette might not have been as fully-formed as the average play-goer, and we would often be troubled by phones going off, people texting, playing games and so on. I remember delivering one of my many direct-address speeches and seeing the ghostly blue face of a girl in the front row of the dress circle, illuminated in the dark by the screen of her smart phone. I was particularly proud of this speech, and I became infuriated that here was I, giving my all, and this child wasn’t paying the slightest attention. I delivered the entire speech to her – or rather, at her – determined to get her to look up, even just for a moment. But she gave me not so much as a flicker. Eventually I realised that there were a few hundred others who actually were listening to the speech and left her to her Angry Birds.

But the really modern problem – and Benedict’s main gripe – is not simply phones ringing in the auditorium, people actually taking the call or even the freak event of a dolt mounting the stage to try and charge his ‘device’ from a dummy plug socket:

The main event these days is the audience trying film the show. The Cumberbatch ‘Hamlet’ has been plagued in preview by super-fans attempting to record the proceedings, with the result that, when the actors look out into the darkness, they have been greeted with lots of little red dots winking back at them. Benedict himself paid a visit to his gaggle of stage-door Johnnies in an attempt to halt this sort of thing:

Of course, this isn’t just a theatre problem. The world of live music has become completely au fait with this troubling phenomenon over the past few years, and at any gig you choose to attend, a hefty chunk of the crowd will be holding their iPhones or Samsungs aloft, determined to capture every precious moment in perfect HD – wobbly, poorly-framed HD with bad sound.

cameras at a gig

Why is this? Have we become so wedded to screens that we can’t really experience anything, unless it is safely contained within a frame? Perhaps a live experience is just too unpredictable – after all, who knows what emotions might be stirred up in us if we surrender to the moment completely? At least when we watch it on the train later on there‘s no danger of our being surprised by anything.

Perhaps we should just accept that the creaking old tradition of live performance will have to adapt to survive. Maybe, when we visit the theatre in the future, we should expect our neighbour to be watching the whole thing on a screen the size of a packet of fags.

But then, maybe not. Last year’s hottest ticket – someone who had hardly been near a stage in 35 years – had other ideas.

Kate Bush

When Kate Bush announced her ‘Before The Dawn’ shows in Hammersmith, she made a specific request of her fans:

“It would mean a great deal to me if you would please refrain from taking photos or filming during the shows. I very much want to have contact with you as an audience, not with iPhones, iPads or cameras. I know it’s a lot to ask but it would allow us to all share in the experience together.”

I was delightfully lucky enough to be able to score a pair of tickets to the second night – cue unflattering photographic evidence of myself with my pal Lisa (from outside the venue):

Me and Lisa at Kate

and I don’t remember seeing a single phone, iPad or camera all night. But I know I shall never forget that extraordinary moment when Kate shimmied onto the stage, her backing singers conga-ing behind her. Or the thrill of recognition as the first chord of ‘Running Up That Hill’ began to grow. Or the breathtaking coup-de-theatre when her blackbird finally took flight. Those moments were all the more powerful because they were shared by everyone there, as they happened. That can’t be captured by a little electronic box.

As Kate Bush knows, performance, at its purest and most affecting, is about the artist communing with the audience. ‘Hamlet’ is the ultimate example – with those soliloquies, the Dane isn’t just talking to himself, he is asking for our help, our counsel. You can’t do that if your audience is just waiting to watch it when they get home.

cumberbatch hamlet 2

Fox Hunting

a theatrical fox

The poor fox has always been a beleaguered beast, chased from pillar to post and constantly living under threat of being torn to shreds. And without wishing to add to the misery of this handsome creature, there are a pair of foxes that I, too, feel tempted to hound.

The foxes in question come from a familiar theatrical skulk (collective noun, don’t you know) – namely father and son actors, James and Jack Fox. These two have lately been roaming the English countryside in a play called ‘Dear Lupin’. The imminent opening of the show in the West End has occasioned an interview with the Daily Telegraph, during the course of which the rather weary topic of ‘posh’ v. ‘common’ actors was raised. Now, this is something I have written about before, but at the risk of going over old ground, I think it’s worth another look.

james and jack fox in dear lupin photo by Manuel Harlan

When it was put to them that there are too many ‘posh’ actors about these days, the Foxes barked, almost in unison:

‘‘Complete balls!’ James exclaims. ‘Balls!’ his son echoes.’

Is the resurgence of ‘posh’ actors really, as James Fox suggests, just the pendulum inevitably swinging back the other way – from working class types like ‘Albie’ Finney (and dear Mickey Caine) back towards young toffs such as Eddie Redmayne and Jack Fox himself? I rather think it’s less a question of shifting tastes and fashions, and more about the ‘posh’ kids being the ones who can afford the lifestyle of an actor. It’s all very well to quote Lillian Gish, as Jack does, and suggest that all you really need is ‘taste, talent and tenacity’; these days, having an enduring acting career is more about being able to afford to support yourself while you try to find work – and once you do find it, to supplement the usually pitiful actor’s salary.

lillian gish by edward steichen

I have no desire to cast aspersions on Jack Fox’s acting ability – indeed, I haven’t seen him act. But he doesn’t seem to have been too busy thus far – certainly not as busy as his father

James Fox, actor. By David Levene 28/2/2008

or his brother Laurence

Laurence-Fox

or cousins Emilia

emilia fox

and Freddie

freddie fox

and definitely not as busy as uncle Edward

Daily Mail - FEATURES

He has had some work on TV and short films, although his only stage acting work to date has been ‘Dorian Gray’ at the Riverside Studios, not a high-paying venue. Often by this point, an actor might be staring at his dwindling bank balance and asking himself if the writing was on the wall. But I wonder if money worries are such an issue in the Fox household. Perhaps sensibly, Jack Fox lives with his parents – mother Mary and father-and-fellow-cast-member James – at their home in Wimbledon.

But regardless of all this, I think Foxes Senior and Junior are barking up the wrong tree anyway. The ‘posh’ issue is quite a separate thing from the ‘Fox’ issue…

The Foxes live in an alternative reality to that experienced by all other actors, with the possible exception of a Redgrave or two. On the cruise liner of the acting world, they have a standing invitation to the Captain’s cocktail party, while the rest of us queue up at the buffet. In Jack Fox’s case, it really isn’t a question of being ‘posh’, it’s about being a member of a showbiz club far more exclusive than the Groucho or Soho House. When asked about getting the part in ‘Dear Lupin’ alongside his father, Jack employs the traditional cry of the cornered Second-Generation actor: “I had to read for the part like everyone else,” forgetting that for ‘everyone else’, just landing the audition in the first place is as hard as getting the job.

Of course, the Foxes have an inevitably skewed take on the acting profession. In order to have a true insight into what it’s really like out there, perhaps young Jack should have changed his name, refused all financial help from his parents, moved out of the family home and gone it alone. Then his career really might be about taste, talent and tenacity. All right: luck, talent and tenacity. But even then, tenacity is only any good if you can afford to feed, clothe and house yourself while you hang on, waiting to be lucky enough for someone to recognise your talent. So if you really want to succeed in the acting world, perhaps the best answer is a simple one – change your last name to ‘Fox’.

fox escapes

HEY! Teacher!

pink floyd teacher

Even if your education was rather more Pink Floyd than Madness, most of us can point to a teacher who has, at some point, had a significant effect on the path our lives have taken. This is often particularly true of those of us who end up in the arts – creative people draw a lot of strength from outside support and it can be profoundly important for our development when someone recognises something in us at an early age that we suspect is there. I can name two people who helped me along the way.

I was always a fairly acting-minded child, and I certainly received encouragement from my drama teachers at school; I remember one, Mr Edney, saying of me, ‘There’s only one person in this room who could be another Olivier’ – probably the best review I have ever had, even if it has yet to be borne out by my career. My French teacher, Mrs McHugh, also made an impact – her son was a theatre director, and she eagerly encouraged my ambitions. I remember her being outraged that I didn’t know the French for ‘rehearsal’. I do now, of course – um… er…

It’ll come to me…

But oddly, the teacher who had the strongest influence on my future career path was a fellow called Mr Skriabin. Mr Skriabin taught P.E. Now, I was not what you might call a ‘jock’ at school. Many were the letters I produced from my mother excusing me from games, and when I had to take part, I perfected the art of maintaining a constant distance from the ball (whichever ball it happened to be) while all the time pretending that I was trying to get closer to it. At one point I was signed up to the school football team (on the substitute bench, and much against my wishes, I should point out) but in the single match I actually attended, I spent the whole time walking around the pitch singing Karma Chameleon.

All the signs were there. Mr Skriabin was in no doubt that I was not a natural sportsman – he knew I had no enthusiasm for his lessons. But I will still always remember him as being particularly important to my acting career.

One day, I took part in a morning assembly, in a short play about two parents waiting up for their political activist daughter (this was the 1980s, after all). It was a script-in-hand affair, but nevertheless I prepared for it as if it were a first night at the National. As a result, for the rest of the day I had children offering congratulations on my performance. And that afternoon, in my Art class (second favourite lesson), Mr Skriabin appeared, being a friend of the teacher. I was shocked to see him come straight over to me and say, ‘You were really good this morning, Naylor. You should think about becoming an actor.’ Rather a lightning bolt moment: the least likely teacher in the school had somehow talent-spotted me and endorsed my own quiet suspicions. His words set me on the path I still follow.

LAMDA 1998 Greg Jarvis Jack Tarlton

Fast-forward ten years or so, and I arrived at LAMDA, a callow, gawky chap. Already five years older than many of my peers, but somehow more clumsy and buttoned-up; their senior in age, but not by any means in terms of maturity. One thing I dreaded in particular was Movement. I was sure that, in black ‘movement’ clothes, my skinny, gangly and sweaty frame would look absurd and be the object of ridicule from my elegant, graceful fellows. Thankfully, the feared black tights and ‘dance belt’

dance belt

were never pressed into service, but even dressed in what our American cousins might term ‘sweats’, the figure I cut was less Nijinsky:

nijinksy

than Nijinksy:

nijinsky horse

As far as the work went, I certainly began badly, clumsily. But gradually I became a little more confident and comfortable, and by the end of the three years, I knew that movement – and in particular, Movement Theatre – was my favourite subject. This was down entirely to one person: Christian Darley, the finest teacher I have ever encountered. Somehow she was able utterly to dispel that old cliché of ‘Movement Class’ being about a load of self-indulgent ‘luvvies’ rolling around on the floor, crawling all over each other and pretending to be trees.

christian darley

Christian’s work was focused, specific and eminently practical. She helped us develop our listening skills, our sense of timing and observation and an awareness of our bodies in the space that was absolutely connected to the text and to each other.

Christian brought me to a major breakthrough towards the end of my time at LAMDA, during rehearsals for a devised piece on the subject of ‘fear’. We all loved working with her, and it ended up being a very effective performance. One part involved a child character fiddling around with his mum’s valuable watch – over-winding it and breaking it, then having to tell her what he had done. Christian asked me to improvise the scene, and to think about the character’s movements becoming more exaggerated and contorted as he tries to summon up the courage to confess. I felt I had made a very ham-fisted attempt at the scene, and she asked another actor, the wonderful Giles Fagan, to try it. As far as I was concerned, Giles had made a much better job of it and I asked Christian to choose him for the performance as I thought I’d done so badly.

giles fagan

Christian pondered for a while, and then told me that, no, she thought I should do it after all. She knew perfectly well what she was doing, of course, namely bringing out of me what she could tell was there. That short scene went on to be one of my favourite moments from three years of training. I remember quite a few people coming up to me afterwards to say how much they’d liked what I had done – rather like they had all those years before after my school assembly, in fact.

I shall never forget the advice she gave me in my last tutorial with her: ‘Chris, I think you just need to go and sit under a tree.’

I was lucky enough to carry on working with Christian after LAMDA in her own workshops. Those classes had no specific end in mind, other than to continue her exploration of the actor’s work. I look back with great pleasure on those times, and I remember the pure joy we all felt at sharing Christian’s sense of endless fascination with the actor’s body and what it can achieve.

Christian became too ill to work towards the end of her life, but a good friend of hers, Dictynna Hood, suggested she write a book based on her teaching methods. She finished the first draft just before she died in 2008 and the book, ‘The Space To Move: Essentials of Movement Training’, was edited by Dictynna, Sue Mitchell and Linda Baker. It is published by Nick Hern Books, and is a wonderful document, both for those of us lucky enough to have worked with her, but also for anyone interested in movement and acting. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

space to move

We are often told to discard what we don’t find useful from our training, and I suppose the implication is that the things we do want to carry forward will somehow always remain with us.
But often the reality is that we might not get the chance to revisit those methods in the profession – there is just no guarantee that the work we go on to do will accommodate them. The working environment of each job is dependent to a large extent on the director, after all. So how can you maintain a method of working without practising it regularly?

The hope, of course, is that that we have absorbed what we have learnt into our process and it will continue to inform our work. But I think it’s vital to take time to remind ourselves of the lessons that helped us, the things we might have forgotten or taken for granted, and most importantly, the people who were responsible for inspiring us and pushing us on.

It’s always a very heartening to hear actors talking about teachers who inspired them when they were young. My fellow LAMDA Class of ’98 graduate, Richard Armitage, writes of Christian Darley in her book that: ‘There are many of Christian’s techniques which I still use… I ended my three years with a physical vocabulary which was highly sensitive and expressive.’

richard-armitage

Eddie Redmayne has spoken often about Simon Dormandy, head of drama at Eton during Redmayne’s time there, and someone he will still speak to for advice: ‘Simon treated us like professionals, taught us to speak verse.’

Eddie Redmayne by Gerhard Kassner for Berlinale

Dame Helen Mirren dedicated her BAFTA Fellowship to her teacher, Alys Welding. ‘She alone was the person who encouraged me to be an actor.’

helen mirren

And Sir Antony Sher has written extensively about his teacher Esther Caplan – ‘A remarkable teacher – to whom I owe my career.’

antony sher

I recently put out a call on Twitter for actors to nominate their most inspirational actors – here are some of the responses:

rory tweet

samantha ritchie tweet

pigtown tweet

matthew bulgo tweet

mali tweet

joseph steyne tweet

joanne ferguson tweet

jo vk tweet

emma tweet

I’d like to add to this roll-call, so thank you, Mr Skriabin, for starting me off. And thank you most of all, Christian, for making me understand what sort of actor I am.

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 appeared in the Sheffield Crucible production of Lucy Prebble’s play ‘The Effect’. She is currently playing Amina Chaudury in the BBC’s series, ‘Press’, written by Mike Bartlett. 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.