Tag Archives: alan bennett

I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter…

macbeth

The theatre year is slowly grinding into gear, and the hot tickets are starting to warm up. Will you be able to snaffle one for McKellen’s Lear in the West End, or Alan Bennett’s new show ‘Allelujah!’ at the Bridge? Maybe you already have a treasured Upper Circle vertigo seat for ‘Hamilton’ burning a hole in your safety deposit box.

Personally, the show I’m most excited about this year is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s forthcoming production of ‘Macbeth’, with the wonderful Christopher Eccleston in the title role and Niamh Cusack as Lady M. To coin a phrase, it’s going to be fantastic (one for the Whovians amongst you there). But, if Mr Eccleston himself is to be believed, it nearly didn’t happen at all. In a recent interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, he claimed that he has always felt snubbed by the Shakespearean theatrical establishment because of his Lancashire accent, and is only playing the Scottish King because he wrote to the artistic director of the RSC, Gregory Doran:

“I wrote an old-fashioned letter to him and I said, ‘Since I was 17 I’ve always wanted to play Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company, so can I do it?’… I’m never offered Shakespeare…”

Good for you Mr Eccleston, I say. There are many lovely things about this – it’s great that he isn’t above asking for work, great too that he has finally achieved a childhood ambition, but I think what delights me most is that he actually got out the Basildon Bond and his trusty Rollerball and put pen to paper. He didn’t WhatsApp Gregory Doran, he didn’t PM him, he didn’t even send him a text, he wrote an actual letter, put a stamp on it and walked to the post box.

It would be nice to believe there was something to be learnt from Christopher. How lovely it would be if we could suddenly hurl our clogs into the machines and go all analogue again; perhaps this news will revive the fortunes of the fountain pen industry and the Post Office in one fell swoop, as scores of millennials put aside their ‘devices’, take up their quills and start firing off inky missives to the great and the good of the theatre world. After all, it’s a lot easier to find out where to post a letter to Gregory Doran and his ilk than it might be to find their personal email addresses, so it certainly feels like you’re breaking through the defences.

brick

The truth, of course, is that Christopher Eccleston could probably have scratched his request on a brick and lobbed it through the window of the RSC canteen and it would have had the same effect. Basically, with that one letter he was offering the RSC the centrepiece of its 2018 season, all wrapped up with a ribbon. But if you’re not of the same calibre as Christopher, I wonder if even the most beautifully handwritten note would have had quite the same degree of success. I have my doubts, even if you’re not aiming for the title role.

postcards

For years I would spend ages in the art galleries of the provinces, selecting the most appropriate postcards to send off to casting directors, inviting them to first nights and trying my best to seem eminently employable. So hard to choose – would Kay Magson prefer a nice Degas or a bit of Klimt? A Hockney or a Pollock for John Hubbard? So much effort, so much hope – until one day I heard a casting director at a seminar being asked what irritated her most from actors, and her reply was, ‘Getting all those bloody postcards!’ So that put an end to that.

And did any of those letters and postcards ever actually work anyway? Can a message from one humble, non-famous, non-former-Doctor-Who-type actor amongst tens of thousands of others really make a difference? Does any email actually penetrate the filters, any one tweet really ping out above the tidal wave of others?

There’s just so much communication these days, I don’t know how anyone gets noticed without having to resort to the outrageous or illegal. There’s always the Terry Gilliam approach, of course – famously, when Universal Pictures tried to sit on his masterpiece, ‘Brazil’ in the U.S., Gilliam took out a whole page of the trade newspaper Variety to write a letter to the studio head, Sid Sheinberg:

terry gilliam sheinberg

I have often fantasised about talking out my own full-page ad in The Stage, although I’m not quite sure what I’d say. Something assertive and confident would be good, perhaps:

the stage hamlet

But that sounds vaguely threatening… I wouldn’t want to upset anyone…. Maybe this would be safer:

the stage to whom

But really, letter-writing is just a waste of ink, isn’t it? We actors all know that it makes no difference, nobody really reads them, they just go straight in the recycling. The problem is, however, we also tell ourselves that ‘you never know, my letter might just land on their desk on the right day’ – and there it is again, a shot of that most addictive of all drugs – hope. Well, it worked for Christopher Eccleston, didn’t it?

Dear Michelle Terry…

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Interview With The Director: Paul Miller – part one

Paul Miller Photo Mark Douet

Paul Miller was appointed Artistic Director of London’s Orange Tree Theatre in June 2014, as successor to founder Sam Walters. His first season has been tremendously varied and successful, with plays such as ‘The Distance’ by Deborah Bruce, George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Widowers’ Houses’ and ‘The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd’ by D H Lawrence garnering four-star-reviews and sold-out performances. The extraordinary ‘Pomona’ by Alastair McDowell recently won five Offies at the Off West End Awards, including Best New Play and Best Director (Ned Bennett), and will transfer to the National Theatre’s Temporary Theatre in September, followed by a run at the Royal Exchange Theatre in October. Paul Miller won Best Artistic Director at the Off West End Awards.

Paul was an Associate Director at Sheffield Crucible from 2009 to 2014, where his productions included ‘The Winter’s Tale’, ‘Democracy’ by Michael Frayn (which transferred to the Old Vic), and ‘Hamlet’ with John Simm.
For the National Theatre he has directed, amongst others, ‘The History Boys’ by Alan Bennett (a revival for the West End and UK tour), ‘Baby Girl’ by Roy Williams, ‘DNA’ by Dennis Kelly. He was Associate Artist at the Bush Theatre from 2005 – 2008.

When we met, Paul’s production of ‘Each His Own Wilderness’ by Doris Lessing was playing at the Orange Tree. Lessing’s powerful play is set in 1958, and sees Tony (Joel MacCormack), back from National Service disillusioned and dissatisfied, and clashing with his political activist mother Myra (Clare Holman).

Clare_Holman_in_Each_His_Own_Wilderness_Orange_Tree_Theatre_image__Richard_Hubert_Smith_press_image

CN Coming to see your show was very interesting, seeing somebody at the very beginning of their career and a number of actors who are quite established– from a director’s point of view, what difference do you notice between a young actor and a very established one – in terms of the way they approach rehearsals, for example?

Joel_MacCormack__in_Each_His_Own_Wilderness_Orange_Tree__Theatre_image_Richard_Hubert_Smith_press_image

PM Well it’s interesting, because there is a well-observed comedic thing that can happen, where the young actors arrive half an hour before rehearsals and do their warm-up and vocal exercise and they’re studiously attacking their parts, and the older, more senior actors appear to roll up without a warm-up, appear to be giving it less application. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking in a banal way that, ‘Oh, people get lazy as they get older’. In fact what I think happens is something much more interesting: the more you apply yourself when young, something happens, almost at a physical level, which means that, a bit like a dancer, you begin to do certain things, not exactly automatically but without having to consciously press that button –

CN – Like a runner might have a very developed muscle that is specific to the task –

PM Exactly. So the older actors who roll in going, ‘Oh, I don’t know why you’re bothering with all that’, making a joke of it all, are often concealing the fact – or indeed are unaware themselves – of what they can deploy, and it’s only in them because they were like that once.

Helen Baxendale The Distance rehearsal c Helen Warner

CN So in a show like this one, where there’s a tension between young and old anyway – that’s the point of the play, in many ways – you must find that in rehearsal too?

PM All the time. It’s very relatively unusual to find oneself in a rehearsal room with a group of people who all of similar age. That’s one of the attractive things about our business, that we routinely work with a lot of people of different backgrounds and ages – that’s not always true in the more ordinary world of work. But that is part of the job of directing: to create a room that will contain, without over-controlling, a lot of people with different approaches. I’ve noticed that some young actors come out of three years where they’ve spent all the time with people of their own age and at their own stage of development, and it can be disconcerting to find yourself in a rehearsal room where you’re doing your thing and other people appear to not be doing your thing. There can be some heavy duty grinding of gears as people have to try and work out how to work with an actor who’s a bit older than them, and who isn’t so actively engaged with the process.

Pomona

CN And similarly in the opposite direction, I’ve been in rehearsals where older actors have become quite frustrated with younger ones applying a method very deliberately, and which sometimes gets in the way of the work. But then that’s the director’s job isn’t it?

PM Yes, that is part of the director’s job, to hold that all together – hopefully in a creative tension, rather than simply a sort of deadlock.

CN So you have to find a different language to speak to each actor?

PM Yes, I think so, or help people to understand each other.

Ellie Piercy The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd photo Mark Douet

CN Do you try and get them to speak your language?

PM Well, I think some directors tackle this aspect of things by forcefully introducing a whole new dimension, which is them, their method, so the rehearsal room becomes about their artistic personality. That can solve the problem because both the young actor with his industrious process and the older actor with apparently no process at all are subsumed into this whole new thing. That’s not my thing, or at least I don’t feel that’s what I do. I think I tend to find myself doing plays where actually one wants to find the difference in people and somehow hold them together.

john dexter photo louis melancon

CN There’s the great John Dexter tradition that we all fear as actors – walking into the room and finding the despot, with the suggestion that often the director will isolate the weakest… There are many bad stories about directors that actors share. And I wonder where that comes from?

PM I wonder. Of course one of the weirdnesses about being a director is that, after a certain point in your working life, you have no idea what goes on really in anybody else’s rehearsal room, except by hearsay. So one can easily have a distorted impression of what’s going on out there, but I feel as if that John Dexter stuff has largely gone away – I think the culture doesn’t permit that stuff any more. I think that out-and-out, ‘Why are you f***ing doing that? You’re a hopeless actor!’ – I feel like that’s gone, and perhaps been replaced by more subtle problems.
I feel that, by and large, it’s a much more democratic process. If there are problems with a younger generation individually, it might not come from being tyrants in the old model, but maybe people going, ‘You’re not obeying the rules! My method’s not being followed and therefore it’s all wrong.’

CN It’s quite a different experience to an actor going from one rehearsal room to another, one director to another. You’re in isolation in your career – you don’t have the influences that actors have on your working method, so you have to develop your own. I suppose a lot of your method comes from people you assisted at the start of your career?

PM Yes, I think inevitably you see how a rehearsal room works from those people – or doesn’t work. I think a great danger is if you assist people you find very compelling when you’re at a formative stage, you try to work out who you are by imitating them, and that can be a rather an unhappy period to go though.

Patrick Drury as Sartorius with Simon Gregor as Lickcheese in Widowers' Houses

CN You didn’t act at all?

PM At school, but not in any way professionally.

CN But you didn’t feel the bite – you weren’t torn in two directions?

PM No. Somehow or other, I decided I wanted to direct at 17, which is probably unhealthily early…

CN A lot of actors give up and become directors, and a lot of them keep the two strands going at the same time; do you feel it’s useful?

PM Actors who direct?

CN Or for directors to have some experience at acting – or do you think it’s a very different discipline?

PM Well, one of the benefits to being an actor who then turns to directing after a certain amount of time is that, unlike my experience, they will have had years in a lot of different directors’ rehearsal rooms, and so have perspective on what directing can be. I’m often amused at how relatively unsentimental actors-turned-directors are about actors. They can often be the hardest taskmasters, in my experience.

CN When I spoke to Joe Harmston about this – he has never acted – he thinks it hinders actor-directors because they don’t have sympathy; if they can see how to do it, they can’t understand why another actor can’t.

PM I’m sure that’s possible, though someone like Daniel Evans has taken to directing brilliantly and is still acting – I don’t feel he has fallen into that trap. If you’re really good at it you don’t.

daniel evans

CN Do you remember performances that made you think, ‘Oh wow, I want to make that happen’ – specific actors?

PM I tell you a performance that really did always stick with me – I was lucky enough to be at the University of Ulster at Coleraine when Yvonne Bryceland came – the great South African actress who, with her husband Brian Astbury, had run a theatre in South Africa.

yvonne bryceland

She was a long-term collaborator with Athol Fugard, and she recreated a production of a play called ‘People Are Living There’ by Fugard. She played a woman running a shabby boarding house on the night of her 50th birthday, and – typical Fugard – the play had a very simple action to it, and revolved around one moment: she had this speech about turning 50, just as the clock was striking midnight, and her unhappiness and disappointment in life, this terrible boyfriend that we never see; remembering herself as a little girl and saying, ‘There were promises, there were promises’. It was highly realistic acting, yet also with a kind of magnetism and a sense of emotional size to it. I can still see and hear her, and I thought she was a remarkable creature.

CN Are there actors you would like to work with that you see on the stage today?

Penelope Wilton

PM I think Penelope Wilton has a lot of what I described about Yvonne Bryceland actually – everything always truthful and drawn from life, and yet with this sense of an enormous emotional landscape behind it. It would be wonderful to work with someone like that.

Coming in Part Two, Paul talks casting, London and Artistic Director’s Guilt…