Tag Archives: directors

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.

In Defence Of Actors

how d'ye like me

Actors are, as a breed, some of the most socially able, intelligent and inquisitive people you could hope to meet. They are engaged with the world, highly dedicated to their work and constantly testing themselves. Acting is a risky and expensive career choice that requires determination, persistence and a good deal of courage in many areas.

But there is an intriguing dichotomy at work in the way actors are viewed. On one side, those who become famous and rich are idolised, endlessly scrutinised and obsessed over. On the other, the vast majority of the profession who are attempting to maintain a career are often pitied, patronised, or simply disregarded.

But do actors need defending? If so, from whom?

I believe that actors frequently suffer from damaging attitudes both outside and inside the profession. I think that many people view acting with a mixture of amusement and disdain – often underscored with the belief that it is not a serious job. In fact, of course, it is a very serious job, and what’s more, a precarious one with a high probability of failure – very high levels of unemployment and drop-out, and very poor pay. In my opinion, however, it is also a noble and entirely essential profession.

‘Luvvy! Darling! Sweetie!’

So why are actors denigrated? The stereotypical negative attitudes to the profession can be summed up by that dread word: ‘luvvies’. Can there be a more patronising, dismissive term? It implies a sort of emotional incontinence; an indiscriminate spray of superficial sentimental self-indulgence, coupled with a good squirt of self-absorption – they call each other ‘luvvie’ and ‘darling’ because they’re so wrapped up in themselves they can’t even remember anyone’s name.

Actors are often treated like children, as unintellectual and over-emotional, people who don’t really work for a living but just play all day, pretending to be trees and animals and sleeping in until lunchtime. Many times I have told people what I do for a job, and have been met with the amused response, ‘Oh, you’re an ac-TORRR!’ There is a clear element of envy underlying these attitudes. People often say to me ‘you’re so lucky to be doing a job that you love,’ which is certainly true, although it is assumed along with this that, because we have job satisfaction, we don’t really need those things that the rest of society considers essential, such as mortgages, holidays, cars, money and so on.

I think that this attitude is surprisingly pervasive, to the extent that it begins to erode an actor’s self-respect. Even within the industry, we often suffer from discrimation. Actors are easily dismissed for a number of reasons, the principal one being that there are just so many of us and we all want jobs. So we become irritants – the small fly that buzzes around your face. The industry Gatekeepers – directors and casting directors, even our own agents – must dread phone calls from actors, because after the small talk there will always come The Question: ‘Is there anything happening at the moment?’ Here’s a fun game – find the casting director at a first-night party and watch the look of panic in their eyes as you approach. Inevitably they build walls around themselves to hold back the relentless onslaught of desperation.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

The result of all this is that people lose respect for actors. It makes perfect sense, really – when someone seems completely needy and vulnerable it’s hard to respect them. The consequence of this is that we can start to lose respect for ourselves. So an actor’s journey through their career becomes about trying to navigate a way through these hazards – trying to maintain a career while constantly questioning our worth and our choices, and feeling reluctant to approach the ‘gatekeepers’ because we know how unwanted our advances will be. The ultimate result is that many truly talented actors decide that the rewards are no longer worth the effort and step away from the profession.

Now, some actors are ridiculous. Of course they are. They take themselves far too seriously and seem to view the fact of their raised public profile as an invitation to make pronouncements on subjects which they are entirely unqualified to comment on. People are quite rightly scornful of this sort of person. But fundamentally, actors are essential. Most people might not visit the theatre regularly, but nearly everyone watches EastEnders, or Downton Abbey, or listens to The Archers. Millions watch the Harry Potter films, spend hours playing Grand Theft Auto or sitting in front of CBeebies with their children. None of these things could exist without actors. We have always needed stories, in the same way we need music – to help us escape from ourselves for a while, or to help us cope with life – and in order for these stories to be told, we must have storytellers.

Hi Diddle Dee Dee…

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This blog is a very personal attempt to explore the actor’s life – how it feels to progress through a career in theatre: drama school, first agent, first job, dealing with crisis and success.

I will be examining attitudes both outside and inside the profession, sharing my own experiences and talking to fellow actors, directors, casting directors and agents.

I will also be looking for ways to help support actors, and in particular, to encourage mid-career actors to stay in the profession.