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Day Tripper

Bela-Lugosi-Dracula-Decaying-Hollywood-Mansions

‘Movie star, oh movie star’, as the old song goes… As much as I would love to be a wildly in-demand top-of-the-A-List screen actor, spending my life juggling scripts and skilfully steering my career from one leading role to the next – and what’s more, supremely comfortable and at home on a film set – I have to accept that the reality is somewhat different. Indeed, for most of us in the acting world, working in film or TV is often just a case of being parachuted in for a scene or two. Now, unless this is a regular experience, the film world can be an unsettling place, particularly on a big production. It’s a little bit like gate-crashing a party where you don’t know anyone. Approach it in the wrong way, and it can put you off for life, and have you racing straight back to the nearest profit-share verbatim piece as fast as the Circle Line will carry you.

So just how does the day-tripper actor survive the film set experience, and live to tell the tale?

marilyn on set

The first hurdle to get overwhen you arrive on set is what might be termed ‘Winnebago Time’. You tumble out of the unit car, are met by a 3rd AD and immediately shoved into your trailer – or, more likely, your third of a trailer – and left alone. The silence is deafening. You aren’t put in there to relax, you’re put there so they know where you are when they want you. This is your first lesson. At this point, you have no idea whether you’ll be rushed onto the set in ten minutes, with barely enough time to tuck in your costume, or you’ll have an hour and a half of torture, as you flicker endlessly between boredom and panic. The admirable Bill Nighy says it’s the time in the trailer you get paid for, not the bit in front of the camera, and he’s right, of course. If you can resist the temptation to grab your bag and scarper, then you’ve passed the first test.

Bill Nighy by Charlie Gray

A knock on the door, and suddenly you’re back in the unit car and heading for the set.

 

Often, everyone else will have been filming for days, weeks – even months, so they all know each other very well. In-jokes and knowing looks abound, and they all have the ease that familiarity brings. You, on the other hand, are a bewildered tourist plonked down in the middle of Piccadilly Circus without a guide book. Which one is the 2nd AD? The camera operator? The director? Of course, as the day gradually wears on, things settle down and you realise that all those very important people will find you. As soon as ‘Cut!’ is called, people appear – to take your props, straighten your hair and mop your brow, and generally make sure you are out of the way while all the rest of the work happens. I was struck long ago by an irony quite possibly unique to the film world, that an actor is simultaneously the least important and the most important person in the room. For the greater part of the day, the set is abuzz with activity – people heaving great lumps of equipment about, dragging lights and puffing little clouds of ‘atmos’ (smoke) into the air, and your only task is to keep out of the way, while obsessively mumbling your lines to yourself and basically being ignored. Then, everything changes. All those best boys and grips and sparks have finished their work, and now it’s your turn. You step into position, it goes very quiet and suddenly everyone’s attention is on you. It feels rather like one of those old Bateman cartoons where someone says the wrong thing at a cocktail party:

HM-Bateman-Cartoons-Punch-1931-01-14-33

For the day-tripper actor, this is where it comes to the crunch. Your moment has arrived.

‘Turnover!’ ‘Sound!’ ‘Background action!’ ‘Action!’

How things go from this point really depends on how well-prepared you are. All those hours spent stomping around your kitchen talking to yourself, the endless sessions when your partner/flatmate/grandmother/dog read in for you, the nervous line runs in your hotel room the night before filming – all those pigeons come home to roost. One of our most seasoned tutors at LAMDA used to say, ‘Work is your armour’, and that advice has stuck with me more than any other. Anthony Hopkins says, ‘My method is to learn the text so thoroughly — I will read it 200 times — that I arrive on the set completely relaxed.’

Anthony Hopkins Alex be Brabant

He’s right, of course. Because, when the set goes quiet, and everyone looks at you – and most importantly, the camera – you need to be sure that, when you open your mouth to speak, even if all else fails, the right words will come out. And when you’ve got it right once, it gets a lot easier. You did it! You got the lines out, in the correct order, without falling over or throwing up over the lead actor. Hopefully, you can now start to relax, and maybe even enjoy yourself.

You’ll usually have a few goes at each set-up – various takes, the long shots, close-ups, reverses – and ideally you will be able to work in the detail you have been preparing.

rope-1948-hitchcock-on-set

As much we might like to imagine that the acting world is an all-inclusive democracy where everyone just mucks in, it is, of course, subject to strict hierarchies. Nowhere is this clearer than on a film set. It is all too clear who the star is, where the attention of the director and the director of photography is placed, and where you, as the bit-part actor, sit in the pecking order. It is easy to feel disheartened about this – after all, you trained, didn’t you? You too have slogged your guts out on the fringe, done your time in student films and endless workshops – why aren’t you playing the lead?

But this sort of thinking is a pathway to misery – the acting world may be many things, but a meritocracy is not one of them. And we all know that it’s almost as hard to land one line in a decent TV or film production as it is to be cast as Juliet at the RSC.

So, while it can be bittersweet to deliver your three lines and find yourself back in the car again before lunch, even a few hours on a set can teach you a lot. You become familiar with the language, the environment, but most of all, you start to feel comfortable. And you learn that, while you may not end up on the poster, even a day tripper has a big part to play.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Waiting Game

wanderer

Peaks and troughs. Highs and lows. The acting profession has always been one of extremes. An actor friend of mine told me she’d been drawn to the job because she was ‘an adrenaline junkie’, and I think most of us can relate to that. There’s no thrill to beat a first night – that intoxicating mix of fear and excitement – to show you that you’re truly alive.

As for the highs, an actor’s life is peppered with many moments of joy, big or small, the best of all usually being the phone call from your agent to tell you you’ve got the job. Way back at the start, I will never forget the call that told me I had won a place at LAMDA. And then there’s the thrill of a happy discovery in rehearsal, a perfect show or just the pure exhilaration that comes from playing with other actors.

telephone

In terms of lows, they tend to come from the frustration of not acting. We are all familiar with the agony of unemployment, feeling you have so much to offer and yet not being allowed to join in the game. But there is another, smaller agony, that can sometimes feel even sharper – namely that difficult post-audition period, when you just don’t know if you’ve got the job or not.

This is a period of the purest torture, particularly if you really want the job, and it begins the moment you leave the audition room. Of course, you’re supposed to brush it off immediately, as you trip off to a stylish downtown bar to resume your dizzying social life with not so much as a backwards glance, but it’s not always that easy. It’s rather more usual to begin the Great Calculation. Let’s say you audition on a Tuesday afternoon. You stagger onto the tube afterwards, your head spinning as you replay the details of the meeting. Did you seem interested enough as the director spelt out their vision for the production? How well did you play the scene? How about that one pivotal line – did you hit it just right? And did you manage to leave the room without shoving your foot in your gob, by saying ‘See you soon’, ‘Thanks you’ or ‘Lots of love’? Hopefully, you’ll feel you did the best you could. If so, you can actually relax for a bit now, and maybe enjoy one or two of those glamorous cocktails with your glamorous friends, for one night at least.

cocktails

But the next morning, the beast awakens. Hmm, Wednesday morning, you think. Well, I probably won’t hear anything today, as they’ll still be meeting people. Unless, of course, they really loved me, and want to snap me up as quickly as possible… But Wednesday drifts past, and you don’t worry too much – this is still the phoney war, after all. Shrödinger‘s Acting Job, both alive and dead at the same time.

The next day dawns and your thinking is beginning to change: Thursday, Thursday… they’ve probably finished auditions by now, so they’ll be starting to make decisions. This is where the clock/iPhone watching begins in earnest. Haven’t heard by lunchtime? That’s fine, it’ll probably be this afternoon. An hour’s grace for lunch between 1.00pm and 2.00pm, when you can actually focus on something else for a bit, then it starts again. 5.00pm approaches, 5.30… Well, maybe tomorrow. By this point, you’re starting to entertain the idea that it might not go your way, telling yourself that if you don’t hear on Friday, well then that’s it, you haven’t got it. And sure enough, Friday comes and goes and the phone doesn’t ring.

But then there’s Monday. Maybe they decided to take the weekend to make up their minds…

calendar

It can be absolute agony. Inevitably, some jobs are worse than others, i.e. the ones you really want. And the torture is amplified if it goes to recalls or beyond. I was recently working with two actors, both of whom were in the middle of this situation, and both of whom were throughly miserable about it. One of them said that he felt it was actually making him ill.

There’s nothing to be done, of course. It is simply one of those things about the profession. You leave the room, and you’ve done all you can. They can take as long as they want to make their decisions, and that’s that. All the hours spent speculating about what they must be thinking, attempting to read the runes or to gain some sort of insight into a director’s thought processes is a waste of time. There are many areas of our business in which change is really overdue, but opening up the decision making process is not one.

danny lee wynter

The only thing that can be done is to let every actor know how their audition went, and happily this is an idea that is really starting to gain traction, thanks in great part to the #YesOrNo initiative, spearheaded by the actor Danny Lee Wynter, which is asking for all actors who audition for a role to be told whether or not they have got the job. It has always been one of the most brutal aspects of the profession, the idea that an actor can put their all into preparing for a casting, but once they leave the room, they simply never hear a peep about it again. The #YesOrNo campaign addresses this head-on, and recently received a major boost when both the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company committed to giving every actor who auditions for them at least a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer:

rsc tweet yes or no

And gradually, many other theatre companies and casting directors are jumping aboard too.

It might not completely eradicate the post-audition collywobbles, but at least it ensures that an end is in sight.

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…

Poetry readings – # 5: William Shakespeare – Sonnet 14

Time to start the year with another Shakespeare sonnet – this time, number 14:

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy;
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find;
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thy self to store thou wouldst convert.
Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date. 

Where Are We Now? (or ‘How Do You Solve A Problem Like Career?’) – part one

 

tower house

LAMDA at Tower House

I first moved to London in 1995, when I won a place on the Three-Year Acting course at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). During those next three years, I got to know West London pretty well. Earls Court, High Street Kensington, Hammersmith – my fellow students and I owned those mean streets. We strode down Chiswick High Road in our baggy dance trousers and character shoes, talking too loudly about David Mamet and Alexander Technique, confident in the belief that in just a couple of years, we would be far too famous to get around without security and a smoked-glass Range Rover.

But there was one place we got to know better than anywhere else. From our first audition to the very last performance, all the most significant events of our time at LAMDA took place at the MacOwan Theatre. If I walked through those doors today – the scene of so many pivotal moments in our young lives – I could still confidently give you a comprehensive tour of the place.

Macowan theatre

LAMDA’s MacOwan Theatre

Except, of course, I couldn’t. The MacOwan Theatre no longer exists. LAMDA moved from Earls Court to its current location in Baron’s Court in 2003, and finally sold the MacOwan in 2011. The bulldozers moved in, and now its place has been taken by the usual block of West London luxury flats (Logan House). Which no actor could ever hope to afford.

When I read about this a few months ago, it set off a little chain reaction of nostalgic explosions in my mind, so it seemed like a good time to track down my fellow Old LAMDArians, and try to find out what we all feel about our time there – and the years since.

Hair LAMDA 1998

LAMDA class of 1998 in ‘Hair’

As is inevitable with any year group, we have scattered far and wide in the years since we graduated – Wales, Mallorca, New York and – yes – LA. A few still cling on in London, while many have succumbed to the verdant charms of The Regions. There were 29 of us when we left LAMDA in 1998 – now, a quick survey of Spotlight shows that 15 have kept up our subscriptions. Not too bad a showing, I suppose, but I wanted to dig a little deeper to understand the forces that have either kept us in the profession, or driven us out. So, I sent off a list of questions.

Not everyone responded, but in the end I heard back from more than half – 15 in total, and they were all very honest and frank – on the promise of anonymity.

I started at the very beginning, and asked why they had wanted to act in the first place…

LAMDA word cloud

When we started at LAMDA, we ranged in age from 18 to 26 – some fresh from school, some straight from University. I was 23.

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Your author at LAMDA in ‘Hair’

I look back on our LAMDA years with great fondness. I felt I was at the centre of everything I wanted to be part of, and I spent those three years feeling stimulated and challenged. Inevitably, when I asked my friends what their own feelings are about that time, it elicited a range of responses, some very positive:

– It was the first time that I really learned ‘how to learn’.
– I met some wonderful people who have stayed in my life for a long time.
– I was as happy as a pig in shit. Sooooo happy to be there. One of the most profound and rich experiences of my life.

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Some of the LAMDA class of 1998

Some less so:

– I found it quite tough… I found their methods for the most part to be very undermining.
– I don’t think I was rated particularly highly by the staff, and as such often felt somewhat overlooked and neglected at times.
It certainly seemed to be the case that the squeaky wheels got the most attention.

Some felt they hadn’t taken full advantage of their time at LAMDA:

– I didn’t make the most of it. I was very young – first time away from home.
– I could have gotten so much more out of it if I hadn’t let my self-doubt and lack of confidence get in the way.
– I do regret not making more of the opportunity.

I asked what they valued most about the training they received:

– The opportunity to work continuously on productions for a year is something outside of the RSC or NT you rarely have the opportunity to do.
– LAMDA allowed me to love what I do. In a messy, imperfect but deeply passionate way they put me on the track to my profession.

– It was a celebration of one’s idiosyncrasies.
– The cleverness of people. The humour. The importance and value of work. As Colin Cook said (this is my working mantra to this day) ‘Work is your armour’. And above all I think – my friends. It doesn’t matter where we are or where we go – I would do anything for any of those people that I shared those three years with.

LAMDA 1998 2

More of the class of 1998…

This is a view I share. It seemed to me that LAMDA encouraged us to be ourselves – we had all heard about the schools that ‘break you down to build you up again’, and LAMDA didn’t feel like that at all to me. But others disagree:–

– I don’t feel I was ever encouraged to keep the quirks that I entered with.
– I do not honestly know whether the whole “take you apart to put you back together” approach is now being over-exaggerated in my memory, but I did find it quite tough at times, and not particularly productive.

I asked what they felt the training lacked:

– Screen acting for a start.
– Vocal technique

– Weirdly, lack of acting classes.
– I can think of two teachers that had their favourites. It was frustrating to watch them fawn!
– I don’t think it lacked anything, actually. Like, how much more could we have actually done in three years?

LAMDA 1998 1

The rest of the class of 1998.

It seems that much has changed since we left the Academy. Our screen acting training felt cursory at best, although I did learn that it was best not to volunteer to smoke in a scene, unless you wanted to work your way through a whole pack. These days, to quote from the current LAMDA prospectus:

‘All students who graduate from LAMDA’s BA (Hons) Professional Acting leave with a professionally-shot show reel and a voice reel.’

It’s very important to bear in mind that this was all nearly 20 years ago. LAMDA is a different school now, with a different Principal, mostly different teaching staff and in a completely different location. It still calls itself LAMDA, but much like Trigger’s broom, all the significant parts have changed…

 

Even the qualification you graduate with is different: the three-year acting course is now a BA (Hons) degree course, whereas we left with a diploma. In a perverse way, I’m rather glad it was that way round, as it gave our training a kind of rarity, a refinement if you like, whereas a degree just seems rather everyday. And I already had one anyway, for all the good it ever did me. But I am aware that the ‘employment landscape’, as we must call it, has altered a lot since those bygone days, and a BA degree must help when the graduates are propelled blinking into the light of the Real World. Because there is a big difference between the idealised world of a drama training and the harsh realities of an actor’s life.

I asked if they felt prepared for an acting career by the time we graduated – and perhaps unsurprisingly, most did not:

-No I didn’t feel prepared
-NO NO NO NO NO. It does not teach you how to survive as an unemployed actor, how to see yourself as a product
– I question now if I would have done better not to have pursued what I was already doing.
-Definitely not! We spent 3 years in a bubble.
-Noooooooooo!
-yes and no..because it destroyed my confidence… but i learnt a lot of tools that then helped me to be able to direct
– business wise no. As an artist, yes. I wasn’t – but that was to do with me.

LAMDA 1998 4

Pages from an ancient artefact: our LAMDA Prospectus

There is a distinction here, to be sure. Those of us who were lucky enough to land work straight away were able to apply all the skills that were fresh in our minds. I went straight into a nice TV job, and despite my sketchy experience in front of a camera, I felt very comfortable and understood what was required of me. But I was pretty clueless about how to generate work.

– I was prepared for the jobs I got eventually – yes. There is only so much they can do at drama school – after that it comes down to practical experience.
-for an acting career, yes. For the non-acting part, no.
-Well, no. But I think that’s more to do with where I was, personally, Not because of anything that they hadn’t done.
-Yes, apart from the business side
-In many ways, yes.
-On the whole, yes.

We were part of a different generation to today’s drama school graduates, with no significant social media element to our lives; the internet played a much smaller role, and we didn’t even all have mobile phones yet. Some of us had pagers, for heaven’s sake. Off we went into the world, clutching our A-Z’s.

London-A-Z

Significantly, almost all of my respondents did not feel supported by LAMDA after graduation:

– No.
– Not at all.
– No. Once you leave you are on your own. They are happy to bask in the glory of actors who do well and have a glittering career, but for all the thousands of unemployed actors that they helped produce there is nothing.
– Honestly no. I think they were interested in the people who got famous quickly and could be used to raise funds. Sorry that’s cynical but that’s how it felt.
-Not really, no.
-No. There was kindness and love, but not enough rigour.

Although others felt differently:

– Yes I do. I worked in the reception there for a while and I helped around for a bit of extra cash – they were very good to me like that.
– I haven’t had any support, but I haven’t been in contact, so it’s just as much my fault. In my first year after leaving they supported me by giving me temp secretary work.
– Not really … but then, I never asked for support. I’m sure they would have been there had I asked.
– I did not feel that it was the school’s role to support me once I had graduated.

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Another groovy scene from ‘Hair’.

Inevitably, this raises the question of just how much responsibility institutions like LAMDA have to their students once they have completed training. No drama school can predict which student is going to ‘make it’ – as William Goldman’s useful maxim goes, ‘Nobody knows anything’ – but they could confidently surmise that a good half of any yearly intake will never make a living in the profession.

At no point do I remember any staff member sitting us down and saying, ‘Most of you will never work’. Of course, it would have been a bummer of positively cosmic proportions if they had. But maybe it would have been a necessary reality check.

Actors have often proposed a cull of their own number – I imagine Benedict Cumberbatch and Olivia Coleman on the rooftops of Wardour Street, armed with high-velocity rifles, picking off the weakest:

cumberbatch gunolivia coleman

But should Ben and Liv train their sights on the institutions, rather than their fellow thesps? One of my respondents thought so:

‘I feel they have a responsibility not to churn out so many actors in a market that cannot cater for them.’

Mind you, success as an actor is so random that perhaps the only sensible attitude is a scattershot one – throw out as many young hopefuls as you can, in the hope that at least a few will stick.

This being the case, drama schools surely have a duty of care to the students they send out into an unforgiving profession.

It does seem that colleges are doing much more these days to incorporate an element of career counselling – RADA has what it calls its ‘Buddy’ scheme, where graduates are paired up with alumni who are established in the profession to offer guidance and support, and I spoke recently to Rodney Cottier, Head of Drama School at LAMDA, who told me about their own new Mentor scheme, which will be launched at the end of June 2017, and which, like RADA’s initiative, will offer support for its students, ‘for the last 6 months of their training, and the first 6 months when they’re out there. It is the beginning and we have received funding for it from the Genesis Foundation, so hopefully this will really work.’

rodney cottier

Rodney Cottier

The Academy also has an industry liaison in the form of casting director, Laura Dickens, who is responsible for the final year professional preparation, as well as its own ‘Buddy’ system, although unlike RADA’s, this one is for new students rather than graduates. Rodney explained:

‘When people are offered a place, they are buddied up with somebody who is already at LAMDA so they can pick their brains – ask them any questions before they arrive, rather than feeling completely terrified on day one. So we’re servicing both ends…’

I think we would have benefited from this sort of scheme; ideally, it would stretch beyond the first six months and further into a career. It’s so easy to feel alone and powerless in this job.

Of course, as Rodney points out, ultimately most of the responsibility to develop a career lies with the individual:

‘There are a lot of things you cannot prepare people for – I occasionally have to throw in the statistics when somebody is late for yet another voice class.’

LAMDA 1998 Emma Bernbach Richard Morrison Joanna Van Kampen Sandra Paternostro Ayesha Mirza Gregory De Polnay

A LAMDA voice class with Gregory De Polnay

But no matter how well-prepared you may be, Real Life has a way of complicating things, as we will see in Part Two

Interview with the Casting Director – Hannah Miller – part two

hannah miller 2

Chris Naylor How did you start? Did you act at all?

Hannah Miller No I didn’t. I think it’s quite useful to understand more about who casting directors are; I joke with drama students that we don’t just come out of an egg. Quite unusually, it was pretty much my first job – I went to Hull University and did a drama degree, and probably thought I wanted to be a director at that point; I didn’t do any directing for at least a year-and-a-half, and felt everyone else was probably much better at it than I was, and then also realised I didn’t particularly want a freelance lifestyle. I think I realised at 21 that probably wasn’t the lifestyle for me. And then I started thinking about what sort of jobs I might be interested in – I wanted to be able to support people who were really talented, essentially.

CN In theatre, specifically?

HM Well, yes. I didn’t do much theatre – I wasn’t a performer at any point in my schooling really, except at primary school maybe – and we didn’t go to the theatre much as a family, so it wasn’t really part of my life.

Twin Peaks

TV and film, as a child of the 80s, was where it was at for me – I really loved David Lynch actually, ‘Twin Peaks’ changed my life – and how creative you could be in TV, which of course now is a bit of a given, suddenly, but at the time it really wasn’t. And so I went with that much more in mind, but at Hull I did 33 stage productions in 3 years, doing all sorts of things from design and lighting and sound, to producing, building the sets – tiny, weeny bit of acting, just to check I didn’t want to act –

CN – That it wasn’t a hidden passion?

HM Exactly, and I had no idea what I was doing, so that was fine!

CN Good choice, then.

HM I was in a year with a lot of really interesting, talented people, and I thought about wanting to support them and give them opportunities, and I thought, ‘Maybe an agent, maybe a producer’. Then I heard about this thing called casting at a workshop in Edinburgh, that the National Theatre Studio had put on. I went along and thought, ‘That suits the sort of things I like and the things I think I’m good at’, and I ended up at Cheek By Jowl on a work experience placement, which I’d got through an admin award at the National Student Drama Festival.

Matthew Macfadyen  Much Ado

When I was there, I asked to go along when they were casting – they were starting to cast a production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, with Matthew Macfadyen and Stephen Mangan, about ‘97/’98. And I worked with Serena Hill who was casting that, and the following January, because her assistant at the National had left, she asked me to temp for a month, and I stayed for 5 years.

CN So you found yourself in an institution?

HM Very unexpectedly. I left university thinking I’d work for someone like Complicité, and sort of find my feet and take it a bit slow. Suddenly by the January after I graduated I found myself casting assistant at the National Theatre. And within the first couple of weeks I suddenly understood that that was something I could do well. I really loved working in that environment; I consider it to be more than an apprenticeship – I worked with amazing casting directors, extraordinary directors and writers, and we had the most amazing actors walking through the door every day.

CN Did you sit in on auditions from the start?

sleep with me NT

HM Not too early on. I remember really clearly the first time I had to step in – I hadn’t been there very long. Wendy Spon was there as well at the time – Serena and Wendy both had other commitments in the evening, and I had to just go in and run the auditions for Hanif Kureishi’s play ‘Sleep With Me’, which Anthony Page was directing. We had to do scenes which involved coke-taking, a seduction scene, and that was my baptism by fire.

CN And clearly didn’t put you off?

HM No! I think it often takes quite a while before you are the person in the room – that’s not the primary part of the job, but by the end of my five years I did work on a lot of the musicals, and I cast things as well as doing the administration. So it was an amazing time.

CN That admin side of it must have been an eye-opener for you at the National – I imagine the volume of submissions you get is pretty impressive, and here similarly.

HM Yeah, and I encourage people to send their details. I consider it to be part of an actor’s job, they shouldn’t worry about what’s happening at the other end. But we look at absolutely everything and, as a publically-subsidised organisation who has an in-house department with a team of people, we can answer queries on the telephone, and look through correspondence, and use every part of the material that comes to us to help us do our job.

CN From an actor’s point of view, you’re never really sure of how well-received your submission will be, and there’s always the fear that your agent will not want you to do it.

HM I think that’s true. But an actor’s role, when you’re not in front of a camera or on in rehearsals or on stage, is about telling people that you want to work with them. I think there can be a tendency to think that we can find everybody; it is our job to try, but if you consider a line of however many tens of thousands of people and just me, it’s a lot easier for any one of those people to communicate with me, than for me to have knowledge of every one of those actors.

me and ed

CN I remember working with Ed Bennett – we did ‘The Importance Of Being Earnest’ in York [Edward Bennett – the finest Algy there will ever be], and he was talking about the National, and he said, ‘They know. They know what everybody’s doing. They keep tabs on all of us the whole time; at every stage in your career’. And I thought, ‘Is that really true?’

HM Well, we try, and I think there was a time when people really could do that. But now there are a lot of people working, and it’s not physically possible in the way that it once was.

CN Even though one of you is seeing something every night of the week.

HM And watching telly, and going to drama school showcases, and reading everything that comes in, and keeping an eye on reviews. We’re keeping an eye on a lot of people, but it’s still valuable to put your head above the parapet to say, ‘Hi, I’m over here!’ because you’re just drawing attention to the fact that you want to work with us. Particularly with people coming back into the profession – or who perhaps have said, ’Actually I can’t come up to the RSC’, when that situation changes – you know, those kind of things. If I went freelance tomorrow, you would expect me to write to the people that I might want to work with. You wouldn’t expect me to just sit at home and wait for the phone.

CN I think there’s a fear from actors of being the little irritant – you don’t want to phone your agent too much, because they’ll get irritated with you, and you don’t want to be the person at the party who goes, ‘Hi, are you casting anything at the moment?’

HM But I think that’s just about using a bit of common sense, but it’s also about not being too paranoid – just because you haven’t got a response, doesn’t mean it was irritating. For example, when I was freelancing and working for Birmingham Rep I didn’t have any help, so I was at auditions all day, went to the theatre, came home, then looked at my emails, typed up the list for the next day, printed out all the CVs, went to bed at 2.00 in the morning, got up at 7.00 and did it all over again. So there isn’t time to respond to anything that isn’t immediately about those auditions. There isn’t time to write to somebody and say, ‘Sorry I can’t see your show’. That just doesn’t come close to being possible.

And it’s not irritating if you’ve got something new to say; if you’re saying, ‘I’m going to be on television on this day’, or ‘I’m in this show’, or, ‘I know you’re casting this and I would love to be considered’, that’s all news.

CN So if you’re casting, for example, ‘Henry V’, and an actor thinks, ‘I’m right for this, I’d love to play that part’, would you encourage them – if they’re going to write to you – to be specific and say, ‘Would you consider seeing me for the Dauphin‘?

RSC Henry V

HM Yeah, I think it’s always good to know that people know and understand the play and have a sense of what they potentially could be right for, and to make a pitch. It doesn’t mean we won’t go, ‘Ooh, not that part, but this part’. We’ll do the work ourselves, it’s not like we’d be so blinkered to go, ‘You’re not right for that part, you’re not right for anything’. Or going, ‘Actually we’ve cast that, but I know that in 6 months’ time we’re going to be casting this, and you might be really right for that’, and I’ll put it in a file. It’s all just a huge melting pot of communication. You never write anyone off.

CN So even if somebody buggers up an audition terribly?

HM Well, the chances are we’ll get them straight back in for something else. If you’ve seen an actor at some point and liked what they’ve done, then you’re much more likely to assume that they will do that again. That’s the important thing to remember – if you’re being invited to an audition, we’re only bringing you in because we think you can do the job.

CN Have you ever fought an actor’s corner, or had to persuade a director to see someone?

HM Not to see them, because they don’t decide who to see. We decide who to see. I mean, generally speaking, some directors know a lot of actors and are very involved in who they want to see, and if a director knows an actor, of course I’ll say, ‘Do you think they’re right for this?’ But a lot of the time we’re making the decision as to who to bring in. You hope that you’re developing relationships with directors where they value your opinion, but ultimately of course it’s the director’s final decision, and we will sometimes have very robust conversations, and sometimes be in complete accord. And then we sit on first night and see who was right – no, I’m joking!

CN Where do you get most job satisfaction?

HM It’s where my initial impetus lay when I was 20 – when I know that it was down to me that somebody has been given an opportunity that makes a real difference. A real difference because it’s a role that nobody ever thought of them for before, or because they haven’t worked in a while, or because they’ve always wanted to work at the RSC. And the RSC features very heavily for a lot of people in why they’ve become actors. I do appreciate that – you can’t carry that around constantly, you need to be able to just get on with your job, but I am conscious of it. And obviously someone’s very first job is quite special, particularly when they don’t have an agent yet and you have to ring them directly. Absolutely wonderful. A job that you know means a lot to them, it’s wonderful that you can facilitate that. It is a privilege.

CN It’s an extraordinary place to work, and to facilitate that – what an honour.

White Devil Kirsty Bushell RSC

HM And then the real job satisfaction is when you see them six months later and they’re having a wonderful time, a bit tired but really loving it – and making the most of it, you know? When you see actors really figure out how to get most out of time here and in Stratford, and see them just grabbing every opportunity, and getting a huge amount of satisfaction – in turn that gives us satisfaction.

Interview with the Casting Director – Hannah Miller – part one

Hannah Miller

Visiting the Royal Shakespeare Company’s London offices involves a climb up many flights of stairs, and I think serves as an effective pre-audition test – if you can survive the climb, then you clearly have the stamina for a year at the RSC. Hannah Miller has been the RSC Head of Casting since 2008, and an audition with her is one of the most desirable appointments in the acting profession.

Chris Naylor You have a very privileged position at the RSC – it’s a place where most actors really would love to work.

Hannah Miller
I hope so!

CN I wonder how you view that position, in terms of the feelings of people who want to work with you?

HM It is a responsibility, and whilst it’s a responsibility to the acting profession, it’s also a responsibility to directors, to the audiences, to our writers – Shakespeare included but not exclusively. Those three letters – RSC – do carry a great deal of connotation, both positive and negative. They can feel like a barrier to some people, they can cause our work to be misunderstood sometimes, they are a mark of excellence, we hope. Obviously we take very seriously the need to maintain that. And then there’s the fact that it’s a subsidised company as well, so you’ve got a responsibility to the sector, you’ve got a responsibility to be cultural leaders, to be always working in a way that is best practice, and we do take that really seriously.

CN The whole public company thing – everything you do has to be very accountable, doesn’t it? Does that place responsibility on you, to be very open about how you cast, or even to try and be more inclusive in who you meet?

HM Yes, and you know, hopefully I would want to work in that way wherever I was. The other thing, as the casting department for this organisation, is the work we do that maybe isn’t visible –the fact that we go out and see as much theatre as we do. We worked out, in four weeks between us, we paid 75 visits to the theatre. And not all of those visits would even be in a way that anybody was aware of – you know, we just took ourselves off.

CN Probably better for the actors as well – like when critics don’t come on the first night, they might see a more relaxed show.

HM Exactly – as a guest with an agent it’s lovely, but sometimes we just want to go to the theatre. I explain to students that it’s our job to get to know as many actors as possible; that is our core, basic job, and that isn’t always visible. We can apply that knowledge to the visible bit, which is who we’re bringing in to meet. But the knowledge is the important thing. So it’s not all about the here and now – I might know somebody for 10, 15 years, before I have the right job for them.

CN Are there actors that you have stored, thinking, ‘I’ll just wait three more years and she’ll be right?’

HM It’s not necessarily that strategic – and it’s not that someone is or isn’t right now – but at the end of the day there are only so many people that I can bring in for a part. And even if it’s ten, and we’ve got a company of 22, that’s still 220 people. 10 people for one part doesn’t sound a lot, but auditioning 220 people for a company takes a lot of time, because we do 20-minute meetings minimum. The hard bit of the job is that you could bring in 50 people, but you’ve only got time to bring in 10.

CN That’s tough, isn’t it?

HM And it’s instinct, it’s about bringing in a diverse group of people who your instinct tells you will make lots of different offers of how they might interpret that part, and what they bring in terms of their skills and experience, and their way of thinking as an actor, that I think might be a fit with that director and that project, and with anyone else we’ve already cast.

Gregory Doran Linda Nylind - GuardianErica Whyman

CN So when a season is decided on and the plays are set out, how does it work? Are you brought in or do you start earlier than that?

HM I’m part of the group of Heads of Department who are on the artistic planning team. We get together with Greg [Doran, Artistic Director] and Erica [Whyman, Deputy Artistic Director] and the producers to discuss the artistic planning of the RSC. So we’ll be aware of projects that might be upcoming, and suggesting whether we want to cast people before we confirm projects, sometimes. So early on I’ll be aware of the sorts of things that we might be doing, and be ready to get going as soon as we have projects, dates and directors confirmed. And sometimes we might want to look at casting people in leading roles before we can confirm a date, so we can work around people‘s availability, for example, but generally speaking we want to have those three things in place. Then I’ll start talking to the directors about their individual ideas, and their initial instincts about the story they want to tell with the production, and sometimes getting into quite a lot of detail on people that they’ve admired, people they’d like to work with, people they have worked with, or just reference points for characters, those kind of conversations.

CN So at that point presumably you’ll start going, ‘That makes me think of this actor…’

HM Yes, but obviously here most of the time we’re casting one company to work on two, three, maybe even four productions, so I’ll be having those conversations as early as possible, talking about any really strong choices that they want to make – for example, about the gender of characters – and if I have those conversations with all three directors then I can start to see how those productions might influence each other, and start to propose ideas of how different parts might work together. I always do that just to prove we can, it’s not fixed in stone in any way, because then real people walk through the door.

We meet actors that directors want to work with, and lots of actors that are all right for the same part in one play, but everybody would love them to be in the company, so we start to shift how those parts join up, and make lines of parts and opportunities for as many of the actors as possible.

CN So you’ll try and balance the size of parts?

HM Yeah, exactly. We don’t want to be saying, ‘You can’t work with that actor because…’, we want to say, ‘Can we think laterally about how this company can be formed, so that everybody has a fulfilling and interesting line of parts?’

Lizzie Hopley

CN [Actress and writer] Lizzie Hopley was talking recently about ‘Girl Fights’, the play she developed while she was working at Stratford, and saying what a supportive atmosphere the RSC is. What she described was almost like a theatrical village, where there’s a great community that will support and help any project. In a way you’re populating this village, aren’t you? You’re trying to create a little community that will work together.

HM Absolutely, that’s a very interesting way of putting it; I like that, populating a village.

CN I’ve been reading Antony Sher’s book ‘Year Of The Fat Knight’, and Stratford does have such a strong identity, it’s almost like a character in the diaries.

Sher Fat Knight

HM The environment for working is pretty special, I think; it’s not going to be for everyone, but I think the vast majority of people that work there have got a lot out of that. It is a bit of a bubble, but consequently it’s an incredibly supportive environment and well-populated in every department – there are people around to support you in every aspect of your work. Plus, as Lizzie brilliantly made the most of, for those people who have other interests, you’re there with lots of other actors who are also away from home and have a little bit of extra time to create projects and try things out, compared to being in London where everyone just goes home at the end of the night. There is an environment of creativity – people work very hard, and we know that. We put a lot of demands on our actors in Stratford, and there’s a lot that we’d like them to get involved with, as well as the shows. And I’m conscious of that being right for people at different moments of their time and career.

I was with drama students yesterday and they were talking about, you know, ‘How often is it somebody’s first job?’ It varies from year to year, of course, depending on the plays we’re doing, but quite often there’s at least between one and five people who are in their first year after graduating. But I know a lot of people who get more out of it five or ten years into their career, or even beyond, because it’s about a return to a sense of being able to learn and stretch and work really hard.

CN That absorption in the craft.

HM Exactly.

CN When you’re auditioning, can you get the sense that this person won’t like that total immersion, and being away for a long time?

HM I think most people, when they come in to audition, know what it’s like, and people are honest about whether they are ready for that, or if it was only one or two plays out of a season, but not three or four.

CN Do you have that flexibility?

HM Sometimes we’re at a point where we can be flexible about the way the company forms, and sometimes we can’t, but it’s often a question.

Royal Shakespeare Theatre

CN Being quite a way from London, being separate from all the rush and the career pressure and – for actors, anyway, that ‘missing out’ thing – it’s an interesting mixture isn’t it? It’s such a prestigious place to work, and yet you’re away for quite a while.

HM I think it’s a societal thing generally in 2015 – everyone always thinks they have to move on. I’ve got friends in completely different industries who are like, ‘Well, I shouldn’t be in this job for longer than, you know 3 or 4 years’. It’s certainly incredibly prevalent in our industry, which I find hilarious, because none of us is going to have a pension and we’re all going to be working into our eighties, so I don’t know what the rush is. I am not sure that I buy any of that, personally.

Maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned; I think there is room for focusing on the fact that this is a company that you want to be part of; that you want to go back to some basics of technique and craft that you once learnt or haven’t had the chance to develop. It is about fulfilment and satisfaction and creativity, and working with amazing people; working for a company that can support you and is prestigious, rather than, ‘But what is this credit going to be and who’s going to see me do it and –’

CN ‘What’s next?’

HM I’m sure for some people it takes a while to get used to a freelance life, and so to interrupt that isn’t always going to be easy. Of course there are some people who love that – it doesn’t suit them to do the same thing for 9 months or a year, and they like to go from one thing to another. I don’t want us to pretend that our work isn’t what it is, and yes, normally the contracts are 6 months minimum, often over a year. They have a different flow, a different workload, and if that isn’t right for somebody, I don’t want anyone to pretend that it is.

shakespeare's globe

CN It seems from observing the shows over the years that – much like the Globe, for example – there are actors who love it, and feel at home and want to return. That’s a rather wonderful thing isn’t it? It’s not something that we are often able to do in this country.

HM Absolutely, it’s that sense of getting to know a group of people. I’m talking to a lot of drama students at this time of year – having worked with the same people for three years, what they’re very excited about is, ‘We’ll be working with complete strangers, won’t that be so weird?’

CN ‘Of the right age!’

HM Yes, exactly! And working with people from different backgrounds, with different experiences, and of course often with people who have been with the RSC before. On the other hand, this spring we looked at everybody who was on the payroll, and 66% of the company were on their first ever contract with us, out of nearly 200 people. And I think that’s another thing that surprises people – sometimes you can look at it and say, ‘They only ever have new people and they’ve never asked me back’, or, ‘They only ever work with the same people’ –

CN Depending on your attitude?

HM Yeah, it depends what people want to see. But actually the truth of it is that it’s very even. But also that the people returning range from having been here in the season immediately before, to not having returned for 15, 20 years.

CN That must keep it fresh – give it a sense of continuity and freshness at the same time.

HM And that combination is really important, I think. Because younger actors working here for the first time do appreciate having people around who can say, ‘Oh well, it never used to be like this’, or, ‘That’s always what you get’ or whatever.

CN And also for the older actors, seeing it through fresh eyes.

HM Exactly, it works both ways.

In Part Two, Hannah talks beginnings, how to approach a casting director and ‘Twin Peaks’…