Tag Archives: stabilo boss

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.

Advertisements

What’s My Line?

gambon

I suppose this is what it feels like when an era ends. Michael Gambon has announced that he will not be taking any more stage roles as, at the age of 74, he now struggles to remember his lines:
“It’s a horrible thing to admit but I can’t do it. It breaks my heart. It’s when the script’s in front of me and it takes forever to learn. It’s frightening,” he said in an interview with the Sunday Times. After trying to work with an earpiece, the Great Gambon has decided to restrict himself to screen acting. Of course, he is a magnificent actor in any medium, but it’s a sad thing to realise that we will no longer be able to witness his extraordinary talent in the flesh.

Michael Gambon in 'Volpone'Actor Michael Gambon in The Caretaker

I feel very lucky to have seen Michael Gambon live on a couple of occasions – firstly as a magnificently devilish and operatic ‘Volpone’ at the National Theatre – the mountebank scene in particular sticks in my memory, as his accent took a hilarious, rambling tour around the British Isles – and later as a truly loathsome Davies in ‘The Caretaker’. I’ll always remember his grotesque way of eating, his long, spidery fingers wandering over his food.

One of our favourite clichés as a profession is that, at a post-show discussion with the audience, someone will always ask, ‘How do you learn all those lines?’ Actually, I’ve never been asked that – usually the questions are far more intelligent and probing. But I’ve certainly asked it of myself. How do we do it? And why doesn’t it always work?

sample-workingscript001

An actor’s memory must be the most important tool in the kit, and losing it is certainly the biggest fear. ‘What if I forget it all?’ must be the main constituent of any actor’s first-night dread, and it is a wobble that can resurface throughout a run. I always breathe a hefty sigh of relief and pat myself heartily on the back when I make it through a whole run of performances without buggering anything significant up.

There are a couple of occasions that shine out from my career like beacons, as a permanent reminder – a memini oblivionem, if you will (‘remember that you must forget’). The first came in an otherwise entirely wonderful production of Stephen Jeffreys’s adaptation of ‘Hard Times’ at the Watermill Theatre in 2001. I had survived the entire run unscathed, practically word-perfect, and then we arrived at the final performance (if memory serves) and I had one of my best friends in the audience. In one of my favourite scenes – a duologue – I inadvertently answered a question with my response to my fellow actor’s subsequent line. The other actor continued and gave me the cue which would have led me back to that line. I remember thinking ‘Well, I can’t say it again,’ and then every thought flew out of my head. My comrade on stage experienced a similar failure of the imagination, and time came to a dead halt. I briefly thought, ‘This is really funny!’, then I remembered that no, it wasn’t, it was actually very serious and I needed to pull myself together. The seconds/minutes/hours flew past and I floundered around, rambling appallingly and toying bizarrely with my glass of fake whisky, before I somehow managed to clamber back into the script, having cut a page and a half of useful plot. Afterwards I staggered off stage into the arms of a kindly fellow cast member, who was no doubt happy it hadn’t happened to him.

10171_maeve_larkin_sibyl_james_simmons_elyot_christopher_naylor_victor_and_jackie_morrison_amanda

The second time was in ‘Private Lives’ in Oldham, my first job after nearly a year in ‘The Woman In Black’. The Coward play seemed like a breeze in comparison – a smaller part (Victor Prynne, the straight-backed husband), easy dialogue etc. I was dangerously relaxed on the first night – so much so, that in my very first scene with my new bride Amanda, my mind wandered off-piste and I lost my way. I leapt ahead by about 20 lines and, for some reason, decided to call Amanda ‘Sybil’, the name of a character who had yet to appear and who neither of us had even heard of at that point. My Amanda, the very wonderful Jackie Morrison, took the scene in hand and I wobbled squeakily to the end.

These little episodes have come in very useful as admonishments if I ever feel my concentration wavering, but, in a way, I feel slightly more forgiving towards myself as I get older. Performing a play is a numbers game: there will usually be casualties from one quarter or another.

But losing your way for a few lines in the occasional show is a different thing entirely to realising that your memory is failing you permanently. I have worked with many actors who have told me that, somewhere around the age of 60, it starts getting harder to learn a script. Add to this the strange phenomenon that acting seems to get scarier the older you get, rather than less so, and the profession can look like an unfriendly environment to the older actor.

When you are young and self-confident, full of box-fresh invincibility, it’s easier to take the stresses of performance in your stride. But as the years go by, I think you become more aware of the potential pitfalls of stepping on stage – after all, you’ve either fallen into the holes yourself, or observed a poor fellow actor take a tumble. This inevitably erodes your armour to some extent.

pen

But the truth is that it’s quite unreasonable to expect ourselves to keep going at the same level of intensity for ever. Sadly, a decline in our ability to learn a long script is as inevitable as the decline in a sports player’s ability to run the length of a football pitch. As the sports man is forced to hang up his boots, so the actor must eventually put away his highlighter pen – for those larger parts, at least.

angela

However, this doesn’t have to signal the end of an actor’s career. Although Mr Gambon obviously doesn’t like using an earpiece, these days plenty of other older leading actors don’t seem to mind so much – indeed I recently discovered that Angela Lansbury employed one to play Madame Arcati in ‘Blithe Spirit’ in the West End. It was a vibrant and very funny performance, so it was a bit of a surprise to discover that her lines were being fed to her. But actually it doesn’t diminish her achievement in any way; an earpiece couldn’t have helped her to play in such a physical and inventive way. And of course most people know that Marlon Brando used an earpiece or even cue cards in many of his later film roles – see this extract from ‘Hearts of Darkness’ about the making of ‘Apocalypse Now’:

I think we should really take Mr Gambon’s stage exit as an opportunity to celebrate this extraordinary actor; to say thank you for those remarkable stage performances, and to look forward to many years of work on screen.