Thursday, 29 December 2011

Time to Kill

Here I am in the early evening, sitting at my computer, trying to keep up with book orders (suddenly after Cmas, everyone's got money to spend, so I'm wrapping books and deleting entries from various files), in a good mood after today's callback at the Greenwich Playhouse, when I see an email in my inbox about a Video Project. Director Arnold de Parscau wants me to fly to Brittany to act the part of a serial killer. He's seen me on Casting Call Pro and has taken the trouble to track down my personal email (there's also a message for me on CCP which indicates that he really does want to get in touch with me). Am I interested?

I look at the videos he's sent me, particularly the one which became the official video for David Lynch's Good Day Today. I like David Lynch. I like this track. I like the content and style of the video. I like this project. Of course I'm interested. The problem is I'm committed to As You Like it, which is being rehearsed when Parscau wants to film, and, if I'm lucky, that'll be directly followed by The Duchess of Malfi.

Arnold gives me dates that sound reasonable. I email Marianna to beg time off AYLI - which
surely won't be difficult, considering how small my roles are. It looks as if it might happen. So Arnold and I agree to Skype each other tomorrow morning to see if we're compatible - and I'm sitting here surrounded by uncatalogued books and a cooling cup of coffee with an uncharacteristic beam on my evil, serial killer's face...

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Called Back

A pleasant surprise after a few days' break in Bonnie Scotland. I've had a call back for the Duchess of Malfi. A major part, says Glowering Bruce on the phone, an amalgam of several in the original script, but with little dialogue, which means it's difficult to fill. Am I interested? There's a small problem in that the Other Half and I were scheduled to fly to Thailand in the middle of the run, but dates can be changed or he could go first and I catch up later. But of course I'm interested, so tomorrow lunchtime I head back to Greenwich. I'm not counting chickens, but I can hear pecking from inside the shell...

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Reeling Backwards

The Voice. The Voice. Everyone tells me I have a good voice. I like the sound of my voice when I hear myself speak, although I’m less impressed when I hear it on tape. Still, the couple of times I have made voicereels – firstly with the unimpressive London Academy, then with Cut Glass – it has seemed that while my range may be limited, something lurks in my chest and larynx that can be used in some commercial and dramatic settings.

So I Googled voicereels and came up with a surprisingly short list of studios in London that create them, usually compiling six or so samples in different settings complete with atmospheric music. After some deliberation I chose Round Island, persuaded partly by price (£325 for two reels, commercial and drama), partly by location (on my side of the city and easily accessible) and partly by the apparent professionalism of Guy Michaels, the producer.

Yes, Guy had hundreds of scripts; no, it sounded to me, he wouldn’t let me use them. Producers and agents were tired of being given the same texts again and again, he said, put together by studios that just wanted to hustle their clients in and out. If I wanted to stand out from the crowd, I should choose my own scripts to match my talents and voice.

Naturally lazy, I at first resisted. But I respected the underlying principle and after going through dozens of plays and books and radio and television ads I came up with more than twenty extracts from which I expected to use about ten. And on 13 December I took the 141 bus to its final stop and walked the short distance to the home of Round Island, arriving a few minutes before the appointed hour of 10am.

I had Streetviewed the address and seen a suburban house, but knew it was possible to set up a professional small studio and recording booth in a spare bedroom, although not the size of the one pictured . . . I was not prepared for a microphone in the corner of a kitchen/living-room with what I had assumed was two squares of felt, but which, I have been informed, were two pieces of 'auralex pro foam panels positioned for optimum ambience and deadening along with SE electronics reflexion filter pro' behind it to act as baffles, and a mere keyboard and computer where I had expected a full sound deck. As I sat down for coffee and began chatting with Guy the fridge hummed a few feet away and traffic rumbled in the distance. Surely these would affect the quality of any recording?

But I have almost no experience in sound recording and the website and my previous contacts with Guy had reassured me, so I silenced my doubts and we started work. First I read through the pieces I had brought to let Guy select the ones that would work best. I would have liked more time to choose and experiment, but Guy wanted to start recording.

The time passed quickly. Guy pushed me to try different variations in each of the texts I was working with, which ranged from selling coffee seductively to going mad in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. To my surprise, shortly after 1pm he announced we had finished, but we had put together the requisite number of extracts and my presence was no longer needed. Like a child allowed early out of class, tired (I was in the middle of mild flu which, fortunately, had not affected my voice) and with a desk at home full of other tasks that I was eager to get on with, I took my leave.

At the weekend, the recordings arrived in my inbox, both the individual extracts and the two compilations. Busy with parties and the filming of The Players, I did not open it. Monday brought an audition, a rehearsal and Christmas shopping. Tuesday was the Other Half’s day off and we spent it together shopping and lazing. It was only on Wednesday that I heard the recordings. And almost wept.

The voice that I heard was slow, unintelligent and mind-numbingly boring, the Scots accent inauthentic in one extract, laughable in another. The music used is minimal and to my mind routine (Guy had said that he did not use pre-recorded sounds but created his own).

Compared with the voicereels I had made earlier, I expected a leap forward. What came across to me was a leap backward. There was no way I could respect myself and still use them.

Aware that I am a harsh critic and I might be making a mistake, I sent out the recordings to friends and colleagues. Two said the quality was excellent, one said he couldn’t stop laughing; most said they were “all right”. But “all right” isn’t good enough. If it isn’t generally perceived to be excellent, it isn’t worth using.

I don’t blame Guy for this fiasco – although I think his claim to professionalism is on shaky ground. I blame myself. I should have researched the options better. I should have refused to record in what seemed to me such an amateurish setting. I should have insisted on hearing the tapes I had made, instead of accepting Guy’s opinion as he listened on his headphones. I should have stayed and rerecorded and rerecorded until I got to the level that I was happy with. And if I did not reach that level, I would have said to myself that I did not have what it takes to be a voiceover artist. Then I would have walked away, having lost money but gained experience. In short, I should have trusted myself, not a stranger in his living-room.

Now I have to start all over again. I have to find a truly professional studio and I go there with a professional attitude. I need to listen to myself as I record. I need to agree the music / sound effects with the producer. In short, I need to go forward, not back. Only then can I decide if I can be a voiceover artist. And if the answer is no, I can’t, at least I will know that my money has been well spent.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Glory and Gore

To the Greenwich Playhouse to audition for The Duchess of Malfi. The only role that meets my age range is the Cardinal, who - for those who aren't familiar with Webster's gory masterpiece - is one of the Church's more devious servants scheming, bribing and murdering his way through life. The speech I've learnt comes early in the play, when he first berates and then seduces his mistress, and I've chosen it because it allows me to convey a range of emotions from curiosity to mockery, desire to contempt.

Arriving early, I wait in the lobby below the theatre as the player before me auditions. There is much Sturm und Drang, but the words are unclear and I cannot determine which character or play is on offer. Then there is a brief moment of silence and a deep, impatient Scots accent offers notes even louder than the previous performance. It feels as if I am back at school, eavesdropping outside the headmaster's office; with a slight feeling of guilt, I remove myself into the bar and wait to be called.

A few minutes later a young assistant leads me up into the Presence. Short, smiling Alice offers me her hand; glowering Bruce does likewise. Producer Alice has me sit before her; Director Bruce sits to one side. Alice smiles a lot. I am not sure that Bruce has ever smiled. Alice and I chat and I respond primarily to her, but glance at Bruce every so often to acknowledge his presence. My lack of acting experience does not seem to be a problem and my choice of the Cardinal's speech seems welcome.

Using the chair as an improvised prop, I chide Alice "Why do you weep?", boast that "You cannot make me cuckold" and seduce her "I pray thee, kiss me". My voice is quiet, but it covers the range of emotions and while I do not give the speech full justice, I at least indicate I understand it and that my performance suggests I could do much more.

Alice thanks me, turns to Bruce. Bruce continues to  glower. Do I have anything more passionate? she asks. I offer Malvolio or Shylock. Bruce hums and haws about length and then goes for Shylock. With Alice as Antonio, I put more anger into the speech than usual. Again, I feel, I demonstrate both understanding and potential.

I sit down again. There is a lull in the conversation and I expect to be thanked and asked to leave. Then Bruce speaks. Most of the characters in this production will be young, he says, by which I understand I am too old for the part. But two actors will be needed for their physical presence. I puff myself up and deepen my voice in acknowledgement as the Cardinal's robes hover about my shoulders. These actors will play multiple roles, Bruce adds, and the robes fade. Not that they would be small parts, he goes on; as bodyguards, jailers, murderers they will be key to establishing the mood of the play.

The unspoken suggestion hangs in the air that I might just possibly be suitable for one of these parts, if no-one better comes along and I perform adequately in some call-back. Am I interested, I ask myself? Well, of course, any role is better than no role and the Greenwich Playhouse, under Alice's and Bruce's stewardship, has a good reputation. I would be a fool to turn down anything they offered. The only problem would be six weeks standing up to an irascible Scotsman who, appearance suggests, chews up and spits out novices like me on a regular basis. (The fact that I am half-Scottish and have the accent to prove it would be little defence; when it comes to aggression, the apologetic Englishman in me inevitably comes to the fore.) But problems and challenges can be met and overcome and if I can't play the Cardinal, I'll gladly be his bodyguard and bask in his glory and gore.

So I leave, once again quite pleased with myself. Of course, I've experienced this post-audition warmth before and I'm aware as I wait for my train to Charing Cross that today is likely to come to nothing. But once again I've proved myself, and for at least another month I have As You Like It to keep me occupied.

picture from the BBC

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Muscle Memory Or More?

It was cold. Very cold. Our clothes were piled on top of the only radiator and in between shots, the wardrobe mistress - or whatever you call the woman responsible for costumes on set - ran round thrusting heated jackets and scarves and hats onto our shoulders and other body parts, until a few minutes later she scurried round to take them off again, leaving us trying not to shiver.

My First Film Shoot had started at 7.20 am, when I turned up at the make-up studio off Hackney Road. Next to arrive was Gary, who had only slept for two hours out of the last forty-eight and whose previous twenty hours had been spent on another film. His sunken eyes and manic expression told the toll; luckily sunken eyes and manic expression were integral to his part in the upcoming recording.

Over the next half hour, the make-up artist, costume designer and other players turned up and the five of us were transformed into the characters in this unusual game. My bald head was deshined, foundation softened the bags under my eyes and the redness of my cheeks and nose, and the stylish purple shirt and tie I was wearing gave way to pale lilac. Once in character, we all squashed into an old small Ford or Honda and were driven a mile or so away to the basement set. The cold basement set. The very cold basement set.

From then on it was shoot, position, rest, reshoot, reposition, rest, reshoot, resposition and so on hour after hour until 11 at night. At times the whole game was filmed - an event that lasted anywhere from two to three minutes; at times merely reaction shots. The longer the shot, the more I fell into character, but even then I did not connect with Spike in the same way as I did our first rehearsal, when improvisation allowed us each to explore our adopted personalities in some depth. The problem was that Spike is a naturally fidgety, talkative individual and in this game of poker he has to sit as still and as silent as he can.

I wondered if it was the same for all actors when filming. When the scene lasts only a few seconds, for an over-the-shoulder or other reaction shot, can any player fully inhabit their character? Surely the best that can be hoped for is muscle memory to screw up one's face to the appropriate expression, while one's mind stays behind in reality rather than the character they are creating? Or are we always expected to fully become the person we represent, if only for five seconds?

If the director was unhappy with my performance, he did not say so, offering only a couple of notes as the day went on. Everyone else fulfilled their task in a similar, quiet fashion, no matter how late in the day or how tired we were getting. At least we were quiet when filming, but when the camera was off, the mood was light. We were all from very different backgrounds - one a Scandinavian, one a young heart-throb, one a reformed ladies' man, one a sharp businessman, and me, the oldest in age but youngest in experience - but we stayed together most of the time, talking and joking. Meanwhile, behind the lights the crew of ten moved quietly and efficiently, with only the occasional hint of tension when Producer did not always agree with Director's decision. 

As the characters came together, one set of doubts I had had last week evaporated, but another set remained. When off set as other characters were filmed, I watched the monitor but could not see the vision that the script and rehearsals had suggested. Everything was in place - the challenging faces, the surrounding darkness, the table bare of everything but cards and chips - yet they did not come together with the intensity that I had thought would be the hallmark of the film. I knew that weeks of editing lay ahead and the quality of the screen might be much poorer than the quality of the recording, but I was disappointed that it was not immediately obvious to me that a masterpiece was being filmed. Of course I said nothing. I had been proved wrong once already and hope to be proved wrong again.

Finally we went home, a merry band of players, peeling off at the Angel, Islington, as we each headed in our different directions. I came home exhausted and exhilirated, texted the Other Half, who was in a nightclub bonding with a new friend from his homeland, and collapsed into bed. I fell asleep, The Players already forgotten as I mumbled the Cardinal's seduction to his mistress for the Duchess of Malfi audition - but that's a story waiting for tomorrow.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Cold Nightmare

In the heart of London there is a deserted building with stairs that go down and down leading to a warren of dimly-lit and unlit basements and cellars and tunnels. Six of us descended last night into that bleak setting, reminiscent of horror movies and Gothic tales - "Just a little further down this damp, dark passageway, Fortunato, lies that cask of amontillado..." - and shivered in the cold to play our never-ending game of poker.

In that setting, the characters finally came to life, as we glanced round at our fellow-players and down at the cards that appeared on the table. Again and again we glanced at our hands, called, raised or folded, straining to reveal no hint of our strength or weakness as we assessed the strength and weakness of those around us. This was no friendly Friday night game, but a nightmare set in freezing, dark uncertainty. As the pile of chips rose, so did the tension, higher and higher, until one of us broke.

Tomorrow is the day we shoot. I am 90% confident of my ability to play my part - the challenge is to marry Spike's underlying emotions with the poker-face he has to present to the world. But with twelve hours to shoot three minutes and the emphasis on five different characters, at some point during the day I am sure I will give the director what he needs to complete a memorable scene. In the meantime it's back to the real world and a day of meeting old friends and new as the ancient festival of Yule draws near.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Coming Together

Two hours on Shakespeare, three hours on poker. They are coming together. Act 1 of As You Like It has been blocked, and on Monday, we will go over the short duologue between Charles and Oliver.

I'm happier about The Players, but not yet ecstatic. Our missing cast member, the Dashingly Handsome Young Jack, turned up last night. I couldn't work out whether his distant attitude was his personality or his character. My own character, Spike, settled over me, although he's still not fully there. All but one of us knows his moves - let's hope the dealer gets it right for tonight's dress rehearsal. More accurately, rehearsals; the film is so short that we should get through it at least twenty times before the end of the evening. Tonight we shall probably all be seeing cards in our sleep.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

A glass of brandy and Anthony Powell

To the Old Fire Station in the Holloway Road last night, for another rehearsal for The Players, the short film we're shooting on Sunday. I'd missed one rehearsal, when everyone sat around playing poker so that the cast could get familiar with all the elements of the game. To make up for it, I had spent an hour playing a moneyless game online to remind myself of the mechanics of Texas Hold Em. In a rapid-play room, where thinking time is limited, I started with 400 chips, headed up towards 600, then fell back towards 0. Only by risking All In on a hand of three 7s did I manage to keep in the game, quitting with an overall loss of only 50. Poker is fun, I decided, as long as money isn't involved...

Back to last night... The rehearsal room was cold, I had slight toothache, my seat at the table was uncomfortable, one of the cast had had to quit and his replacement wasn't yet available, we were slow at picking up the mechanics of the game to be filmed, we spent ages analysing each character's motives for every move he made. As time passed, more questions distracted me: shouldn't this character have more chips? shouldn't that character react differently in that situation, surely by now we should be rehearsing much more and discussing mechanics less?

Pluck the log from thine own eye... As I mentally criticised the script, the director, my fellow players and the makeshift set, I was also conscious of the weakness of my own contribution. I forgot some moves and repeated others. I couldn't get into character - even though the director had not asked us to - and felt increasingly lost and incompetent. Where should I be looking at this point? What should my hands be doing? How can I convey my thoughts and emotion with just a glance?

At the end of the evening I said goodbye to everyone cheerfully and walked out into the cold, windy street depressed.There was no bus in sight and the busstop indicator said the next one was 12 minutes away. I was shivering. A taxi brought me home to warmth, a glass of brandy and Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time.

After a good night's sleep and a thorough review of the script my optimism returned. There's still time for everything to come together; besides, I've never made a film in my life, so who am I to decide whether it is going well? As for my acting, perhaps I shouldn't worry. In costume and on set, with the whole sequence running without interruptions, the Spike I had created earlier will surely come back to life. Let's see what Thursday's rehearsal brings.  

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The Ideal Mistress

Q: What happens when a glitzy West End production starring two household names gets mediocre reviews?

A: Half-price (plus fees and commission) tickets are available from the tkts booth in Leicester Square.

Q: Did the glitzy West End production deserve the mediocre reviews?

A: Yes.

Q: So the evening was a waste of time of money?

A: No, it was hokum. It was fun.

Q: Pray, illuminate us . . .

The play in question was The Lion in Winter, the Broadway play that became a famous film (Peter O'Toole, Katharine Hepburn and Anthony Hopkins in his first screen role), about Henry II of England and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. She supported one of their sons in his rebellion against his father and was imprisoned by the king for her pains. The play presumes (an unlikely) reunion of Mum, Dad and their three sons one Christmas and the power struggle - mostly verbal - between them.

The stars were (are) Robert Lindsay (of BBC's My Family) and Joanna Lumley of New Avengers and Absolutely Fabulous fame. (To heterosexual men of a certain age there are only two British actresses worthy of the name: Judi Dench - the ideal Mother - and Joanna Lumley - the ideal Mistress.) Both give creditable performances which only occasionally remind the audience of their television personae. The only real drawback is that both monarchs come across more cuddly more than cutting.

The main problem is the script. Throughout two and a quarter hours parents and scheming children are pitted against each other in a succession of plots and counter-plots, so bewildering that we are never quite sure who is allied with whom and what their goal is. Indeed by the time we get to the point where Philip, the young king of France (Rory Fleck-Byrne), tries to get back into bed with eldest son Richard (Tom Bateman) (while Richard's brothers are hiding behind the tapestry), we no longer care. Let's just go with the flow, we tell ourselves, and if we're getting bored with the story, we can always admire the set - and the set, courtesy of Stephen Brimson Lewis, is so stunning (see pic) that it deserves top billing.

At £33.50 for good seats in the stall, this is a production well worth seeing. At £60 it's only for diehard Lumley fans. So wander down to Leicester Square one afternoon and treat yourselves. It's ideal entertainment for a Winter evening.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Ass Backwards

Is it because I'm old, or did I always do this?

We're practising the opening ritual of the umbrella wrestling scene. Marianna The Director suggests that we plié as we raise our weapons above our head. My knees creak as my body lowers slowly towards the floor. And my backside sticks out. I can't see myself in a mirror, but I'm sure I look as if I'm lowering myself onto a lavatory pan...

Marianna hasn't noticed this, but now that she looks, she isn't impressed. Can't I keep my back straight? Well, a little, but my ass still thrusts itself outwards and my descent is even slower. Not impressive. I ought to be pleased that I have an ass - the Other Half insists that my backside is as flat as my singing - but I'm aware that this is not the right time or place to show it. Marianna suggests an alteration. The plié goes and is replaced by a lunge. I can do that. So honour is restored and the cast and audience are spared a laughable sight. Now it's time to practice my battle-cry...

Monday, 5 December 2011

Life Is Good

For much of the past year I have been operating under a grey cloud. I don't do Depression, but I'm an old hand at Irritation. Despite the fact that I have no financial worries, my health is very good for my age, I have a comfortable home, good friends and a loving companion, I was not finding life enjoyable. Each morning I woke up with a sense that the day ahead was full of small tasks that I had no wish to undertake, and each evening I would go to bed feeling that another day had passed in which I had achieved nothing. Outwardly, I was amenable; inwardly, I was decidedly grumpy.

Given that background, in the last week my mood should have darkened. I have developed a persistent cold/cough and, this morning, when I should be full of energy, I find an ache lurking in my bones, hinting at the first stages of flu. Yet, rather than falling into a Slough - or more likely Puddle - of Despond, the adrenalin is flowing and the serotonin (pictured) is bubbling. In short, I'm decidely chirpy.

This renewed approach to life is down to my new drug: Acting. Acting gives me a kick. Acting brings me to life. Acting makes me feel good. Acting stretches me. Acting allows me to experience parts of myself - and parts of other people's lives - that I have, until now, had little contact with. Acting is different. It's challenging. It's fun.

On Friday, I was being interviewed for the part of a corpse. On Saturday, I was a strutting athlete rehearsing a fight with umbrellas. On Sunday, I was a diffident ducker and diver (the poker player, now a Scot, no longer a Londoner). And today in audition, I was Malvolio, berating Olivia for his imprisonment. Some of these situations were easier than others - my stage fighting skills are limited and I have not yet seen the full extent of my gambler's character. But even when I am uncertain of my abilities and nervous that I have not produced the effect the director is seeking, I am glad to be in the situation I am in.

Today, in particular, I gave what felt like a powerful rendition of Malvolio's hurt at his situation, but it required only a couple of notes from the director for me to really bring the steward to life, as I seethed with anger in the first half of the speech and then almost collapsed in grief towards the end. It was a powerful sensation and even if I do not get the part, I am grateful to the producers for the opportunity they gave me to experience and present it.

Perhaps I only feel this upbeat because I am at the beginning of my career. I might feel very differently after a year of auditions and rejections. Point taken. But acting is not the be-all and end-all of my life and if I fail to reach the level I aspire to, of a small income and regular performances, I will yield the stage to others and seek some other interest to keep Irritation at bay. In the meantime, however, thanks to Acting, Life Is Good.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Wrestling With Umbrellas

I didn't get the corpse job. I was too young to play a dead seventy-year-old. Well, I knew that, but Hamish The Filmmaker had felt a little embarrased by calling for an old man to play dead and had stretched his age limit down to 50. I didn't expect to get the work, but it was an excuse to get out of the house, travel to sunny Ealing and meet someone who might nevertheless decide to cast me in their next blockbuster.

I still have the wheezy voice and lack of energy from the cough/cold that's been bothering me all week, but The Show Must Go On. Boosted by caffeine, I will spend this afternoon at my first rehearsal for As You Like It. I'm Charles, a Scot in a Mexican Lucha mask, wrestling with umbrellas. That's right, umbrellas. Well, Marianna, our director, comes from a clown backrgound and this production is modern-quirky, so It Just Might Work.

Back home to rest and decide whether I will go out tonight as planned. The Other Half is telling me to stay in, but the party animal in me is restless...

Tomorrow the first rehearsal for The Players, the quirky (there's that word again) short film about a poker game shooting later in the month. I'm Spike, a nervous Cockney minder. I have no lines in this production, so I have to act London - and no, that does not mean a Pearly King or Beefeater outfit. I'm not sure what we're going to be doing for six hours, but I'm mugging up on my Texas Hold Em and preparing to sell the family jewels in case rehearsal turns into a real game.

Then comes Monday and an audition for Much Ado About Nothing. I'm taking no chances; I've actually read the instructions before turning up. Which means that unlike last time, I've learnt the correct speech with which to impress them - Malvolio confronting Olivia on his release (I know, different play, but Directors Have Their Reasons) - and I think I'm in with a chance for Leonato.

Finally, immediately after that audition, I was supposed to head into the country for a week, to act the starring role in another quirky (it seems to be my speciality) short film. Except I haven't heard from the producers for over a week and I suspect it ain't going to happen. I can understand they may be having financial or logistical problems, but it would be polite to keep me informed of what is, or is not, happening. The fact that they have been incommunicado means that I am most definitely Not Amused.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

A Corpse With A Cough

I'm auditioning for the part of a corpse tomorrow. The role calls for me to lie motionless in a bed. Shooting is expected to take no more than a morning. I've been asked to give my thoughts on the character's background...

In the meantime, I've picked up a cough. The question is whether I'll die of it- which would make my playing of the part more realistic - or whether during filming I'll erupt with unexpected expectoration. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, 28 November 2011

The Next Peaks

Yesterday saw the last day of the Introduction to Acting course at the Actors' Centre. A very helpful six hours spent on tv and film, based on Eastenders and Hollyoaks scripts.

(I'm not a soap fan, nor am I fan of constant close-ups, with camera bouncing from face to face in order, supposedly, to capture the intensity of the emotional moment. For me, the technique is superficial, a symptom of the short attention spans of the internet age, briefly showing emotion without truly involving the audience. In contrast, in films from the 1940s and 1950s shots were longer in both distance and time and close-ups were used sparingly; that allowed the emotion of the scene to build up and become much deeper and more intense.)

But I can set these personal prejudices aside and appreciate the skills and talents required both to act in and to film today's stories, and thanks to yesterday I am a little closer to being able to perform competently in front of the lens.

Seeing myself on screen was instructive in many ways. I had not realised exactly how big my ears are or how deep the bags under my eyes. (Why do mirrors flatter us while camera lenses mock us?) Nor had I realised that my open, unmoving mouth, instead of conveying surprise or desire to speak, suggests nothing more than mental subnormality. On the other hand, once my mouth is closed, my face conveys much more subtlety of emotion than I had expected, and overall I came across as a serious actor rather than a talentless wannabe.

So, the course ended and those of us who made it to the final day walked away with a well-deserved sense of achievement. But, as I pointed out to one of my fellow-students (and I think wrote about here earlier in the month), each time we think we have achieved something, all we have done is reached the top of a small peak. If we look forward, not back, we will see how much more there is to learn and do.

My next two peaks are approaching fast. One is another Shakespeare audition, next Monday, which I hope will be more successful than my Twelfth Night disaster. The other peak is the two short films I have committed to this month - which I am sure will be even more challenging than the weeks that have just gone by. And as with all challenges, I'm looking forward to it.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

A Laughter? A Lullaby? A Lurk?

What's the collective noun for luvvies? Maybe I'll find out tonight when two of us hold a joint birthday party in a bar near King's Cross. I have other questions that I need answered. What is the maximum number of Darling!s allowed before one is officially drunk? What is the exchange rate between Denches and Redgraves? How do I work out which of my fellow thespians has coat-tails I should cling on to before they rise into super-stardom? As a budding player, I have so much to learn!

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Horror! The Horror!

What do you do when you apply for an audition, the producer / director tells you they're very keen to see you, you get excited, and then they send you the script. Which is awful. Terrible. Appalling. Naive and childish. With no redeeming factors. Whatsoever. None at all. None. N-O-N-E.

It's a student film, but that's no excuse. I've auditioned for some interesting, intelligent concepts in the last couple of months, including the one I have been given a role in. But this... What was précised as a study of an individual under stress turns out to be a whimsical science fiction piece, totally devoid of internal logic (SF can be as absurd as it likes, as long as the underlying principles hold it together),with unbelievable characters and excrutiatingly simplistic (although meant to be intelligent and witty) dialogue.

I could be wrong and I'm turning my nose up at the next Gone With The Wind or Star Wars. I've invented an excuse, of course. Told them that other commitments have come up, terribly sorry to inconvenience them, wish them luck, etc etc. But I've also learned a lesson. Do not appear to be too enthusiastic at the start, or it can become difficult to extricate yourself once you see what a mess you could be getting into.

Monday, 21 November 2011

We Don't Haf Vays Of Making You Talk

Two frustrating days at the Actors' Centre with the delightful Vicky. (The more time I spend with her, the more I want to hug her, but it ain't going to happen.) The problem? Our foreign students, two of whom have a tenuous grasp of English. They may be delightful people - and I've got to like one in particular more and more as the month has gone by - but their inability to engage with the text, or to respond to Vicky's gentle directions, considerably slowed down our "production" of the first act of The Cherry Orchard. (Of course you know that that's author Anton Chekhov in the pic.) Clomping across the makeshift stage instead of entering by the wings, speaking in a girlish whisper when the part requires a manly arrogance, drawing cartoons in one's notebook when being given notes, are just a few of the issues that would have tested the patience of lesser directors. In short, considerable time was spent coaxing the non-native speakers along, which could have been much better used with the rest of the cast, who had potential that could be developed.

Still, the time wasn't entirely wasted; we have finally begun to bond as a group and some of us have definitely developed as the time has gone by. I wasn't impressed by my script-in-hand performance yesterday, but three or four others showed real talent and I am sure I will see them again on stage or screen. And in compensation, I've just been given my first (short) film part. It's a fun piece, designed to go viral - and I think there's a good chance of that happening. More details towards the end of the year.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Hear Me Roar

I leave the Actors Centre for an early lunch to walk up to Grape Street for my next audition, one of the many student films that do not pay but which keep players on their acting toes. Despite the fact the last time I had to prepare a monologue the presentation I gave was abysmal (when I gave a weak Malvolio - and the wrong speech - to a sceptical director), I'm optimistic about this one. Instead of telling myself I have no need to go over my lines because I remember them so well, I walk up Shaftesbury Avenue insistently muttering "I'm not good-looking. I'm not good-looking", presuming that the passers-by will take me for one of the harmless homeless who loiter in the area.

The assertion (whether or not true, is not for me to say) is the opening line to Berenger's final speech in Ionesco's Rhinoceros, when everyone else in the town has turned into the eponymous animal and he's regretting the fact that he has been unable to do the same. He goes on to compare, unfavourably, his smooth brow with the horns that those magnificent animals have and his white, hairy body to their wonderful dull green skin. Then he wishes he could trumpet in the same way they do. But it's too late. He will never become a rhinoceros now.

I came into the audition room where director, scriptwriter and cameraman were smiling and waiting. After the introductory pleasantries, I got up to give my speech. With an imagined mirror on one side of the room and, supposedly, rhinoceroses rampaging through the town on the other side of the opposite wall, I began my lament and built up to an almighty roar as I tried to imitate the pachyderms' sound. In the end, however, I accepted my fate as the world's last human, I swore that I would fight the lot of them to the very end.

It was good. It felt good and I could see from the audience's eyes that I impressed. From there it was three short scenes improvising, wordlessly, on the scenario of a stationmaster at work in a deserted office. The feedback there was good too. I left walking on air, pleased with myself and my abilities. Of course, I may never get a callback - they may see a dozen actors better than me - but it's a still a good feeling, knowing that I stretched myself, knowing that I can give a good audition and will not always perform as disastrously as I once did.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Ask Me The Question Again

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. I'm highly impressed by Vicky, our Scene and Text tutor at the Actors Centre. If I were (a) heterosexual and (b) single, I'd consider marrying her, but since neither of these conditions apply, she's safe from my predatory charms.

After two sessions on modern texts, yesterday she led us into Hamlet and The One And Only To Be Or Not To Be Monologue. I've read it before, but never devoted much time to it; in fact if I've had any opinion about it, it's that it's too long and convoluted. Now, thanks to Ms V, I'm still of the opinion that it's too long, but it's also straightforward.

Unlike previous texts, where she took us through the scene line by line, she skipped through it, pausing only to translate difficult words. The next step was to have a volunteer read-act it. A fan of Shakespeare, my hand shot up and I was sent out of the room for five minutes to prepare. When I came back, I found myself pouring out my Danish soul and the agonising question as to whether or not to top myself to eleven jeering so-called friends who basically informed me that my opinions were rubbish.

Surprised, I ploughed on, knowing that I had to convince them to take me seriously. To do so, I adopted various strategies, including addressing the whole group and going down on one knee to try and persuade at least one person that suicide was a viable option.  The experience was both frustrating and invigorating, both showing me the limits of my acting (I couldn't persuade them) and the strenghs (my speech gained considerably in passion).

Vicky then had each of us take the piece and make it our own; we had decide how our invisible audience was going to react, and present our speech accordingly. Thus the key lesson of the day - in any soliloquy, Shakespearean or otherwise, imagine your audience's response and respond to that response.

The results were impressive. As expected, the twins - as I have mentally christened our Scouser and her new found Kent girl-friend - came up with pure soap, in scenes that were both gripping and amusing. Our Polish model, whose grasp of English is tenuous, started with a series of syllables that I could barely understand, but by the end of the class had moved towards sentences that were still thick with accent, but which clearly reflected the sense, if not yet the emotion, of Hamlet's speech. Of the others, all the native speakers managed to convey some emotion, some point of interest that held our attention, while all the foreigners, if they could not give the words nuance, at least demonstrated that they clearly understood what a poet, 400 years ago, had written.

As for my own encore, I started with an open question, reacted with surprise and pleading to my imaginary, jeering audience, then turned to anger and finally resignation as I realised that I could not convince them. It wasn't a performance to win a Tony; it probably wasn't even a performance to convince a director, but it was a performance that carried on the process of teaching me how to get into a text and how to make it so much bigger and better than I had thought possible.

So what's next? The first act of the Cherry Orchard, to take us over Saturday and Sunday, interrupted only by another audition, for a student film where I would be the only performer....

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Looking down on Jerusalem

To the theatre on Monday night, again with the sultry (and fidgety) Ms N and the suave Mr T. Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, a Royal Court production transferred to Apollo. Over three hours long. Sensational reviews. Packed, four-level house, with N, T and me in the very back row of the highest tier of The Gods. Did we enjoy it? How fresh was the Curate's Egg? (No, I'm not going to explain the origins of that phrase.)

The success of any theatrical experience depends on a variety of circumstances. The theatregoer's physical state (tired? stomach full? seat comfortable?), intellectual capacity (what do you like? what do you know?), others around them (people coughing? checking their phones? shifting in their seats?) all affect how much s/he enjoys the experience, no matter how good the script, actors and director.

The Gods at the Apollo are noisy. Seats creak. Floorboards resonate as men with over-full bladders make for the toilet (directly behind where we were sitting) and let the door slam behind them. People (including the sultry Ms N) drop things. Loudly. The stage is Very Far Away and there is a safety bar directly in your line of sight. You can barely distinguish players' faces, far less their expressions, at this distance. (Only later did I realise one was the very recognisable Mackenzie Crook.)

The dedicated theatregoer should be able to ignore such distractions and focus on the play, so let us turn our attention to the stage. We were offered a simple tale, as summarised by Wikipedia: "On St. George's Day, the morning of the local county fair, Johnny 'Rooster' Byron, local waster and modern day Pied Piper, is a wanted man. The council officials want to serve him an eviction notice, his son Marky wants his dad to take him to the fair, Troy Whitworth wants to give him a serious kicking and a motley crew of mates want his ample supply of drugs and alcohol."

These plotlines all offer potential but Jerusalem is less story than portrait. There is some tension - will Johnny defy his evictors? (we assume not); will teenage Lee get to Australia? (again we assume not); will Ginger realise his dream of dj-ing at the local fair? (the omens are not good) - but Butterworth is less concerned with taking us on a journey than with painting a picture of contemporary rural England. And, in Butterworth's view, contemporary rural England consists of two tribes: free spirits who are addicted to alcohol, drugs, sex and four-letter words, and the bureaucrats and anonymous dwellers of housing estates who would restrain them. 

It's a depressing picture. Of course we don't want to be killjoys, but the alternative offers little more. Yes, there is the exuberance and celebration of youth, as personified in Byron's hangers-on, but youth passes quickly and once it has gone the only options appear to be a lifetime of excess, which can never entirely banish physical and mental pain or the mental rigidity of the petite bourgeoisie. Only one character on stage, the fey, aging Professor, appears to have achieved tolerance and contentment without drugs or alcohol, and only because he is sustained by the illusion of mythical vanished England.

And if its inhabitants have little to look forward to, neither does rural Albion. Its future hangs between row upon endless row of anonymous housing and vast wastelands of broken down caravans surrounded by the detritus of years of party-making. Even that is an illusion, for we know that this generation's pristine houses will become the slums of the next generation.

The strong, if disheartening, picture, is given life by both the direction (by Ian Rickson) and cast. Mark Rylance, at the centre, as Byron, gives a powerful performance and is ably supported by his fellow-players, although only a few have the opportunity to develop their characters. As for the script... Was its length a strength or a failing? (Remember that a full Hamlet would take about five hours to stage.) Did Jerusalem really drag in its final act, I wondered? Does it need coda to follow coda, or would only one suffice? Or did the fault lie with me and the Twit world we live in, where attention spans are limited to 140 characters?

Despite the semi-standing ovation around us, my companions were dismissive of the play. Mr T suggested that any actor can portray excess energy (I'm not so sure). On my way home I wondered whether they were confusing three distinct ideas: the world portrayed; the script that revealed it; and the players who presented it. What was it that N and T disliked? All three?

Forty-eight hours later I am of the opinion that the acting was excellent and that the script was very good. I suspect that if I had had a comfortable seat in the stalls, with a clear view and with no companions clinking ice in their plastic containers or writhing like over-active children, I would have appreciated the whole evening much more. I am getting too old for The Gods and like the Raven I am tempted to say Nevermore, Nevermore.

Whatever my doubts about the play, they would of course disappear if a voice from The Gods declaimed that I was to appear on that stage. Up till now I have only been thinking of fringe theatre and the occasional voiceover, but I hear the very distant call of the West End and wonder if it is beckoning me...

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Shame, the Shame, Oh the Shame!

My left leg is sore. I've been busy kicking myself. Hard. Ouch. And Again. Double Ouch.

I turned up at an audition for Twelfth Night yesterday, very pleased with my Malvolio speech that I had been preparing for 10 days and revealed at my acting course.

First problem: I was supposed to give two speeches - both dictated by the producers. Had I not seen that information when preparing for this audition? No, I admitted, my face colouring in embarrassment and shame.

Director and Other-Person-In-The-Room-Whose-Role-I-Have-Forgotten were gracious. Could I give the Malvolio speech I had prepared? Yes, I could. Bring on the Second problem. My speech was terrible. My "Malvolio" voice melted into my normal tones. I stared into mid-air. The subtleties that I had been able to reveal the many times I had rehearsed it disappeared. Instead of bringing Olivia's steward to life, I drained him of all depth and colour.

What about my other speech? Was it another of Malvolio's, as it should have been? No. More embarrassment, more shame. I could give them Shylock's reaction to Antonio's request for money, I said with a faint, hopeful smile. Please do. I went ahead, addressing Other Person. That performance came alive. It wasn't my best, but it was strong and varied and it showed that I did indeed understand The Bard and could give a reasonable rendering of his words.

It didn't matter. There was still the Third problem. I had thought this production was for much later in the year, but its rehearsal times conflicted with my commitment to As You Like It. So, with polite smiles and handshakes I was dismissed, and I kicked myself all the way home...

Friday, 11 November 2011

Speaking prose

Progress at the Actors Centre... Last night was the first session of scene and text with Vicki. The first hour was theory - analysing a script into objectives, units, events etc; the last part was practice - playing around with the opening pages of Mike Bartlett's Cock.

Like Monsieur Jourdain in Moliere's play, who discovers he has been speaking prose all his life, we opened our eyes to what we presumably already knew without naming it: that plays do not exist without a purpose, that actions and lines move the plot forward and the more we analyse a text, the better we are able to understand it.

The final part of the evening was assigning different, and sometimes contradictory, attitudes (Vicki called them actions, but I find that term confusing because it makes me think of physical acts) to the duologue between M and John in Bartlett's play. It was an interesting exercise - saying "don't fucking do that" in a loving tone in the midst of a speech that was definitely written as aggressive. It was also difficult to switch from mood to mood within a few words, particularly when we were still reading the lines. And it would have looked ridiculous on the stage. But it was an exciting and energising process that opened up the potential in both the text and ourselves. I went home once again feeling that I had learnt and progressed.

So much for business. What about pleasure? Once again, when the class ended, the eleven of us (one of the most talented has dropped out) scurried away, unlike my last acting course, when we filled the local boozer each night. I've suggested that we all go for a drink after class on Saturday evening, but I'm not convinced there'll be more than a couple of us. Group bonding does not seem to be our forte...

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

She Liked It

Last Saturday's audition is in the process of turning into my first paid (well, profit-share) performance. I apparently redeemed myself after my initial disatrous presentation of Shylock's speech and impressed Ms Marianna Vogt (for 'tis she the producer / director) with my Oliver and Corin. As the result of which I have been offered, and I have accepted, two small parts in Ms V's upcoming production of As You Like It. I initially demurred at the role of Charles the Wrestler, on the grounds that my bones are too old to be thrown to the ground each night, but Ms V assured me that no real wrestling was involved. And if I survive the play's first act, I am resurrected in the final scene to be Jaques de Boys. This Jaques, who is not to be confused with Melancholy Jaques, an important denizen of the Forest of Arden, gets to make one stirring speech. Let's hope I don't make a hash of it...

Francis Hayman, "The Wrestling Scene from 'As You Like It'."
Oil on canvas, 1740-1750. The Tate Gallery, London

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Incited in the letter

Buoyed by my As You Like It audition on Saturday (and by the very enjoyable night out that followed), I strolled into the Actors' Centre on Sunday morning full of confidence that I would render fellow-students and tutor Jonathan Broadbent speechless with admiration for my Malvolio during that day's Shakespeare class.

Jonathan is a pleasing young fellow, with thick glasses and the habit of nervously fingering his shirt buttons (thankfully not undoing them) while talking. He is, of course, knowledgeable about Shakespeare (although I had reservations about the meaning he gave to one or two of the Bard's lines) and an excellent coach. Like all born teachers, he encouraged and was never critical, despite one or performances that would have had lesser men saying "Darling, I know you've put your heart and soul into this piece, but let me say now that you will never master Shakespeare and I doubt you will ever reach the standard of third Essex girl from the left in the Queen Vic, so you should just leave now." No matter how inadequate the performance, each time he responded sympathetically and helped the player make adjustments that moved them up a notch or two or on the acting scale.

One speech impressed me and two had real potential. Sheena, who had already demonstrated real talent the day before, presented a headstrong Phebe who came alive under Jonathan's direction. Peter offered a believable downcast post-battle Richard II, but, despite J's encouragement, seemed unable to move from self-pitying to philosophical mode. And Katerina, our diminutive Brazilian, not only fought through her accent to reveal a believable Cleopatra, but, again thanks to Jonathan, lifted it up from uncertain schoolgirl to imperious queen.

As for my own performance... As Olivia's steward (a role I'd chosen because I have an audition for that character coming up) I'd selected a piece which, according to Jonathan, is either dropped or reduced in most productions. It comes at the point where Olivia has just seen the extent of her servant's supposed madness and has instructed others to take him away. Malvolio responds with self-justification that is reasonable from his perspective, but which provides ample evidence of his unbalanced mind to those who are unaware that Sir Toby and others are playing a trick on him.

Oh, ho! do you come near me now? no worse man than Sir Toby to look to me? This concurs directly with the letter; she sends him on purpose, that I may appear stubborn to him, for she incites me to that in the letter . . .
to . . . Well, Jove, not I, is the doer of this, and he is to be thanked.

I played it, as I thought, in the manner of one sane justifying his actions, but it came across - JB said - as one who is in fact crazy. I should tone it down. I tried to do so. Next point: what does "limed her" mean? Trapping her like a bird. "Jove make me thankful": is that statement really sincere? And so on. Each comment and question from Jonathan both knocked away at my confidence and opened a door into a meaning I had not considered. By the time I gave my fifth and final rendition of the piece I knew that I understood it much better, but I had no idea whether my performance had improved or deteriorated.

This, of course, is acting. Actually no, it's life, or my life. Ever since my schooldays I have underestimated each task ahead of me. Because I am reasonably intelligent, knowledgeable and competent at many things, I assume that I can do anything well, without much study or dedication. In any sphere - business, love, acting, whatever - I have only to turn up, do my best and everything will fall into place. And of course most times in my life I have been wrong.

So here I am, four months through my one-year plan to launch an acting career. Like a hill-walker cresting a peak, I see not one more hill before me, but half a dozen more, and behind them almost certainly even higher mountains that I have to climb. Well, there's no going back, and even if I never reach my goal, the journey is fascinating. As for the next peak... assuming I don't lose myself as I did on Saturday, the audition for Malvolio on Friday may go better than it otherwise would have done.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Did She Like It?

On Saturday afternoon I left the first day of the acting course early to audition for a role in an upcoming production of As You Like It. Prepare a Shakespeare speech, the advance information said, from any play. Afterwards we'll ask you to read some parts with other actors. So I revised my Shylock, the "Signor Antonio, many a time on the Rialto" speech that had wowed fellow-students, the director and myself on my last course and prepared to give it. What happened? Faced with the steely eyes of the casting director, the speech vanished from my memory, as most of the emotion and meaning that went with it.

I suppose I was suffering from Stage Fright or Nerves. My primary emotion was confusion, as in a dream when one wanders into a situation that one is totally unprepared for. Should I apologise? Ask for a break? No, I told myself; The Show Must Go On, so I stumbled through the piece, aware that I was missing lines and that there was more recitation than reality in my performance. The CD made no comment, but handed me some lines and asked me to read Oliver to another candidate's Orlando. I went out, met him and started to rehearse. Then I was given another set of lines: could I read Corin to an actress's Touchstone. I wasn't flattered - I was the only other male around - but I was pleased that I was getting another opportunity to show what I could do.

Back in again to strut the part of the evil elder brother. I felt good about it. Put the scripts away, the CD said, confront each other physically and wordlessly as brothers. I felt awkward; Orlando was a foot smaller than me, but we glared at each other and paced the stage in hostility. Was that enough to satisfy her? It didn't satisfy me. Thanked and sent out again. Called back in again. This time as Corin, the shepherd. Could I do it in a Scottish accent?  Yes, and it seemed to me I read that piece even better than the last. Something in my reading struck the CD. Would I read one of the speeches directly to her? I did. Did she like it? I have no idea.

I don't expect to get the part. But I enjoyed the experience and I learnt two valuable lessons: that my mind can unexpectedly lose its focus and that an audition can require the kind of improvisation that I have only begun to take on board. I came home in a state of tension, but it is the tension I have come to associate with acting and which makes me even more convinced that this is what I want to do.

Soaping Up

Day One of the Introduction to Acting Course at the Actors' Centre. A motley crew of three men and nine women. One of the men appears older than me; the third is in an archetypal musclebound hunk in his late twenties who probably turns on more gay men than straight women. None of the women appear over thirty-five; five are foreign (two Russian; Polish; Mexican; Brazilian); there are several models, including Lloyd the Hunk and the Polish woman who can only be seen sideways if you squint. The foreign accents range from impenetrable to unnoticeable - plus the Liverpudlian whose accent is so thick and quick that even we natives cannot always follow her.

We gather in the basement of the Actors Centre with tutor John Melainey, who teaches us more about acting in a day than I learnt in a week at the Poor School. Alone, in pairs and as a group, we go through a series of clearly-explained exercises that first connect us to Status and Emotion and then enable us to develop short scenes out of nothing at all. We learn what moves a scene forward and what deflates it, how to give information and how to respond to it and generally how to hold and build the audience's attention.

It is soon obvious that two of the women have real talent and two of the foreigners are severely hampered by lack of English; the others and the men, may develop in time. It also soon obvious that - despite the fact that tomorrow's class is to be given over to Shakespeare - this course teaches only one subject in depth: Soap.

It is not just that the scripts we will work from later in the course are from East Enders and Hollyoaks, but in today's class every suggestion for action, plot or character, from tutor John or fellow students, involves a soap cliché. So we have long-lost Dad meeting daughter at bus-stop, two women accusing each other of stealing their boyfriend and so on; there's crime and hysteria and blame in abundance. And of course, we're hooked; with every revelation we want to know more.

Nadine, our Liverpudlian, is perfect for these roles, screeching out accusations left, right and centre with never a pause for breath. Two or three of the others are not bad, and I wonder how much their acting is based on East Enders and how much is a reflection of their own lives. I even find myself getting into it; after being called up short in a scene where no-one recognised my character's repressed anger, I let it all hang out and berated my daughter - whom I accused of living with a young criminal, thief and possibly murderer - in quiet reasonable tones reminiscent of Phil Mitchell. By the next scene, where wife Shona and I were berating each other for losing an important Document (no, we never discovered what the Document was about), we were both in Full On Mode, circling each other in frustration and anger, I was fully enjoying myself and annoyed that I had to leave early for an audition. About which I will write in my next post... 

Friday, 4 November 2011

Too many balls

I got back to London on Wednesday and spent Thursday catching up on 80+ emails and all the other minor activities that are part of returning to normal life. To my surprise, scattered among the spam and updates on my bookselling business were several relating to my infant acting career.

First up was the bumph for the Actors' Centre. I start their monthly course in Covent Garden tomorrow, complete with old Hollyoaks and East Enders scripts. I can see myself in the role of Adam Morgan, but I suspect that my acting skills are not up to persuading others that I am indeed the handsome young lifeguard who is irresistible to women, and I certainly don't look like any of the hunks in the calendar. As for the East Enders excerpt, I am disappointed to see that Dot Cotton is not an option...

In addition to the course, there were three - count 'em, three! - invitations to audition, two for Shakespeare (As You Like It and Twelfth Night) and one for an educational video in what appears to be hip-hop style, encouraging young people to read. And guess what, two of the auditions clash with the acting course. I'm taking time out to attend one of them, but, because filming also conflicts with the course, I've sent in my apologies.

Trying to juggle too many options, I'm bound to drop one. I'm disappointed, because I like the idea of appearing in something cool and modern (assuming I got through the audition), but I'm also chuffed to know that I am considered by some very different people to have potential.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Hot and Cold

I'm taking my second break of the year, first heading to Scotland to pick up the Aged Parent, then off together to a week's holiday in Sicily. I've packed for hot and cold weather in equal measures. As soon as I'm back, I'll be starting a course at the Actors' Centre...

Monday, 17 October 2011

Accenting Differences

Earlier in the year I saw Emperor and Galilean at the National Theatre, a rarely performed Ibsen epic about the life of Julian, the last pagan emperor of Rome. Reviews were mixed, but I enjoyed it thoroughly apart from one niggle. That was the discrepancy in accents between Julian and his entourage and his best childhood friend (name forgotten and I haven't been able to identify it online). Julian and co spoke origin-neutral RP; Best Friend came out with Pure Scottish. That made their long-lasting friendship totally unbelievable - as unbelievable as if Julian and co were all Glaswegians and the Best Friend who had grown up with them somehow picked up LA street slang.

The problem is that people who grow up together spending years in the same social milieu always end up with the same accents. Any transplanted parent - a German in the UK, an Australian in Canada, a Geordie in London, knows that as their children become adults they will speak the language and dialect of their peers, not their ancestors. It is highly unlikely that bosom buddies who first met in childhood speak differently from each other. 

I am having the same problem with a dvd the Other Half and are watching of Children of Dune, a 2003 production that first aired on the Sci Fi channel. Sumptuous settings (mostly CGI, but acceptable) make up for erratic acting and a complicated plot (luckily, I've read the books, so I know what is going on; even with my ongoing explanations, the OH is struggling to keep up). Presumably to save costs, the cast is a mix of US, UK and European, which leads to a constant clash of accents. Yes, in an empire that is scattered over dozens or hundreds or planets, you are going to get diverse dialects, but couldn't the casting director group the accents together so that there was at least some conformity and believability - have all the Brits play the evil Corrinos while Americans act the heroes and the weirdly-accented Europeans are restricted to the rest of the galaxy?

This is not the first time I've come across this phenomenon, and each time I've been irritated by the director's failure to understand the characters that he or she is working with. Accent is as essential to character as age and physical appearance and to consider it irrelevant when casting a play or a film is disrespectful to both the script and the audience. And if you don't respect me as an audience, do not expect me to respect your sloppy work as director.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Bookseller! Actor! Housekeeper!

One of my favourite cartoons in the now-defunct Christopher Street, by the magazine's resident cartoonist Rick Fiala (no connection with the baseball player, for transatlantic readers), showed a couple in a restaurant trying to draw their server's attention by calling out "Waiter! Model! Actor!" There is always truth in jest, and the underlying reality was of course that the individual concerned was merely 'resting' between appearances on the catwalk, stage or screen.

I feel myself to be in the same position when confronted by this blog. Since last Wednesday morning, when I learnt that I was not going to be taken on by the casting agency I had auditioned for, my acting life has been on hold. Yes, I've perused the offers that have come through Casting Call Pro, but since I'm about to take a two-week break, accompanying the Elderly Parent on a trip to Italy, there's not much I'm available for. And so my attention turns back to my other two roles in life - as an online bookseller and - since I am at home most of the day while the Other Half commutes to and from work - housekeeper.

Both tasks are routine. One involves sitting at a computer and cataloguing books while waiting for orders to come in. The other involves getting up from the computer and processing dirty dishes and washing, superficial cleaning and watering the plants. Neither is particularly demanding and both allow me to listen to the radio (preferably the dramas and comedies on Radio 4 and 4 Extra) and music (either peaceful classical or various forms of chillout). And so the days pass.

By the time I come back from Italy, a quarter of my self-imposed deadline (get paid acting work, a serious agent, or quit within twelve months) will have passed. But my batteries will be recharged and I have two projects ahead of me: a course at the Actors' Centre that will take me through November, and a voicereel to make. Until then, however, the Actor part of me is resting, and while I'm away even the Bookseller and Housekeeper will take a break. 

Thursday, 13 October 2011

An art, not a science

To the Olde Rose and Crown in Walthamstow (pictured) yesterday to audition for agent Diane Marshall. Nice lady; pleasant, professional conversation. She enjoyed the monologue I gave her (Azdak from The Caucasian Chalk Circle, berating the local policeman who has come to question him about his poaching, and putting the wind up the fugitive who is hiding in his hut). But, I learnt this morning, she didn't want me. She had seen 22 people, the email said, and only wanted 10; I hadn't made the cut.

Of course I'm disappointed, but not immoderately so. I would have been surprised if my first audition with an agent actually got me onto their books. And I can imagine that most of the 21 others she saw had more experience and were therefore easier to promote.

What bothers me, however, is the lack of feedback. Was the deciding factor my lack of experience? Did my monologue reveal me to be an incompetent, unbelievable performer? Was it the fact that I did not express a strong preference for either stage or screen work? Was it my age? Am I not marketable? What exactly was / were my weak point(s)?

I wouldn't expect answers (and I haven't asked her the questions). Acting and casting are arts, not sciences. Any comment someone might make about my abilities is going to be subject and influenced by many factors I have no control over. So I simply have to accept that my first audition for an agent didn't work out and maybe my second, third and fourth auditions - should I get them - not work out either. Time to move on. What's for dinner?

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Cutting It

Up at 8 this morning to check my email, shave (a longer process than usual, because for the last ten days I'd let what's left of the hair on my skull grow and removing it took a good half hour - it also made me look 15 years younger), shower and head out to Cut Glass Productions in Kentish Town for a voiceover class. (Before you copy the image, make sure you acknowledge it's theirs...)

I had a good feeling about this course from the moment I booked it, if only because the price, at £38 for three hours, was a bargain. It was a bonus to find that only three of us were taking the class (we were told that there might be as many as 10, which would have considerably reduced our airtime but still been good value). The icing on the cake was Phil, our coach, who provided a wide range of scripts and encouraged each of us to stretch our voices. I ended up reading five scripts, to which were added the music and FX that gave my voice the final touch of professionalism.

First up was the strong Scottish accent to advertise - surprise, surprise - Scotland. It was the same script that I'd read at the dreaded (spit, spit, curse) London Academy last month, but this time I was able to give it a much richer sound. I was so good that when I heard myself give the phone number of the Scottish Tourist Board, I almost picked up the phone to book two weeks' holiday at my mother's Edinburgh bed and breakfast...

Next was a deliberately gobbledy-gook insurance advert which I presented in a bureaucrat's voice. That also went down well, and although I could spot several weak spots and mistakes, these could easily be eradicated in a second recording and I was, as YouthSpeak has it, Well Pleased With What I Done. Third was hard-sell for a Scottish pop band. That was a mistake - my voice was too old for the product - but it made me think that there were some hard sell commercials that I could do. Fourth was the weakest performance - a soft-spoken trailer for Magic Radio; not only was my voice lost behind the music, but it was weak and did not carry the seductive tones I was aiming for. Last came a narrative for a documentary about the candiru in the Amazon -  a fish that I had thought was legendary, but which apparently really does swim up your urethra and eat away at the inside of your genitalia. My fellow-students claimed they were sitting cross-legged and nervous as I described the torture in detail...

We didn't get copies of our recordings - for the sensible reason that they were rushed and did not convey either our or Phil's full talents. But I did walk away in a much more optimistic mood than after the London Academy fiasco, where £300 and two days had done nothing more than convince me that my voice was reedy and I had no talent as a voiceover artiste. The only problem that I still face is the "bubble" that I sometimes sense in my lungs, which can rob my voice of some of its roundness. It comes and goes unpredictably and today, annoyingly, it came. Nevertheless I still gave good voice. (As for the other two students, one had considerably more talent than me and will soon, I am sure, be in high demand; the other tended to be too theatrical but had definite reassuring tones when she toned down her performance.)

Next on my agenda, therefore, is a professional voicereel. I've seen them advertised at under £300, so I'm not keen to pay CGP's £360 (less deduction for the course already taken). I may end up back there, but I'll first spend time researching the studios available and listening to their samples to see what best combines cost and quality. But wherever I end up, I'm truly grateful to Phil for restoring the confidence that I had lost.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Back to Basics

I've been back in London for over a week and am still feeling the effects of my trekking in Morocco. It was very enjoyable and I'm pleased to say that despite my age, I was one of the most energetic in the group, even arriving back first at the end of the 20 mile mountain trek (from 1,900 metres to 2,400 and back down) that completed our three day marathon.

But while my energy levels were high in Morocco, they have plummeted since my return. A stomach virus that bothered me all last Sunday, as Ricardo and I first flew to London via Madrid and then suffered the Piccadilly line home, has disappeared, but left me with an unaccustomed lethargy that still lingers, while a bruised toe, although getting better, continues to bother me. These symptoms, combined with a week's worth of emails regarding acting, my bookselling business and general catch-up with friends old and new, have prevented me from updating this blog until now.

But enough mea culpa. There has been good news, bad news and expected news on the acting front. The expected news is that I have received no follow-up to the twenty or so parts that I applied for in the week before my departure and in the week since my return. It's the usual problem - I don't get called to auditions because I don't have experience, and I can't get experience till I get called to audition. (Even when I am called to an audition - as I have been twice - I don't get the part.) But it's early days and I still have another nine months to make good on my promise to myself to get paid work within a year.

On the other hand, I did have, before I left, a promised audition with UK Actors Ltd some time in the first week of October. Off I went to Morocco, with two monologues well under my belt (Azdak in The Caucasian Chalk Circle and an early Shylock), and the text of a third (Berenger in Rhinoceros), to learn at odd moments on the trek. I arrived back prepared for action, but to find no confirmation of the audition and no reply to my email asking for an update. UK Actors claims 40 clients on Casting Call but it does not have a website and I am beginning to wonder how professional they are. I will call them on Monday and report back.

The good news is that Diane Marshall of the eponymous agency has called me in for an audition on Wednesday, so the Rhinoceros may be put to good use. I have therefore been rehearsing it, along with the other two pieces, every day while the Other Half is at work. I'm not sure how clearly my nearest neighbours - who, like us, live on the 8th floor of a tower block - can see into our living room, but if they have been watching through their net curtains, they will have been bemused by the sight of me either pulling my hair out while staring at a door or remonstrating with the bookcase on the other side of the room. I don't enjoy working with animate objects as much as with real people, whose presence helps give my performance depth, but the furniture nonetheless allows me to explore each monologue and give me a framework of movement and emotion that I can use.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday I've opted to spend £38 on a three-hour voiceover class with Cut Glass Productions. I have no idea what to expect, but the session is cheap and will, I hope, give me a better sense of how to develop my voice than the two days I spent with the London Academy last month. That brought confidence in my voice to a low, but since several of my companions on the Moroccan trek told me they liked what they heard and I'm convinced there's a voiceover artist somewhere within me, I'm ready to give myself a second chance.

Friday, 23 September 2011

A Mountain to Climb

I'm taking a break. One day at Hever Castle to see where Anne Boleyn once lived, then a week in Morocco, in Marrakesh then trekking in the Atlas Mountains. Taking my monologues with me to go over in the evenings. Hope to come back with a tan, some photos and good memories. Back the first week in October.

Once a Week

Once a week. That's about how often I've been called to auditions since my profile went up on Casting Call Pro. Considering I'm applying to 8 to 10 productions a week (paid, unpaid, film, theatre), I reckon a 10% follow-up rate isn't bad. Last week it was to do a rehearsed reading of Mervyn Peake's classic Gormenghast. I even recorded voicereels for the characters they were looking for and they called me in. The problem is, that they wanted me on a day when I'm no longer free and I had to turn them down. I begged them to reschedule for when I was free, but, not surprisingly, no can do.

The most recent call was last night. The Other Half and I were watching the last season of Lost (it's one of the most ridiculous programmes I've ever seen, but we're hooked and we're both going into withdrawal when it comes to an end), when the phone rang. Could I come in to audition for the part of an angry Peckham racist the next morning? Could I? Of course I could. And could I prepare something in character, combining anger and humour? Of course I could. So the dvd player was switched off while I hid myself away to spend a couple of hours drafting writing a monologue for this character, followed by an hour this morning to to rehearse.

I was pleased with myself. I pressed all the right buttons to create the obnoxious character I was meant to be. Stuff about working the railway (his job), being a Chelsea fan, insults about non-whites, sex and a situation where he thinks he has the upper hand and he doesn't. I was feeling quite chipper when I got taken into the audition room, gave myself a 70%+ on the quality of the monologue. Then I got asked one routine question and that was it. Not more than 10 minutes after I'd gone in, it was thanks, we'll be in touch, have a nice day.

Maybe they'll call, probably they won't. I got the feeling that while the script amused them, something in the performance was missing: not enough anger, perhaps, or dodgy accent (I've lived in London half my life and can do a reasonable imitation, but it might not pass muster in a tight spot), or just the wrong look. Well, I told myself on the way home, if they call me, they call me, and if they don't, it's been a good experience.

Good, but not fun. From the minute I put the phone down last night to the minute I walked out of the audition this morning, I had a tension headache. Creating a personality and an accent that were a long way from my own had pushed me far out of my comfort zone. The more I wrote last night and the more I repeated my lines this morning - getting deeper into the part each time - the more my chest and voice tightened. I was being taken over and I didn't like it. I couldn't help saying goodbye to the Other Half in character. I had on the earstud and tight white t-shirt and walked out of the flat with his swagger, not my lazy walk. My mind was alert and loving what I was doing - I wanted the part, I want to prove myself - but my body was definitely unhappy; it was being dragged into something it really didn't want to do.

I've read about actors undergoing these personality transformations, but this is the first time I've experienced it. All the other characters I've taken on board, from Azdak to Shylock, have been fairly close to myself in one way or another. This was the first time I had to be someone that was very different and very unpleasant. Maybe that showed up in the audition. Maybe my voice was trying so hard to do the accent that it didn't give the character depth. Maybe my body language was artificial. Whatever the problem, I'm glad it's over. But it's not going to stop me applying for such parts in future. The more I can be someone else, the better an actor I will be.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Of Rabbits and Men

I have to be honest. I'm not a fan of Bertolt Brecht (yes, that's him in the pic). We had to study Mother Courage in German when I was at school and the effort of ploughing through compound words and convoluted grammar destroyed any pleasure in the play. (Why do Germans the verb at the end always put? When the sentence very long is, can you find yourself a lot of difficult ideas in your head until the very last word holding, which often you the first idea forgotten have before you the last idea at arrive means.)

Things didn't get better when I saw one or two of his plays. I'm a simple man and while I can deal with multiple plots on the screen, I prefer my stage productions to be linear, with no more than one beginning, middle and end. The more that's going on, the less I'm engaged in the story. And with Brecht there's more going on than most.

On the other hand, I can see that acting Brecht is a player's dream. The characters are big and bold and run the gamut (what is a gamut?) of emotions and styles. Which is why I've chosen a speech by Azdak for my upcoming audition. Azdak is the village clerk, a poacher, a man with a fondness for drink and a man whose mind often runs faster than his voice. Through a combination of circumstances and cunning, he starts off by hiding an aristocrat escaping the mob, finds himself on trial and ends up as the judge...

The monologue I've chosen is near the beginning of his scene, where he's harbouring the Duke and negotiating with the policeman at the door who has come to arrest him for poaching rabbits. Will he hand over the Duke to save his own skin? Azdak's one-sided, tipsy conversation veers from mockery to the serious, from sense to nonsense, from bonhomie to mistrust. It's a challenge and I look forward to seeing how well I do with it.

I now have the lines committed to memory and I'm going through the second stage - repeating them aloud (thank goodness the flat is empty) again and again. Each time I say them, my understanding of the speech and of Azdak's character gains in depth, which means that my performance becomes increasingly nuanced as I play with different emotions, different speeds and different emphases.By the time the audition comes, the piece should be ingrained not just in my memory, but in my personality, my gestures, my whole being.

This is only the second monologue I have learnt in depth (the third will be Berenger's final scene from Rhinoceros), but as with the first (Shylock's 'Signor Antonio, many a time and oft in the Rialto you have rated me...') I find it a fascinating and almost magical experience to find my way into a character. And while I will be disappointed if the audition does not get me onto the casting agency's books, the mere fact of learning the speech is reward in itself. This, for me, is what acting is about.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Voicing My Complaint

At the beginning of the month I did a two day Voice Over class at the "London Academy of Media Film & TV". The website promised

Key Benefits of taking this course
1  Industry recognised Diploma
2  Work experience
3  Professional Voice Over Tutor
4  30% discount off your next course
5  Build your own voice showreel

What happen during the course (note the grammatical error)
During the voice-over course you will experiment with your voice on various themes, such as; narrating documentaries, corporate videos, trailers for film, TV & radio commercials as well as radio station promos. 

I had my doubts about the Academy's efficiency when I had to contact them by phone to pay the fee. An automated North American voice gave way to live human beings for whom English was a second language, who did not have a record of my application (although I had received an automated email in reply) and who, when they found it, had me down for the wrong course.

Doubts increased when I read the class instructions. "Turn up at the door on Lancing Street only five minutes before the course begins. Your tutor will let you in." Was this a prison? An army camp? No, my fellow-students and I discovered on the wet and windy day as we stood waiting in the street; the grandiosely-named Academy is no more than a couple of hired rooms in an anonymous block of flats; there is no office, no reception, nowhere for students to come in from the cold.

There were three of us on the course, plus tutor Bill (not his real name), replacing advertised course tutor Melinda. Bill was an affable chap, an actor with a wonderful voice - you will have heard him and seen him in old films - but also an actor going through a difficult patch, as witnessed by his unshaven face and the various stories of his private life that came out over the next two days.

It took Bill the first 45 minutes of the day to finish telling us about the problems he was having in his new flat and to start us on a series of vocal exercises. It was then time for lunch. After an hour's break, we took turns to read poetry (Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 and Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark) before we were shunted off to the computer and told to choose three or four potential pieces for our voicereel. (We queried the poetry, thinking that it might be better to practise on the pieces that we were more likely to be asked to present and were told it was useful to train clarity of speech...)

Once we'd chosen our pieces - with no guidance as to which would be more suitable for our voices or which different styles they represented - we each read through them a few times and decided with Bill which ones we were most comfortable with. We were then sent home. At five o'clock. An hour before the scheduled end of the class.

Next day. A few vocal exercises. Time spent while the engineer discovered that the loudspeakers he needed were missing and had hunt up a pair. Time in the cubicle reading our pieces. I was crap. I sat at the microphone and for the first time since I took up this career, I froze. My voice came out thin and throaty, with no emotion or variety. I wanted time out, to relax, but it was clear this would not suit either Bill or the engineer. I had three shots at each piece (a continuity announcement, an advertisement, a documentary narrative) and I was only happy with one.

But never mind, it was five o'clock, an hour before the scheduled end of the class and that meant it was time to go home...

Jack, one of my fellow students, and I sat in the pub afterwards and agreed that we had not had our £300 worth. There had been no structure to the course (I should know - I was a teacher for 10 years and one of the basic principles was to have a clear structure to each part of the lesson, what should be taught and what students were expected to achieve); no explanation of the differences between the various styles of voiceover and how we could and should adapt our voice to each; too much time had been spent listening to Bill's tales of woe; Bill, a classically-trained actor was obviously uninterested in the crass commercial side of voiceover; an hour had been shaved off the end of the class each day; and so on.

I intended to complain, but I wanted to complete the course - receive my "professionally produced" voicereel and "Industry recognised Diploma" first. The voicereel came. Of the three recordings, only one was usable and I have uploaded it to Casting Call Pro and my website. The other two were bad. I'm sure if I had spent an extra twenty minutes in the booth I wouldn't have produced a perfect voice, but I am also sure that if the course had been more professional and we had been given the time we needed, I could have made better recordings than the ones I ended up with.

Then came an email about the Diploma. I would receive it but only after I had rated the course. I looked to see if could rate the course online so that potential students could see my comments. Surprise, surprise, I couldn't. My comments had to be vetted by Sari Bannister of Student Support. I wrote back that I gave the course 3 out 5, with my reasons for that rating and in the hope that the comments would be posted, together with a reply from the Academy recognising my concerns and agreeing to improve the course in future.

I did not get that guarantee; I did not even get a response acknowledging that I was disappointed. A couple of days ago, however, I did get my diploma - a pretty piece of paper that looked as if it had been designed by a 13 year old girl playing around with ClipArt.

I notice that on the "London Academy of Media Film & TV" website there are comments from students suggesting they have profited from their courses. I will be charitable and assume these comments are genuine, but my experience is that the London Academy is happy to take your money and to go through the motions of tutoring and does not care about the quality of the classes it offers. In future, my money - and I suggest other people - will go elsewhere.