Sunday, 31 July 2011

Let Down

The Day of Reckoning, when we face our class tutors and hear their comments, was more or less what we expected. It started with a minor diatribe from the Prince of Darkness about punctuality; he has a point, but there are reasons behind some people being late and other issues about the tutors' punctuality that could have been brought up, so let's leave that aside.

The comments were mostly positive and basically fair, with two or three exceptions where the tutors were too harsh, criticising students for where they were now rather than complimenting them on how far they had come. In my own case, Tracy was less than complimentary about my Roy in The Odd Couple; she wasn't wrong, but, as I pointed out to the PoD afterwards in the restaurant afterwards, it was a play I would never have auditioned for and would never have felt comfortable in. His argument was that a good actor would have overcome the various hurdles of accent and inappropriateness of casting to turn in a good performance. That led onto a discussion as to whether I would be a good actor, to which his response was basically, only after a two year course (preferably at his school); which didn't mean I would never get acting work, only that I wouldn't reach the standard of acting which he defined as good. It's a point that I'll keep in mind as time goes by and I get others' opinion of my work.

In the meantime, Brendan, who had come up with the most cogent criticism of the course one evening in the pub, and who turned up at the Reckoning an hour late, dishevelled, with a fierce expression, and then spent most of the time scribbling on a notepad instead of paying the other students the respect of focusing on them. After the tutors' accurate comments on his performance he made a short, difficult-to-hear pronouncement on each of them, which had the effect, not of making coherent points about the shortfalls of some of the teaching, but of shutting down any discussion because his input appeared so off-the wall. At the end, Matt the drama teacher and I raised a separate issue about the structure of the course, which might have led back to Brendan's points if other students had joined in, but which petered out. And when most of us traipsed off for lunch with the tutors, Brendan and a few others stayed away, which meant that the issues could never be raised. At the end of the day it was disappointing that an intelligent likeable man behaved in a way that prevented us making the very points that were important to him, me and others.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

"It wasn't as bad as I expected"

That was Carl's comment on our performances last night. Which pretty much sums up how we all felt. The singing hovered between poor and passable; the energy levels in the acting were higher than ever, but - hampered by the short scenes, the characters in the play (The Odd Couple), the Noo Yoik accents and the lack of rehearsal time - none of us could only give one-note performances. My particular note was grumpy, sweaty  accountant.

I was, incidentally, the hero of the hour, because when silence fell and we all sat there for that awful second when someone has forgotten his words, and the person following can't come in because he hasn't had the cue, I was the one who leapt up and moved the action forward to a point where we could all come in again. But that was a minor moment and I was more concerned that the others acting with me - Brendan, Floyd, Sean, Milt, Matt - turned in good performances, and they all did. We may not be Laurence Oliviers, but between us we have the makings of an up-and-coming Carry On crowd and I'd be happy to work with them all again.

That leaves one more day, the Day of Reckoning, when the course leaders tell us what they think of us, followed by lunch (in a more modern restaurant than that depicted here by Bosch). That will be interesting. More interesting will be whether the students tell the course leaders what they think of them. Poor planning, disrespect, lack of coherency and irrelevance are some of the comments that have been bandied around in our evening get-togethers. Will they get aired today, and if they do, will it be before or after lunch?

Friday, 29 July 2011

You know what they say . . .

. . . a bad dress rehearsal means a good first night. That had better be true, because yesterday was a disaster. Scenes that had been coming together fell apart as every one of us fluffed lines and movements and cues. The more nervous we got, the worse the performances. Tracy the director's always severe expression turned volcanic, but the expected explosion never came; I think she realised it would make no difference.

Am I looking forward to tonight? Yes, but only the bit where we drown our sorrows in the bar . . .

Thursday, 28 July 2011

To Be Or Not To Be Nice

We're in the pub at the end of the day and talk drifts round to the Prince of Darkness, the school principal, who watched and commented on our singing performances earlier in the day. Two or three of the group are highly critical of the way in which he picks on individuals, making disparaging comments. My sense is that this is his style of working, he is not consciously victimising anyone, and isn't this the stereotype of the director - a vicious, heartless bastard? (How would I know? I could count the number of directors I've worked with on the fingers of one foot...)

It appears I'm wrong. The consensus is that directors can and should always be critical in a sympathetic and supportive way. Of course I agree with that principle, but as an older, short-tempered, critical individual myself, I have a sneaking sympathy for those who say what they think and don't give a damn about people's opinions of them. To the surprise of Myfanwy, our Welsh songbird, I'd even be happy to have a drink in the pub with him.

That doesn't blind me to his faults. Even if the PoD turned into a cuddly bear, the course he runs is a mess which may give students a watered-down taste of full-term acting school, but which gives them almost no support in identifying strengths which can be built on, and weaknesses which can be corrected.

Looking forward . . . Today is the last rehearsal for tomorrow's performance. Some of us feel we've had too much of Tracy's time and others feel we've had too little. I'll be surprised if she manages to pull it all together into one coherent performance.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Counting down

It's the last week of the course and I'm not sure if I'm pleased about that or not. The upside is that I'll have more free time and that I won't be spending hours on activities that seem peripheral to my future acting career. The downside is that I may lose focus (will I really spend all that time working on my voice, getting my name out and pursuing all the opportunities I come across?) and the energy that comes from working with a group of supportive colleagues.

Monday was our second day of Elizabethan dance. I know that roles occasionally call for actors to dance, but the chances of my auditioning for a part where I have to cut a good pavane are pretty close to zero. Prancing around on my toes is something I'd prefer to see as an option in a two year course than as a requirement in basic acting. Which means that my heart is not in it - and my calves, already sore from Saturday's upping-and-downing - are still complaining two days later.

On Tuesday we are back to Voice - and this is the class we should have had much nearer the beginning of the course. No-one really understood the point of all the groaning and puffing that Cynthia made us do on earlier lessons, but today she has performed two miracles.

Firstly, her directing talents came to the fore when she made us perform our mini-scenes from Waiting for Godot in sequence. The play began to come alive and as a group we were acting rather than reciting words. Secondly, she took each of us in turn and, with startling accuracy, focused in on the physical sources of the weaknesses in our voices. She told Lloyd that his tension was in his legs - and Lloyd told her that he had been born with a deformed foot and that he still sometimes struggled to correct it. Brenda's problem was in the roof of her mouth - and Brenda had had a cleft palate. Sean's sibilants could be traced to thumb-sucking. Irina's strong personality was diverted into her mind and her dress rather than her body. My own fault was a laziness that let me speak from the head rather than use my body. And so on and so on.

If such comments had come early in the course, we could have used them, both in the scenes we are showing on Friday, and in our overall development. Subsequent Voice classes could have helped us resolve some of our problems through the course, instead of merely informing us near the end what our inadequacies are. Texan Jack, for example - who, it seems, on getting to know him, is less a potential axe murderer than a likable, nervous, intense young man - will probably forget what he has been told, but if he had been reminded two or three times during the course, his tense hunched body might have begun to uncurl into a confident upright figure.

Cynthia's comments had most of us paying attention. Sean, however, insisted on playing the clown. He has a good sense of humour and his comments are funny, but they detract from the focus of the class and make it more difficult for the rest of us to concentrate on what the teacher is saying. I like Sean, and he's a good companion in the pub. He has undoubted talent, but he is also unaware of or uninterested in the needs of others. In a short course it's only slightly irritating; in a longer course he'd be putting several people's backs up....

Today it's back to Singing. To get off book, I have two and half songs to learn in less than an hour. ♪ There is nothing like a dame.....

Monday, 25 July 2011

Have Faith?

One of the names of possible schools that came up in Saturday's discussion was the Actors' Temple (I've added the apostrophe - it makes more sense) near Warren Street in London ( It has a good reputation and the website is professional and attractive. But the website also says that their courses are coming to an end as the Temple transforms into a fully-fledged acting company, so if I want to take advantage of their expertise, I should get in there quick, particularly when there is only one introductory week available, for an astonishing low £50.

The Temple specialises in the [Sanford] Meisner Technique (that's him on the left, see Wikipedia for more on the Technique), using "an inter-dependent series of training exercises". According to Wikip, several actors I respect and enjoy, from Robert Duvall to Leslie Nielsen, reportedly trained in the Technique. So far, so good. Back to the Temple website, I start watching their 45 minute film showing extracts from the classes and discussions and comments from teachers and students giving their views on the Technique and its results.

Five minutes in, I have Questions about the course as I watch students wind each other up by continuously repeating short phrases about how they feel. By the twenty-minute mark, seeing a student first humiliated and then berated because he has not burst into tears (there appears to be a lot of crying in the Temple, as well as some laughter and rolling around the floor in ecstasy), those Questions have solidified into Doubts; by the end of the film, Doubts have become Certainty that this is not a line of training I want to follow. Why? Because the Technique, as applied by the Temple and presented in this documentary, comes across as something between a religious cult where each follower's personality must be broken in order to be moulded to the leader's bidding, and an intense therapy session where deeply wounded souls are encouraged to cry out their anguish.

The theory underlying the training - if I understand correctly - is that actors can only give a true performance if they are true to themselves. The only way to become true to oneself is to open up to every emotion. And to open up to every emotion one has to go through a series of exercises that - from the evidence of the film - rely heavily on endless repetition and regular humiliation. (I assume there is more to the course than that, and there is a point where students actually act, but the emphasis appears to be much more on the challenge of the Dragon than the prize of the Princess.)

There are certainly some plays and films, and styles of theatre, cinema and television which require extreme performances, and I am sure that such a Course would help some actors achieve that goal. But just as in Art the same scene can be portrayed with truth in many different styles (think of Art, and painters from Rembrandt to Picasso, Duchamp to Hopper and so on), so too can truth on the stage be portrayed by actors from many different traditions and training techniques. I don't believe the Meisner Technique is a prerequisite of good acting; it's simply a tool that some individuals may find useful.

It could be argued that my distaste for the Temple technique is because I'm unwilling to put myself through the various extremes that it requires. There may be some truth in that, but as an older man, I have already experienced most of the traumas and elations that the course would want to me relive. I believe I know myself well and there is little of my personality left to uncover. And while I'm willing to express profound rejection or celebration on stage to convey an emotion or message to an audience, I'm not interested in repeating emotions for the sake of an exercise.

The Technique, as demonstrated by the Temple, almost certainly has greater impact with young actors, who have less experience of the world and who are in many ways more defensive and insecure. It is more difficult for the young to express deep and complex emotions - which is why so few 14 and 15 year olds can give a good performance of Romeo and Juliet and so few 19 year-olds can convey the complexities of Hamlet, while older actors portraying Lear are so much more compelling. A young person who goes through the intense experience of this course, who gains a clearer understanding of the complex emotions that make up a human being, and who emerges from it with their personality intact will almost certainly benefit as an actor.

The young student who was humiliated in the film is shown later speaking happily about the benefits he has got from the course. And I doubt that those who enter the Temple are expected to give up all their possessions and cut off all contact with their family. But I am also sure that the name of the Temple was not chosen by chance; this is the place where acolytes must abase themselves before the God of Acting, where they must undergo Ordeals to be accepted as Initiates, and where some may one day become Priests. Such a place is not for me. As an atheist in the Real World, this is one place of worship I can easily pass by.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

What Next?

The course ends in a week and discussion in our group naturally turns to what we do next. The problem is, there doesn't seem to be a clear path forward. Should we take lots more courses, spending money that we don't necessarily have? Even if we had the money, how many of these courses would be taking us forward and how many would simply take us the same ground as we had covered before? And would we know the difference between the courses before handing over our cash?

We exchange names of schools we have heard of or attended or known others who attend. The Actors' Centre seems to have the best reputation. The Bridge School next. But it seems there are dozens in London alone. Milt the Builder says the situation reminds him of his own trade - there are always plenty of people willing to take your money to teach you something - far more than people willing to pay you for doing something you have learnt. He himself is torn between doing a full-time course and going straight into auditions. Most of us, on the other hand, have to balance full-time jobs with developing an acting career - a task that may be impossible.

From there the discussion moves inevitably on to whether to work for free. Whether we know from hearsay or personal experience, none of us is surprised - although several of us are shocked - by the number of producers profiting from desperate actors who'll do anything to appear on stage or in front of the camera, even paying for their own travel and other expenses. Would I do it? Yes, occasionally, if I felt it was merited by the script -  of course it's more likely that I would not even get so far as being offered a part.

Reality is making itself felt. At the back of my mind I've always believed that one can either act or not act - and those who can act need only experience and self-awareness to develop the talent within them. If a role demands a special skill, such as fencing, then you either study that skill when offered the role, or you study the skill hoping to find a role that it needs. As a 59-year-old whose emotional and intellectual life has been wide and varied, I'm egoistical enough to consider I have the understanding and ability to portray a wide range of characters - and as 59-year-old I don't want to spend the next two to three years of my life, plus thousands of pounds that I cannot afford, doing training after training after training.

Of course I will do a few more classes. But I have a limited budget of £1,000 to spend on further training and £500 to put together headshots and voicereels and a website. Give me two months to put together a profile and I'll put myself out there online and in person. In the meantime I'll scout around for courses - I'm particularly interested in the £5 a lesson offered in this week's The Stage (see pic) - see what I come up with. By the end of the year, I'll know how difficult it really is for hope and egosim to overcome lack of experience in an overcrowded job market . . .

Friday, 22 July 2011

Building up a Picture

Rehearsal. While Tracy is working with others, our group retires to run through the extracts from The Odd Couple that we are performing. Imaginary curtain up on four of us sitting around an non-existent table playing virtual poker, while trading insults and occasionally shouting questions at Oscar offstage. Script in hand, the four of us bumble through the words and movements. It's not that we haven't learnt our lines; it's that we don't trust ourselves to remember lines, cues and blocking without those precious pages in our hands. And with all that responsibility, focusing on a New York accent and getting the right emotion into the words come far down on my list of priorities.

The first run through is not so much a mess as a flop. We run through it again. I sit on my script and leave it behind at the point where I have to get up and inspect the garbage. With nothing to look at, I have to concentrate, but I get most of the words right and in the right place. As do the others. So we do it again, and again, and again. We're all gradually coming off book and although each of us misses a cue or fluffs lines from time to time, we can feel the play coming together.

I'm still not quite sure of my character, Roy, but he has a nice interaction with Oscar that I can work with and I'm getting a clearer idea of what kind of person he is. It's not just my character that is coming into focus; as I watch the others interact and become aware of my own movements, there's no longer a blank space between each of my lines. As a writer I had never appreciated how abstract words are, but now I can see from the inside how acting builds up a picture, three-dimensional and in colour, that printed words cannot convey. It's not just me, of course; the other actors are equally good or better. Sean's exaggerated accent,  facial expressions and gestures are just right for comedy; Brendan contributes a laid-back, likable Oscar; Matt easily gives Speed presence and Francis is getting the hang of dumb Vinnie.

As the play comes together around me, my accent begins to improve and my other main concern - what do to with myself when the focus is elsewhere and I have nothing to say - begins to fade. I know my performance is a long way from perfect, but I'm no longer worrying about whether I have any right to be on that stage.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Voices Off

I'm missing Movement class. I was showered and shaved and ready to go, shoes on, bag on back, when I realised that the sore throat and headache that had lingered in the wings since I woke up were now demanding my attention. If it had been Rehearsal, I would have sworn that The Show Must Go On and taken with me a bottle full of honey and lemon juice, but I'd rather save my energy for tomorrow and plan for a restorative sleep tonight.

But the day hasn't been wasted. As I've said before, I intend to pursue voiceover work as vigorously, if not more so, as I seek work as an actor. So today I've been exploring the web and listening to VO artists, to give myself an idea what is expected and how to find work. I then followed that up for a couple of hours recording my own voice to try out different effects and accents. And a mildly depressing experience it has been.

The first problem is that my recorded voice seems much less rounded and deep than it sounds to me when I speak. I'm not immediately disheartened; the weakness may be the fault of the recording, or my ear, or my incipient sore throat may have been holding me. But then I try various accents and moods and there is far less distinction between them than I expected. When I play around with my voice unrecorded, I hear different people, but when I play the recordings, I hear only me with different voices. And more than once - particularly when I'm trying the New York accent I need for The Odd Couple - the voices are off.

The only sample I make that comes close to what is going on in my mind is She Walks In Beauty, a short poem by Byron (yup, you guessed; that's him above). I give it a rhythm that marries the different paces of the verse and the meaning, and the words come out in an intimate, seductive tone that - I think - conveys the intensity of the poet's emotion. I am pleased with my work and encouraged by it. I'm even briefly tempted to upload it here, but sense prevails and I will get a professional opinion before I go that far.

By the time I switch off the microphone and make myself tea, I'm still convinced I have a natural talent for voiceover and radio, but I'm no longer naive enough to think that untrained talent alone will get me work. So when this course finishes, the next stage in my development is likely to be finding a coach or a class that specialises in voiceovers and accents. Can anyone recommend one to me?

Oh Godot!

Voice class again. We're taking it in turns to lie on the floor and have our heads rocked or arms pulled while breathing "hey, hey, hey" or reciting a favourite text. Then we're up on feet with our hands around each other's bellies, to feel the lower back muscles as we breathe in and out. My partner is Sean, who I variously think of as Joker and Alpha Male. He's one of these people whom I initially find irritating, but whom I get to like as I get to I know him and his hidden talents and vulnerabilities begin to show. So after the ritual male-bonding double-entendre about giving me head, we settle down to our task. And of course come to different conclusions when we have to report back to teacher Cynthia. There was I thinking I was going with his flow as my arms were yanked this way and that, while Sean says that I was stiff as a board.

I get the point that awareness and relaxation should improve the quality of our stage voices, but I still don't see how we are supposed to translate the benefits of exercise into improved performance. But we've moved on to the very short scenes that we are giving from Waiting for Godot. (Pause to acknowledge line drawing above, downloaded from, who may or may not hold the copyright.) It's another gratifying moment, when Matt and I stomp around the stage and exchange insults and the class erupts into the loudest applause of the evening, so my ego is suitably massaged. There are other good performances: Milt is fully in his role, with partner Francis almost as good and the two of them together have the makings of a fine comic act. I like Maria's take on her role. And it's helpful to watch Cynthia direct and to see eyes light up as the depth of the play becomes more apparent to them.

But why, oh why, in a voice class, does Cynthia not use the time to help the quietest voices project? Irina, Roberto and Lloyd whisper or mumble and get no advice how to expand their voices, which would immediately make their performances much stronger. (It's a problem I've noticed with all the women, that it is often difficult to make out what they are saying.) Surely projection should be one of the primary aims of a Voice class? Otherwise, they will continue struggle along without the boost to their confidence that such advice could give. And with that thought - and the lingering applause - in my mind, I head off to the pub to meet friend and theatre fan Carl, where I can praise myself and complain about the course to my heart's content.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Be My Friend, Please! (falls to knees, grasps skirt hem and sobs)

I've just joined Face Book. Will you be my friend? Find me here: Act Serious I'm not proud, I'll be friends with anyone, even Trotskyists and Creationists as long as they laugh at themselves. What I'm looking for ideas, inspiration, intelligence. I also like humour (behind the best humour lies modesty, thoughtfulness and a sense of proportion). I'm not that keen on calumny or insults, but constructive criticism is always welcome.

You get the point - befriend me!

Monday, 18 July 2011

Tone Deaf

Singing class again. As mentioned before, I hate to sing in public. On my own, I can belt out a song (notice, I didn't say tune) with the best of them. But when I'm surrounded by people who can sing, and when I'm asked to produce the same note as the accompanying piano, my brain disconnects and my voice has no idea where it is or where it should go. In a chorus I can mouth my way through, but when, like everyone else, I'm asked to do a one-line solo (in "There Is Nothing Like A Dame" from South Pacific), I become increasingly tense. All I want to do is walk straight out of a class to which I can add nothing. But I can't act the Diva, so I sit there becoming increasingly angry that instead of listening to one of Rogers and Hammerstein's greatest songs, I am forced to ruin other people's and my own pleasure with my harsh, ugly, tune-destroying voice.

Nor is my mood enhanced when the men are sent off while the women rehearse their production. We sit in Starbucks, slightly subdued. Some of us tell jokes; while one of mine works, the others fall flat. I should have kept silent but I was tone deaf to the mood. It's a relief when class finishes early and I can go home.

My own mood does not improve when I review the upcoming timetable. Tomorrow is Voice, which, given the experience of last week, I'm not looking forward to. The day after is Movement, which might be interesting if the teacher demonstrates what the connection is between running around like butterflies and acting on the stage. More Singing on Friday and half Saturday wasted on more Movement. The more I think about this course and how little acting we are doing, and how little we are learning about actual stagecraft, the more irritated I become. This is not what I thought I was spending my money on and I do not see how it will help me develop the talent I seem to have.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Acting Odd

After the Shylock triumph, Texan Jack - the young Leonardo diCaprio with the wild eyes and intense posture - and I get talking. He says something about my performance and I say something about Shylock and he looks at me in surprise. "You mean that was Shylock?" I nod. His face lights up. "Shylock's the man! I really want to do Shylock!" "So do you think Shylock's a good guy or a bad guy?" I ask him. He looks at me, uncertain. "I don't know," he says. "But you know the story, don't you?" I ask. He shakes his head. I wonder whether I should point out that it's a little strange to admire a character you don't know from a play you haven't read or seen after hearing a speech that you didn't know was by the character that you profess to admire, but instead I say that the play is quite simple - it's about a man who wants revenge on someone who has humiliated him. He looks interested, so I go on to add the bit about Jews and Christians, moneylending and wealth. He's still paying attention. I bring in Portia, referring to a competent monologue given by Bethany earlier in the day. At which point Texan Jack throws up his hands in confusion - "you lost me" and walks away.... (that's Henry Irving as Shylock, by the way - one of the few pictures on the web which doesn't pander to stereotypes)

The afternoon class is taken up by rehearsals for The Odd Couple. Since there are more of us than in the cast, some of us are sharing roles, and we're doing both the male and the female versions of the play. Ideally, Tracy, the director - who, with her glasses half-way down her nose, book in hand and no-nonsense attitude, fits the role of director to a T - should give us all equal time, but at least half the afternoon, it seems, is given up to blocking the early scenes of the male version, particularly the part where Felix arrives and we all rush around worrying whether he's overdosed and trying to stop him from killing himself. I've learnt my lines, but like everyone else, I haven't learnt my cues, so we're all on book. What with the script in my hand, a wandering accent, uncertainty as to what to do with myself in the long periods where Roy has no lines, and Tracy giving me notes (mostly "speed up") on the lines I do have, the fund of confidence that I built up with Shylock has quickly depleted. But I'm not complaining, because it's fun to do and it's good to see the others develop and of course I'd rather be on stage fluffing lines than watching bored from the sidelines.

At the end of the day there's another bonding session in the pub where we explore each other's backgrounds a little further. With each revelation comes a vulnerability; today I learn that alpha male Sean, 31, and gentle Balbeer, 35, are both reluctantly single, and both willing to seek partners from outside their cultural background (respectively Jewish and Sikh). There were more insights from others, but they got lost in the haze of gossip and alcohol, noise and elation. Another two weeks to go, who knows what more I will learn and what embarrassing facts I will let slip . . .

Saturday, 16 July 2011

A Lock on Shylock

Half a day on Shakespeare with the school director, known to many as the Prince of Darkness for his harsh and abrupt criticism of student performances. I saw him in action on my First Course, when students were lucky to get out more than four lines before he interrupted with an occasionally encouraging, but usually devastatingly critical, comment on their performance. I got off lighter than most, my two memories being (a) told that rocking backwards and forwards was a sign of nervousness, which indeed it was, and (b) asked to make my speech (Claudius' attempts to cajole Hamlet out of his mood - 'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature...') more sympathetic, which I apparently managed to do.

Today the PoD is in more benevolent mood - apart from the occasional flash of anger when one of us makes a noise or a whisper that indicates we are not giving the class our full attention - and the students are, on average, both better prepared and more talented than before. There are some good performances - from Hamlet, Othello, Richard III and others. Occasionally the PoD gives advice on technique - speak louder, enunciate less - but his primary concern is to throw light on a character's background and relationship with others in the play, in the hope that the actor will instinctively, rather than intellectually, deepen and round out their performance.

By chance or design, I am last to be chosen. My speech is Shylock's response to Antonio, when the latter asks to borrow money on Bassanio's behalf (see below). I had originally chosen it for the First Course, but decided it was too easy - the primary tone is sarcasm - and had switched to Claudius' speech. I did not have the patience to learn another text for this course, and so I revised the words on my way too and from the school each day.

The speech, it seemed, became more difficult than less, as increasing familiarity revealed alternative approaches to each line. Should my final words "and for these courtesies / I'll lend you thus much moneys" be spoken mockingly or in anger? quietly or in raised voice? How great a pause should there be between "for suff'rance is the badge of all our tribe" and "you call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog"?  And so on. I became less, rather than more, certain of my performance. I was tempted to watch again the film where Al Pacino turns in an impeccable performance (and overcomes the director's occasional mutilation of the text), but I wanted to make this speech my performance, not his. In the end I decided that my best approach was downplay the importance of the class in my mind and let what happen happen. I became so laid back that when my mind occasionally wandered as others gave their pieces, I was not panicked by the fact I seemed to have forgotten half the text. Then I was called forward, and Something Happened.

I have a vague memory of announcing which speech I would give, and of declaring that Milt the Builder would be my Antonio, and then, it seems, I disappeared. There was someone in that room, reminding Antonio of the insults he had been subject to, demonstrating his surprise that the merchant had come to borrow money, and wondering aloud how to respond to that request, but that person was Shylock, not me. Yes, there were brief moments when I looked out of Shylock's eyes and noticed that this man's body had moved a little closer to Antonio to make his point, or saw that others sitting on either side of the merchant were entranced by Shylock's words, but for most of the Jew's speech, John Heminges did not exist. Only at the end, as Shylock turned away, his gesture expressing disgust at the hypocrite who had come to ask for money, did I become fully conscious that Something Wonderful had happened and I had given a performance that had silenced the room.

As I came back into the room, the PoD gestured me to my seat and told me that between the first time he had seen me and the speech I had just given, I had become an Actor; I had given a performance so good that there was nothing he could add. And as my eyes focused on the class around me, and became aware of the strange sensation in my gut and mind, I knew that he was right, that Shylock had indeed been present in the room.

It was a weird sensation, which lasted to the end of the day - and which carried me through the mess that was our first rehearsal of The Odd Couple (about which I will write tomorrow) and long into the evening. I was both elated and drained. In an earlier post I compared acting to sex, but this sensation was so much more. Sex is about physical sensation, and too that we often add emotion, but acting - or at least the few minutes this afternoon in which John Heminges became Shylock the Jew - is physical and emotional and intellectual sensation all rolled into one. It is both the complete sublimation of the personality and it is the personality expanded and fulfilled. It is... At which point I have to stop, because the more I have to explain it, the less clear the explanation becomes.

All I can say is my last doubts have disappeared. This is something I want to do, I can do, I must do, I will do....

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe.

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.

Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to, then; you come to me, and you say
'Shylock, we would have moneys:' you say so;
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold.

                             Moneys is your suit
What should I say to you? Should I not say
'Hath a dog money? is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?'
Shall I bend low and in a bondman's key,
With bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness, Say this;
'Fair sir, you spit on me on Wedn’sday last;
You spurn'd me such a day; another time
You call'd me dog; and for these courtesies
I'll lend you thus much moneys'?

Singing and Fighting

I can't sing. I like to open my voice and bellow something which my brain thinks is a tune, but if I actually listen to myself when the sound

comes out, I have a sensation that might be described as minor nausea. Other people don't like to hear me sing. The Other Half gives me a piteous, begging look when I, very occasionally burst into song.

You get the point. I don't like to sing. I don't want to sing. Other people don't want me to sing. But we have a day's singing class. George, our elfin music teacher, is full of enthusiasm and energy and gets us to produce a loud noise that sounds fairly tuneful to my uneducated ears, as I enunciate as quietly as I can. Milt, beside me, who has form when it comes to singing, makes up for my reticence in a pleasant full tone. So far, so good, but it appears that future lessons are going to involve smaller groups and solos and my sense of discomfort grows.

On the bus home I find myself sitting next to Bethany. She is - believe it or not - Welsh and of course she can sing. I make a minor comment about today's class and unwittingly provoke an outburst - well, Bethany is sweet and polite and her outbursts are about as offensive as a vicar's wife saying "bother!" when she accidentally decapitates the cat - an outburst about George's teaching technique which, in B's opinion is wrong, wrong, wrong. She begs me not to tell anyone in the class and I promise not to do so. I also silently promise myself not to tell her about this blog...

Next day, stage fighting. It's fun as we mock slap, punch, eyepoke, strangle and abuse each other and practise being slapped, punched, eyepoked, strangled and abused. At one stage I have Kitty, our motherly Canadian (that's being premature, she's too young to be motherly, but you know at one point in her life she's going to have a full-time career and a kitchen full of her own and the neighbour's kids and she'll be dispensing wisdom as fast as she can hand out cookies) on the floor with my hands round her throat and I'm shouting "Die, bitch!". Milt the Builder, points out that I did that rather well and I comment that it brought back a lot of good memories...

But the real acting comes when a group of us are in the pub afterwards. It's a pleasant place, with comfortable seats and background (not OVERLOUD) music and we're chatting about the course and life. I'm playing the role of a straight man (as in sexual, not comedic), by which I don't mean that I'm talking about Birds and Getting My Leg Over, but I'm having an ordinary conversation with a group of people who do not appear to be gay in orientation. Which is unusual in my life and the lives of many of my friends, because as we get older, we tend to settle into groups of like-minded people who think and live the way we do. So no matter how critical of the course I and others might be (why is there so much movement and voice; why don't we spend more time doing different scenes learning how to develop character?) I'm enjoying these three weeks because it's bringing me new friends and insights into other people's lives  -  of which more anon.

Friday, 15 July 2011

An Accentuated Performance

The third day of the course is devoted to casting for the extracts for the play that we will put on at the end of the course. It's Neil Simon's The Odd Couple, the well-known 1960s Broadway Hit (and film and television serious). [Did you know - as I didn't - that Simon wrote a female version 20 years later?] My heart sinks. I can do several accents, but I'm not confident with New Yorkese.

Casting consists of sitting round Tracy, the director, in a semi-circle, while she tries us out reading various parts. We will be producing highlights from the play, alternating the male and female versions, with some of the men doubling within a scene to make sure that we all have stagetime.

It's a painful process. The scripts are photocopied on both sides of the page and stapled in the corner, which makes turning pages complicated and performances frequently grind to a halt as one or other reader, with the help of their neighbours, tries to find the next line. And some of us are either not concentrating or have difficulty reading, and the performance again halts while they stare at the words on the page. By the end of the evening Tracy's professional smile and demeanour has disappeared behind a deep silent frown

As time goes by, I wonder why Tracy chooses some readers over others, asking builder Milt or strutting Sean to repeat parts again and again while leaving others waiting dumbly for their first chance to read. I get three roles at different times: the nervy Speed, the cop Murray and, in the women's version, Spanish Jesus. I think I do a good Speed - the accent is not bad - and I'm pleased with my Murray, but Tracy complains that I took him too slowly (despite the stage directions and her own comments that he's a ponderous policeman).

What really lets me down, however, as effectively as a lead balloon, is my Jesus. Surrounded by a cacophony of accents from real Italian to fake Brooklyn, from London to Lahore, my usually reliable comic Spanish (based partly on Speedy Gonzalez and partly on the fact that I speak the language quite well), wanders all over the place, at times emerging as Indian, which is embarrassing, given that we have one real Indian in the group, who has that accent, as well as a Brit of South Asian descent (whose accent is pure London). At the end of it, my ego wants nothing more than to retreat into a darkened room with nothing but Lapsang Souchong, cucumber sandwiches and several hours of Ealing comedies to alleviate its misery.

At the end of the evening, I'm given Roy the accountant, who, it seems, is the least consequential character in the cast. Ah well, an actor's life is full of rejections, but one of the advantages of age is to be able to ride over them, so I'm all smiles when half-a-dozen of us repair to the nearest pub and continue the process of bonding. Due reverence is paid to my previous experience at the School and the upcoming Shakespeare audition and the combination of cameraderie and whiskey work their reliable magic (I knew I could get to like Sean and have a pleasant conversation with Irina, even if it is complicated by the fact that she knows much about Shakespeare's plays except their titles in English).

By the time I go home all is well with the world and all I need is a modicum of sympathy from the Other Half, which I get, and after which I sleep soundly till morning.

Voicing Concern

Day two. Voice class with Cynthia, who was the highlight of Course One. Cynthia is a luvvie of the old school, where everything is fantastic and everyone is darling. From the little I have seen of her work, she's an excellent director, but today her role is to take us for voice class. It's a three hour session and she happily talks for half an hour at a time, in a rambling conversation that explains little but keeps asking us whether we have understood.

The key points she wants to get across are diaphragm (see above) and larynx (see below), but instead of clearly telling us that the former is the large muscle that few of us are aware of that stretches across the middle of the body separating the lungs and heart from the digestive organs below, and the larynx is the Adam's apple (which even women have), she wanders around the subject and lets each of us filter out the appropriate information as best we can.

I'd like to interrupt, to take the knowledge I learnt in Linguistics a generation ago, to suggest that everyone put their fingers on their throat to make the sounds "f" and "v", "s" and "z" to learn what the larnx does. I'd add on a vowel, both spoken and whispered, to underline the point, but I keep silent and the class lumbers on.

Half an hour or more is spent in half-heartedly doing games that either repeat yesterday's Movement work with Ann or have more in common with physical expression than with sound. And the final session is taken up with a lengthy and unclear introduction to Waiting for Godot, which explains nothing to those youngsters who have not heard of the play. Which means that we only have a few last minutes, for couples - I am paired with drama teacher Matt, who is pleasant and more intelligent than first appears, and who shares my concern with Cynthia's wandering style - to engage in rapid-fire Vladimir and Estragon exchanges. Just as we are getting into it, it's time to go home...

Second Class - New Characters

Fired with enthusiasm, I reserve a place on a longer class at the same drama school. A few weeks pass. In the meantime some of the acting group come together to see the production of Betrayal at the Comedy Theatre. The play opens to the tune of two or three mobile phones in the audience ringing loudly and more than once, but once silence has been established we can concentrate on the performances. [Real Names follow] Kirstin Scott Thomas as Emma is excellent, Ben Miles as husband Robert is competent, but Douglas Henshall as lover Jerry is - in the eyes of all our group - appallingly bad. It's partly his Scottish accent, partly his immobility and partly his hangdog look, but they all come together to create a character who is anything but the witty, exciting, sexual, overwhelming man that any intelligent woman would fall for, especially when she was already married to Ben Miles. In the pub afterwards we all agree that the men in our group gave a better performance than the lifeless Henshall.

I see other plays in the meantime - Rosenstern and Guildencrantz at the Theatre Royal, where I'm impressed by the acting, particularly the Player King, who is, thank fate, not Tim Curry, but where I once again have Doubts about Stoppard, who I see as 80% rather than 100% genius; and Ibsen's The Emperor and Galilean at the National, which received at least one appallingly bad review, but which I and newly-found would-be acting friend Thom and ditto Nubia, all thoroughly enjoyed for its epic portrayal of the Roman Emperor Julian and his coming to power. At the forefront of my mind, however, is the Second Acting class, which began last Monday. (Which means that I'm catching up fast and in the next couple of days this Blog will be in © Real Time © !!)

Nineteen - twelve men (although one drops out after the first day) and seven women - of us gather in a dingy rehearsal room and briefly introduce ourselves. (I am last and prompted by our director, proffer a new Knock Knock joke which falls flat on its face.)  Most are in the 25 - 35 age bracket; one gives his age as 56 and another is probably in his upper 40s. Several foreigners, including North Americans; three with pronounced non-native accents. A motley crew, I think to myself, which will never come together, but within an hour I am proved wrong as Ann, our efficient Movement teacher not only enables us to loosen and waken our bodies, but gives us a couple of exercises which fix everybody else's names in our head.

Personalities emerge like figures from a fog. By chance or subconscious design I find myself paired with Texan Jack, a slim young Leonardo diCaprio. When Ann has us leading each other around the room, by fingertips or hands on head, I am aware of Jack's intense closeness, energy and fresh sweat. He can't be coming on to me, I tell myself, but if he is... Of course I don't reject the idea, but think over the complications it would cause, in the class and with the Other Half. When the exercise ends and we are listening to Ann's comments, I feel Jack standing too close to me and I gradually draw away. Then the group moves on and we find ourselves at opposite ends of the room. I'm not wearing my glasses; is he staring at me? Uncertain, I consciously turn my gaze away.

As for the others... I'm quickly aware of Sean, short, 31, fit, strong personality and voice. My first reaction with such characters is always dislike - nobody should be that self-confident - but I check myself. There's Irina, the Russian, tall, slender, dark-haired, brooding in an skin-tight black dress; polite and pleasant; haughty and humour-free. Roberto, the tall nervous Italian; Matt, the offenceless drama teacher with the unnecessary stomach; Milt, the 56-year-old building contractor. And so on.

By the end of the day, I am tired, pleased and a little concerned. The exercises have allowed several of my classmates to demonstrate reserves of imagination and talent. I was more restrained and am not sure that I have the same depths they do. I have to expand myself to my full capabilities as quickly as possible, show them and the teachers how good I can be. Thank goodness it's only the first day, there are weeks to come. By the end of this course, I tell myself, I will be in the top four or five.

I find myself leaving at the same time as Jack. I ask if he understood that in one of the exercises I was surprised to find him leading, pushing into me, when I was expecting him to follow as I drew away from him. He doesn't seem to understand. I try to explain. It gets complicated. At last a light seems to go on in his mind. We part and I walk towards the bus-stop relieved that no, he wasn't coming on to me and I can go home with a clear conscience and looking forward to tomorrow.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

First Class - First Sex

With the Other Half's laughter still ringing in my ears, I book for a four-day course at a nearby acting school. It's less acting - learning lines, developing character, blocking moves, director's tantrums - than I expected and more what I consider ancillary action - movement, singing, voice, stage fighting. I'm fairly unco-ordinated and have a temperamental knee, but I get through the physical activity with my dignity more or less intact, apart from the Elizabethan scraping, bowing and dancing, where I'm always putting the wrong foot forward or turning or leaning in the wrong direction. As for the singing... I'm one of these people who only ever sings when there is a space of at least five hundred yards between me and the nearest human being, and on those rare occasions when I do give voice I usually cringe at the awful sound that emerges. But George, the energetic, friendly, talented and otherwise excellent music teacher, seems unaware of my ability to sing several varying tones off-key within a single note and gives me a minor part in the chorus we are to present.

I get the point of the these classes, but it's the acting I'm here for and it's good to know that there are more women than men in the class, so while they have to share roles, we males each get a whole scene to ourselves. We're playing Jerry in different scenes, and when one of the men drops out, I get the bonus of playing him in a second scene. I'm not brilliant, I know, but I can feel and hear myself emoting properly, and when I compare myself with the others in the class - all of whom I get to know and like - and hear oblique compliments from several, I know I'm one of the best in the group.

That opinion gets enhanced after the Shakespeare session, firstly when the classmate I choose to be my Hamlet tells he felt properly told off by my Claudius ("'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, To give these mourning duties to your father..."), and later when in conversations with both the school and course director at the end of the course.

It's these compliments and the emotional high that has built up over the four days that convinces me that acting is something I definitely want to pursue. The high is a curious emotion, something that I have never experienced before, similar in intensity to, although obviously different in quality from, first sex. I know I want to experience it again and again. It's composed of various elements that I try to understand. I'm pleasantly surprised that there is no fear, no stagefright; once I am in character and in front of an audience it is as if they do not exist; there is only me, trying, sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully, to express the character I have become. I can fail, of course, by saying the wrong words or making the wrong movements or expression, or by only partly conveying what I want to convey, but that failure is internal. It is only when I come offstage that I remember there is an audience and I wonder whether it approves or disapproves, enjoys or is bored by, my acting.

The course comes to an end; our group exchanges emails and agree to keep in touch (and so far, many of us have) and I make my way home, still on that high. The stage has become like sex. I like it. I want to do it. I think I can do it well. I want to keep doing it and get better and better and bring pleasure to many other people . . .

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Lines and Laughter

My theatrical / performance career so far has been limited.

I have a vague memory of appearing in three school productions at the age of five, six or seven. In one of them I think I was a tree. In another I was, I believe, a traveling jester who asked a joke. My mother, who taught in a school, found some kind of appropriate costume that fitted me - and embarrassed me because it was much better than the adopted street clothes that my fellow thespians wore. Lastly, I was a magician making one of my classmates miraculously appear out of nowhere. The theory was fine, but my subject's feet kept showing where they should not, leading to laughter from the spectators and further embarrassment from myself.

Eight to ten years passed. Now in boarding school, I volunteered - I have no idea why, because I am sure I did not think I had talent - for the role of Smith in The Long and The Short and The Tall, where a group of British soldiers takes a Japanese prisoner in the Malaysian jungle. I was cast, I am sure, because the director could find no other would-be actors, and given the role with the fewest lines apart from the mute POW. So I stood stiffly on stage, unable even to muster a Northern English accent, realised what a mistake I had made in coming forward and wished the whole thing over and done with - particularly when off-stage I issued what was intended to be a pathetic cry of death and was rewarded, once again, with audience laughter. 

On to university and a degree in English and Linguistics. Acting was beyond me, I decided, so maybe I could direct. Well, no, actually, I couldn't. The drama group I'd joined presented me with Olwen Wymark's The Inhabitants, which has a ménage à trois involving a man, a woman and a teenage boy. The suggestions of homosexuality attracted me and I completely missed the reference to the ego, superego and id; another member of the drama group took over direction and I wilted into the shadows.

But still I could not let go. The next venture was a student radio programme put on by the local commercial station. I auditioned for the role of presenter, and to my surprise, got it. This was something I could do. I knew how to read clearly and the course in Linguistics was bearing fruit in that I was learning exactly what was involved in the complicated process we call communication. True, I was gently booted out of the hosting position when they found a man with a livelier voice than mine, but it was the first indication that I had a voice that people could and wanted to listen to - even though it was more a late-night dj's voice than the breathless young tones of a Radio 1 announcer.

Twenty years passed. I wrote and published a few works of fiction, whose sales went consecutively downhill. (My talent improved, but the mood of each novel and story became darker, more depressing and less commercial.) I had moved to Los Angeles and was living with an aspiring actor. He liked one of my stories. Why didn't I turn it into a play and we could produce it, with him starring and directing? LA is full of fringe theatres with movie wannabees playing to amateur agents. So we auditioned dozens of actors, with me reading different parts opposite the candidates while my partner took notes. Hey, I said to myself time and again, how is that I can read these lines with far more feeling than most of those auditioning?

Flick forward another fifteen years. I'm living in London, with the man I expect to end my days with, running a small business from home and often listening to Radio 7 / 4 Extra. I am amused, bored, cheered, depressed, entranced (you can finish the alphabet), and also intrigued. I can do that, I tell myself. I have The Voice (frequently over the years I have been complimented on my tones and accent, and more than once have women fall for me over the phone...). I even have a Variety of Voices. I am no longer an ignorant and diffident youth, but an adult with confidence in myself and awareness of people move and think and emote. Something inside me says I might have the ability to Act. I have nothing to lose, so why don't I try?

I tell the Other Half. The Other Half laughs at the idea. That is the moment, in early 2011, that I decide I'm going to spend a year doing this. I have nothing to lose; it should be fun and challenging and there is a lot I could learn. Let me try it and see.

Begin at the beginning . . .

What makes a man, whose last appearance on the stage was as a sixteen year old, his Private Smith in The Long and The Short and The Tall a lifeless, motionless mannequin, decide at the age of 58-and-a-half that he wants to be an actor?

It might be vanity, although my vanity is a weak and fragile creature that curls up in a ball each time I look in the mirror, compare my bank account with wealthier friends, or see how far their career choices have taken them. It's partly curiosity, a quality with which I am well-endowed. Curiosity may have killed the proverbial cat, but it also encourages us to seek out the new and keeps us exploring the world around us; people who are not curious and eager to learn are people who are only half alive.

But what is propelling me is more than vanity or curiosity. Somewhere within me is the belief that my presence and my voice on a stage or screen or through a radio speaker, bringing to life an individual or a situation or an emotion or challenge, will not only enhance my own life but will enhance the lives of others who see or hear me. You might call that vanity, but it is not. I do not want people to look at me and remember my name and make me a Celebrity; I want people to see or hear me and to forget who I am, while they are taken to a place that they did not know existed, that opens windows in their minds.

And with this portentous, pretentious start, I open this blog. I have just started a second short acting class. In my next post I will review my - very - brief acting / presenting / producing career so far and quickly catch up with progress this year. By the end of the week, I hope to be blogging on a nearly daily basis on the pleasures and pains of this new career...