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.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Acting Absurd

What would I do without Casting Call Pro? I regularly get notices of work, both paid and unpaid, that match my specifications. Unfortunately, because of holiday plans booked months ago, I have very little availability between now and the beginning of November, which means that most of these notices get deleted.

I also get notices about agents looking for clients and after applying to a few, one has actually got back to me. However, searching for the agency online provides mixed messages. It doesn't have its own website - which is surprising in this day and age - and Google can only track it down to Casting Call Pro, where they claim to have only opened this year to have 40 players on their books already. I know I have to be circumspect - no upfront fees, evidence that they will actually promote me - but even if nothing comes of it, an audition is an audition and it's good practice.

A time has been provisionally scheduled for the first week of October, giving me two weeks to learn two new monologues. I already have the Shylock but I presume they would prefer something more modern. So I have begun leafing through monologue books and full-length scripts to see what suits me. I'm looking for something Scottish - any suggestions for a male, aged 40 to 60 would be very welcome. I'm also thinking of doing something very different - like a eunuch or something from Theatre of Absurd. If you know any monologues written for a castrato, let me know, otherwise I'm in the mood for Ionesco ...

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Doctor When? Again?

Long ago - so long ago that it seems that in the intervening years entire civilisations, even planetary epochs, have risen and fallen, I was a child who spent his Saturday evenings staring at a small box which showed a grainy moving black-and-white picture. That box was called a television, best beloved, but it bore no more resemblance to a television today than the chimpanzee swinging through the trees bears to the modern politician or banker oozing through the concrete jungle.

One autumn evening, I found myself watching the strange story of a surprisingly intelligent girl (Susan Foreman, played by Carole Ann Ford) living with her grumpy grandfather (William Hartnell) in junkyard. The girl's surname was the same as my own and at the back of my young mind there was disappointment that this connection was not strong enough to pull me out of our living-room and into her world. Never mind; there was something strange and intriguing about Susan and her grandparent, and when her teachers, Ian and Barbara, investigated, I was eager for them to leap into the inevitable adventure.

The first oddity was the policebox in the junkyard. The second oddity was the inside of the policebox was much bigger than the outside. And the last, exciting oddity, at the end of the first episode, was the appearance of the policebox on a strange landscape on what even my young mind took to be a strange planet.

Those first episodes, when the travelers are held captive by a primitive tribe, were intriguing, but they were nothing in comparison to the fifth episode, when the TARDIS (by now everone in Britain knew what a TARDIS was) landed on another planet and Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara entered an apparently deserted metallic, humming city. Something Dreadful was about to happen, and as the minutes passed, I withdrew slowly from the screen and tried to hide my eyes from whatever was going to happen. But curiosity is stronger than fear and when at the end of the episode we glimpsed a kitchen plunger pointing at a terrified Barbara and as the swelling weird electronic theme tune drowned out her screams, my heart leapt in my scrawny chest. Along with half the British population (at least those under 30), I was hooked.

How could I not be a fan of Doctor Who? It was part of my childhood and even lingered into my early student days. I might not watch every episode, but I knew who acted each doctor and the idiosyncracy of each incarnation. In the end, I got too old and bored with the fact that the Doctor appeared too often on Earth. It was the early episodes that appealed to me - the ones where it seemed that every series took place, if not on a different planet, at least in a different reality - a Space Museum, a Celestial Toymaker's Workshop, and, dim in my memory but still my favourite, an incarnation of M C Escher's world where staircases led in every direction but always back to the same few places.

I did not so much grow out of Doctor Who as away from it, and when the series was resurrected with Christopher Eccleston I was curious enough to watch a few episodes. I enjoyed Eccleston's short-tempered Time Lord, seeing in him an echo of William Hartnell's original Doctor. Then David Tennant came and on the occasions I saw an episode, I approved of the continually enhancing production values and enjoyed some of the stories that were aired. Even more, I approved of Tennant, whom I have seen and heard in many different performances and whom I believe to be one of the finest actors of our time.  But, why, I wondered, did storylines always seem to be set in the UK, in its past, present, future or alternative time-line, or on a world or spaceship that always echoed modern Britain? This wasn't my concept of Science Fiction; it was like the later, boring series of Star Trek, when it degenerated into soap opera with human beings in funny masks. I wanted the doctor and his companion to escape from all that and to find themselves in worlds where they were the only humans, where alien lifeforms were not bipedal, but perhaps composed of liquids or gases or communicating through media they were unaware of, where English was unknown.

Now we have Matt Smith as the Doctor, Karen Gillan (Amy) and Arthur Darvill (Rory), who all do exactly what the script demands of them, and who do it well. But What, I wonder, are they doing? I turned on the television ten minutes into last night's episode and caught an episode where today-Amy and future-Amy were battling some robots and there was a question about whether both could be in the TARDIS at the same time. Onscreen there was plenty of energy and action and panic and reassurance and fear. Offscreen, I was bored. It seemed to me every time I caught an episode the Doctor and Rory and Amy were zipping backwards and forwards in time to save each other and I wondered if the scriptwriters had got caught in a timewarp and could do nothing other than sending their characters shuttling to and fro in time.

I know, the show's not meant for me; it's meant for a generation to whom these ideas are new and challenging. And it is well done, and of course if some from the production team reads this and is looking for a bald villain who can also be an authority figure on the side of good and gives me a call, I'll drop everything and come running. Every British actor wants to appear on Doctor Who - and not in a tin can or behind a rubber mask. But I doubt such a scenario is in my future reality. In the meantime I hope that in their world time will stop reverberating like a twanged rubber band, and TARDIS will once again take the Doctor and his companions to somewhere far beyond our imagination....

Friday, 9 September 2011

There Are Two Wars

Back at the Paintframe of the National Theatre last night with Suave Tom to see the second in their double feature of two plays - Nightwatchman by Prasanna Puwanarajah and There Is A War by Tom Basden. We were underwhelmed.

Nightwatchman is a one-woman play performed by Stephanie Street (Puwanarajah, incidentally, is of the male variety), with Abirami as a member of the England cricket team (female variety) practising in the nets the night before a test match with Sri Lanka. Piquancy is added by the fact that Abirami is a Tamil who comes from a family where superficial unity masks deep divisions over support for the Tamil Tigers - the terrorists / freedom fighters who until last year were fighting the majority Sinhalese for control of the north of the island. The set and special effects (throughout the play Abirami was batting imaginary balls bowled by an invisible machine) were excellent and Street herself played the part with energy and authority. My only quibble was the play, which I found a little formulaic and which left some questions about Abirami's unseen family hanging in the air. Nevertheless, for a debut, Nightwatchman was impressive and if Puwanarajah can break out into more universal themes, he should one day be presented on one of the National's main stages.

On the other hand, universality is not a guarantee of a great play, as Tom Basden's There Is A War, the second offering of the evening, confirmed. In this black comedy, a pointless civil war between identical Blues and Greys has devastated an imaginary country-that-could-be-the-UK, with all the confusion and violence and death and misunderstandings and gore and humour that war and plays about war can throw up. The action is fast and furious, the acting (almost 20 players) excellent and the laughter frequent. The problem is the play's lack of internal logic; the giant roll of sellotape, old-fashioned matchboxes and abandoned drinks carton out of which appear severed hands and heads at first suggest toy soldiers, but that idea is never developed. Other moments are updates of Oh, What A Lovely War! There are some imaginative scenes - the routine torture is one and the Welsh protesters is another - but there is no coherence. (Yes, you can make the point that there is no coherence in war, but we are not fighting, we are playwatching; to constantly try and make sense of what you are watching is frustrating and detracts from the overall experience.) And then, at the point where the play should have stopped - the ending would have been unsatisfactory but we had had enough of the comedy and noise - we get another long scene that hammers home the point that had already been made: war is destructive and absurd.

Despite their drawbacks, both plays were an actor's dream. Suave Tom was dismissive of Stephanie Street, saying that he thought she was doing no more than acting herself. But even acting oneself in front of an audience, for an hour, alone, requires considerable stamina and - of course - talent. The other actors had to go to the opposite extreme in playing caricatures of soldiers and civilians and caricatures are relatively fun and easy. (At least I assume that for most of them it was an opposite extreme, although in Trevor Cooper's case, an aging South London hard case appears almost natural.) Each of them played to perfection.

Back home to an email from Sarah telling me that they had decided not to use me for the part of the policeman in her upcoming student film (I knew that already) but she was keeping me in mind for future productions. Considering that she didn't have to be that polite, I think I believe her...

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Site unseen

I have officially launched my acting website. The one dedicated to me, Me, ME! So far this month, I have registered 41 visits. (I know some people measure their site's popularity in hits or files, but visits provides the closest determinant of individual viewers.) About 12 or 14 of these visits were probably me checking on the site during fine-tuning. Which means that a grand total of 20 to 25 other people have seen in the last eight days. And since I've told very few people about the site, perhaps 10 to 20 of these are complete strangers who have stumbled over me in the virtual jungle that we know as the internet.

How many job offers have resulted from these random visits? Of course none. I'm aware that vanity sites like mine generate very little traffic. I'm unknown, I'm not doing anything unusual, and in the interests of Artistic Purity, I'm not featuring the bells and whistles of colourful advertisements and links that help to push you up the Google rankings. (Unlike this site, where a glance to the column on the right shows you a soulless mix of Google and Amazon that so far has failed to tempted anyone to click on a link and thus earn me two or twenty pence.)

But at this stage in my career that doesn't matter. Maintaining my own website is a hobby, not work. Alternately, it's a seed sown in the desert that may sprout one future day. Have a look, if you have time and can summon up thirty seconds' worth of interest, and, if you really do have nothing else to do, send me a comment.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

History Was Made

The first section of the Voiceover Course concluded yesterday. I will blog about it, but only when the whole process is over. More importantly, at least as far as my ego is concerned, was my first audition, in a room in Ealing Studios.

One young woman and two young men asked me to read through parts of an 11-page script. A policeman interviewing the friend of a rape victim. A couple of read-throughs with one of the men in the woman’s role, the first time with my copper cynical, the second time sympathetic. Was I any good? I thought so. The non-verbal cues from my hosts appeared positive. Discussion of character motivation revealed that more was going on than appeared in the current version of the script. Then the casting director – a slightly older woman with a more distant attitude – was brought in. Could I read the script with her? Of course I could. And then it was “thank you very much” and out I went, no more than 10 minutes after I arrived.

I haven’t heard since. I would have been surprised if I had. That doesn’t matter. I actually enjoyed the experience. I went in with the mental attitude that I didn’t care if I got the (unpaid) work and I came across as friendly and professional. I was comfortable with the readings  I gave, and if they go with an actor who has more hair and youth and sex appeal then I wish them well. It will free up my weekend to do other work or relax. One day I may get more cynical about crossing London to audition for unpaid parts that I will not get, but at this early stage in my career, it's still fun.

I walked out as dark was falling and headed back through the centre of Ealing – a dismal, anonymous place – to get the tube back to London and another pub reunion with my July acting course. It was only this morning that it struck me that the anonymous buildings I had walked past yesterday were history. Opened in 1902, Ealing Studios is the oldest continuously working film studio in the world, the home to the Ealing Comedies of the 1940s and 50s and, more recently, The Importance of Being Earnest and Shaun of the Dead. If I had remembered last night I would have walked more carefully and looked out for the ghosts of Alec Guinness (pictured, Kind Hearts and Coronets), John Mills, Margaret Rutherford and many more who brought light and laughter and thrills and spills to a generation of Brits in the years after the Second World War.

Monday, 5 September 2011

There Is Nothing Like . . .

On Saturday to see the Lincoln Center production of South Pacific at the Barbican. I had to go. I not only know many of the songs, but I mangled my way through several of them in acting school earlier this year. And although I’ve only ever seen the film version – once, ten years ago - I maintain that this Rodgers and Hammerstein show is the best musical ever written.

As for the plot... well, I’d forgotten most of it, only remembering that it’s set on a Pacific Island during the Second World War and involves inter-generational and inter-racial love and sex. My partial amnesia was in fact a blessing, because it allowed me to watch the show without knowing what was going to happen.

Of course I loved it. From the opening scene with Jason Howard as plantation owner Emile de Becque (the role on some nights is played by Paulo Szot) singing “Some Enchanted Evening” to the final scene where Samantha Womack sings “Dites-moi” with De Becque’s children, my attention was gripped. The acting and singing, by British and Americans, were all crisp and ranged from very good to fantastic, the direction (by Bartlett Sher) smooth, the sets (by Michael Yeargan) on the shallow stage ably represented the different settings, of the beach, De Becque’s house, the army command centre and so on.

My quibbles were minor. Loretta Ables Sayre, as Bloody Mary, speaks her lines with an accent so realistic as to make it sometimes difficult to understand her, especially in the Upper Circle, and her rendering of “Bali Hai” is perfectly in character, but it weakens the romance inherent in one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest songs. The use of two black children as De Becque’s children were good but unbelievable as children who are supposed to be half-white and half-Polynesian. (But the number of acting school children in London who fit that description is presumably small, and their colour stressed the racial difference that De Becque’s intended finds so difficult to accept.)

Other thoughts that came to mind… the comic role of fixer Luther Billis (ably played by Alex Ferns) was a precursor of CPO Pertwee in the 1960s BBC radio series The Navy Lark (played by Jon Pertwee, who later became a Doctor Who) … “Younger than Springtime”, sung by Lt Cable (the excellent Daniel Koek) to Bloody Mary’s daughter Liat (apologies to the actress for losing her name) implies that the girl is both a virgin and possibly in her early teens … And the shower scene with the naked sailors was a pleasant and unexpected surprise… 

If you live in the provinces and the show is coming to you, definitely buy tickets - it's an evening you will not forget.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Evening, all!

After a quiet few days, the Career is getting back into gear. I've launched my website (more on that anon), seen South Pacific at the Barbican (ditto), will start my Voiceover course tomorrow (ditto ditto) and, to my surprise, I have been called to my first audition.

It's a short student film, so no money. The role is an aging, unmarried, cynical police constable dealing with a case of rape. Filming next weekend. Will I get the part? I'm offering five to one against, so I'm not exactly hopeful, but I definitely chuffed that someone is offering me a chance despite the fact my profile shows no relevant experience. So I'll spend the next two days practising my George Dixon accent and bending my knees in the best comic opera tradition. And since Dixon of Dock Green last graced our television screens in 1976, I need a back-up character. It's a toss-up between Helen Mirren's DCI Jane Tennison and someone from Waking the Dead.

In the meantime, thanks to Casting Call Pro, the notices for auditions keep rolling in and I keep applying.