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 pliƩ 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 pliƩ 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.