Thursday, 31 May 2012

Facing It

Rehearsals for The Lower Depths have not been plain sailing. In addition to a merry-go-round of changing cast - when the original Luka pulled out, I replaced him, my Dimitri was replaced by the Policeman and a new Policeman had to be found - the director was suddenly called away, leaving his assistant in charge. Nevertheless, we appear to be back on track and with a good chance of a solid production being ready by first night next week. 

In the upheaval, I have struggled to find my character, Luka the mysterious vagrant. The two key notes I had were to smile and to act minimalist, both of which I found difficult, considering my natural expression is concentration and my hands tend to take on a life of their own whenever my acting emotions are engaged. The smile eventually came. With it, to prevent my hands waving like overweight butterflies each time I spoke, came the habit of stroking the - now thick - beard on my face, until the AD told me I was not only overdoing it but making my voice difficult to hear. 

The problem was solved when costumes were worked out and my hands naturally gravitated to the pockets of the waistcoat Luka wears. This posture both gives me some - forgive the pun - gravitas and stops my fingers wandering. The result has been that in the last two rehearsals I have felt much more comfortable in Luka's skin, and finally able to fully interact with the characters around him. 

The day that I donned Luka's waistcoat was also the day when I took it upon myself to bring some life into two key scenes where focus is on the tramp and his stories. I had struggled to maintain the minimalism and the monotone that it seemed the director wanted, and with him absent I allowed myself a few small gestures and brought life to my voice. The AD liked my performance and encouraged me to develop it. In addition, he asked me to talk as much to the fourth wall as to those on stage around me. I have a good voice and an expressive face, he said, and the audience needs to see it. That is good and bad news: I'm happy for my face to be the focus of attention and I have no problem looking at people when I am addressing them, but the idea of looking into an audience and not seeing them is a much greater challenge. But after all, who I am to deprive the public of the opportunity to gaze upon the face that the AD appears to admire so much...?  

Five more rehearsals to go. Overall, I'm not yet convinced of the quality of my performance. At present it feels average-to-good, which is not good enough, but I suspect it will continue to improve. Once the show opens I will be curious to see what reviewers make of it, and grateful to friends who are honest enough to tell me exactly what they think... 

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Still here

One of the paradoxes of blogging is that the less you have to write about, the more time you have to write, because you're not doing the things you would be writing about. Conversely, the more you have to write about, the less time you have to write it because you're too busying doing the things you have to write about.

Which explains my silence for the last few days: I have been too wrapped up with theatre, theatre and yet more theatre as performer, writer and audience to find time to communicate my activity to the wider world. So here's a quick summary.

First up is The Lower Depths. As reported earlier, I suddenly found myself promoted from Dimitri the landlord to Luka the mysterious vagrant - the character around whom the whole play revolves. Of course my euphoria at being offered the part swiftly evaporated as the reality hit me - while everyone around me was acting up a storm, my performance had to be so minimal that I wondered whether I was acting at all. Which meant that the first two days last week my stress levels rose considerably and my confidence fell proportionately. On Wednesday I had a day off - about which more below. On Thursday, I took more control of the part - although not always to the director's satisfaction. And on Friday, in three hours working alone with Mark, the new Dimitri, I finally began to feel that I was both inhabiting Luka and on the verge of projecting a coherent and enigmatic figure to the other characters and to the audience. And I still have a week to go to get there (enlarge the picture for production details).

The key to the part was smiliing - Luka's default expression, not mine. On Thursday and Friday the smile began to feel real, not forced, and with the smile came a glimmer of understanding of Luka's personality and of his reaction to the others around him. I'm still not where I want to be with this fascinating and infuriating figure, but I'm beginning to believe that I was indeed right to take on this role.

Second on the theatre front was the session on Wednesday on the one-man play Angel with director Emma King-Farlow. The first part of our meeting focused on the priest's character and background. I found it difficult to separate my writer's and actor's hats but by the end of the afternoon had begun to do so and to create a character that lived off the page. As I moved around Emma's living-room, which was temporarily transformed into a stage, I allowed her to gently push me towards the highs and lows of the play which will make it - we hope - a truly absorbing dramatic appearance. So I took that experience away with me and filed it away on my script and the back of my mind until the two of us meet again for our next session in the middle of June.

From Emma's home to Theatre Etcetera in Camden, where friend Chris Annus and I watched Titus Andronicus, a version set in 80s London, complete with Cockney skinheads. A powerful piece with violence appropriate to that setting, and an excellent ensemble cast, including Alexander Neal, whom I first came across when we acted together in The Duchess of Malfi a couple of months ago. Unfortunately, the last night was today, or I would be including a link for London-based readers to catch this production.

Finally, as we dined on falafel burgers before taking in the play, Chris and I came up with the idea of his acting my story A Sense of Loss - Death in Venice told through the eyes of Tadzio - in the Solo Festival in July. I had 48 hours to reduce a 7,600 word story to a 4,600 word drama, which Chris and I reviewed today, giving us the draft of a very strong and moving piece. Which means that four of my plays will definitely be performed during the July Solo Festival. Another week, another smug smile on my face...

Monday, 21 May 2012

Me? Happy?

I don't do Happy. I've never done Happy. True, there have been moments over the past six decades when the thought has occurred to me "I'm enjoying life." or "This is fun." or "I have no problems on the horizon.", but these are rare.

My goal has always been Content. But I'm not very good at Content. No matter how well my life is going - as now, when I feel healthy, I have money in the bank and a partner whom I love and who loves me - my default position is Disgruntled. I usually present a light face to those around me, but underneath it Victor Meldrew often seethes at a world that is out of his control.

To my surprise, in recent months Disgruntled has begun to give way to Upbeat. Not all the time, but increasingly often I find myself in a good mood - a mood that owes nothing to alcohol or other endorphin enhancers. I first noticed the change in January, during rehearsals for The Duchess of Malfi. Even when doing nothing but sit in the freezing cold theatre, waiting for Glowering Bruce, the director, to call me to the stage, I found myself completely at ease. I liked being there. I liked being part of the process bringing a play to life.

It wasn't just The Duchess of Malfi. I have felt that way in almost every film and stage production I have been involved in. Only occasionally has boredom set in (the three hours waiting to be called for one 30-second shoot in Dead Gert comes to mind), but overall the minimum boredom has seemed a small price to pay for the fun of producing the final product.

And so it was with The Lower Depths. My role, as Dimitri the shifty landlord, was a definite step up from my previous two stage roles, where I was either on stage for such a short time that if you blinked you missed me, or where I was on stage for half the play but had no more than sixteen words in the whole evening. Just being in The Lower Depths, finding myself going deeper into Dimitri's character, was a drug that lightened my mood, not only during rehearsals, but at other times of the day.

Then on Saturday I get an email from Victor. The actor playing Luka the Vagrant, one of the key characters in the play, has had to drop out. Would I be interested in swapping Dimitri for the bigger role? Of course I would, and after a few minutes' reflection in which I ask myself whether I should take on the responsibility - and ask Victor whether he really wants to take the risk - I find it very easy to say yes.

Since that moment, my soul (not a word I would normally use, but Luka often refers to men's souls) has been humming. There's a smile hovering under my usual frown.I'm almost half-way through learning Luka's lines and the more I repeat them, the more I reflect on the character and how to portray him. I may do disastrously in rehearsal, I may do disastrously on the night, but right now, I'm in my element. In fact, I might almost say I'm happy.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Two Down

The first two rehearsals of The Lower Depths have come and gone. We have blocked the first act and about a third of us are off book. (That includes myself, shakily. Although I have very few lines in the first act, the time I should have spent learning them has been taken up with bookselling and the July Solo Festival.) It looks like a good start, with some life and movement and humour emerging. Like The Duchess of Malfi, another play which did little to inspire me on the page - perhaps because I was unfamiliar with it - it is fascinating to see flat words on the page transformed into flesh and action.

Once again there are distinct differences among the players. Three or four have leapt into their parts and when they move or speak immediately become the centre of attention. At the opposite spectrum, three or four mumble through their lines, their eyes glued to the script, their stance unmoving, and my eyes glaze over. Victor The Director seems unconcerned and I remind myself that this is early days and there is plenty of time for us all to get up to speed.

I am probably somewhere in the middle of the group, neither the best nor worst of actors. At some points I move as I think the character dictates and get Victor's praise. At places where I underact, he makes a suggestion which I adopt and gain his approval. Each time I am onstage I gain more confidence and improvise a little more. Towards the end of my short scene, when Vassily holds a knife to my throat, I find myself breathing rapidly and when he lets me go, I am trembling with fear and outrage - and find myself still shaking when I leave the stage. That, to me, is a distinct improvement and I end the day on a high.  

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Serious Acting

Yesterday was the first meeting of the cast of The Lower Depths. I trolled up to the Lord Stanley a few minutes early, joined the motley crew already there and exchanged names, which I almost immediately forgot. Precisely at 2pm, we all sat round a big table with Victor Sobchak, the director, at the head. We were not going to have a reading, I discovered; we were going to Discuss The Play. What did we think it was About?

Oops. This was not the moment to confess that I had not read the piece; in fact I had barely skipped through the two scenes in which my character, Dimitri the landlord, appears. All I knew of Gorky's masterpiece was the couple of paragraphs I had read online - in a dosshouse in Moscow the dregs of society jostle together; there are various events and not much plot. As the conversation went on and Victor puffed on his electronic cigarette, I scrabbled around in my mind for something to say which would both sound profound and disguise my ignorance.

My mind was, as usual, nearly empty and my confidence was weakened further by the discussion as to which Method of acting we would use: Stanislavsky or Natural? (The picture is of the Stanislavsky production of the play.) I hadn't a clue what the difference was, and the fact that half the 13-strong cast had taken out notebooks and were diligently writing down notes, made me think I was back in class and struggling to keep up. What was I doing among these professionals who had no doubt devoted at least three years of their lives to drama school and theatre degrees? How quickly would they realise that they had a mere amateur in their midst?

Luckily, Victor wrapped up the question of Method in a few sentences that made his directing style clear to everyone around the table except myself. Then we went back to What Was The Play About? Opinions were solicited in a clockwise direction and player after player made cogent points about Hope and Delusion and Life's A Bitch and No Resolution - points which were taken up by Victor and more widely discussed. Gorky's humour (I wondered about that) was compared with the melancholy Chekhov (I did not offer the point that I had read somewhere that Chekhov thought all his plays were comedies). The characters were spiders in a jar. Sartre said it all in Huis Clos: "Hell is other people". And so on. By the time it was my turn to state an opinion, I could confidently say that I agreed with most of what had been said before, and attention passed to my neighbour.

An hour passed on the Meaning of the Play. The second hour was devoted to how each of us saw our character. After all, Victor had already told us that not only did he want us to know our character's life-story, but he expected us to have in our minds clear motivation for every statement, every action, every second we were on stage. I was on slightly firmer ground here and said confidently that (a) Dimitri just wanted a quiet life, but his boarders' problems kept getting in the way, (b) he'd married his much younger wife partly as a trophy and partly because he'd seen her intelligence and thought she could help him to develop the business, and (c) that he was aware that the two of them were drifting apart, but he wasn't sure the extent to which she was alienated from him.

Which satisfied Victor and the rest of the cast. Well, if I can fool them now, I thought as the meeting ended, maybe I'll be able to fool them in rehearsal. After all, all an actor needs - at least all an older actor needs - is  sufficient experience and understanding of life in its many forms and the ability to represent at least some forms of life in a realistic way to others. The rest is simply intellectual icing on the cake.

At least that's my current point of view and I'm sticking to it - although the real truth might be that I am not the serious actor I claim to be.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Too Intense

To Emma's home yesterday to meet her and Robin for the first read-through of two of my scripts for the July SoloFestival. Robin is one of the performers and Emma will be directing both him and me. We sit on comfortable sofas and chairs in a pleasant living-room in upmarket south-west London, and I knock back several mugs of instant coffee and too many biscuits from a variety packet. I also talk too much - it's a bad habit I have in small gatherings, particularly when it's my own work being discussed - for which I apologise several times.

We discuss admin issues - the overall title for the plays we are presenting, how many slots each of us will take and on what days. Our third actor is Barry Clarke, whom I will see later in the week, and there is still a possibility that a woman will join us to perform a fourth play I have written. Then, these details aside, we start on the readings.

First is Los Feliz, the story of a man in Los Angeles who has been unlucky in love and who is taking the audience into his confidence. Robin's accent is very close to the General-American-with-a-hint-of-New York that the part requires and, although he reads too quickly, he clearly conveys his character and the situation he finds himself in.

He takes twenty minutes, which suggests the piece when performed will be about thirty minutes long. We briefly discuss the script - the only problems are the typos which I will rectify in the next twenty-four hours - and move on to the character as a whole. Listening to Robin and Emma's evaluation of the (unnamed) man's character, I realise that, in this case at least, I am a better writer than I gave myself credit for, for they see and describe depths to his personality that I was barely aware of when I created him. At times, they attribute characteristics to him that I do not think he has (yes, he has a stereotyped view of women, but I'm not convinced that he's a total misogynist), but while the story is mine, the performance belongs to the actor and director and I want to see their interpretation, not my own. Whatever they do with it, Los Feliz is, I tell myself with as much modesty as I can muster, is an excellent little play and I am convinced that Emma and Robin will make it a half-hour to remember.

Robin leaves; he'll be back later for a project that he and Emma and other actors are working on. My hostess tops up my coffee and  settles down to listen to me read Angel. This piece about a tormented priest (no, I've told you before and I'll tell you again, it's not about paedophilia) takes thirty minutes to read, which probably means forty minutes on stage. Although the general structure and much of the detail is fine, it's clear to both of us that the script still needs some work. As Emma points out, one section has too many lists (it's a habit of mine when I'm being pompous and arty) and overall there is not enough light and shade. This is partly a factor of my reading - I started intense and maintained that level until building it even higher near the end, but it is also partly the piece itself. There is definitely a need for a lighter and easier touch, particuarly in the first half.

This is not a serious problem. The script needs some correction, not need a complete overhaul. I'm more concerned about my ability as an actor. I got into the part towards the end, but at the beginning, my voice sounded to me thin and fake. I always knew acting the role would not be easy, but until now I have tucked that knowledge away at the back of my mind. Now, reality is upon me and I am beginning to feel nervous. Can I carry this off? Can I, having acted very little on stage before, hold an audience's attention for more than half an hour? Now that I have read the play aloud, my confidence in my ability is hovering around the 80% mark instead of the - very naive - 100% it was before.

Still, on the way back home, I'm in a good mood. Robin's piece will definitely do well. And my own piece? Well, I can make it happen. I will make it happen - and even if I don't, I'll enjoy the experience. Now all I have to worry about is Barry's Ben and Joe's.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Bored Clown

To Harrow yesterday, by Metropolitan Line, so beloved of John Betjeman, my destination the Harrow Campus of the University of Westminster, an entity unknown to our erstwhile Poet Laureate. I was called there by a group of second-year students making Dead Gert, an entertaining guide to the afterlife hosted by a personable schoolgirl who had been knocked over by a bus and somehow entered the afterlife blemish-free. My task? To personify two ghosts - one a painter whose death had come about as the result of a paint can falling on his head (see right - my decorator obviously had a very weak cranium), the other a sad clown the cause of whose demise was unspecified.

I had to bring the painter to (after)life in the company of a fisherman who had fallen overboard in a scene which showed the two of us lusting after a curvaceous lady in her shower. Said lady was still in the land of the living, but in the reverse logic of Dead Gert, she was personified by a mannequin. Dead painter and fisherman were using the opportunity of their invisibility - visible, of course, to the film audience - to leer and cheer and, in a move I did not quite understand, to try to seduce the lissom lass with Monopoly money. Well, they have different values in Ghostland.

The morning's shoot finished about 2pm, which seemed reasonable in Filmland, and the five of us players brought in for the day to animate the dead retired to the Green Room. At which point one of the crew (I'm sorry, crew, but I don't remember most of your names...) came in to apologise for the shouting. Shouting? we experienced thesps looked at each other. What shouting? Oh, you mean the occasionally tetchy attitude of the director and one or two others on set when not everyone understood what was happening or was in agreement as to what would happen next? How sweet. Listen, dear, if you think that was shouting, it's obvious you haven't been on a real film set, was the gist of our reply.

After lunch (one sandwich and a fizzy drink each, which is all we needed), we got into costume for Part II of the epic. These roles were less dynamic; all we had to do was pose in a costume within a mock frame as one of the Gallery of the Dead. Piece of Cake. We'll be out of here in No Time, we reassured ourselves. No Time At All. Really, It Will All Be Over Soon. Is it 4 o'clock already? Are they ready for us yet? Four thirty? Five o'clock? Quarter to Six?

We harrumphed, as minor actors will do when hanging around and nothing to do (two of us had brought Kindles and tried, with varied success, to ignore those of us who needed to pass the time in conversation), that perhaps the shoot could have been better organised and we could have been let go early. Especially when we are finally taken and our shoot takes less than two minutes per person. But we harrumphed mildly and told ourselves that these were students who still had a lot to learn about scheduling. (And later, the more astute amongst us recognised that we could only be brought on set when the previous set had been demolished, after other scenes that required the sets were used.)

Tempers were not lost but remained sleeping. Shortly after six we extras were out of there and by 6.30 we were on the platform of Northwick Park -  not pleased to learn that Metropolitan Line services were disrupted by a fire alert at Liverpool Street. I eventually got home by 7.50 and sank into a glass of wine, from which I reviewed the day. Was it worth it? Financially? No - we will be lucky if we get expenses. Careerwise? Obliquely. We are promised a dvd of the film, which will give each of us 10 seconds to put on our putative showreels. Otherwise? Yeah, why not? Life is always more interesting when you go to new places and meet new people. But, no matter how friendly and competent our hosts, I'm not sure I would rush back to Northwick Park again.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Too many parts, too little time

The past few days have been particularly busy. Firstly, the Other Half is off work for 9 days - an unexpected break combining all the days in lieu which he is owed. Of course his manager didn't warn him in advance that this was going to happen, so he couldn't tell me, so I couldn't plan to have some time off on my own. Which means that I have been trying both to spend time with him and to keep up my regular activities - on the one hand cataloguing and uploading books for my online business, a laborious but necessary task, and on the other hand trying to pursue the various strands of my acting career. Which means that I'm feeling pressured and always conscious when I'm doing one thing that I should be doing something else.

But this is an acting blog and you're not interested in my extracurricular activities. The fact is, however, that even if I could devote every waking hour to my thespianism, I wouldn't be able to handle everything that's coming through. After a couple of months when it seemed as if Casting Call Pro had forgotten I exist, I have been receiving several calls for audition a day. At least half of these are student films, which I am usually not interested in because they don't pay. The other half, however, consists of offers from more established sources, including commercials and paid theatre and cinema, several of which I would dearly like to audition for, and two or three of which I believe I would be very well suited for.

Except I can't apply for them. I now have The Lower Depths in my schedule, which severely restricts my availability from the middle of next week to the second half of June. Then I have a brief break from London before I'm back to do my one-man show, Angel. The Ahctor in me reminds me that The Lower Depths and Angel are far more important from the point of view of learning my craft; the Pauper in me reminds me of the weak state of my finances.

Of course I always try to satisfy both Ahctor and Pauper. Yesterday I was called for an audition for third lead in a small film. Paid minimum wage, but at least paid, and with the possibility of widespread exposure. The writer-director appeared to enjoy my prepared monologues and had me read the part in the film in different ways. When it came to the punchline (no, it's not a comedy), his eyes lit up and he said triumphantly, "Yes! That's the way I want it." In other words, I appeared to have a better than average chance of getting the part...

...if I were free, that is. The scheduling of his film conflicts with the timing of my play, and before I had left the room it was clear that I would not be hired. Ah well, such are the disappointments of life. I bet it will be a rotten film anyway, and no-one will come to see it, while both Steven Spielberg and Cameron Mackintosh are going to be in Camden one evening and see me perform on stage, and before the third scene begins, there'll be a bidding war between them to use me as the lead in their next production. Or something like that...

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Going Down

On Friday I have an audition at the Lord Stanley in Camden for a part in Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths - the Russian author's most famous play, depicting a group of the dregs of society (tart, thief, madman, servant etc) in not so much a plot as a series of character scenes. I've applied for the role of Dimitri the Landlord (yes, purists, that name does not appear in the original - this is a rewrite) on the sole grounds that it's the only part that fits my playing age - 50.

I'm now familiar both with the Lord Stanley and the director, Victor Sobchak, because I reconnoitred the place a couple of days ago with a couple of colleagues for the One-Man Festival. Victor*, large, grey-bearded and with the downcast expression that is apparently mandatory for a Russian intellect, doesn't recognise me, but takes me upstairs and without preliminaries (how are you, where have you come from, what have you done? etc) throws me straight into the audition. Which throws me somewhat, but after a couple of coughs I launch into Azdak's monologue from The Caucasian Chalk Circle - the part where he's sending away Shauva the policeman before confronting the aristocrat-disguised-as-pauper who's cowering in his (Azdak's) hut.

I get through the first third of the monologue when Victor says thank you. Hang on, I say, I haven't finished. It's important to me that I go on, because the character I'm up for has an aggressive personality and so far I've only shown the jovial side of Azdak's character. Victor lets me continue, and I do so, probably much longer than he expected, but hopefully conveying thoughtfulness, contempt and anger in the appropriate measure and appropriate places.

There then follows a brief conversation in which Victor asks why I auditioned for Dimitri, I tell him about the age thing, he says he's considering me for that or the actor or the aristocratic, he likes my voice, he likes my presence, would I take any of these roles? Somewhat surprised, I warn him about my lack of experience. That's not a problem, he says; do I have your email address? Yes, I tell him, reminding him of my visit a couple of days ago. With recognition comes the big smile that transforms his personality from morose to merry, we have a brief chat about the slots I've chosen for the SoloFestival and then I'm out of there.

Twenty-four hours later an email offers me the part of Dimitri. Of course I accept. Two scenes, which means it's not the largest part in the play, but a nice step up from my previous stage incarnations - As You Like It, in which I appeared on stage for all of eight minutes; and The Duchess of Malfi, in which I was regularly on stage, but had only 16 words in the 135 minute performance. Two scenes in Gorky is enough stage time to raise my profile and not so much that a poor performance will disable the whole production.

Later in the day I read through the script. My character is shifty and untrustworthy. This is going to be fun...

* that's Gorky in the picture, but it could be a younger Victor ...

Friday, 4 May 2012

You know the feeling...

when everything seems to be moving in the right direction, but you can't talk about it because you're not there yet...?

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Four Minus One

Tonight is the first meeting of the group performing my one-act plays in July. We're going to look over the theatre and discuss timetables - basically when we will get together in couples or smaller groups to finalise the script, rehearse, organise publicity and so on. The idea was Robin Holden's but most of the work will no doubt fall on me.

One of us has decided to drop out. Foucault's Nightmare is a comedy about sex, featuring a young woman telling a story about a sexual encounter in the office. There is no nudity, but it involves miming sexual activity. The trick is to tell the story as straightforwardly as possible, free of innuendo. But, having spent a week reviewing the script - which I believe she loved - and discussing it with friends and her agent, the actress I had thought was ideal for the part has dropped out.

I don't blame her, but it raises the question as to whether we should find someone to replace her, for slots that we have already booked, or whether we should allocate her slots to the other players. I suspect we'll reallocate her slots, since finding another acress will create extra work. On the other hand, there may be the perfect performing standing in the wings desperate for the part. Just one more decision for tonight.