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.

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