Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Visual and emotional direction

I may not be a great actor (see my previous post - below) but I am still fascinated by drama and film. The fact that the sofa in front of the television is much cheaper and nearer than any theatre seat means I watch many more films than plays, but if I consider working in either medium, I cannot help but be drawn to drama, as much less complicated and expensive than film.

If acting is not an option, four other roles are: producing, directing, backstage and writing. I'll deal with writing another time. As for producing, I've done my share of vanity projects to get my own material on stage. The reviews were medium to good, the losses medium - as much as I could afford and more than I would like. I might produce again, but not in the foreseeable future; money is tight at present and
How do you make £1,000?
Start off with £2,000 and invest
in a fringe theatre production
the Other Half would never forgive me. Backstage? Maybe-possibly-might-do, but I don't have the skills for tasks such as set-building and although I enjoy Organising, I'm not enthused by the idea of Stage Manager.

Directing, on the other hand . . . The director is the magician. The director creates the vision. The director paints the whole picture. The actor sees only part of the play and from a narrow perspective; the director sees it all. The actor spends much or most of their time offstage waiting; the director is always active and never bored. The actor has to learn lines and, much more difficult, the cues that precede each line; the director has nothing to learn. The actor has to throw away the script early on in rehearsals; the director can consult the script at any time. The actor can express their opinion but may have do the director's will; the director can hear every opinion and then impose their own will. Best of all, because the director is in charge and always working, in rehearsal there are no breaks; the energy level remains high and the adrenalin is always flowing.

There are downsides to directing. Actors who are not up to scratch, actors who suddenly decide to leave a project, actors who are unprofessional (arriving late, paying little attention, only giving part of their talent), backstage staff who are unreliable, producers who cannot or will not invest as much time and money and promotion as the project demands; these can all undermine the director's vision. But problems and challenges are part of the job description and a good director will be able to overcome most or all of them.

I didn't use to consider myself a director. Decades ago, at university, I joined a dramatic club and offered to direct Olwen Wymark's The Inhabitants. I remember few details. The script attracted me because there was vaguely gay element and I had only just become aware of my own sexuality, but although I read the play several times, I could not understand it. (This was after I had taken on the task; looking back at myself I can hardly believe my idiocy.) I had a mentor at the club who explained that the three characters represented the id, ego and supergo. I still had no clue what to do. Meanwhile, I had persuaded a friend to be one of the cast; where the other two actors came from I no longer remember; I have no idea if any of them could act. Exasperated, the mentor took over while I slunk into the shadows. There was one performance. My name remained in the programme as director (I think I half-heartedly protested the inclusion). After that I darkened the door of the dramatic club no more. I allowed the deepest recesses of my mind to retain the idea that I might some day become an actor. A director, however? My inmost being burnt read with embarrassment.

Fast forward almost forty years. I take up acting and appear in several fringe plays. I listen to directors, understand how they work. In one play where I have a key role I am acutely aware of the different abilities of the actors around me. The leading man is quiet, unexpressive, almost mumbles his words. A bit player has a range of voices and energy that sizzles. Doesn't the director see the difference? I wonder. Why doesn't he tell Leading Man to raise his voice, show more expression and energy? Other actors' abilities fall somewhere in between. My own performance is uncertain; I get no advice as to how to improve it. When the play opens and I get a good review I'm pleased but also surprised; I don't feel as if I've earned it.

My eureka moment came when Emma King-Farlow of Shadow Road Productions directed me in my own one-man play, Angel. It was a mistake on my part. I was producing four of my plays for the 2012 Solo Festival under the rubric Loss, and didn't have the time to focus on my own role. On stage I lacked confidence and forgot lines. Luckily the performance was not reviewed. However, the goals and process of directing remained with me. What is the play about? Who is this character? What does he want? What does each line mean? What is going through the character's head to make him say those words at that moment? What are the emotions or the memory that he is experiencing? The director's job is, on the surface at least, simple: understand and feel the text and help the actors convey those ideas and sentiments to the audience.

As I continued to act I began to understand directors' different techniques. Some were primarily concerned with the overall look of the play - who stands where, when they move, the actiosn they make; they are creating a spectacle. Others are more concerned with interior lives - who are these people on stage, what do they think, what do they feel, whatmotivates them; it's the emotional and / or intellectual experience that the director is interested in, In my experience very few directors combined both. (An exception was the writer-director of a play I was in, who aimed to bring out both the interior and exterior lives of his characters; unfortunately his script was so full of inconsistencies that it undermined his vision.)

My first attempts at directing after my long-ago disastrous debut were three of my one-man plays, Angel, Now We Are Pope and Tadzio Speaks . . . , which I produced in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe. I pushed my long-suffering actors, Christophers Annus and Peacock, as far as they could go and came out of the experience with the confidence that yes, I knew what I was doing and yes, I could bring out the best in the actors that worked with me. Now I have taken on my first multi-cast production - J B Priestley's one-act play, The Rose and Crown for the Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group. It's guaranteed one performance, at the Scottish Community Drama Association Festival in February, but if it does well, it will go on the next stage of the competition and might even get a longer run elsewhere.  But of that, more in a later post . . .

Monday, 21 December 2015

A lack of persistence and consistency

Setting aside last month's post in which in the shadow of the Paris terrorist attacks I gave vent to my natural misanthropy, it would seem that I abandoned this blog over a year ago. The usual reason: other activities and priorities got in the way. My interest in the theatre fell dormant after a mediocre run of three of my one-man plays at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2014 - very few reviews and small, albeit enthusiastic audiences. Soon after came the upheaval of moving self and partner to Edinburgh, followed by increased time spent with and on behalf of elderly relatives, the bookselling business, arranging a new boiler, developing a social life. It was much easier not to blog than to write about something I was paying little attention to. Only now, in the lull before Christmas, do I have time to put down a few thoughts. Today I'm musing on acting; if nothing else gets in the way, in the next 24 or 48 or 72 hours, I'll offer a few paragraphs on directing.

In 2011 I took three part-time acting courses at the Poor School and Actors Centre in London. It was soon clear to me that compared to most other students I had some talent. I could let myself go in a part; my voice had good range; I could express strong and subtle emotions. I did not expect to make a living at acting, but surely I could find regular work in the many fringe theatres of the British capital.

Things may have changed since I was there,
but I would recommend their part-time courses
Four years I look back at that time with a wry expression. I know now I am not destined to be an actor. This is not because I lack talent - it is because I lack two qualities far more important than talent: persistence and consistency.

Persistence is essential for the successful actor - that is an actor who gets regular work or who has outstanding talent or, preferably, both. Persistence requires the energy and personality that has one constantly seeking out parts, contstantly training, constantly finding and making opportunities where one will be seen again and again by the public and agents and directors. Persistence is founded on strong ambition and complete self-belief. I have weak ambition and little persistence. If at first I fail, I will try again; and if I fail again I might try again; but if I fail a third time I'll almost always give up and try something completely different.

What about self-belief? Don't I have any? Doesn't it propel me forward? Well, yes and no. My self-belief combines both arrogance and diffidence: I hold the view that if someone doesn't recognise my talents, as a writer, an actor or whatever, it's either their fault because they don't have the wisdom and insight to see how good my work is or it's my fault because I'm not very good at whatever it is I am doing. Pushing myself forward won't change the intrinsic value of my work. The end result is that while I am very happy for others to tell the world that I'm a great actor, writer or director, promoting myself is a form of mental torture that I avoid at all costs. And so I don't do it. I don't know whether I'm a genius or a fraud, but I'd rather be a genius who spent his life in utter obscurity than a fraud who persuades the rest of the world to admire him.

So, I lack persistence. On the other hand, I might have persistence if I were consistent. By consistent I mean producing the same high quality work rehearsal after rehearsal, performance after performance. I am not consistent. Sometimes my performance flows - I hit the right mark from start to finish, I fluff no lines, the emotions and intensity ebb and flow as the script, the director and the character demand. At other times I'm forgetful and weak. Emotions remain but words disappear; words are accurate but I'm on autopilot. The audience might not see this - as an actor I've never had a bad review and I often receive compliments for my work - but I am aware of my failings and not infrequently I come away from an evening thinking that the last two or three hours were spent with my body on stage but my mind far away. At such times acting does not reward me - it irritates me because I have failed.

Then there's the waiting. Much of acting is doing nothing but wait. Whether it's rehearsal or actual performance, if you're not on stage or on set, you're waiting. You're doing nothing. You're hanging around. You're making small talk with fellow actors. You're trying to complete sudoku. You're fiddling on your smart phone. You're thinking about dinner. You're bored. You're bored. You're bored.  Ok, correct that last sentence. I'm bored. It's not that I want to be on stage all the time (although I wouldn't object if the part was right, I could guarantee to remember all my lines and there was some financial reward) but when I'm off stage I'd rather be doing something worthwhile instead of hanging around waiting to go on stage again.

All these reservations were flowing through my head last summer when I auditioned for a part in the Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group (The Grads)'s production of Alan Ayckbourn's Wildest Dreams. There were two parts I was eligible for age-wise. I wanted the shorter one, as the unpleasant household tyrant Austen Skate, which involved me in only three scenes, rather than take on the effort and responsibility that comes with being the lead. In a small part it would matter little to the rest of the cast if I was awful, and if I was good while the production was poor, responsibility would not fall on my head. Besides, my goal was less to act than to get a toehold in Edinburgh theatricals. it would give me an idea of what was going on and some contacts if I wanted to proceed with what was becoming a stronger ambition - to direct rather than act.

With Wendy Barrett in Wildest Dreams
Wildest Dreams, which follows a group of people who sublimate their unhappy lives in a role-playing game, is a difficult play. I respect Ayckbourn, who achieves more in one play than I am ever likely to do in the years that remain to me, but I'm not a great fan of his work and to me WD is more ambitious than coherent. In addition to concerns about the script, in the early days of rehearsal I had doubts about the quality of  the directing and acting, but by the time we opened for a four-day run in November, we had made considerable progress. Audience reaction was changeable - strong laughter one evening, uncertain silence the next - but overall it seemed the show was above average for an amateur production. The only critic who saw it gave us four stars and described my performance as a "compellingly wheezing, sepulchral version of Uncle Fester"; not quite how I envisaged my role, but a comment that was more compliment than complaint.

A single plaudit is not enough to overcome my acting doubts. Four years ago, my ambition was to be an actor not on stage, but on radio. I have a voice that can go into many a register, from male to female and back again, from Scots to Cockney through Posh and the BBC, from young to old, serious to comic. I might be a staple of BBC radio drama and comedy (as long as it is not stand-up). But to get that far I'd have to keep appearing on stage and make voice-reels and persuade producers and agents to come see me and keep pushing again and again at that door. Which brings me back to my earlier comment - the one thing I cannot do is promote myself. That doesn't mean I've given up the stage. I haven't. I'm now busy directing - but that's the subject of the next post, the one above this . . .