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 . . .

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