Friday, January 22, 2016
I probably met Rita Davies around 1996 or 1997, so I’m a relative latecomer to her long, storied, eventful life. But in the nearly 20 years it was my privilege to know her, I came to appreciate her for her work ethic, applaud her for her talent, respect her for her integrity, and cherish her for her humanity.
Rita wasn’t young when we met. I’m guessing she was well into her seventh decade, with a long career as an actress already trailing her. So I’ll admit it was a surprise when she applied to be one of the first people to join in the year-long training programme I was instituting at The Impulse Company. I remember meeting with her and asking her frankly, “why would you—at this point in your career—want to start your training all over?” “Because,” she said, “I wish I’d had this training long ago, and it’s never too late, is it?”
Some time after she’d finished her year at Impulse I walked into the café at the Actors Centre to find her sitting with a great mutual friend of ours, James Midgley, the accountant to the great and the good in our profession, including Rita. I said hello to them both as I passed the table and Rita said to me, “I’m upset with you.” That stopped me in my tracks. “Why?” I asked, concerned. “Because since I took your classes my income has gone up so much that Inland Revenue is now examining me.” I looked over to James, who nodded in agreement. “I’m so very sorry!” I said, as Rita hugged me with her impish message delivered.
Rita’s son Ian was looking to make a career change, and came to classes with The Impulse Company at her urging. What a delight to see Rita’s face in Ian’s, and what an honour to offer to him some of the things which she’d found useful.
Rita’s gifts were never more finely displayed than in her small but impactful role in the blockbuster movie “The Da Vinci Code.” Her radiant humanity, captured in a magnificent close-up of her beautiful face, made such an impact that a casting director friend of mine in Los Angeles told me she’d gone immediately on-line after seeing the movie to find out who that remarkable actress was. It was a nice badge of honour that I could tell her that Rita was a friend of mine
It’s typical of Rita that she continued to come to classes up to the last months of her life. Nearly weekly she’d appear at a Drop-In class I hold at the Actors Centre, always bright as a button, always ready to work with any and all who’d come. I treasure an exercise that she and I did together not so very long ago, filled with spark and life. And also with a great deal of mutual affection. There was absolutely no hint of the cancer that must have been in her system even then. And she was a fierce protector of the new piano in the room. “Don’t touch the piano!” has become our affectionate cry on those occasions when Rita wasn’t there saying it herself.
There are two people I’m aware have held Rita especially close in the years I’ve known her. It feels important to mention Penny Horner, who has been virtually a sister to Rita in all the years I’ve known them, and Jestyn Phillips, who thoughtfully accompanied Rita to so many of the Drop-In classes, and equally thoughtfully made sure I had the information of Rita’s circumstances as I work in far-away Hong Kong. I’m too far away from them to hold them close, but they know my thoughts are with them as well as with Rita’s non- theatrical family.
When her daughter Sarah gave me the news that Rita was in hospice care, I remembered to her that Rita was a world-class congratulator. Rita left countless messages for me on my phone, seemingly at the slightest provocation, all proclaiming some kind of good news. “Your show was just marvellous,” she’d sing. “It was so very lovely to run into you yesterday,” would randomly appear on my voicemail. And quite often, “thank you for a wonderful class today.” Who does that? Who brings sunshine into others' lives with such frequent grace? Oh, Rita. I’ll miss you for all that. And I’m grateful for the time I had with you.
I asked Rita not so long ago how she was doing. “Navigating,” she said to me with a sly smile. Well, sail on, Rita Davies. Sail on.
Rita Davies died peacefully in her sleep the morning of January 19, 2016, surrounded by her family.
Text(ing) for Actors
Tuesday, May 12, 2015
I was teaching a course in Sydney a few years ago when a student in the class approached me and said, “your work reminds me so much of this guy’s stuff,” and she showed me an acting book written by an American teacher. I looked at the fellow’s biography on the back cover, and he seemed to have a parallel background to mine: a similar age, study with some of the same people, and a lifetime of experience in teaching. I opened the book to page two and read this:
I’m going to teach you acting from the beginning, and the beginning is
I closed the book and gave it back to my student.
How could two teachers — of similar background in so many ways — have come to exactly the opposite conclusion from the same starting point? Because in my work, text analysis is the very last thing we look at, once we’ve worked on a whole lot of other stuff.
I’m not saying this fellow is wrong and I’m right, though heaven knows there’s a temptation there. Instead, I’m curious as to what these two opposite approaches portend. To be fair, I didn’t finish the book, and, to be quite candid, I cannot now quite recall which of the well-known American acting teachers it was who wrote that. But the interesting line of enquiry for me is this: what would be the difference in a training which begins from text analysis and works toward performance and my own practice, which leaves text analysis to the last?
One of the things we all learned at Neighborhood Playhouse, where I studied with Meisner, was this, drilled endlessly into us: don’t act from your head. There was a large, hand-lettered sign posted in the classroom above Meisner’s desk that urged us to ‘Act Before You Think’ — positioned so you could see it every time he made a pronouncement. And when someone reviewed Meisner’s book in the reader review section of amazon.com, (s)he identified as “A Customer” from “Anywhere but in my own head.”
And yet, here I am, happily teaching in the Land of Acting from the Neck Up. At least, that’s the received wisdom of my generation: British actors are wonderful but head-bound. This is variously referred to as Voice Beautiful Acting, Presentational Performance, and Acting from the Outside In. This idea, of course, is not now nor was never true, though it was more popularly thought to be so 50 years ago than now. So what is it I’ve found in teaching at the Actors Centre and other UK venues that is so satisfying? It’s that British actors still love the idea of technique and have a cultural distrust of displays of emotion for its own sake. What I offer is a technique for truthfulness, and that seems to have struck a chord in the nearly twenty years I’ve taught here.
But don’t worry, those of you who have been well-schooled in the literary arts of text analysis. We do take on the analysing of text, but we do so with a difference.
There are many well-known ways to analyse text, ranging from Stanislavskian “beats” and the “building” of a “character,” to Elia Kazan’s search for the “spine” of the character, to the directorial notion of a Superobjective which propels all the character’s actions, to the alliterative who/what/when/where/why/how? approach, to Actioning, which takes the analysis down to the single word, each of which is assigned a verb for the playing. All of these seem to me to be flawed in similar ways: they all predict ones’ actions before the fact, therefore killing any chance of spontaneity in the moment. How can one “live truthfully” if “truth” has been pre-determined? Further, all of these methods of analysing text have another thing in common: they are created by and best serve directors, writers, and critics, and do very little to help the actor in her quest for impulsive, alive performance.
It seems to me if you begin from analysis — any kind of analysis — you’re bound to be breaking Meisner’s instruction, and you’ll inevitably be head-bound. If on the other hand you buy into the notion that acting is an exercise in quicksilver reaction and response, celebrating Thornton Wilder’s assertion that “the theatre is the highest of all art forms, because in the theatre it is always Now,” then you cannot reasonably expect to begin with an exercise in planning your future down to the nanosecond.
I remember reading the great Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann’s book Changing, in which she wrote of a rehearsal process for A Doll House under the direction of the legendary Ingmar Bergman. She came home from a day’s work and wrote: “I was surprised to discover that Nora would cry at that moment in the play.” This for me is a staggering notion of truthfulness that seems impossible if, as so many actors are trained to do, she had circled a word in her script and drawn a line to the side of the page where she had written, ‘cry here.’
In my classes yes, we certainly do get to text analysis. I believe absolutely in honouring the intent of the writer. But it is the very last thing we look at, and — here’s the exciting part — our way of analysing text does nothing to predict an actors’ future actions, but rather opens the actor up for fulfilling our core definition of acting:
Living truthfully under a given set of circumstances.
If you want to find out how, come join one of my week-long introduction workshops. But be patient: it’ll be the end of the course before we get to it.
A loss for the Impulse family
Many of you who worked with Scott and Lindsay during the Troubadour days at Earls Court and later at Offstage in Camden will remember actress Josie Peer and be saddened to hear that she passed away last week on 28th August 2013 after a three year battle with cancer.
Josie and I met on the Impulse Company's first year long Meisner training course in 2002. Happy days! A great group of people used to meet every Thursday afternoon or evening and all day on alternate Saturdays, in the basement of Offstage Books in Camden, to experience living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. This was the environment in which my friendship with Josie took root. Full of joie de vivre, Josie's passionate, curious, persistent nature seemed on a quest to determine truth and fairness in life! There was a fragility and strength about her, due perhaps to her watching her brother die of cancer when they were children and from helping to care for her mother when she was taken by the disease. One of the professional roles Josie said she enjoyed playing was Catherine Booth, 'Mother of the Salvation Army'. I didn't see her play the role but I can imagine her in it!
An immensely supportive friend, Josie was loved by many and easy to get on with. Her varied interests included world travel, Qi-Gong, belly dancing, massage, hill walking, clothes, poetry, energy medicine and the natural environment.
Josie loved theatre and she loved to help people, so she was naturally drawn to teach people how to improve their communication skills. Trained at ALRA Josie held a Post- Diploma BA(hons) in Performance Studies from Arts Ed and an MA in Voice Studies from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. An enthusiastic, dedicated teacher, Josie worked with me at SpeakOut Coaching and was on the staff at the City Lit before she became ill. Her passing will be a great loss to many.
Josie was married to Dr Anthony Soyer (Ant) her longtime loyal boyfriend who was with her when I first met her and who was at her bedside at the end.
Where's the rest of me?
Saturday, June 29, 2013
Famously, the B-movie actor (and some would say B-list President) Ronald Reagan used that quote from one of his more turgid movie roles as the title of his autobiography.
I was once at a party at which we played the game, "Title Your Autobiography." You could either give yourself a title, or others would provide one for you. Memorable titles from that party include "Amiably Sideways" (the autobiography of a particularly adept stage manager) and "Hallo Rubbish, You Want Me Fuck You?" (a title for an actor of some note, which needs a rather startling amount of explanation, but which I will leave to your imagination here).
I came away from that party and told a friend of mine, the talented actor and writer Ben Warwick, about the game we'd played. He said, without hesitation, "oh, I know the title of your autobiography." Startled, I asked him what would be his title for me, and he said, "Have I Told You This One Before?"
I blush at the truthfulness of that title. I am well aware of my penchant for repeating old stories. (I was once teaching a class in Barcelona when a student -- a half-German/half-Spanish guy who'd lived for years in New York City -- said to me, "you know, Scott, you have a reputation out there." I asked him what was my reputation, and he said, "the guy talks a lot but he's a good teacher.")
You may have noticed a rather long time since my last blog post. Some would say it's a period of uncharacteristic silence from Scott Williams. There's a simple reason for this: I've been contracturally unable to blog!
At last, I'm happy to announce that I'm writing a book about my work, to be published in the summer of 2014. The (working) title is After Meisner: A 21st Century Acting Technique, and it's being published by Methuen Drama, an imprint of Bloomsbury Books.
My contract with the publisher states that I cannot blog or put portions of my writing on line, but just recently my publisher has asked me to include portions of my book (which is still in the writing process) on their own website: www.actorsandperformers.com
I'd recommend that you have a trawl around the site. It's filled with good information from a variety of talented practitioners, and I'm sure you'd find it informative and interesting.
But just to whet your appetite, below is the first blog post I've submitted for the site, and the first portion of my book to be released. You saw it here first!
When All Else Fails ...
There's a scene in the 1979 movie Kramer vs. Kramer in which Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, playing an estranged couple, meet in a cafe to sort out details for their divorce and the custody of their young son. Tempers flare, and Hoffman gets up to leave the table, the issue unresolved. He takes a step away, then turns back, moves the wine glass on the table a few inches, then swats it so it shatters against the brick wall behind the cafe table. Streep flinches, her shoulders hunching and her eyes shutting tightly. Hoffman stomps off, and the scene ends. A nice little bit of acting, one thinks. Small, telling details, truthfully rendered, and the story served efficiently and memorably.
In the 1974 horror film The Exorcist, Ellen Burstyn delivers a performance all out of proportion to the genre film she's making: she's vital, sparky, emotionally open, and plays with a gravitas that lifts the film into a realm above the ordinary shocker it might otherwise have been. There's an iconic moment (you might remember a famous photo of her, eyes wide in shock) when she delivers an astonished and horrified reaction that's so true, so “in-the-moment” that it brings the whole horror of the proceedings into relief for the audience. It's memorable, and she plays it with aplomb.
Robert De Niro has created some riveting moments in performance, perhaps most famously Travis Bickle staring into a mirror in Taxi Driver saying, “You talking to me? … you talking to me?” and Jake La Motta's memorable taunt to an opponent who couldn't knock him out, “You didn't get me down, Ray. You didn't get me down,” in Raging Bull, both simple, staggering moments of emotionally naked screen acting. But perhaps there's no more astonishing moment than one from the 1991 remake of the film Cape Fear. De Niro is playing Max Cady, a parolee who is menacing a lawyer responsible for him spending years in prison. Cady's pursuit of rogue justice causes him to threaten the lawyer's wife and teen-aged daughter as well, most chillingly in a scene in which he pretends to be the girl's substitute drama teacher who asks for a private meeting with her. We know he's a danger to her, she does not. She goes to meet him at school, finding him on the school's stage where there is a set for, of all things, Hansel and Gretel. They have a conversation which turns suddenly and horrifyingly sexual when De Niro's character inserts his thumb into the pubescent girl's mouth. The young actress, Juliette Lewis – who has never been better than here – reacts with a small start, her eyes widening before she slowly begins to suck in his thumb and brings her hand up to hold his in near-sexual caress. It's a jaw-dropping moment of menace and eroticism and paedophilia. Unforgettable.
All three of these fine moments of screen performance have one thing in common. They're all, in some way, improvised. And there's something else they share. I'll tell you that later.
If you're like me, you've spent a fair amount of time in acting classes doing improvisation exercises. The implication here is strong: improvisation must be good for practising acting. I couldn't agree less. In fact, let me be rather emphatic here: I believe improvisation is actually bad for actors.
I didn't say it was bad. I said it was bad for actors and for the acting process.
Whenever I bring up the subject of improvisation in a group of actors, the reactions divide roughly in equal halves: about 50 per cent smile, shift in eager anticipation, lean forward; the other half sink slightly lower in their seats, grimace slightly, look away. I myself must confess that I love watching impro in most forms, sort of enjoy doing it myself, don't like teaching it at all, and never ever EVER use it in rehearsals.
Let me start with the first point. On the U.S. television series “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” there was a resident genius named Wayne Brady. He is one of the best improvisers I've ever seen, even to the point of improvising songs in the style of your choice with lyrics that rhyme. Astonishing. But is it acting? He may be a great actor, but when I see him working what I think isn't 'what great acting;' instead I recognise it as performance of a high order. I wouldn't necessarily cast him as Hamlet, but he's a YouTube favourite of mine.
Here's a story from William Goldman – one of several in Adventures in the Screen Trade – about Dustin Hoffman during the making of Marathon Man, which Goldman wrote both as a novel and a screenplay.
Dustin Hoffman loves to improvise and he’s expert at it. He and [Marathon Man director John] Schlesinger and [co-star Laurence] Olivier were sitting around a table, going over the penultimate sequence in the movie, where Hoffman has Olivier at gunpoint and they begin a long walk. Hoffman said, “let’s improvise it for a while.”
Olivier said he’d really rather not. Improvisation is not something he likes to do, it’s not part of traditional English theatrical training.
Hoffman jumped up. “Let’s put it on its feet and improvise.”
Olivier resisted again.
Schlesinger said he thought that since we were there to rehearse, why not try it.
Olivier got up. Slowly.
He was … recovering from whatever terrible disease had recently crippled him. His hands, even now, were bandaged. (I don’t know the specific nature of this particular ailment; someone said it was the nerve disease that had killed Onassis, but I can’t vouch for that. And when I say his hands were bandaged I don’t mean totally swathed. But there were Band-Aids crisscrossing his skin and all Scotch taped in place, perhaps to hide the sight of swelling.) ….
But now, as he stood slowly in the rehearsal hall, we were months before the shooting of the diamond scene. Hoffman mimed a gun and said “okay, get going” and they started to walk around the rehearsal hall.
Olivier tried ad-libbing, said again and again that he really wasn’t skilled at it, could someone give him his lines, and Hoffman said, “you’re doing great, just say anything, come on, we’re getting somewhere.”
So they walked.
And walked. And kept on walking.
I don’t know why all this was allowed to happen. Improvising is a part of Hoffman’s vast technique, and perhaps that was the reason. But Olivier, in spite of himself, scares the shit out of other actors .…. And I think part of this was because of Hoffman’s need to put himself on at least equal footing with this sick old man.
And I don’t know why Schlesinger didn’t stop it. Perhaps, as he indicated, to see what might come out of it that might help the sequence.
But I also have to think that Schlesinger knew that Olivier wouldn’t give him any trouble; Hoffman was the star, Hoffman had the vehicle role, if anyone was going to bring him to grief, Hoffman was that man, and to go directly against his star’s wishes so early on might not be a move of great wisdom – I’m not talking about improvisation, I’m talking about the walking that went with it – because inside of a few minutes, Olivier’s ankles were beginning to swell.
But on they walked. And improvised. And Hoffman was terrific. And Olivier did his best. And Schlesinger watched it all.
And Olivier would not sit down. Would not. Give in.
He could have stopped, he could have asked for a chair, he could have requested a break.
But he walked.
And now his ankles were bulging. Pain is impossible to quantify. What lays me up may be something you can deal with easily. No one can say how much anyone is capable of enduring. …. But watching him as that awful improvisatory afternoon came to an end, I think I glimpsed why Olivier has been able to endure … for so many decades. He was sure as shit great for me that day, and he’ll be great on the day that he dies.
What’s implicit in Goldman’s tale, but left unsaid, is the pain the author must feel upon having his text so cavalierly disregarded. Not to mention the systematic emasculation of the director or the ritual humiliation of the other actor. The real question has to be, who gains by this exercise?
When an actor improvises, where does their attention go? It goes, at least partially, into their own head. They think, putting it crudely, 'how will I get the next laugh?' In short, they're working their writing muscles, not their acting muscles. And so the act of improvisation is, by definition and necessarily, self-centred. It can be none other.
I can hear you saying, “but what about Mike Leigh?” In case you don't know his work, Leigh has made a great success with his process of gathering actors, providing them with an idea, spending many weeks if not months improvising with them, writing down and crafting their words into scenes, bringing the written material back into the rehearsal room, and developing the play and/or movie from that. On the surface, surely a process designed to bring out the best in actors, as it's their own words they're ultimately going to be saying. You'd think it would create a rare vitality in performance, at the very least.
But I have two thoughts about Mike Leigh's work: first, why is it a play by Mike Leigh? Does he share royalties? (I should say here that most actors I know who have worked with Leigh absolutely loved the experience.) And secondly, for me, the performances veer uncomfortably close to caricature. Think Alison Steadman in Abigail's Party or Brenda Blethyn in Secrets and Lies, both of whom take their roles to the very edge of what's true, and teeter often over into what isn't.
If that's what improvisation is going to do for you, I'm not sure I'm on board.
Another issue: if you watch carefully, you can recognise what I call the Classic Improviser when you see their work. You can find it in the naked fear you see in the eyes of the other actors with whom they're playing. 'What,' the other actors' expression seems to say, 'in the HELL are you going to do next?' I recall some years ago seeing a heavenly production of Vanbrugh's The Relapse at the National Theatre in London nearly destroyed by an out-of-control actor gleefully improvising his way through the comedy bits, twisting scenes all out of shape, guffawing at his own cleverness. The other actors could do little but wait out the fellow's exertions.
I mentioned that I never use improvisation in rehearsals, for the simple reason that the damage it inflicts is so much greater than any benefits it provides. Because half the actors of the world love it, and the other half equally passionately dislike it, the minute I introduce it into the rehearsal process I've divided my group into two; those who feel good about it have an unnatural sense of competitive achievement over the others, and those who don't like it are resentful and sullen.
But that’s not even the main reason I don't use improvisation in rehearsals, though that would be plenty if it were the only one. The real reason is even more basic, and can be summed up in a story from Peter Hall, who was taking our whipping boy, Dustin Hoffman, through rehearsals for a production of The Merchant of Venice on stage. Hoffman, trying his best to apply improvisation to Shakespeare, finally came to Hall in desperate frustration and said, “you can’t improvise this shit!”
No, you can't. Or any other script, for that matter. You're going to have to say someone else’s words, to do movements you haven't originated, to hit marks given you, to work within frameworks others provide. It's your JOB as an actor to do those things. You cannot solve the problem by avoiding those realities.
Going back to the three examples I cited at the beginning: yes, they're all improvised. But Hoffman gave away that he'd planned his improvisation when he reset the glass on the table before smashing it against the wall. De Niro went to director Martin Scorcese before the scene was shot, indicating what he wanted to do, and Scorcese not only assented, but said he'd have two cameras on the set to film from different angles and agreed not to tell Ms Lewis about the plan. And William Friedkin, the self-confessed “madman” director of The Exorcist arranged that, unbeknownst to Ms Burstyn, the prop man would fire off a gun next to her ear to register the shock.
So let's be clear. Those are not examples of improvisation, though at first glance they seemed to be. They were all manipulations, which isn't the same at all.
And here's the kicker: all the best acting was done not by the improviser, but by the recipient. Streep's flinch, Burstyn's shock, Lewis' suck, those are the memorable moments.
And that's because great acting is always a process of living in what is, instead of what one makes.
Copyright © 2013 by Scott Williams
The Bubble of Belief
Monday, October 22, 2012
When teaching in Paris a few days ago, one of the actors -- a genial fellow named Bertrand Quinam -- said this phrase, and it caught my ear: “the bubble of belief.”
We were talking about Sanford Meisner’s definition of acting. Most likely, you know it. Whenever I introduce it to an actor for the first time, I always feel a little thrill of pleasure: it’s so perfect, so complete, so “on message.” Here it is:
“Acting,” according to Sanford Meisner, “is living truthfully under a given set of circumstances.”
If you give that definition a moment’s thought, perhaps you’ll agree with me that it’s the absolute and total identification of what you think makes for good acting. We could even break it down:
I was teaching a class for the great Mark Wing-Davey when he ran the London Actors Centre some time ago. (Mark is now the Chairman of the Graduate Acting Program at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU.) He observed a three-hour session, and finally at the end of it, couldn’t hold back his frustration any longer. “Scott,” he said, “I sit here and I hear you say ‘living truthfully’ and I look around at everyone nodding in agreement, but isn’t it just the same as saying ‘I hate war’ – so general and without any real meaning?” A great point, I thought, for my work mustn’t devolve down to mere jargon if it is to have any value. I said to Mark, “I think I can define what I mean by ‘living truthfully:’ it’s an impulsive response to a clearly observed moment of behaviour.” That seemed to answer his question.
“A Given Set of Circumstances”
When I was studying with Meisner, he would sometimes say “… an imaginary set of circumstances,” and sometimes “… a given set of circumstances,” and sometimes even “… an imaginary given set …” He used the terms interchangeably. After many years of frustration in my teaching, I finally realized that I was confusing my students by mixing those two terms, and I stopped using the first (and arguably more famous) construction. Because the moment I use the word “imaginary” actors disappear down a rabbit hole. Their eyes glaze over, they stare into the middle distance, they leave the one place I think they need to be: the present moment.
And Meisner didn’t mean the actors’ imagination, anyway. He was working with an actor once, the actor working on a scene. As the actor stared out a window in the classroom in the middle of the scene, Meisner stopped the work and asked the actor, “what do you see.” The actor, staring out the window, said, “I see the Alps, there’s a little skier going down the hill, the snow is falling …” Meisner walked over to the window, looked out and then back at the actor. “I see bricks,” he said.
So when that phrase, “the bubble of belief” was spoken in the class, I was reminded that the distinctive characteristic of Meisner’s work is its involvement in the present moment. If you’re all wrapped up in the heavy effort of believing – which is a lot of work, by the way – you are less engaged with the quicksilver of the moment itself. And therefore less able to … wait for it … live truthfully.
I don’t expect actors to believe in anything. I want them to live in circumstances. My phrase to illustrate that is this: “fish don’t believe in water, they swim in it.”
In my work, when you act you aren’t engaging in a process of believing. Let’s pop that ‘bubble of belief.’ You should see bricks. Or, if you prefer, have a lovely swim.
Monday, October 8, 2012
I was talking to an actor the other day, Nirja Naik, who’s a lovely and sparky individual with enormous eyes, striking cheekbones, long auburn hair, and gorgeous clear skin. As we spoke I thought, ‘oh, the camera must love her.’
She was talking to me about getting feedback from teachers and directors who want her to do less when she’s acting on screen. She observed, rightly, that if she focused on thinking about what her face was doing, surely that would show up on screen, and not in a good way.
I mentioned that I was in the middle of watching (again) a 1940 Alfred Hitchcock melodrama called “Rebecca.” Although I admire many of his films – and this particular one won the Academy Award for Best Picture – it sported some of the worst performances I can remember seeing on film: structured, posed, carefully arranged and utterly, utterly false.
Let’s start with a really ghastly performance by one Florence Bates (even the name conjures up “old school,” doesn’t it?), who he plays Mrs. Van Hopper, a dowager who has hired timid little Joan Fontaine as paid companion. She only appears in the first 25 minutes or so of the film, for which we can all be grateful. In all those minutes, there isn’t a true one among them.
Laurence Olivier, struggling to play a much older and buttoned-down role, had bad makeup (garish streaks of grey hair applied at his temples, reminding one more of the Bride of Frankenstein than an English aristocrat) and an equally lacquered-on air of world weariness and ennui. Olivier famously had a complex response to Hollywood and film, thinking it beneath a great actor of the stage, all the while hungering for its attendant fame and fortune.
Even Joan Fontaine, young and lovely, caught the old-fashioned style. She had a habit of tilting up her pert little nose, looking with a pained expression off into the middle distance, and speaking in a cultured, forced accent never before or since heard in England or the States. This must be what they mean when they say “a mid-Atlantic accent,” drowning as it does in an ocean of falsity.
It’s not their fault, however. They were trying their absolute best, as actors most always do. Clearly they struggled to do what their director wished. They tried to hit marks, to find key lights, to speak clearly and to inflect properly. They played their idea of what their characters would do.
But in that era, nearly three-quarters of a century ago, what we now prize in the way of truthfulness in performance stood much lower in the rankings. Clarity, communication, verve, characterisation, these all took precedence. No wonder I felt bombarded by these performances. They didn’t wait for me to come in to their circle, they reached out, clutched my lapels, and yanked me closer than I ever wished to be.
I told Nirja about “Rebecca,” mentioned the many frozen moments of Significant Acting, and she laughed and said this: “Yes, it’s as if they have Imaginary Botox.”
Perfect! The absolutely spot-on description of what many directors and teachers of acting on film ask for: Imaginary Botox. Freeze your face, find your light, empty your mind, and let the magic of montage do its work.
Our tastes today demand much more than that hoary old bromide, “less is more.” We ask for a level of spontaneity and impulse not possible in Hitchcock’s idea of film acting.
That’s not to say I think Hitchcock was a bad director, not at all. I’m with everyone else who considers him great. But his greatness lay, I believe, in his understanding and use of the techniques of filmmaking: montage, sound, the subjective camera, McGuffins, et cetera. He was truly magnificent in his control of his effects. All that said, the real reason many of his films work so well as they do is not that mastery of technique, but that the extraordinary actors with whom he often worked lifted his ideas from conceptual to captivating. Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Gregory Peck, these great performers make possible all his invention and craft, because they are our conduits to and guides through the films.
(For example, there’s an amazing shot in one of my favourite Hitchcock films, “Notorious,” in which Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are locked in an embrace, a shot sometimes called the longest kiss in cinema history. As they kiss, the camera pushes in close, close, close, and the kiss goes on and on, through a phone call and beyond, the camera all the while in immediate presence. Hitchcock later said, “I wanted to give the audience the privilege of being in an embrace with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant.”)
In the light of all this, it’s amusing to recall Hitchcock’s rejoinder to a question once put to him by a reporter: “Mr. Hitchcock, is it true that you said that actors are like cattle?” “No, of course not,” replied Hitch in his odd, walrus voice, “I would never say such a thing. What I said was that actors should be treated like cattle.”
Of course, he was joking.
An "extraordinary and powerful life"
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
I've just learned the sad news that one of our dear friends and alumnus, James Livingstone, passed away early this summer.
He joined Impulse for the 2005-06 year, then performed in our hugely successful production of The Blue Room in the Fall of 2006. After we moved on from our digs in Camden, Jim was our genial host at the Thanet Community Centre, which was our home for several years.
We all remember Jim's crinkly-eyed grin and his warm Scottish voice. And we salute his good cheer and his burly talent. Safe travels, Jim.
Here's the obituary from the Camden New Journal:
by PAVAN AMARA
A driving force behind a Gospel Oak community club died on Sunday, June 3, 2012.
Jim Livingstone, 73, was described as having lived an “extraordinary and powerful life”, which included many years as chairman of Thanet Youth and Community Club, in Herbert Street.
Friend and colleague Kate MacMillan said: “About a year ago, he began losing weight and was diagnosed with cancer. He didn’t like talking about it. He wanted to just get on with it, but we were all devastated. He was someone many looked up to.”
A gifted child, he was plucked from his native Gorbals, in Glasgow, and sent to private school after performing particularly well in the 11-plus exam. After school, he went on to establish a career as a professional boxer, rugby player and gymnast.
In 1980, Mr Livingstone, who had one daughter and one son, became chairman of the Thanet club, building it up from an old church.
Ms MacMillan, co-producer of Black Bag Productions based at the Thanet, said: “He was an excellent sportsman, and highly respected. He was a no-nonsense man. He was all about helping people achieve their best, and extremely good to all those who wanted to help themselves.
“But he was firm. Nobody messed him around, and he knew if they were trying to. We had a young offenders’ group here and they all respected him and showed it. If you misbehaved you were out. Simple as that.”
This year, after decades of tireless work for the charity, which provided space for refugees’ and drug users’ groups, and a rehearsal studio for West End musicals, Mr Livingstone, who lived in Tufnell Park for the last 35 years, was nominated by colleagues to carry the Olympic flame during this summer’s torch relay.
His funeral was at 3pm on Friday, June 15, at Golders Green Crematorium.
Doings Down Under
Tuesday, September 25, 2012
I've just read this wonderful blog entry from an actress who studied with me in Sydney in August. She writes so well, and her thoughts on the course are well worth a look.
THE MOST FUN YOU CAN HAVE WITH YOUR CLOTHES ON
Can I start by saying that this week has been totally nuts? It has. Totally nuts-balls. The nuts-ness began last Friday with a call regarding my audition from last week, informing me of a call-back. Excellent! Also, I had enrolled to take part in another fabulous masterclass presented by The Equity Foundation with Scott Williams from The Impulse Company in London. The Equity Foundation run such a wonderful program of events, and I feel pleased as punch every time I get the chance to take part and this one was no different. In fact it was probably one of the best courses I’ve ever been to, no word of a lie. The two day course was grounded in the teachings of Sanford Meisner (I just can’t seem to escape him these days can I…?) and I was really interested to see whether there were any differences between this and what I have been learning at The Actors Pulse or if Meisner’s teaching had encouraged a complete carbon-copy approach. As quoted on the definitive Meisner book On Acting, Elia Kazan states “Take it from a director: if you get an actor that Sandy Meisner has trained, you’ve been blessed.” – and both Billy Milionis from Pulse and Scott Williams from Impulse have. Lucky me! Me = double blessed.
There were so many nuggets of exquisite wisdom imparted over the two days so I’ll try to throw together a bit of a summary…
Scott began by taking everyone through the baby-steps of Meisner and the approach to living truthfully by having us simply listen for a minute or so. Nothing else, just listen for one minute and report back what we heard. Some incorrectly interpreted the exercise and focused their attention on Scott and nothing else; some ‘acted’ listening and heard very little; and others listened and heard. This is because the root of all acting is doing. To act is to do. Merriam Webster Dictionary has various definitions, but the one at the very top is the doing of a thing. To hear sounds in a room, we don’t need to act out listening, we just need to actually listen. Sounds simple, right? This was just the start. The day moved on through various levels of repetition, starting with noticing something about the other person and saying it; “you have a wedding ring” and the other person repeating it “you have a wedding ring” and then moved onto the more personal “you have a wedding ring”, “I have a wedding ring” etc… etc… which is focused on getting us out of our heads and into the moment. We moved through the days, each taking it in turns and watching our fellow class-mates through to script work by the end of the two days.There were so many wonderful moments experienced by the class – even some of the most experienced actors (and yes, I’ve seen a couple of them in many things on TV, in movies and on-stage) had turning points during the session, and here are a few -
• In every day life we don’t play scenes. We experience moments.
• Act before you think.
• What we present on-stage is not natural. As actors, we continually seem to strive for naturalism, but on-stage we are presenting a series of extraordinary events, which is what makes them interesting. So our job is not to be naturalistic , it’s to be truthful. Naturalism is a denial of the extraordinary events taking place.
• Give the audience the pleasure of being in your embrace. Draw them in, so they experience your moment as intensely as you do.
• Be in the moment. Don’t try to be interesting. Being in the moment makes you interesting without trying.
• Arrive at each day’s rehearsal prepared to challenge the previous day’s discoveries.
• Allow the other performer’s energy to affect you.
• Attach to the notion that you have no idea what is going to happen next.
One girl in class had actually studied with Scott in London and she was the person who helped to organise his visit over to Australia. She was absolutely exhilarating to watch. She really adhered to the notion of acting on impulse. She had no fear of being entirely in the moment and having no idea what was coming up, and was free and emotionally available enough to allow each moment to play out. Excellent. Inspiring.
So… there are definitely some differences between the Pulse approach and theImpulse approach, and I suppose it’s all a matter of preference. We all work differently. One of the major differences is in the behavioural calls we were making – we were making calls based on what we saw, not what we thought we saw. So rather than saying “you’re upset” which is our perception of what the other person is feeling, we’d say “you’re looking down” or “you slumped your shoulders” which is a fact that indicates how the other person is feeling. I felt like this kept me out of my head and so much more in the moment. Instead of feeling like I have to try and analyse what they’re doing, I just call it as it is. Impulsively. No thought, just impulsive responses to the call. I was told “you have hazel eyes” and somehow that made me bashful. I don’t know why, it just did, so I impulsively turned my feet inwards, looked down, had a little shrug and a blush and said “I have hazel eyes”. I loved it. I did nothing and everything all at once.
The second thing is how I’m feeling about being ‘broken’. Now, I’m not sure if it’s the teachers or the other students that are putting this pressure on me… or indeed if I’m doing it myself based on what I think is required of me, but I’m feeling pressure to let down my barriers and be vulnerable and open which I think, in turn, is making me more defensive. I had a chat with Scott about this after the whole two days and he asserted that he prefers not to work this way, and I feel the same. I want to make a call, have my partner impulsively respond to it and have calls on me that I impulsively respond to, that’s it – not feel like every call is an attempt for me to break down into tears and accept my weak, meaningless self.
Scott says that repetition is the most fun you can have with your clothes on…. and I think it should be.
And the dog won …
Thursday, September 13, 2012
I was teaching a class in Belfast this week when a funny, sardonic phrase came up: “… and the dog won …” It was said by one Elaine Duncan, in the context of a story I was telling about a so-called “reality” television show, Britain’s Got Talent.
I was describing a particular episode of the show in which a young man and a young woman come up before the “judges” to perform. He is a large man, face partially obscured by a long mop of curly hair parted in the middle. She is a cute young woman, round-faced and smiling.
The “judges” asked a few desultory and rather dismissive questions about the performers: what they were going to do, why they were performing together, so forth.
It was clear that the couple’s unprepossessing appearance and diffident manner gave the audience (and the “judges”) low-to-zero expectation of any kind of talent. So of course, it set up the fact that the lad in particular had a terrific voice, and we got another series of “Susan Boyle” shots of ‘OMG’ across the audience.
It’s good television, ersatz and schmaltzy. And like all such shows, has the vague whiff of Roman gladiatorial conflict, in which we, the audience, glory in the real-life suffering of poor sods who, foolishly, put themselves up in the public arena for our commentary and ridicule.
So, in recalling the event, Elaine said to us all, “yes, those two made it to the final round of the contest. They were up against a dog act of some sort … and the dog won.”
Appropriate. And just a bit sad. On behalf of all you actors, I look forward to the end of this trend in so-called “reality” television and the return of a higher ideal of entertainment than the schadenfreude of enjoying someone else’s public misery.
You’ll notice that I kept putting the word “judges” in inverted commas. This is because I refuse to endow these people with the right to judge anyone. Their self-regard is only equal to that regard in which each of us hold them. And in my case, that’s precious little regard.
My favourite observation about these types of shows came from Kevin Spacey, who was complaining that BBC would be spending taxpayer money on supporting a billionaire’s business projects in television shows like I’d Do Anything or How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? "Where's our 13-week programme when we put a play on?" said Spacey, referring to his work at the Old Vic. "Are they going to do one about a play?"
I agree. But, at least for the moment, the dog often wins.
The ‘Pots and the ‘Cups
Sunday, September 9, 2012
I’ve just completed a week’s work at The Blue Teapot Theatre Company in Galway, Ireland. (www.blueteapot.ie) This wondrous company features the work of intellectually disabled actors, and my week with them was the second most inspiring week of my life, following close on last year’s first visit there.
Blue Teapot is run by the extraordinary Petal Pilley, who studied with The Impulse Company more than 10 years ago in London. (Petal is the one with the glorious smile next to me in the centre of the photograph above.) The company is made up of two levels of actors, colloquially called “the ‘Pots” (the advanced group), and “the ‘Cups” (the beginners). Last year when I arrived, they’d just finished a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and this year they’re in rehearsals for an original play, Sanctuary, commissioned for the company and written by Galway playwright Christian O’Reilly. The play addresses the difficult subject of sexual relations amongst the ID community, relations that are illegal in Ireland unless the couple are married. Petal and her brave company of actors are tackling this important subject head-on, and the play promises to rock a lot of things.
Working with these extraordinary actors, I discover all over again the courage it takes to act, and admire even more you lion-hearted actors who take on that challenge.
A while back, I was asked by a wonderful actor with whom I worked to write a recommendation for her to study at Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, the place where I’d studied with Meisner all those years ago. Margo had completed a year of study with me, and wanted to use the intensive summer programme at Playhouse for an introduction to work in New York City.
Margo, who is vision-impaired, is an exceptional actress and had done very well at The Impulse Company, so I was pleased to recommend her highly. But I was contacted by the people at Playhouse after I’d written the letter; they had seen her DVD and thought she was indeed a talented actress, but expressed concern that because of her blindness she would be at a disadvantage in the intensive atmosphere of the summer workshop. Anticipating their reaction (the Playhouse always was an oddly conservative place), I said, “Margo will teach you how to teach her. Inside 30 minutes, you’ll be glad you accepted her.”
In fact, they did not accept her, and I found that a shame. What Margo taught me, and what the people of the Blue Teapot have reinforced for me, is that our work is open to everyone. Indeed, it is that very tensile simplicity that makes the work so powerful and so very useful for the actor in all work situations.
Here’s to the lovely ‘Pots and ‘Cups. And to Petal, Kathy, and Sonja, who give them such sturdy support. Long may they flourish.
The Occasional Impulse
Saturday, September 8, 2012
I have a cousin who once asked me this question: "what is an occasional table the rest of the time?"
I never came up with a good answer, but in this spot I'll be putting down my own thoughts from time to time, with the hope that they might strike a chord in you, or illuminate some concept close to our work, or be of some inspiration.
I hope you'll come back to check in on this blog every so often. You're always welcome to comment to me directly on <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The rest of the time, go be brilliant!