Playing the Mask: John Wright on acting without bullshit

For John Wright, award-winning theatre-maker and teacher, using masks can be liberating for an actor. His new book, Playing the Mask, explores what masks do, how they do it, and, above all, what they can teach us about acting. Here, he explains how he first became interested in masks, and some surprising discoveries he made along the way…

I first became interested in mask-work in the early seventies when I realised that there must be more to acting than watching people sitting around, talking to each other and behaving as if they were on television. I like theatre when it’s alive and kicking, like a football match, where the actors and the audience are unmistakably in the same room. Both these ideas immediately become a reality the moment I introduce masks.

I had no experience of mask-work when I started using them. All I had to go on was a story that the French actor and theatre director Jacques Copeau had once covered an embarrassed young actor’s face with a handkerchief, and that this had enabled her to overcome her self-consciousness.

I’d tried the handkerchief approach some weeks before with a group of novice actors, and it was a disaster.

In fact, as I later realised, I was being too formal in my approach. I asked the actor I was trying to help to turn away from the audience and put the handkerchief in place, before turning round to look at us when I told her to do so. This simply raised everyone’s expectations, and the resulting action was hopelessly inappropriate. When she turned round, one bright spark immediately put his hands up and cried ‘Don’t shoot!’, and everyone laughed. He’d decided she looked like a bank robber. Her reaction was to pull the handkerchief off her face and refuse to continue.

Some weeks later, I was passing a toy shop and saw that they had some plain white plastic masks in the window. They were being sold with coloured pencils for children to colour in the faces for themselves. I wasn’t interested in the coloured pencils. It was the blank white faces that interested me.

Naive Masks

Mindful of my previous disaster, I decided not to take charge and, rather than formally introducing the masks in any way, I simply put them out on a table and let the group try them out for themselves.

It worked. Once they’d played them and watched others play them, they soon became their own experts.

‘The faces are the same but everyone looks so different when they put them on,’ somebody said.

‘I don’t look at the face so much,’ someone else said, ‘I’m more interested in how they stand and how they look at me.’

I developed my approach to mask-work through watching the reactions of generations of students exploring masks for themselves. And the more I watched and listened, the clearer my own observations became.

I realised, for instance, that different types of mask inspire different ways of playing. Red noses are different from joke-shop noses, half-masks are different from full-masks, grotesque faces from idealised faces and realistic faces from distorted ones.

Man Trying to Be Nice; The Crone; The Fool; The Innocent

But using masks made other things happen as well. My son, who was only seven at the time, and couldn’t resist playing with some new masks that had just arrived, told me: ‘When your face is covered you get the feeling that you’re not there.’ In mask-work, this sense of absence empowers you to take risks, to play and to do things on stage purely for the effect it has on everyone watching you. Sometimes it takes a child to cut through the bullshit.

On the outside we want to watch you in a mask. In fact we can’t take our eyes off you. We’re astonished by the transformation. For you, behind the mask, it’s no more than a game. But in the audience we’ll have forgotten about you entirely. We’re preoccupied with trying to determine who we think this person is and what they’re like.

It’s this change of focus – from you and your feelings, to the reactions of the people watching you – that made me question what acting is all about.

The Child

‘This is all well and good,’ a theatre critic from the Sunday Times once told me, ‘but in our culture, theatre is more about writing than play, and mask traditions aren’t very literary in my experience. You can’t speak in mask, can you?’

This misses the point. Masks don’t have to be the end result: they can be a process, a way of getting you somewhere else, somewhere you couldn’t have imagined without them.

My new book, Playing the Mask: Acting Without Bullshit, isn’t about mask traditions and making masked theatre. It’s an attempt to articulate the ways and means of using different types of mask to inspire playfulness; to use a mask to discover something, and then to remove the mask and play with what you’ve found.

It’s a book about acting: the compelling game of pretending to be someone else.


Playing the Mask: Acting Without Bullshit by John Wright is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

Buy your copy for just £10.39 (20% discount) from the Nick Hern Books website.

The masks featured above are available to hire from http://www.thewrightschool.co.uk. Half-masks and Naïve masks can be purchased from Mike Chase,
http://www.mikechasemasks.com.

Author photograph by Jorge Lizalde Cano. Mask photographs by Toby Wright.

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Releasing your authentic voice: top voice coach Jeannette Nelson on working with actors at the National Theatre

Actors working in the theatre today face many challenges: how do you keep your voice sounding fresh and vital, day after day? How do you manage to sound natural in performance while still being audible? How do you adapt to working with radio mics? Jeannette Nelson, Head of Voice at the National Theatre, explains how actors can meet the challenges facing them. Plus, read an extract from her book, The Voice Exercise Book.

Working with people’s voices is both a privilege and a responsibility. The voice is so personal: it expresses who you are and what you think; it tells your story; it responds to your emotional and physical life. For actors, all these things are true and more, because their livelihood, their ability to do the job, depends upon their voice. They need it to be flexible, healthy, strong and reliable.

I’ve been a theatre voice coach for about 30 years and yet I still feel I’m learning the job. As society changes and new technology emerges, my work with actors has to respond to different tastes and different environments. Imagine if theatre actors still sounded like those in the 1940s and 1950s. We wouldn’t find that acceptable at all. The greatest demand for actors today is that audiences, and the actors and directors themselves, want dialogue on stage to sound as natural as it does in film and television. By and large, I believe we do achieve that. But it takes an enormous amount of skill to be authentically modern and yet theatrically clear.

Some directors will decide to use radio microphones to achieve the sound they want. Actors and I have to respond to that and it isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. The actors have to get used to the feeling, the consciousness of wearing a microphone, and then to accept that they might not be entirely in control of the sound of their voices. My advice, unless a director wants something specific, is always that they should use their voice as if they don’t have a microphone. Then there will still be energy in the voice and the language, and the sound operator won’t have to push up the volume too much. If they do have to increase the volume through the mics, there is the danger of their voices coming from the amplifiers, not their mouths. More important for the actor is that by working as if they don’t have mics, they will feel in control of their vocal choices and can play the scenes as they would like.

Over the years working with theatre actors, I have been refining my work. I began by feeling there was so much think about, so many different ways we can work with the voice, but now I know that it can be pretty simple. I find that in the pressurised world of rehearsal room and stage, I need to offer the actors direct, easily accessed ways to help them to respond to the vocal needs of a role, to prepare the voice for performance (with and without radio mics), to keep it in shape, and sometimes to manage a vocal crisis.

This is the work that is in my book, The Voice Exercise Book. I wanted to write for the voice user not the voice teacher and I wanted to share the work that I do at the National Theatre.


The following is an extract from The Voice Exercise Book: A Guide to Healthy and Effective Voice Use by Jeannette Nelson.

What your voice says about you

There is no mystery about the mechanics of the human voice. It is a physical activity, and, like all physical activities, if you want to perform well you have to practise and develop your technique. However, the voice is an expression of self like no other, and as such is subject to inner feelings and outward pressures.

Who you are

Our voice is part of our identity and it carries our history. It tells where we are from through our accent or language, tying us to place and community. That might be very important to us, and we may take pride in the accent and dialect that identifies us with the history of a particular place and group of people.

Our voice is also one of the ways we choose to engage with the world. We may use volume, speaking loudly to show that we are confident and in control, or quietly, making people listen closely. We may use tone to project a particular image of ourselves: maybe caring or careless, firm or ironic. We may use our voice to protect ourselves and hide behind, perhaps by changing our native accent, or pushing or withholding its natural energy. We may also enhance the expression of our gender by using a rather high or low pitch.

Authenticity

If you are unhappy with the way you sound and have tried to change it on your own, you may be surprised to know that people usually realise that something is not quite right. We recognise authenticity when we hear it and mistrust those whose voices don’t quite fit them. I’m sure you have listened to people in public life who you feel are not using their voices honestly or authentically, and you don’t trust them.

The work in my book The Voice Exercise Book: A Guide to Healthy and Effective Voice Use is not about forcing the voice to sound different. It is about getting to know the voice you have and working with it. Actors need to know themselves well, and be comfortable and honest about who they are, before they can transform themselves into other people. They aim to reveal truths in the world, and to do so they have to work from a place of authenticity. Voice training is an essential part of this as it teaches them how to discover and release their true voice. Then they can get to know it well and fully own it.

This is what I hope the book offers. The exercises inside are designed to teach you how to feel the breath and the voice within your own body, and then how to maximise its potential for expression and communication. That doesn’t mean it won’t change. If you work with proper care, of course your voice will change but it will still sound like you. In fact, it may sound more like you than it did before, because you will have released it fully. It will be a sound with more resonance, more range, more flexibility and more honesty.

How you feel

The voice is also a means of expressing emotion, and it is often our first response to the things that life brings us: we laugh and cry, and we make spontaneous expressive noises – oh, ah, mm, argh. Our voice can also reveal how we feel even when we don’t mean it to. We know when a friend is not in their usual state of mind, not necessarily by what they say but by how they sound. Unhappiness and anxiety tend to take the music out of the voice, which in turn can make the speaker try to force energy into it in an attempt to disguise their feelings. Insecurity and fear can lead to physical tensions that create a thin, high, husky or quiet voice.

But when we are happy our bodies relax. We can breathe deeply and freely, so the voice can be comfortable and natural. A natural voice is what we are aiming for in this book: a voice that is clear, resonant, unstrained and easy to listen to. And most important of all, we are aiming for a voice that reflects who we truly are. When working at its best, it will respond to our thinking without effort and with a full range of expression.

How others respond to your voice

The voice can also be something that is judged by others. As children we were often told to be quiet or not to say things. As adults we recognise that some types of accent or speech are more valued than others. These criticisms, if excessive or inappropriate, can lead to vocal difficulties, especially when we need to use our voice in public or professional situations.

If you learn early on that you are supposed to keep quiet, you may come to believe that what you have to say is not important. This can lead to a habit of speaking too fast or too softly, or even to being reluctant to speak at all. If you think your accent or speaking style is unacceptable, it can stop you from breathing adequately for speech. Any criticism of how you speak can lead to holding tension in your jaw, throat or shoulders.

However, a little knowledge and technique can bring about a healthier and more satisfying relationship with your voice. Then the confidence that this creates helps to overcome the external pressures that can make speaking hard. This does not happen instantly: you do have to do the exercises and absorb the technique. But learning to control your voice, owning it and falling in love with it will help you to develop self-confidence. You will find that people will want to listen to you. Think of it as regaining what should be naturally yours.


The above is an extract from The Voice Exercise Book: A Guide to Healthy and Effective Voice Use by Jeannette Nelson, published by National Theatre Publications, and available now from Nick Hern Books.

To buy a copy for £12.99, click here.

Jeannette Nelson is running a one-day workshop at the Actors’ Centre, Fall In Love With Your Voice, on Wednesday 7 June. For more information, and to book a place, visit the Actors’ Centre website.

‘It’s such a joyous play’: four leading actors on playing Shakespeare’s great roles

For his new book Shakespeare On Stage: Volume 2, experienced actor Julian Curry – who himself has appeared in twenty-one of Shakespeare’s plays – spoke to twelve leading colleagues about their experience of participating in landmark Shakespearean productions, each recreating in detail their memorable performance in a major role. Here, read some extracts from the book including Chiwetel Ejiofor on Othello, Zoë Wanamaker on Beatrice, Ian McKellen on Lear, and Fiona Shaw on the Shrew.

Chiwetel Ejiofor on Othello’s feelings towards Desdemona

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Othello; Othello, Donmar Warehouse, 2007, directed by Michael Grandage
(© Donald Cooper/Photostage)

I saw it as absolutely that he fell in love with her. What he describes is exactly what happened. Brabantio invited him, they became friends, and Brabantio was thrilled to have this exotic guy in the house, and pleased for him to tell his stories and impress the children. And in the course of doing so, Othello notices that the girl is extraordinarily interested not only in his stories but in him. He realises that she is falling in love with him. He sees, I suppose, a softness in her gaze that he’s quite unused to. Her gentleness and her beauty are intoxicating to him, and because of this adoration he finds himself falling in love with her. And so there probably isn’t a deep knowledge of each other, as much as a powerful awareness of the emotion they’re both feeling. He is also attracted to her willingness to break through societal constraints. I don’t think there’s any evidence in the text that he considered her to be merely a trophy.

Othello’s never been in love before. He’s shell-shocked by the emotion. He had no idea that one could feel anything like that. He’s been through terrible trauma, including being in the Arab slave trade, and has largely shut down the emotional side of himself, and filtered it into conflict. That’s where he has always felt most alive, as he describes, in the ‘Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war’ [3.3]. He’s not looking for anything to replace that emotion, which is why she completely catches him off-guard by falling in love with him. It’s not something that he expected or even necessarily wanted. But it certainly is the first time he’s experienced it.


Zoë Wanamaker on Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship in Much Ado About Nothing

Zoë Wanamaker as Beatrice; Much Ado About Nothing, National Theatre, 2007, directed by Nicholas Hytner
(© Donald Cooper/Photostage)

At the start, her relationship with Benedick is based on misunderstandings, fear and insecurities. They’re both insecure, I think. Benedick pretending he had all these lovers, Beatrice thinking she could never get married. What’s more, Beatrice is in a very male-dominated society, which she resents and he is part of, so you’d assume they absolutely can’t get on. But the great thing about these characters is how they develop as the plot progresses. When you go into any play you’re looking for a character’s change or revelation, which makes them more true to life and is part of the audience’s satisfaction as well as the actor’s. These two people are changed for the better and the happier as a result of the gulling scenes.

Julian Curry: Do you think she was waiting for him all the time, that she always knew he was the one, if only it could come out right?

Wanamaker: It’s possible.

Or is that a bit soppy?

A little bit, yes, but it’s possible. Of all the people she might have a relationship with, it could only be him. And when it happens, a flower opens. Theirs is a marriage made in heaven because they’re so right, their spirits are so perfectly matched. That’s where Nick Hytner [the director] was so clever: the play is not about young people, it’s about mature people, people who have lived but are looking in the wrong directions. It’s the warmth and the wit of these two people, and the fact that they are misfits who thankfully find each other, that make it such a joyous play.


Ian McKellen on the storm scene in King Lear

Ian McKellen as Lear; King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2007, directed by Trevor Nunn
(© Donald Cooper/Photostage)

We had real rain. Trevor Nunn [the director] was very insistent on that. Then they weren’t able to light the scene, so the audience could hardly see that it was happening. But we were cold and wet, sometimes literally shaking with cold. Actually it was quite helpful to us to be extremely uncomfortable. I remember saying in rehearsal that we should go out into a storm and I’d take off my clothes to feel what it’s like, and then remember it. But in the end we didn’t need to do that, because we had to endure the real thing on stage.

Julian Curry: What do you think Lear’s doing? Why does he want the storm? Why is he welcoming it, asking for it?

McKellen: When it’s raining, and you’re outside in a real old storm with thunder and lightning, and there’s nowhere to go, you’re simply a victim. You can’t control the rain and tell it to stop. It’s just there. He’s trying to relate the reality of getting cold and wet, and being frightened, with what it felt like when his daughters broke all the conventions of his rule by hurting him, thwarting him. He should have been able to control them, but he couldn’t. And he can’t control the weather. The storm is introducing him to the idea that he is just a man, and an old man at that. He had never thought of himself as just a man: he’s King Lear.


Fiona Shaw on the difficulties of playing Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew

Fiona Shaw as Katherine; The Taming of the Shrew, RSC, 1987, directed by Jonathan Miller
(© Donald Cooper/Photostage)

Katherine’s journey is enormous. The difficulty of playing it is that the transitional beats that you would like to have are not there, so you have to make quantum leaps sometimes.

There are a million things between the beginning and the end of the play. You don’t have anything like Petruchio’s journey, which is dextrous and full of contradiction. She has no soliloquy, so you don’t get to the inside of her mind, which means she remains an object to the audience. Until the end, when she’s very much the subject. But that last speech has to be earned. And it’s a thin-ice fragment of a resolution, which is quite hard to do. You have to be very light of feet to get to it. The middle of the play is perhaps the most tricky part, where she doesn’t speak. That’s when you really need to speak, but she doesn’t. She’s silenced. There is a power in silence too, of course, and the audience can be moved and upset, but they’re not charmed by it in the way they’re charmed by his wit. So it’s a hard part to play, whereas Petruchio is a wonderful part to play. And Katherine is also a hard part to enjoy. Maybe that’s generational, but I don’t know of a Katherine who really enjoys playing it.


The above is taken from Shakespeare On Stage: Volume 2 – Twelve Leading Actors on Twelve Key Roles by Julian Curry.

In the book, twelve leading actors take us behind the scenes of landmark Shakespearean productions, each recreating in detail their memorable performance in a major role. The result is a series of individual masterclasses that will be invaluable for other actors and directors, as well as students of Shakespeare – and fascinating for audiences of the plays.

To get your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required  – click here.

‘A well-kept secret’: the Feldenkrais Method and its powerful potential for actors, by Victoria Worsley

The Feldenkrais Method, named after the distinguished scientist and engineer Dr Moshe Feldenkrais, has been used by performers since being adopted by Peter Brook in the 1970s – but it is only now beginning to gain the recognition it deserves. Tapping into the deep relationship between bodily movement and our ways of thinking, feeling and learning, the Method can revolutionise the way actors think about and use their bodies. Here, acting coach and Feldenkrais practitioner Victoria Worsley – author of a new book on the subject, Feldenkrais for Actors – recalls how she first became aware of the Method, and how it ultimately changed her life…

It took a publisher to recognise that it is time for a book on the Feldenkrais Method – one that contextualises it specifically for actors. The Method has been used by physical theatre performers since director Peter Brook started working with Dr Moshe Feldenkrais in the early seventies. It came to the UK via Monika Pagneux’s teaching in Paris and Garet Newell’s classes at the International Workshop Festival. It found its way into physical theatre and dance, and is beginning to be used by mainstream drama schools, by the RSC and also by a select group of well known film actors. There are quite a number of books about the Method now, but as far as its specific use for actors goes, you can find some great academic writing and a few chapters in some popular books on movement – but, as far as I’m aware, there is not one book devoted to the subject.

And a book really is needed. Drama schools are increasingly curious about the Method, but unless they already have a teacher who knows it well, it’s not so easy for them to fully appreciate what it actually is, its possibilities, how it is different to what they already do and how it might fit with or support their work. Amongst professional actors it is also growing, but the wide-ranging possibilities of the Method are still a fairly well-kept secret. Theatre publisher Nick Hern saw this gap, and asked me to write a book about it. The result, Feldenkrais for Actors, has just been published – and I hope it does the job well enough to be genuinely useful. Of course one book cannot cover it all, and one practitioner’s version is not the whole story, but I hope it will be a good start.

monika-pagneux

Monika Pagneux, the influential movement teacher who introduced many UK performers to the Feldenkrais Method

I came across the Method aged seventeen, over thirty years ago. I went straight from school to study with the revered teacher Philippe Gaulier in Paris. I remember asking him in my broken French on the phone if I was too young to work with him, and I remember his inimitable reply: “How would I know? I am not a psychic”. Great teacher that he is, it was the one-and-a-half hours with movement teacher Monika Pagneux before his class that got me through the terror of getting up in front of him in those days. She often called me Gloria by mistake, and made up for it wonderfully: “Ah la gloire, la victoire, c’est toute la meme chose” (“Ah, glory, victory, it’s all the same thing!”). The strange little movements we did in her classes had surprising results. They plugged me in to myself, made me feel connected, able, different in ways I had not experienced before: little pieces of magic. A genius teacher in her own right, Monika said these sequences came from the teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais, who had died that very year.

Moshe Feldenkrais in San Francisco (photograph from Bob Knighton's collection, International Feldenkrais Federation Archive)

Moshe Feldenkrais in San Francisco (photograph from Bob Knighton’s collection, International Feldenkrais Federation Archive)

It was the beginning of a long journey for me with the Method. I was in touch with it in a very on-and-off way while I was acting, but it was always with me. Once experienced, the Feldenkrais Method is not easily forgotten. It had been like waking up to myself and learning to explore in ways that never left me. It coloured how I approached all my acting work, my theatre making, my pieces of movement direction, as well as the way I could be present with myself and in the world. And it shaped my exploration of myself from an emotional point of view as I got older.

Later, in that funny place you find yourself in as a pregnant woman (re-evaluating everything!), I made a radical decision to join the Feldenkrais Professional Practitioner training in Lewes. I had a problematic knee injury, and anyway the Method had started tugging at me with increasing insistence. I wanted to delve more deeply into its secrets and see if I could learn its magic. I was doubly tempted by the discovery of the hands-on version of the Method, which seemed to work miracles with my knee and with all sorts of people, from children to the elderly. Being pregnant, I was tired of repertory theatre, of touring and of filming in odd locations. It was time to stay still. Finally, after four years of truly transformative training, I left acting for my Feldenkrais practice and never looked back.

4-2-10Because of my acting background, I naturally began to test what actors could do with the Method. I have been exploring and experimenting with it in the course of my work at some wonderful drama schools like Oxford, Rose Bruford and Mountview, as well as workshops at the Actors Centre in London, where I’ve worked alongside the theatre-maker, director and teacher John Wright (who has written the Foreword to my book). My adventures in related fields such as barefoot running and Goju Ryu karate, as well as in the domain of the physiology of emotion, have helped me clarify aspects of the work, and my varied practice with people from many different walks of life has thrown light on how the Method relates to performance. Feldenkrais trainer Dr Frank Wildman told me that Moshe thought his work would be most fully expressed through actors, precisely because they needed to address the use of themselves in every way.

4-1-9

And so we come back to the book. Feldenkrais is far from the only movement-based method that is useful for actors, but it is very rich, still very cutting-edge and, in my experience, highly effective in the way it works. It encompasses a unique and profound understanding of human functioning and of how you are you – and the detail of it is like nothing I have come across elsewhere. It is high time for the Method’s usefulness to be laid out clearly so that actors can recognise its benefits and its immense potential for the work they do. I hope my book will be a good start.


FormattedFeldenkrais for Actors: How to Do Less and Discover More by Victoria Worsley is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy a copy for just £10.39 (RRP £12.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

For details about Victoria Worsley’s Feldenkrais practice, visit her website www.feldenkraisworks.co.uk. She also runs Feldenkrais workshops at the Actors Centre in London; read her blog piece on the Actors Centre website here.

Illustrations by James Humphries.

Harriet Walter on playing Shakespeare’s great roles

Harriet WalterIn her new book Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women, acclaimed actor Harriet Walter looks back at her experiences of playing many of Shakespeare’s most famous roles – both female and male – across her varied and distinguished career. Her perceptive and intimate accounts illustrate each play as a whole, and provide invaluable insights for anyone looking to tackle the roles themselves. Here, in a series of extracts from the book, she explores five different roles spanning four decades…

OPHELIA – Hamlet, 1981

Ophelia

As Ophelia with Jonathan Pryce (Hamlet); Hamlet, Royal Court Theatre, London, 1980
(© John Haynes/Lebrecht Music & Arts)

The most famous thing about Ophelia is that she goes mad. Richard Eyre, who’d asked me to play Ophelia to Jonathan Pryce’s Hamlet, had given me one major tip as to what he wanted, by telling me what he didn’t want. He did not want ‘mad acting’. I knew what he meant. For Ophelia, her mad scene is an ungoverned artless release; for the actress playing her it can be a chance to show off her repertoire of lolling tongues and rolling eyes, in a fey and affecting aria which is anything but artless. That is the paradox of acting mad. The actor is self-conscious in every sense, while the mad person has lost their hold on self.

Generalised mad acting, being unhinged from any centre, leaves the actor floundering in their own embarrassment. The remedy for me was to find a method in Ophelia’s madness, so that I could root her actions in her motivations (however insane and disordered), just as I would with any other character I was playing. Before playing her I had shared with many others the impression that Ophelia was a bit of a colourless part—that is, until she goes mad. I needed to find a unifying scheme that would contain both the ‘interesting’ mad Ophelia and the ‘boring’ sane Ophelia.

Suppose Ophelia is happily ‘normal’ until her lover rejects her and murders her father. Is that necessarily a cue to go mad? After all, Juliet suffered something of the kind when Romeo killed Tybalt, and although the idea tormented her she did not flip. I started to see that the seeds of Ophelia’s madness had been sown long before the play started, by the workings of a cold, repressive environment on an already susceptible mind. I preferred this theory to the sudden madness-through-grief idea which, together with broken hearts and walking spirits, seemed to belong in the theatre of Henry Irving or a Victorian poem.


VIOLA – Twelfth Night, 1987

Viola

As Viola with Donald Sumpter (Orsino); Twelfth Night, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1987
(© Ivan Kyncl/Arena PAL)

I don’t think that Viola is a naturally comic role.  Consider her situation:

Viola is shipwrecked, an orphan in a foreign land where no one knows her, and she believes her twin brother and only relative has been drowned. She then falls in love with a man who thinks she’s a boy, and who is infatuated with another woman, and is sent to woo that rival on behalf of the man she loves. Olivia then falls in love with her boy disguise. The audience revels in these complications. Viola does not. Viola isn’t Rosalind, loved and in love, delighting in the freedom of her disguise and knowing she can drop it at any time (in the forest at least).

Viola triggers a lot of comedy but does not crack a lot of jokes. It seems to me that the comedy in Twelfth Night works along a spectrum of self-knowledge with the most self-deceived at one end (Malvolio, Aguecheek), whose idiocy we laugh at, and at the other, the most self-aware, Viola (the only character on stage aware of her real identity), whose wit we laugh with. We laugh at Orsino, who is blinded by love, and at Olivia, who is blind to her vanity in mourning, and at both of them, who are blind to the fact that Cesario is a girl. Sebastian, the ‘drowned’ brother, walks into a chaos he cannot make head or tail of, and we laugh at his confusion. We wryly laugh with Feste, the all-knowing fool, and with Maria, the traditional cunning maid, and we uncomfortably laugh with Belch, who thinks he knows it all and revels in exploiting other people’s weakness.

Although Viola is the most knowing in one way, she is on totally unfamiliar ground (physically and emotionally), and this is a source of comedy for the all-knowing audience.


LADY MACBETH – Macbeth, 1999

Lady Macbeth

As Lady Macbeth with Antony Sher (Macbeth); Macbeth, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1999
(© Jonathan Dockar-Drysdale/RSC)

I suspect that if you were to ask the person-in-the-street what they knew of Lady Macbeth, most who knew anything would say something like ‘She’s the one who persuades her husband to kill the King…’ But I was finding indications in the text that Lady M does not put the idea of killing the King into her husband’s head, it is already there. There is a huge but subtle difference between coercing a totally upright person to commit a crime and working on the wavering will of someone who already wants to commit that crime but fears the consequences. I was not out to clear Lady Macbeth’s name, but I wanted to straighten a few facts.

Shakespeare repeatedly uses the image of planting, and it is an apt one. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are caught at a moment of ripeness and preparedness for evil. The witches are agents of this evil, and for that reason they do not seek out Banquo, who proves less fertile soil, but Macbeth. Lady Macbeth understands her husband as well as the witches do and builds on the work they have begun. She herself never kills, but if she had let well alone, Macbeth would not have acted. That is the considerable extent of her blame.

I had already scoured the text for any insights into Lady Macbeth as an individual, separate from her husband, but except for the odd ‘most kind hostess’ or ‘fair and noble hostess’ from the King, no one comments on her or throws any light on her character. Nobody seems to know her. She has no confidante. Her world is confined to the castle and its servants, but it was hard for my imagination to people the place or fill it with domestic goings-on. A Lady Macbeth busying herself with the housekeeping or taking tea with a circle of friends just did not ring true. It did not ring true because Shakespeare’s creation only exists within the time-frame of the play. It was as though she had visited Shakespeare’s imagination fully formed, giving away no secrets, and therein lies a lot of her power.


CLEOPATRA – Antony and Cleopatra, 2006

Cleopatra

As Cleopatra; Antony and Cleopatra, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2006 (© Pascal Molliere/RSC)

How do you approach playing a woman who reputedly stops the heart and eclipses the reason of every man she meets? Who has Julius Caesar eating out of the palm of her hand? To me Cleopatra was Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Mata Hari, the erotic, black-eyed woman on Edwardian postcards, impossible for me to get near. However, once I did my research, I found that nowhere in the play or in any historical account is Cleopatra described as beautiful. In fact any existing images of her make her look rather heavy-browed and long-nosed. Hooray! Yes, but on second thoughts not hooray because that meant she managed to pull the men despite not being beautiful. That means she possessed some indefinable sexual ingredient, the X-factor which you either have or have not got and which is something beyond the art of acting.

What I did have were Shakespeare’s words, and they became my largest sexual attribute. They say the brain is the largest sex organ in the body, and her words were of infinite variety. Playful, grandiose, self-dramatising, switchback, heart-breaking, infuriating and unpredictable. I knew that my best chance of convincing an audience that men might fall at my Cleopatra’s feet would be to get behind those words, the switches of mood, the reach of her imagery, the energy and the emotion to be inferred from her rhythms. And if I could bring all that off the page and on to the stage, I wouldn’t need to fulfil every man’s fantasy with my physique or some ‘X’ ingredient. Getting behind those words would be a tough enough task, but at least it was one that could be worked at, whereas one’s physical attributes are more immutable.

What I also had was the real experience of a woman on the cusp of old age, with all the contradictions that presents. On the one hand still in touch with a youthful energy and physicality, and on the other the consciousness that, as I joked at the time, ‘this may be the last time I play the love interest’. Both Patrick Stewart, who played Antony, and I are fairly fit and athletic—which I am rarely required to demonstrate—so we both used that quality of physical energy and enjoyment wherever we could, and indeed I haven’t had and don’t expect to have another chance to run around the stage barefoot or ever again to leap into a stage lover’s arms.


HENRY IV – Henry IV, 2014

Henry IV

As King Henry IV; Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse, 2014 (© Helen Maybanks)

I have to confess to having rather enjoyed strutting and striding and puffing out my chest. I suspect that many men enjoy it too. I have watched those sorts of men all my life, never thinking I would need those observations for an acting job. Since I was very young I have been able to watch someone and imagine myself inside them, moving their limbs, striking their poses and by some strange mechanism, getting an inkling as to their feelings and thoughts. I’m sure everyone has something of this ability, but it is particularly developed in actors. It is hard to explain how it’s done because it is not a systematised process; it is just part of our equipment. It means that we can ‘channel’ someone from real life who matches the character we are playing.

As Henry, I channelled two or three different men (not the men themselves but their acting personae). For obvious reasons I had never had cause to channel Ray Winstone before, but I did now. Another model was Tom Bell; another was the guy from the film A Prophet, Niels Arestrup. If you know any of these actors, you will understand I was not striving to be a lookalike, but somehow, by keeping them in my mind’s eye, I could borrow some useful quality of theirs: the stillness that accompanies physical power, the prowling pace of a man keeping his violence in check, the spread-limbed arrogance of those men on the tube who occupy two seats and leave you squished up in the corner.

It is a bit of a cliché to say it, but in many ways we are all acting. We have all been trained up in our physicality and raised within gender conventions that restrict us. The experiment of being a woman playing a man produced in me a hybrid that surprised me and released me from myself. That is what a lot of actors love best about the whole game—the escape from the limits of the package we are wrapped in. I suspect many non-actors are looking for the same.


Brutus and Other HeroinesThese edited extracts are taken from Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women by Harriet Walter, out now. To buy your copy for just £10.39, visit the Nick Hern Books website.

Harriet Walter stars in the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Shakespeare Trilogy – playing Brutus in Julius Caesar, Henry IV in Henry IV, and Prospero in The Tempest – at Kings Cross Theatre, London, until 17 December.

‘Getting there, doing it, and making a living out of it’: Paul Clayton on being a Working Actor

Clayton, PaulPaul Clayton has been an actor for almost forty years, a career spanning roles in Peep Show, Doctor Who, Wolf Hall, Hollyoaks and more. As his new book The Working Actor is published, he reflects on how it all started, what it takes to keep going, and how you can make it, too…

In my role as Chairman of the Board of the Actors Centre, I’ve hosted a series of lunchtime interviews with actors at various stages of their careers, helping them share their experience and expertise with others. Partly out of laziness, and partly out of a desire to achieve some sort of commonality in the framework for the interviews, I begin each one with the question: ‘How did it all start? When was that moment that you knew that this was what you wanted to do?’ The answers proved revealing. For Juliet Stevenson, it was reading a poem at school. For Josie Lawrence, it was finding out that she could entertain members of her family. For Douglas Hodge, it was a natural step from being a teenage impressionist. Mark Rylance recalled helping to build the scenery for a high-school play in America. Sir Derek Jacobi remembered a particular feeling as he ran down the street wearing his mother’s wedding veil.

For all of the interviewees, however, one thing was the same. There had been one moment when they knew the only thing they wanted to be was an actor. I think my own particular Damascene conversion happened in Miss Woodcock’s class, late on a Thursday afternoon, in an infant school nestling in the foothills and slag heaps of the Soviet Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire. Having press-ganged Susan Clarke and Christine Evans into sharing the stage with me, I played the role of a heroic soldier battling for his loved one against the forces of an evil witch. Imaginatively titled Evil Spirits, and with its envelope-pushing casting of myself as the heroic, and no doubt heterosexual, soldier, it entertained the other members of our class for nearly ten minutes. I remember the applause, and I remember thinking: ‘I like this.’ From that moment on, I can honestly say that I knew what I wanted to be. An actor. I was seven.

Getting there, doing it, and making a living out of it, is what my new book The Working Actor is about. I’ve managed to do that now for nearly forty years, something of which I am proud. I’ve spent a great deal of time unemployed. There have been weeks when seven imaginative ways with a baked potato has been my diet. Approaching sixty, I’d like to think I can call myself ‘a Working Actor’. It says ‘actor’ on my passport, and it says ‘actor’ on my tax return. I make a living out of it, and I know that I’m incredibly lucky to have a job that I always wanted and that I still enjoy.

No one can teach you to act, but you can learn how to be an actor.

Luck is obviously a great part of success, and that has to be acknowledged. Luck can be helped along, though, and working hard at your career will bring its own rewards. Understanding the business, how it works, and your place in it, is crucial. How to look at the work that is out there, the jobs, the opportunities, and how to talk to people who have the power to give you those jobs, and to give you those opportunities. To find out how they make their choices. To find out what you can do to maximise the chance of their choice being you. That’s what the book aims to do. To help you manage your day-to-day life as an actor. No one can teach you to act, but you can learn how to be an actor. A Working Actor.

One of the most important pieces of advice I think I’ve ever been given was from a fabulous old tutor called John McGregor at my drama school. He’d been a young hopeful at the RSC in the mid-fifties, alongside Olivier and Ian Holm. It hadn’t worked for John in terms of stardom, but it had worked for him in terms of being a Working Actor. When he was our technique tutor at Manchester Polytechnic in the mid-seventies, he was still regularly appearing in television dramas and making a good living out of his acting. His mantra was one I have tried to follow ever since:

‘Every day do at least one thing that might lead to work, and then get on with living your life.’

I think what he was trying to say was don’t let the whole of your life be consumed by being an out-of-work actor. Don’t forget to be a person. People buy people. So often in audition situations, sitting on the other side of the table, I have seen people come in absolutely desperate for the job to the point where I have had no chance to get to know them as a person. As a result, there is no hook with which I have been able to engage with them. They haven’t got the job.

The Working Actor consists of twenty-six subjects. An eclectic mix, and made as a result of my own individual choice. At the end of each article is a work task. So, on the basis of Mr McGregor’s mantra, my book gives you at least five weeks of one thing to do each day before getting on with your life. Assuming you take the weekend off! Not all of them may apply to everyone, but if just one of them leads to something, then I have done my job.

Not for nothing do people call it ‘The Industry’ or ‘The Business’ – a business is exactly what it is.

There may be a lucky few who, after leaving drama school, will jump from job to job, but for the vast majority it will be a constant fight, a struggle, to keep that employment as continuous as possible. It will require huge reserves of energy and focus to cope with unemployment, and it will rely on a constant input of imagination and creativity to maximise the opportunities that come along.

Not for nothing do people call it ‘The Industry’ or ‘The Business’ – a business is exactly what it is, and that’s how you have to treat it and behave in it if you are to succeed.

I sincerely hope that The Working Actor helps. Helps you on a day-to-day basis. Helps you to manage your career as a business, and to maximise your potential. Above all, I hope it helps you realise those childhood dreams.


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The Working Actor by Paul Clayton is published this week by Nick Hern Books.

To buy a copy for just £10.39 (RRP £12.99), visit our website here.

Join the author in conversation with Miss L (Twitter’s @ProResting) to discover the essential steps to building a successful career. A Samuel French event at Camden People’s Theatre, Monday 9 May, 8-9pm, booking required.

Facing the Fear: Bella Merlin on overcoming stage fright

Stage fright afflicts many actors, and has the power to drive you away from the stage for months, years, or even a lifetime. In her new book, Facing the Fear: An Actor’s Guide to Overcoming Stage Fright, performer, author and teacher Bella Merlin shows you how to meet the challenge – or simply how to prepare yourself in case that day should ever come. Here she recalls her own experience of stage fright, and what it taught her about how to deal with it.

In 2004, I was smitten with an overwhelming bout of stage fright. It was very near the end of a five-month run of David Hare’s powerful verbatim play The Permanent Way, directed by Max Stafford-Clark for his company Out of Joint in collaboration with the National Theatre. I’ll let my production journal reveal the pride and fall:

 May 1st 2004: Last night at the National Theatre

The last night at the National and the end of something very special. I’ve never before felt so strongly that performing a play could be so important. The audiences have been incredible, with all kinds of eulogies – from critics, public, theatre professionals, stage-door staff and ushers. It has been extraordinary.

It’ll be good to get out of London, though. Not that I’ve been nervous, not that it’s ever worried me who’s in and what they might think. But who knows? – There might be a sense of ‘pressure off’ among us all, so that we can finish this long run with some playful fun.

May 5th: First night at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Courtyard Studio Theatre

What a nightmare!

Tonight I had every actor’s worst possible scenario. I get midway through a sentence – and my brain shuts down. All those thoughts I’d had about being out of London – the pressure off and the fun on – couldn’t have been further from the truth. Earlier in the day during the tech rehearsal, my fellow actor Matthew Dunster looked out into the auditorium of the intimate Courtyard Theatre, where the front row is barely a foot from the stage. ‘God, they’re close!’ he said. ‘This is scary!’ I didn’t think anything of it at the time, apart from being surprised that any of us should find anything scary so far into the run.

Then – during the show – I walk to the front of the stage in the role of the Investment Banker and, as always during this moment, I address a member of the audience. ‘Well, I don’t know about you, but I can only work when I feel the hot breath of a competitor down my neck.’ Well, that’s what I’m supposed to say…

Instead, I manage to say, ‘Well, I don’t know about you…’ but then, as I look at this man on the fourth row, I can see the whites of his eyes. ‘Wow!’ I think. ‘You really are close, aren’t you?’ And at that moment, any connection to the play is cut in my brain. I have no idea what I’m supposed to say next.

Strangely, I don’t get the mad pumping of adrenalin that I’ve had in the past when I’ve momentarily tripped over a word. No heart pounding, no instant sense of fight or flight. Just a feeling of floating away… Into oblivion… As if I’m in a dream and nothing really matters… In this fleeting moment, it doesn’t matter that I’m eyeballing a total stranger and saying whatever nonsensical words come out of my mouth. It doesn’t matter that Max Stafford-Clark and Ian Brown (Artistic Director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse) are watching, and his casting director, and a full house of audience from Leeds. It’s just me and this kind of floating-away feeling.

The moment maybe lasts a split second, yet it seems like a thousand years. Somehow I retrieve the next line and manage to get to the end of the scene seemingly in control. But all the time, I just want to slip into this strange kind of fainting place. I get off stage feeling totally, utterly spaced out.

And then it hits. The shakes and the palpitations kick in. It’s as if my legs from pelvis to knee don’t exist – it’s just thin air. My peripheries have vanished. I can’t feel my hands. Maybe I’d experienced some kind of ‘connection overload’ out there. What I mean is that in the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, I hadn’t really been able to see the eyes of the person whom I’d picked out in the audience for the Investment Banker’s ‘hot breath of a competitor’ line. Here, however, the guy on the fourth row was as clear as daylight. And he was looking straight back at me. There was a true connection, and maybe the electrical currents of that connection overloaded my brain, giving me a moment of meltdown. Who knows? Whatever…

 Bella Merlin performing in The Permanent Way by David Hare (photo by Geraint Lewis)

Bella Merlin performing in The Permanent Way by David Hare (photo by Geraint Lewis)

May 12th: First night at the Oxford Playhouse

I’m just so glad to be back in a bigger space. You’d think this verbatim play would be perfectly designed for intimate studio spaces, but I’m so much happier now that we’re back in the big theatre of the Oxford Playhouse. Apart from anything else, I can’t see the audience!

May 14th: Third night at the Oxford Playhouse

I don’t believe it!

It’s the last time Sir David Hare is going to see the play and I do it again! I fuck up! I’m shocked and appalled at myself. This time it was a stupid fluff, and again as the Investment Banker. What is it with that character? She’s supposed to be calm and confident. Instead of saying, ‘In fact, you can hardly get out of the country without using something I’ve had my finger in,’ I say, ‘In fact, you can hardly get your finger… out of… something I’ve had my finger in…!’ In that split second, my brain does a million somersaults as I strain to bring everything back to the present tense. But what a load of bollocks came out of my mouth! And I know what Sir David is like! I know he won’t let me off the hook!

Sure enough, he’s backstage after the show in the middle of a conversation – and suddenly he sees me. ‘And as for you!’ he booms down the corridor. ‘Oh, no – could you tell?’ I wince. ‘Of course I could tell! It was a load of rubbish!…’ And off we all troop into the Yorkshire night. And the knight goes off to the station to catch the last train back to London. And yes, yes – I’ll never work in British theatre again…!

My stage fright grew worse in the final two weeks of the run. I came down with chronic laryngitis and could barely be heard. It was as if my body didn’t want me to go out onto the stage and into the spotlight any more, but, with no understudies, I had no choice.

As it turned out, I wasn’t alone in feeling performance anxiety so very late in this long run, and little by little some of the other actors spoke of how uneasy they were feeling. It was then I began to realise that sharing our fear-based stories brings with it a kind of talking cure.

The talking cure

It takes courage to be an actor. It takes even greater courage to admit how terrifying it can be. Yet the very act of admitting it can be transformative. Describing the actor as An Acrobat of the Heart, the writer, director and acting teacher Stephen Wangh writes, ‘It takes real courage to say, “I am afraid”, so in the act of naming it you are already converting the fear into usable energy.’ Certainly sharing my ‘shameful’ secret with some of my fellow actors was an important part of dealing with the situation. That said, not all of them wanted to talk about their experiences. And it’s true that the small amount of literature that exists about stage fright tends to stem from psychologists and theatre scholars, rather than the actors themselves. There’s something of a conspiracy of silence. Which isn’t surprising. We all know that stage fright is an irrational fear. After all, the audience and the performance situation can’t (usually) harm us. So the damaging force has to be our own inner messages. In fact, all too easily stage fright can feel like some sort of mental illness, or what German scholar Adolph Kielblock (back in the 1890s) called, ‘the result of a morbid state of the imagination’. That’s almost the scariest part of the fear: we’re doing it to ourselves. And if we’re not careful, we start perpetuating our own downfall. Our morbid imagination conjures up all sorts of catastrophic conclusions that wholly outweigh any rational assessment of the situation – like ‘I’ll never work in British theatre again…!’

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‘It takes real courage to say, “I am afraid”’ – Stephen Wangh

The thing is that, whether we realise it or not, we’re going to talk about our stage fright anyway. If we’re not going to talk about it out loud to others, we’re going to find ourselves talking about it over and over and over in our heads. In fact, there aren’t many healthy options when it comes to dealing with stressful situations. Sometimes we pretend they don’t bother us. Sometimes we try to avoid them. Yet both of these strategies (according to writer Taylor Clark) ‘are destined to fail’. Clark suggests that if we try to control our emotions or we try to avoid the stressful situation, we actually keep our fears alive – because then a significant part of our thoughts is taken up with worrying about how we’re going to avoid it. It’s a downward spiral. Worrying may have the short-term pay-off of making us less afraid, but in the long term it traps us in a cycle of anxiety. This cycle of anxiety is perpetuated by the fact that the voice in our head (‘the Fear Voice,’ as sports psychologist Don Green calls it) doesn’t just talk – it literally poisons us. It leads our brain to create more stress chemicals such as cortisol. And these stress chemicals increase our physical state of alarm – and so the situation simply grows worse. Our inner Fear Voice is chemically – as well as psychologically – unhealthy. So we might as well talk about our stage fright out loud!

Yes, indeed, talking about our anxieties has been scientifically proven to help. It’s known in psychology as ‘flooding therapy’. Every time we confront, describe and relive our thoughts about a negative experience, we find that ‘the very act of disclosure lessens these thoughts’. So by putting our feelings into words, we actually change how our brain deals with the stressful information. (Not least because we’re producing less cortisol.) It’s also known as ‘mindful noting’. And the very act of translating our stressful feelings into words (or mindfully noting them) is almost more therapeutic than understanding them. As we try to put the chaos of our feelings into logical sentences, we find ourselves unpicking that chaos, like knots in a string. And then we can be more objective about what we’re feeling, whether or not we actually understand it. (‘I feel afraid – though I’ve no idea why – but at least I feel better for naming it “fear”.’)

Of course, it’s very difficult for us as actors to confess that we’re experiencing anything that might in any way impede our work as professionals. Jobs are hard enough to come by without directors or casting directors getting a whiff that we might be afraid of what we do. Yet if we don’t talk about it, our Fear Voice keeps us alone with our fear, and coping with a fear alone can be difficult and distressing. As biophysicist Stefan Klein puts it: ‘Loneliness is a burden for spirit and body. Getting support is normally one of the best ways of dealing with stress.’ So rather than churning our anxieties over in our heads, we should share our fears out loud. That way, we can change our damaging inner monologue and, thus, reduce our stress hormones. This is pretty important for us as actors, as stress hormones do two unhelpful things. They undermine our immune system (and no actor can afford to be ill) and they affect our memory (and absolutely no actor can afford to lose their memory!). As I explore in my book, Facing the Fear, loss of memory and stage fright are intricately interwoven. So talking about our fear might actually improve our memory, which in turn will reduce our stage fright. Seems like a no-brainer to me!

It’s important to remember that many actors never suffer bad stage fright. Most of us experience a lively adrenalin buzz – and that’s perfectly normal, if not actually rather helpful. The point of Facing the Fear is to dispel the unhelpful nerves. If you’ve never suffered from stage fright, reading the book is a chance for you to get to know what your fellow actors might be going through. And there’s no need to worry that by knowing all the ins and outs of stage fright, you’re somehow going to provoke it. In fact, the opposite is true. A certain performance buzz can be a benefit to any actor. Not only that, but, if you read my book, you’ll see that any unnecessary stage fright can ultimately be overcome. In fact, the monster is rather funny when you look it in the eye. It need be no more frightening than Shrek!


FormattedThe above is an edited extract from Facing the Fear: An Actor’s Guide to Overcoming Stage Fright by Bella Merlin, published by Nick Hern Books

To buy your copy for £10.39 (RRP £12.99) plus P&P, visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

Bella Merlin discusses her book in a National Theatre Platform on 7 June 2016 at 5.30pm. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the National Theatre website here.

Author photo by The Riker Brothers.