West End Producer: ‘Auditioning from my side of the table’

WEP_6717_mattcrockettWith his striking good looks, sharp wit and genuine love of the industry, theatrical impresario and anonymous Twitter phenomenon West End Producer has taken the theatre world by storm, amassing a devoted following. As his book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting is published, here’s an extract to whet your appetite, dears.

The casting process is a long, arduous and exhausting business, particularly for the people doing the casting! I equate it to building a rocket out of chocolate – it’s hard to do, but when completed is very tasty. Casting directors and directors feel immense pressure to make sure they find the right actors for the job, and in some cases feel just as nervous as the people they are auditioning. So how do we go about casting a show?

One of the most important things we have to remember is what show we are casting. It’s no good casting Othello if the show is actually Annie. This is a vital thing to remember, and one which I often have to remind my casting director about. I knew a director in the eighties who once assembled a fine cast of young actors, only to realise that he actually needed dancers as he was casting a ballet. What a silly prat.

So, after we’ve decided on the show, we have a few other decisions to make before the casting begins – we have to book a venue, book a lighting designer, have a set designed, assemble a front-of-house team, taste the ice-cream flavours, market the show, drink some Dom, go on a team-building weekend, read Craig Revel Horwood’s autobiography, and meditate. Basically we do everything we can to put off the chore of casting until Equity get in touch, slap our wrists and threaten to take our diaries off us unless we start. So, apprehensively, we do.

The next step is in the hands of the casting director. Casting directors are usually very nice people who like drinking far too much alcohol, and mostly during the day. The ones that don’t drink usually have other habits, which can’t be discussed here – but often end in them being discovered on a bench outside Waterloo Station at 5 a.m.

Jean Valjean teddy

WEP’s Jean Valjean teddy – “he ensures I am never ‘On My Own'”

The first thing the casting director does is to release a ‘breakdown’. This doesn’t mean he sends out photos of himself in tears, screaming in despair, and taking Prozac. It means he sends out an email of what roles are available. This is usually done through the Spotlight Link – and sent to most agents. Sometimes certain agents will be kept off the list, but only in extreme cases (if they haven’t bought me gifts for a long time).

For those that don’t know, the Spotlight Link is an online service that allows casting directors to email all agents about castings, and receive submissions in response. It is also widely used by actors who have managed to steal a casting director’s password – who use it to stalk and stare at other actors’ CVs.

Once the breakdown has been received, your agent will decide which of their clients are right for the part. This involves reading the breakdown – which can be tricky for illiterate agents (an alarmingly high number of them). Luckily these agents are very clever and have assistants or interns. These assistants only have one role: to read out loud to the agents. This avoids embarrassment, and proves invaluable experience.

When the agent has digested the information they will spend a few hours drinking tea, coffee or gin. Then suddenly they’ll get inspired and mix some vodka with Red Bull – and away they go! They look at photos of all their clients, and remind themselves whom they represent. Some people think it’s easy being an agent, but sometimes they have over twenty actors’ names to remember (and sometimes they have an Equity name and a real name, which confuses things even more). Once they’ve reminded themselves of their clients, the agents make honest, considered and well-informed decisions about which actors to put forward to the casting director.

Things they must consider are: Do they look right? Are they the right age? Can they do the accent? Can they walk in a straight line? Can they speak loudly? Can they tie their shoelaces? It is tough. And sometimes an agent gets incredibly upset and doesn’t know what to do – so decides by using the ‘Eeny meeny miny moe, pick an actor for the show’ technique.

Once this important decision is made, the casting director will receive an influx of actors suitable for the role. It is not unusual for a casting director to receive more than a thousand suggestions for one role: a huge amount. So the casting director then has to sift through all the submissions and decide which actors to invite for an audition. This is where it gets difficult. Do they bring in new actors who are unknown to them? Do they bring in actors they have employed before? Or do they bring in actors they fancy? Invariably it’ll be a mix of all three, with emphasis on the latter.

Then your agent is called and you get offered an audition. You are told an audition time, what to prepare, what role you are up for, and, if you are lucky, the venue for the audition. And then it’s all down to you.

WEP book

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting – £10.99

NHB are thrilled to publish West End Producer’s book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting (But Were Afraid To Ask, Dear). Packed with wit and marvellous indiscretion, full of gossip and insider knowledge, and with enough savvy advice to kickstart a career, it’s a practical – and sometimes deliciously impractical! – guide to everything you need to know about showbusiness.

To get your copy at a 25% discount – no voucher code required – click here. Copies of the book ordered through our website will come with a free exclusive poster, available while stocks last. 

Mike Alfreds: ‘The play is not the thing’ – actors and storytelling in theatre

Alfreds, MikeA legendary theatre director with over 200 productions to his name, over his long career Mike Alfreds has garnered a reputation as a true performance pioneer. As his new book Then What Happens? is published, the revered Shared Experience founder reflects on how stories are told on stage, and how actors, not plays, lie at the heart of theatre.

Many years ago – in fact, once upon a time – I found myself rehearsing a collection of stories from The Thousand and One Nights. Up to that time, I’d always directed plays. It was my good fortune that most of them were wonderful plays by great dramatists, plays that continue to give me intense pleasure and sense of purpose. But when I began working with these stories, it was as though what I’d always thought of as the parameters of theatrical practice were suddenly lifted; as though my theatrical wings could spread and take flight. It was a sort of creative liberation. It didn’t cancel out anything that I’d learned or done up to that moment; on the contrary, all of that became a firm foundation on which to build completely new structures. This freedom came to me because I had, unknowingly, entered the world of storytelling.

Theatre is not about plays. The art of theatre is acting. The theatre isn’t there to serve plays.  Plays are there to serve the actors. Plays need actors and without them, they’re just blueprints. Actors, however, do not need plays. They can improvise. They can mime. They can tell stories.

Mike Alfreds' first book, Different Every Night, has become an essential resource

Mike Alfreds’ first book, Different Every Night, has become an essential resource

What first drew me to theatre and has ever since engrossed and thrilled me most is the extraordinary phenomenon of the actor, not virtual but actual, present and immediate, endowed with our infinite human potential to express what it means to be alive. To that end, over the years, all my work on plays has been a search to provide actors with the maximum space for creative freedom in performance, a spontaneity that allows them to play nightly not as if for the first time, but actually for the first time; to be different every night – not for the sake of being different – but to be true to the moment, to what is happening at any instant in a performance. Different Every Night, published by Nick Hern Books in 2007, is a detailed account of my rehearsal processes aiming for just that goal when working on plays.

But as I worked with these other forms of fiction, fiction never intended for performance – novels, short stories, sagas and the like – I found this entirely new world of storytelling demanded a seemingly endless supply of fresh techniques to accommodate the variousness of the material. Plays, because of their need to be performed, all more or less comply with  a certain conformity of means: scenes of dialogue, usually chronological, in a limited number of locations with a limited number of characters and playing over an average of two or so hours. But stories have no such constraints of length, language, characters, place or time. The conventions of acting in plays is inadequate in this world. Here actors have to become first and foremost storytellers. They are the core of the theatrical experience. Within them, they contain the entire story which they relate in an infinitude of ways, each new story requiring a particular performance language of its own. So to tell stories, actors need to acquire techniques that extend and expand their skills and functions way beyond the already complex and demanding job of creating a character.

It’s interesting that current attempts to break the mould and refresh the nature of theatre rely less on human beings and more heavily on all those aspects of theatre that have always been tangential to the main event. I mean sets, lights, costumes, music, sound effects, burlesque and circus acts, installations – now of course made more available and dazzlingly expressive by unceasing digital innovation. As far as I’m concerned all these elements take theatre further and further away from its roots, in many cases, actually tearing them up and casting it in shallow soil.

Of course adaptations are nothing new.  They’ve been around for centuries. Principally they were achieved by squeezing stories into the corsets of whatever happened to be the conventional dramatic structures of the time. Novels were forced to become plays. You more or less lost the novel and ended up with something that wasn’t quite a play. Two incompatible forms cancelled each other out. What I found out was by trying to put a story on stage virtually intact, true not only to the spirit and the plot but also the word – and ignoring the conventions of a play – whole new worlds, new forms of performance began to open up. I’ve found it exhilarating struggling to find a way to make non-dramatic material dramatic, non-theatrical material theatrical. Each new story is an adventure, an expedition into the unknown, provoking unceasing invention and challenges to the imagination.

Initially, the fundamental difference between playacting and storytelling is the actor/character’s ability through narrative to step outside the story being enacted in order to talk about it. This single simple difference unleashes what seems an unstemable torrent of new conventions. And because storytelling by its nature needs an absolutely direct contact with an audience, the contact is natural, unforced and unselfconsciously interactive. Audiences, too, are given space for their own creativity. Storytelling invites them to bring their imaginations to bear on a story.

My new book, Then What Happens?, describes the discoveries I made in learning to adapt and tell stories. More than half of it is devoted to workshops full of exercises and improvisations to develop techniques for storytelling, mainly in an empty space with nothing apart from the considerable skills and imaginations of the actors. It also describes processes of adapting material in a way that remains as true as is possible to the material in its original form. I heartily recommend the world of storytelling to you.

Layout 1

Then What Happens?, £10.99

Nick Hern Books are thrilled to publish Mike Alfreds’ Then What Happens? – Storytelling and Adapting for the Theatre, his impassioned, engaging case for putting story and storytelling back at the heart of theatre.

To order your copy at a 25% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Paul Clayton: Ghostbusters, bananas and paying the bills – welcome to the world of corporate acting

Paul Clayton photoIn addition to his appearances on stage, film and in popular TV shows such as Peep Show, Coronation Street and Him & Her, Paul Clayton is also a veteran of the corporate acting circuit, with over 1400 credits to his name. As his new book So You Want To Be A Corporate Actor?
is published, Paul explains what corporate acting actually is, the opportunities it offers and why it can be so useful for any actor looking to make ends meet.

To me acting has always been about surviving. Not winning the hundred metres sprint, but finishing the marathon. So that one can say, as in the words of the Sondheim anthem, ‘I’m still here’.

On my very first morning as a professional actor, in the readthrough of a Shakespeare production, a glamorous leading and much older actress came up to me during the tea break in the kitchen of the church hall where we were rehearsing. ‘You were lovely. Lovely, lovely reading. Do you know…’ she continued, ‘when you’re 40, you’ll never stop!’

‘Thank you,’ I muttered in bewildered gratitude. As I was 21 at the time, I was just slightly worried about what I was going to do in the intervening 19 years.

But the thing is – she was absolutely right. When I was 40, I grew into my age and began to establish some serious credits on television. Of course I did work in my 20s – lots of repertory theatre, stints at the RSC – but had no real sense of continuity. So much so that in my 30s I moved into what had always been my second love, which was directing. The jobs were great, but they weren’t too close together and there was plenty of time between them when I needed to do things to pay for the extensive range of baked potatoes that I was putting on the table. That’s how I became involved in what is known as ‘The Corporate Market’.

As you may have heard, this is where actors go and do very little work, for an enormous fee, while staying in a luxurious six-star hotel, having flown to an exotic location in business class at the very least, and pretend that the whole job is really rather beneath them.

Or not.

There are still some corporate jobs that are like that – very few, but some. There are still some actors who think that corporates are beneath them – very few, but some. These days corporates pay more reasonable money, well on a par with an episode of a major television series, but not the sort of lottery bonanza that perhaps they were in the mid to late 1990s. They are an increasingly valid part of the employment market for all actors. These days, even agents have been known to return calls about corporate jobs!

So what is a corporate acting job and why would you want to do one as an actor? Surely what your drama school trained you for was to play Gorky at the National, or to don hessian and leather for 26 episodes of a historical swashbuckler on Sky. You may be lucky enough to have done one or both of those jobs, but probably between them, there was a gap. You can choose to serve behind the bar, or swipe barcodes in a supermarket, but many actors would prefer to keep their skills honed, and there are many jobs in the corporate market that allow you to do this.

Corporate role play

Role plays, training, live events – corporate acting work comes in many forms

Few and far between are the major corporations and public bodies that have not used role-play in their training. These days, there are large numbers of actors doing it, and many companies providing it, so the competition is fierce, and the role-play companies have their pick of actors wanting to do it.  Yes, role-play does involve all the skills you probably have as an actor, but it needs you to harness them in a particular way to be at your most effective.

When I sat down to write So You Want To Be A Corporate Actor?, my aim was to provide a practical and workmanlike guide to what is available for actors in the corporate market, and how they might best go about presenting themselves to get this sort of work and thrive in what is an increasingly competitive field.

For young actors leaving drama school these days, the opportunities for work in the long term are fewer and farther between. Reps produce fewer plays, and generally ones with smaller casts. In the early 1990s I directed several shows at a major London drama school, working with some very talented young performers. Out of the 40 or 50 or so young actors I worked with, I think five, or maybe even fewer, are still in the business. Falling in love, mortgages, changes in situation – all these pressurise actors without work into finding something that provides a regular income. In turn, of course, this means that the British talent pool is being depleted of that fabulous range of middle-aged actors who provide solid first-class support in television series, films, and theatrical productions around the world.

So it’s essential that actors diversify, and use their skills to gain themselves as much work as possible. It’s not possible for drama schools to teach young actors absolutely everything, but on the whole there is a great deal of ignorance about the corporate market from people entering the world of work. Many young actors leaving drama school, like myself, may not come into their own until their 30s or 40s, and yet in the meantime the bills still have to be paid. How much better for their development as an actor and an artist if they can use the skills they have learnt to provide that income.

The corporate market, imaginative and unpredictable as it can be, can provide that opportunity. Over the years I’ve come up through the floor of the Royal Albert Hall dressed as a Ghostbuster carrying a water pistol. I’ve stopped a train at a mountain-top station in the Swiss Alps to murder an actor in a disastrous knife-throwing act. I’ve watched speech-to-text computer programs produce a screen full of obscenities during a live demonstration and reduce an experienced television presenter to hysterics. I have worked opposite Chief Executives, nurses, doctors, lawyers, customer-help-desk personnel, and firemen (hmm…don’t know why I remember that last one!). Each job gave me an insight into another world – exceptionally valuable for an actor.

What I wanted to do with this book was to open up a world of opportunities to actors who may be struggling to find the sort of regular work that they need. Who should they write to? Who offers the work, what does it involve, and how do those companies choose actors? And, of course, what do they pay? Above all, it should help actors find opportunities that can be fun, challenging, regular, and paid!

I can’t promise you won’t end up dressed as a banana – you can always turn the job down if fruit isn’t in your repertoire – but I think I can assure you that you’ll find something in the corporate market that will excite you and that fits your skill set.

To find out how, why not read the book?

So You Want To Be A Corporate Actor?

So You Want To Be A Corporate Actor?, £10.99

Nick Hern Books are delighted to publish So You Want To Be A Corporate Actor?, Paul Clayton’s witty, insightful and invaluable guide to the increasingly accessible and lucrative business of corporate acting.

To order your copy at a 25% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Giles Block: ‘I see a voice’ – the clues in Shakespeare’s words

Giles BlockIn his role as ‘Master of the Words’ at Shakespeare’s Globe, it is Giles Block’s job to help both actors and audiences fully understand and enjoy Shakespeare’s words. As his new book Speaking the Speech is published, Giles reflects on how he came to work with the language, and how ‘trusting the detail’ can enable greater insight.

Today, before I sat down to write this, I was working at the Globe Theatre with actors from the cast of our upcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So lines from that play are very much in my mind. At one point Bottom, cast as Pyramus in the play within the play, hearing his love Thisbe talking on the other side of the wall, says:

                                      I see a voice; now will I to the chink,
                                      To spy and I can hear my Thisbe’s face.

These lines, on the face of it, are ridiculous: has Bottom just got his words muddled up?

How can you see a voice?

But then, thinking about Bottom’s ‘I see a voice’ I said to myself, that’s exactly what we should all be able to do when we are looking at Shakespeare’s texts on the page.

In Speaking the Speech, one of my aims is to show how by learning to follow the way Shakespeare’s texts are composed – whether the lines are written in verse, or prose; whether the verse is rhymed or unrhymed; whether the phrases of which his verse speeches are composed, are contained within the run of his lines, or tumble over from one line into the next – it is possible to begin to ‘hear’ the voices of the characters, coming off the page towards you, as you scan Shakespeare’s lines with your eyes.  That is, if you know what clues to be looking out for.

I believe that it is by observing the ‘form’ that Shakespeare’s writings are cast in, that you will discover creative freedom.

I’ve been at the Globe since 1999. My role there is to try and make the text sound clear, and expressive, and be delivered as spontaneously as possible.  My ultimate aim is that audiences should come out at the end of the performances and say – ‘It was so clear, I understood every moment… but you’ve modernised it, haven’t you?’ – and I shall be able to reply, ‘No, that’s just as Shakespeare wrote it.’

I never thought that I would ever write a book. From my school days onwards I knew, vaguely, that Shakespeare was important to me. It was fun to be appearing in his plays, both while I was at school and at university; and the fun continued once I became a professional actor. Ten years later, it became an even more engaging experience, once I had become a director, and began directing some of his plays as well. Much, much later, when I heard that Sam Wanamaker was planning to build a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, I thought, ‘how much I‘d like to be a part of that’…

Mark Rylance

‘Giles deepened my love for Shakespeare and for the way we all speak. I trust you will have a similar experience reading his book.’
– Mark Rylance, from his Foreword

Each year I work at the Globe with probably about an hundred actors – including, for my first seven years there, Mark Rylance, who kindly wrote the Foreword to this book. But I also work with probably a couple of hundred students each year, and I know there are so many more actors and students I’d like to reach out to. I realise now that this book, which I never thought I’d write, may well enable me to do that.

Who is this book for?

While clearly I’d like young and aspiring actors to be drawn to it, it’s written with actors of all ages in mind: all those who are still curious and young in spirit (as actors as a group tend to be). But as Shakespeare touches so many more than those who are simply part of the theatrical community, it’s also for those interested in reading more about Shakespeare, the development of his writing, and his working methods.

Everything I say in the book is about ‘getting back to Shakespeare’ – trusting him, seeing exactly what he writes, and how he writes it. The greatness of his plays lies in the detail, and in the detail lies the richness and the contradictions of the array of characters he has created for us to play, and to be entertained by.

Bottom’s ‘I see a voice’ isn’t simply an anomalous one-off. It reminds me of other lines Shakespeare wrote including these closing lines from his 23rd sonnet:

                                      O learn to read what silent love hath writ:
                                      To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

Speaking the Speech

Speaking the Speech, £14.99

‘Seeing’ voices, or ‘hearing’ with your eyes, may be an important step in speaking the speech with conviction.

Nick Hern Books is thrilled to publish Speaking the Speech: An Actor’s Guide to Shakespeare. To order your copy at a special 25% discount, click here – no voucher code required.


Paul Harvard: Do You See the Singers Act? – Acting Through Song in Les Misérables

Paul Harvard photoWith Les Misérables enjoying award nominations and critical acclaim in addition to its box office success, most critics are praising the emotion on display in the film. In this piece, Paul Harvard, musical director, composer and author of new book Acting Through Song, asks why that isn’t always the case.

The barricade has been erected, the battle-lines drawn. It seems the recent film adaptation of Les Misérables – after its popular victory at the box-office in its opening weeks – has left a whiff of gunpowder in the air. As filmgoers have braved the cold weather to keep the popcorn flowing, an intriguing fight has taken shape, not involving the students of revolutionary France, but between the critics of the UK’s national press.

Reviewers have not always been kind to Les Misérables. Famously, they nearly disembowelled the show when the stage version first opened at London’s Barbican Centre in 1985. It was only because producer Cameron Mackintosh screwed his courage to the sticking-place, and trusted the voice of popular opinion, that the production transferred to the West End, allowing it to survive and grow into the global juggernaught it is today.

In contrast to its theatrical premiere, Tom Hooper’s admirable film version has largely received the praise it deserves. Some commentators have picked on the close proximity of the camera, or the odd performance, but a majority of the reviews have fallen between the grudgingly positive and the downright ecstatic. However, one forthright piece – by the Evening Standard’s David Sexton – stood out for adopting a harshly different tone.

Mr Sexton is plainly not a fan of the film. But in his article he not only takes issue with Les Misérables, but with the entire musical-theatre genre. He declares himself to be one of those people who ‘can’t bear musicals at all’, a genre he describes as ‘embarrassing and stupid’. The crux of his argument is that we don’t have sung conversations in real life, so to do so on the stage, or on film, is silly. He argues that, because he values music and drama so highly, to combine the two in a musical devalues both as a means of expression.

It is unsurprising that Cameron Mackintosh decided to refute Sexton’s opinions last week in his sharp, sarcastic and witty manner. What is perhaps more intriguing is that Lyn Gardner of The Guardian also felt compelled to write an article rebutting Sexton whilst defending the musical as an art form. So who is right? Is the musical simply an awkward hybrid that should never be viewed as high art? Or does it have more merit than it is sometimes awarded?

In my book Acting Through Song I argue strongly for the latter. I contend that rather than undermining the genre, the unique combination of music and drama in musical theatre is the reason why it can be so compelling. Music is a powerful form of expression. The most universal of mediums, it transcends cultural and social barriers, reaching out to everyone. It has the ability to move the audience very directly, bypassing their intellectual responses and appealing to the emotions. And this is what makes musical theatre so special: by placing music at the heart of the storytelling, it provides the opportunity to combine the power of drama and music to create a potent means of expression.

Hathaway as Fantine (photo)

‘truthful, raw and committed’ – Anne Hathaway as Fantine

But if this is the case, why do people like Sexton frequently dismiss musical theatre? I believe it is because for the material truly to come to life, for the combination of music and drama to seem organic rather than contrived, then the standard of acting must be exceptional.

Take ‘I Dreamed a Dream’. For students of music and drama, it may seem at first glance that the component parts of this song are unremarkable: a serviceable, if uninspiring lyric, set to a catchy tune with a generic pop-ballad accompaniment. You might not expect this material to resonate greatly. Yet in the film the sequence is cinematic dynamite; in the screening I attended it wrung the packed house emotionally dry. So what was the magic component that made this song so arresting? It was the performance of Anne Hathaway as Fantine. Because her delivery was so truthful, raw and committed, the music became heartbreaking and the lyrics poignant.

Compare this with Russell Crowe’s work as Javert. His performance has come in for much criticism in the past few weeks, mostly concerning the quality of his singing. But whilst he doesn’t have an outstanding voice, I don’t consider his singing to be the main problem. His vocal delivery is competent; the real issue is his inability to act successfully through song.

Crowe is a very fine actor whom I rate highly. Yet when he sings that ability seems to ebb away. Watching his performance in Les Misérables it is like he has a miniature critic sat on his shoulder, whispering to him whilst he is singing: ‘What are you doing? You sound awful! You look really stupid!’ And consequently he appears stupefied during his songs. Despite having arguably better material to sing than Hathaway, his performance has none of her impact.

Russell Crowe as Javert (picture)

‘he appears stupefied during his songs’ – Russell Crowe as Javert

I believe that many students of musical theatre, and indeed some professionals, suffer from these attacks of self-consciousness when they sing. Their heads become so full of their own self-criticisms that they no longer trust their instincts and follow their impulses – which is the worst mistake any actor can make. This problem manifests itself in different ways. Some inexperienced actors become leaden and unable to make any spontaneous choices; those with more experience often fall back on a set of ‘performance tricks’ that suggest a pretence of good acting but is really just a fake and contrived substitute for the real thing. Some commercial theatre is riddled with this kind of performance.

To free themselves from their self-consciousness, and learn to act truthfully and spontaneously, the musical-theatre performer needs to learn to focus outside of themselves whilst they are singing, so they can respond organically to the other actors, or their imaginary circumstances. In short: they must learn to master the skills of the classical actor.

But why isn’t this automatically the case? Why are these skills not always in evidence? I believe that acting does not always receive a high enough priority in the education of our musical-theatre performers. No matter how much weight is given to it in prospectuses of drama schools, it sometimes ends up being the poor cousin in the reality of the training. I think this is an error. Acting must be explored in all its nuance and detail – as it is the thread that weaves the art form together. Only when a singer acts through their songs does the work truly come alive. The most respected colleges do strive to make acting central to their work, but I believe that there still needs to be a shift in the focus of our musical-theatre colleges – so that acting is always placed right in the foreground.

Acting Through Song (jacket)

Acting Through Song, £12.99

That is why I believe Hathaway’s performance is so important. As odd as it may sound, when I think of her Fantine, sobbing in the docks of Paris, I can’t stop smiling, because the power of emotion she conveys in that potentially forgettable song demonstrates to the next generation of musical-theatre actors the standards of acting that they can, and should aspire to.

NHB are delighted to publish Paul Harvard’s new book Acting Through Song. To order your copy at a special 25% anniversary discount – no voucher code required – just click here.

Thomasina Unsworth: ‘peeling off the labels’ – why I wrote Becoming an Actor

Photo of Thomasina Unsworth Thomasina Unsworth teaches at Rose Bruford College, one of the UK’s leading drama schools. In this blog piece, she explains her frustrations at the labelling of students, and how that inspired her to write her enlightening new book.

My youngest daughter came home from school the other day in a miserable state. During swimming lessons her class had been divided into three groups: Jellyfish, Dolphins and Sharks. The Jellyfish, a shivering clutch of four sub-standard swimmers, were left in the shallow end to learn the basics, while the other children bobbed and ducked in the deeper water, superior species. Afterwards all the talk was of Jellyfish, Dolphins and Sharks. My daughter, hair still dripping from the pool, dripped too with shame.

Why do we have to label our children? What good does it do to attach titles to things? The jellyfish tank is my absolute favourite exhibit in the London Aquarium. The water glows pink and blue and one can be mesmerised by the slow clenching and unclenching of frondy tentacles. However, to a child who is battling for self-esteem and a place in the group, being labelled as a jellyfish may not seem so appealing.

Labels stick. Labels define. I spend my days teaching people who come wearing their labels to classes. ‘I’m slow’; ‘I don’t feel things intensely’; ‘I’m an extrovert’; ‘I’m a clown’; ‘I’m a bit mad’; ‘I’m a good girl’; ‘I’m a troublemaker’. The list is endless, but in that roll call of behavioural attributes my students lay out their perceived inadequacies and in doing so they shore up their limitations. How can they be open to an exercise when they know that they ‘over-think things’? How can they relate to that character when they know that they ‘would never behave that way themselves’? Get rid of the label and you liberate the student.

I am fed up of an education system that increasingly marginalises the arts. The arts feed imagination. They allow one to go beyond oneself, and do not concern themselves with the reductive policy of nailing things down in order to be neatly labelled. I am fed up of league tables and target ladders and numbers that tell someone how they are doing rather than words. I am fed up that in actor training we are now expected to grade our students, to attach a number to a name so that that person leaves thinking that they are worth 52% as an actor. What good does this do? It is a nonsense, a damaging nonsense.

An actor is not just a jellyfish.

I see the damage more and more in those I teach. They are fearful of getting things wrong. They care more for a number than a comment. They arrive ossified by their past experiences of school. Over the years I have noticed that the actors I train are, by and large, becoming increasingly result-orientated. Doing it ‘right’ is valued more highly than the simple experience of engaging in the ideas and exploring the possibilities. They have become attached to their labels, they are confused by open-ended questions, they want to know exactly what they should do to be good next time, as if actor training can be reduced to a set of equations: N+1=great acting.

Training to be an actor can be a bewildering time, even without this set of obstacles. When I went to college I felt unprepared, and I wished that I had been better informed. I arrived with lots of preconceptions about what the experience would be and was confused initially by how different the reality of the training was in comparison to my fantasy version of it. Had I been better informed I think I might have got a lot more out of my training. With this in mind, I set out to write a book that would help any aspiring actors to negotiate the obstacles – both those that face you at drama school, and those you will encounter in your first year as a professional actor.

The resulting book, Becoming an Actor, is intended as a handbook to accompany your training. It also contains a lot of exercises that will be useful not only for acting students, but also for teachers. I wanted to offer both actors and teachers a simple set of exercises together with the thinking behind them, uncomplicated by jargon or constrained by dogma. Training to become an actor is a valuable, important process, worth engaging with for its own sake. I hope the book will encourage actors to value their life experiences, and to hold on to what interests and fuels them, throughout those potentially dark days of unemployment.

The exercises in Becoming An Actor are varied. I do not believe that there is only one way of doing things, and hopefully actors and teachers will be able to be selective as they go through them. There is a great deal of emphasis put on working to release the actor from self-consciousness. Practitioners such as Meisner, Bella Merlin and of course Stanislavsky crop up regularly. However, Becoming An Actor also looks at ways of exploring extensions of, and departures from naturalism. The second half of the book concerns itself with auditioning and professional preparation and life beyond drama school. I hope that all this will provide the reader with a straightforward guide that asks them to engage in ideas before looking for results. I hope that it is both practical and thought provoking.

Becoming an Actor, £10.99

Becoming an Actor, £10.99

Above all, I hope that this book goes some way towards freeing those actors from the labels that have been attached to them, so that they can be as fluid and flexible in their responses as the movement of those frondy tentacles attached to the body of that jellyfish.

NHB are thrilled to publish Thomasina Unsworth’s Becoming an Actor. To order your copy with 20% off click here – no voucher code required.

For more information on Rose Bruford College, click here.

The ‘X Factor’ Actor

The Acting Book

John Abbott has enjoyed a varied career in theatre – as an actor, director, educator (namely, Head of Acting at ArtsEd) and author. He has written three books for NHB on theatre, and his latest – The Acting Book – is published this month. John identifies charisma as one of the most important attributes for the modern actor – but what exactly is ‘charisma’? Here, he demystifies the notion…

Lately I’ve found myself shouting at the television more and more often: ‘“ConTROversy” not “ContraVERsy”!’ I yell. Or: “A road map is something that shows you all the roads in an area, you idiot. It gives you thousands of different ways of getting from A to B. What you mean is a route! Something that tells you the best way to get where you want to go!”

But the thing that drives me round the bend is Louis Walsh bouncing up and down behind his desk when he rejects the public’s favourite X Factor contestant and defends his decision by shouting, “But it’s a singing contest, Simon!”

No, Louis. It’s not. The clue is in the title of the show. The contest is to find a performer with the X Factor. That indefinable something that touches an audience’s imagination. Bob Dylan would never have won a singing contest based on the quality of his voice. Neither would Frank Sinatra. Nor Kylie Minogue.

In fact, almost no one on The X Factor has the X Factor. Yes, they can be trained to sing like Rihanna or Adele or Jessie J, but there is always something missing. Very few contestants on reality TV shows have sustainable careers because that special something – that X Factor – is hard to find. It’s elusive. Let’s call it what it is: Charisma.

They say that trying to explain Buddhism is like trying to explain Beauty. Or Love. Or Happiness. Once you begin to analyse it, you’ve already missed the point. You know it when you experience it, but try to explain that experience to someone else and it just comes out wrong. Charisma is like that.

We’ve all seen charismatic actors. We go to see a play or a film just because they are in it. No other reason. We want to see them. You know who the charismatic actors are. And although there are a lot of brilliant actors in the profession and we can teach committed students how to act like them, can we teach the students how to become charismatic actors?

*

Ten years ago, Jane Harrison (now the Principal of ArtsEd) and I set about writing a document that would establish the academic credentials of the acting course we were teaching at ArtsEd. Lots of drama schools do it. They get their course validated by a university so their students can get a bachelor’s degree. We were lucky enough to get involved with City University, and I knew we were talking to like-minded people when the Dean of Validation, Steve Stanton, questioned one of the sentences in our proposed document: “You have used the word ‘heart’ when assessing a student’s creative commitment, but surely a heart is just a machine that pumps blood round the body. Wouldn’t it be better to use the word ‘soul’?” (Yes indeedy! Thanks, Steve.) ArtsEd logo

When you write a course document that needs to be validated by an academic institution, you have to come up with assessment criteria in order to give each of the students a mark for their performances. Some aspects of a performance are easy to assess: Have they learnt the lines? Is their character believable? Could you hear them? Did they look confident? And so on. But time and again you come up with the same problem because there are some actors you just want to watch. They draw you in to their performance. They could stumble over their lines and their characterisation could be flimsy, but when they are on stage they… what is it? They nourish you. They excite you. They make your heart flutter. They take you out of yourself. They thrill you. They have charisma.

So we wanted to add ‘charisma’ into the list of assessment criteria for performances and in order to do that we had to define it to some degree. Here’s what we came up with:

‘Charisma –

The students are assessed on their ability to:

  • Use their own personal qualities as a performer to convey plot, character and mood.
  • Display an understanding that personal focus and concentration is engaging for an audience.
  • Demonstrate a positive use of their unique qualities as a performer.’

One of the jokes we often tell ourselves is that if we could teach students to be confident and sexy we wouldn’t have to teach them anything else because that’s what people want to see in an actor. But actually ‘sexy’ isn’t quite the right word, because the quality we are referring to is something that appeals to both sexes. Perhaps ‘appealing’ is a better word. Or ‘charming’. Or ‘engaging’. (I’m using the thesaurus now, but you can see where I’m coming from).

Whichever adjective you choose, there is no doubt that confidence is the driving force behind them all. An agent once said that ArtsEd students were ‘confident without being arrogant’ and that was the biggest compliment we could have got, because confidence without arrogance is sexy, appealing, charming, engaging and, of course – charismatic. I do think it’s possible to teach ‘confidence without arrogance’ (and I’ve touched on an approach to that in The Acting Book when I refer to the ‘Confidence Trick’).John Abbott at ArtsEd

We don’t teach our students to act in any particular style or expect them to become disciples of any special methodology. All we do is introduce them to a collection of styles and methodologies and let them choose what suits them best. It’s what I do in The Acting Book as well, which outlines the course at ArtsEd and the different techniques and approaches that all actors, at every level, should be familiar with. It’s knowledge of these techniques that gives the students confidence. Our aim is to empower them, not enslave them. If drama teachers can help acting students to value their own unique qualities and then show them how to realise their personal artistic vision, then we will be on our way to training students to become truly charismatic actors.

The Acting Book is published by Nick Hern Books. For a limited period only copies can be purchased with a 20% discount (RRP £10.99). Plus, our blog readers can claim free UK p&p (international rates apply) by using the voucher code ‘ActingBookPP’ at checkout. Click here to purchase your copy. 

Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with John Gielgud

John Gielgud

John Gielgud, 1904—2000

Part Two of our week-long Talking Theatre Special is an extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with the late John Gielgud.

Actor and director John Gielgud performed all the major Shakespeare roles, and was instrumental in introducing Chekhov to English audiences. In later life he acted in plays by Alan Bennett, Charles Wood, David Storey and Harold Pinter. I interviewed him on the stage of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, well before the start of filming the rest of the interviews—‘in case I drop off the twig,’ as he put it. He seemed then—the summer of 1998—to be eternal. He warned me that he was ‘just an actor’ who’d never had an idea in his head, which was typically self-deprecating. No one could have mistaken Gielgud for an intellectual, but although his conversation was showered with actorly anecdotes, it was impossible to discount his mercurial intelligence and his extraordinary recall of theatre history, even if life outside the theatre had passed him by.

What was the theatre like that you encountered as a child?

Well, it was very much a theatre of stars. Actor-managers were beginning to die out, but I looked for the big names on the marquee, so I got to know the theatre very well because I stood in the pit and gallery and went whenever I could; my parents were very long suffering. They both went to the theatre quite a lot, but they were never in the theatre, although my mother had strong links with all her Terry relations [Gielgud’s great aunt, Dame Ellen Terry, was the leading Shakespearean actress of her times]. I was fearfully lucky because from the very beginning I got my first jobs through personal introductions and so I never had to sort of stand in the queue to get work. I was earning seven or eight pounds a week from quite early times, and I got scholarships at two dramatic schools, so I didn’t have to pay fees, I didn’t cost my parents anything, and I lived at home. I really had a very easy time those first ten or twelve years, and I learned a bit of hard work.

What did you think of what you saw in the theatre in those days?

I didn’t think then what acting really was like. I loved spectacle and I was immediately taken in by colour and groupings, and the childhood drama of the curtain going up and the lights going down, which would vanish from the scene in years to come. I think that it was spectacle and romance and love scenes and people waving capes and looking out over balconies and things that appealed to me so much.

What was the social mix in the audience?

It was very much divided.

Upper-middle-class?

Very much. I mean, the stalls and dress circle were the middle-class and aristocratic public, and then there was the upper circle and the pit and gallery, which were the cheap parts, which hissed and booed or applauded on the first night and were very important for the commercial success. And there were enormous commercial successes: plays that ran a year. And things like Chu Chin Chow that ran three and four years.

Did you see Chu Chin Chow?

Yes, I never stopped seeing it.

The theatre at that time wasn’t was all light comedy, was it? It was also the age of Ibsen and Shaw.

Yes. I was in great difficulty because all my life I’ve been so stupid and flippant. I never cared to think of what was going on in the world or in the two wars, which I in a way lived through. But I had such a childlike adoration of the theatre and of actors and actresses and the ones I met in my parents’ house. My own relations were all very exciting to me and they lived this make-believe world. But when it came to Ibsen and Shaw I rather jibbed; I hadn’t got the appetite for dialogue and I found them very talky. I never got over that. I never have got over it. I’ve never really liked plays that are entirely talk.

You and Olivier must have been fiercely competitive at the time when you first worked together.

I was by then just becoming a leading man; my name was bigger than his, and without knowing it—we were very friendly, always, we got on extremely well—I had a feeling that he rather thought I was showing off, which indeed I was.

Well, he probably was as well.

Yes, but his showing-off was always so dazzling. [chuckles] My showing off was more technical and was more soft and, oh… effeminate, I suppose.

I’m surprised you say that because I would have characterised it the other way round, that his showing-off always seemed to me to be ahead of his interest in playing the truth of a character.

Well, I think his great performances were mostly comedy. I was never so impressed by his Oedipus or the Othello, which were two of his greatest successes. But I was enormously impressed by The Dance of Death and by Hotspur and Shallow and Puff [in Sheridan’s The Critic], and Richard III of course. And I loved working with him, the little that I did. But I always thought he went behind my back and directed the actors his way. When he played Malvolio for me at Stratford with Vivien Leigh as Viola, I was certain that he’d gone away and told her how he thought it ought to be played and that she was torn between the two characters trying to work with her.

Did you feel hurt when the National Theatre started and Olivier didn’t bring you into the company initially—and then only asked you to do Oedipus with Peter Brook?

Yes, I was a bit hurt, but I always had so many other sorts of offers. I’m not, funnily enough, very jealous, I never have been. I had great ambitions but I was never jealous. And I was always surprised to find that some actors were very jealous.

When the new National Theatre started, Peter Hall took you into the company.

Yes, but he gave me a very flat year—Julius Caesar and that old part in Volpone—so I really had no fun at all. I hated the National Theatre building: I hated that feeling of being in a sort of airport. And the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s like a nursing home. [laughs]

It’s hard for us to believe that there was ever a time when Shakespeare wasn’t very popular, in the same way it’s hard to imagine there was a time when Mozart wasn’t very popular.

It wasn’t till John Barrymore came from America and did Hamlet with a complete English cast—except for two characters, I think—that suddenly it was box-office.

You did the film of  Julius Caesar directed by Joe Mankiewicz, which I admire enormously. Do you regard that as a successful translation of Shakespeare to the screen?

I think it’s one of the best. I saw it again after many years. It isn’t bad at all, except for the last part of the battle, which was done for tuppence in the last two to three days. But the main part of the film I enjoyed very much, and they were all very sweet to me. I got on excellently with Brando and with Mankiewicz, and the girls were very charming, and it was very exciting to be in Hollywood and see all the stars and I made quite a lot of money, and it was a new experience altogether.

Did you help Brando with his performance?

One day I did. He only had one scene in which I appeared with him. We worked on that one day, and he said: ‘What did you think of my performance?’ And I said: ‘I don’t want to discuss it.’ And he said: ‘Oh.’ ‘Let me think about it,’ I said. The next week I wasn’t working, and they came to me and said Brando had just done the speech over Caesar’s body and ‘It’s so wonderful you must come and see the rushes.’ So I went and saw them, and I didn’t like what I saw at all, but I naturally didn’t say so. But he then said, would I help him with the speeches in the scene we had together. And so I did. I didn’t know he was really listening, but the next morning he’d put in all the things that I’d suggested to him immediately. He was bright as a button. But I would have loved to have worked with him over some of the rest of it. They were all so pleased with him, but naturally I didn’t interfere. I didn’t want them to think I was teaching them how to speak Shakespeare.

What’s always struck me about the way you speak Shakespeare is that you always let the meaning lead.

You’ve got to be awfully sure of your material. I’ve found a great deal of Shakespeare very hard to follow and very difficult to act. But if a part appealed to me pictorially then I immediately grabbed it and that was all. I’ve never lost my very childish attitude towards the theatre, which is so-called make-believe romance, or pretending to be somebody else and having people round me who were also in the same kind of dream world.

This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with John Gielgud. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Don’t forget to visit the NHB blog EVERY DAY this week for more exclusive extracts from Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People! Don’t miss tomorrow’s post featuring experimental theatre impresario Peter Brook – on why theatre is so important to the English.

Spotlight: A SCREEN ACTING WORKSHOP

NHB has just published A Screen Acting Workshop, an invaluable new resource book by internationally renowned acting coach Mel Churcher, with a Foreword by Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons.

Mel has worked with actors of all backgrounds and experience – from drama school students at the start of their careers to Hollywood stars including Daniel Craig, Angelina Jolie and Keira Knightley. Featuring a series of five practical workshops covering every aspect of acting on screen, the book is accompanied by a unique 90-minute DVD showing all the work in action.

On today’s blog you can watch clips from the DVD, see photos from the official launch at London’s Actors Centre, and read an extract from Jeremy Irons’s Foreword.

Film acting has traditionally, in the UK at least, been rather looked down on as being something that the Americans do and which really doesn’t need the technique of a theatre actor. In England, we’re mainly theatre actors, and film actors have been historically regarded as overpaid and under-talented.

But in reality, film acting can give you a real insight into acting in the theatre because you can’t lie on film whereas you can get away with lying in theatre. In other words, the camera will see you if you are pretending. You have to be. Now, I believe you have to be in the theatre also. You have to have a technique to enlarge that state of ‘being’ so that an audience, whether it’s two hundred or two thousand, can understand what you’re saying and what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling. And you have to be able to transmit that. But in order to do that honestly, you have to be able to be in that moment – with no pretence. And if you come to film and think that you can ‘pretend’ in front of the camera (which you can get away with on stage, and which you see a lot of actors doing) – it doesn’t work.

In life, we recognise the difference between someone pretending to be angry and someone being angry. We can tell whether they really find something funny or if they’re pretending to find something funny. So, if we ‘pretend’ on stage, a perceptive audience sometimes can tell. Well – they can always tell on camera.

So I think film is a real testing ground for actors. You have to find ways to get, very quickly, into your role – to learn the techniques that you need when you’re going to shoot, probably, in short little bites. You have to understand what the scene’s about and what the arc of the scene is, as you would in theatre, but then you have to be able to get immediately into the right bit of that arc for the particular shot that’s being done. These days, people tend to shoot longer takes, shoot wide and use multiple cameras, so things are easier than they were. But you’ve still got to have tricks to make sure that – very fast – you’re ready. You don’t want directors to have to do more than two or three takes. The old days of fourteen or fifteen takes are over.” From Jeremy Irons’s Foreword to A Screen Acting Workshop

Vodpod videos no longer available.

[Photographs by Rob Baker Ashton]

A Screen Acting Workshop is now available for purchase. Click here to order your copy through NHB’s website for £13.99 incl. UK P&P (RRP £14.99, standard international postal rates apply) by quoting ‘BLOG OFFER’ in the Comments field.