Category Archives: Theatre

In the Bowels of Earls Court

As part of my preparation for Richard III next month, I have been immersing myself in the source material. Including several viewings of the movie versions by both Lawrence Olivier and Ian McKellen. The McKellen version, set in an imaginary 1930s England of civil wars and facism (close to the England that may have transpired had Edward VIII not abdicated on his marriage to Mrs Simpson), is stunningly beautiful in its choice of eccentric locations (as well as in the costumes and props used). Every scene brings on a new and mouth-watering piece of architecture. I have just been reading more about the locations used on Ian McKellen’s website, where I saw this:

Earls Court Exhibition Center is frequently used for rock concerts and opera but no one has ever shown interest in the bowels of the building. The barren, concrete lower levels provided the behind-the-scenes area of the arena where Richard held a Nuremberg style rally. Soviet and Italian inspired murals proclaiming a new order of prosperity, productivity and full employment decorated the walls of the green room.

When I was 17, and was acting as photographer for a new Richmond College newspaper alongside reporter Andrew Gilligan, Andrew and I visited Earls Court station. He told me about the elaborate network of tunnels that existed underneath the station, and together we sneaked inside them while the railway staff weren’t looking. The tunnels really are quite incredible, an underground city. We wondered around them lost for some 30 minutes, dodging into alcoves whenever we heard footsteps approaching, before finally ducking through an unmarked door and finding ourselves in the exhibition space, right in the middle of the Earls’ Court Boat Show (making a significant saving of some £20 on entrance fees). Truly an experience to remember.

Learning Lines

We’ve just started rehearsals for the latest Next Best Thing Productions play – Shakespeare’s Richard III (I play Lord Buckingham, Dicky’s best mate. Or, in Will’s words “a sort of cross between Goebbels and Göring”). I realised during our last performance (when I only had a couple of paragraphs to learn) that I’m starting to discover some useful strategies and mnemonics for that bane of all actors, line-learning. Here are a few of my methods, in the hope that they may prove useful to someone somewhere.

To start with, don’t worry about the daunting task ahead of you. The first 2, 3, 4, 5 or even 6 times you read the script, you should do just that. Read through it, and try not to be put off by the fact that one day soon, you’ll have to know all of this by heart.

After a couple of reads, you should start to get phrases and sentences into your short-term memory. Read through a line, and then try to recite it back in your head without looking at the page. If you can’t manage a whole line, do it with a few words, then the next few words, then try to string together the whole sentence. But don’t get too caught up in any particular part: if you’ve gone over the same sentence ten times and the words are still eluding you, move on to the next sentence or take a break.

As you start to become more familiar with the text, try looking at it from different perspectives, and from both semantic and syntactic points of view. This is where the really effective, deep learning comes from. Don’t just think of it as a sentence in a play. Examine each word. Think of its meaning. Think of another word that could serve in its place, and/or of another thing which could be meant by the same (or similar sounding) word (I often find that doing this reveals to me a lot about the playwrite’s intentions, and why they chose one specific word over another). Then ignore the word’s meaning(s) and look at the structure of the sentence. One very good way of doing this is to just look at the first letter of each word. Say the letters, either (or both) by name (Ay, Bee, See) or phonetically (with “nursery style” a, b, c sounds). Try pronouncing the imaginary word formed by the first letters of each word in the sentence. This mnemonic is incredibly helpful towards the end of script-learning, when you have the bones of a sentence in your head but keep substituting incorrect words.

Basically, think of as many different approaches to the text as you can. Play games, have fun with it. Reverse the words in the sentence if you want to, or think of words which rhyme with them. Every different approach you use strengthens the memory of the lines in your head. On top of this, it’s a lot more fun than just reading and re-reading the same old words over and over and over again.

Context helps too: I tend to read my lines while walking the dog, for several reasons. Firstly, it removes most external distractions (apart from the obvious ones such as crossing the road safely and avoiding walking into trees). Secondly the time I spend walking the dog (about half-an-hour) seems, to me, to be about the right length of time to spend line-learning: much longer than this in one chunk and my mind starts to drift. And thirdly… well, it kills two birds with one stone 🙂 Oh yeah, I think something about walking at the same time as reading is also better for mental recall than just staying sedate in a chair or bed.

When I started on the Shakespear, I had expected it to be harder work than previous plays, because of the archaic language. Actually, I find the opposite is true. The frequent use of poetic devices: rhyme, alliteration and, in particular, iambic pentameter, mean that many of the mnemonics I use for line-learning are already built into the core text.

One other thing I have learnt through studying drama: a good text just keeps on revealing new things to you, no matter how familiar you become with it. When I played the title role in Molière’s The Miser (l’Avare) many of my realisations about the character and the plot came in the week running up to the performance of the play, when I already had my lines well under my belt. This is a wonderful thing to experience, but it also makes me a little sad: often when I read a novel, I find myself wanting to read it a second time as I know that many subtleties eluded me the first time around. Very rarely do I actually find time for a second reading, but my experience with plays has made me feel that sometimes, if I were able to read the book so many times that every word became imprinted on my memory, only then would I fully appreciate the author’s craft.

Lady Susan

Next Best Thing productions - Lady Susan by Jane Austen

I recently took part in another Next Best Thing production: Lady Susan by Jane Austen. This was very different from previous shows, a “rehearsed reading” rather than a full play (which meant that it took a lot less preparation); the novella consists of 41 letters between the seven main characters, and seven of us read these letters in sequence with some acting (and a limited amount of direct speech, which we had to learn). The production was part of Sheffield’s Off The Shelf literary festival, and was for one night only. I played Reginald de Courcey, the somewhat dashing younger brother of Lady Susan’s hosts, who starts off mocking Lady Susan as “a very distinguished flirt” before soon being reeled in by her flirtation and falling hopelessly for her.

It made an interesting and slightly less stressful change from previous acting roles. I only had two paragraphs to learn (makes a change from The Miser where I had about an hour’s worth of speech to memorise), and everything about the proceedings were much more laid back than usual (the fact that we were acting in a church – Saint Oswald’s on Abbeydale Road – also made a nice change from more formal theatre settings).

You can read Lady Susan in its entirety on this website.

Next up: Richard III!

I *really* am an Actor

18 months ago, I wrote an entry entitled “I Am An Actor”. That statement was meant to be slightly tongue in cheek, after all the only thing I’d done was to turn up at an audition and be offered a part in a play. I still had to learn the lines, get into my role, and actually get up there on stage to perform it. In retrospect, I performed OK in Marriage last year, but not great. A part of me would love to do the play again, because there are so many things I would change now that I’m older and wiser.

So, now I’ve done my second play, and it has been such a huge learning experience. I feel, at last, that I put everything into Harpagon which I should have put into Kochkaryov, I overcame my embarrassment and threw myself into becoming a thoroughly unpleasant stereotype. I did some bloody good acting, if I do say so myself. Actually, I don’t just say so myself – I was showered with all manner of pleasing hyperbole from everyone I spoke to who saw the play, both friends and strangers, as well as hearing many nice comments second-hand. Looking back on the performance, I can say that there is very little I would have done different, given the opportunity. I just wish that the play had gone on for more than four nights, and that we had managed to get a lot more people to see it. Audiences were far, far, too small (although everyone who came really appreciated the play, and there was plenty of laughter) mainly because of the laziness of Sheffield’s two main newspapers, The Telegraph and The Star, both of whom ignored our repeated emails with details of performance times, press releases etc, and completely neglected to include us in their listings. If they had bothered to list us then our audience numbers would probably have doubled, and we might have turned a profit on the play, rather than ending up several hundred pounds in debt. Wankers.

I’ll be putting more pictures and stuff online in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, here is a video clip of Harpagon and Frosine, the match-maker (the clip is a streaming Windows Media file, approximately 9 minutes long and 23Mb in total).

Acting the Miser

It starts tonight! The first night of The Miser! I’m not exactly nervous, all my lines are (just) installed in my head. But last night, our final rehearsal, I tipped over into the zone where I’m comfortable knowing my lines, and somehow that seemed to make the performance a little worse, as if there was no real risk to it and hence I stepped down a gear. Actually, there was (and still is) risk, as other members of the cast keep forgetting their lines or even forget to come on stage at the right time – it happened three times last night, and five times the night before, and each time I had to try and cover it up with some invention or by jumping ahead a few lines. In one case, somebody forgot to come on stage and for two minutes I improvised a slapstick chase around the sofa with one of the other characters. That taste of danger actually reinvigorated me, and I felt that the rest of the play got better from that point onwards.

One thing I am very happy about is my costume and makeup:

Frosine and Harpagon from Molière's Frosine and Harpagon from Molière's

I’ve taken to strapping my chest up with a belt – a trick I learnt from watching Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, The Wrath of God (Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes) which I watched for the third time on Sunday. I don’t quite have his crab-like walk worked out, but the belt does give me a nice little hunchback (while also constricting my lungs, which could be a bit of a problem given the amount of shouting and raving I have to do, but fortunately the drugs have killed off my asthma problem and my lungs are now back at full [very large] capacity).

Tonight I think I will go a little easier on the white pancake makeup. And I’m also going to take the cheese grater to my jacket (not shown in these shots) so that it looks just as raggedy as my trousers do already.

I can’t wait until Saturday night, when I can finally shave this bloody beard off.

Summer is Over

Summer is all but gone, and it’s been far too long since I wrote anything here. From time to time, I have had the inclination to add a quick update on my life, but each time I’ve thought of it there has been very little “quick” and far too much “update”. Quite a lot has been going on (although I’m damned if I can remember any of it, now I’ve actually sat down to write something).

For starters, this has not been a summer of holidays. In fact, we got a total of about four days away from home (if that), at our annual “family camp”. This year we visited Church Stretton, or “England’s Little Switzerland” as the website styles is. It was actually a beautiful little village, with some stunning countryside around it. I had a gorgeous 4am walk up to the top of the Long Mynd (just after dawn, a car full of ravers pulled up at a car park just in front of me, in the middle of nowhere. A woman leant out and said “nice beard mate!”) I strode across the moors trying to learn lines for our next play (more on that in a moment) and in a fit of criminal irresponsibility I decided to let Gizmo off the lead to chase some rabbits and see whether he savaged any sheep: well, over the next half hour I saw very little of him other than the occasional black speck baying from an adjacent hilltop a mile away, but he did eventually come back (without a speck of blood on him, I think he was just teasing the rabbits).

So, sadly not a holiday-packed summer like the one the year before last. The main reason for staying at home is that we’ve recently started fostering again. In fact I’m now a foster grandad! That is to say, the girl we are fostering recently gave birth. It is so wonderful having a baby around the house again, and not quite as tiring and hard work as I’d expected it to be (possibly because Gill is doing most of it). I suspect I can’t go into more detail here – in fact, my writing and certainly my photography is going to have to be a little more heavily censored than in the past because of confidentiality reasons & other such things which I’ve never bothered about before. But just to say: we are fostering, and it is great.

On the subject of the play I mentioned: Next Best Thing have their next production in rehearsal, it will be The Miser by Moliére (details here) and, guess what, I got the title role! The play will be performed 7th-10th December in Sheffield, so in between now and then I have a lot of lines to learn (a hell of a lot), plus I have to somehow work out how to walk and talk like an old man (a comedy old man at that). Work cut out for me.

We also got a new car – we needed to as the old one wasn’t big enough for our newly extended foster family. Well, I say a new “car”, new vehicle would be more appropriate. It’s an Astro dayvan which we bought off Japspeed UK, near Hull, who imported it fresh from Japan (yeah, I know it’s an Amercian van, but it came via Japan, OK?). Ten years old but very good nick, an absolute joy to drive and the whole family love it. I’m amazed that we bought it actually, I only suggested it to Gill as a joke, normally she hates anything big and American, but she thought I was being serious and instantly fell in love with it. I’m glad.

OK, that’s all the major news for the summer. I’m sure there’s a lot of minor stuff as well. Like I rediscovered my taste for programming, and have been getting my hands dirty with PHP code. And we’ve moved bedrooms (again) and given the whole house a bit of a rejig. And Lola just started “big school”. And… so many other things. One of which is that I seem to have lost the desire to catalogue large parts of my life’s doings on the web. So this will have to do for now.

Be Somebody Else, for a Change

Last night I met Matthew, a film production student at Sheffield Hallam University who is currently directing a short film, Given Identity. I offered myself as a Rockabilly extra, but it looks like Matthew might actually be writing in a small part for me, which is very cool. I’m quite excited about the film – something Matthew said made me think of City of Lost Children, I mentioned this and Matthew admitted that it was a big influence (Given Identity will have a vaguely similar 1940s sci-fi feel).

Something led me on to thinking why I want to act, or at least why I have recently got back into acting (from the ages of 11 to 18 I was in several plays, first as a member of Bernice Warrens’ Childrens’ Theatre, then with Youth Action Theatre where my contemporaries were Rufus Sewell and Martin Freeman). I remember when the idea first came to me: I went to see the Ecclesfield Priory Players in 2000 and it brought back memories of the fun of being involved in a production. It also made me long to try my hand at some more weighty roles: when I was younger I tended to get bit parts of the “second policeman of the left” variety; either that or I would be asked to play some authority figure (“Securicor”, president of the galaxy in “Dazzle Star”, the White King in “Alice”) only because I was much taller than everyone else. And all I ever did (from what I can remember) was learn the lines, go on stage and speak them: I don’t recall ever thinking about how I ought to say them, or indeed doing any sort of work on my “character”.

This led me first to thinking that I would like to see what would happen if I acted a part and did think about the character, and from there my thoughts stewed onwards. I started wondering what it meant to be an actor, and in particular what it meant to be a good actor. Although I could see various skills involved, often it seems that a good actor is just a person whose own personality and behaviour makes an audience naturally drawn towards them (for instance, About Schmidt aside, I think I’ve only ever seen Jack Nicholson play Jack Nicholson; not that I have a problem with that, he makes a very good Jack Nicholson). When Channel 4 broadcast its list of 100 Greatest Movie Stars I got even more worked up about this idea.

So, finally I got to try it when I acted in Marriage. And of course, it was everything: far more work that I was prepared for to make a really convincing character, but at the same time most of what you give out on stage is what you’re already born with. It’s made me wary but possibly even more excited about trying new stuff, aware of the many areas in which I need to improve (at the moment I think that voice training is a real priority), and wondering how much better I can inhabit another person’s being next time around.

So mainly I act to test myself, to see how far I can push myself and how well (by other peoples’ standards for the most part, because I am still not a confident enough judge of myself) I can take on a role and win over audiences. But of course there’s the other reason why I (or anyone) wants to act: sheer bloody egoism, “look at me”. I sometimes think that’s an element of any creative endeavour, it’s a desire to show the world how well you can do something, how beautiful and mind-affecting you can make it, but with acting it’s stripped down even further than with, say, painting or composing, because the canvas on which you’re showing is your own body and voice.