8 November 2013

This blog's been rather neglected in the past few weeks due to house selling and purchasing but I couldn't resist reproducing an article in the Telegraph yesterday by Simon Williams.  Advice for all budding thespians:

It's not only Poirot who uses a little trickery

All actors need help from props - some rather surprising - to slip into character.

In drama schools up and down the country, student actors are learning about motivation and characterisation.  They spend long hours 'being' a tree or a lemur.  They research and write back-stories for their roles.

But out in the jungle we call show business (actually nobody calls it show business) all we really need is a few tricks - like the one David Suchet deployed, when he mastered Hercule Poirot's distinctive walk by clenching a penny between his buttocks (a technique gleaned from Laurence Olivier).

the luscious Gregory Peck
Watch Gregory Peck as he enters a scene.  He looks down then he looks up as if deep in thought - he is in fact checking his marks on the floor and his key lights above the camera.  Spencer Tracy's advice was never to let the camera catch you not thinking (no matter what).  Doing nothing is one of the subtlest skills in the actor's tool kit, or, as an exasperated director shouted at a movie rookie: 'Don't just do something - stand there.'

Quick-witted actors who forgot their lines in the days of live TV quickly learnt just to keep moving their lips, so that the viewers would think the sound had gone and thump their sets.  An old Shakespearian actor told me he always carried a purse on stage, so that when he forgot his lines he'd throw it on the floor, declaiming: 'Prithee take my purse, find lodgings and meet me anon!' With that, he'd leave the stage for a quick glance at his script.

Omar Sharif
A good actor is a magpie who steals bits and pieces from anyone he meets.  Preparation is sometimes no more than theft.  Famously, Alex Guinness warmly welcomed Omar Sharif when he joined the cast of Lawrence of Arabia and talked to him at length.  The following day, Guinness as Prince Faisal was using all Omar's vocal intonations.

In rehearsal for the National Theatre's Wind in the Willows in 1990, the cast diligently studied their respective animals.  Michael Bryant (Badger) wasn't having it: when asked what he had learnt about badgers for his role, he answered that he had discovered that they moved exactly like Michael Bryant.  

When I did No Sex Please, We're British, with Michael Crawford, I asked him how he'd come by his brilliant performance and he revealed that it was based on observation of his daughters when telling fibs.

Glenda Jackson revealed to reporters that in preparing for a laughing scene, she just thought of her sex life: 'And for crying?' they asked.  'I think of my sex life,' replied Glenda.

During lengthy rehearsals in an experimental Oedipus the King, the director urged the cast to think of the single most terrifying thing they could imagine.  Each in turn shared their moment of horror.   But when it came to John Gielgud, he said simply:  'we open the day after tomorrow.'

Props or accessories can be a useful way to get into a character.  I was once having trouble finding a nervous trait for a part I was playing.  Before the first night I found the director in my dressing room tampering with my prop spectacles.  When I put them on, I found that they kept slipping down my nose and I had constantly to push them back - it was the very mannerism my character needed.

It's a fact that lots of actors' preferred preparation is visiting the pub.  I've always liked the story of the drunken old player who went to a matinee and took a seat in the stalls.  After ten minutes, he announced in a loud voice: ' This is a good bit: this is where I come on.'  Robert Newton notoriously eschewed sobriety on the film set, so much so that they had to hide his whisky from him - he responded by starting a striptease.  By the time he got to his underpants, the director had to relent.

Drunk or not, actors can mislay key props - and it's vital to be able to carry on regardless.  A young man who was supposed to stab Lionel Barrymore with a sword forgot to bring on his weapon one night, so he improvised and kicked him in the leg.  Barrymore fell to the ground muttering:  'what am I supposed to do now - starve to death?'

The comic actor Ralph Lynn was a past master of managing disaster during a live performance: on one occasion when a cast member failed to appear and he had to fill in, he sauntered to the telephone and dialled the switchboard: 'Hello operator,' he said.  'Tell me a little about yourself ...'

Perhaps the most important knack is the ability to cope with indignities.  A sad story (probably apocryphal) is told of an actor forced to accept a gig deputising for the gorilla in the zoo.  After lengthy preparation, he put on the costume and took his place in the cage.  Soon his confidence grew and in no time he was swinging from branch to branch , thoroughly in character - too much so, for he fell over the dividing wall into the adjoining cage, where a fearsome tiger advanced growling towards him.  'Oh lord, I'm done for,' he groaned.  In a whisper the tiger replied: 'Shut up, or we'll be both be out of a job.'

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