A Festival of Beginnings

thAs a non-observant polytheistic neo-pagan, I’m able to tell you that the end of January/beginning of February is the Celtic festival of the start of the year (northern hemisphere). Imbolc. I’ve always considered it an advantage to be able to have a second go at those New Year resolutions.

Photo by Carl Rosegg

Photo by Carl Rosegg

I’ve come across two varieties of theatrical memoir recently. One, a solo stage piece by Ed Dixon, chronicling his friendship with his idol and long-term mentor, George Rose. Georgie: My Adventures With George Rose, is playing at The Davenport Theatre on West 45th Street, NYC, as we speak. The delivery of the show is immense in its precision. It is hugely funny, and masterfully constructed. Just when you get the whisper of anecdote saturation, the show turns unbearably dark. For an actor, seeing this show is one of those times when you remember why you got involved in the first place.

The other, is a book called Acting Foolish by Lewis J. Stadlen, recently a colleague of my wife’s in her Broadway run of the late production, The Front Page. A word on the show before I talk about the book. This was lavishly produced (produced in the old-fashioned mid-20th century sense of the word – I mean where do you get companies of 29 actors these days?) by Scott Rudin. A 1928 play, modified for its audience 70 years later, impeccably directed by Jack O’Brien, impeccably acted by a starry Broadway cast, featuring a list of splendid performances, (I include here my wife – I tell you, the things Patricia Conolly as Jenny the cleaning lady, can do with a mop…) but one performance, which for sheer energy, commitment and comic inventiveness was matchless in my experience. I refer, of course to that dynamo of the raised eyebrow, the throwaway, the twisted emphasis, the seductive tone laced with menace, Nathan Lane.

Usually I reckon I can see how it’s done. After 35 years if you don’t know how the sausage is made you might be in the wrong game. But now and then, there is a performer whose secrets just won’t yield to scrutiny, Brian Bedford was one, the late Bill Fraser another. Not so with Nathan Lane. One could see exactly how it was done. All you’d have to do to bring that role to life is: gain every single laugh latent in the text and many not, play with searchlight focus, lift the entire stage with one hand like a superman of energy, whilst spitting comedic bullets all around the house with the other, and above all break no sweat. Make it look easy. Simple, no?

517f7fdvw2l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Lewis’s book is a memoir, it tells in more or less linear narrative the story of his adventures in the business. It’s wry, sad, funny, original. Takes you backstage, on set, and to lunch with stars. There’s an overarching awareness of the irony of it all. It’s written with open honesty and tells in depth of the self-awareness that can come to you with a career in show, well sometimes. And there are laughs. Lewis has worked a lot, and you may know of him, but again maybe not. He’s had a ‘that guy’ career, as in “Who’s that guy in the thing with, you know, about the lawyer, the astronaut, you know, with Julia whatshername, where they fly kites on Chinese New Year, you know – him”. What it is, is authentic. A view from behind the scenes, oh, and did I say, funny?

These two memoirs have me thinking about two of my beginning memories.

One was when Juliet Quicke took a party of school kids to see She Stoops to Conquer at The Young Vic theatre in London. I was about 13. I had tried to read Congreve’s play but it might as well have been Sanskrit for all the sense it made. And then…

Nicky Henson played Marlowe, the dashing young blade who was overcome with shyness in the presence of a lady of refinement. The actors were so close you could touch them, they wore period costumes, but we were close enough to see the fabric. Under the lights it seemed more real than anything worn in the audience. The men, led by Nicky were virile and sexy, the women were sexy and stylish, the language was frivolous and funny, and most astonishingly, it made sense. For the young Colin McPhillamy it was a destiny moment.

Mrs. Quicke organized other theatre trips, and in general in her English classes opened doors and windows for me in the way I began to love language. Now I knew what I wanted to be. But somehow all through my teens I just could not find a way to begin.

About six years later, consumed with ambition and frustration and also very shy, I was given an introduction to a man named John Line. He was an actor about the age I am now. He invited me to his house and we sat in an upstairs sitting room with cups of tea.

John: So you want to be an actor?

Me: Mmfp.

John: Well that means you must get an Equity card. And that means training. I don’t think you should go to RADA. Central is where you should go.

Me: Erg.

John: There’s a phone book over there, why don’t you give them a ring and ask them how to audition?

Me: ?!? Hrm…

I made the call, was told I should write and request an audition. Internally I had a sort of tsunami of revelation – all you had to do was pick up a phone and ask. Astonishing.

John and I chatted for a while. I hung on every word. We agreed that we should meet once a week, which we subsequently did and he very generously coached me in Shakespearean monologue. We would work in the local park among indifferent kids and dogs, and slowly, slowly, I began to understand what I might be getting in to.

That first time we had tea, I didn’t know that was going to happen, nor that I would audition and get in. When I got up to leave, John said the words that now, 40 years later, still make me cry.

John: Get that letter off for me this weekend, will you?

So now, decades have passed, as decades do. And the end is, if not exactly in sight, well not as far out of sight as it used to be, and as we learn from metaphysical literature, beginnings and ends may well be connected in ways that are not exactly clear. And in troubled times it’s good to remember that wonderful summation of all wisdom: Even this shall pass away… And in this game every show is a new beginning anyway, and for me there have been several auxiliary – what to call them? – experiments along the way. Here’s another one:

Were you wondering …?

51lfhzvvejl-_ac_us218_… Just in case you were wondering what it looks like when a plutocrat with possible kleptocratic tendencies has sole charge of a great institution which he might, in fact, regard as his personal ATM, there could be no finer prototypic manual than the theatrical memoir, Stage Blood.

This outstanding volume by that distinguished man of international theatre, Michael Blakemore, compares and contrasts the regimes of Sir (later, Lord) Laurence Olivier with its basis in public service, and Peter (later, Sir Peter) Hall with its accent on a percentage.

Happy New Year!

‘Tis the XXXXXX to be XXXXX

British actors Richard Lyntton and your author

British actors Richard Lyntton and your author

I’ve just done a very agreeable gig with fellow Brit, Richard Lyntton. Chatting aimiably, made me nostalgic …

At this time of year my thoughts naturally turn to a theatrical form which is immensely popular in my native England but doesn’t seem to work either in the land of my extended family, Australia, nor to have caught on in my adopted homeland, the USA. It’s a Victorian invention really, along with trifle and the commercialization of Christmas. Having said that, there are traditions in the form that can be traced to the medieval miracle plays, and to the later broad style of Commedia D’ell Arte. I refer, of course, to pantomime.

I once played a broker’s man by the name of ‘Snachit’, one of the double act, Snachit & Grabbit, first cousins to the law firm, Sue’em, Grabbit ‘n Runne also related to practicing attorneys at law, Woppit, Upham ‘n Gasp.

The Dame (female character) was played by the late, great John Moffatt (Male actor as tradition requires), who was also the author. A man of consummate technique, it was a privilege to watch him turn a line like:

John Moffatt as Hercule Poirot

John Moffatt as Hercule Poirot

Dame: (Horrified) Sell?! (Appalled) Our cow?! (Heartbroken on the verge of tears) Miranda??? … (Suddenly turning avaricious) How much d’you think we’d get for her?

Panto, as British readers will know, turns on a contra-sexual universe where it seems only the Fairy Queen and the the Demon King keep their given genders. Dames and Ugly Sisters are always played by men, Principal Boys (e.g.; Jack in Jack & the Beanstalk) always by dazzlingly attractive young women.

For non-British readers who may be confused, I recommend a year’s subscription to Private Eye, the British equivalent of the American, Onion newspaper. Private Eye explains much in British life that is puzzling.

But I digress.

I started out to tell you that this year Santa brought me the chance to play a telling cameo in a new (spin-off) TV series. The series has been announced but details are fairly hush hush. To such an extent that I never actually got to read the full script of the episode, and therefore had only the sketchiest idea of my character – who he was and what he had for breakfast – and before you ask, yes, I admit, sometimes it’s like that onstage too.

Ryan Eggold, Me, Famke Janssen, Richard Lyntton

Ryan Eggold, Me, Famke Janssen, Richard Lyntton

Fortunately the stars of the show were extremely generous and hospitable and were able to quickly clear up any confusion that I had, actually reversing my understanding of the character, the scene and the show in a few brisk sentences.

These details aside, I am able to report as follows:

I played, xxxxxxxx the man xxxxxxxxxxxx in the xxxxxxxx where xxxxxx and xxx come to  xxxxx  the xxx

The story xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx my character, xxxxxxxxx in a tryst with, xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx. Then, xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx at the climax, xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx just when xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx a helicopter xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx and then, xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx finally revealing xxxxxxxxxx

Great story, right? – Oh! I forgot to mention …

Just when xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx at which point xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx to the amazement of xxxxxxxxxx

Well I’m sorry if that’s spoilt the episode for you. Just pretend you never read this blog.

 

Me as xxxxxx in xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxx

Me as xxxxxx in xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxx

 

And as you see from this photo, my character looks pretty shifty.

But I don’t think it gives anything away, do you?

 

 

 

 

Merry Christmas and a xxxxxxxxxxxxx !

President McPhillamy

PLANT MORE TREES! DON'T BE A DRONGO! MCPHILLAMY THANKS YOU FOR NOT VOTING FOR HIM!

PLANT MORE TREES! DON’T BE A DRONGO!
MCPHILLAMY THANKS YOU FOR NOT VOTING FOR HIM!

Having played the odd monarch and occasional deep thinker, a natural next step might be … politics?

I want to thank the two or three people who might have considered voting for me if I had actually run for president – they know who they are and I thank them. In the end I am happy to say, not one single person ticked my box on the ballot. For the excellent reason that my name was not on it. However, to those few who might conceivably in some alternate universe, have voted for me, to them and to the hundreds of millions who actively did not vote for me, I am grateful.

As you may (or may not) remember, my campaign was predicated on a single policy:

 

Don’t be a drongo *
* (Drongo: Australian colloquialism meaning “Silly fellow”, “Idiot”, “Waste of space”)

Here are a few policy suggestions in lieu of an actual McPhillamy Presidency:
Personal:
1. Plant more trees.
2. Meditate now and then.
3. Never watch cable news. (If you are unsure how to kick the habit. The following one-step process will help. Step one: disconnect your television and throw it through the {open} window)

National: (USA specific)
1. Explain to the characters who run Big Oil, they could make just as much money with wind, wave and solar power, and they would get a lot of good karma for saving the planet instead of destroying it. Use some of dough in the Big Oil offshore savings accounts & some of the war chest billions to support those workers who would be out of a job.

2. Commission the design of a water-powered motor car. Repair all the bridges and roads nationwide, with the possible exception of Manhattan in New York City, where hazardous sidewalks, streets and avenues give an added theme-park excitement to a taxi ride.

3. Require all national leaders to demonstrate accomplishment in one or several of the following: yoga, calculus, ability to listen, yearly detox, t’ai chi, flower arranging, chess, non-violence, fluency in at least one foreign language, organic gardening, ability to name countries and capitals worldwide, courtesy, self-control, above high-school use of English, demonstrated refusal to accept a high degree of inequitable privilege (e.g.: waiving the government healthcare plan until all citizens are similarly insured), recycling, cycling, thorough acquaintance with “The Republic” by Plato (which explains to the letter how what has just happened, happened, and should therefore be no surprise to anyone with any developed political understanding and least of all to the “Liberal left-wing media”).

Personal/National/International:
Assist all efforts foreign and domestic to desist from poisoning the air, the earth, and the seas. Implement clean, green, lean technology at every level. Talk to Dolphins and to Whales, listen to the messages carried on the wind. Plant more trees.

I am Colin McPhillamy and I approved this message.

Lots of Prime Ministers: One Queen.

Reading this post you’d be forgiven for thinking the play I’m working on is called, ‘Churchill’ … actually it’s called ‘The Audience’.

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Here is a diary excerpt:

October 4th 2016.

It’s the first day of rehearsal at The Maltz Theatre, Jupiter, Florida. We, the cast, arrived yesterday, Most of us from out of town. Just shy of three hours on the plane from New York. I was in a window seat with a young mother and a one-year-old baby in her arms next to me. The baby was as good as gold except he did persistently kick me in the ribs, presumably unintentionally. I pretended not to notice and when the mother apologized I pretended not to mind. I was returning to British mode (from expat mode). We British would rather suffer in dignified silence than inconvenience a stranger. I used the time to go over my lines as Sir Winston Churchill.

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One scene only. Where he encounters the young Queen Elizabeth II. The scene is the occasion of their first private audience together with she as monarch of the United kingdom and Dominions. It took place in 1954. Sir Winston was then 78 years old.

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For research I visited the Cabinet War Rooms in London, and I’ve watched in no particular order Robert Hardy, Albert Finney, Timothy Spall, Brendon Gleeson and Michael Gambon as Churchill. Oh, and the great man himself of course in all the available speeches.

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All very fine actors, none of them actually impersonate the great man, but all of them copy some of his vocal characteristics, the well known rhythms and cadences, Gambon uses the lightest touch. Finney is my favorite for character.

th-4On the morning of the first day of rehearsals we have the meet and greet. As ever, it is astonishing how many people a theatre employs. The Maltz is a theatre under speed. By which I mean they put up plays and musicals in two and a half weeks, run them for 17 performances and that’s it. Get in; get out. I like it.
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The Audience is a big play and by far the biggest challenge falls to Karen MacDonald who is playing the Queen and is onstage the entire show with some astonishingly quick costume changes as she moves from Elizabeth R in her 8os to her 20s to her 60s and back and forth in this non-linear telling of the story of Britain’s Prime Ministers and their constitutionally un-mandated, but constitutionally effective weekly meetings with the monarch.

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Photo by Alicia Donelan Karen MacDonald as Queen Elizabeth II

We read through the text and you can feel confidence in the room as everyone, without saying so, agrees that it’s a fine cast and that the play has indeed been well-cast and with a bit of luck we’ll have a fine production. Of course this is the first time we’ve heard each other read and at this point none of us can do more than sketch an indication of where our performances might arrive. But everybody approves of everybody, everybody hopes everybody will come up with more, and everybody understands that on day one everybody is both confident and insecure. We all know that many things can go wrong in a rehearsal period. It’s a bit of a miracle that anything ever gets produced anywhere. But it’s a good start and baring acts of God we should have an excellent production on our hands.

In the afternoon we begin to pick the play apart and an amusing discussion follows on the cultural, social and political differences between our two great nations. Lou Jacob is directing and he seems to know more about British Constitution than I do. Hardly surprising, because no-one can really claim to be an expert, least of all anyone from Britain. Why so? Because there isn’t one. A British Constitution that is. At least not one that anyone has written down.

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Photo by Alicia Donelan with Peter Simon Hilton, Colin McPhillamy, Henny Russell, Karen MacDonald, Rod McLachlan, Skye Allysa Friedman, Mark Dold, Paul DeBoy, Peter Galman

Oddly, well it seems odd given the themes of the play, tonight is the U.S. vice-presidential debate. Getting back to the digs from rehearsal I turn on the telly. One of the cable news anchors is interviewing a couple of talking heads, “Is he gonna go offense or defense tonight?” the anchor asks. Before the talking head can answer, the anchor asks two other questions, answers the first question, then answers it again with a contradiction and then opines that it shouldn’t be left too long before one of the candidates “throws the first punch”. Then, in a further melange of sporting metaphors he announces a commercial break and we cut to a picture perfect family having a barbecue amid gently rolling hills and a mellow voice-over artist is telling us to soothing, mildly optimistic music, that spingo-dingo-mingo is not right for everyone and that side effects can include halitosis, bankruptcy and allergy to popular culture. I deploy the only sanction I can and turn the telly off, taking note that five years ago I could still have played the Dad in the commercial, now I’m the right age for the foxy Grandpa. Time flies in entertainment. Still it’s fun to be back in Florida.

Assorted production pix & trailer here

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Photo by Alicia Donelan Mark Dold, Gabriel Zenone, Karen MacDonald

And then there was a hurricane …

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Photo by Peter Simon Hilton. Colin McPhillamy as Winston Churchill

We Are Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On …

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The Scream by Edvard Munch

 

Spoiler alert: there are a few self-referencing, free-associative links in this post.

I’ve had it again: the actor’s nightmare. The one where you’re in act one and you realize with shock-horror that you don’t know your lines for act two.

 

That’s the basic. Obviously there are as many variations on this as there are actors. In this one I had played one of my favorite scenes in all literature. Here’s how it goes:

 

Scene: a garden patio some where in Buckinghamshire, England. It is Sunday morning and a middle-aged couple are having breakfast over the Sunday papers. After a pause …

Him: I can’t say I’m very taken with this marmalade.

Her: No, neither am I.

Him: Then why did you buy it?

Her: They didn’t have our sort.

The exchanges continue in this vein and the button on this opening segment of Act One, Scene Two of this masterpiece, Relatively Speaking, by Sir Alan Ayckbourn is …

Him: If you ask me we’d have been a lot better off with jam!

I consider this scene to be the finest exposition in all drama on the state of British middle-class marriage in the second half of the 20th century.

Bit of backstory here:

A few years ago I was walking on in Brian Bedford’s extraordinary production of The Importance of being Earnest (see this blog December 2010) designed by the late, great Desmond Heeley. It was a very agreeable and comfortable engagement, Broadway money, minimal work required, plenty of free time.

Then the offer came to cross the country to San Diego and play a named part in the US premiere of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s 82nd (!!!) play. Well no matter how comfortable or well-paid a walk on, the offer of a real role will rouse the blood of any self-respecting actor, after all it’s why we joined. But there’s more to it than that.

On the whole actors are sensitive to augury. Do I take the best friend in a fungal infection commercial, or do I play Cleopatra in drag in an all male production touring to Iceland, Greenland and the Falklands? Give me a sign.

So this play, Life of Riley, Sir Alan’s 82nd or 83rd – can’t remember which offhand – suffice to say he knocks ’em out, plays a cheeky joke on all of us with a bit of self-referencing (bit like this post, following in the steps of the master). In that, the opening scene is a couple rehearsing the scene above (yes, my favorite) for a local production somewhere within the world of the play. And Relatively Speaking was Sir Alan’s 10th or 11th, or it may have been 16th play, but his first commercial hit. So, Sir Alan is here referencing his early work. The reference is undisclosed, it’s an in-joke, not unlike say, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew getting the astrology wrong in Twelfth Night. Not only that, but each of the four scenes in Life of Riley opens with a variation on the Relatively Speaking scene (rehearsed, rehearsed in strife, rehearsed in exasperation, post-show discussion including how it should have been rehearsed).

But wait, there’s more.

I had a few years previously directed this very play, Relatively Speaking, in the very same San Diego.

And the name of the role in Life of Riley, and the guy rehearsing my fav. scene?

Colin.

Therefore, a pun on my favorite scene in my favorite play, as US premiere of my favorite author, and the role spookily, my own name. Throw in San Diego in the summer, Jacaranda blossom, The Old Globe theatre, well appointed old-world accommodation, beaches nearby. Somehow the drastic salary reduction didn’t seem to matter.

Another, at that point unknown, jackpot was that my scene partner was the incomparable Henny Russell (see this blog June 2011) with whom, to my delight I am about to work again (see this blog last entry), although sadly in The Audience, Mrs Thatcher and Churchill say nothing to each other – although perhaps another famous dialogue could be adapted thus:

Mrs Thatcher: If I were married to you I’d poison your tea.

Churchill: If I were married to you I’d drink it. 

We pick up the actor’s nightmare when I’ve played the scene, the marmalade one,  and I’m relaxing in my dressing room. There’s a book, there may be a fine-quality whisky (even though I never drink during a show – seriously I don’t – afterwards is a different matter), but if there isn’t actually a whisky it feels like there is one. I’ve taken off the jacket, tie and shoes and am leaning back on a chair with my feet on the make-up counter, I’m reading something pleasing (don’t know what it is, but it’s making me smile). The dressing room lights are mellow, and the counter resembles the practical confusion of my study. There are books, papers, bills, there’s make-up, and other theatrical accessories all piled irregularly in happy confusion and I know where everything is and I’m looking forward to the curtain call where I’m confident there will be a warm reception.

Suddenly something alerts me. I’ve forgotten something. What play are we doing? Relatively Speaking, ok, all I have to do is wait for the final scene … no, hold it, I’m confused … somehow I’ve got the idea that I’m on tour and I’m in the company of The Madness of George III where I played a telling cameo, and also once when one of the other guys was sick, took over as the vicar giving a blessing in the very last image of the play. I look down and see that I’m half dressed in religious vestments … but … wtf (!?!) … it’s not George, it’s RELATIVELY SPEAKING.

The chair comes upright and I spring from it and furiously rummage the counter for the script (where the f**k is it???) as whisky, books and make-up go flying. Over the p.a. I hear dialogue from the scene where my entrance is coming up. I sprint (if that word can be applied to undressing and dressing) out of the vicar’s garb into the tweedy jacket and cords of an Englishman in his garden and jam both legs into one leg of the trousers. There’s no time to undo this. Hopping around like a demented pogo stick, anxiety becomes terror as I at last find the script which has morphed from a slim volume into something Dickens might have written in one of his more verbose moods, and I riffle the pages desperately looking for my lines.

And there they are all neatly highlighted in yellow.

Do I know them?

NO! ARGH!

These are lines I have never seen (and lines that Ayckbourn never wrote – or did he?). I turn a page and I see a block of text, again highlighted, it is the beginning of a twelve page monologue and all of it is strange to me.

What is to be done? Can I busk/impovise it? No! Don’t be ridiculous! Not even Eddie Izzard could do that! My entrance is coming up (a matter of seconds now). I am still wrongly dressed, I catch myself in the mirror and see that my thinning hair is now back-combed in horror and I look like a steampunk version of a pantomime dame. Adrenalin and some unknown hallucinogenic course through me.

Suddenly I’m in the wings, from the darkness I see the brightly lit stage, inwardly I invoke the genius of Ayckbourn, Moliere and Shakespeare, desperately appealing to all three to come up with some brilliant sleight-of-form that can save me and amuse the (enormous) audience. But I know it’s hopeless. I’m completely f**k*d. My terror escalates …

And then I wake up.

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Sigmund Freud

Do we need to send to Vienna to work this one out?

Not so much.

Although I am offering either a quality whisky or a free tarot reading for the best interpretation offered by my readers – 100 words max please – and the judge’s decision will be final. Yes, even actors (me) playing statesmen (Churchill) have to have day jobs (see www.mcphillamytarot.com).

That’s what helps us keep the night sweats away.