Author Archives: Colin McPhillamy

About Colin McPhillamy

An occasional blog about acting and other theatre stuff.

Shakespeare in Jersey

Shakespeare in Love is a charming tale of a young man and a young woman’s fancy in the context of the language-theatrical explosion that was London in the 1590s.

Shakes smaller banner

Box Office: 973-408-5600 BoxOffice@ShakespeareNJ.org

In some respects the script reads like a trivia compilation:

“And for ten points, which sonnet is referenced in the opening scene? For a bonus quail’s egg, who are the offstage Elizabethan celebrity authors mentioned in the De-Lessops-at-home scene?”

Brown, Whitney Maris_website headshot

The splendid Whitney Maris Brown. She plays Viola

A frivolous confection, a charming love-letter to the Bard and all who sailed with him. Fights, sex, poetry. In short: something for everyone. This production, fielding 21 actors (who, in regional theatre can do that, these days?) — kudos to Bonnie Monte, an artistic director with the drive, enthusiasm and resources to field this show — opens at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, October 11th and plays thru mid November.

Shakespeare has been on my mind lately as I’m re-reading ‘Shakespeare and the Stars’, an excellent volume of muscular scholarship which reveals the depth and breadth of commonplace astrological understanding in the Elizabethan world-view. As someone with a life-long interest in the mantic art, and as an actor in my fourth decade of work, having appeared in about a dozen productions of Shakespeare’s plays, it is kind of humbling, but I have to admit I have missed this insight, or if I noticed it dimly, I simply did not get the implications.

51539N1JyxL._AC_US218_

As with so many things, it’s obvious once you have it pointed out for you. For example The Tempest deals with the 12-year cycle of Jupiter, the many Martial references in the history plays juxtapose with the Venus/Mercury verse of Love’s Labor’s Lost, the insistence on The Moon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, including the almost drug-induced highly Neptunian speech “The lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact…” — notwithstanding that was written approximately 260 years before the blue gas giant was discovered. Romeo and Juliet has a Geminian flavor, right from “Two households, both alike in dignity…” onwards, and once you have the key, The Duke’s speech in Act 3 of Measure for Measure; “… reason thus with life … a breath thou art, servile to all the skyey influences that dost this habitation where thou keepst, hourly afflict...”, fairly hits you between the astrological eyebrows.

Of course it is possible to interpret Shakespeare as a Catholic, a Protestant, a humanist, a monarchist, a democrat, an anarchist. As the man says, “The devil himself can cite scripture for his purpose.” Now I know he was also an astrologer.

_53306335_004964576-1

Simon Callow as Sir Edmund Tilney. BBC Archives

Meanwhile I play Sir Edmund Tilney, my costume cannot be revealed before we open otherwise I’d have posted a picture. Meanwhile, Simon Callow looks quite a bit like me, don’t you agree? Tilney was the Master of the Revels, in the employ of the Lord Chamberlain, a chap who seemed to find pleasure in closing theatres. (This is dramatic license. The historical Tilney was a great supporter of theatre and especially of Shakespeare). In the play he is an early prototype of the more censorious characters who later inhabited the Lord Chamberlain’s offices and redacted all kinds of literature right up to and including, Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the early 1960s, until Pluto entered Virgo and finally disrupted that kind of thing.

Ah, the Elizabethan age when women onstage were played by boys and men wore beards. When the eating of fish three times weekly was mandated in law. When a farthing (a quarter of a penny) could buy a pot of ale, and when illiterate people could compute in base duodecimal (twelve pennies to a shilling), and planted their vegetables by phases of the Moon.

A Theatrical Eclipse

This describes a reset – something in the nature of an eclipse you might say.

broadway-new-york

It was just a great bit of producing.

The Colonial Theatre, entrance on Boston Common. The show opened last night and the reviews were pretty tragic. A rumor went around that our star had at some time offended men of the fourth estate and they had been waiting to pounce to their revenge. True or not, the kind of stuff that closes shows on the spot had been written.

It was my first job in America and I had heard the stories about what happens when the reviews are less than ecstatic. The mood inside the theatre was despondent and a desultory rehearsal was proceeding onstage. Distinguished New York actors were going through the motions while the director tried to tweak new life into the proceedings, but there hardly seemed any point.

I stood at the back of the orchestra stalls observing. I watched the rehearsal. This was Waiting in the Wings, Sir Noel Coward’s last major play, the one he wrote for his senior actress friends, set in a retirement home for older theatrical ladies. The rehearsal lacked spark because everyone knew that whatever we did, it was over.

th (1)

The theatre was empty, and the house lights were up. Atmosphere is everything, isn’t it? With a full house, the action on the stage lit by sympathetic illumination, the glow spilling into the auditorium, the gilt on the proscenium glisters and glamours an evening’s entertainment. Here the workaday lighting cast the very theatre in drabness.

Then Alex Cohen arrived.

Bit of back story here. On his 21st birthday Alex Cohen came into an inheritance, he immediately set about producing a show. It was Ghost For Sale and it closed after six performances. He lost a lot of money on it. He then immediately got involved in producing Angel Street (later filmed as Gaslight), and he made his money back. It was to set a pattern of ups and downs that he pursued for the next sixty years.

Alex Cohen in the time that I knew him, was one of the Grand Old Men of Broadway, Waiting in the Wings was his 101st Broadway show and his last. He was the man who said: “If God had meant me to ride in taxis, he wouldn’t have invented limousines.”

He was a great man of theatre, but there is no way you could say he was a well man. In his eightieth year he looked somewhat like a giant Halibut on a bad day, and his walk was a lumbering progress, his breathing like the early days of steam technology.

Alex lumbered in the auditorium and down the center aisle. Reaching row G he spread himself across a couple of seats and pulled out a cell phone. He began a conversation which started quietly, but grew loud in volume when the person on the other end of the line seemed to have said something that angered him. Suddenly I heard, “Listen, ASSHOLE! I told you, the message is no discount from any source! Get your ass down to the box office and buy a ticket, and if you’re too cheap to do that you’ll miss the best show of the season!”

The actors, 10 veteran Broadway actresses and a sprinkling of movie stars, all heard it too. The rehearsal slowed, faltered and finally stopped. All the ladies of Broadway staring, mesmerized by the conversation proceeding in the middle of the orchestra stalls in the empty front of house of the ornate, historic, Colonial Theatre in Boston.

Alex continued. He was, I believe the correct American vernacular is … “ripping the publicist a new one.” It went on and on. The actresses drifted to the front of the stage, watching and listening open mouthed, Michael Langham, the director who had once been a protege of Guthrie’s also turned away from the stage to listen slack-jawed as Alex gave ever more furious energy to the cell phone he gripped in his angry hands.

I watched too from the shadows at the back of the orchestra. From that vantage point I saw an example of what Peter Brook has defined for us as “Holy Theatre” which he says is, “The invisible made visible.”

Little by little the cloud of grey despondency, the gloomy resignation that attends the prospect of returning again to the wonderful world of unemployment, the defeat that is a flopped show… little by little this atmosphere began to transform.

13Colonial-Theatre-IntIt began with the lighting. The houselights did not dim, nor the stage lights brighten, but the darkly illuminating principle of a discouraging reception was obscured, then obliterated, to re-emerge as total confidence and certainty. The gilt on the proscenium began to glow in subtle shades, and the metaphysical gas of confidence oozed around the theatre. You could feel it seeking hollows and shadows in the dressing rooms, in the understage cross-over where costumes were set for quick changes, even in the box office where I fancy the phones began to ring. It rolled too in a visible/invisible wave across the seats of the orchestra to the stage where it broke over as fine a collection of Broadway dames as were ever gathered, as simultanously the thought erupted in all minds, “Oh! Maybe we won’t close at the weekend?!”

Alex continued his tirade of insult and cajolement ripe with expletives, “What the hell do you mean suggesting a discount?!? This is the best goddam show to hit the New York in living memory!” The theatre was silent. Alex, a producer not an actor, but a showman, an original, he knew his audience that day and he had them spell bound. With a final, “Asshole!” yelled at full throttle at the publicist, Alex pounded the off button on the phone, took a breath, lumbered to his feet and processed slowly up the aisle and out of the theatre, saying not a word as he went.

There was a long beat of silence, then Michael Langham turned to the company and said with quiet assurance, “Well, shall we continue?” The ladies answered with optimistic smiles and the rehearsal began with new purpose. Four weeks later the show opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway in New York, garnered better reviews than in Boston. Award nominations followed, and a transfer to the Eugene O’Neil theatre round the corner. It was an impressive six month run. And that phone call had everything to do with it.

Waiting in the Wings was Alex Cohen’s last show. When he went they dimmed the lights on the Great White Way.

th

Later I pondered this incident. Admirable is the temperament that refuses to accept defeat, that exudes infectious positivity no matter what. But there was a lot of technique involved as well. It took me a long time to wonder about it, and only now writing many years later am I more than 95% sure … there was no publicist, there was no-one on the other end of the phone in the Colonial Theatre in Boston that day.

This Guy…

Every now and then you come across someone who is:

Racist, misogynist, bombastic, provocative, ludicrous…

A vulgarian who plumbs new depths of bad taste on a daily basis…

Astonishingly uninformed yet ready to pronounce on all subjects…

And yet (to some of us) very amusing.

One who proclaims himself to be a chic-magnet, a great patriot and ambassador for his country, and who, whilst managing to give near universal offense, is at the same time admired by millions, and has (somehow) been appointed to high office.

You will know at once, that I am speaking of Sir Les Patterson, the Australian Cultural Attache to The Court of St. James. After all, there couldn’t be anyone else like this in public life… could there? Surely not, because if there were, it would be ludicrous without being funny.

Here is some archival footage that may give insight into this phenomenon…

The Long Wait is Over…

Back in 1984 Simon Callow (you’ve seen him in the films) published a book called, Being An Actor. In it he wrote, “I don’t know of any other attempt by an actor of my generation to describe the theater in which we work.”

Well Simon…

41+XBOPXkgL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Big thanks to you personally and to everyone who has followed this blog. The book would never have been written without you.

Now available at Amazon.

 

“Take but degree away …

… untune that string, and hark what discord follows.” – Shakespeare.

I graduated from the Central School, now Royal Central, in 1983 and my qualification was a Diploma in Acting. Which was just fine because this was before it became necessary to hold a degree to drive a bus, or fry an egg.

In 2014, I established a website petition, http://www.petitiontoroyalcentral.com – there is a lot of anecdotal evidence on the comments page there of how a degree is now an entry-level requirement in every day life.

about_us_central_panoramic_0

Royal Central is today a very different institution from what it was in my student days. I am grateful to the school for showing flexibility in today’s academic environment involving many levels of persuasion.

It’s been a long campaign, but long story short, Royal Central is now offering a one-year course which will allow diplomate graduates to attain a degree.

Details here

This could be interesting to Central and Webber Douglas graduates but also to those of the former Conference of Drama Schools. If you know someone who might benefit from this opportunity please pass on this info.

The Real Reason I Never Read Reviews

… Until the show is over.

Commonly, the reasons given are… because it makes you self-conscious, because it messes with your confidence, because you shouldn’t believe your own publicity, and so on along those lines.

I believe I have the reviewer story to end them all. And even though this happened more than three decades ago, the memory is still painful. Here is the story:

It was my third job as a professional. I was cast as Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations, adapted from Charles Dickens’s novel. We were to open at the Birmingham Rep in the UK, play for a month, and then transfer to The Old Vic in London for the Christmas season.

Herbert Pocket is one of Dickens’s more agreeable creations; gentle, sensitive, but also energetic and enthusiastic. In the mid-20th century black and white film a young Alec Guinness plays him to a young John Mills as Pip.

img007

Ian McCurrach as Pip and me as Herbert Pocket. Great Expectations at The Old Vic in London a long time ago.

I was young. A young actor full of that same energy and enthusiasm as Herbert Pocket, and thrilled to have scored this gig. It was directed by a complicated man who projected his inner darkness upon his actors in a way I have rarely seen since.

This man, the director, who had also adapted this version of Great Expectations, was a fine exponent of the 101 ways a director can destroy an actor in the rehearsal room. From me, he demanded an instant performance. This happens when the director has little or no regard for process and is consumed with insecurity about what the final result will be.

If there was a positive in the episode it was where I began to assemble the director-proof kit that every actor should have in their back pocket. You only need it sometimes, but when you do, you better know where it is.

Somehow I managed to give the performance that the director seemed to want by day three of rehearsals. Fine, you might think. Not so. Why not? Because, and this is crucial, because I did not know how I did it.

To begin with it all went well. Herbert Pocket and I seemed made for each other and our scenes were funny and audiences liked them. Then, during the pre-London run and for reasons known only to himself, the director began to fire the actors at random at the rate of one a week. This quickly transformed a large happy company into a large unhappy company riven with suspicion and paranoia.

Then there came a day, as can so easily happen in comedy, when for no visible reason my stuff wasn’t funny and the scenes played like a lead balloon.

Some laughs are mercurial. They come, they go. If a laugh checks out during the run of a show, the best thing to do is relax. Gently experiment with nuances of delivery and focus, make sure you are playing the scene, not the comedy, and carry on. Did I do that?

No. I tried to make the scenes funny again. The harder I tried the less funny they were.

Meanwhile I had been in correspondence on another project with one of the critics on the London Times.

When we opened in London, the critic came to see the show. By this time the show, which had begun with promise, had become a lumbering Dickensian juggernaut, too long, too slow, performed by a company that knew it was involved in a disaster.

So the critic from the Times saw the show, which he loathed (with good reason). The review was one of the more scathing ever written and he singled me out for special condemnation. When I read it the next morning, hoping against all the probability that it would be positive, it was like a sledgehammer to my confidence, and I nearly gave up acting on the spot. That was bad enough but …

But here’s the thing; the critic from the Times saw the show, phoned in his copy, went home, and died in his sleep that night.

I wished the man no ill, but it did cross my mind to think, “If he was gonna die, why couldn’t he have died three hours earlier?”

And that, is the real reason I never read reviews.

And does that apply when the reviews are good?

You bet. There’s no surer way to mess up a performance than if you believe it when people tell you how good you are. “When Colin McPhillamy shakes the tea-pot, opens the sardines, and dances a jig on a pogo-stick, there is a delicate sunrise of joy that casts a gossamer spell over the stage.” – Oh yeah? And the odds are a hundred to one against Colin McPhillamy ever getting the moment right again.

So right now, I’m in a hit. And there are some great reviews – how do I know that? Because people say things like, “Hey, what about those great reviews?” And I say, “Don’t tell me!”

cripple1-300x228

Laura Turnbull as Kate and Beth Dimon as Eileen, me as Johnnypateenmike. Palm Beach Dramaworks. Photo by Alicia Donelan.

I have not read them, and will not until after we close, but if you’re interested go here

And while I’m at it let me give a shout out to the amazing design team we had on this one; Franne Lee for costumes, Paul Black for lighting, Victor Becker for the set, and Steve Shapiro for sound. I should have mentioned them in previous posts about this play. Their work both singly and collectively was outstandingly exquisite. You can say I said so.

But what ever you do – don’t tell me!

 

 

 

 

… And Then You Open

In 3000 years of theatre no one has yet come up with a better way. There’s a fortune to be made when they do.

You rehearse. You rehearse some more, then you technically rehearse and you drink too much coffee. Then you have a production week complete with long days, previews, coffee, tweaks, adjustments, new ideas, things you should have thought of before, oh, and coffee.

And then in an unholy melange of caffeine, nerves, uncertainty, mid hysteria, anticipation and fatigue … you open.

We opened last night. Come and see us if you’re nearby!