Category Archives: Acting

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At the end of the year in the frozen wastes of north-eastern USA it is easy to forget that in Australasia the season and the weather is exactly opposite.

Unless…

51ZmoLj1I3L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_You happen, like me, to have recorded a forthcoming Australian
novel. Two actually. One is called Signal Loss by Gary Discher, and is a pacey police thriller. It’s the second of Mr Discher’s books that I’ve read aloud for commercial use (he’s written a string of them) and I’m a fan. The story itself deals with the desperate effects of the drug trade, and when I was in Australia earlier this year I witnessed some of exactly that in the economically challenged areas of NSW.

The other book has not yet been published and I was going to keep quiet about the title until it comes out officially, but I notice that those cunning 51CwL8-8hVL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_marketing strategists have made it available to pre-order via Amazon.

I will say though that this year was also memorable for me for a dental episode involving a cracked tooth, and if you had poked it with one of those spindly things that dentists use, I would have told you the name of the book immediately, had you asked me. Yes, that painful. And when there’s pain what do you want? Anesthesia, right?

After all: “There was never yet philosopher who could endure the toothache patiently.” Shakespeare Much Ado About Nothing

So talking of drugs, my troublesome tooth obliged me to visit no fewer than three dental offices in one morning. This was the sequence: examination, possible root canal, extraction. In the first office, the dentist did indeed prod with an instrument. To say I leaped from the chair is an understatement. It was more as if my body was momentarily abducted by aliens and I was hurled at interstellar speed across the consulting room. I am not exaggerating.

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Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man

With the root canal specialist there was whatever the present equivalent of novocaine is, and damn good stuff it was too. “That is good stuff.” I said to the friendly specialist, and I would have paid large amounts in cash money for a ready supply. Deciding the tooth could not be saved, I was referred to the third practitioner, a dental surgeon, who when I recounted through a thickly numbed mouth the level of pain and the level of comfort afforded by the right dope, kindly jabbed me with a further shot prior to performing the extraction.

And talking of medicine, and its close sibling, medical insurance, well I won’t bother you with the byzantine details, but… well actually… you do need a bit of back story to appreciate the full astonishing, mind-numbing absurdity of the situation.

And here let me say the story is involved so if you want to stop reading and make a cup of tea and then resume, fine. Or perhaps just stop reading altogether, and the next time we run into each other you can just make sympathetic noises and I’ll assume that you’ve read this sad account.

Still with me? Ok. Here’s the summary:

As you may know in the USA — of course if you are an American citizen or Green Card holder then you do indeed know, and if you are reading from some other part of the world, the UK for example, all I can say is: revere the NHS… and try not to let the characters presently in charge to finish what Mrs. Thatcher started in her attack on all social services — hospitals, schools, libraries, the railways, the BBC and so on…

Long story short. If you are an American actor and union member and you complete an average of 20 weeks of full employment in an 18 month period you can get very good medical insurance for the extremely reasonable (and to my mind) appropriate price of $100 per quarter. For the past 15 years, I have been fortunate enough to maintain this important average and (ironically, can you hear me laughing?) in that time never went to the doctor.

Then, at the end of last year my score of weeks-worked slipped below the qualifying requirement. OK. So I did what millions of Americans did and signed up for what is known as Obamacare. And here you enter the paradigm of the shy-and-retiring-second-hand-car-dealer. Which is to say there is no shortage of “affordable” insurance policies available which are actually expensive and meaningless, if you did have a serious medical emergency while “covered” under one of these discount schemes, you would very likely find yourself unable to the meet the “deductible” and they would come for your car, computer, television, furniture, 401k, clothing, underclothing, and house or apartment and you would have to sleep in your car — oh no, they already took that.

So I prepared to purchase the lower end of a policy which actually did seem to give actual coverage at a cost of, wait for it, $500 a month. Yes, that’s right. From $400 a year to $6,000 a year. Loss of income = exponential increase of premium was the net result. So just as I was poised to pay the first installment, I received an email from my union (the actors’ union) telling me that I was in fact eligible for another six months of coverage at the friendly union rate. I instantly paid the said union rate, 200 bucks for six months, and felt that (temporarily at least) I was winning in the game of life.

Cut to: six months later and the elegant, utilitarian health insurance offered by the union did actually expire, so I bit the proverbial bullet fully prepared to pay the (to my naturalized-citizen mind) exorbitant 500 bucks each and every month, until such time as I either: regained sufficient employment or won the lottery.

Picture my surprise when the website turned down my money.

This was to do with the complexities of “open enrollment” and various other internecine details that arose in the original Obama negotiations with the insurance companies and their proxies, the Republican Party. As we don’t have the space of a book to explain it here, I refer you to Michael Moore’s summation: “The insurance industry wasn’t content with a piece of it, they wanted all of it.”

After various circular conversations with insurance professionals and government officials, each of whom seemed to be just a few sandwiches short of the full picnic, the upshot was this:

Because I didn’t pay for something I never had (when I first applied for Obamacare and shunned it in favor of the union policy), I was not eligible to purchase it now.

Clever, right? I’d say right up there with Catch 22.

So there I was uninsured. This is not a condition you want to find yourself in, in the free world. I was passing the Actors’ Equity Association offices the following morning, and realizing the absurd and appalling state of risk I was living in (House, car, electrical appliances etc…) I went in and asked if there was a remedy?

“Sure,” said the union advisor, “You can’t be excluded from the policy just because you don’t have the weeks, so you can pay retail for the very same union insurance you had for $400 a year when you were in work.”

“How much would it cost?”

“$935 dollars a month.” This was said with an entirely straight face.

“I’ll take it.” I said instantly, glad to be able to come in out of the cold of the perilously uninsured condition into the warmth of at least being able to go on living in a well built dwelling should I step under a bus.

And there you have it. $400 a year, if in sufficient work; the precise same policy (and very good it is too) for something north of $11,000 a year, if you fall from favor with the gods of employment. Oh, and how a mere $500 per month now seemed a bargain, (which I could not access, remember?) Free market capitalism mixed with medicine, a compote of sophisticated financial oppression at its finest. Trawl the Internet and it will tell you the stats are that more than 60% of personal bankruptcies here in the Land of the Free are due to medical expenses. Seems plausible to me.

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As Tilney photo Erika Rolfsrud

Deep personal thanks to Bonnie Monte at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival for inviting me to play Tilney in the recent sumptuous production of Shakespeare in Love over there. Unknowingly, although profound thanks are still due, she saved my medical bacon.

Which is just as well, because I went to the doctor for a check up (most men don’t go, the statistics say, until they are 60). Well I just turned 60, so here I am right on the national average. There’s nothing seriously wrong, just a few harbingers of the issues to come as we move inexorably forward towards the final exit. The doctor was an extremely agreeable chap with whom I exchanged medical jokes. I told him that had I known it was going to be this much fun I’d have come to see him years ago.

In George Orwell’s book, Down and Out in Paris and London, Boris says:

“It’s fatal to look pale, it makes people want to kick you.”

This whole sorry episode could be viewed as a pale tale, and hey! It’s not sooo bad to have First World problems of this kind, actually all of the above is just one manifestation (there were plenty of others, believe me) of what we actor/astrologers know as the Saturn Return. I’ve just had my second one — we all get one about every thirty years or so.

If you are interested in my astrological perspective on the coming year, take a look here, but wait until the 2nd of January 2018 when the post will be live.

Oh, and if you thought medical insurance was fun and games, try getting dental coverage.

Happy New Year!

Take care of your teeth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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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!