January 2008

For every actor that lives, there are parts he was born to play. Whether Wallace Greenslade is one of mine remains to be seen, but as I know the director of the London production, the Spike Milligan of the Sydney production, and the producer of the New Zealand production, I would have felt left out if I hadn’t been involved in some way at some stage, so am very pleased to have been cast.

Rehearsals are absorbing. I always forget just how much they interfere with your life, and there’s often that curious sensation that you’ve never been in anything else that evolves around the start of the second week. The first week is usually taken up with table work, where we all sit about drinking more coffee than is healthy, discussing the play line by line, scene by scene – or not. Sometimes there is no discussion, just a long and informed monologue by the director – as was the case with Jonathan Miller’s production of Bussy D’Ambois at The Old Vic in 1987 (in which I played 2nd Plum Bearer) where he spoke for three hours without notes, expounding on concepts like ‘the King’s Peace’ and associated subjects, complete with bibliographic references.

“Ying Tong – A Walk With The Goons”, is a well constructed play taking the form of a series of comic sketches around the story of Spike Milligan losing his grip on reality. The humour takes its cue from the original BBC radio series, The Goons, which ran for nine years from 1951 to 1960, the other members of the trio being Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe – with Michael Bentine leaving the quartet early on. My character Wallace Greenslade, is the one that everybody has heard, being one of the voices of the BBC, but that fewer people have heard of. I also play Spike’s wife, and a Jewish-Irish leprechaun.

The Wilma Theater is one of two new theatres which grace Broad Street in downtown Philadelphia, the other one houses The Philadelphia Theatre Company where I saw a splendid production of M. Butterfly two nights ago. There is a lot of humour in M.Butterfly and my colleague and I, seated in the front row, chortled heartily – until we noticed, you couldn’t not, that the rest of the audience was not laughing as much. They did not want to go there. To be fair it was a preview audience, and preview audiences are notoriously tough, only out-toughed by corporate ones where everybody is busy watching to see if the boss will laugh.

Looking around the well-appointed theatre – a poem in muted earth tones, with good acoustics – I assessed the audience to be well-dressed, middle-class, and middle aged – as is the case the world over with live theatre. While that explains a lot in terms of the reluctance to let loose a few belly laughs, it dismayed me as to our prospects of landing a laugh riot with Ying Tong (-A Walk With The Goons). The humour is British absurdist, and the script is peppered with uniquely British references – Lewisham, Cheam, Frankie Lane. In these circumstances I usually suggest to the management the deployment of a well placed claque, and possibly a mildly hallucinogenic odourless gas.

I’ve lived in America for almost eight years now, and one thing I’m still not used to is the nationwide passion for longer hours of work. The Yanks seem to think more work is better work, but in my view it’s just more. Where I come from (the UK) people understand the virtue of taking the odd afternoon off, and where I grew up for a while (Australia), if you tried to rehearse on a week end, you’d be laughed out of the room.

It was the very first theatre job I had in the States when a stage manager said to me, “I want you to drill these lines, drill them, drill them, drill them!!”

I had an episode of l’esprit d’escalier – which is when you come up with the reply you should have made about twenty minutes after the fact. What I should have said, but didn’t, was “If I had wanted drill, I would have joined the army, but I wanted to play, which is why I became an actor.”

Ying Tong – A Walk With The Goons, enjoyed critical success in Britain, but moderate popularity. In Australia however, the show took Sydney by storm, and toured about half of that vast continent, with a tour of the other half slated for later this year.

We are an eclectic group in Ying Tong. There is a British contingent in the cast, and the theatre itself is co-artistically directed by Jiri and Blanka Zizka originally from Czechoslovakia. The staff of the Wilma, and the production team on this show, represent a mix of races and nations in the way that is the best of America, and a large percentage of the cast, (technically it would be 62.5% taking into account some dual nationalities) are American. It’s a U.S. premiere. Will the humour cross the pond? I’ll let you know.


December 2007

This year I’ve worked in Florida, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Texas. In three weeks I go to the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia to do a play called Ying Tong – A Walk With The Goons.

My goal at the moment is to become a writer/actor instead of the other way around. To which end I am writing a novel, an entirely speculative project. I applaud Somerset Maugham, who wrote eight novels before he had a success, but went on to earn $42 million from his writing. Likewise Robert Ludlum who was in his 40s before he turned to writing, having been an actor below 14th Street in New York until then.

One recurring feature of the actor’s life is the constant re-balancing of the to-do list. I’ll start the exercise regime, once we open/when we close/at the beginning of rehearsal – it’s custom made for a procrastinator. But actor’s procrastination is as nothing to writer’s absorption. I’ll write the letter when the book is finished/published/when the sequel is commissioned etc.

Creating a new story, and shaping it for public consumption, are two completely different activities, and require different mind-sets and skills. Writer’s block happens because one applies the skills of the second activity to the procedure of the first. If the the Inner Editor – that perky daemon that sits on your left shoulder and offers perceptive feedback on all your shortcomings – is allowed to speak too early, nothing will ever be written. The correct response to the Inner Editor should it butt in, is to hit it over the head with a wooden mallet.

Going back to the acting for a moment; I believe I have now worked with the finest stage director in the world. His name is Taswell Thompson, and is Artistic Director at the Westport Country Playhouse, in Connecticut. I was engaged to play the Chancellor of the University of Nebraska in a play called ‘Sedition’ set in 1917. A real man, in the real story of the playwright’s grandfather, who spoke publicly against America’s involvement in WW1. For which exercise of free speech he lost his reputation, his livelihood, and his home; this was in the context of the recently passed Espionage Act which created it an act of sedition to criticize the government.

That aside, let me briefly describe Taswell’s working method:

1) The actors play a scene.
2) Taswell watches with close attention.
3) The scene ends, Taswell takes a moment to consider.
4) He then says (something like): “That was wonderful!”

But wait, it gets better: he doesn’t bother with those annoying details like: ‘It’s better if you enter upstage of the table’, or ‘pick up the tea-cup before you say the line THEN you’ll get the laugh. He trusts his actors and knows that they will sort all that out for themselves. Twice or three times in our rehearsal process Tasewell spoke at length about the themes of the play, and the needs of the production in general. On our last day in the rehearsal room before we moved to the theatre, he said, just as we were about to start our run-through, “what would happen if we took all the air out of it?”

“What would happen?” we wondered.

We took all the air out of it and at the interval Taswell said, “It is thrilling when you do it like that. Thrilling!”

In getting on for 30 years as an actor, this is the man I have waited to meet. Abundant praise – works for me as an actor… and from here on, when writing, I shall encourage my Inner Taswell.

Here are some predictions for 2008:

The Australian dollar will rise.
The ice will keep melting.
I will finish my book.

Happy New Year.


November 2007

A few years ago I had a few websites, and used to put out a quarterly newsletter. I had to close them down to do a bit of re-thinking, re-structuring, re-everything. Now that I am within sight (I hope) of finishing my first novel, I’ll be needing a website soon, so this blog is a kind of pre-launch.

Living in New York, I find Thanksgiving an easier festival on the nerves than most of the others up to and including birthdays. It’s because, as we agreed at dinner last night, it’s really all about a feast, and hasn’t been quite hi-jacked by commerce in the manner of Christmas, and (in the US) Halloween. Talking of feasting, and now that I am verging on 50, action must be taken. I am fighting a losing battle with my waistline which seems to have it’s own mind and is determined to achieve an inch per year. Watch this space.

I am one those actors that has been trying to do something else for a living since the day I started. It’s not that I don’t enjoy acting, I do. It’s not that I don’t work, I do (although few of us work enough), It’s not that I’m not good at it, I am – alright, modest explanation here: the world is oversupplied with good actors, there are a lot of us about. And as for me, well I am good at what I do within my limits – don’t ask me to sing onstage, for example.

Most actors these days have to be actor hybrids. The glamorous end of the business is full of actor/directors, actor/producers and the actor slash devolves all the way to the most traditional actor/waiter. The reasons for this are several. First though, always has been and I guess always will be, the extraordinary difficulty of earning a living wage even if fully employed. Being an actor is a fun gig, but Dionysus levies a price on his servants.

Within the profession, the popular wisdom is that you shouldn’t try to explain what its like to civilians, and maybe that’s smart, but it’s such a cliched complaint from the actors that it’s so hard to make ends meet – and the irony is that the small percentage of us who are known to the public make as much money as any professional, and that tiny elite that are really well known, make a bunch more than the President – that I want to say something about it, and dammit it’s my blog, so I will.

Actors are forgettable. Think about it. You might remember the lead (but even then it’s often; “who was the guy who played…?”), but try and remember the best friend. How about the neighbour with one scene, the visiting uncle with three lines? And that is majority of us. See what I mean? And of course I’m talking about actors who get onto TV or into films. What about the stage actors? And that’s most of us.

The only way you might remember a stage actor is if you see them regularly playing a range of parts, and the only way that might happen is if you live in a town where there is a resident company of actors and you go to the theatre now and then.

All of which is a long preamble to talking about my last job. I just did a play called Arsenic And Old Lace at The Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas. It was fascinating from several points of view. First off, the Alley is one of the very few, in fact at this writing, the only theatre of comparable size and stature in the USA which fields a permanent company of resident actors.

One of the advantages to having a company of actors is the high quality of the work. Assuming reasonable working conditions, at the very least there will superior ensemble skills than can be achieved in three weeks rehearsing with semi strangers. At the Alley, every member of the company is an accomplished performer, and there is a culture of mutual respect for the craft that holds the company together. The theatre has thrived through flood, and dwindling aging audiences world-wide, to achieve a high level of artistic excellence and financial stability. And they pay okay too. Only the Guthrie amongst major regional American theatres pays better.

Much of the Alley’s success is directly attributable to its Artistic Director Gregory Boyd, a man of unusually high I.Q. and as gifted a master of stagecraft as any I’ve known in thirty years. I had a delightful time in Houston, and the production was a laugh riot from start to finish. The two ladies were played by the delightful Mia Dillon, and the amazing Dixie Carter, brilliantly supported by the Alley company at its characterful best. I gave a pair of contrasting cameos in Act One and Act Three, and in Act Two when I should have been writing chapters of the novel, I played backgammon with that splendid actor Todd Waite. Houston, an oil and space exploration town (there are so many) built on a swamp, is now the fourth largest city in North America, and it sports world-class opera, ballet, and theatre all within a few city blocks.

Now I’m back in New York, and as with all theatre gigs, when it’s over it’s as if it never happened. As of this writing not engaged to do any acting, although there are a few irons in fires. Poised for a final edit on the novel. Have not looked at the manuscript for all this week, and will not for another week yet.

Touching on the novel, I have a new respect for people who crank them out year after year, and frankly admit writing this one has been a huge learning experience. I’ve enjoyed it though, and look forward to learning more, and maybe even one day officially becoming an actor/writer.