January 2010

There was a saying in the British army in the days of national service when every young man between the ages of 18 and 20 was called up for two years.

‘If you couldn’t take a joke you shouldn’t have joined.’

Copenhagen is a demanding play on its actors and audiences alike. The story deals with a forever obscured corner of detail in the history of the development of the atomic bomb. The text though, glances at Quantum Mechanics, Heisenberg’s Uncertaintly Principle, Bohr’s Complimentarity, and takes in plenty of philosophical implication along the way, examining also among many things, patriotism, friendship, loyalty, ambiguity, irony, and danger.

One effect of performing this densely worded text eight times a week is hyper stimulation of the jaw, because none of the three of us ever shut up. Stage time is elastic too. Sometimes the play connects with eternity, and one wishes that Michael Frayn had alowed a stringent editor to overhaul his text. He’s a man who enjoys complexity, intricacy, and extrapolation, and where there is an opportunity for a subjunctive clause, he’ll likely write two or three. Respect though, and praise for undertaking this fascinating examination and giving it dignity on a stage, but skillful cutting of 10% of the text would (in my opinion) turn this very good play into a great one.

A small theatre like Palm Beach Drama Works can be a pleasure to play because if the audience is attentive, performances can achieve that special intensity which only occurs in live theatre and seldom occurs in theatres that seat more than a few hundred. PBDW seats 84, and even though the stage being wider than deep means that the first 4 rows (of five) are watching tennis when there is dialogue from both stage right and left, we have frequently heard the special silence that comes when a group of people don’t want to miss a word. The converse is true too. And when audience members arrive with a few martinis on board, or simply because they have lived for many decades, sometimes they slumber, all visible from the stage.

All in all though, the run here has been a big success. So much so that the theatre added extra performances at every opportunity to cope with demand for tickets and all perfs sold out completely.

For an actor the experience of doing good work in a good production which is popular is about as good as it gets. Sometimes you get one, but to get all three, as has happened here, is a perfect storm. Even so, and even with a good national review in (of all things) The Wall Street Journal, it’s a bit of a desert flower blooming unseen. There was talk of extending the run, of touring the production, and/or reviving it, none of which is logistically viable. So we the actors, the management, and our audiences will just have to let it go on our last night Sunday 31st of Jan, about the time I post this – the ephemeral nature of live theatre.

At one of our talk-backs – a strange event which has become more prevalent in recent years – where as many of the audience who are interested, stay on after the performance to ask questions of the actors and offer their own comments. I say strange, because my feeling as an actor is, I’ve just told you everything I know about this play – as well as which, do you really want to deconstruct something as elusive as a performance? Having said all that, the talk-backs held here have been notably intelligent – at one of them an unusually young man (in his 20s – unusually young for this theatre in particular, but for theatres everywhere), asked if we ever got bored repeating the roles.

I gave the theatrically correct answer which is ‘No, because the play is endlessly fascinating, there’s always more to discover, every audience it different… blah, blah, blah’. All of which is true by the way, and I could have gone on to say, that none of us has such perfect technique that we can be sure of delivering the moments as planned in rehearsal every time, so that there is always something to improve, and repetiton is the mother of skill. All of which is also true.

But another truth(which I didn’t say) is yes, sometimes. When between a quarter and a half of the audience is actually sleeping, or when several people in the front row yawn loudly, or when someone checks her nails at a particularly delicate moment, or when a married couple carry on an audible commentary, or when a cell phone goes off, or when after two and a half hours of intense concentration and effort to communicate things not easily communicated, several audience members head as quickly as their age allows, for the exit, not even waiting for the lights to go down on the final lines… Real quality in live theatre is a rarity. There is a scale between the deadly quite good and the acceptable very good, and most shows except the out and out turkeys fall somewhere along it.

I’ve always, mistakenly maybe, regarded being an actor as a vocational calling. And I am profoundly grateful that I was lucky enough to be a professional for, so far, about 30 years. The experience of the job has changed so much over the years. The consuming ambition – which I now regard as a necessary affliction of youth – is all gone. But the silence where people hold their breath because something on the stage has illumined some detail of life in a way that could not have happened elsewhere, where people lean forward in interest and appreciation of the work they see unfolding before them, and in compliment the actors are in the zone, performing at their best level of skill within their limits, that moment, those moments, that is the gold, that’s why we do it, why we joined.


December 2009

Back in London I had an actor friend who was one of those appallingly bright people who can do The Times, The Telegraph, and The Independent crosswords before lunchtime. One day I asked him how he coped with the tendency that comes upon directors to treat actors like idiot children.

‘Easy,’ he said, ‘I just take about twenty points off my I.Q. before I go into a rehearsal room.’

Yes, but what happens when as an actor you are playing somebody hugely much more intelligent than you, as in the case of C. McPhillamy playing the genius Neils Bohr? Unfortunately I know of no converse technique to increase the I.Q. – well alright maybe there are some yoga poses which deliver oxygen-rich blood to the brain, and some people recommend a diet high in omega-3 oils. The truth remains that grappling with Schrodinger’s wave formulation, Heisenberg’s particle mechanics, and Einstein’s new dimensions of space time… the best I can do is to fake it.

I purchased and even read some of Quantum Physics for Dummies, but soon discovered I was reading beyond my comprehension. So I purchased Physics for Dummies. That was a tough read as well, and I could have gone on to buy Algebra, Mathematics, and Calculus for Dummies. But I didn’t.

I hear that Fritjof Capra’s book, The Tao of Physics (which I haven’t read, although it’s on the list) makes links between eastern mysticism and modern science. Especially when it comes to proving that nothing actually exists – concepts explored in Copenhagen (the play not the climate change summit). This is West Palm Beach, a town long associated with that most useful of illusions in our illusory universe – money. The wealth of the district here is such that it’s easy to imagine that the leaves on the palm trees are $100 bills. The greatest stock market speculator of the early 20th century, Jesse Lauriston Livermore who at the height of his wealth in the mid 1920s had a personal fortune of $125 millions, used to sojourn here at just about the time that Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg were doing the science that changed our world forever. The illusion of wealth and the proof of non-existence have revisited West Palm in the forms of both the general economic crisis, and the particular investment scam that Bernie Madoff perpetrated on many investors. Coincidentally Madoff’s personal wealth at the time when indeed he made off with so much of other people’s money was estimated to be the same to within $1million as Livermore’s and he had a place here too.

I saw an excellent production The Voysey Inheritance at the Caldwell Theatre in Delray Beach just down the road, written in the early 1900s adapted by David Mamet, dealing with a precisely similar banking deception. I mention it here because the time correspondence of the dates of The Voysey Inheritance and of Copenhagen, and between Livermore’s wealth before he lost it and Madoff’s before he was exposed – flirt within an 80 to 90 year span. And 80 to 90 years – 84 years actually – is the length of one full period of Uranus, planet of revolution, disruption, chaos, and other things too. The stock market crash of ’29 plus 84 would give us the year 2013 – and should we notice that the Mayan calendar says a lot about the 21st of December 2012?

Apart from doomsday, another concern when juggling a dense text, ethics, friendship, loyalty, patriotism, and the sub-atomic world, is playing a character whose name is Bohr. They call him Bore – Crashing Bore. But I am delighted to report the production has been well received. People seem absorbed in the human story and prepared to listen attentively through some of the more challenging passages. “…and the uncertainty comes, not as you claim, from its indeterminate recoil when it’s hit by an incoming photon…” or, “…let’s see, the scattering cross-section of the mean free path would be about 6 times 10 to the minus 24…” for example.

The fact that this production is viable at all is due to our director and designers. The Palm Beach Drama Works theatre is a small space, the auditorium seats 84, and the stage is wider than deep. We have a spare, lean set with Bauhaus references. Our lighting and sound plots help immeasurably in charting us through sequences in the text. And full kudos to our director Barry Lewis, who took the time to go through the play with as fine a tooth attention as our non-science minds could manage.

I think directing is the hardest job to do well in all theatre. I mean to do really well. A lot of people are pretty good at it, and a lot of people are not. But rare indeed is a director whose expertise matches the vision of the author. To be a really gifted director, you have to know something about acting, design, production, publicity and all the rest of it. It helps if you’ve done some of these jobs, but crucially your function is to guide and release good work in others.

Here’s one of my favorite director stories:

John Moffat – a distinguished British actor, once played Judge Brack in Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre in London. The production was directed by Ingmar Bergman. For the first three days Bergman said nothing to John. Nothing at all. John began, as actors can so easily, to feel insecure. He was sitting in the canteen having a solitary lunch, when Bergman approached him. The dialogue went like this:

Bergman: May I join you?

John: Yes, of course (thinking, Oh God he’s going to sack me)

Bergman sits. There is a silence.

Bergman: How long have you been an actor?

John: (Here it comes) I don’t know… about 25 years I suppose.

Another silence.

Bergman: Ah yes… I can see 25 years skill in your work.

Exit Bergman.

Nice isn’t it? Scandinavian, minimal, and above all, effective.

“I would have done anything for him.” Said John.


November 09

I would like to share with you my favorite maxim. It goes like this:

Hell hath no fury like a vested interest masquerading as a moral principle.

I was born, then, when I was 5 years old I had my tonsils out. As an adult I had cosmetic surgery once, while I lay on the operating table one surgeon said to another, ‘So how’s your kitchen coming along?’

The other guy said, ‘Great. It’s costing an arm and a leg though.’

Honestly, I thought I had walked into a hospital sitcom.

I thought I had broken a toe once, so I went to the Emergency Room and had it x rayed. No broken toe, but I did get a date with one of the nurses.

Visits to doctors averaged once or twice a year for about 40 years – say 80 to 100 visits. What else? – Oh yes, my two sons were born. By the time he was 2 and a half, one of them had a chronic hearing condition and we had to hassle for it but we got immediate (within a week) effective surgical treatment. He hears perfectly now. Both my kids were right on the national average for their first years’ of life and went to the doctor about once a month. For both deliveries my then-wife had daily visits from the midwife (just like every new mother in the UK) for two weeks.

The above is a partial (‘cos I can’t remember it all) list of medical procedures I had while I was living in the UK (where I was born). How much did it cost me? Well till I went to work when I was 16 it cost me nothing at all. Then it cost me the same as everyone else – that is 9% of gross income, a tax called National Insurance, deducted at source from every paycheck. And if I was unemployed from time to time I was still able to go to a doctor if I needed one. In just about every contact with medical professionals and in treatments, I received professional care, courtesy and kindness.

I just get mildly offended and/or amused when I hear political types in the USA making pronouncements about the UK and the health system over there.

No one ever goes bankrupt in the UK because they can’t pay medical bills. No one is uninsured. And if you wish to pay the premiums you are perfectly at liberty to buy private insurance too, many people do. What’s wrong with any of that?

In a few weeks I go to West Palm Beach, Florida, to do a play called ‘Copenhagen’. I got the script today and I think I may have lost my mind, or may lose it shortly. The play is basically a tome about Nuclear Physics. I like South Florida in the winter. I like the theatre – Palm Beach Drama Works – seen a few shows there, all good. And I like to work. But honestly this is a lot of work. I don’t mind that either, but it’s not a lot of money.

So much so is it not a lot of money – to the point that along with most other skilled professionals in theatre I am once again subsidising the theatre, the audience, and the profession. Don’t worry, I am not being critical of the USA here, the very same thing happens in the UK. And alright, all of us in the theatre know – well we do now if we didn’t then – that we’re not in it for the money.

Still, I still wonder why I’m going to do this job that is such a huge amount of work for such modest cash? Oh, I know – I’m an actor, and oh yes, I need to work a certain number of weeks to get my guess what, – health insurance.


September 09

Remembering Geoffrey Tozer
By Colin McPhillamy

I met Geoffrey Tozer for the first time in person in October 2003 when we performed together in the Barossa Valley in South Australia. We worked together twice more, in 2004 in New York City, and in 2009 in Kangaroo Valley, NSW. He became a dear friend.

I admired him as a unique and world class musical talent. His abilities at the piano were prodigious. In his prime he was capable of the most exquisite playing. His knowledge of the repertoire was enormous and his famous ability in improvisation extended to being able to mimic one composer with the left hand and another with the right simultaneously.

When we gave a concert in New York, several of the piano keys were sticky. Geoffrey was able to transpose the music as he played so as to avoid the bad keys. His encore of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody brought the house down – and I appreciated his showman’s instinct when he framed the encore with the words, “I wonder if the piano can take it?” The audience expected something spectacular and he gave it to them.

He was a graceful and generous colleague. Performing partnerships, and particularly duos, work well when each knows how to pass the focus to the other, how to support the other when necessary, and how to allow the other to do their work well. Geoffrey’s extraordinary sensitivity gave him the most delicate touch in this way. Together we worked on pieces for piano and speech. I thrilled at the way he was able to make a musical phrase hang in the air cueing the voice… It was a happy partnership and we hoped to explore many such pieces.

As we know, there is no shortage of actors in the world. It is a commodity over supplied by nature, but people of Geoffrey’s ability come along only so often. I count myself a good actor, and have worked with many such. But for me an actor, to share the stage with an exceptional classical musician, one who had touched greatness in his work, was a rare privilege.

As a person I found him to be the soul of refinement. He had exquisite taste in all branches of life, and a sense of humor that was sometimes piquant, sometimes jovial. He was naturally kind and had a courtesy about him that seemed to belong to another age. Geoffrey was some four or five years older than me, and we met when we were both in our fifth decade of life. By that time of course, life’s roller coaster has taken you high up and low down. I didn’t know all of Geoffrey’s history but what I did know makes me think along these lines:

I understood that his work had taken him to many places all over the world, yet for one so world-travelled, he was not in any sense a worldly man, au contraire, he was a walking innocent. I am sure this was a contributing factor in the tragedy of his too-early departure. Walking the earth giving performances, being a stranger in strange lands, can be a lonely thing. It’s tough enough if you’re part of a company, but a soloist on tour is a solitary challenge indeed.

In any artistic career, there must be a sound business component in place for the artist to flourish. The puzzle was that although Geoffrey remained highly popular with the general public right up until his last illness, he lacked the necessary management and commercial protection. Finally it is our great loss that he was taken advantage of more than once in his career, he often gave his services at literally a fraction of their worth. It is doubly our loss to have been deprived of the work he might have done. It is also the case that his story was misunderstood and misrepresented, and this was a sore trial which he bore with dignity.

I believe the misfortune he suffered in worldly terms, particularly after he had tasted the highest levels of acclaim and success, was too much for his delicate soul. Geoffrey had a delicacy about him. Physically though, his body was more along the lines of a gentleman apple farmer. His custom of taking long walks in all weathers gave his face a ruddy complexion that was a challenge to the best portrait photographers. He carried a little more girth than is generally advised by doctors.

He was a unique mix. As in the most interesting people he showed qualities which were parallel and non-intersecting. He was erudite yet innocent; generous yet opinionated; exquisite of taste yet unfashionable in his dress. He was the finest pianist I have ever heard, yet he could not write an invoice – it is tragic that he had to. Two characteristics I found especially charming, his distinctive voice which took its spring from his early childhood in the Indian subcontinent, and his eyes which sparkled frequently in merriment, but sometimes fiercely. One could glimpse there a flash of the finer place from which he came.

I am grateful that I knew him. I was honored to call him my friend. For our abrasive world maybe he was too fine, too talented, too complex to live long.


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.