Saturday, 29 December 2012

Line learning


It is a minor complaint amongst actors, a tiny grain of sand in the oyster of love for the audience, that the aspect of a performance that draws the most comment is often the feat of memory involved in line learning. 'Really?' thinks the actor, 'that was what you guys were focused on when I was out there getting my heart/arm/back broken? But that is just a result of physical repetition, a small tool in my technical armory. I feel so unappreciated and misunderstood'.

Anyone watching a play is bound to be impressed by the apparently smooth way in which the actors leap around the text, with iambic pentameter or Pinteresque pauses, seemingly holding the entire play in their heads. But most actors regard learning the lines as the first stage of the process; it is not until they have committed the text to memory that they can truly discover the performance they want to give. This is the ideal and the reality, for most actors, is somewhat different.

Of course, the challenge of learning the lines varies from job to job. If you are working in film, the dialogue is often sparse, it is a visual medium and it is often only in one or two scenes that the lead actors will be required to learn anything particularly epic (speeches that frequently fall into the 'I had a puppy' category as defined by David Mamet). The film actor still has to learn lines, but the trick for them will be to play with the form and make it their own, so that the audience will hardly notice that what is being spoken was scripted. This is not a question of changing the words, but of breathing the character's life into them, although famously the scriptwriter has more liberty taken with their work than the playwright. Also, the pace of filmmaking is glacially slow, two or three pages of script, on average, a day. So there is plenty of time to get familiar with the dialogue.

In television, you will often be working within a genre. There may be technical language to get grips with, such as medical or police jargon that needs to flow seamlessly. The pace is faster and if you are the lead in an ongoing series, time will have to be spent at the end of every long shooting day, learning the next day's lines. But that will be usually be it; about five to ten pages a day, unless it is a soap and then you enter a different realm. Soaps often get filmed in blocks, with colour-coded teams shooting each week and actors going from set to set for various episodes. They may have six episodes in their head at any one time, more if they have to do reshoots or pick ups. But the lines will be scene length, a few pages long. The actors do not need to learn whole episodes at a time.

Then there is theatre, where the actor actually does need to learn their entire part during the rehearsal period. Some actors like to get to grips with the lines before they start rehearsing but this is often not practical for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they may not be cast until quite late and secondly, because learning the lines completely out of context is quite odd, like memorising random items on a conveyor belt. When the movements of your character and the faces of the other actors become known, then the lines start to make sense. For this reason some actors deliberately try not to learn their part before they have thoroughly explored the play in rehearsal; they want the lines to be integral to the interpretation of the character.

So, what about the actual learning? It is exquisitely unexciting. There are some variations in technique, for example dyslexic actors will record their lines (how much easier now we are digital), and then listen to them or record the other character's lines and fill in their own according to their taste. Some actors like to write out their part by hand as they become more familiar with the words, because the physical act of writing the lines down helps to strengthen the memory.

But the main way of learning lines is plain old repetition. You get familiar with the words when you start rehearsing and then you go over them in the evening, covering your part and stumbling through, asking whoever will help to listen to you and then repeating them to yourself incessantly as you go about your day. Driving is a great time to do lines. Lines tend to make themselves known when you are sleeping as well (preferably not while at the wheel), swimming around your subconscious in a disturbing fashion. Suddenly, everything that you hear reminds you of your play and your friends and family become almost as crazy as you, while you chant bits and pieces from forthcoming attractions in a frenzy.

And then there is the learning of everyone else's lines as well. Not their entire part, more the beginning and the ends, well, you want to leave yourself some surprises when they chat away while you listen night after night for the next several months. But you'll need to know the starts and stops because basically, that's where you come in (you cannot, unfortunately, say all your lines in one go). Your colleagues don't always make it easy for you. They may take a lot longer than you to learn their own lines, (they may never quite know them) leaving you to figure out if they finished speaking or have a little bit more to say or if they're ever going to mention that bit about the wardrobe that you're supposed to ask them about next. But if there's a big pause in the middle of the scene while you wonder whose turn it is to go next, it's usually yours.

I wish it weren't so prosaic. I wish there were some cunning trick, a shortcut that the Magic Circle of Equity members revealed to the novice before their first night, or even after just for kicks. I don't think most audiences watch a play in the hope that some spectacular mishap will occur, although I have been told often enough that 'audiences love that sort of thing' when I have been responsible for some spectacular disaster. Actually, audiences rarely notice when things do go a bit wrong. Not horribly wrong like when you might be left alone on stage while your fellow actor screams obscenities into the wings before deciding to return. For instance. That, they do tend to notice. But minor mishaps, like skipping ahead an act before realising and then running through the missing pages in your head while carrying on with the play. Mostly, they don't notice that.

This is why the 'actor's nightmare' is not just a cliché. We really do wake up screaming about having to go on without knowing the lines. The feeling is so completely terrible, so sweat soakingly, heart-poundingly panic inducing, that even though there is absolutely no obvious way to do it, every time we start a job we eject large quantities of essential data, (how to file tax returns/recognise family members/tie shoelaces) and shove the whole play into our heads. It's not life saving neurosurgery, or going down a mine, but it is quite tricky. And yet, we still get ever so slightly, very respectfully, affronted when that is the only thing asked of us after a show. 

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Audio Books

One of my jobs is to record audio books, mostly the unabridged versions which are faithful recordings of the original text every if, and or but. These are usually single voice recordings which involve sitting in a small, airless booth for days on end while the producer tears their hair out, silently, on the other side of the glass. They take quite a lot of preparation for the reader, as they have to be read through and then marked up.

All readers have their own techniques, but I am an avid collector of highlighters. If a book is 400 pages long and a character speaks on p.20 and then again on p.284, the highlighter is your friend. The book must be read through, then again with the highlighters, and again with a pencil to mark up the ends of pages. Every time you turn the page, the sound guys will have to edit the noise out and you have to turn at the beginning or end of a sentence. So the ends of sentences have to be written at the bottom of the page.

Similarly, with descriptions of how the dialogue is spoken, you can get quite far through a passage of dialogue before the author adds "He whispered". These directions need to be brought to your attention as you are embarking on the dialogue, so they all have be ringed or underlined.

Then there are the pronunciations. These can result in hundreds of question marks, consultations with embassies, detours on-line and to the dictionary. If you're lucky the author will be alive and contactable though even their patience can run thin after a week of erratic phone calls on the correct emphasis for an invented petrol company/haunted house/tinpot dictator. One novel had a character who liked to calm themselves by listing the names of every single road they had taken prior to their arrival which wouldn't have been too bad had they not enjoyed long journeys and lived in Sweden.

Some readers are just remarkably talented, they can skip through the pages with hardly any mistakes and are also talented actors with mellifluous voices. Most of us have our strengths and weaknesses as readers. The most difficult books have characters with strong regional accents travelling around the globe and learning new languages. One book I narrated was set in World War II and therefore rquired people from all over eastern Europe congregating frequently. They were all men of a similar age and in order to distinguish between them I resorted to various vocal tics so that they must have sounded like a conference on speech impediments.

This week, I am doing another recording of a series of fairy books for children. They are delightful stories with many characters of an extremely high vocal register. I shall be squeaking with abandon.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Crying

Some actors find crying on cue very easy, others impossible. There are various tricks employed to simulate tears, both psychological and physical and all are perfectly valid if the end result works. Like any technical aspect of performance, it is the effect that is important and not the cause, though it took me a long time to understand this. Just as most actors prepare themselves for roles completely differently, some working from the inside out, some crafting the external appearance, the preparation for an emotional scene is intensely personal.

Of course, it is impressive when an actor bursts into tears in the middle of a scene, the evidence of an emotion so sincerely felt that salt water is produced. But that scene will be rarely filmed from one angle in one take. Does it become more impressive if the actor can repeat the flow of tears in every shot? Or less? If an actor needs several minutes silence before the filming of the scene, are they digging deep into their character's psyche, or their own? Is the production of a single tear down one perfectly made-up cheek evidence of great art or a circus skill?

I have seen talented actors use sticks of menthol before a take and watched them transform the minty irritant into a perfect portrayal of grief. I have observed less experienced actors torment themselves for hours or days while they assumed a mantle of despair. Onions on skin, Oil of Olbas in a handkerchief, pepper, staring into bright lights, the death of a loved one, the end of the world; all are employed in the creation of a celluloid teardrop. With the increased use of CGI in films that wouldn't ordinarily call for special effects, tears can now be a post-production addition without the consent or knowledge of the actor. Should this change our appreciation of the performance?

When I was working as a child, it was quite common to use glycerine in place of tears. The effect is not very satisfactory; slimy globules that don't behave like water and have to be in place at the beginning of the scene. Perhaps it was considered less invasive than rubbing menthol in a child's eye. At 10 years old, I didn't know any better, and as I feigned grief over a stolen pony, or recovered from my possession by the devil, I would proudly let the syrup run down my face.

Then I did a play for the BBC. At that time, television plays were rehearsed as a stage play and then recorded in the studio over a few days. The denouement of this particular play is the revelation that the family's happiness is a charade and my character leaves to shoot herself offstage. For the final argument, I was to break down and cry with my father, a scene we had rehearsed in the studio with plenty of fake sobbing on my part. On the day of recording, I was in high spirits; the studio was always an exciting place to be and I loved being involved. When the time came to shoot, I could not cry and the director did not want to use glycerine. After a few takes, they called a break while they prepared for the close-ups. One of the assistant directors approached and walked me round the back of the set, out of sight of my chaperone. Leaning against the wooden frame of the house, he asked what was going on. 'You're supposed to cry in this scene.' I nodded. 'Well then,' he said 'You better bloody well cry.' I felt a mixture of guilt, at my failure, and fear, of his anger. Then my pride kicked in. I became determined that I would not cry. And for the rest of the recording that was my goal; don't cry. In the end, the make-up department used the glycerine and I expect my face didn't feature much in the final edit.

The strange thing is that ever since then I cry at the drop of a hat. Murdered, molested, married or martyred, every type of character in any medium, the tears flow with abandon. The harder thing to do, I have since found, is stop.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Cosmetic Surgery

Cosmetic surgery is somewhat of a mixed blessing for an actor. In many ways it is the last thing they should be doing. Actors need movement and expression in their faces and their individual features and flaws are much more interesting to watch than mass perfection. But while surgery used to be confined to the very famous and/or wealthy, a huge percentage of the Western population now routinely undergoes both minor and major cosmetic procedures. How do actors present themselves in such a climate? If they are to reflect the population, they must at least be taking the same amount of care of themselves. And how do they fulfil the image of the fantasy movie star if everyone is sculpting their bodies to perfection?

Those actors under most pressure will be female and working in the States and the biggest threat to their career is ageing. For them, getting the balance right between looking great for their age and losing their facial personality is more than a personal concern. There will be swathes of acolytes whose income depends on that actor's success who will be only too happy to recommend a good surgeon. If they don't have work done, they might be in competition with those who have and if they do have surgery, the world is eager to notice and disapprove. A review for a Demi Moore film in a Sunday broadsheet remarked that her performance was only notable for demonstrating her considerable plastic surgery. Yet there is a distinct possibility that if she hadn't had the surgery, she might not have been in the film at all; your dedication to your career is measured in some quarters by your commitment to your surgeon.

In England, it is not quite so pressurised. We don't make so many films, the small screen is more forgiving and the stage is positively greedy for character and quirks. We even seem to have an innate suspicion of good-looking actors, especially English ones. French actors are allowed to be beautiful and brilliant, it just suits them.

Living in a country where getting a manicure was regarded as the height of extravagance, British actors used to be relaxed about their body image. The only real pressure I ever received was from a costume designer on a Barbara Cartland film I once screen-tested for, who was most frustrated by my lack of cleavage, 'You could have something done about that' she hissed as we stuffed yet another sock into the cavernous corset.

Then I went to L.A. and it was all a bit different. It took me a while to understand what was happening when every audition I went to I met dozens of stunning, physically perfect actors. One evening I went to a party with a friend and, like the auditions, there were beautiful women everywhere you looked. I wondered what I was doing in that city; I couldn't compete with the level of perfection, nor did I really want to. Crestfallen, I was standing at the bar when I noticed a well-dressed older man staring at me from across the room. His eyes were boring into me and even when I returned his gaze, he didn't look away. At least someone, I thought, finds me interesting for who I am. Embarrassed but flattered I turned to my friend. 'That man, over there. He's really staring.' I said. 'He can't take his eyes off me.' 'Oh, him.' said my friend, 'He's a plastic surgeon. He’s just working out what he could improve. Don't smile for God's sake, he'll get a dentist over.' Sure enough, within a few minutes, several well-dressed older men had presented me with their business cards and reassurances of 'competitive rates for Brits'. How did they know?

I didn't get any surgical work done. At 26, it all seemed both too late and too early. And I figured at least I'd always have a big audience of cosmetic surgeons, waiting in the wings.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Love Scenes

Love scenes, also known as sex scenes, are as inevitable for actors as death and taxes and held in roughly the same esteem. Youth and Beauty are not pre-requisites for naked horizontal performances, although, as in the Real World, they may be asked to the party more often. Independent, low-budget, literary or artistic films might deliberately include graphic depictions of sex between the old and the faded to gain some reality points. Independent, low budget, genre or exploitation films will employ the more genetically or cosmetically favoured. Only big budget studio films tend to eschew sex altogether; R-rated movies limit potential box office revenue. So, if you want to avoid disrobing, your best bet is to be American, attractive and extraordinarily famous. If you still find you're rolling around the set with your ass in the air, you must really want to.

Once agreed upon, the days of shooting love scenes are marked indelibly in the schedule and on the consciousness of all involved. And that is a lot of people. The entire crew will be made aware of the sensitive nature of the filming with the large printed 'Closed Set' on the call sheet, if they hadn't already spotted the haunted faces of the actors and director flitting between caravans. Most directors enjoy filming sex scenes as much as they would taunting dancing bears; there is an unpredictable mood to an actor placed in such a vulnerable situation and if they turn, it is the director who will get the first swipe.

With the crew alerted, all bets are on. For the make-up and costume departments it will be a particularly challenging day. Tattoos, scars and other blemishes will need covering. Twenty-nine different types of underwear will need supplying for all eventualities, including the dreaded 'stunt pants'; flesh coloured triangles of synthetic fibre with Velcro sides, for last-minute nudity. Tousled hair, various stages of coital make-up, perspiration application and the soothing of egos will be among the day's work. They will not get to see the results of their labours for some time. The large television monitors, which relay a live feed from the set, are switched off during closed set filming. And although one member of both the make-up and costume department will stay on set to assist the actors between takes, the convention is for them to discretely turn their backs during a take. The first time I looked up in the throws of simulated ecstasy to see my good friends facing the corners like so many naughty students, we had to stop thrusting for several minutes while water and a thump on the back was supplied. I wasn't being paid to laugh that day.

The mechanics of filming sex scenes are complex. Who puts what where being a matter of story, character, personal preference, artistic interpretation and gravity. Not necessarily in that order. While rehearsal is in progress, clothes are kept on and the crew continues work on the sound and lighting. When shooting starts, only the camera crew, a sound operator, and the few facing the wall, remain. The director and the DP will have a monitor. For the actors, the amount of people watching is almost irrelevant, after all, everyone will be looking at it on a screen as big as a double-decker bus in the near future. Even if the camera was rolling with a remote operator there is always going to be a live audience; your fellow actor. And whether you like them,  or rue the day they were born, it is they who will witness the baring of your body, and even of your soul if you aren't very careful.

Every actor deals with the forthcoming event differently. "I apologise if I get an erection and also if I don't." The Gentleman Actor is known to have said to his Leading Lady. And while it is true that the subject may arise, male actors are legally protected from having to display their full proportions. Actresses may find it harder to disguise their disinterest from the public view but a cold set and the liberal use of ice cubes can assist if sheer terror has not sufficed.

As soon as each take ends, robes are replaced, cramps attended to, make-up re-applied and hair combed. If outdoors, any thorn scratches, gravel burns or sand grazes are dressed. At this moment, actors can find themselves wondering about the nature of their profession. It is best to keep them distracted with baby wipes and chocolate. They still have another take to do and then several different set-ups from other angles. Let them cry about it later, for now there is stubble rash to conceal and an awkward shot of the consummation in profile. Such are the labours of celluloid love.



Sunday, 19 February 2012

Auditions

Oh, I know, it seems simple. Learn your lines, turn up (on time), be good and go home. List of things not to do: be late, argue, insult anyone, be bad, overstay your welcome. I know this and yet...

All the tricks your psyche plays to help prop up your fragile ego, manifest when an audition looms. Think they're looking for a sexy girl for the part and don't believe you're up to it? Put on a big jumper and feign outrage at any suggestion to remove it. Think the part requires too little of your intelligence? Do some research and tell the director the script is historically inaccurate. Worried you might get the part and not be able to do it well? Sabotage the entire meeting with a character assassination of the producer's best friend. All this I have done and more. So many meetings, so few callbacks.

Of course, a lot of the time, you might not be right for the part and there is not much you can do about that. But quite often, with all the preparation involved in casting, the actors auditioning are both physically suitable and perfectly capable of doing the part. It is that something extra that the director is looking for and the process can be odd. You might have to improvise with the assistant director. Or perform the most intimate moments with an actor already cast. Or learn a two-page speech and sit outside the casting room while all the other actors perform it ahead of you, audibly. You might be shouted at for over preparation or under preparation. You might get the casting director on a bad day when she cries through the meeting, or pets her many cats, or takes a phone call and indicates you should carry on with the deathbed scene. The director might want your life story or they might not shake hands with you for fear of germs. They might mouth all your dialogue as they watch you through the monitor or put their head on the table and offer a running commentary. You just never know what is going to happen after you have rung that doorbell.

It is a trailer for coming attractions; a small slice of what life would be on set or stage with any of the above. If they're not shaking hands with you before you even start working together, it's unlikely you'll be on speaking terms by lunch on the first day. This may not matter to you, the project might be more important than the niceties of human connection and some of the best films come from the angriest sets. But it's worth bearing in mind at a casting, especially when you leave empty-handed. As long as the bastards weren't nice to you; that's no comfort at all.


Thursday, 20 October 2011

Reality Bites

How to distinguish between what you can do and what you get paid to pretend to do? After two years playing a doctor on Heartbeat and one year visiting a hospital on Holby City, I just about learned to take a pulse and remembered to put the stethoscope in my ears before trying to listen to a patient's chest (by patient, I mean an actor pretending to be a patient, this is where the confusion starts). But mostly I had to be able to talk the talk, that's the important bit, especially in an emergency situation, of which there weren't too many in fantasy 1960's rural Yorkshire. Nevertheless, confidence in medical technicalities and language is a sort of learned skill. And I got used to taking control when another character was feeling poorly, to being the health detective when a symptom was mentioned, and generally the fount of medical knowledge. While in reality I am only equipped with a Biology 'O'-level and a tendency to pass out when I give blood.

Still, my experience at pretending to be a doctor means that I am sometimes asked if I will attend in a medical situation or give medical advice to passers by. That is a confusion on the part of a viewer. Worse, is what I might kindly call a 'learned behaviour' where I actually think that I am a doctor and proceed to offer some sort of medical advice in the mistaken belief that I am helping. After a few minutes of this, the helpfully advised one may rightly ask, 'Are you a doctor?' and it is only then, and reluctantly, that I will admit that not only am I very much not a doctor but that I am making it all up.

And being a doctor is only the tip of the iceberg of delusion. I also believe I can speak other languages (A Time of Indifference), save marriages (Law and Order), get people out of jail (Hustle), play the piano (Little Dorrit, A Summer Story, almost anything where I wear a corset) and run a country estate (Land Girls but ditto about the corset). That is, I have an underlying sense that I know how to do these things and occasionally attempt them, only to be confronted with the realisation, more or less swiftly depending on the event, that I am able to do none of them. I can spend my days, instead of feeling okay about my luck in getting paid to pretend to be qualified, constantly being reminded that I have very few special skills (see separate post) and virtually no practical qualifications. It can be demoralising.

The net effect is that it can be hard to believe that I am ever actually doing something and not just pretending to do it. The paradigm is teaching an acting class where I find myself feeling as though I am pretending to be a teacher who's trying to teach people to pretend. But perhaps the greatest casualty (not Casualty in which I am a patient not a doctor) is the nagging sense of unreality about existing at all, a general sense that all situations are contrived, all clothes a costume, all behaviour a performance. My partner certainly has her suspicions that I am not altogether attached to the world. 'It's not funny, it's your life' she reminds me when I seem particularly disconnected. Harsh words, perhaps, but necessary. For how can you possibly 'seize the day' when you are dreaming of a different day in a different body possibly on a different planet certainly in a different reality? Often, she is the only one who can tell that I am only pretending that my feet are on the ground. I have to concentrate.

Although, I'm pretty sure I could do a serviceable tracheotomy with the right biro. I learned it from Mia Farrow ( The Haunting of Julia ).




Really.