Whilst waiting for the delayed writer and director of 6 Actors in Search of a Director, I meet some of the bustling cast. Despite being asked if I was an Assistant Stage Manager by one actor, the friendly ensemble happily tell me about their forthcoming show. Silk and One Night actor Neil Stuke describes the play (ironically, in retrospect, due to Berkoff’s initial, unintended absence) as “actors waiting in a room for a director. It’s tense.”
Alongside Stuke’s pre-rehearsal storytelling of his early morning trip to Daybreak, I meet one of the show’s producers, Steven Levy, who explains the history of Charing Cross Theatre in between painting the avocado-coloured walls of the theatre’s bar. “It was derelict. There was masking tape covering holes in the floor; nearly everyone in theatre had given up on it. When the opportunity came to buy it last year, we jumped on it, seeing its potential. It used to only be programmed for 20% of the time.”
The classically decorated theatre, complete with chandeliers, contrasts starkly with its previous state. The theatre is both a producing and presenting venue. Levy tells me, “We have recently programmed the theatre for the next year. I can’t tell you who we have yet, as not all of them have confirmed. There are set to be some interesting choices, which should cause a stir. But we are announcing our line up to the press in the next few weeks.”
It’s clearly an exciting time for the theatre, not least as Steven Berkoff arrives. Speaking frankly, he explains how, despite being marketed as a comedy, 6 Actors in Search of a Director is “more a slice of life which has comedic elements to it. It is about the laughter of the ridiculousness of the situation.” One can see how this is possible as the show focuses on actors playing actors, who are anxiously waiting in a room for their director to return. Berkoff elaborates on the play by describing how “they are trapped in a situation, waiting, waiting, always waiting. It is an actor’s raison d’etre; all he has to do is entertain himself, to chat, have idle gossip, give funny opinions. It is abrasive, like a pack of dogs in a pen who are hunting. It is about being functional. I was really interested in this as it doesn’t really apply to anyone else, for example electricians go to work and sort out wires, a plumber lays pipelines down.”
Although the play is inspired by the 50 films that Berkoff has featured in, his reasoning behind the play suggests a wider critical comment on film and stage acting. “An actor’s life on film has no comparison to actors on the stage. Actors love film, the locations of filming. But with film actors, it gradually erodes their talent away. Actors on stage use their voice, stamina and courage. It is a completely different skill, of honesty and truthfulness; it is a talent to be persuasive.”
He continues with unabashed honesty: “As much as I adore films, and it is fun, at the end of the day, film actors are second division. A film actor can come in and do nothing. It undermines his confidence, it diminishes his skills. They don’t have the courage to be stage actors. I’ve worked on films with lead actors who don’t bother to stage act anymore. Some have tried and failed, but at least they have tried.” Indeed, Berkoff cannot cite a specific scene or film, which led him to decide to write the play, only that “he had felt it coming for some years”.
The actors are brimming with praise for the writer and director, with The King’s Speech actor Paul Trussell carefully clutching his aged highlighted copy of Berkoff’s play West to be signed by him. Speaking as a director, Berkoff states: “we don’t have an artistic process. The actors learn their lines, I can shape the play with movement and choreography. It is about moving on the impulse of the text and communicating with the actors.”
The motivation behind his writing “is a passionate desire to communicate the wonders of the world and life as well its crimes and abuses. It is about what the writer feels and an overwhelming passion to set things down as they are too valuable to be lost. I want to say things to many people, it has to be something which I am moved, stimulated and excited by.” Berkoff reveals he “juxtaposes images, which are distinctly against each other. I like to try and be unusual, and find an inventive way of presenting ideas. In my opinion, verse is more inventive than prose. I’ve used a lot of poetry in plays. I like to put verse into drama.”
Berkoff sees the art form as a natural habit, “like eating, drinking and sleeping”. His high standards mean that many contemporary plays don’t meet his approval. “I have walked out of plays after the first act because I don’t think that they do this.” But he does concede an appreciation of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams’s writing. As for Berkoff’s future, he simply wants to “keep on working”. Hoping that 6 Actors in Search of a Director transfers to the West End, he’s also keen to “put on a Eugene O’Neill play and Methuen is publishing some of my plays shortly.” Great news for theatergoers that Berkoff’s theatrical habits are as alive as ever.
6 Actors in Search of a Director plays at the newly renovated Charing Cross Theatre until 23 June. For tickets and more information, visit the theatre’s website. With a new menu set to launch soon, too, the theatre is a great place to visit (as I am well informed by the actors that the food is delicious).