It’s a brand new year. Months of challenges, opportunities and possibilities lie ahead, but for those of us inbetween acting jobs, in these cold winter weeks it is more important than ever to keep the faith, put in the hours and stay focused on our goals.
Having a break from the acting world can sometimes give you time to reconnect with your roots, your friends, your partner, your sense of self – it can be a nourishing time of reflection before the next job arrives and the carousel starts spinning again. If you’ve been working to performance schedules, it can also be the perfect time to take in some theatre and rekindle your love for your vocation.
I have found a real source of inspiration recently in the memoirs of actors and practitioners who I admire. Reading about their struggles on the road to success, or their impressive commitment and work ethic, really motivates me to pursue challenges in my own career.
It’s exciting and valuable for any actor to delve back throughout the history of their profession and consider simpler times, when London appeared to be a tiny place with only a handful of working actors in it. Heady days when you could walk out of The National one night after playing Hamlet, and by the time you’d crossed the river into Covent Garden some executive would have spotted you and offered you your next job. The era of the Oliviers, the Jacobis, the Geilguds and the Richardsons.
Of course it can be infuriating to read how easily these great talents established themselves in the industry and then moved from job to job for the rest of their glittering careers, with nothing like the saturation of other actors and directors in the city of the twenty-first century. But in the days when an Equity card had to be earned through honing your skills in a repetory company first, there’s a lot to be said for the hard graft undertaken as well.
Pete Postlethwaite is a fine example of a man who was at all times interested in the work alone. Whether it was a Hollywood blockbuster or a personally produced and funded touring production of a Shakespeare play, Postlethwaite threw his vitality into everything he did, led by the project rather than money or fame. His autobiography, A Spectacle of Dust, sadly released after his death in January 2011, has far too many beautiful passages to mention, but choice examples include his first experiences of performing in school plays (“falling into the warm embrace of the lover who was going to be my lover for the rest of my life: the audience”), to his demanding days in rep at The Everyman in Liverpool. Postlethwaite recalls how his fellow actors would outwit each other on stage in front of an audience in pursuit of their character’s objectives, deliberately rebuffing them or even suddenly jumping on each other’s backs, an experience he describes as like “walking the high-wire every night”.
There are times when he speaks very candidly about the insecurities implicit in the profession as well; a minor breakdown during a performance of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in Aberystwyth, which signified a defining moment of discovery for him, and the “rampant paranoia” that can breed in companies, through misheard conversations over tannoys in dressing rooms. Most inspiring, though, is the story of his audition for In the Name of the Father in which he arrived unannounced at the Casting Director’s office and introduced himself in character is Guiseppe Conlan, Belfast accent and all, and landed the role – an impressive act of daring I can’t see many actors getting away with!
It’s this enterprising nature and industrious drive that is so valuable to relate to as an actor, and one shared with great aplomb by Kenneth Branagh in his book Beginnings. Penned at the age of just 28, it seems premature until you consider that by that time Branagh had already set up his own successful theatre company, worked alongside and directed his heroes, and adapted, directed and starred in a groundbreaking screen version of Henry V which went on to change the way Shakespeare is presented on film to this day.
Branagh’s recollections are equally significant because he also went out and did things on his own terms from day one, his undeniable talent opening doors for him every step of the way, despite periodic bouts of backlash from the press. If he decided to take on Olivier’s Henry V (a dogged comparison which recently came full circle with Branagh’s portrayal of the great thespian himself in My Week With Marylin, a role he relished with something of an ironic smirk), or even his Hamlet, the critiques of the beleaguered British public were never enough to stop him.
There’s much exaltation to be found in the works of the master himself though; Laurence Olivier’s On Acting is a thoroughly entertaining read from cover to cover. Say what you like about Olivier’s bombastic acting style (most memorably his wonderfully RP fresh faced portrayal of a working class Yorkshireman or blacked-up Othello) he certainly has a courageous approach to the craft that is to be applauded. The man is fearless and passionate – I almost hope he isn’t aware of his huge ego, but I imagine large passages are written with a wry smile. Finally, I wanted to share with you an extract where he talks about taking a final curtain call after his “seminal performance of Hamlet”:
“You know the bow, we’ve all done it. It goes something like this: Eyes take in the gallery, hold for a moment. Eyes take in the upper circle, hold for another moment. Eyes to the dress circle, longer hold, more money there, eyes to the stalls, even longer. Treat the boxes as if there were royalty in them. Then slowly let the head come completely down, chin almost on chest. Play the modesty. Then the questions. Is this really for me? This applause that I hear – it can’t be for me! I am only a mere player, only your humble servant. Arms outstretched to the company on either side; without them, dear audience I am nothing. Wait for another beat, then move forward. Hand on heart, then final bow. I would stay with you longer dear audience , but I am exhausted. I must leave you now. By this time they should be on their feet. If not, you’ve got something wrong.”
Superbly preposterous stuff isn’t it? And a fitting way to end this column – a rallying cry to an actor’s fragile ego akin to that of his definitive St Crispin’s Day speech, but no less valid a source of inspiration.
Image by Ginnerobot.