Theatre in Wales

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Being An Actor (part two)

Actor Theatre Book

Simon Callow , Penguin , July-06-14
Actor Theatre Book by Simon Callow The first part of Simon Callow's book of thirty years' vintage is the biography. In the complementary second part he delves into quite what acting is. He calls it the worm's eye view. “what day by day, hour by hour even, how it feels to be an actor.” For the viewer who sees the acting but with hardly any idea what it is or, more importantly, how it is, his writing is absorbing.

The writing hums. Unemployment is “the primeval slime from which actors emerge and to which they return.” It comes with a rider “as for anyone else, it's castrating.” Its last result is desperation for anything; a couple of lines, a commercial, anything is better than nothing. Callow's descriptions are exact, the tone wry and bitter-sweet. At auditions “the air is thick with smoke and raucous laughter.” The aisle is full of..."thirty coffee cups with cigarette butts lying in an inch of coffee.”

“It's understandable that actors, being for the most part powerless and passive in relation to their careers, should look for a big brother to look out for their interests.” That is the role of the agent. Callow pins down the ambivalence of the relationship. Actors “stalk around town, darkly”, convinced that a change of agent is the golden key to a career surge. Rehearsal rooms are uniform: “worn parquet floors, iron bars at the window, primitive plumbing, no air in the summer, no heat in the winter.”

The best anatomy of the rehearsal process is in John Caird's “Theatre Craft” (2011). Callow follows the process from the actor's perspective. “For a period, the rehearsal needs to be completely indulgent. You wade into the swamp and wallow, indulging, tasting, gorging on the character's sensations.” For Verlaine in “Total Eclipse” Callow in rehearsal ate three packets of chocolate biscuits. He expanded to over fifteen stone in three weeks. As for the first night audience “all of the various sections of it have some ulterior attitude to the performance. No-one is there simply to see the play. It's a self-conscious audience.”

The actor is all we, the audience, see. The paradox of the art is that actor is both superior to, but subordinate, to director and author. Callow is depthless in his admiration for Edward Bond yet the actual working relationship is fraught with tension. “My relationship with the man was stormily enjoyable...the actor, I think, he views with distrust and suspicion.” From Callow's side “What Edward never understood, though, was that in order to play the character the actor must experience the life within him, must let that life fill his consciousness.”

The blockage between actor and author-director crystallises in “He also refused to accept that the act of embodying another human being is a complex and unnerving business.” Callow elaborates on the director role in looking back on his time with John Dexter. He likens the script to a musical score but differentiates. A play is not a set of specific notes to be played as written. “A play needs to be discovered, uncovered one might almost say, liberated.”

For Callow acting is rooted in character. In rehearsal with Bill Gaskill he recalls “the misery I experienced as an actor until I had a firm grasp on who I was in the play.” It is not helped by the directorial view “that character was a bourgeois concept based on identification.” This encounter is prefigured in a bravura piece of description from drama school time. “Giving in was the essential experience.” “Leave yourself alone” they'd been saying to us since the day we arrived. Now suddenly I was.”

The writing ascends to bounce and relish. “It wasn't to be seen. It wasn't to impress. It was to do it, to revel in this newly discovered joy, to romp around in the adventure playground that I myself had become.” He writes of “the happy accident of hitting my own centre...The circle was now complete. The intellectual understanding fused with the sensation. Not only was I doing the right thing, I knew what it was, so I could it again. It was mine.”

He has found the joy that is mastery.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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