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Other People’s Shoes. Thoughts on Acting

Actor Theatre Book

Harriet Walter , Viking , March 31, 2018
Actor Theatre Book by Harriet Walter The reading of “Brutus and Other Heroines” in January was prompted by gender and representation dispute. It was also a reminder that Harriet Walter is author of a book on acting. “Other People’s Shoes. Thoughts on Acting” dates back to 1999 but has been reprinted several times. Like Simon Callow's “Being an Actor” Harriet Walter's book on acting holds up well.

Stage acting awes and the more it is viewed the more it awes. To read about it is like one of those fractals devised by Benoit Mandelbrot. To home in on a detail of the complex patterning does not make it simpler. It just yields a new complexity, albeit at a closer level. Which is not to mean that books by actors are not worth reading, because they are. The good ones have the effect of making the awesome more familiar, even if no less awesome. The clue is in the word itself. Acting is that- it is a sequence of acts over time and across space. Language is a different category, a symbol-rendering, encapsulating, abstracting process outside time and space. When writing turns to acting, it can only aspire to be a rough simulacrum.

In this linguistic circling around the uncatchable Richard Eyre in interview with Judi Dench asked: “Is it difficult to talk about acting?” The actor's response: “I don't think we should talk about acting because there's nothing to talk about, really. It's as if we are blank canvases. It's the play and the author and the author's intention that energise the actor. It's only when you're telling the story that you're doing your job; after you've done that there's nothing really to talk about.”

There is something to talk about. Harriet Walter writes of the art where the self yields up its fixedness of being itself. “Since I was very young”, she remembers, “I have been able to watch someone and imagine myself inside them, moving their limbs, striking their poses and by some strange mechanism, getting an inkling as to their feelings and thoughts.” But she runs up against the limits of description. “It's hard to explain how it's done because it is not a systematised process; it is just part of our equipment.”

The genesis of every actor is its own. The book is not an autobiography but she is sharp on the differences and the commonalities in her parents. “What they also shared was a well-concealed but deep lack of self-confidence.” The adult child sees a common cause: “both had a dominant parent who had given them a sense of failure.” The effects of separation and private school in her own experience are dealt with economically. She writes of the elasticity of the teenage persona: “I started to capitalise on my versatility, being one thing to person, one thing to another.” Christopher Lee is revealed in a single line as an uncle. She adds an elliptical accompanying sentence. Lee's “own career, though relatively blessed, has never been anxiety-free”.

She is modest on her own career. A turning-point is 7:84. She has an early job in Lancaster and 7:84 visits. John McGrath leaves her his telephone number and later, out of work, she calls. Of her experience with 7:84 she writes of the demands on the actor. “I had to coarsen up my act, broaden my humour, put over a rowdy song.”

She joins Joint Stock and plays a male apprentice. “I had spent most of the evening under a table scraping out paint tins, and yet I remain prouder of “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” than of most other shows I have been involved with. The reason for this is simple. We had time. The show belonged to us all. Every experience in the last six months, whether ordeal or treat, had bound our imaginations together and this informed the quality of the work.”

William Gaskill was the director for that production and she has particular observations on the director role. “The absence of a strong director breeds insecurity and fear”, she writes, “which in turn brings out the worst in people. If you cannot trust the Overseeing Eye, you compete for attention. Over-acting and is not a question of malice towards the other so much as a fear for oneself.” As for the role of leadership “there is an important distinction to be made between power and authority...power comes with the position, but authority has to be earned...we need the director's authority, but we can be messed up by their power.”

The reports from the rehearsal room are illuminating. “I have taken part in useless time-wasting improvisations and I have witnessed near-miraculous ones.” “We worked on obsession and status, and these exercises went a long way towards unlocking the play.” Out on the street the actor observes other people. “Which part of their anatomy leads them? Their nose? Chest? Chin? Knees?” There are useful keys to unlocking another person. “Look for the fear” she advises, “fear is a great clue to psychological motive.”

She observes the different media. The camera offers the solidity of recording performance. But theatre leads. “When we sit in the audience we don't just watch a fait accompli, we are part of the event. We remember the play as a personal memory. It is something that happened to us.”

A permanency of discomfort is essential to maintaining artistry in acting. She observes actors who become habituated. “Clinging to your method can become a security blanket and actors are not supposed to be secure.” She describes the personality as “a ravelled muddle” but ends on a note of harmony. “I have been victim, neurotic and clown, and in playing out these extremes have settled on my true mien...belatedly become an adult who is relatively happy in her skin.”

These “Thoughts on Acting” are illuminating and informative; they are also engagingly likeable. It is a book that has deserved to last.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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