23 June 2015

Simon Callow

by Kirk Woodward

By now, ROTters should be very familiar with who Kirk Woodward is and why his writing appears so often on this blog.  (His last piece, “Some Of That Jazz,” was posted on 7 June.)  This time, Kirk returns to one of his regular pursuits, the art of acting.  Kirk’s not only an actor himself, as well as a director, but he’s also both a teacher of acting and a perpetual student of the art and craft.  He makes it his practice to read books by and about actors, especially ones whom he personally admires.  This time, it’s the British actor Simon Callow, familiar to Americans who watch PBS.  I won’t say anything about Callow—I’ll let Kirk take of that himself—but I’ll note that Kirk’s “Simon Callow” is both a discussion of Callow’s acting, his ability to analyze his performance, and his book on acting, Being an Actor.  If you all are anything like me, you’ll find this a fascinating introduction to all three, and an incentive to pay more attention to Callow on screen (and on stage if you happen to be lucky enough to catch him live) and to go out and read his book.  For the rest, I’ll turn you over now to Kirk.  ~Rick]

It seems natural that there would be a connection between acting and writing. Both rely on highly verbal arts, and both are expressive – acts of both self-expression and of impressions of life, as well as of work. Many actors have written autobiographies, and many have written books about acting. Some have branched out into other kinds of writing – Julie Andrews, for example, writes books for children with her daughter, which seems appropriate in several ways.

Simon Callow – surely one of the best names ever for an entertainer – is an English actor, born in London in 1949. He is I believe better known in the United Kingdom than here, where the role he seems most noted for is his exuberant portrayal in Four Weddings and a Funeral of Gareth, whose death precipitates the funeral of the title. Americans, however, especially those who follow PBS, have certainly seen him many times; his list of credits, in theater, film, and television, is extensive. He also directs.

And he is a splendid writer. He writes so well that the only fault I can find with his work is that it’s so easy to read, that I suspect I finish his books faster than I should, carried on by his seemingly effortless and flowing style. He has written books about Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Charles Laughton, and Orson Welles; he has written a highly praised book about his relationship with his close friend, an agent, the late Peggy Ramsey; he has written about classical music; and he has written invaluably about acting, in the process answering for me a practical question about acting technique that has always puzzled me. More about that below.

The two books by Callow that I’m most familiar with are Being an Actor (Penguin, 1985) and Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor (International Pub., 1987), and I will use the first of those here to illustrate the quality of Callow’s writing about acting – an activity that is not an easy subject to write about. Many fine actors write entertaining books about the field – it is hard not to – but are not terribly useful in describing how their own acting works.

There are certainly exceptions – Uta Hagen’s book Respect for Acting (written with Haskel Frankel, Macmillan, 1973) has now been treasured by several generations of acting students.

But describing the art of acting presents challenges. For one thing, there’s no scientific way to describe what a good actor does, since each role is different, so by necessity the approach to each role will be at least a little different from the one before.

And actors genuinely don’t always know how they do what they do. Laurence Olivier’s book On Acting (Simon and Schuster, 1986) is an example; it is great fun to read, and since Olivier wrote it, it’s important, but it’s hardly a textbook; it leaves much more to be said about acting.

On the other hand, I’ve found that anyone who reads Callow’s interesting and entertaining book can gain a knowledge of acting approaches and challenges that greatly enriches the theatrical experience.

The approach that Callow, in Being an Actor, uses to confront the nature of acting is ruthless autobiography. He is ruthless in at least three ways. He acknowledges his homosexuality, which when his book was published was an unusual thing to do. He wages war on directors who insist on forcing plays into molds created by their own imaginations and not by the playwrights – as he says, “the all-knowing director” (applying the term, in his discussion of a play by Alan Bennett, to himself!).

And he acknowledges that he desperately wanted to be a member of the top rank of British actors, like Sir Laurence Olivier, who was a leading figure in Callow’s early career. Callow’s theatrical life began when he wrote Olivier a fan letter, and Olivier suggested that he come and work in the box office of the new National Theatre. From that point on, one can follow Callow’s career almost as an anthology of approaches to acting.

His first acting experiences came at Queen’s University in Belfast, in Northern Ireland. His mentors were Micheal MacLiamm√≥ir [sic] (1899-1978), an Irish actor of the old actor-manager type, a performer who dominated the stage by force of his own personality; Callow says, “He never for a moment stopped being scandalous, provocative, and downright naughty. . .”; Victor Henry (1943-1985), “the caricature of the self-destructive, demon-driven artist . . .”; and Bernard Miles (1907-1991), the unpredictable, dynamic leader of the Mermaid Theatre in London.

These three can be taken to represent, not only the first phase of Callow’s experience of acting (and that of many of us), but also an age in acting when commanding personalities dominated the stage, surrounded by subordinate figures, an age that continued in many ways well into the Twentieth Century.

Callow notes the effect he saw as late as 1970 when Peter Brook’s groundbreaking production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal Shakespeare Company forced many in British theater “to reconsider everything in their approach to their own work,” as thoroughgoing ensemble work replaced the “star system.”

At that same time Callow enrolled in a drama school in London called the Drama Centre, and began to learn the approach to acting taught by Constantine Stanislavsky (1863-1938). Again like many of us – or at least me – he had problems with this approach even as he saw its value. “The early work, in every class, was simplicity itself. Stanislavsky is based squarely on the concept of Action: that everything in a play is done in order to achieve a want of some kind. . . . We all had the most enormous difficulty in thinking in terms of actions; just to formulate them in terms of transitive verbs, as they obviously must be, seemed brain-bustingly difficult.”

He finally achieved a breakthrough using the technique, but found it difficult to apply in all situations. “It seemed,” he says, “that my breakthroughs must always come obliquely.” I suspect he is not the only actor who has found this to be true.

In the town of Lincoln he worked in repertory, a form of theater programming that does not exist in the United States, and in Edinburgh, and in his opinion he did work of varying quality; sometimes he approached a role successfully, sometimes not. His description of the next few years of work on stage, ending up in London, is almost a catalog of the kinds of difficulty a good actor can face when confronting new roles. There’s no such thing as saying, “I did well in the last role, so this time I'll do better.” Each role is a new challenge.

And in the next stage of his performance life, Callow took a path that many other young actors have followed: his approach to theater became political.  He joined a group called Joint Stock whose plays were intended to reflect real social situations; the acting company was to be run as a collective, not as a business directed from the top.

It was, Callow says, a feisty group, “including a number of romantic individualists, a Marxist, an anarchist and an EST Graduate.” “What we want,” one of its organizers said, “is openness and maturity from everyone.”

They induced rioting in Dublin; they conducted “research and interviews with ‘real people’” to find material for their roles; they questioned ”every aspect of their lives, and above all their theatre practice.” Everyone was an equal part of “the group” – “stage managers, lighting, designers, actors, administrators, directors.”

“We tried to find a political slogan for every scene,” Callow reports. “In every scene,” a director said of one play, “you must ask, what is being learned?” It was exciting work, but ultimately, “Joint Stock stood for the taste of its directors,” and it collapsed, suggesting perhaps that politics and theater may not be a natural mix.

Callow continued to work, encountering issue after issue that he details in his book. Dedicated to the theater, he nevertheless did some television; worked on As You Like It with, for the first time, the overwhelming director John Dexter; and created the role of Mozart in the first production of Amadeus – where it took him six months performing the role before he felt he had fully realized it.

He found a new challenge in a one-person performance of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He performed in other noteworthy plays as well. But he frequently felt a certain sterility in his work. “My career lost all semblance of coherence – which is only to say that in doing so it now resembled 90 percent of all other careers.”

“Once I might have wanted to become the Laurence Olivier of our times . . . . Now I had to acknowledge that nobody else saw me in this way. That had not stopped the young Olivier. . . . But he had a clear context in which to work: rep, Old Vic, West End. I had none. Or so I said to myself.”

Callow did not miss his goal entirely, although he writes about “my failure to become a classical actor.” He is also aware of his ambitions: “. . . some significant part of my nature is drawn to the huge, the grand, the epic, the life-changing.” He is aware, however, that he is not a top name like Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, or, more recently, Kenneth Branagh.

However, throughout his book he mines his experiences for gold by determinedly cataloguing his faults, his failures, and his limitations, as well as his successes, as in this comment on his performance in a play called Single Spies:  “I was trying for an effortlessness that is not entirely natural to me; to achieve it requires, in fact, a great deal of effort on my part.”

There is a great deal more in the book, including his discovery of the theories of the drama teacher Michael Chekhov (1891-1955) and his advice on the use of the imagination in acting.

Callow is also instructive on the everyday life of a working actor. For example, at one period in the early nineties, “At a critics’ preview in London . . . I overheard the man from the Mail say, ‘Isn’t he a sitcom actor? He should stick to that.’ The movies that I acted in either failed to appear or were disappointing. No theatre parts were offered. I was yesterday’s ham. By 1993, I had had to sell my house. My relationship with my partner was teetering. My secretary sacked me.”

Ah, well. Things got better . . . and worse . . . and better. That’s life in the world of entertainment.

As I’ve said, Callow’s book is full of insights about the theater. Here are a few additional examples chosen at random:

“. . . when the director is also performing in the play, everyone else becomes part of the directorial effort.”

“Some of the most precious time in the development of an actor’s work on a character is spent simply staring at himself in the dressing-room mirror, subtly shifting shape according to impulses that he doesn’t quite understand, rolling the taste of the person he is playing around his tongue.”

“Often you fall in love with a play, as with a person, but closer acquaintance reveals a serious incompatibility.”

[About an idea about a character in a play:] “. . . there were two questions: could I bring it off? And did it serve the play (as opposed to the character, a critical distinction)?”

(On playing clown roles in Shakespeare’s plays: ) “I thank my stars that I have never been asked to play one of these, because I might perhaps have been tempted to accept it. Watching the joyless routines devised by wonderful actors to try to make these elusive personages deliver their goods is among the most excruciating experiences that theatre has to offer.”

One senses that as Callow has approached each role he has played, he has looked for the key, the magic formula that would open up any play and make it available to him as an actor, and that would open him up to the play. He found many approaches that worked in various situations, but no instance where “one size fits all.”

Like snowflakes, no two theatrical experiences – not even two theatrical performances – are exactly alike. The gains an actor makes in technique in one production may make no difference in the next – or they may. In this respect the theater is like life – we cannot be sure from one moment to the next what’s going to happen.

As a result, Callow spends a great deal of Being an Actor describing his failures. He is too alert an artist to allow himself to take credit for work he knows didn’t live up to his hopes for it. On the other hand, by sharing his experiences with us, successes and failures alike, he takes us into the heart of his craft. It’s hard to imagine that actors and non-actors alike won’t learn from this book.

Following up on one theme: I mentioned above that Callow has strongly objected to the idea of what we might call the “genius director” – the director who comes into the first rehearsal armed with a “concept” that he or she is determined to fold the actors into.

My memory of Being an Actor was that Callow engaged that kind of director in battle early in the book. Actually it’s not until about a third of the way through the current edition (the original book, plus an update on his subsequent career, published by Picador in 2007) that Callow encounters the director John Dexter and begins to define his position on a director’s role. It’s worth quoting at some length:

The director’s skill . . . should be at the service of the company, realizing the group’s understanding of the play and its needs. . . . Otherwise, they’re simply a pool of actor-drones, called upon as if they were faceless functionaries with no brain or understanding of their own, glorified galley-slaves. These people are artists at the pinnacle of their profession. Until actors are accorded equal responsibility with the director, the theatre will always be the fitful expression of one man’s understanding. But theatre is not that kind of an undertaking. . . . A play needs to be discovered, uncovered, one might almost say, liberated. Every single actor has a personal responsibility in this matter; every scene, every part needs to be implied from the bare text. This is an active undertaking, not a passive one. Much of the circumscribed creative excitement of the present theatre stems from this passivity.

The phenomenon of the Great Director is still with us, fed substantially by the hunger of the press for heroes.  Callow is correct: actors spend years, no, decades, learning their craft, and then get cast in plays where directors tell them where to stand, how to speak, and what to think. It seems like an extraordinarily wasteful process, even in an art known for its wastefulness. Can’t we find a way to allow actors to use what they’ve learned about acting? Some directors, of course, do.

Callow humorously quotes Ralph Richardson: “My idea of a director is a chap who puts me in the middle of the stage, and shines a bright light on me.” That may be going a little far.

I shouldn’t close this article without mentioning that I found in Being an Actor the solution to an issue of acting technique that has always puzzled me. What’s the best thing to do, the moment before you walk onto the stage and into a scene? I always assumed that somehow I should have a conscious thought about my character in my mind, perhaps the character’s primary “want” at that particular moment.

Callow doesn’t think so. Instead, he says, “It is not, as you stand in the wings, a question of being in character . . . but being ready for the character to take over.”

“Any attempt to go through lines is disastrous, robbing them of freshness, dulling the brain,” he says.
Instead, “. . . right at the beginning of this strange, eventful journey [should be] . . . openness, availability to impulse. By the time one hits the stage, one must be alive in every fibre, alive as one rarely is in daily life; the brightness of eye, the glowing skin that you see as a hot couple face each other over the dinner table – that is the state in which one should approach the encounter with the audience.”

I think this is excellent advice, and now try to follow it myself. The lines, the situations, the motivations are already in your head as you wait for your entrance. What you need is to be ready to interact and talk and listen and respond. The rest is the result of rehearsal, and will take care of itself.

One of the wonderful things about theater is that it is a world of shared experiences. Actors can and do learn from each other, by what they say and also by watching what other actors do. And experience can be passed down from generation to generation; young actors can learn from their predecessors. Simon Callow’s book is a sterling example.

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