Thursday, 9 January 2014

Being trained to act


When I was in my early teens I was trained to act in the classic style that dominated English theatre from the time of WS Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan) through the era of the 'well-made play' and up into the mid 1950s - when it was challenged by the supposedly more authentic style of Kitchen Sink drama pioneered by John Osborne with Look Back in Anger.


The school teacher who trained me had been some kind of a professional actor at some level - and seemed to us extremely eccentric.

He looked a bit like Charles Gray, and had the same accent and mannerisms - essentially he never stopped acting, whatever he was doing.

In classes, his big thing (pretty much the only thing) was to teach all the pupils correct pronunciation - received pronunciation (aka BBC English) - and this was done by mocking and mimicking the local Bristol/ Somerset accent and various other regional accents. Anyone who spoke in a rustic dialect was called a Garge (the pronunciation of George) with the R very strongly emphasized.

In his era, teaching people to speak properly had been regarded as a major part of what happened at school - and this included the non-academic (secondary modern) schools where he had been teaching.


When we were rehearsing, he would don his casual uniform of open necked shirt and cravat, blue jeans (rolled turn-ups), sandals with socks; talk about the famous stars by their first names (especially 'Larry' Olivier); swear at moments of pressure (saying 'bloody' in a rapid and clipped way) then apologize with 'Pardon my French' - and would chain-smoke cigarettes nervously throughout the day, and drink too much coffee.

In short, he would behave exactly as an actor was expected to behave in his youth.


The way a play was put-on in this classic style was very labour intensive - the director worked hard, and the actors worked hard. There was one right way to do anything and everything - the directors job was to know that one right way, and be able to demonstrate it; the actors job was to be able to follow the director's instructions exactly but apparently effortlessly and gracefully.

The play was The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde - and I was playing the butler Lane - who doesn't have very much to say or do, but is the first person on stage, and has a few classic lines.

But, despite having such a minuscule role,  I was trained and rehearsed with the utmost seriousness, as part of an elite troop, I was present at every rehearsal - and in the end could quote the whole play from memory


The stage was set-up exactly, with measured spaces and precise angles; and we we told not only where to stand, but how many paces (of what length) to take for each move; and of course we always set out on a move with the upstage foot (the foot furthest from the audience) - this was drilled and drilled, until it was second nature. "Never turn your back on the audience."

Another thing you must apparently never do in this style of acting is have two actors moving in towards each other and crossing over - as a rule, one actor at a time would be moving, or two would move in the same direction. Obviously, one actor should not move when another actor was speaking (that would be 'upstaging' them - i.e. taking the audience's attention away from them - for an actor, a heinous crime...).

Thus the play was constructed in a balletic fashion - with sequences of moves, rapidly picked-up cues, and each speech made lucid; ideally to be perceived by the audience as flowing, smooth and apparently effortless - but actually drilled and drilled until it was second nature.

(The idea was to prevent the audience being distracted from the proper focus of the drama - which was whoever was speaking.).

In general, the stage was treated like a balanced tableau - with the actors spread across in an open stance, facing the audience; continually rearranging themselves from one tableau to another, by carefully crafted sequences that usually involved moving just one actor at a time.


As for speaking - the precise accent and inflection of every single word, and the rising and falling intonation of each line, was told us by the director; and we had to learn it.

We were told and shown how to project our voices so every syllable was audible at the back of the theatre - and the intonation of words and lines was adjusted accordingly.

If we erred in any respect during rehearsal, then we would be stopped there and then, and have to do it again.

In sum, we were told and shown (the director would demonstrate) everything we had to do - and being a good actor was being able to do exactly what you were told, and do it very well, in an elegant and controlled manner. 


Facial expressions were also learned - the director being our 'mirror'.

And in the show week, we were individually taught how to apply our own stage make-up - in a standard way with standard greasepaint colours and powder. 

I particularly remember how strange was the eye make-up, with a surprisingly large red dot on the inner canthus, and a white one on the outer canthus. 

In the end our features were exaggerated, and our faces powder-caked, in a manner perhaps suitable for performing somewhere vast like the Bristol Hippodrome with remote 'gods' (upper circles of seating) rather than our miniature school theatre.

But that was the proper way to do make up - so that is what we did.


In fact, our school theatre was superb - it was a real theatre - perfect, purpose built; a mini-proscenium arch theatre; with pretty much everything expected in such (dark velvet curtains, flies, trapdoors, an orchestra pit etc).

The main entrance to the school was indeed set up as a theatre foyer, with doors to the stalls in front of you and stairs to the balcony on either side!

I have never seen a better school theatre - but at the time I just took it for granted, and assumed all schools had something like it.


After the last night of the show, when it was all over, I experienced the most extraordinary crash of mood - everything seemed dull, uninteresting, unimportant.

The only thing I wanted to do, was start rehearsing another play (preferably by Oscar Wilde) - or even better do it all over again!

I was actually carrying the script of Earnest around with me, and the programme signed by the other cast members.

I was in mourning.

Yet I was only a butler, and hadn't had much to do! But this experience (and others afterwards) gives an impression of the absorbing and addictive quality of the stage.


About 15 years later and 300 miles North, I was Algernon in the same play, coming in late to replace somebody who had dropped out, and doing the whole thing - one of the five main parts - in six weeks, three nights of rehearsals a week (while writing up my doctorate!).

It went well, and was indeed by far the best performance I ever gave (at least, judging by the audience response).

However, it was so time consuming, I never did another play - although I did at other times take principal roles in several Gilbert and Sullivan or Edwardian musicals.


All these later shows were an excellent experience, and I used a lot of my earlier training - but in reality no other play was anything like so carefully staged as the one at school.

There was always insufficient rehearsal time, inappropriate rehearsal facilities, and not the least of problems was that most adults could not 'take direction' as we had as youths.

Adults amateur actors miss rehearsals, fail to learn their parts early enough, and rigidly continued to say their lines pretty much as they first came out in the first rehearsal - they could not re-learn how to speak a line.

Anyway, I was always grateful to that old drama teacher from school. Although he was a kind of caricature and very pretentious; he worked hard (when doing a show, anyway) and was very thorough - and taught us well the craft of the theatre.



Bill said...

Charming and fascinating anecdote, Bruce. Thanks.

AlexT said...

I second Bill. More stories like this would be great!

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks for the pleasant comments chaps.

I included this because it has an intrinsic interest concerning a once dominant craft of acting and production, which is now probably extinct.

The intention is to use a (true) personal anecdote to make interesting and memorable a more general point.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, for preserving the memory what has been lost.