Actor Christopher Naylor reflects on those occasions when learning your lines is not the imperative it usually is through his experience with the Presence Theatre Reading Group and Poet in the City.
Learning the words…
This is, let’s face it, a major preoccupation for all actors. So it’s rather liberating once in a while to do a bit of acting without having to be off-book.
Of course this happens at the read-through too, but that’s often as terrifying as the first night, as you size up the rest of the cast, try to work out your place in the company hierarchy and pray the director isn’t wishing he hired the other bloke instead.
A play-reading is a far healthier, happier affair – and can be a joyous thing; a tremendously useful and creative environment.
For a theatre company or director it is a great way of looking for the next project, for trying something out and seeing if it works aloud – as so many of us found with Shakespeare at school, there is a big difference between reading words on a page and hearing them spoken.
For the actor, too, a play reading can be a very valuable exercise. I think in our case it comes back to the knotty question of how we keep ourselves match fit – how we practise our craft effectively when we’re not working.
As we all know, a writer can always write, even if they aren’t commissioned. An artist can carry a sketch book with them everywhere and scribble as they go. And, of course, most musicians can practise happily at home, although there are exceptions to this – a drummer can make himself very unpopular, for example, and it often makes a big difference if you are a learner. I was determined to learn the violin by the time I was 40, but was sadly derailed from this path one afternoon as I sawed my way through the G Major scale, when, in a pause between badly-formed notes, I heard my poor neighbour upstairs scream ‘shut UP!’, in the tone of someone only a sliver away from nervous collapse. I laid my bow aside…
But I digress. My point is, all these creative types can cheerfully practise their art alone, and accept their next gig or commission fully ready to create.
But what of the poor actor? If a well-turned phrase falls from an actor’s lips and nobody hears it, is it still funny? By all means practise your vocal warm-up before breakfast – you will be wonderfully articulate and resonant when you pop out to buy a pint of milk. I suppose we can learn some new speeches – brush up your Shakespeare, and all that – it’s probably good for the memory, but beyond that, who asks for monologues any more? Watching plays is a great way of keeping up with what everyone else is doing, but can be hugely frustrating when you aren’t working yourself.
We can’t just sit at home and act by ourselves. No, we need an audience, and preferably, some other actors too.
I do believe that when the opportunity comes along to put yourself in a room with some fellow thesps and a good script or two, you should grab it. I recently had a thoroughly satisfying week, grappling with complex and unfamiliar texts in rather different situations.
First of all, I was lucky enough to take part in a great day of play readings for Presence Theatre at the Calder Theatre Bookshop in London, organised and coordinated by my old LAMDA friend Jack Tarlton, an Associate Artist with Presence. Directors and theatre companies will receive many submissions from writers, and a reading is the most effective way to discover if something has promise. Indeed, for the writer it is the best possible chance to get some distance from your writing and see what works and what doesn’t.
Presence Theatre developed from a regular reading group, established about 10 years ago, and today has grown into a fully-fledged company presenting performances and rehearsed readings. The reading group itself was recently revived, and on this occasion we encountered a number of intriguing plays, all of which were new to me. I was particularly taken with the blackly comic ‘Little One’ by Hannah Moscovitch and Nis-Momme Stockmann’s ‘The Man Who Ate the World’, which took us to some very dark places indeed.
We also read a number of fascinating, powerful plays by the celebrated Argentinian writer Griselda Gambaro and we were privileged to be joined by her English translator Gwen MacKeith.
One of the great joys of reading a play ‘blind’, as it were, comes from finding out who your character is and what the play is about as you speak it, in the same way an audience does with an unfamiliar play. There is also something quite liberating about working on a script with no thought or hope that it’s going to lead to a job somewhere down the line, so that troublesome competitive instinct isn’t roused. You can wrestle with the text purely for the satisfaction of doing so, and you often find yourself reading a part you would never play in the real world – at Presence, I played, amongst others, a German man with dementia and an American teenager.
The other pure pleasure is in meeting other new actors, as well as old friends. It was a revelation to me to find that most of us were using tablets or phones to read our scripts from. This prompted an interesting debate about the best platform for a script: I still cherish the tactile nature of paper, and like to scrawl, scribble and cross out, although, as a fellow actor Ben Addis pointed out, apps such as iAnnotate allow you do all the same stuff digitally. It sounded thrillingly modern but made me fear for the future of the highlighter pen industry. Paper doesn’t go to sleep, lock you out or run out of batteries, and there is no reflection of your confused face as seen from below – not a flattering angle. But paper also has its own potential for disaster, as I once discovered towards the end of a public reading of Jim Cartwright’s ‘Two’, when, at the pitch of tension and drama, the actress I was working with managed to sweep both of our unbound scripts off the table and into a blizzard of disordered pages. Hard to recover from.
Reading in front of an audience, rather than in the safety of a circle of actors, is another matter altogether, and presents a subtly different set of challenges to proper, off-book performing as well.
My second script-in-hand experience of the week was for a lovely company called Poet In The City. I have been involved in a number of their poetry recitals, ranging from P G Wodehouse to C P Cavafy, and this one, T S Eliot (poets – so many initials…). The Eliot recital took place in the glorious Southwark Cathedral, and also touched upon the sermons of an Elizabethan cleric called Lancelot Andrewes, who was a direct influence on Eliot’s work.
It’s a surprisingly nerve-wracking experience, in spite of having the script in front of you. There is no room for hesitation, particularly when the poem has a strictly formal structure, so you have to be very sure, when you take your eyes off the page for a bit of contact with the audience, that you will be able to return to the right spot without stumbling. It requires a lot of preparation in order to familiarise yourself with the words and rhythms, but also to unlock the more obscure poems. Eliot’s work in particular is littered with complex references and elusive meanings, and can sound like an abstract word collage. An hour of this can be bewildering for an audience, so the reader needs to mine the poems for meaning, however ambiguous. Even if the poem remains open to interpretation, as long as the actor has a meaning in mind, they will be communicating something specific to the audience.
A script is merely a blueprint – reading it in isolation does nobody any good. Plays and poems demand to be spoken aloud, and acting is a sociable occupation after all, so find a friendly bunch of actors and flex your muscles.
Read more from Christopher Naylor at his blog The Actor's Advocate: In Defence of Acting