Being An Actor

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9780140076820: Being An Actor

A gloomy assessment of the state of British theatre today: the decline of ensemble playing; lack of training for young actors; novelty replacing substance. It ends with a warning that without attention to stagecraft, British theatre will surely die.

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About the Author:

In addition to his distinguished career in the theater, Simon Callow has appeared in the films Amadeus, A Room with A View, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. He is also the author of Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor, Shooting the Actor, and Orson Welles. He lives in London, England.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

One
When I was eighteen, I wrote Laurence Olivier a letter. He replied, by return of post, inviting me to join the National Theatre company – in the box office. I accepted immediately, and as I crossed the foyer to be interviewed by the box office manager, I thought, crystal clear and without any sense of destiny about it: ‘One day I shall run this place.’
Which was rather strange. I was a hopelessly lost adolescent working in a library wholesaler’s, sending crateloads of Mills and Boon romances to the corners of the British Isles, sure of only one thing: that I didn’t want to go to university. I’d had enough of education. I wanted to live, I said. The inadequacy of my grammar school had turned me into an auto-didact. There was nothing, I insisted, that an arts course, the only one for which I was at all eligible, could teach me that I couldn’t find out for myself.
What to do instead, though?
Not many alternatives presented themselves to a mind stuffed with fin de siècle notions of burning always with a hard, gem-like flame. Most careers seemed either insufferably bourgeois or unattainably remote.
Into the second category came the theatre. There it was, vivid and real, but quite other. I loved going to the theatre, though there was no special family tradition of doing so. True, my grandmother had run away to go on stage before the First World War; my greatgrandfather had been a clown at the Tivoli in Copenhagen, then a ringmaster, then an impresario for Sir Oswald Stoll; another greatgrandfather had coached Sarah Bernhardt in the role of Hamlet. This was all legend to me. Like most people, I saw the acting profession as an exotic tribe with its own customs and rules, into which one was born. The idea of becoming an actor was as unlikely as becoming Prime Minister or Pope. Somebody had to; but how?
I had, it is true, been overwhelmed at an early age by two acting performances, both in films: Olivier’s Richard and Laughton’s Hunchback; and I was liable at any moment to become possessed by one or the other. I was a monstrous show-off and infant transvestite, mostly with and for my flamboyant grandmother; and for many years I topped the bill in the school playground, regaling astounded twelve-year-olds with my jelly dance and cod Shakespearian recitations. All this was in the past though (I had also won first prize in a fancy dress competition as a Can-Can dancer, but I kept fairly quiet about that). As the shutters of adolescence closed on these youthful excesses, there was no legitimate outlet for all the energy. At none of my schools was there drama of any kind. So when I thought of careers, it never occurred to me to go on the stage. Behind everything that I did think of, however, was the idea of acting. It was the acting in being a barrister that made me think of that; it was the acting in being an ambassador that appealed. I just didn’t see it.
So I left school baffled and badly adrift. I started to visit the theatre more and more frequently, being almost morbidly drawn by the colour and intensity otherwise absent from my emotional and social life. Olivier’s National Theatre, then at its zenith, was the great magnet. Six bob seats in the gallery to see The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Much Ado About Nothing, Juno and the Paycock. One day, at a performance of The Three Sisters, a thought crept into my brain: ‘I would be part of this.’ My heart beat wildly, I kept turning the thought over and over until I was almost too excited to move. It wasn’t simply the performance, moving and remarkable though that was. It was the whole enterprise: the ushers, the atmosphere, the graphic layout of the programme: the result of a number of people drawn together, working at full stretch to produce a unique experience. People had done this. Perhaps I could be one of them. What had I to lose?
And so I wrote three foolscap pages to Laurence Olivier, telling him all this, adding at the last moment a PS in which I made it clear that I was willing to serve him and his theatre ‘in however humble a capacity’. His reply was gracious and swift; and here I was, crossing the foyer, succumbing to mild megalomaniac delusions. I suppose I thought that if I’d come this far, anything was possible.
The interview with the box office manager quickly knocked such nonsense out of my head. A grim, lizard-like man, Pat Layton, who prided himself on never having seen a single show at the National (he once blushingly admitted he’d seen ‘half’ of Othello), indicated that my duties would be largely confined to the mailing room. With time, I might eventually be allowed to man ‘the window’ – the advance window, that is: the ‘this evening’s performance’ window was his special preserve, and he used to sit at it like an iguana on a rock, eyes darting to left and right, doing what he liked best: refusing people tickets. He was at that time one of the most courted men in London, and it cannot be said that he wore his power lightly. Occasionally, one of the recipients of his favour would appear at the window, and would receive his smile: a terrifying sight, the glint on the blade of the guillotine.
Pat ran a tight ship. He was the number one; there was a number two; and two number threes. Beneath them, us, the juniors, and a huge army of casual staff needed for the booking periods, during which the mail was delivered in fifteen or twenty sacks a day. The juniors sat and answered the telephones and dispatched tickets in a tiny office which had been Lilian Baylis’s. That gave a frisson (the only frisson). Otherwise it was relentless slog in that tiny space. The work itself was like oakum-picking. To be sure, we laughed a lot: silly side-splitting jokes about people asking for two tickets for Three Sisters (‘Won’t it be a bit of a squeeze, madam?’), and the lady who couldn’t get her tongue round the title, and who, after being helped by the box office assistant – ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, – madam’ replied: ‘Oh dear, I shan’t be able to come then, will I?’, and the legendary woman who’d demanded tickets for Louis Armstrong’s farewell concert, apparently misled by the title Armstrong’s Last Goodnight. When Peter Brook’s Oedipus created a scandal we thought of answering the phones: ‘Dirty Old Vic’.
Best for me was the constant infusion of gossip from the theatre itself: rumours of scandals both personal and artistic. I learned to call all the actors by their first names, even though I’d hardly met one. Jeremy this, Charlie that, and I hear Frank’s leaving after Much Ado. Sometimes one would find an excuse to take something down to the box office itself, and one of them would be there, bantering with Pat. His repartee was on a fairly unsophisticated level, being largely concerned with physical functions. I felt I’d made a major break-through the day he greeted me with ‘What you want, cunt?’ I was wrong. You never knew where you were from day to day with Pat. I felt certain that I was in favour the day he went to the safe, pulled out a battered old book and said ‘Want to borrow this?’ It was Last Exit to Brooklyn, then a banned book. ‘Read the bit where the queers go round the park picking up the used Johnny bags and sucking them,’ he said affectionately. ‘That’ll make you throw up.’ Even this outburst of camaraderie proved delusory, however, and it was weeks before he spoke to me again.
No, the box office as such was not fun. But I was happy. It was exhilarating to be part of something which was at the front of the national consciousness. The theatre’s affairs – I felt they were ours – were reported in the newspapers. There was an unbroken stream of extraordinary people crossing the foyer. We were definitely something big. Above all, it was wonderful to know that ‘Sir’, as Olivier was universally called, was on the premises every day, and often on the stage. I could sneak in and see him any time I wanted.
The canteen, too, was a great revelation. In those days there was a chef who in his tiny kitchen managed to make ravishing things at deliberately low prices; the combination of quality and cheapness persuaded most of the actors to eat there, which maintained the sense of company: everyone who worked in the building was deemed to be part of The Company. Sir always ate there, and generally chose to eat with the ushers or the box office staff. I can’t say that I ever actually spoke to him; or indeed to any of the actors much, beyond a smile or business exchange – ‘Tickets for tonight?’ – and so on. But here they were, in quantity – the mysterious endangered species, rarely glimpsed, and never by the light of day – actors! I liked them; and what’s more, they seemed, if not exactly ordinary, human. I saw what they did on stage, exotic peacocks, and I saw them; and I could see that the journey from the one to the other was possible.
The way to the canteen lay through the pass door in the auditorium. One would sneak through, trying to catch sight of John Gielgud or Maggie Smith, straining to hear what Peter Brook or Tyrone Guthrie were saying. So this was actors’ work. In the canteen, one would hear bitter recriminations, or wild laughter over someone’s retort, or again deep anxiety over this problem or that. It all seemed highly charged, but possible. The magic that had so dazzled me had been worked on. In other words it was, after all, a job, and not some divine succession. Actors were made, not born.
On Monday nights, the theatre was dark. The box office staff were the last to leave the theatre, through the stage door. On those nights, passing through the empty auditorium made my heart stop. It seemed to me a sacred space, Stonehenge. It was throbbing with energies and a curious power – an altar without a tabernacle. One night I lingered, and, certain that I was the last, instead of walking across the wings through to the stage door, I stepped on to the stage. Feeling that at any moment I might be struck dead by God or Laurence Olivier, I said ‘To be or not to be’ – just those words – and bolted. It was a shock, hearing my own voice so loud and resonant; but just as shocking was the physical, or even the psychical, power momentarily released, a small earthquake. Had I found the famous Spot in the centre of the stage? Or was I just overwrought?
Whichever, there was now no longer any question of what I wanted to be. I was impatient to do something about it. Pat Layton’s bleak regime was no longer to be endured; but I was in any case obliged to make a decision about my immediate future. Back in the almost unrememberable past before I’d joined ‘The Theatre’, I had in desperation applied to a university. I couldn’t now see any future without a degree. I was sure that Oxford or Cambridge would be out of the question, so I inclined towards Trinity College, Dublin, not only for its romantic aura but for being out of the country. Then I discovered that the British government won’t give you a grant to study there, so I decided, in my comic ignorance, to apply for the next best thing: Queen’s University, Belfast. They accepted me.
The academic life was still anathema to me, but I saw that I could use it to further my violent ambition: to get on stage at all costs. The only alternatives, as I thought, were amateur dramatics or some kind of highly unlikely sideways leap from the box office. It’s a measure of the lopsided view of theatrical realities gained from working at the Old Vic that I never thought of drama school at all. I could at least see that a university drama society was far more feasible than the other alternatives, so I set off for Belfast, cynically determined to act my little heart out.
On my first day, I made straight for the Dramsoc’s little wooden hut, and was received with open arms, undoubtedly because of my glamorous connection with the Old Vic box office. For the first production, alas, I was hors concours, because the director had elected to set the seventeenth-century Norwegian comedy in Belfast, and my lips and tongue were not yet round that perverse patois. I was allowed to play the small part of an English-accented barrister: my first appearance on any stage. This I did with, if anything, rather too much feeling. Next term, however, glory. Or potential glory. I was cast as Trigorin in The Seagull. We were to tour the campuses of the North and be entered in the Irish University Drama Festival, which no less a legend than Micheal MacLiammóir was to adjudicate. It was a crucial experience. The production was monstrous. The director had made the discovery, as all directors do, that Chekhov describes three out of four of his great plays as ‘comedies’. So, we would play it for laughs. This approach led the production to be known as The Seagoon. As for me, I was appalling. The earth opened up under my feet every time I stepped on stage. It was a shallow, nasty piece of work. I didn’t know what I was doing, while at the same time knowing all too well. By now, I had become an avid theatregoer, and I knew what was good. This was not.
‘My very dear friend Mr Simon Callow,’ said MacLiammóir, adjudicating. ‘Not, I fear, a born actor. A born writer, perhaps [this was on the strength of an article I’d written about him] but not a born actor.’
‘Micheál,’ I said to him afterwards, ‘you said I was not a born actor.’ ‘Ah, but you could become one,’ he replied.
I was ‘his very dear friend’ because, after the article for which I’d interviewed him at his home in Dublin some months before, I’d been seconded to him as his dresser and general factotum for the duration of the Festival. He gave two performances of The Importance of Being Oscar as part of his adjudicator’s fee; during them, transcribing his notes, or accompanying him to lunch, or sitting over a bottle of Bushmills in the Grand Hotel in Belfast, him remembering Orson Welles or talking about the latest film he’d seen – from the front row because he was now so blind – we had become quite close. He was the first actor that I’d really known, spent any time with. Bedizened, berouged and blasphemous, he spoke of Yeats and Ireland and Beauty and Art and Illusion, all in capital letters. His incomparably rich and mellifluous voice was as capable of the most scandalous scurrility (‘I feel fucked – but not in the way I like to be’) as of haunting evocations of the great dead and ruminations of a philosophical character (‘I’ve always felt that Beethoven, like the Christian view of heaven, was not for the likes of me’). At the interview he’d seemed to give his whole personality to this rather unprepossessing adolescent; when the tape-recorder was switched off, he proceeded to give the unofficial version, which was even more glorious, though certainly less printable.
He was a real Man of the Theatre: actor, designer, director, playwright. He’d given his life to it, and what’s more in Ireland. When he might have made a mainland, or indeed an international, career, he had learnt Gaelic, returned to Dublin, and with Hilton Edwards created a glittering showcase of the most modern European plays (English language premieres of Cocteau, Giraudoux, Anouilh), English classics and his own and others’ Gaelic plays; what’s more, in so doing, he never for a moment stopped being scandalous, provocative and downright naughty. I loved him and now I love his memory.
Simply being in Micheal’s company was delightful in itself – having lunch with him, sitting next to him for the shows he was to adjudicate, writing down and then transcribing his comments, basking in the great warmth of his large self. Being his dresser, however, was quite something else, an experience compounded equally of pity and terror, and my first encounter with the reality of performance.
I would arrive at the theatre somewhat before he did, to iron and arrange his clothes. I wa...

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Simon Callow
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Simon Callow
Published by Penguin UK (1985)
ISBN 10: 0140076824 ISBN 13: 9780140076820
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Irish Booksellers
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