Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Thoughts on a play.

'It's all, all over.'
Another bucket of Corvo Bianco, please.

I've just come to the end of a run of Harold Pinter's Betrayal at the Progress Theatre in Reading. I performed as Robert, and the play itself received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Needless to say, I was absolutely bloody fantastic - as were my costars, Emma Sterry and Pete Cook, and Mathieu Menard in his cameo as a waiter. In fact, the whole ensemble - director Adrian, SM Tara, Steph, Helen in Wardrobe, and our light and sound guys, Rich and Jon - were brilliant.
Pete Cook as Jerry

Emma Sterry as Emma.

Well, that's my award acceptance speech more or less there.

Now, intermittent readers of this intermittent blog, I can hear your eyebrows creaking upward ever so slightly, as I don't think I mention theatre and acting much here (or previously over on Joy Of Raki). The truth is, I've been away - not just from this blog, but also from performance.

Well, 28 years, to be precise, if you don't count 23 years of standing up in front of people in a classroom, making a prat of myself with the aid of lesson plans. So I am making something of a tentative return to the stage - and this year, I've started with one simple question in my head - Can I actually still act?

The answer, so far, appears to be yes. Well, no one has thrown anything at me yet or stormed out of a performance in a rage, so  I must be doing something right.

But now the play is over, and I feel the mix of elation at a job well done and sadness at the end of the run that I believe most performers feel. It's been a cathartic experience on several levels, and I'm still trying to process it, to understand what the play meant to me and what acting in it meant. That's why I'm writing this post, so I can ruminate.

I joined Progress Theatre in October last year, and performed four roles in two plays, notably as the Father in Liz Carroll's How Do I Love Thee. I also promised to jump out of a plane to raise funds for the theatre, which on reflection seems to be a rather extreme initiation ceremony. I'm jumping on 16th July, by the way, if you'd care to sponsor me. As I said, I wanted to see of I could act, remember lines etc, but it was also a way to find out more about who I am and where I am. Ever since leaving Reading College, I have been beating around, seeking to create a new route for myself - doing writing and editing here, voice overs there, a bit of teaching yonder - and reflecting hard on who I am, the reasons for why things go well or where I bugger things up - and looking back at my roots was a natural part of the process.

Anyway, I also considered what I enjoyed about teaching, and I summarised it as three things:

  1. Helping people learn
  2. Explaining stuff clearly and concisely
  3. Standing up in front of people and making a prat of myself.
I hated the paperwork and internal politics of teaching. The latter, in particular, had become so toxic that it was making me ill, so I really do think that leaving the college was the best thing I could have done, even though things have not been easy.

Through the acting, I find I have discovered much more about myself. Crucially, it has allowed me to face my own painful emotions and feelings (and positive ones, too) in a way that has let me analyse and reassess them without being overwhelmed. I have chronic anxiety issues, and I have a tendency to hide these from myself or ignore them. I'm also adept at disguising them, so this admission may come as a surprise: after all, not only has my professional bread and butter involved standing up in front of rooms full of people, but you'd think the prospect of appearing on a stage was hardly conducive to alleviating stress. The fact is, however, that this anxiety has shaped my life, quite often for the worse, so I need to take it head on and wrest control back - and what better way to do that than through performance?

As a happy bonus, I unexpectedly discovered that I appear to have a decent singing voice, thanks in part to having to sing a hymn in How Do I Love Thee.

After the last show on Saturday night, Emma, being a diligent teacher as well as a fab actress, asked me (and Pete) three questions - What has been the best part of doing this play, what has been the worst, and what has been learned. I was still rather euphoric at that point, not to mention on the verge of being drunk, so my answers were based on my immediate impressions. Having had a few days' thinking time now, I can give a more considered reply.

The best part, without a doubt, was being part of an ensemble that brought the play and the characters to life. We spent hours discussing and analysing words, pauses, silences and motivations, and there is this almost alchemical way in which the characters emerge. The words create the being, then the being utters the words, as it were. Right up to the last night, I was still discovering things about Robert, his motivations, ways of moving, or the way in which words were intoned or stressed, or even the unsaid things, the absences. It was an absorbing process.

The worst part? That's harder to say. I grew frustrated at times at the (necessarily) repetitive nature of rehearsals, but they certainly paid off. I think what was difficult was diminishing the voice of my inner critic and just trusting myself to get on with the task in hand. So, difficult rather than worse. Emotionally, too, I associated the story with my own personal history, and there was no way that I could not face it - and my own faults and omissions. That was tough and often bleak - and sad. It was also needed.

What have I learned? Firstly, that there's always more to learn when it comes to performance, well, anything, really. And that in order to learn, it's better to have a bit of humility - and that is not a weakness at all. 
I also learned that I can act consistently (and, I hope, well), but that it requires having a team around you. I didn't know Emma or Pete (or Mathieu) before we started rehearsing, and I think we were initially a little edgy and uncertain round each other. As we rehearsed, however, we developed that trust we needed, and it raised the game on all our performances.
Talking of trust, I learned that I can and should trust myself much more in novel situations. This is harder to do because of the years of ingrained habit that go very much against this - but this is a subject for a different article.

In summary though, I have to say this was a massively positive and rewarding thing to do, and I feel privileged to have been part of the ensemble that created this.

So what does the future hold? I'm certainly intent on doing more acting. A few other members of the theatre have already approached me about auditioning for various roles, so that's encouraging. The question is whether to plunge headlong into a career I should perhaps have pursued a long, long time ago.

All photos by Aidan Moran.

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