Search
  • Keith Johnstone

THEATRE

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

ALEC MCCOWEN

Alec McCowen went to New York after the War. He was a young man interested in Theatre, so he went to see a play that had recently opened.

I heard him tell this story on the radio and it’s in print at the beginning of his autobiography, but where did I leave it? (Books in my house are like leaves scattered in a forest, or like pearls strewn on a bus-load of dowagers.)

The play began; the actor were good, some of them probably famous. It’s a serious play, no laughs. Ten minutes goes by. The actors are sitting around a table. Suddenly a stagehand walks out onto the stage not realising that a thousand people are staring at him.

McCowen is appalled. The play is being ruined. The stagehand says something to the actors, still not understanding that the play is already in progress. He’ll be fired. They’ll have to lower the curtain, and apologise to the audience, and perhaps start the play again.

But wait! Wait a minute! The actors are saying something to the stagehand and he is saying something to them. The play is somehow managing to stagger on under this difficult circumstance. How can this be?

Suddenly McCowen understands that the ‘stagehand’ is Marlon Brando in the role that made him instantly famous, but because Brando was authentic, McCowan had assumed that he – Brando – couldn’t possibly be an actor.

*****************************************************************************************************


"BE MORE BORING."

I was told that people were laughing when they learned about the acting teacher who shouted ‘be more boring’ at his students. It was funny, I suppose, because every other acting teacher in London was probably urging their students to ‘be more interesting’ (I’m guessing because I’d never been to anyone else’s acting class).

I was that teacher, of course, but I shouted ‘be more boring’ at my students because they usually became more interesting.

When Alec McCowen mistook Marlon Brando for a stagehand was he – Brando - ‘being more boring’ while the other actors were ‘being more interesting’?

*****************************************************************************************************


"BORE THE AUDIENCE."

I flew to Sweden to work for one day with a hundred Swedish movie actors. (I must have been living in Denmark at the time). I taught them from ten to five (with a hour for lunch). My friend ‘E’ arrived at four-thirty, very apologetic, explaining that he’d been filming all day and had only just been able to get away.

They all knew ‘E’, and I knew they would like to see him ‘do something’, and I knew that ‘E’ wanted to get on stage (or he’d have sat quietly at the back and apologized later), so I set up a Stanislavsky-like etude. I put a folded sheet of paper in an envelope. 'E' was to enter wearing his own coat and carrying the bag that he had just arrived at the studio with. He was to say, ‘Hi Darling, I’m home!’, and receiving no answer would assume that his wife must be out. Then he was to notice the envelope, read the message inside, and sit down. This was something that he could do well and had probably done well forty years earlier at Drama School - and it would be quick little scene.

Afterwards I got the audience to agree than he had done it well, that his work had been fine, that it had been interesting.

"You see that they liked it,” I said, “Would you mind doing it again? I’d like to add something to it. But I need to tell you it in secret.” (In that context, ‘secret’ is a better word than ‘private’.)

I took him into the next room and said, “Do everything you did the first time. Don’t change anything. Don’t be tired. Don’t lose vitality. But bore the audience a little. Don’t put them to sleep - bore them just a little bit.” He did the scene again. Then I asked the audience what I‘d told him.

Ninety-nine people said: “to be more interesting.”

‘E’ could hear what they were saying (he wasn’t deaf), but his brain couldn’t process what he was hearing.

“Yes,” he said, “to be less interesting.”

“To be more interesting,” they chorused, louder, and with emphasis on the ‘more’.

“That’s right,” he said, “To be less interesting.”

I swear this is true, but it was astonishing, even at the time, that he couldn’t accept what they had said twice.

Now they were yelling it at him a third time and shouting his name until he understood.

”Whaaaat!” he cried, taking a step backwards, astounded that after a lifetime in the theatre he had tried to be less interesting and had become more interesting.

When I met him in the street in Helsinki three years later he said: “That thing you did to me!”

*****************************************************************************************************


GODOT

I’m rehearsing Godot in another country. Vladimir has a speech towards the end of the play beginning with, "Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?..." His companion, Estragon is falling asleep, and Vladimir is expressing his anguish. It could be seen as Vladimir giving the ‘message’ of the play' but it absolutely should not be played like that.

My ‘Vladimir’ comes to me and says, “I have no idea how to play that speech.”

“The words are wonderful,” I say. “Just speak them clearly. Don’t rush. Give the audience time to appreciate them.”

I know this actor. I taught him a few years ago when he was a student at the State Theatre School. I think that he expected me to discuss ‘motivation’ and ways to shape the speech to make it more effective. Being told to just say the words probable feels like blasphemy. Anyway, he did exactly what I suggested, perhaps to demonstrate that I was wrong.

I wept. The other actors wept. Even the prompter – in attendance since the first rehearsal - wept. Vladimir is elated. He’s always wanted to make an audience weep. He feels that he is a great actor. He must have thought he’d taken a great step forward.

From then on we sat dry-eyed. The magic was gone. The end of play lost some of its power. I did everything that I could imagine to get Vladimir back to the simplicity of just ‘saying’ the words, but I couldn't do it. My belief is that at some deep level he still believed that he had wielded the magic, not Beckett. I couldn’t stop him from acting the speech, from putting his mark on it, from intruding between the writer and the audience.

I have directed Godot at least five times (!), always with young or ‘youngish’ actors, and twice I’ve met this problem when Vladimir came to that speech, and twice I’ve failed to solve it. The temptation of ‘greatness’ is too strong to let them just 'say the lines'.

It’s almost mythological; the Hero fights his way to the magic ring but cannot grasp it because he wants it so much. Only later, when he’s older and has achieved a level of indifference does the ring pursue him and fall into his lap.

******************************************************************************************************


BABE

"If the story does it, you don’t have to."

A pile of cheap videos caught my eye. One had the word ‘Babe’ printed above the image of a cute little piglet. Did I need a childrens’ movie about a pig? No!

I was about to move on when I noticed an excellent sentence. it said, “The Citizen Kane of Pig Movies,” so I bought the video.

It’s a serious film: playful, but it doesn’t hide the fact that farm animals are bred to be eaten. If you’ve seen it, you’ll remember how well the animals acted. The pig was the star and had to ‘carry the whole movie’, as they say, but it never faltered.

The landlady of the hotel in the sequel (Mary Stein) came to our Summer School and told us about problems with filming pigs. Unlike dogs, pigs have no interest in helping us, in, doing the same thing twice to please a human-being, and there’s only a three-day ’window’ when pigs look cute. Six cute little pigs were delivered to the film set, to be replaced three days later by six still cute little pigs, ad infinitum. The computers would fix an expression or – on occasion - create a totally obedient (but wildly expensive) computer-generated ‘pig’.

I’m reminded of Jeremy Irons who was asked about ‘acting in the movies’. He said that he might have to do something that he considered ‘acting’ three or four times in the average movie; the rest of the time he was just ‘walking in and out of doors', which sounded a bit like the pigs. Someone else – Sir Ralph Richardson perhaps? - defined acting as ‘the art of eliminating unnecessary gestures’, but why would an animal make an unnecessary gesture?

‘Babe’ is not a movie for adults to see repeatedly, but I watched a section recently and had fun wondering how they made the animals appear to be acting. The sheepdog is worried about the pig. No, it’s not! It’s been told to ‘sit’, and is probably waiting to be called by its trainer. It only seems to be worried because the story makes us expect it to be. Its ears shoot up, and we experience seeing it ‘get an idea’. Cut to it as it runs towards the farmhouse and we ‘know’ that it’s going to get help, probably from the farmer, but its ears shot up because the trainer, hidden in the farmhouse, shouted ‘Come!’.

In the last moments of Queen Christina, Garbo was to stare into the future from the sharp end of the ship that was taking her into exile. She was leaving so much behind her, and her future was so uncertain; how was she to convey such a collision of deep and conflicting emotions without any dialogue?

She asked advice from her director and as far as I remember (be kind please because I’m casting my mind back sixty years) as far as I remember he said something like, “Don’t do anything! Think nothing. Let your mind go blank. Have no thoughts, no emotions.” So she did, and by emptying her mind she allowed people who knew the story to paint their own emotions onto her blank canvas. The scene is famous.

A better example is the ending of Chaplin’s City Lights which racks me with emotion.

I’ve read that Chaplin and the ‘blind girl’ agreed to play no emotion in this scene, and that it was filmed quickly and easily. It’s an example of the traditional advice: “Let the audience weep, not the actors.”

A beautiful young European actress was cast in a Hollywood movie (it wasn’t Julie Christie, nor was it Liv Ulman). On the first day the ‘male lead’ said to her: “I’m sorry my dear but I’m not going to do any acting in this movie. It’s the only way that I can get the ‘suits’ to break my contract. I’ll listen to the director but I’ll ignore what he says. Doing no acting of any kind will force them to set me free.” Well, that was the gist of what he said. I don’t think he ‘won the Oscar’, but everyone agreed that it was his best performance.

If I find the book where I read this, I’ll tell you. If you know already, please tell me (e-mail me)..

*****************************************************************************************************


MAKE MISTAKES

“You were absolutely perfect; couldn’t you make a few mistakes?”

I’ve just been reading Patti Stiles book, Improvise Freely. She tells of her fear the first time she was to ‘do lights’ for a TheatreSports show, and of how her fear went away when I told her that she had to make three mistakes. I’m sure that I would have actually said ‘three serious mistakes'. And I would have meant it. She probably knew that I tended to appear at the technicians’ booth, saying, “What the Hell’s going on up here? You're getting everything right!”

If the lighting improviser, and the sound improviser, are trying to be perfect they’ll see themselves as ‘accompanying the improvisers’ and not as equal partners. They’ll wait to see what the actors need and they’ll be trying to supply it. But if they take risks they can be equal partners in establishing a scene or in moving a scene forward.

If no mistakes are being made, I’ll know that they’re ‘playing safe’. By complaining that their work is ‘perfect’, I’m implying that they should make decisions quicker! Should experiment! Should try things out! Take risks!! If they don’t do too much, how will they ever know what is enough?

If I can change the way they think (from the way that they’ve been educated to think), their fear of failing will disappear and they will begin to create scenes, rather than being just one element in a scene. Maybe if there’s nothing happening in a scene the environs could be lit by a projection of foliage, and music could coax the players to play a love scene on an immediately provided bench. Or a diminished seventh chord can interrupt, loudly, and coax the players to make a bland scene suddenly dramatic.

Maybe a scene could be developed by an ominous chord that occurs, at least several times a minute. I’ve never seen that but why not? (CHORD! The players are startled – there’s a sound from the next room and yet they’re alone in the house. CHORD! They arm themselves with...with...with the fire-irons and move to investigate. CHORD! A much louder sound from the next room - supplied by the Sound Improviser. They listen! Silence. They throw open the door – CHORD! (The Sound Improviser has followed their reaction!) They rush to another room and lock themselves in and relax a little. CHORD! The danger, whatever it is, has started to smash in the door. CHORD! A desperate struggle to find the cell-phone. CHORD! They start shouting for help from the window...well you get the idea. It could be an impro-game. Play it before the players are to act out Word-at-a-Time.

If a player came on stage and seemed to need help I’d like immense organ music to slam in, and for the player to kneel and cross herself, and for the organ music to diminish or fade to zero, and for the player to look up and ask, “Are you there, God?”

Or the surrounding light could have become red, and an ‘evil’ amphilified voice could have roared:

“ABANDON HOPE ALL YE THAT ENTER HERE”

The player might then ring the doorbell.

“No, I don’t want to come in, but I have a letter for a Mrs. Dorothy Edwards to be delivered personally.”

If two players come on stage wearing raincoats they could suddenly be in a tremendous, shrieking, howling wind and having to clutch each other and lean into the violence of the air. Hopefully, our dark clad ‘scenographers’ would suddenly be on stage to flap the players’ clothing, and perhaps add to the gesture of ‘leaning into the wind’ by helping them ‘lean’ at impossible angles until they attained the shelter of an imaginary rock. Our stars could have lit up (little lights are permanently fixed to the theatre’s ceiling – at least they were in my time) and the sound of gulls shrieking could be added by improvisers standing at the side and ‘seagulling’ into a microphone while flapping their arms. Spray bottles could be used to spray the players - we always had spray bottles accessible. The players could have been shouting to each other - in mime – until the gale subsided enough for them to be heard. A light that was regularly sweeping across the stage from right to left could be established as the beam of a lighthouse.

The lighthouse could stop flashing. This is terribly serious. They decide to row to the lighthouse to see what has happened - we had a ‘row-boat’ permanently waiting off-stage in case of need. The scenographers rock the boat in slow motion – aided by a couple of volunteers from the audience. The players drown. The scene changes to Heaven (achieved by sheets of mylar – reflective cloth – draped over chairs). God is furious at these fools who went to sea in such conditions. The Recording Angel (with arms inserted into the loops of large fake flappable wings) complains that our heroes are not due for forty years. Our Heroes explain about the lighthouse. God apologises. There’s been a mistake. Everyone freezes as the same idea percolates through to them. Suddenly our heroes are back in the raging, gong-tormented sea that washes them up on the steps of the light house...etc.

I’d enjoy such a scene, but I’ll never see anything like it if everyone is trying to be perfect - especially if they see improvisation as a branch of stand-up comedy!

Do you want to be safe or do you want to make things happen?

If you’re trying to be safe, why should we watch you?

If you want to be inspired, risk ideas that might not work but that you hope will (gong-torment sea?)

I got into trouble when I gave notes to The Improbable Theatre Company who were presenting the LifeGame in La Jolla. (I hadn’t enjoyed their show - I had expected wonderful things!)

Two of the people that I offended were their Pianist and their ‘Lighting Technician’. Maybe ‘offended’ wasn’t the word but I seriously disturbed them. They hadn’t slept that night – so I was told – by Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson who said that I must never speak to them again.

Well, alright, that’s a bit odd, especially as I’d intended to praise them. Well, I had praised them. I’d said: “You were absolutely perfect; couldn’t you make a few mistakes?” I don’t think I said a word more, not to them. I’d hoped I was setting them free, making them equal partners with the performers. But perhaps I was too cryptic. They could have treated it as a Zen ‘koan’, the solving of which might have brought enlightenment.

*******************************************************************************************************


BAD IMPROVISER

An Impro group from a distant country arrived at the Loose Moose Summer School. We greatly admired one of them: a short, positive, very physical improviser.

His friends said: “You don’t understand. He’s a terrible improviser.”

“No, he’s wonderful.”

“In this country, yes, because he only speaks about twenty words of English, but in our country he just gets up on stage and tries to say witty things but he’s not very witty, and he doesn’t listen, he just talks. And he’s not physical at all.”

“Oh.”

*******************************************************************************************************


COME CLOSER

If you say to an audience – “Why don’t you move closer and fill these empty seats – you’ll hear better!” hardly anyone will move. If, instead of speaking about hearing you say, “you’ll have a far better time,” they’ll move forward ‘en masse

Conclusion – the audience thinks it’s your job to be audible and their job to enjoy the show.

*******************************************************************************************************

OUT OF POSITION

About forty years ago a friend had a small role in a production at Theatre Calgary. One evening the play ground to a halt. The actors were inventing dialogue to get the play going again. It became clear to my friend that the ‘star’ (who had been flown in from LA) wasn’t saying or doing anything. Somehow the play managed to reach the interval.

The actors were behind the curtain saying, ‘What happened!’ ‘What was that?’ Oh my goodness!’ etc. The star turned to one of his fellow actors, saying, ‘You weren’t in your position. I was waiting for you to take your position.

*******************************************************************************************************

GNOMIC UTTERANCES

“If you think of a clever idea, do something else.”

That quote may have been from a context that explained it. I suppose that I should really have said, “If you think of an idea that seems clever, say or do something else.”

When an improvised scene begins, the possibilities are endless, but it soon establishes a ‘circle of probability’. This imposes limits. If ‘Scottie’ reports that the ‘dilithium crystals’ that were brought cheap on Venus are actually bath-salts, we'll know that we’re in a sci-fi Star Trek type story, and that the ghost of Tutankhamun, or the formula for changing water into wine are outside the circle and would damage the developing story. 'Little Red Riding Hood' would not be improved by 'creative ideas' like a dead whale and a wood-chipping machine (although it might be if the woodcutter was her father).

An excellent idea that is within the circle of probability is likely to seem obvious, whereas an idea that is outside of the circle will feel clever. Hence my advice, “If you think of a clever idea...etc.”

An occasional intrusion from outside the circle may be useful, but this is not for beginners.

Bob Newhart became famous when he based monologues on 'staying in the circle'. For example, when he imagined a security guard whose first day at the Empire State Building coincided with King Kong climbing it; from then-on everything was ‘in the circle’. He did that in monologue after monologue. So:

“State the idea: stay in the circle.”

*******************************************************************************************************

FEAR

1962. The play was opening in front of all the London critics, and a nervous actor wanted to be perfect. It was his chance of fame! As his average-self he would have been excellent, but he was ‘doing his best’ which meant trying to consciously control everything that he did.

At the beginning of act two he shook hands, and forgot to cancel the action. For the rest of the act his right hand remained sticking out in front of him like a flipper. When the curtain came down forty minutes later he stopped acting and the hand returned to normal.

I saw this myself – I was the director. (I recently gave a risible TED talk on Not Doing Your Best; I could have given this example, if they'd let me.)

*******************************************************************************************************


TEAR-JERKER

Herodotus mentions a play called The Capture of Miletus that made the entire audience burst into tears. Instead of being praised, the author was fined a thousand drachmas, and the play was banned in perpetuity.

(Herodotus is the only ancient Greek author that I might enjoy being trapped in an elevator with.)

********************************************************************************************************


DIRECTING IMPROVISATIONS

Some directors (of Maestro) have one idea and expect the improvisers to accept it, but I want to give the players ideas that inspire them. ('A good idea is one that inspires your partner!) If the players don’t instantly cheer up, I'll suggest another idea, and if that doesn’t do the trick, I suggest yet another. I seldom have to offer more than three suggestions because I’ve had lots of experience., and if I make such substitutions quickly no one remembers them. Why? Because quick, unused suggestions have no reason to transfer from the short term memory to the long term memory. Don't wait for a verbal response (read the body language). Churn out ideas until the players cheer up: “You talk to a monster in total darkness that you don’t realise is a monster? You fall in love with your sofa? You have to defuse a time-bomb? You are astronauts landing on an unknown planet? Etc"

If they accept a suggestion without cheering up, I'll challenge them: "You don 't really like that suggestion" Then I'll suggest a few more

Many directors offer one suggestion and expect it to be obeyed.

“But it was a good idea!”

“It wasn’t needed!”

“I wanted to see what would happen!”

“Then you should be on the stage as one of the improvisers.”

*********************************************************************************************************


LIGHTS AND SOUND

I stormed into the booth that contained the Sound Improviser and the Lighting improviser and said "What’s going on! What’s happening up here!”

“What! What went wrong?”

“Nothing! You were perfect!”

“So?”

“You're supposed to make at least one big mistake in each half.”

“Isn’t that just the improvisers?”

“No! You! Everybody! Otherwise it’s show business!”

(If the scenery collapses during a Show-Biz performance, it’s a disaster, but if it collapsed during an Impro Show it could be a magnificent opportunity..

If the Lighting and Sound improvisers and the stage-management are expected to be perfect they'll be submissive to the improvisers. They'll see themselves as accompanying the improvisers, rather than as creative equals.

If improvisers come on stage and don't seem 'to have anything', I'd like the 'Hallelujah Chorus' to crash in, and a sheet of mylar (shiny material) to be placed on a chair where God can sit and be about to destroy the universe unless a new arrival can dissuade him.

Or I'd like organ music, and for stained glass windows to fade in, and for the improvisers to kneel down and cross themselves (and perhaps for me to shout, 'It's a murder scene!').

Or I'd like some red light and a hand passing tridents onto the stage for a scene in a Hell that's too full to take any more sinners.

Or I'd like waves and seagulls and scenographers who run in with silky blue material to 'make waves'.

Or I'd like a young couple to come home and then, as they switch on the new stereo, for there to be a complete blackout because they've blown the fuses.

I could go on!

Unless everyone involved with the stage is allowed, forced, expected, encouraged to make mistakes, most improvisation will still look like 'bar-pro' (improvisation in bars). Of course the improvisers who are on-stage must be able to reject any help that they don't like, or don't need, or that threatens to overwhelm them, but instead of working in a void they should be supplied with material to accept or reject. (Seldom use this as a source of humour. The performers should be supplied with something to help them when they need help.)

Recently I opened a book about Chicago's Second City Improv Theatre. On the first page it described an improviser entering with an armful of pizza boxes. The player already on stage said, 'I see you've brought the man-hole covers,' and got a laugh - which I suppose made the author think that this was a worthwhile interaction, even though it denied our ever knowing what the player with the pizza boxes intended, and created a hostile atmosphere, far away from impro as a exhibition of good nature. Don't get laughs by screwing up the other actors work. (Unless the laugh is wonderful, hysterical, amazing, show-stopping, remembered forever.)

One reason why the player entered with the pizza boxes is that he'd wanted to enter with something, and there was nothing else back stage except the pizza boxes that hadn't been cleared away since the previous evening's 'party'.

What did Second City have on their 50th anniversary poster? One chair!

How often have you seen a bar-pro improviser wearing a hat? Let alone using a prop. Less props: more words!

But Second City has a Theatre! Why still do bar-pro?

*********************************************************************************************************


THERE ARE OCEANS OF IDEAS

Some time after I had founded the Loose Moose Theatre Company with Mel Tonkin, the players had a meeting to complain that my ideas were being accepted without question, and that this was undemocratic. About twenty ‘Moosers’ attended so the idea must have had some traction (unless they were there to support me),

After about ten minutes I said: “But you kill all my ideas!"

“No! We always accept them.”

“Well, you kill most of them.”

“No! No! We always accept your ideas. We never vote!”

“Voting creates winners and losers, so I avoid it."

"Voting is democratic!"

"I never said I was a democrat! But my method is not un-democratic. You've been taught to cling to an idea and fight for it, but my attitude is more like Bertrand Russell's!"

I told them that this famous atheist had been questioned to see if his religious beliefs would absolve him from military service:

"'But surely, Lord Russell, you would be prepared to fight for your beliefs!'"

"'Certainly not.'"

"'Not! And why on earth might that be?'

"'Because I might be wrong.'"

So they jailed him

"I know the direction that I would like Loose Moose to go in, but there are an infinite number of ways to get there, so if I suggest an idea that doesn’t interest you, I’ll suggest something else, and if that's not acceptable, I’ll make more suggestions until suddenly you say, ‘Yes! Yes! Let's do it!'"

The improvisers saw that it was true and began to wander off until the meeting didn’t exist any more.

I had forgotten this meeting until Patti Stiles reminded me.

Lord Russell was sent to jail, a place where he would have been treated reasonably at a time when working class pacifists were being beaten to death by their guards.

When he was attacked by a mob of women at a pacifist meeting in Trafalgar Square a friend begged a policeman to rescue him saying, 'He's a famous philosopher!' and was told to 'eff off'!

'But he's the son of an Earl!'

Rescue was immediate. ********************************************************************************************************


SOUNDS

My knee was treated by a blind osteopath called Mr Tapp. I had imagined that he might bump into me, or head off in the wrong direction, but he always knew where I was because I’d sniff, or clear my throat, or move slightly so that he could hear the movement. This happened quite automatically. My body always let him know where I was, and yet it was the first time that I had been in the presence of a blind man.

Afterwards I went around the corner to Dillon’s bookshop. Someone was sitting cross-legged between two bookcases, absorbed in a book, so I made a small inconsequential sound to alert him to my presence, also quite automatically.

I was early for ‘rehearsal’ so I went into a coffee bar and paid attention to the ‘irrelevant’ sounds that the people around me were making, Why had I never noticed how many emotional sounds people made accompanying speech?

Reach out and touch someone (if it won’t get you arrested), or touch an object. Now remove your hand. That was intellectual, as long as no sound accompanied the action. Do it again, but this time go ‘ummmmm’ or ‘’ahhhhh’ as you make the touch. The action that was ‘abstract’ now feels meaningful, and probably you’ll laugh to show that you didn’t mean anything by it. At this time (early sixties) women in print were accusing male lovers of ‘operating’ them like adjusting the knobs on a stereo, but I now suspect that they were complaining about the absence of sounds. Caress a nipple in silence and it seems ‘remote’, ‘intellectual’, 'cold', but if you sigh a gentle ‘oooooh!’ or murmur an appreciative ‘uummmm’ or 'aaaaah' as you do it, the movement feels natural and full of emotional warmth. A different part of the brain is involved. Experiment!

When I arrived at rehearsal, I discovered something extraordinary. The actors were drinking coffee and eating biscuits and filling the space with sounds as well as with words, but the moment they began to ‘act’, the sounds completely disappeared - only to return the moment that the acting was interrupted for some purpose, like consulting the script or for a coffee break.

************************************************* ******************************************************


STONING

I was sitting in a Copenhagen park, the one adjacent to the zoo. The day was cloudy and rather chilly so not many people were there. A man and a woman arrived behaving - to my eye - rather oddly. I couldn’t understand their relationship until it was revealed to be professional. The woman stepped out of her coat, stark naked – as the English say - and climbed into a fountain where she struck erotic poses as the man photographed her.

In London it would have been shocking – grounds for arrest – but the Danes were more comfortable with nudity. They were naked on the beaches and in the parks; this was before an influx of Islamic refugees began imposing their values. When I directed the first naked scenes at the State Theatre school, the only reaction from the school was 'please don't rehearse at night without pulling down the blinds'.

Some young boys (ten year olds?) gathered to watch the naked woman. I’d seen a Danish child on TV being asked about ‘porn’ who replied that 'porn' was ‘the grown-ups' Mickey Mouse’, so what happened next surprised me. The children threw stones at the woman and at the photographer, driving them out of the park.

When a group of children throw stones at you, retreat (or murder) are about your only options. I once saw similar behaviour in London. Teachers were playing Master/Servant scenes (in pairs) in a large garden. I'd given the Masters 'airship' balloons with which to beat annoying Servants, so lots of noise was being made.

There was nothing to be done except retreat inside the house.

Twice I've seen such stoning scenes in life but only once on stage - the famous scene in Edward Bond's play Saved that outraged the censor - but Edward's scene was a lie. I had directed his first produced play The Pope's Wedding and I would have directed Saved, his new play, except for that scene. I had read the same press reports as Edward had about ten-year-olds stoning a baby in a pram, but Edward upped the ages by five or more years and I couldn't believe it. I thought teenagers had other things to occupy them, but the image of a baby being stoned was such a perfect symbol for power destroying innocence - something at the very centre of Edward's discontent - that he used it in a play about teenage men. So I swapped Saved for the play that Gaskill was to have directed - The Cresta Run - by N.F. (Wally) Simpson. A pity, because I had no idea how to direct Wally's play but liked working with Edward; we tended to think alike (I had sworn that he was talented some seven years before any of his work appeared on stage), and I liked him even though he was the most secretive person I'd ever met.

(Don’t expect to see much nudity in Denmark now. The Moslems won’t tolerate it.)

*********************************************************************************************************


LESS IS MORE FRIGHTENING

I saw Alien in a Canadian cinema and was terrified because we hardly ever saw the monster. Perhaps the Canadian censors had insisted on cuts, because when I’ve seen the movie since there’s been a lot more monster and it’s far less scary.

It’s a splendid monster, excellently designed, but more frightening when we only see the tiniest glimpses of it.

The shark built for Jaws was usually non-functioning, literally unusable (and because TV documentaries had shown us genuine great white sharks it needed to look real). Bereft of the shark, Stephen Spielberg filmed yellow ‘barrels’ being dragged through the water, seemingly attached to the shark. Those barrels (and John Williams' music) were so terrifying that some people haven’t swum in the sea since.

In his film Duel you never saw the driver of the ugly black truck.

************************************************************************


HARPO

Harpo was the most popular of The Marx Brothers. He never spoke, and yet I’ve never seen an impro group in which one improviser was mute, even if one of them had a very weak voice.

(His book Harpo Speaks describes traveling to Russia where he auditioned for Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre. His audition consisted entirely of cutlery falling from his clothing. He was 'called back' day after day - I think from Monday to Thursday, something like that - always with a larger group of people watching him but never a single laugh.)

*********************************************************************************************************

SECRET INSTRUCTIONS

Betty and Colin are about to repeat a scene. I take Betty outside to give her some 'secret instructions'. Now their performances noticeably improve, especially Colin’s. The class want to know what I said, but I’ll probably repeat the 'instructions' a few times with other students first, always with the same results.

“The secret is that there was no secret. I told Betty, ‘You’re doing fine. I won’t tell you anything, but it’ll be interesting to see the effect on Colin as he wonders what I've told you!' Their acting improved because they were less interested in themselves, and more interested in each other.”

********************************************************************************************************


A DIFFERENT AUDIENCE

Kenneth Tynan claimed that his enthusiastic review of Osborne’s Look Back in Anger ‘saved’ the play from failure, but the truth is that the play trickled on, losing money for six weeks (because the management of the Royal Court Theatre had nothing to replace it with). Then a twenty-minute extract was shown on television, and after that there were line-ups at the box office – line-ups of people younger than our usual audience.

******************************************************************************************************


AVIS BUNNAGE

Avis starred as the mother in A Taste Of Honey, written by Shelagh Delaney and directed by the greatest British director, Joan Littlewood.

This fine play had an unsatisfactory ending, or so Joan and the actors thought. 'Jo' is pregnant by her black boy friend who deserts her. Then her mother walks out on her. Then the lights fade and the curtain comes down on Jo’s misery – at least that’s what used to happen. I don't know what the ending is now.

Tony Richardson – who had been in L.A., trying to get financing for the film - told me that one of the great Hollywood moguls, I forget which, but it was a name everyone would know, had suggested that it should have an up-beat ending.

“But how,” said Tony.

“Couldn’t the black baby die?”

Avis told me that in despair at finding an ending, Joan Littlewood said:

“Walk out on Jo as usual, but I’ll arrange for the lights to stay up. They won’t go out until you re-enter and say a line of dialogue, any line.”

The performance was going well – it always went well. Avis flounced out as usual, and stood in the gloom back stage, waiting for the applause – which didn’t come. She could see light through the places where the ‘flats’ met and wondered why the stage was still lit. At that moment she remembered! Augh! She burst on the stage in confusion, with no idea what to say, and said: “So what was all that about, then?”

There was a huge roar of laughter, and the curtain came down to frenzied applause. She had given the audience what they wanted – the knowledge that Jo wasn’t going to be left alone, deserted by everyone. Problem solved – except that Joan hadn’t been at the performance. It had been a moment of total spontaneity and Avis couldn’t recreate it. She told me that they struggled for two weeks but that it never worked again.

It’s the kind of story that people won’t believe. Someone should check it with Murray Melvin (who played Geoff wonderfully even though he had just been promoted from office boy).

I would have tried delaying Avis’s reappearance until the audience became just slightly uncomfortable, suspecting an error - but maybe Joan tried that.

*****************************************************************************************************


JAMES BOLAM

1962. I directed Ann Jellicoe’s comedy The Knack, and was in the audience when one of the ‘flats’ – one of the walls of the ‘set’ - 'hinged' onto the stage. (The production that had been rehearsing on 'my stage' during the day had neglected to secure it.)

The audience was disturbed (‘Is this part of the play? No, an accident! Oh dear! Will they lower the curtain?’ etc.)

James Bolam, who was playing Tom, was alone in what was meant to be Tom’s room. He looked at what had happened (some actors would have ignored it), and considered it for a moment before turning to the audience and saying, in character, “What a household!” This got a huge laugh – and by the time that the laugh ended my stage-management had tied the ‘flat’ back in position.

Instead of being damaged, the performance was enhanced, partly because the ‘line’ had been so perfect for the play, but also because it had happened close to an interval where people could discuss the misadventure and express admiration for James Bolam's presence of mind.

*****************************************************************************************************


"WRONG!"

1968? My impro group were in Dubrovnik, sent by the British Council. While we were there we were told this story about a production of Richard the Second that the British Council had sent to Zagreb a month earlier.

Richard was taken ill, so his understudy had to take over. This understudy was already playing a role, so his understudy had to be alerted. So many ripples of recasting went through the company that even the prompter had to take part, and yet a prompter was essential.

A senior diplomat from the embassy was approached.

“Yes, yes, I’d be delighted to assist the actor chappies!”

It was explained to him that he was to sit in the ‘prompt corner’ and follow the play, line by line, as the actors on stage spoke them.

"Yes, well that hardly seems rocket science!"

The news spread quickly: “We have a prompter!”

“Great!”

Relief all around.

After twenty minutes, ‘Richard’ forgot his lines. The diplomat said nothing. The pause was becoming interminable, so 'Richard' jumped to some lines that were further in the text.

“WRONG!” said the diplomat, loudly and confidently.

'Richard' tried again.

“WRONG!”

I don’t know how they sorted it out, but ‘Richard’ could have addressed the prompter in blank verse:

“I do not wish to be corrected, Sir!

But to be told my line when I forget!”

"WRONG!”

Or he could have decided to bring the prompt-book on stage, saying:

“That book I mentioned to you yesterday,

I’ll fetch it for you from my library!”

"WRONG!"

And perhaps he might have had to fight the diplomat for the prompt book.

"WRONG! WROOONG! WROOOONG!"

Perhaps even dragging the diplomat on to the stage in a frantic tug-o-war.

******************************************************************************************************


STAGE FRIGHT

Our brains have two hemispheres. Each hemisphere controls one half of the body. Perhaps some of the physical awkwardness and left/right synchronisation seen in stage-fright results from the dominant hemisphere being frantic to control both sides of the body so as to make no mistakes.

*****************************************************************************************************


RABBITS FROM HATS

I was told that a famous magician said - on the internet - that long ago I had given him valuable advice. I only remembered ever giving advice to one magician, a modest, up-beat, charming person whose personality would have let him succeed whatever the advice, so perhaps it was him

I think I said that: “I’ve never seen a magician who was afraid of the tricks; most magicians look rather smug. Pulling a live rabbit out of a hat must have been a sensation the first time it happened, but we’re seen it so often that it’s ‘just a trick’,

“What matters is not the trick – we feel that magicians can show us anything – but the magician’s attitude to the trick. Pull out a bright red writhing glistening rubber octopus from a hat when you were expecting a rabbit; stuff it back in, and stand back in fright while making some sort of excuse to the audience, seemingly to reassure them, but actually to 'play-scare' them – if you did that, and then approached the hat, trying to hide your 'fear', pulling back your coat sleeves as if afraid of getting slime on them, and only then pulled out a live rabbit, I’ll remember it forever. And if the rabbit moved and you flinched I might like that even more.”

*********************************************************************************************************


AN ACTOR'S 'BLINDNESS'.

An actor from The Mousetrap arrived at the Royal Court Theatre Studio and told us this story the morning after it happened.

A woman was on stage, alone – in an isolated country house where something bad had happened – probably a murder. (Forgive me if the details are wrong, but I’m remembering this story from long ago (I directed the studio from ’64 to ’66.)

The woman acted 'hearing a sound', and realised that someone was hiding in an alcove. Her dialogue was something like, ‘Come out of there. I know who you are. Stop playing games!’

The lights should have gone out so that a struggle could be heard in the darkness but on the previous evening they hadn't. The woman on stage improvised dialogue for a while but the lights stayed up. In desperation she armed herself with something, a poker from the fire perhaps, and approached the alcove, speaking loudly, hoping with each step for darkness to fall, but the lights stayed up. Any further and she would be off-stage. Perhaps the electrician had died, or was throwing up in the toilet, or had fallen asleep, but the play had to go on, so, at the very edge of the stage, she grabbed herself by the throat, while pretending that it was someone else’s hand, and fell back onto the stage, 'strangled'!

I think she was acting correctly. There was a problem and she tried to solve it.

Then the lights went out-and-stayed out for the usual length of time (but without the sound of a struggle). Then someone entered, ‘switched on the lights’, and screamed wonderfully at the carpet where the body had lain night after night but was now up-stage of the sofa.

He (or she) ran forwards to touch the body, and gave a lesser scream – but for real. The body was out of sight so she (or he) had to trek about the stage, find the ‘body’, and scream yet again so that the play could continue.

This was an extreme example of the ‘zombie’ acting that I saw on the English stage in my youth (and found again years later in a Canadian University). She had come on stage, not to find her knitting, or to take a book from the shelf, or to steal a chocolate from the box on the table, but to present her much practised (and no doubt much admired) scream.

*********************************************************************************************************


CATHARSIS - MY THEORY

I’ve just watched Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and - as always - I'd like a final section of celebration. If we sacrificed something precious to ensure a good harvest, or for success in battle, the community would rejoice, there would be laughing and cheering and mass copulation, and therefore the Rite should change, at the death of the dancer, to exaltation and celebration.

The Rite would have been even more shocking (in 1913) if it had ended with the truth – that we don’t skulk away, full of shame, after the moment of sacrifice. We feel absolved, and therefore happy. And we stay until midnight.

Vast crowds attend public executions to feel better afterwards, and the more important the condemned person, the better they feel. If our priests tore the heart out from a half-starved, wretched, homeless person at the centre of a great ceremony I don't think there'll be much catharsis at all. Catharsis is the intense emotional release when we see someone at the top of the 'pecking-order' being lopped off so that we all have the feeling of all moving up a step.

After a day of tragedies the ancient Greeks presented a comedy.

In one of his essays Alex Comfort suggested that it might have been better to sacrifice one Jew rather than six million.

How does that make you feel?

************************************** ************ *** ******************************************


BITS

There is a theory that when visiting Russians explained Stanislavsky's theory of 'beats' - "the actor does this 'beat' followed by that 'beat'" - that they were really saying the word 'Bit' with a Russian accent.

********************************************************************************************************

1,237 views2 comments

Recent Posts

See All

TEACHER TRAINING? I arrived at St Lukes Teacher Training College and was shown to a student residence in a nearby street. My room was on the ground floor with greenery outside the window. I unpacked,

I REALISE THAT SOME OF THESE STORIES MAY SEEM UNBELIEVABLE, AND YET THEY HAPPENED AND HAPPENED IN THE WAY I HAVE DESCIBED.. EARLY MEMORY (THE UNIVERSE) I had become old enough to pull myself onto the