Notes on theatre, music, and the spoken word.


Above all, some technical points have been impressed on me since playing for three years in theatres which have been too large for the plays we have performed in them. This has entailed first and foremost clear speaking – not shouting, but enunciating, with particular attention to the last word of every sentence. There is always a key word in a line, and if this is lost the whole
meaning of the sentence (and in comedy, therefore, the laugh) is lost too. Often this key word is the final one of the line, and a fatal fault is to exhaust one's breath at the beginning of the sentence and let the final word become inaudible. The cure, of course, is to control the diaphragm so that the breath is conserved.

The great actress Athene Seyler (1889-1990). Wise, wise words.

This music does not need my assistance

The melodic lines themselves are expressive to me. Take, for instance, the works of J S Bach: in most of what I have heard in the interpretation of other pianists, I feel that too much is imposed upon the music. The very direction of the lines, the moving lines of notes are inherently expressive. Without the consciousness of what these lines really represent, one may feel that it needs an expressive addition. In my composing, too, I try to find something which expresses itself without adding.

The pianist Keith Jarrett, from the liner notes to his recording of Bach's Well-tempered Clavier. I believe to a large degree same is true of speaking text.

How we learn most

We learn most about people through the ear. We learn most about nature through the eye.

The great Jacob Bronowski, from The Visionary Eye. I don't know if this is true. I instinctively feel that it is, but as soon as I acknowledge that feeling my mind runs to thinking about the power of body language and gesture, and the polyphony of the natural world. But then he's not saying we learn everything about people through the ear, but most.

I worked with an actor once who said he was taught that 'speech is secondary'. He worked hard on his physicality, his psychological reasoning, and prided himself on throwing himself into the part. He was a bold, committed actor. He worked tirelessly. But I was surprised to find I didn't learn much about his character.

If I close my eyes on a mountaintop, I hear the wind, the clatter of scree, my own breathing, a distant aircraft, a goat bleating. But then I open my eyes.

Comic timing

My main thing as a director is that people need to face the front and you have to be able to hear what they're saying… Comic timing is all in the rhythm of the writing, so you don't have to grope around for that. Basically, if you try to gloss it or interpret it, it starts to go wrong… In fact the main thing to do was to just back off it.

The comedian Stewart Lee, on directing Jerry Springer – the Opera.

His advice in the first sentence sounds a bit flip, but I still regard it as an important ground rule: all the subtlety and delicate characterisation in the world is worthless if it fails to make it across the footlights. But it's the next part that is so crucial, which echoes older posts on this blog – don't gloss or interpret the writing. This happens so often now (perhaps it always did), where the actor somehow feels the need to make their contribution to the performance demonstrably clear, over and above the requirements of the writing.

Stand-up comedy interests me more and more, as it is usually just a person with a microphone. I can't think of any other medium now where audiences engage in sustained listening to the human voice (and little else) for entertainment. Anyone interested in speaking, particularly in rhythm and stress, should go. And there's no better place to start than with Lee himself, whose ear for cadence, tone, and rhythm is astonishing. I recommend his book, too, How I Escaped my Certain Fate, in which he talks about these things with great clarity. He also reprints some of his routines, but you'll want to hear him deliver them to get the full power. And of course, the humour.

Listen with your soul and with your ears

What he said that impressed me was: 'When one wants to find a gesture, when you want to find how to act on stage, all you have to do is listen to the music. The composer has already seen to that.' If you take the trouble to really listen with your soul and with your ears — and I say soul and ears because the mind must work, but not too much also — you will find every gesture there. And it is all true, you know.

Maria Callas on advice from Tulio Serafin, during an interview in Paris with Lord Harewood for the BBC in April 1968. She's talking about music, but I can't help thinking it might also be true of text.

How beautiful it is

You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation.

you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon

making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,

wear the same rapt expression,
forgetting themselves in a function.

How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object-look.

W H Auden, from Horae Canonicae. I love the spoken word, but not to the exclusion of everything else. Auden is right – you can see thought. And if you can genuinely get that 'eye-on-the-object-look' up on a stage or in front of a camera, the world will catch its breath.

An unexplored world

There is a part of everything which is unexplored, because we are accustomed to using our eyes only in association with the memory of what people before us have thought of the thing we are looking at. Even the smallest thing has something in it which is unknown.

Gustave Flaubert, in a letter to Guy de Maupassant, 1870.

The world around us is infinitely astonishing. To me, the best theatre is made by those who refuse to take what they see for granted. They cause a revolution not by tearing down the past to worship at the altar of the new, but by holding up the familiar for close and subtle inspection.

I often think novelty is the easy way out. Perhaps the most interesting work is not about creating new worlds, but by turning a new eye on the world we numbly gaze at every day through habit-glazed eyes.

The fruit of exercise

The style of an author should be the image of his mind, but the choice and command of language is the fruit of exercise.

Edward Gibbon, from his Memoirs.

Might not this sentence, misappropriated, be true of acting? That the style of an actor should be the image of his mind – that is, his actions are a clear expression of internal psychology – but the way in which he communicates that, through verbal and non-verbal language, is the fruit of exercise.

Perhaps this is self-evident. Intellectually we know it to be true – that any creative endeavour requires a combination of talent and technique. But in acting the technique, beyond simple vocal projection or physical flexibility, is not as precise as in music or dance. Its material is human nature, which is fickle, elusive, imprecise, and intangible.

Stanislavski's key challenge to his actors was 'I don't believe you'. But are there objective standards? Might I believe in an actor, while another member of the same audience does not?

From a director's point of view, I have to trust an actor that he or she will successfully form a truthful image in the mind that will inform their every onstage activity. I can help them, but not compel them. I can guide them, but not teach them. It is their intuition, their talent, that will find the great performance.

But the way in which they communicate does have standards. Lines either make sense or they do not. Movements are stiff and awkward, or they are not. Here I can help. And I would argue that the more I assume responsibility for this side of things, the more the actor can give themselves up completely to the other.

Strange as it may seem, the rigorous attention to minute technical detail should allow the actor to feel safe and supported. But when it is done so rarely, and with careless insensitivity, it can feel like an imposition. And yet if actors embrace it fearlessly, and the director is sensitive enough, it can liberate the imagination and the instinct to an astonishing degree.

Acting and speaking are bound together

There seem to be two key aspects to speaking well: phrasing and tone. I derive this distinction from my reading of Peter Gill's introduction to Actors Speaking, a collection of interviews with actors that he commissioned while running the National Theatre Studio in London. Gill is known to take speaking very seriously, and I can find no better introduction to the subject than the following

It seems to me that good speaking requires first of all the development of an ear. An ear for what the writer has written – its cadence, its tone – and a felt need to find the technical means to express this, so that it appears as if these are the speaker’s own words. A feeling for the integrity of the language for its own sake is required, an identification and celebration of the word, and – most importantly – the word’s place in the phrase. Phrasing is all, and phrasing forward towards the stop. To be reliant on punctuation only as far as is necessary for clarity and musicality is important, acknowledging the stop and never overmarking the commas. Producing only the voice required by the writing and the situation – nothing more and nothing less; recognising that the same rules apply to writing of every period. The action is encoded in the way something has been written. Acting and speaking are bound together. Listening to the tone will unlock the intention, help to activate a line, as much as any method, and will be more accurate in discovering what the intention actually is.

I quote at length, because I regard this paragraph as something close to a manifesto, a call-to-arms even, wherein all the essential points are gathered together and issued as a creative challenge to engage with speaking as a core – if not the core – tool for an actor. I come back time and time again to this passage, partly because I find it illuminating and inspiring, but partly also because I find it tantalizingly elusive – Gill puts forward the ways but not necessarily the means, and while actors or directors new to thinking about speaking find much to chew on here, they do not find a practical means of translating it into reality.

In particular, it raises the following questions:

  • How do you develop an ear?
  • What are the technical means to express tone?
  • What is phrasing, and why is it so important?
  • What is musicality as it relates to speaking?
  • How do you know if the voice you are using or hearing is the voice required and no more?
  • How is action encoded in writing, and how can it be accessed?
  • What is tone?

These questions go right to the core of what this blog is about, and I will be doing my best to answer them in future posts, and perhaps even find a practical method for applying them in the rehearsal room.

In the meantime I urge you to mull over that paragraph – it will yield up treasures, I promise you – and search out the book. The interviews are all with actors of previous generations, to whom speaking well was the result of hard work and instinct, and while they may not always agree with each other in the details, the feeling is always the same: acting and speaking are bound together.