Writers Block Prt 1

Writers Block Prt 1

I’m still floundering in a writer’s-block sea.
Treading water by indulging myself, watching old TV dramas, listening to long forgotten radio plays; watching movies, reading (and listening to) a lot of recorded drama, audio books (more than I normally do) and papers from other artists about their artistic philosophies and I guess their dreams.
Many of the movies that I’m watching I’ve only ever seen once and that was in the cinema.
Stolen views, literally. As a youngster getting let into the cinema through the fire escape door. I’m sure the cinema knew, but as long as it wasn’t packed and I didn’t make a nuisance, I was left to my own devices. This was in addition to the legitimate Saturday morning cinema for children. Disney cartoons, some live action documentary again from Disney and a feature or two plus work from the British Children’s Film Foundation and maybe an episode from a TV show usually a US one. Back then films would play continuously, once you’d got your ticket you could watch the film as many times as you wanted to. It was a time pre-video and television barely had three channels and all in glorious black and white. I saw a large number of films in the cinema that I wasn’t supposed to see, given the rating system then. Drama was broadcast on radio as well as on TV. In the days when the British Broadcasting Corporation was the envy of the world, and plays were still broadcast live. Travelling through the internet I also discovered some UK TV drama gems of the ‘50s some from across the pond; even managed to stumble across a couple of early radio dramas of the 80s that I was in! It’s taking the edge of the ennui and dulling my frustration at not being able to write in the way that I usually do.

Stopping and watching those old TV episodes of things I vaguely remembered as a child, but not being allowed to watch because it was past my bedtime, or the subject matter considered inappropriate for a child of my age. One off radio dramas from the BBC, CBC and NBC, amazing to hear the voices of Orson Wells, Helen Hayes, Boris Karloff and Betty Davis to name but a few.

Even more intriguing, hearing actors of the day talking about working on stage and in radio. Referring to TV and film as supplementary income sources, allowing them to continue working on stage. About the craft and their love of words. The poetry of the text, the skill and techniques they acquired through repetition of almost constant work. Things that sadly we do not have, but should and I think could have if there was the will, which seems to be sadly lacking. Now it’s all about the money, about profit, commercialism, the actor as a commodity not as an artist and not just on film but also now on stage. Theatre has lost a graciousness, the courtesy and etiquette it once had. It still had that when I started as a very, very green, fresh out of drama school, hopeful, expectant, optimistic actress. Personified in the older generation of actors as an example for us novices. The men were always suited and booted no matter the age. The women always to be seen in a smart two-piece or elegant dress (no jeans or slacks). The female youngster and novices like myself, dressed well. Smart verging on casual. Skirt, trousers or slacks were acceptable for our inexperienced age, but never jeans and no t-shirts. Always a blouse or a light jersey or smart top. Everyone was always on time. At least ten minutes before rehearsal, minimum. Though most of us would arrive at least thirty minutes or more before. We’d congregate in the green room, make tea or coffee. No such thing as Pret or Starbucks back then. We’d chat about the previous day’s rehearsal, help out with lines, or be discussing a particular scene. Or we’d listen to the tales and anecdotes from the more seasoned actors. If it was a Monday the talk would centre around what you’d done over the weekend. Which show or movie you’d been to see. Everyone would’ve been to see something, or gone to a gallery, a concert, or done something. When the days rehearsal was done, you’d be off to the local bistro for dinner followed by a few drinks in the pub before we all went our separate ways. Back to digs or homes to learn lines and prep for the next day’s rehearsal. Sounds perfect, it wasn’t. Thankfully for the most part in my early career I worked in companies that were extremely supportive, nurturing and caring. There were of course the exceptions. I was incredibly lucky and very fortunate that the exceptions were few. I encountered abusive behaviour, rampant sexism, some of it violent, prejudice, racism and some very odious individuals in the workplace along with tyrannical, dictatorial and some very chauvinistic directors and Artist Directors, but that’s for another post - maybe.

It’s given me pause to reflect on what it is I do, how and why I do it and why after all these years I continue.
I’m definitely old school. The poetry of the text, discovering the musicality of the words, the contrapuntal passages, cadences and codas. Doing the leg work prior to rehearsals.
I definitely have that old school work ethic and ethos. You do the work before you start and then you work even more when you’re actually in rehearsals building upon the foundations that you’ve created with the director’s eye and experience to help you take off and climb even higher. My musings and reflections dove-tail into the current debates and discussions on how we are training the next generations of actors, also how those next generations of actors view the profession. Many knowing only TV and film, stage experience is not the norm its now the exception and probably for most newbie graduating actors’ won’t be their first professional acting experience it will be film or TV. You can read the entire article in The Stage about Patsy Rodenburg quitting Guildhall over the “threat to craft” here. In my capacity as a director and commissioned writer for a London drama school, I can concur that the idea of craft is something that appears quite alien to many drama students and some faculty and drama tutors who have been at their posts for some considerable time. In my at the drama school I have directed and written for, it wasn’t because the training or the tutors lacked that passion and understanding of the actors’ craft. It was more that many of the students their prime goal was fame and also COVID-19 disrupted the training and socialisation of an entire intake of drama students. It seems to have made that particular year’s intake feel as they were entitled to unreasonably demand things. It also seemed to give them the notion that they could utilise and weaponsie, for their own selfish purposes, i.e. if they didn’t want to do something or felt that an exercise or dramatic task was not to their liking, utilising the language of #MeToo would somehow exempt them from, well working. Learning lines on time, taking notes, taking responsibility for themselves and the company they were working in. Respecting other artists work – designers, costumers, lighting designers, stage management. Shocking to write and I’m sure shocking to read but it was there in full HD real life playing out in front of me. Obviously not every drama student is like that but I was taken aback at how many out of a year were like that. The idea of a slow burn, building a career, gaining experience just was not in their contemporary mindset or syntax. Everything across our existence now is so immediate. The notion for many of the students (again by no means all but close on sixty-percent) was almost a pathological aversion to putting in that sweat equity, doing the work not just in the rehearsal room but outside after and before rehearsals. It seemed to be an alien concept. It was frustrating and very sad. In other drama schools, colleges and universities that I’ve taught in it’s been obvious to me that the way acting is “taught” lacks any reality. Many times it’s seemed not fit for purpose. Disconnected to the actuality and reality of what an actor needs to be able to do physically, mentally and emotionally. Much of the training on offer from my observations is ill equipped and ill-prepared and does give the students the tool box or the tools for the profession that they have chosen. Much of this stems from the people who have the privilege to teach, tutor and mentor the next generation of actors. Many of these tutors (not all) are not active practising professionals. Indeed, they may have studied and graduated from drama school, but many never set one foot on a stage as a professional actor before moving into teaching. Is it then any wonder, what’s being passed down by some teaching practices in our drama schools, colleges and universities is not up to the mark? Neither teaches or prepares the drama student for a professional life as an actor?

I miss the old-style camaraderie. I miss the active training ground where I got to watch from the wings, pros that had been practising their art for years. Masters of the craft. Many not famous or house-hold names, but great stalwarts of the stage, actors who loved what they did. Who generously shared their knowledge with the next generation of actors. Also, no one “drinks” anymore. Which isn’t a bad thing per say. However, everyone disperses these days back home, especially if you live in town and are playing there too. The joy, fun, mischief and natural support which was almost an instant bond that I experienced in my very early days has gone, it is irreplaceable. There is nothing quite like that feeling. I’m not saying, you don’t or can’t get that anymore. But I think it’s rare these days to find and experience it in its original form. It was there in bucket loads when I did my first theatre shows. I did also had an absolute ball in more recent times, 2017 at the RSC. But our lives and how we live both on and off stage, on and off screen, totally different. Is it because we don’t enjoy, can’t enjoys ourselves to the full, as we used to? We’re not free to get into mischief and laugh? Might this have a direct correlation? Personally, I do think living life to its fullest measure allows you to act to the fullest. For me they go hand in hand, one helps inform the other. The modern experience of an artist life is somewhat curtailed because of image, social media, endless newspaper columns on the detritus and frankly to my mind, inane micro details about an actor’s personal and private life. I have no interest in that whatsoever. But “the public” has been groomed into demanding and expecting this type of newspaper fluff. Most of the time these articles for me are either dull commentaries on the mundanity of an actor’s life tabling when x gets up what they do and how they do their ablutions, what they eat for breakfast. Or it’s salacious speculations, based not on proven fact, but assumptions and hearsay in other words gossip. Which usually teeters on the edge of being harmful, reinterpretations of the facts that mostly obliterates the notion of fact and becomes pure fiction for entertainment purposes.

As I binge watch, re-watch, rediscover and discover films, TV and recorded versions of theatre; I try to put my finger on what it is that compels me to re-watch certain films, certain actors and directors, over and above others of equal weight and talent. And then it came to me. It’s the directors who also went to the theatres. It’s the actors who do/did both theatre and film. The actors who learnt their craft on stage and utilised what they knew to enhance their screen work and then their screen work to enhance their stage craft. The actors who always returned to the stage. In the UK there were plenty of repertory theatre companies and top-notch touring companies. Plenty of places for younger inexperienced actors to cut their teeth and hone their skills. Even for me, the profession was a closed shop, I still managed to gain invaluable experience in theatre I may not have been paid (Shhhh) but I was (by and large) looked after. Homed, fed and watered with the promise of being in the running for one of the two provisional equity cards on offer next season.
Now it’s very different, because there are so few repertory theatres left, so few touring companies. It’s all about image. All about “fame” and using that fame to put bums on seats, so people will pay the extortionate ticket prices seen in theatres today. Theatre has lost much of its art and artistry and is now more about schedules and money. And yes, the power of the critics to shut down a production because the critic has now become a star in their own right whether that’s warranted or not.

I miss that feeling of excitement, mystery and wonder at being involved in the creation of something new, something different, something you hope an audience has never seen before, something that you’ll wow them with. As a company it would be your skill and artistry that would transport and transform them from one place and time into another.
You’d be able to suspend their disbelief and whisk them away to a desert Island or a mystical world full of strange fantastical creatures or pull them into a an ordinary kitchen to watch a family in crisis. I miss being able to play multiple characters, across a range of ages. Of doing different accents, creating different perspectives, views and personas.

Now everything on stage has to be “authentic.” Sometimes it’s authenticism is questionable. Yes, as an actor you need to find that authenticism, perhaps truth is a better word. Theatre isn’t documentary, it’s imagination, it’s telling stories expertly, it’s creating a narrative and a world you draw an audience into, because you’ve crafted it so well, so truthfully, that the audience connects for those one and half, two hours. As they sit in the dark, next to strangers who are also pulled into a world they may know nothing about.
But something connects with them, might only be one thought, one small thing, might be the entire work, but it lands with them and they embrace it.
There is nothing like live theatre – technology cannot recreate that exchange of live thought, the sensation of a living breathing presence, the thoughts, emotions in the silence, the words that are not said in those pauses. You cannot recreate what live actors summon up on stage for an audience. Because the audience is the other half of the equation, the unknown but essential ingredient x. In the same way an actor of skill on film can act through their eyes and the smallest lines of their face and the words that their hands convey. No amount of top-notch, A1 technology will ever truly recreate what a living breathing actor does.
I do what I do because I can. Because in spite of the limitations, others place upon me, I am still privileged to be able to do so. I have the freedom to engage in artistic expression. Because I like to think that I’m half way decent at it. And there really is nothing else that I am able to do with the same conviction and passion. It’s not rocket science, it’s not high stakes brain surgery, but it still counts for a great deal in this world. We measure civilisations and their achievements through their artistry, their culture, how they represented themselves and others in their imaginations, in their retelling of narratives. Not by their politicians. Theatre, film, live performance is a chemical science, a speculation of a philosophy which aims to transform a space and the audience, into a different environment, to be able to see, hear, feel and connect to that which is not familiar. That which is alien, to connect on an emotional level with people you may never have contact with. It aims to help us discover who we are as human beings, who others are that we fear or are ignorant of.

Theatre, film, TV isn’t just about entertaining folks, it’s about us as human beings and where we fit into this world. It’s about our ability to communicate, to teach, to mentor and to be – and yes, it is about having fun, bringing laughter, joy and sadness into our lives in a safe and enjoyable way. It’s also a fantastic way to learn, to teach and to pass on knowledge, stories, morals and important life lessons.

“Now I want spirits to enforce, art to enchant:and my ending is despair, unless I be relieved by prayer, which pierces so that it assaults mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free.”

The Tempest Act 5, Epilogue

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