A few weeks ago, my drama school celebrated its 85th anniversary. I went to the party, held at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank, one of my favourite places in the world. It was a fairly relaxed affair on a mid-week evening with a smattering of stars in attendance, many of the rest being at work at such an hour, but it got me thinking about the training we received during what was undoubtedly one of the school’s heydays. As our most enduring tutor promised when we started out, it would stand us in good stead no matter what we ended up doing professionally. Lately I’ve been thinking it was especially good training for the times we live in.
Actors act. They tend to get on with it, stepping out into uncertainty on a daily basis and dancing on a shifting carpet. Actors live in perpetual fear of being found out, but they know the point is not to hide, so they get out there anyway and don’t worry about falling on their faces too much.
On stage, actors live in a superheightened form of consciousness. On the street, they tend to know who is about to move where and wonder why other people keep bumping into each other. They’re tuned to feel the crosscurrents, sense the trouble coming round the back, watch for the craftily hidden trap door. They anticipate, catch the old lady by the elbow, and improvise.
It is a common misconception that actors make their living lying and an even worse assumption that, therefore, they must be disingenuous in their own lives. Actors strive to find the truth in a text, in a narrative, in a relationship. They are trained to read between the lines, to try things out and thereby find the real story, and they consider it a failure if they don’t manage to tell that story through the way they behave.
Actors find their way behind the masks we all wear. We need masks as armour to survive in this world and unless we don’t go anywhere in life, we’ll pick up different ones, changing persona as we go. With luck, underneath we will develop something called character. But any actor will warn you that masks are dangerous, that they love to take over and quickly dominate everything. Not being able to drop your mask is a serious handicap; it will get you into trouble at work and at home.
Actors are thought to be vain, always staring at themselves in mirrors, navel-gazing the rest of the time. I think actors just don’t pretend they ever stopped playing dress-up. Fiddling about with a look can get you closer to what’s inside. And actors are acutely aware that their bodies are their instruments; even if they don’t look after them, they have to look without illusion at what is actually there. Some actors are vain, as are some lawyers, doctors, housewives. Some love the sound of their own voice. Again, they are not alone. But actors are seldom exhibitionists. More often they are shy and private people. Baring one’s soul to hordes of strangers is not easily done without recourse to a place no one visits. And good actors are seldom in it for themselves.
Nor are actors layabouts. They can’t afford to be, unless their work is heavily subsidised, which is rare. Many have to work other jobs and all have to hustle. As important as casting is, actors know they are replaceable. Even when they are successful, they take rejection constantly, auditioning (if they’re lucky) against pretty rubbish odds. Decisions are almost always based on factors outside their control. Actors have to be able to play like children, yet somehow develop a rhino hide. Hence luvvyism, the theatre’s way of putting plasters on endless wounds.
Acting is not easy. It is a tightrope walk between both sides of your brain, being in full control of your voice, your movements, your audience, the things you’ve rehearsed, while letting so much go. It takes stamina to run a clear thread through long days under pressure, telling a story in tiny increments not in sequence with a mike strapped somewhere inconvenient and a camera up your nose, or wrangling a new crowd every night, pumping it full of energy and showing it who’s boss, for the beast seldom comes when it’s called. There’s little time to prepare, you have to learn your lines and bits of business quickly, then know the frame, hit your mark, imagine the stuff that isn’t there and try not trip over the furniture, while at the same time ignoring it all, the apparatus, the crew that frankly does not care, the ticking clock, the expectations – and you have to listen, really closely, to the people around you, to something unrehearsable, the possibility of magic, a connection to a dream.
People love to hate actors. For the huge role they play in an average person’s daily life, we grant them little respect. We claim their private lives as public property, but dismiss them as superficial, interpreters not creators, not clever enough for real jobs, a bit silly and, of course, promiscuous. The actress as a fantasy is a cliché: the woman of the world who understands all men and can be all things to all people – exotic, unfettered, though with an annoying tendency to get real. The suave, handsome actor with his instinct for a good line? No money, no prospects, don’t let your daughters near him. Actors transgress the accepted borders of society, which has always made them dangerous. Actors know this and carry on.
So, as the lies come think and fast and narcissism and delusion become the order of the day, I’m thinking we could all do with some time as a jobbing actor. Not to learn to spin a tale, but to regain a sense of humility and of truth. To remember what actually matters, the heart of the narrative, and to make sure the song and dance always lead back to that. A few years in local repertory theatre strikes me as a good military service for the soul: cheap digs miles away from friends and family, unsophisticated yet demanding punters and plenty of shows for kids, the least forgiving audience of all.
Actors may not be able to do what investigators, prosecutors, lawmakers can do and they need writers to write good stories that hold tyrants and bullshit mongers to account. But good actors can do something journalists and book writers are seldom able to accomplish, for they can make the experience visceral. They get into our bellies, where there are no lies. Perhaps most importantly they can help us remember what it feels like to believe in something. As they ask us to suspend our disbelief, they take us into a space where we can collectively imagine greater things. Someone recently quoted Hannah Arendt saying that a people that no longer believes anything can’t form an opinion and can be made to do anything. Maybe actors have more to give than vicarious adventure and entertainment. Hand in hand with writers maybe they can help save our lives.
Of course I am an idealist. Plenty of performers prostitute themselves to companies that really don’t do anyone much good. All writers and actors are at the mercy of producers, who are almost all now controlled by shareholders with rather different priorities. Directors, existing somewhere in middle, are notoriously susceptible to ego and really not as strong or influential as we might think. Anyway, we all need money and schlock sells.
Yet even in our mega-budget schlockfests we keep returning to the classics. We return in hunger to the stories we have been told since humans began, when a show was just an empty space and someone who gave us a myth we had to admit was true. The kind of story that says courage counts for something and that heroes are not born but made. That the Furies will come and find the liars and cowards. That ghosts will torture those who betrayed their fellow men. That friends can be fickle and even family will abandon you, but love still conquers all. That there is a natural form of justice. That young people, like a good audience, will call out the generations above them. That your conscience, like the camera, sees everything. That isolation, like the closest of close-ups, will defeat even those who seemed impervious to remorse. And that there is no applause at the end.
With my classmate Chris in Christopher Fry’s ‘The Lady’s Not For Burning’. Photograph by Steve Porter.