This is Paul's first blog post. This week he discusses his beginnings as an actor, the first week of rehearsals and how to play comedy at the Globe.
Transcript of Podcast
Acting is certainly not in my family. No one was in the theatre at all. I was always interested in English. An English teacher directing the school play said that there were auditions. I said: ‘There is no point in going to the auditions. It’s always the same people in it.’ She called my bluff and I went and I got a small part in this play. To my surprise I found that I really, really enjoyed it. I would have been about sixteen at the time. I wanted to see more plays. I’d never really seen anything, apart from pantomimes at Christmas. I was born in Birmingham which isn’t far from Stratford so I badgered my older sister to take me there and see some Shakespeare. It was around that time that I started to think: ‘Why not? Why can’t I do that?’ So once I was doing my ‘A’ Levels I started to think about drama school. I became quite determined that I wanted to have a go at it and that if it didn’t work, it didn’t work. Like lots of parents they tried to persuade me maybe it would be better to go to university first. And I actually thought, for better or for worse, ‘No, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to have something to fall back on.’ I wanted to see if I could do it. I went to what was then Middlesex Poly but is now Middlesex University and did a two-year acting training there which was interesting. I didn’t know much about theatre. Because I’d been to Stratford a lot, I had an image of theatre as being a certain type of classical theatre. It was only by going to Middlesex and encountering, an inspirational teacher that changed that. His teaching was not from a traditional drama school training. He had trained at the Le Coq School in Paris and his was a much more European outlook. So suddenly I was going ‘Ooh well, theatre could be this.’ It was much more about empowering the actor and the performer - improvising and a lot of mask work. So suddenly I found myself interested in stuff I didn’t know existed, which is what training should be.
We did Shakespeare at drama school and at the end of our first year we did a Shakespeare play. Fantastically, we did Richard III and I played Richard III! I am sure I was terrible but as a first experience of doing it it couldn’t have been more exciting. I had that wonderful thing of going ‘Gosh, I’m going to play a really big part and a fantastic part.’
The first week has been wonderful, a really exciting start. I have been at the Globe before but I not to do Shakespeare. There is something different about doing Shakespeare here. It felt very exciting coming in on the first day and being welcomed in by Dominic [Dromgoole, artistic director]. We were the second company, because the King Lear company had already started rehearsing, but you can feel the excitement in the building, as it gets close to the season beginning. In 20 years of acting that first day of rehearsals still feels like the first day at school. You are looking at people thinking, ‘Do I know you? Have I worked with you?’ hoping you remember people’s names. The first day follows the pattern of most first days. You are welcomed and then there is a read through of the script. Often in a read through everyone reads their own part. I thought Jonathan [Munby, the director] did a really good thing, which took the pressure off the read through, which was that no one was allowed to read their own part. We literally just passed the script around. One person in the circle would read a line and the next character would be spoken by the next person and literally kept going round the circle. It was good. It meant that you listened to the play. We all heard the play for the first time. The play is easily broken down into different groups – mechanicals, the fairies, the lovers, until at the end it is a very group dominated play. Very quickly Jonathan decided he wanted to start straight away breaking these groups down. So quite quickly, almost on the second day, we were into different calls and different times of meeting.
We started with Giles [Block, the text expert], as a full company, looking at rhyme and the language, which was really useful. Since then we have had separate group sessions where initially, we did a session with the mechanicals, we looked at the first scene where they all come together to find out what play they are doing and Bottom wants to play every single part. It is crucial when you are doing any play, but particularly with Shakespeare, to get to grips with the context of the situation, not just the language but what is happening here and what is the relationship between these people. We spent a lot of time doing the fundamental stuff so that hopefully when you get on your feet – not that you have nailed everything down and things can’t change – but you are clear about certain fundamental things. In the next session, which I really enjoyed, the director did a thing where he wanted to look at how we might as a group put a play on or tell a story. It was really good. Rather than looking at the story Pyramus and Thisbe he took The Knights Tale from Chaucer. We looked at lots of different ways of improvising and spent the whole afternoon improvising around The Knights Tale. It was great to take something that we knew we will never perform because there was no pressure on us. We just improvised all afternoon in different ways.
Meta-theatre – the mechanicals commenting on the process of putting on play.
One of the things that really appealed to me about the part of Bottom and being part of the mechanicals was that you are commenting what it is to put a play on. I think there is a sense of having fun with that. But it is important when you are playing it that you treat it very seriously, that the play really matters to this group of people. And hopefully that is where the comedy lies. I think the stakes have got to be very high. For them it is a huge thing to perform this play in front of the Duke. And the more serious they are about it, particularly Bottom, the more he sees himself as this really heroic actor, the bigger the gap between how he sees himself and how the world sees him is hopefully where the comedy lies. They don’t want to be bad. They want to be really good – it is just that they don’t quite have the wherewithal to be good!
I always find it interesting being in plays when you do discussions after the show, particularly with younger students, when one of the questions they are always intrigued by is how long you had to put it all together. And then when you tell them I am always not sure whether they think that it is a long time or not a long time. How long have we got? Six weeks and it is fairly intensive for that period of time. It is interesting for me because I think sometimes, not all the time, the instinctive choice you make – this isn’t a rule – but I think often the instinctive choice you make is often the strongest choice. You might not know it at the time. You might obviously have to go right away from it and do something else. But I often think as an actor you go back to something that you did very, very early and say, ‘You know what, I think that is the best choice about that’. Of course you must challenge it and try different things but sometimes that first thing you think, ‘You know, I think that was in the right area.’
Comedy often comes out of people who maybe aren’t up to something, wanting to do well and trying to do it well. At the Globe the great thing is the proximity of the audience. The fact that they can interrupt, that they are right there, they can shout things out. It forces you to be very present. The worst thing you can do is try to ignore them. It also means you have to make sure that you are very clear. The shows that I have really enjoyed at the Globe are the ones when there has been a real clarity in the performances. The second it becomes a bit vague or a bit woolly I don’t think it reads so well. Having played quite a lot of comic stuff - there are differences of course because the space is so unique - I think certain fundamental things I would always come back to, like the situation and respecting that situation and treating it seriously and be committing to that situation. And then you rely on certain things about how you might time something, things which emerge in rehearsal, how you might play certain moments. But the most exciting thing is the relationship with the audience, and you only find that when you are on stage. We are rehearsing in a disused office room round the corner. It is massive. I think certainly the biggest gap I have found between a rehearsal room and the theatre than anywhere else is here.
These comments are the actor's thoughts or ideas about the part as he goes through the rehearsal process – they are simply his own interpretations and frequently change as the rehearsal process progresses.