I’ve alway had a thing with the British….
I recently had the chance to teach my approach to acting at The Actors Centre in London. A bit of background: I had worked in the UK many years ago as an actor, and was also lucky enough to have had the great Michael Langham (and by extension Chris Langham, Ken Campbell, and Helen Burns) as mentors of mine early on in my career. So, I’d already had an appreciation for, and some understanding of the English approach to acting – both the traditional (Michael Langham and Helen Burns) and the madcap (Chris Langham and Ken Campbell).
And what is that approach exactly? Well, the generalization is that their process is more technical, more “outside-in” than ours. And to some extent there is truth in that. Their training is certainly more technically oriented, and my experience with actors trained in the UK is that they are far more skilled in their vocal and physical work than their American counterparts. This goes a long way with me, and I think we Americans can take a lesson there. Obviously there are exceptions to this, but in general they can be less enmeshed (and sometimes ensnared) in the psychological inner approach to the work than American actors are.
Regarding we Americans: the “Mount Rushmore” of American acting teachers (Strasberg, Adler, Meisner) have left a deep legacy, all of it in service to a search for psychological realism. This was a watershed contribution to the training of actors. But much of it has been co-opted over the decades and bears little resemblance to its origins. Additionally, as ideas that germinated in the 1930’s their relevance and applicability to today’s world of acting have greatly diminished – in my opinion.
Conversely, English actors seem to possess (either by acquisition, osmosis, or heritage) an essential command of all the technical tools needed to make their work memorable. The common ground between these two approaches was what I was aiming to explore in my work with The Actors Centre. I was hoping to learn from them, and they from me….and I can quite clearly say that happened!
I gave a 3 hour afternoon workshop. I had a large group and it was understood, and stated to the participants, that I was not able to personally work with everyone there in the time allowed on that day. After I did an initial presentation of the tenets of my book, “THE AUTHENTIC ACTOR – the Art and Business of Being Yourself”, followed by a Q & A session, I got down to actual one-on-one work with them.
One after another I was extremely impressed with the work they brought in. A side-note: members of the Actors Centre have to meet certain standards of training and/or professional work – so I was working with people already firmly on the path; not beginners. To a person their work was smart, engaging, and possessed very strong and distinct points of view.
Mick: One guy in the back, “Mick”, was unfortunately not able to get up and work due to time constraints. But I observed him to be keenly engaged from the beginning. Mick was clearly a character actor: shaved head, heavyset, working class. He’d be right at home as a tough guy in some gritty British crime thriller. He came up to me as we were winding up and profusely thanked me for the class. I then noticed his wonderfully thick working-class English accent. I have no idea if Mick was trained at RADA or the “school of hard knocks”, but he had a robust sense of self and presence. He thrust a copy of my book at me and said
“I read your book, mate. Really liked it. Mind signing it for me?”
“No problem.” I said. I was very flattered, and as I was signing it I asked him,
“Just curious, what did you learn from the book?”
He looked me straight in the eye and said,
“Well, mate…I learned I was doing it right!”
I learned I was doing it right. All along. That meant a great deal to be. I suspect Mick is an outlier. Maybe not a drama school grad (although I don’t know that for sure). But he is one of those guys you always want in your play or film; solid, real, feet on the ground, and a bit dangerous to boot.
My approach, the approach I was trying to impart, is the “marriage” of hard-won skills, with a strong and fully examined personal point of view: technique welded to your “blink-of-an-eye-factor”. Technique is the “house” in which your artistry must live, and establishes a level below which your work will not fall. Because sound technique also builds confidence, it leaves the door open for inspiration, re-direction, and personal indelibility.
Mick, I suspect, has all of that. The fact that my book illuminated his understanding that he was already “doing it right” made the trip, the jet-lag, everything all worthwhile.
Sometime we actors all think we may be doing it wrong – hence the often perpetual search for that teacher, that class, that one approach that clicks. We all go on this search at times, but your ultimate answer is looking back at you in the mirror every morning. YOU are the answer to this quandary. You and a lot of hard work
As I say often in my classes, “I’m not interested in perfect. We are interested in the imperfect; all your imperfections framed and supported by great technique.” The YOU that infuses your work has to be fully examined, self-curated, indelible.
Mick seemed to be a great example of that: wonderfully imperfect and absolutely memorable.
An Authentic Actor to be sure.
To read more about Michael Langham and Ken Campbell: