Ms Blanchett and the art of fine acting

I’m just back from seeing Elizabeth: the Golden Age. It’s all about Cate Blanchett and her fine, very fine acting. It’s a gorgeous looking movie by any account … we can only guess at the number of zeroes in the production design budget. As far as the performances are concerned, the movie is not a patch on the first, which ended with the beatification of the young Elizabeth as servant of her people.

This one is about the canonisation of the queen as she battles approaching age, lack of love, lack of confidence, threats from abroad (the creepily villainous Spanish), the opposition using Mary Queen of Scots … and we know what she’s in for don’t we … and so it’s all about how it happens, not what. Been there, seen that. There’s a real woman inside all that Elizabethan drapery and wiggery, and Blanchett’s job is to humanise her and get the warrior-queen-woman balance right. She’s not helped a lot of the time by the director Shekar Kapur and the screenwriters William Nicholson and Michael Hirst.

The tone is more than a bit pompous at times, and the actors have to struggle with the kind of dialogue that accompanies ‘portentous moments.’ Some go down gnashing and chewing the scenery, especially the villains. Not our Cate and Geoffrey Rush though. They sail through triumphantly.

The thrill of it all lies in watching the infinitesimal and fleeting reactions across Blanchett’s face … and her surprising gutsiness and physicality when she’s driving the action, and not put into saintly-icon reactive mode. I love the scenes where she’s wigless and sporting a very fetching 21st century haircut … a clever touch this. A Woman For All Seasons?

Finally though, it’s the sheer finesse of her work that makes the movie worth the 2 hours or so of screen time. Good acting takes an audience by surprise, and Blanchett is capable of doing this beat by beat. This is an actor on top of her game, and it’s mesmerising stuff.

‘Theatre artist?’

I’m hearing the term ‘artist’ bandied around a lot lately.
Maybe it’s a bit of strutting, maybe not. Maybe it’s just time actors claimed the title, and admitted egolessly to being exactly that.

The word ‘actor’ works for me, but so also does ‘artist’ when it’s used by someone who’s talented, experienced, and who’s paid her dues. I hate it when it’s splashed all over the place by wannabe no talents. Rant over.

Acting: three things you need to learn

Konstantin Stanislavski a portrait by Valentin...
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been re-reading Robert Hornby’s book ‘The End of Acting: a radical view’ I first met this nicely provocative work in 1993 during grad school at UH. Hornby’s spray on the US actor-training establishment, especially of the Method variety, resonated for me. I liked his writing style and opinion, born out of long experience as an actor and teacher in the Stanislavski tradition. Hornby knew what he was talking about, and wasn’t afraid to say so. I guess we clicked.

One aspect of the book which I recall often with students is what I call the ‘3 learnings.’ The theory of acting may appear complex, and indeed much of it can be, especially if students get hung up on the jargon coming at them from all directions. Clear hand-holds like these 3 learnings remind us teachers and our fledgling actors of the basics. This is where you need to concentrate the work. And the 3 learnings based on Stanislavski’s enabling approach are:

how to relax
how to relate to your scene partner, given circumstances, and imaginary circumstances
how to pursue objectives

That’s it. As Hornby notes, these are means to an end, ‘skills rather than art itself, and like all artistic skills must be learned to the point of becoming second nature. Only then does acting begin.’

Hornby, Robert. The End of Acting: a radical view. NY: Applause, 1992.

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The siren call of the callback …

Is there a sweeter phone call for the actor than the one that says, “Callback?” Yes! It’s the one that says, “We want you” but one step at a time please … I got the first call this morning as I was leaving for work. Fair put a spring in me step it did. Some things never change.

So, tonight, to the callback with a still-standing (well, sitting actually) panel behind the desk. They were still smiling god love ’em. Must have been a big weekend. Anyhow, I had fun playing with some of my fellow callback-ees. The director put us through our paces. Playing ‘what ifs’ is the part of rehearsing I like best. Sniff out the possibilities, the choices. The taste tonight of the possibilities of working this way again has left me with more than fingers crossed. Now I want this thing! Come on phone, ring!

Post Audition

Well, OK, not bad … but then what would I know! It’s the way of the audition; in, out, and done. One way to get through the ‘Oh my god what a disaster’ or even ‘Hmm, not sures’ after an audition, is to stay busy. Worst thing is to post-mortem, and try to second guess what was going on in their heads.

It was actually all very friendly and I was made to feel most welcome and relaxed, despite the could-be-if-you-let-it-be-daunting panel behind the long table: director (the charming and witty Lewis Jones), musical director, choreographer, musical director, designer, apprentices, uncle Tom Cobbly and all. Actually this was nice as it gave me an audience to play for. I had a chance to run through my song with the accompaniste on stage before hand; this helped to loosen me up a bit, calm the nerves. Then back into the studio for an acting read, then the song, a few scales, the ‘thank-yous’ and back into the real world. Didn’t have to do a movement audition. Nice.

The waiting begins …

Here we go again!

It’s been a while. I haven’t been on stage for several years now, and my plan is to start a gentle return. To which end, and excited at the prospect, I’ve lined up for an audition for a new production of the brilliant Kander and Ebb musical play Cabaret. I saw a striking production in London in July and was gobsmacked by its power. I went out of curiosity into the theatre that afternoon with nary of a thought of my potential involvement in the Empire Theatre’s production in April 2008. I came out feeling charged up and ready to have a go at the role of Fraulein Schneider, the elderly boarding house owner where Sally and Cliff and Herr Schulz, Schneider’s Jewish fiancee all live in 1930s Berlin.

So, several singing lessons later (didn’t that feel odd being on the receiving end for once), and prepped as well as I can be, I’m fronting in the line this morning for an audition with director, Lewis Jones. I’ve always felt a teacher should find out from time to time what it feels like to be on the receiving end. Whether or not I get the gig, the audition is going to be very interesting (and exciting). The exciting part feels nice and as I remember it.

Didn’t someone once say that the audition is the least fair part of acting? Stay tuned.