In today’s Guardian, Alan Rickman spoke of how his desire to act in Shakespeare plays had always been present: “You test yourself against great writing…What one’s aiming at is suitably impossible with great writing, which is to be absolutely disciplined and absolutely free at the same time. The two things have to work together.”
Both professional actors and drama school applicants have found that Audition Doctor has been critical in the process of striving for this quasi-impossible balancing act. Students come to Audition Doctor at different stages in their preparation. However, those who come well in advance unfailingly have the upper hand; picking speeches that will test an actor’s mettle and simultaneously exhibit intelligence and dexterity is perhaps one of the most fundamental aspects of the process. Inevitably, it is best to workshop different speeches with Tilly’s help as potential pitfalls and misunderstandings (especially with Shakespearean texts) can then be explained and evaluated.
Michael Grandage, who directed Felicity Jones in the past, said that she only ever accepted a part “because she has an innate understanding of the role – she never comes to the process not knowing what she’s got to do”. What follows, during the rehearsals, is a layering process, he says. “With each day that goes by, she finds more of the character and takes away what she doesn’t like. She is somebody who excavates a role very deeply and builds from inside out. It’s a fantastic thing to watch because you see, in front of your eyes, a character grow and grow.”
The layering process that Grandage speaks of is similar to what happens at Audition Doctor. With each session, the sculpting of the character becomes more defined so the human being that you have created is never a cursory sketch but a detailed portrait. The thorough work that is done on the internal and external emotional landscape of the character means that Audition Doctor students are always original and are never accused of being “too general” in their work.
Mark Rylance spoke in the Radio Times of how he prepared for his role of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall: “I’ve watched lots of films preparing for this, and I was particularly struck by one of my favourite actors, Robert Mitchum, how his performances haven’t dated in the way that even perhaps more versatile actors, Brando and Dean and people of that era, have. I noticed how well he listens, how still he is, how present he seems. You’re drawn towards the screen – wondering what’s he thinking, what’s he going to do next. That’s always the best way to tell a story.”
Audition Doctor students value the sessions because they come to realise that they don’t have to “act” or “perform” to be truthful and have an effect. More often than not, the moments of authenticity and artistic ingenuity are achieved by simply being present – “simply” perhaps being an oxymoronic choice of word.
Students find Audition Doctor sessions indispensable yet challenging, but that’s as it should be. As Alan Rickman concluded: “I always think [of] the last image of The Tempest – when Caliban is held tight at the same moment that Ariel is let go and it seems to me that was Shakespeare writing about what it’s like to be a creative person – you have this impossible aim and whatever your horizon is you keep moving towards it and it relentlessly moves away from you.”
In today’s Guardian, Maxine Peake recalled how, when at drama school, her heroes were not screen stars but theatre actors such as Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman and Albert Finney. All of them had illustrious careers at the RSC – Finney famously understudying for Olivier in Corialanus and both Stevenson and Rickman starring together in acclaimed productions of Troilus and Cressida and The Tempest.Yet it’s fair to say that it was their work in film and TV that elevated them to a different level of public recognition.
As it is normally film actors who are at the forefront of the public consciousness, there might indeed be some truth in the Terrence Mann quote: “Movies will make you famous; Television will make you rich. But theatre will make you good.”
However, when people come to Audition Doctor with the sole aim of going on a screen acting course, Tilly always dissuades them from limiting their options – not only in terms of what work you will be offered but also in terms of the quality of teaching. The traditional syllabus offered at drama schools is still stage-based and the reason for this is that theatre training is considered the solid basis for all mediums in the profession.
It’s easy to understand why upcoming actors might not have any interest in the theatre – the concept of a “stage star” being more or less an anachronism and it being notoriously badly paid – the irony being any ticket to productions in the West End costing less than £50 means viewing will be so restricted and so far back that the only advantage of sitting there at all is the knowledge that you will be the first out of the post-theatre rush – a sort of gross perversity of Easyjet’s “Speedy Boarding”. However, it is worth noting that many famous screen actors have come back to the theatre. Perhaps they acknowledge that to call yourself an actor is to understand the nightly challenge of standing up on a stage with no camera to direct the spectator’s gaze or underscoring to manipulate emotion – just yourself.
Like her contemporaries, Peake admitted: “I do wonder how people are going to afford to go to drama school now. I panic about how people can even afford to go to the theatre. The West End is thriving but at £76 a ticket…I’m really concerned we will tip back into the bad old days when only people from a certain class or people with disposable incomes could afford to send their children to drama school.”
It is true that the current crop of “in vogue” actors all seem to be old Etonians but as with all fashions, these things are cyclical. Ultimately, whatever your background, it is your ability to transcend it that will make you an actor of any worth. Ben Whishaw mentioned in last week’s interview for the Guardian, how he likes to think of himself, especially in the theatre, as “a channel for other people to feel – for, in a sense, it isn’t about you”.
Audition Doctor is not about acting in the sense of showing or demonstrating. Sessions at Audition Doctor are so unique in that Tilly encourages you not to “act” at all. It is in these moments that you truly inhabit the life of another. As you have more lessons at Audition Doctor, you realise that it is about stripping away the ticks and preconceptions and revealing the vulnerabilities which make a performance so compelling. When Sara Kestelman was asked about what her teaching at the Central School of Speech and Drama taught her, she said: “I learnt that the text is sacred. I learnt one must be immensely patient.” Tilly always stresses the former and perhaps most uniquely, is always the latter, which is why lessons at Audition Doctor are such an experience.