In the Guardian, actors Rory Kinnear and Anthony Sher discussed their different approaches to playing Iago.
Kinnear commented: “Nick Hytner’s first instinct was always to steer away from racism and examine that jealousy” while Sher decided from the outset: “We definitely wanted him to be racist.”
What is immediately apparent is that the depth of research and rehearsal that each actor undertook led to nuanced and rich performances that differed hugely.
Kinnear said: “With a lot of Shakespeare’s characters, something seismic has happened to them just before we meet them. Hamlet has lost his father. Angelo jilts Mariana in Measure for Measure. Iago suspects that Othello has slept with his wife. As an actor, you have to know who that character was beforehand in order to understand how they’ve changed.”
From both actors’ accounts, the analysis and quarrying of the play to understand Iago’s mental make-up appears to be extensive; there is a constant questioning and determination to drill deep into the character’s psyche.
Sher said: “Words such as “evil” and “villain”, they don’t mean much to me as an actor. They seem to hark back to a time when we knew nothing about psychology, and I’m far more interested in thinking about those people as damaged in some way that leads to their actions.”
Professional actors and drama school candidates attend Audition Doctor sessions because the environment that Tilly provides allows for a forensic exploration of character. It’s a rare situation where you are not spoon fed any “answer”, but are encouraged to organically find your own way into the character.
Lupita Nyong’o once said of her experience of working on 12 Years A Slave: “Every single role brings with it an ignorance and an insecurity, and so you have to approach it with the same curiosity and humility. I’m always nervous. Doesn’t matter how many times I do this. But I remind myself it’s because I care. Steve [McQueen] would say, ‘Fail and then fail better!’ And that environment was so liberating. It’s not about getting it right. It’s about getting it truthful.”
This is the similar ethos employed at Audition Doctor. Students who come to Tilly’s sessions often land jobs or places at drama schools not because their performances in front of audition panels are so polished and “finished”, but because there is always an honesty, rawness and daring in their acting that is unavoidably watchable.
Kinnear said: “You have to implicate the audience. They’ve got to squirm, not just over what happens [in Othello], but because they did nothing about it. They had all the knowledge – this guy was not to be trusted – and they just sat there.”
Students who have trained at Audition Doctor understand this. Sessions push them to reach these stakes and bring a grit and fearlessness to their work.
The reason why Audition Doctor has proved so popular is because it is known for helping students achieve that most difficult yet necessary thing – saying your lines as if for the first time. Everyone who auditions for drama school knows how cadences in the voice that initially added colour and variety become stale and choices that were once bold and interesting start to appear mechanical.
Speaking of playing Hamlet in the Independent, Rory Kinnear said how he felt that because the audience knew the play so well, the result was that “a lot of the time Hamlet [seemed] to be playing catch-up with what everybody else already [knew]”. He spoke of hearing people murmuring Hamlet’s lines along with him. However, he also expressed the satisfaction of people commenting: “it was only after a while that they realised that I was doing such-and-such a speech. I suppose it can be surprising to discover these well- known words in the context of the narrative of a play, rather than as verbal set pieces. I suspect that secretly we might believe such great – and famous – outpourings of eloquence and wisdom should be heralded by a pause in the action and a suitable fanfare.”
Theatrical pauses and fanfare are precisely what drama schools are looking to avoid. Audition Doctor sessions offer the space to organically find your own truthful portrayal of oft-performed texts. The result is genuine storytelling which eschews performing your monologue as “a verbal set piece”. Although independent work is an unavoidable requisite, students have found that progress is much quicker with Audition Doctor booster sessions throughout the audition season.
Kinnear acknowledged that if he were to go back “I’m sure that for each role I would want to give a very different performance now. But however I did them, I would still want to focus on those moments when the characters become something they weren’t before. I would want to try to hold on to who they were, with all the weight of their histories, and yet follow them in the successive moments of becoming who they are, as they are faced with those big questions.”
Even Kinnear admits that tackling all this alone and “doing soliloquies to a wall [was]…isolating” and expressed relief when he finally performed it in front of an audience. Audition Doctor is like drama school in that it’s where students receive both professional feedback and direction.
Rarely do candidates get recalls for every single drama school they apply for and it is easy to get disheartened. Audition Doctor sessions mean you avoid the mid-audition slump and continue to achieve noticeable advancements in your development as an actor throughout the audition process.
In an article in the Independent entitled “My life on stage with Shakespeare”, Rory Kinnear spoke about how crucial the rehearsal process was in creating a character. “It seemed to require identifying the particular conundrums that a play and character threw up, the various forks in the road ahead, examining them thoroughly, and then making a decision. There wasn’t necessarily a right decision – especially, as I discovered to my delight, with Shakespeare – but there had to be a decision.”
Decisions are why people come to Audition Doctor. Unless you are auditioning for new writing, chances are that countless actors will have tackled your part before. For those auditioning for drama school, many find the thought of entering the audition room as the fifth Cressida horrifying. However, it is comforting to read Kinnear’s assertion that “Shakespeare gives his actors quite a lot of open-endedness within which to work: you’re not often given much back-story, and you’re certainly never guided by him to any particular decision. You have to make your own.”
The open-endedness that he talks about is what Audition Doctor sessions focus on. The freedom that Shakespeare affords the actor means that there are endless choices that can be made to make sure that the character you present is wholly different from the one that the next actor performs after you. Kinnear mentioned that he approached parts “initially just by thinking about them, and then afterwards [trying] to figure out what works well in the doing.”
Thinking – you can do on your own. However, the reason why Audition Doctor is so popular is because the “doing” is nigh-on impossible to achieve repeatedly by yourself. Kinnear, speaking of his experience of Hamlet, said “What surprised me most with Hamlet was that, having gone through that rehearsal process, it wasn’t until the first time I performed it in front of an audience that I realised that it’s only in relation to that body of witnesses that Hamlet discovers himself. If you’re rehearsing in a white room, doing those soliloquies to a wall, even though it’s quite self-reflective and leads to a number of important insights, you’re not really getting anything back.” The feedback you get from Tilly is not only helpful artistically, but also crucial in simply understanding how to respond intelligently to direction.
On Newsnight last week, actors such as Simon Callow, Harriet Walter and Helen Mirren spoke of their experience of Shakespeare. Walter said: “I came to Shakespeare late, I was very frightened of him because I thought there was a way to do it and I was told I had a rubbish voice at drama school…Once you stop being frightened of him, once you stop thinking its high-brow, once you let him in, go with it and not worry if you don’t understand every word, it becomes electric.
Above all, Audition Doctor sessions demystify Shakespeare and there is never a prescriptive way of approaching the text. After a certain number of sessions, there comes a point when the language ceases to be unwieldy and it becomes to feel natural to speak in blank verse. The speech is no longer stilted and you begin to inhabit a character that, despite being Shakespearean, is wholly present – in both senses of the word. It’s why students keep coming back.
The Guardian’s ‘Secret Actor’ column – while entertaining – is sometimes a dispiriting read for someone who wants to enter the profession.
This week featured a self-important “Bardmeister” who vaingloriously lectures younger actors in a rehearsal for a Shakespeare production on the definitive way to perform a speech: “Some of you younger actors may not be familiar with the rhythm required to perform Shakespeare as it should be performed, so this is how it should sound …” At this point, he extends his arm masterfully and clicks his thumb and fingers rhythmically, all the while saying (and I’m trying to get this right): “Ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka.”
Although the Secret Actor is clearly ridiculing his buffoonery, it does momentarily strike fear into the drama school candidate that this style of Shakespearean delivery is the rule – with Hitlerian adherence to iambic pentameter and said in the clipped and constipated style of a 1950s newsreader.
However, this is clearly not what an audition panel at drama school are looking for; they don’t want to see a recitation but a living, breathing and believable human being. If Rory Kinnear followed said Bardmeister’s advice, I sincerely doubt Othello would have got the rave reviews it did. The first thing that people say about the production is how accessible the actors made the language and how “it didn’t feel like [they] were listening to Shakespeare at all.”
Audition Doctor sessions do not focus on which beats are stressed or unstressed and Tilly would never instruct you on how any speech should sound – they focus instead on truly understanding the meaning of the speech. The words that end up stressed are those that you have picked organically that best serve your character’s intentions. There is no categorical law on how to say Shakespeare at Audition Doctor; Tilly focuses on finding the emotion and thinking behind the words and working out the technical beats only happens if a line isn’t sitting well with you. But there is no rule.
Last week Rebecca Front commented: “When I look at other people acting I don’t like to see the cogs whirring. That annoys me. I want to see a real person in a real situation.” Although in Audition Doctor lessons , Tilly will sometimes point out technical aspects of your acting (such as voice or breathing problems that you may be having), they aren’t about examining the techniques that Shakespeare uses in the manner of a detached intellectual. Audition Doctor sessions are about being real in a real situation, which is the only thing that drama schools are looking for.