Monthly Archives: July 2012

War of the Dungeon: Part 1

My somewhat absence from all things blogacious is down to five straight days in the Dungeon! Now, going a-Dungeoning is exhausting at the best of times – but come the tempestuous summer season, the pressure cranks up a notch. In torture terms, the thumbscrews tighten; the tongue tearers twist; the chappy is chopped (the whole inch of it). Our opening times expand to 10am till 5:30pm; allowing for preparation time either side of those figures, that can mean upwards of eight hours clapped in the dark. Once amiable guests tumble into relentless and impersonal masses. Normally, the Dungeon works to a seven-minute ‘fill ‘n’ spill’ system: one minute to get the audience in, five minutes to perform your show, one minute to get ’em out – and repeat. The shock of summer is that, for once, the crowds really do come at this unreasonable pace. What’s more, they’ll sometimes come at an even faster clip, for whatever erratic reason: an error at cash desk, perhaps, or an unreceptive and rowdy lot, for whom surrounding actors have condensed their shows – most inexcusably, guests taking an age on an unnecessary toilet trip.

In light of the above, you inevitably view shows as fragments in a larger war between actors and audience. Generally, that’s not a mode of thought that I’m happy to endorse. When I picked Simon Callow’s brains on the theatrical gods of the past, he described Olivier in just such terms (roughly the 21:30 mark in that clip):

There was nothing quite like that experience. It was like total war on the audience. It was so brilliant, everything, every aspect of an actor’s armoury – you see, you use military metaphors with Olivier…

I dislike theatre that seeks to tame an audience. Perhaps because I’m aware I lack the raw masculine drive to manage such a thing, or to delude myself that I have sufficient resources at my disposal (ninety-nine percent of the battle). But even removed from this gladiatorial arena, I know that there’s always the potential for bad power in my more grotesque personal niche. That which is heightened can seem ostentatious. That which is ostentatious risks managing audience response: death! It’s that dagger-edge boundary between making a joke and recognising you’re making a joke. Imperceptible on the surface, maybe, but it’s the comedic equivalent of ice-cold water.  There are other dodgy manifestations of power. There’s the spontaneous round of applause and the standing ovation. Did your work bewitch an audience to movement? Or are people only reminding themselves that they’re witnessing a live event? (The uncanny inconsistency with which this moment in Guido! curried applause – 0:47:05 – is without doubt a case of the latter.) Most dangerous for me is the lure of the Victorian theatre of ‘effect’ without basis or point. (A quite different thing to effects which are justified  – indeed, demanded! – by the substance of the piece.)

How best to harness dramatic power is a problem with which I’ll continue to wrestle. If the actor-audience relationship is one of consent, of expectations delivered – people went to Olivier for precisely that militaristic thrill – then perhaps it needn’t matter. The Dungeon is a special case; a theatrical form with no immediate precedent. It’s the combined anarchy of high melodrama, Grand Guignol, children’s television, Mystery Plays, music hall, Commedia and pantomime. As such, concessions must be made; the notion of power slightly endorsed. To get the shows clear in my head – and allow you lot to peer into the manic schedule – I’ve prepared an overview of the battlefield. I’ve charted the ways in which I’ve been negotiating the anomalous summer audiences. Through it all, I’m hoping to clarify how best to juggle crowd control with a more nourishing audience contact.

1. Plague: In an earlier entry, I described the new shadows that had fallen on Plague: those of whispered subtleties and pervasive darkness. Well, come the very first day of summer, and we revert to old scare tactics. Now the show starts with a whooshing of smoke, a crashing through doors and a screaming of ‘BRING OUT YER DEAD!’ Cynically, you could dismiss this as the first in a line of very cheap jump scares. I’m inclined to be more charitable. From the actor’s perspective, it sets an instant good pace, making it a little easier to meet the seven-minute deadline. It also makes it that bit easier to engage with the audience. Overwrought barnstorming means they know where to have you straight off in a way that tantalising ambiguities simply don’t. Feeling before thought. So, the opening appoints the audience to their place at the get-go – but, more than that, it’s representative of the experience to come (what Merlin calls selling ‘The Brand’). It’s both startling and silly, it becomes more disturbing with scrutiny – the thought of a devil in delirious orbit – but it’s one hell of a fun ride. Nourishing ham if ever there was some.

2. Ghosts of York: The bugger with this one is the timing. Unlike Plague, it’s a show that requires a measure of grace, rooted as it is in traditional storytelling. A challenge: how to fast-track slow-burn creepiness? A few things have proven helpful so far. We’ve been issued with abridged scripts for one. There are some poorly placed toilets just before the Ghosts show, so it’s imperative that you rush out before people drift within. Waiting even a few minutes for these troublemakers to emerge can spoil your next few hours. Besides, I’m of the firm belief that most guests really don’t need the toilet, going instead for novelty value. And if they really do need it (slim chance), they’ll go (entitlement!) – regardless of their interactions with a pasty-faced mugger like myself. As well as time considerations, cramming the tiny pub with twenty-odd bodies has its disadvantages. On the plus side, the crowding is nicely claustrophobic for an audience; in the best cases, it can trigger a strain of mass hysteria. Personally, though, I think it reduces the potential for a direct attack on audience members: the ghost story is a porridge of revenge on various individuals, so it’s a shame to compensate this in the telling. And, disappointingly, it’s nigh-on impossible to rush in during the final blackout for a parting jump scare: a bravado shout from behind the audience, the actor having materialised unexpectedly. No matter how beguilingly you coax them forward, people insist on gluing themselves to the back wall once you’re out of the room. A few days back, this led to an awkward moment when I rushed back in and found myself, post-blackout, fondling one gentleman’s knee. Against all warnings, the group had sat down the instant I’d left the room. The perils of live theatre; the perks of the job.

3. Labyrinth of the Lost: Blimey, I’ve had adventures with this one lately! Principally, the horrible morning when the mirror maze door got jammed. On the very first show of the day, I ushered the group inside, bracing myself to close the door. This completes the illusion of confinement: the door is itself a mirror, which blends in perfectly with the others in the maze. Alas – the door was stuck. And the twitchy and agitated school group within would not be tamed. The situation was worsened by virtue of my hearty, Seaward-esque bellowings of ‘FIND THE EXIT, CITIZENS!’ only a few seconds earlier. The school’s penetration of the labyrinth – those capricious, winding tunnels in which a Roman Legion became irretrievably lost – proved the easiest imaginable. I learned to live with this damnsome limitation across the next few hours. The sight of a tall-ish actor looming after completing a circuit of the maze was intense for some, producing a good few shrieks. Called to emergency service, a carpenter worked behind the wall to get the door fixed. I had to speak (extra) loudly to distract from the noises; flail and gesticulate a little (more) to distract from the torchlight. By my afternoon shift on Labyrinth, all was resolved. I look forward to more relaxing stints in the near future! The main difficulty with the Labyrinth playing area is its incredible length. The space through which you marshal an audience is almost as long as the three prior shows put together. Exactly how this’ll work at the height of summer will be curious indeed.

4. Judgement of Sinners: If there’s an argument that, in The York Dungeon, the actors have become the whole show, then this is surely it. ‘Words, words, words!’ to quote Drac’s boy, Renfield (and Shakey’s boy, Hamlet): Judges demands vocal precision from its actor and pliability from its participants. If people get on board with the joke straight off, it’s a merry toboggan ride powered by a sure-thing script. But with an anarchist in the dock, you’ve got your work cut out. Two years ago, the Dungeon received a jolly nice email from a visitor, who commended me on dealing with one such guest:

He may recall the day. He offers three punishments to the ‘convicted’ in the dock – and one guy in our crowd (convicted of theft, I think) opted for his fingers to be chopped off – as opposed to the obvious most lenient punishment offered. We, the audience, thought – what a prat – but your Judge didn’t belittle him, but cleverly got him out of his embarrassment with his honour almost intact, whilst we all sniggered.

An interesting development in my hypothesis of the Dungeon as war! An audience member on the actor’s side! Given the time lapse, I don’t remember what I did exactly for that show. Recently, I’ve found it really pays to embarrass the offending party as much as ever you can, labelling them ‘the punchline ruiner’ and humiliating them at sporadic moments through the rest of the show. Never try to wallpaper over the creases; make a virtue of them – always, always! Abjecting polish is a sure way of escaping bad power. It’s a kind of vulnerability – an openness that promotes togetherness! It cashes in on that peculiarly British love of when things going wrong. We’re a nation fond of trouble. Anyhow. Judges has largely been great this summer. Some of the nicest groups I’ve had in four seasons. The foreign groups I’m sure have potential for niceness, but given that they understand one in ten words that dribble from my mouth, it’s understandable that they talk over me instead.

I’ll report on the other four actor-led shows – Torture, Turpin, Execution and Witches – in a future entry.

The only frustration of this intense regime is that it affords precious little time to work on my one-man Dracula – let alone Frankenstein, the source novel of which I’m yet to finish re-reading (I’m making decent progress). I have, however, finished Barbara Belford’s splendid biography Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula (that ‘Man’ being Henry Irving), which I can uncomplicatedly celebrate. Fine, fine book. In other news, I’m now heading to Edinburgh Festival on the thirteenth and the fourteenth of August! Pip Utton’s one-man productions of Adolf and Churchill are at the tippity-top of my list, as well as a long-stalled trip to The Edinburgh Dungeon. But aside from those golden tickets, my calendar’s very much open. Suggestions for further viewing would be welcome! Or, better yet, a place to stay…

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Dracula Research Project

Now that I’ve polished off my first reading of Dracula (I’ll no doubt be returning), the time has come to educate and re-educate myself in everything vampiric. The reading has been the most exciting thing so far. Little by little, I’m amassing any literature that might prove helpful. Here’s my current agenda:

The New Testament (Most particularly the Gospels. My lightweight Methodist upbringing means I feel as if I’ve read them already, but I know I haven’t. In many ways, Count Dracula is no more than Jesus Christ viewed in a Satanic glass. The uses and implications of blood symbolism should also prove interesting. To this end, I might look to a few mystery plays.)
The Vampyre (There was devilry in the summer of 1816. On the same night that Mary Shelley devised Frankenstein and Percy Shelley threw together some nonsense about a living skull, John Polidori concocted this early vampire tale. Stoker had Sir Henry Irving; so too did Polidori have Lord Byron to influence his charismatic male vamp.)
Carmilla (Vampire tale from Sheridan Le Fanu – a folklore-steeped Irishman, like Stoker himself. I’ve seen the delightfully twee lesbian vampire flicks to which it gave rise – good old Hammer! – so the original should be an eye-opener.)
Varney the Vampire (I’ve wanted to have a bash at this legendary penny dreadful since I devoured Sweeney Todd thriller-chiller The String of Pearls last year. In my edition, it runs to nearly a thousand pages of teeny-tiny type. Definitely one to tackle in pieces.)
The Jewel of Seven Stars (Stoker’s most famous novel after Dracula. This is principally because it initiated another monster icon: the living mummy. However, our modern conception of mummies has more to do with Universal Pictures than Bram Stoker. Predictably, the Hammer film that took Jewel as its source, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, is stiflingly dull. I hear the novel’s a bit of a let-down, but I’ll be reading it for completism.)
The Lady of the Shroud (More vampire shenanigans from Stoker. I know virtually nothing about this one, but it’s collected with my edition of White Worm, so I’ll give it a go. I hear there’s an aeroplane battle towards the end; Dracula meets King Kong?)
The Lair of the White Worm (Stoker’s last horror novel. Just finished this one. Some commendably horrid descriptions of maimed and putrified flesh; a good complement to Dracula‘s countless evocations of decay. It’s hard to dislike a novel with a house called ‘Doom Tower’ – or the line ‘I never thought this fighting an antediluvian monster would be such a complicated job’. We can all get behind that.)
Trilby (Published in 1894, Trilby was a sensation on the scale of The Pickwick Papers. Unlike Dracula, Trilby got its due in its day and has been fading ever since. The two aren’t so very different: a flamboyant black-clad foreigner hypnotises women and lures them into living death. Nina Auerbach has argued that Dracula was the template for the Opera Ghost; Svengali is definitely on the same continuum. I’m trying to lay hands on both the novel and play versions.)
I Am Legend (Richard Matheson’s vampire apocalypse survival thriller. I’ve seen the two important film versions – The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price and The Omega Man with Charlton Heston – and both were fairly uninspiring. But I hear the novel’s terrific. Matheson’s written screenplays for a few things I really love – such as House of Usher with Vincent Price – so I’m very excited!)
Anno Dracula (Kim Newman is a man whose work I have endless time for, so this is long overdue; Dracula reincarnated as consort to Queen Victoria. Newman is a classic horror obsessive, so he weaves in references to obscure filmic vampires such as Countess Zaleska, Dr Callistratus and Baron Meinster. I’m also told that Bill Sikes is in there.)
Hollywood Gothic (An old favourite: David Skal’s brilliant study of the Count’s rise as pop culture icon. Skal makes the connection between Oscar Wilde and Dracula in a manner that I find pleasing and persuasive.)
Resident Alien: The New York Diaries (I have a theory that Count Dracula and Quentin Crisp are the same person. Both seemed to live forever; both marked the end of their lives with a journey across the sea. I’ve read Crisp’s two earlier volumes of autobiography; Alien is the last.)
Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula (This seemed the most interesting of the various Stoker biographies. No doubt I’ll get round to a few others; no doubt a few are being ground out to mark the centenary of Stoker’s death. It’s been riveting so far. I’ve started to identify with this repressed, hero-worshipping, ardent-letter-writing six-footer to an unexpected degree.)
The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (Where better to learn about the decadent sexual practices of the 1890s? Homosexuality was only slightly less acceptable to the Victorian public than vampirism.)
The Book of Renfield (An alternate history of Dracula, focusing on the character of Renfield. There’s always a danger that this type of thing will lapse into glorified fan fiction – but I’ve heard very good things!)

I’m also taking this opportunity to renew my acquaintance with Dracula’s handsome filmography. My horror checklist informs me that I’ve already got a few versions of the story lying about:

Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922; One of the most popular of all silent films. Also one of my absolute favourite films. My renewed acquaintance with the novel has shown me how brilliantly Nosferatu captures its spirit, most often by casting natural settings in the Expressionist mould: the countryside, the castle, the ship, the plague-stricken city. And the terror – the terror! It’s unbelievably frightening at times. If I’m to play Dracula, the anti-romantic Max Schreck will soon become my oracle.)
Dracula (1931; Creaky but imperishable warhorse. It’s no masterpiece, but there’s so much that’s delightful. Dwight Frye and Edward Van Sloan are often weirder than Dracula himself, theatrical to the point of effeminacy and rigor mortis; sins for which I’m always willing to forgive an actor. And I’ve been imitating Bela Lugosi’s hand contortions for roughly a decade now. Most importantly, Dracula established the look and feel of the great Universal horrors of the early 1930s. I saw this again last week, stirred into action by the hoo-ha surrounding Universal’s Blu-Ray restoration.)
Drácula (1931; Simultaneously produced Spanish version. Not dubbed, but filmed with different performers at night. It’s safe to say it’s better than the English version. It’s also rather more camp. The acting is somehow even more exuberant; the eye-poppingly gorgeous visuals smack of the pretty as much as the Gothic. Perhaps this is inevitable when you’re consciously seeking to outdo someone else’s work. I think the Spanish Drácula gets away with it, but only due to its precise historical timing. That said, the film’s restaging of the ship sequence provides one of the most terrifying moments in the Universal horror canon.)
Dracula (1958; Christopher Lee’s inaugural vampire outing. Also acknowledged as the seminal Hammer horror. Further to this reputation, I remember being disappointed the first time round; I preferred Hammer’s more cerebral The Curse of Frankenstein. But the Hammer Dracula has really grown on me since. As in the novel, Dracula rarely appears, instead hanging over the proceedings. When he’s back, it’s heart-in-the-throat action. And I challenge you to find a more exciting death for Dracula.)
Count Dracula (1977; I’ve never seen this one, but I’m looking forward to it. It’s BBC drama at the dawn of their undying Shakespeare series. This should guarantee textual fidelity, powerhouse character acting and exquisitely grainy location filming. Frank Finlay is Van Helsing; he plays a mean Jacob Marley and Witchsmeller Pursuivant, so this can only be a good thing.)
Dracula (1979; Frank Langella remake of the Lugosi classic. Many people come down hard on this one, possibly because it cuts the Transylvania scenes, but I rather like it: a genuinely scary Lucy (superfluously called Mina in this one), Donald Pleasence as Seward and a John Williams musical score. That said, Laurence Olivier is at his most absurd; Pleasence outshines him without effort. It’s probably the most faithful rendition of Stoker’s caricatured ‘ain’t these foreigners queer!’ Van Helsing, but there are good reasons it’s never played that way.)
Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979; Arthouse Werner Herzog remake. Without doubt, the most atmospheric film I’ve ever seen. From the first prowl through a mummy-strewn tomb to the Wagnerian finale, it’s as unearthly an experience as I’ve ever had with a film. The Popul Vuh soundtrack is unforgettable. As the Count, Klaus Kinski exudes the character’s essential melancholy with a near-apocalyptic intensity; I can think only of Smike’s cries of ‘no hope!’ in Nicholas Nickleby. Probably the best version of Dracula since the original Nosferatu.)
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979; Essentially the same film, but with the actors speaking English in alternate takes. They handle it pretty well.)
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992; Bloated Ford Coppola masturbatory exercise. Gary Oldman is unimpressive, Winona Ryder is pallid. Keanu Reeves deserves execution. The colours are an argument for black-and-white. But the Kilar music is so very excellent… I’ll be giving it another spin. If you have the choice, go for the companion piece Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: more daft, less offensive.)

Film-wise, this is only the tip of the vampire’s tooth. From 1936 to 1948, Universal knocked out a ton of sequels – Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – most of which were more interesting than the leaden original. Hammer was even more frivolous in its Dracula output. With the exception of The Brides of Dracula of 1960 (the best of the lot) and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires of 1974 (the last – and worst), all of them starred Christopher Lee: Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (my first Hammer film!), Taste the Blood of Dracula, Scars of Dracula, Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula. For whatever reason, I’ve never got round to Satanic Rites. And, like Stoker’s novel, it’s set in the present day. There may be lessons. There will definitely be Peter Cushing.

There’s also a ton of non-Dracula vampire films that are nonetheless deeply interesting. Titles that spring to mind include the highly atmospheric Vampyr (1932) and The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967); Hollywood horrors Mark of the Vampire (1935), Return of the Vampire (1943) and Isle of the Dead (1945); and some of Hammer’s non-Dracula vampire outings, such as Kiss of the Vampire and the Karnstein trilogy (the afore-mentioned twee lesbian vampire romps). There are some things I’ve never seen. I’ve got wind of a television version of Dracula starring actor-god Denholm Elliott, so that’s obviously a must. (Filmed for the same series, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, was a version of Frankenstein – with Ian Holm as both creator and created!) Christopher Lee never passes up the chance to talk about how faithful (if compromised) a version of the novel Franco’s El Conde Drácula (1970) was, so I’m excited for that also.

And yes, I might even watch Twilight again. I’m firmly of the opinion that the best way to produce something respectable is often to expose yourself to that which you dislike. It’s often been that way with acting, at least. The future’s bright! The future’s bloody! And it’s absolutely covered in Dracula! If I’m not desecrating graves and summoning wolves by year’s end, then something has gone desperately wrong.

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A Quibble with Mamet

In True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, David Mamet becomes to Stanislavsky what Christopher Hitchens was to Christianity. The problem with shattering a golden calf is that you mustn’t elect another in its place. It may, however, be an inescapable flaw of a literary desecration, and it’s sure as hell not one that Mamet escapes.

First off, I should say that I agree pretty much unreservedly with ninety percent of what Mamet says. The man clearly knows his onions, and you could do worse than moseying on down to his market stall to give ’em the full admiring. It’s the undefinable, ‘other’ ten percent that’s worth discussing. Like most works (and, indeed, most people) I’ve really enjoyed, Mamet’s book provoked something strong in me. That might result from my squint-eyed perspective on the acting craft. But it’s my squint, so I’ll defend it to the last – and a squint through which I can channel a diverting outpour.

It’s possible that my problems with Mamet are primarily lexical. Time and again, Mamet evokes the same demented clown of an actor as his whipping-boy. In the chapter ‘Find Your Mark’, Mamet casts aspersions on:

 … the actor who mugs, who hams it up, who lays claim to emotions which are false, or who uses these supposed emotions to make a demand upon the audience, [who] can extort an unhappy admiration as he asks the audience in admiring him to admire itself.

Woah, woah, woah! Slow down, Mammers! Four entirely different things there, rather gracelessly lumped together. Unsophisticated caricatures of this sort operate on the same cowardly premise as the unhelpful self-help book. Aspersions are cast in the confidence that an actor-reader will NEVER believe himself implicated in such things: ‘After all, I’m striving to better myself by reading a book on the craft. How could I possibly be one of the devil’s party?’ Well, as someone who often feels like a hammy old mugger, I’m forced to fight back.

‘Mugs’ has been applied to my elastic features as both a compliment and an insult. I’ll admit that I don’t always get the balance right, but my facial contortions are no spasmodic showboating. They’re the ligaments of action; the natural consequence of thinking someone else’s thoughts and having a more than usually rubbery face. Mugging as I understand it is that quite stubborn person inside, endeavouring to make the outward conform to the inward (more on that later). ‘Ham’ is a term that cries for rehabilitation. I’ve always regarded it as a rather fun and fruity word, delineating performances that are all the better for being heightened. It seems the world at large lacks my sense of irony. The more actors I encounter, the more I find that ‘ham’ is the all-purpose negativiser: ‘I agree with it not, and that makes it ham.’ This seems to me absurd. For me, ‘ham’ remains a word redolent with the Ghost of Christmas Present: the joy of abundance and plenty. It’s not called ‘nuclear holocaust’, children: it’s called ‘HAM’. How can a ham outstay its welcome?

Mamet’s later comments on ’emotions which are false’ and emotional manipulation quite unfairly suck mugging and hamming into their orbit – the orbit of legitimately heinous dramatic practices. Mamet recoils because he believes them untruthful. That’s sad, really. And, let’s face it, a betrayal of his rousing statement at the start of the book:

Acting is not a genteel profession. Actors used to be buried at a crossroads with a stake through the heart. These people’s performances so troubled the onlookers that they feared their ghosts. An awesome compliment.

Awesome without doubt. But something to which Mamet himself doesn’t subscribe. Edward Alleyn and Richard Burbage, the great Elizabethan actors, were most certainly not genteel, as they bellowed the holy verses into a pit of clamorous, mud-soaked peasants. They were likely not free of mugging. They were certainly not free of ham. There’s too much talk of ‘overacting’ nowadays. No one ever acknowledges the more dreadful sin: that of ‘over-underacting’. I’ve seen too many actors willingly devoted to being themselves onstage. It’s a confidence trick; a self-confidence trick, and, too often, the purest release for narcissism. Repugnant to behold. Usually, it’s the more (outwardly) beautiful specimens who drift down this route. We’ve all been bored to death by such people on a too regular basis. This is the sort of actor who will ‘extort an unhappy admiration as he asks the audience in admiring him to admire itself’. Compared with this, the plain-faced ham is so ingenuous as to be cuddly. Come to think of it, no one ever seems willing to believe that the plain or the off-centre or the downright ugly are being themselves onstage. (And thank goodness. A path better avoided.) Best to be an under-over-underactor then; to do right by your actor’s ghost.

None of this is to say that you don’t get physically beautiful creatures who aren’t also devoted, hard-working actors. But if the world already wants you to be you, there’s a crucial sense in which you don’t have to earn its interest through your work. If you’ve been told you’re beautiful (or the variants: pretty, sexy, cute, comely, ad nauseum) you must scrutinise your motives for acting all the more closely. (And feel free, as I have with Mamet, to tweak my begangled nose and tell me that I’m wrong.)

I have to acknowledge that these lexical idiosyncrasies – mine and his – might have distanced me from some of Mamet’s really worthy advice. At the end of the chapter, Mamet states ‘forget the Funny Voices, pick up your cue, and speak out even though frightened’. What frustrates me here is the minutiae. I’ve a quibble with the ‘even though’, which suggests avoidance. I’d vote for a ‘because’: capitalising on your imperfection. But then, Mamet endorses precisely the same elsewhere, and we’re on the same page again. And so-called ‘Funny Voices’, as Miriam Margolyes will tell you, are people. Such mannerisms, properly handled, are some of the best and surest ways into characters that I know. Yet Mamet absorbs ‘Funny Voices’ into his tireless lexical bashing of the muggery-hammery bad-man actor-fiend.

Further to the ‘Funny Voices’ jibe is Mamet’s suspicion of transformation. I strongly believe that transformation is an actor’s highest spiritual purpose, and most particularly in the theatre. So I felt charmingly patronised in the ‘Business is Business’ chapter, when I encountered this:

I’ve heard young actors speak of ‘stepping out.’ They felt constrained by the above suggestions, and they wanted, finally, a ‘part to tear a cat in,’ in which they could strut their stuff. They wanted to invent, to mold, to elaborate, to influence, to be a ‘transformational actor’ – to be, in effect, anything but themselves.

No doubt, for the grass is always greener. But the so-attractive actions listed above are the work of the writer. It is the writer’s job to make the play interesting. It is the actor‘s job to make the performance truthful.

First off, what does ‘young’ mean? Do only actors of a certain age gain access to a box of grease paint? Am I typed as a juvenile on the eve of my thirty-fifth birthday, then licensed to play character parts thereafter? The categories are endlessly mutable. And how does anyone get to be ‘themselves’ in the first place? Quite simply, really. We transform to become it. Over years, over decades, in an unconscious but nonetheless concerted effort. There’s a reason that Callow nearly called his seminal memoir Becoming an Actor. Yet you can also look at the above and believe that Mamet advises little other than faithfulness to the text. Which is entirely necessary. I just don’t believe it’s rigidly compatible with actors being themselves. Actors becoming characters, maybe – but never-never-never simply being themselves.

Mamet’s preaching of dogged textual subservience is too idealistic for my tastes. From ‘Talent’:

I do not think it is the actor’s job to be interesting. I think that is the job of the script. I think it is the actor’s job to be truthful and brave – both qualities which can be developed and exercised through the will.

I’ve already stated that ‘truth’ need not run counter to becoming other than yourself – to (dare I say it?) being interesting. It’s the word ‘brave’ with which I have the more serious problem. Like ‘tragic’, it’s a word that’s over-used nowadays. Such mundane actions are tarred-and-feathered in bravery that we’ve lost sight of what it means. Suggesting actors need bravery is a wee bit indulgent. I think it might well take bravery to navigate the encompassing structures that allow you to act in the first instance – braving poverty and seclusion, grinding away for opportunities that may never come. But it’s not brave to get out and do the thing for an audience. It’s in the job description; you knew what you signed up for. Moreover, it’s the basic point of the job. And, as Mamet himself loves saying, nobody’s harmed if you don’t get it right. (And, as I love saying, nobody’s ever got it right.) That Mamet states truth and bravery alike may be ‘exercised through the will’ renders them even more artificial. I’ve no idea what he was getting at.

Mamet toils beneath the platonic ideal that every script you encounter will teem with brilliant riches. ‘Why accept the second-rate in yourself or in others?’ he asks. Well, yes. But what’s the solution? Veto every project that isn’t entirely to your liking? That way lies unemployment. There’s also something deeply cowardly about it. Bad scripts aren’t going anywhere. As an actor, it’s one of your most solemn duties to redeem bad scripts by making them as worthwhile as possible for the audience. It’s also worth mentioning that the work itself can reveal buried riches in a text. Very often a play that seems half-formed on the page will work miraculously in performance. The only way to find out is in the doing it. There’s also the question of context. A Carry On film isn’t going to make anyone’s Ten Best list. But, as examples of their kind, some might well be called masterpieces. Ask an RSC casting director whether Kenneth Williams was a Great Actor and he’ll laugh in your face. Ask me and I’ll tell you my truth.

Mamet goes on:

And in the absence of the real stimulus we are capable of being manipulated and of manipulating ourselves, to take the form for the substance. To take cheap, degraded thrills for fear of having no thrills at all. Because, remember, it is the audience that goes to the theatre to exercise its emotion – not the actor, the audience. And when they go, having paid to be moved, they exercise their right to their money’s worth.

Mamet is especially vocal on that which emotionally moves. Most often, he states that emotion comes from the heroism of ‘the ordinary man or woman forced by circumstances to act in an extraordinary way’. He elaborates:

Because when we see real heroism, the heroism of the ordinary person forced by circumstances to act bravely, we identify with that man or woman and we say, ‘If they can do it, then perhaps I could, too.’

I think of Elizabeth I’s declaration that ‘I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls’. Despite Mamet’s beliefs to the contrary, he doesn’t know what moves his actor-readers. Mamet makes windows in the souls of audience members, fumbling for precisely what makes them tick. Hang on, though! Surely this is the core philosophy of Mamet’s caricatured ham actor: a hyper-conscious monitoring of audience reaction. Yet because Mamet couches it in disingenuously bare-faced rhetoric, it passes (almost) unnoticed. I would argue that it is not the audience but the actor whose soul is the window. The actor opens up, inviting the audience to look in as though surveying an aquarium of exotic fish. It’s the audience’s choice whether they open up in response. ‘Having paid to be moved’, they can bally well do as they please.

There’s a harmless strain of egocentrism in Mamet – the kind that resides in all of us – but it often seems he’d rather die than admit it. Nowhere is this clearer than in his recollected daydreams:

Most of us, in the course of a day or a week, treat ourselves to the fantasy of the Bad News at the Doctor’s Office in which we are invited to sit and hear our fate. And in that fantasy we are stoical and simple, and that is of course what makes the fantasy so pleasing to indulge in – we wait to hear the verdict on our future bravely.

An outlet for self-pity – or at least an inflated self-regard. It’s necessary. Absolutely! Sensibly contained too; it shan’t be hurting others. But it’s also weirdly displaced. In this fantasy, Mamet becomes actor and audience as one. For my money, the more common fantasy is imagining your own funeral. It’s another self-centered displacement activity – but one far more representative of the acting craft. You, pinned in your coffin, are the actor; the mourners are the audience. You’ve made the really big gesture, what with the dying an’ all. Whether the mourners open up is their prerogative (in the fantasy, of course, they can and must). And this is what Mamet seems to be arguing for – elsewhere at least.

A word on bravery. The active search for bravery is, I think, doomed to fail. It renders you navel-gazer par excellence. And you’re no further on when you’re done. Mamet buys into the old maxim that stripping back all but the playwright’s core meaning is the road to liberation: ‘And then, rather than pretending, we can discover whether or not we are courageous’. But surely consciously striving to be courageous is reductive; Mamet’s been silly enough to dovetail emotional truth with personal profit. Any self-consciously virtuous individual ceases to be so. The awareness renders it void. There’s also something strangely one-dimensional about the people that Mamet finds courageous. They’re all ordinary people who are forced into the extraordinary. That rules out the otherworldly tragedians of Shakespeare. With the glaring exception of Mamet’s beloved Hamlet – who is everyone and everything to every different age – we lose Othello, Lear, Cleopatra, Richard II and Coriolanus. You can relate to all of them. But none are ordinary people. This is to stretch the point a bit, but I think it’s worth demolishing the modern cult of heroism. It all comes down to the quintessentially American slaverings for uncomplicated machismo; endless recapitulations of Davy Crockett at the Alamo.

Funnily enough, the only really successful example of Mamet’s brand of dramatic heroism is English: Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. To call More ordinary is another stretch – but as Scofield plays him, he is warm, modest and unassuming, only faintly imbued with the otherworldly. It’s with his plain wits that More faces down Henry VIII’s endeavours to have him approve of the marriage to Anne Boleyn. More’s conversation with Norfolk (here Howard) offers one such example:

Give in!

I can’t give in, Howard. Our friendship’s more mutable than that.

Oh! The one fixed point in a world of turning friendship is that Thomas More will not give in!

For me it has to be, for that’s myself. Affection goes as deep in me as you, I think. But only God is love right through, Howard, and that’s myself.

Perhaps the reason I treasure this play beyond any other is that it advocates selfhood. The integrity of the individual. Mamet doesn’t try to make windows into men’s souls, but he does assume that men’s souls are all pretty much the same. But they’re not! They’re not! They’re not! And that is the fascination of acting! Rugged Individualism: a point that anyone attuned to folksy Americana can take. The individual is absolutely at the centre of acting. Mamet’s truth of acting is unquestionably right – as his truth. Just as this tirade is unquestionably right – as my truth. Theories of acting are only ever perfect for the one who devises them (and then for only an instant; after all, we’re all changing all the time). Further to the extract from A Man for All Seasons, it’s worth observing that, in the end, reasons always run out. It has to be a matter of love. We might not agree on the technicalities, but I’m sure that Mamet and I would resoundingly agree on the ‘why?’ of acting.

Before signing off, I must restate that Mamet’s book is fantastically good. Beg, steal or borrow a copy; I read it in one sitting. As ever, though, it’s from the disagreements that the best lessons emerge. Go and see what you dislike!

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Draculean Derring-Do

I’ve just finished reading Dracula, which means I’m well placed to gather my thoughts on the subject. I’ll save up some Dungeon stories for next time; given the nature of this post, it’s a shame that their legendary Vampires show is long-defunct.

In relation to the other great monster novels, Dracula ranks somewhere near the middle. It rarely ascends to the transcendent, spiritual heights of Frankenstein and The Picture of Dorian Gray – each crying for a God who never arrives, begging huge questions that go unanswered. But then, Dracula also discards the tedious mystery trappings that plague Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Phantom of the Opera (‘mysteries’ to which a modern reader inevitably knows the answer). Dracula shares their epistolary form, but the point is never to verify the Count’s existence so much as stitch it together. Thus, the impression is that of a conventional group of people, engulfed by a presence on the very fringes of their understanding. I would argue that this is the novel’s greatest achievement. Dracula himself almost never appears, but his presence throughout is oppressive to the point of claustrophobia.

In other ways, Dracula does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s the most straightforwardly horrific novel I’ve encountered since working through Monk Lewis’s repertoire last summer. The expected stakes are hammered home – and with such ferocity that the victims tear their own lips to a bloody foam. Infants meet ends appalling enough to rival Stephen King’s It. Early on, Dracula feeds a baby in a bag to his vampire brides; later, numerous children are attacked by the nightmarish ‘bloofer lady’ in a London park. The links to be drawn between paedophilia and vampirism are interesting. I think it’s worth noting that Dracula himself doesn’t prey on children – only women he’s converted to the undead. Perhaps the gender delegation takes the edge off; precisely why warrants examination. Stoker is at his most brilliant when evoking an atmosphere of decay. Dust-strewn cobwebs and crumbling masonry converge with impenetrable darkness in such massy, cluttered detail that Gothic landscapes become sublime. Smell is one of the more poorly represented senses in literature. But Stoker is in his element here; rarely have I recoiled from a novel as when imagining the halo of rot and decay surrounding the Count. And, very often, an unsettling detail will simply linger. For example, a modest shaving bowl sits on the dining-room table in Dracula’s Piccadilly residence. The water has a reddish tinge.

Dracula also boasts enough that’s unexpected, quirky and downright weird to keep the interest of the most jaded horror fan. It’s hard to forget the passage where Dracula’s brides appear as ghosts in the Transylvanian skies – or reappear, in a torrential snow storm, to Mina and Van Helsing. The close association of vampires and ghosts is too often lost – the natural consequence, I suppose, for a monster whose dining habits are unabashedly corporeal. I found myself reflecting on the deaths of the vampires in Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932). In the former, Count Orlok suffers exposure to the rising sun, fading through the smoothness of a lap dissolve and dwindling into ashes on the carpet. In the latter, the staking of the old hag is spectral rather than visceral, her skeleton gleaming through her flesh before finally replacing it. Stoker keeps up the ambiguous relation of the bodily and the ghostly – not least in the near-absurd range of limitations to Dracula’s supernatural powers, from running water to the felicitous need for an invitation before entering a property. J.K. Rowling has stated that one of the greatest challenges of the Harry Potter series was to show that magic had its boundaries; Stoker admirably tackles the same problem in Dracula. That conflict between the extremes of limitation and power becomes one of the character’s most interesting qualities. Another memorable detail comes when a wounded Dracula sheds coins rather than blood. (Colonial subtext, maybe? The filthy foreigner who literally sucks the country dry?) Most tantalising of all are Stoker’s allusions to Dracula’s past as alchemist and warlord. For the purposes of a one-hour monologue, these hints of what Dracula got up to in his other four hundred and ninety-nine years are invaluable.

Especially appealing to me is that Dracula is also a novel about basic human goodness. I think this is often taken as ‘PATRIARCHY!’ and ‘MISOGYNY!’ by those stupid enough to believe the Victorian age (and only just, at 1897) embodied nothing else. (That the period’s named after a celebrated Queen is the sledgehammer blow to that line of thought.) Mina is not limited by her kindness and softness. It is what empowers her beyond her male protectors; it is certainly what puts her in a position to thwart Dracula. The numerous scenes of the hardened vampire hunters weeping over some little bravery or sacrifice from Mina might be too Little Nell for some. I personally find them very affecting. As with Dickens’s sentimental moments – the ending of The Pickwick Papers, the fates of Nancy in Oliver Twist and Smike in Nicholas Nickleby – they’re seen through with such good-hearted sincerity that I can’t help but go with them. What little sympathy is evoked for the Count also comes from Mina. It’s nothing like the wanky adolescent fantasies of Francis Ford Coppola or the Twilight franchise. Stoker’s evocation of sympathy is much closer to Christopher Lee’s treatment of the character: a fleeting insight into the terrible loneliness of evil. In many an interview Lee’s repeated much the same thing (possibly to legitimise his lengthy horror resume): ‘with all these characters, I always look for one particular element that runs through them all, and that is a kind of sadness’. In adapting Dracula for the stage, I want to experiment with how to get at such sympathy. It should be challenging. For Dracula must remain what he always has: a blood-sucking demon from hell. The best devils, like Milton’s Satan, are charismatic and seductive and endlessly persuasive in converting you to their own point of view. And, as with Hitler, you don’t even realize you’ve being converted – until you step back and marvel at the intricate frame of frighteningly logical evil. This seems to me the way to go.

So: well done, Bram Stoker! A sizzler, all in all. I’d encourage everyone to give Dracula their time. 2012 is the centenary of Stoker’s death, so it’s a more historically apposite time than most.

The next stage is to educate and re-educate myself in all things Dracula. In one sense, I’ve been preparing for this for a lifetime – and quite without realising! The reading is going to be thrilling. But then, what’s the dread Count without a monster movie marathon…?

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Return to the Dungeon

Yesterday I returned to The York Dungeon! First time I’ve been back in almost a year – save my visit on Christmas Eve, which was quite the best idea I had that holiday. Usually, I find being reborn to decay a fairly emotional experience, but this time exhaustion prevailed; I’ve been recovering from a mysterious sore throat, which has only just started to fade. Accordingly, I rounded out my eight hours of darkness with relaxing walks into and out of York, a restorative shower, and a blissful kip on the sofa, the edu-fun-tional delights of QI buzzing away in the background. Today, I’ve mostly been sittin’ and figurin’ – wondering how Dracula, that sprawling haunted castle of a book, might become a worthwhile play. As I hinted in this interview, it’s a text with the potential for a monodrama in the Hunchback mould.

Before I tumble back into Stoker’s epically silly story, I’ll collect some thoughts from yesterday. A day at the Dungeon is less a coherent narrative than a series of vivid ‘moments’. This time, I’ll be focusing on that which, like me, is new to the Dungeon:

New corpse in Plague: The corpse – a recent casualty of the Black Death – is the centrepiece of the first half of the show. As the plague doctor’s assistant, your job is to root around inside, pluck forth the innards, and now and then elucidate the symptoms of plague. I’m not convinced that the new chap is better than last year’s model. He’s certainly different. The detail is now astounding. Around the mouth are individual flecks of stubble – which feel, unsettlingly enough, like stubble. We also have eyebrows, eyelashes, a good head of hair – and, best/worst of all, a fine fur covering the chest and arms. The sort of detail that an audience really isn’t likely to notice, but will alternately please and traumatise me whenever I set to rubbing and stroking my friend. On the downside, the hands and feet strike me as less realistic than previously (people inevitably touch the extremities to work out if the corpse is an actor; it’s essential that they convince). The old body was also filled with water. This made for a fantastically disgusting squelch as you rummaged about inside, allowing you to fleck your audience with fresh corpse-juice on the sly. I suspect the new fellow has been secured against the damage that water did his predecessor: the organs are now enclosed in a rigid (and dry) wooden casing. In result, the figure now warrants a more voluptuous approach. Rather than the demented splashings of a rat in sewage, there must be prolonged and sensuous communion with intestine, heart and lungs. The new corpse is also, regrettably, a eunuch. The previous figure was handsomely endowed, and proved a special favourite with hen parties.

New darkness in Plague: Various lights have been angled or extinguished to make this first chamber as dark as possible. A shame in one sense, given that the surgery boasts some of the Dungeon’s most detailed set dressings. But it’s definitely more unsettling now. The new darkness is more than visual; the script been tweaked to give the actor a sharper edge. This transition is going to be a challenge for my Plague character, William, who is very much Kenneth William(s) in voice and manner. But then, Williams was often the most frightening thing about the films he made, high camp and grotesque horror wandering in hand with the sublime… In line with the tonal shift, there is a new call for silence. Last year, the actor would introduce himself to the public by ringing a bell, bursting through some doors and screaming ‘BRING OUT YER DEAD! BRING OUT YER DEAD!’ I felt there was merit in this approach; in beginning the tour with a jolt, the faint of heart could slink away without spoiling the experience for others. The subtle version is certainly more unnerving, but I’m not convinced that it prepares audiences for how insane the Dungeon will eventually become. And, needless to say, when I slithered towards a school party yesterday – in silence – the air was rent with piercing shrieks for a good thirty seconds. Some things simply can’t be changed. In the demented hurly-burly of crowd control and nervous exhaustion that is the Dungeon Summer, subtlety has no place.

New rug in Ghosts: The frame for Ghosts is the ancient Golden Fleece in York – allegedly the most haunted pub in the most haunted city in England. (Swap ‘haunted’ for ‘superstitious’ as you see fit.) We now have a suitably pubbish rug covering the wooden floor, through which William Brown’s ghost makes his presence known. My first thought was ‘how splendid – now when children vomit, we can simply roll up their leavings and continue undisturbed’. Closer inspection reveals that the rug has been nailed down. No doubt it will cause the stench to linger. On a less odorous note, I’m relieved to find Ghosts still in place. It’s by far the best bit of theatre in the Dungeon. There are shows that offer more visceral entertainments (Judge and Torture especially), but none that are quite so disturbing. The standard Dungeon show is episodic. For example, both Judge and Torture adopt a three-part structure of audience interaction: the judge metes out three sentences, while the torturer samples three of his wrought-iron trinkets. In Ghosts, meanwhile, every effort is made to build a narrative into the five-minute experience. The core of the show is a literal storytelling, as the innkeeper recounts the hanging of William Brown. However, it receives an enormous lift from the enfolding and enabling mechanics of that storytelling. Similarly, the special effects that comprise the climax to the show are fairly modest – but they gain in power for creating a progressive encounter with the supernatural. The audience is first subjected to purely visual stimuli – first, a number of blackouts (contingent on vision deprived); second, the manipulation of physical objects (a lantern moves, a tankard crashes to the ground). From here, we progress to a heightened visual manifestation (a transparent shade appears to visitors, through the magic of Pepper’s ghost). Finally, we have what can only be described as a bolt of wind, which shoots from behind a curtain and provides tactile, physical experiencing. Neatly structured for cumulative impact, and a fine complement to the actor’s intimidation of the audience.

New Labyrinth of the Lost: Two years ago, I just loved this show. In the person of a dead Roman Centurion, I’d bleat utter drivel at an audience before clapping them without warning in a darkened room. Last year, however, the show had been destroyed – the toilets belonging to the nightclub above the Dungeon flooded, thus rendering the Labyrinth toxic and unusable. This year’s replacement is excellent. The premise of Labyrinth is historically dubious: the claim that a Roman legion became lost in a series of tunnels hidden beneath York Minster. Convenient lies aside, the new Labyrinth certainly looks the part. Where once there were mirrors ensconced in plastic are now detailed faux-marble carvings, pillars and busts. This chamber forms the gateway to the mirror maze. The maze itself is saturated with brilliant scare effects – a skeleton rattling for freedom against its chains; a deafening clatter of iron from above. With gags like these, the Dungeon pays homage to its ghost train roots – the pneumatic irritation of the pop-up ghost sustained in eclectic new forms. As a child, I hated jump scares of every kind. Nowadays, I find them one of the most entertaining scare tactics, and certainly the most instantly gratifying. There is also a novel chance to become the pop-up ghost. The new maze design contains an alcove fronted with two-way glass, which means that the actor can sneak in and unexpectedly illumine himself, thus terrifying those within. Two-way glass is another illusion cribbed from the Disney Haunted Mansion, which used it for the legendary hitchhiking ghost effect (prior to the ghastly CGI updates).

New Execution show: Dungeoning depends on repetition, so a new feature is always a strange phenomenon. As I mentioned earlier, Dungeon shows tend towards the episodic. Execution is as fragmented as they come: as the executioner’s dogsbody, you bait the crowd, trash the south for a bit, slap someone in the pillory, show off the severed heads on Micklegate Bar (Thomas Mowbray and Richard Le Scrope, traitors each to Henry IV), try out the Halifax gibbet, and finally fail to chop off a fresh head. This fragmentation doesn’t make Execution a bad show; it just necessitates that the character becomes as malleable as possible, the liquid substance that will draw these elements into cohesion. I had a few run-throughs after closing time with Mark Watson, Performance Supervisor and fellow Dungeon actor. Bafflingly quickly, I find myself adopting a persona similar to Frosch, a character that I played in Die Fledermaus in February. Frosch was a character that I came to despise. I wanted something dark and subversive – the needle that bursts that innocuously fluffy champagne bubble of an opera – while everyone else wanted the flat, the functional and the insipidly vivacious. What we wound up with was polished (the measliest arbiter of quality in opera), but essentially quite dull; an unmotivated and (to me, at least) largely unfunny explosion of shoutings and grimacings. I maintain that the only non-singing character in an opera should remain operatic – in conception and realization. Not suffer reduction to an unadventurous music hall skit. So Execution might also be a chance for rehabilitation, allowing me to test what dark potential Frosch really had. It’s curious how characters you’ve played in ‘serious’ dramas come back to you in the Dungeon, jostling for new life. That stirring moment at which theatre becomes a ghostly echo-chamber. I’ll go public with Execution in the next few days. The technical challenge of multiple button-presses, all of which require precise timing and physical grace, will no doubt prove the more pressing (ha!) concern.

Next time, I’ll aim to report some gems of public behaviour. The Dungeon is nothing without its victims. And, as much as I love ’em, they tend to be the weirdest people on earth…

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Mission Statement

You are now surveying the blodgings of James C. Swanton – twenty-one year old character actor and occasional writer. I am physically distinguished by my longishness of limb, hunchedness of back and mobility of face; vocally distinguished by my cavernous, death-rattle voice. Born, raised, schooled and now once more living in the city of York, I find myself too much in thought. I can scare tourists in the dark to my heart’s content – but I also need a subject to wrap my thoughts around, a digitized forum in which to publish those thoughts on a semi-weekly to intermittent basis. And, in my experience, nothing erases thought like more time at the computer. Bring on the blodgering, I say!

I’ve recently finished an English degree at Cambridge University. Or so I’ve been told – it’s felt rather more like a degree in high-pressure play-making. In my time at Cambridge, I appeared in twenty-four shows and played over eighty characters. I created a trilogy of one- and two-man shows based on the works of Dickens: Pickwick & Nickleby, Scrooge & Marley (alongside George Potts) and Sikes & Nancy. I became a favourite childhood monster (Quasimodo) in a one-man version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I did Shakespeare (Macbeth, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, a bit of Timon of Athens). I did Aristophanes (Lysistrata) and Jonson (The Alchemist); I did Webster (The Duchess of Malfi) and Vanbrugh (The Relapse). I did opera (Die Fledermaus) and musicals (A Children’s Guide to the Birth of Christ, Guido!) and panto (The Pied Piper). I did the world’s first ever completely silent pirate play (Silent Cannonfire). I had surreal run-ins with Stephen Fry, Simon Russell Beale, Ian McKellen, Simon Callow and Max Stafford-Clark. I developed a fetish for monotonous lists. And I established Bottled Lightning (more of that in the ‘About’ section). In short, I was a hatefully (and probably reductively) prolific dabbler in the arts dramatical. Had the unthinkably glorious Yankee system of ‘credits’ been in place, this sainted nonsense might have had some academic capital. Instead, I’ve left the institution with that common mixed feeling of thankfulness and betrayal – thankful for the wealth of opportunities that Cambridge opened up to me; betrayed by the stressful constraints in which my paradise flourished.

What with three summers spent ghouling at The York Dungeon (and another to come), I have reached dramatic saturation point over the last three years. But I’ve never really tired of it. My greatest fear, post-graduation, is that I’ll slide into an unproductive malaise. Certainly, I’ll never again be stimulated by such an instantaneous glut of projects. Not in the real world. The fall is natural. The way forward, then, if I’m to make a go at this crazed profession, is to treat acting as a vocation first, a career second. For acting is most definitely a way of life – and a good and healthy one at that.

‘But wait!’ I hear you cry. ‘Surely founding a life on acting is massively introverted! More than that, massively self-absorbed, self-obsessed, self-loving – a supreme narcissism, in truth, a vice to be abhorred!’ Well… no. That’s to complicate how passions work. To connect meaningfully with that which lies outside yourself, you must look inside yourself to discover what fires you. By looking in, you learn to look out – and you learn to regard the world with eyes that are alert and interested, rather than worn with disillusionment. Besides, I’ve always had affection for those who nail their passions triumphantly to their masts and allow others to share in the colours. Not those who stand sneering from the sidelines. Surely that’s the foundation of true narcissism – the idea that a person’s ego will absorb nothing unless that same ego deems it worthy. Basically, I’ll be up front with you if you’re willing to believe I’m being up front with you. Let’s discard any cynicism and second-guessing of motives and get down to an honest discussion of things that matter. To me, initially, and then, with any luck, to you. And let us try to have fun!

Until next time, then! I’ve kept numerous blodgerings since March 2006; most notably Pickwick & Nickleby, to promote my first one-man show. That died a death – and understandably. The basis of its existence was itself fleeting, but the main reason it stalled was the unseemly dual constraint of time and fatigue. I was too busy reading and rehearsing Dickens to do him justice in reflection. Nor was the (self-imposed) pressure to knock out a few entries each week conducive to good writing. Posts became interminable rambles instead of pointed, palatable rambles. Once Michaelmas 2010 kicked off, I gave up any illusion of sustaining it. There remain only a few husks of unfinished entries – hopelessly outdated now, hopelessly unpublishable. However, those inaugural blodgoogerings on acting did have a few benefits. I think it’s essential to think about acting in a constructive forum. It makes the brief candle a little less so; restores those flailings and shoutings that can seem so hopeless to their place as art. The bloodge also gave me a better taste for writing as a habit. Whilst my default prose style was never less than ultraviolet, it was a style that I found very comfortable. It’ll be a few months before I’m properly warmed up, but it’s going to be a real pleasure to pin down that elusive writer’s voice again.

I’ll be back soon – with Dungeony updates, I shouldn’t wonder! (I would say ‘comment!’ but nobody ever, ever comments on these things. So don’t be contrary; don’t comment.)

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