Peter Feeney interviewed in The Sunday Star Times – Full article HERE
To apear on acting blog page
I had to share this photo of me gorgeous screen family – we wrapped on this TV children’s series earlier this year. Roll on series two!
Ireland was booming when I visited early in 2008. And the property crash was just around the corner. My accommodation was the swanky Chief O’Neill’s Hotel. It was part of the grand local commercial, residential and cultural development in Smithfield village. Now O’Neill’s is that melancholy haunt, the budget Generator Hostel. The once bustling Smithfield village (still host to the biannual horse fair) is a poster child for the dangers of untrammelled property speculation: empty apartments and unfinished commercial buildings abound. Right next door to the Generator is the tottering Jamison’s Distillery Tower, now closed for safety concerns. I wish I’d visited it when I’d had the chance. Ah well. Today the place is booming again (is there a pattern here…?) Anyway I’m looking forward to taking my son back next year so he can check out his Irish heritage.
Dubliners say ‘sorry’ and ‘you’re very welcome’ with startling frequency, and ‘thanks a million’ almost as often. They’re friendly and unpretentious folk – It’s almost like being at home, plus charming accents. It’s certainly true that both places – New Zealand and Ireland – are small. Dublin has about the same population as Auckland, a history packed country you can drive most anywhere in a day, whose principal export – people – has ensured much of the world want to visit it, so feeding that principal industry – tourism.
My driver in on the airport bus, Conor, was a ninth generation Dubliner. He dropped in and out of Gaelic, as sundry locals got on and off, and proudly told me that he had been fluent as a child, and was equally proud that all his children had the native tongue. He showed me an umbrella shop, once owned by a distant ancestor, where a gate from the original city wall had been excavated. He pointed out the Viking side of the river Liffey, and the Celtic side, and the spot in between called Black Pool: translated as Duhb Lin, but pronounced Dove Lin – which of course the English got wrong. If they’d bothered to ask any local at the time he’d have set them right. Or worse he might have suggested the complete Gaelic explanation, ‘ford at the confluence of river and sea.’ Which is rather a mouthful so all round, concluded Conor charitably, they were better off with the mispronounced Duhb Lin.
Did anyone follow that?
You can get this information out of any brochure, but there’s a cheap explorer’s sense of discovery to be had in discovering it by accident. I also got to hear juicy tit-bits such as about Conor’s daughter, who’d just come back after 10 months in New Zealand – she’d have stayed longer except that her ‘drip’ of a boyfriend had decided to join her, so she cut the trip short to get free of him.
You won’t find that in the standard Dublin tourist guides.
My English hotel experience had been all dripping faucets, peeling paint, and inedible breakfasts with cold coffee served promptly to your table. Fortunately many re-runs of Faulty Towers had prepared me for this, and I coped with the cheerful third world inefficiency and wounded indifference in the face of complaint. Chief O’Neill’s in Smithfield village, Dublin, couldn’t be more different. Just six years old, the Hotel is styly, the staff are all smiles, it has a fine resident jazz duo, and a Spartan but pleasing functionality to the rooms: exposed stainless steel plumbing, much like the boiler room of the Titanic might have looked before it hit that iceberg in 1912. Or was it? A doco I saw on Irish TV on my first night tried to convince me – crippled by a crazed Fenian’s bomb? Perhaps an early inspiration to present day Al-Qaeda terrorists, the alleged bomber went down with the ship. So we’ll never know…
O’Neill’s is right next to the District court, and round the corner in the local pub you can rub shoulders with lawyers and the criminals they represent – two classes of thieves, and ample reason to keep a firm hold on your wallet.
But no fear of bombings here in Southern Ireland anyway. As on the English tube there were unhurried reminders on the airport intercoms to stay near your luggage. If you strayed too far you risked your duty free whisky and cigarettes might be tragically detonated by a lumbering robotic explosive device. But the war for a free state ended a long time ago, and peace has broken out with the IRA who – if incredulous reports are to be believed – have handed in all their stocks of bombs and weapons. The old Republicans, De Valera and Collins, live on only in vague memory, as street names and statues well-fertilised by pigeons. Now all anyone cares a tinker’s toss about is having a laugh, a good life – and making money.
Dublin might lack London’s human variety, but it sure made up for it on the telly. My first night’s viewing also included the doco 49UP: which saw a London cabby happily ensconced in the Spanish Riviera – ironically now much more like the England he understood than the present-day East End he grew up in (except for the weather), overrun now with Poles. To underline the point the superb movie Sexy Beast followed, where a retired to Spain Cockney hood is harried into one last job by right nutter Ben Kingsley. Earlier a news item showed Irish farmers gleefully extracting sunflower oil and refining it into gasoline, and praying the price for petrol would stay high so they might actually make a profit out of it. But even if they don’t they could work out an EU subsidy to turn a pound – or Euro, which the Irish converted to a year or so back. On the drive from the airport a sign by some road works proclaimed a motor-way development 85% funded out of EU coffers. The Irish have been on the winning end of such subsidies for decades, and long the fastest growing economy of Europe, they’re still happily riding the gravy train. From all public buildings the National and EU flags hang side by side in equal eminence – the EU flag with it’s circle of stars bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Confederate banner of the American Civil war.
The Irish attitude is of course in marked contrast to some of the other nations of Europe who are paying for it all. The French, past supporters of the EEC more perhaps by virtue of fears of US world dominance, have voted recently against granting the European Parliament wider powers. The Germans are struggling just to afford East Germany’s integration, and the English are worried about their loss of sovereignty as European integration proceeds. A recent case where EU safety standards declared the standard British battle tank vibrationally unsafe is a case in point. The English also shake their heads at the busloads of Latvians daily arriving to eagerly take up all the low paid menial and hospitality jobs. Which is odd, given that English don’t really want them. Waves of immigrations since the 60’s – from Pakistan, Jamaica, and now Eastern Europe – means they haven’t had to for quite a while.
One consequence is that at times just meeting any Englishman as a tourist in Central London is cause for astonishment – unless you happened (as I did) to trip over one in the gutter the morning after the colossal past Ashes win celebrations (you’d think they’d never won anything before). Attractions in London as diverse as St Paul’s and my local South Kensington café, Milano, are staffed by Romanian arrivals not much more recent than myself. Between my unfamiliar Kiwi accent and their English as a second – or even third language – communication becomes a challenge. Yet while the people change, the English way of life – bad food, class divisions and the schizoid celebration and denigration of ostentatious achievement, personified in the frenzied Ashes win celebrations and the daily terror attacks on celebrities in the tabloids – seems on the face of it utterly unthreatened. ‘Spence,’ the soon to be disgraced rags to riches African immigrant success story, with his pin-stripe suits and lousy tennis back-hand, is a sign of the times. From Council flat to dodgy property multi-millionaire, he is the self-made British capitalist with the stunning Polish wife, who could be behind the Nigerian bank internet rip-off scam that has snared many gullible Kiwis the last year…
When US casting director Tom McSweeney first visited our fair Australasian shores, he was amazed that actors were expected to memorise their lines for auditions. In LA, where he came from, reading, and reading at short notice, was the norm. Tom believes that, after a cursory read-through, a good actor can pick up a scene and make good sense of it in a reading. He put this assertion to a cast of NZ Equity members attending a recent weekend workshop, and then went on to prove his point in practice. It led Jennifer Ward-Leyland, president of NZ Equity, to suggest we institute a “revolution” of reading instead of memorising for auditions in New Zealand. All of the assembled actors were vocal in agreement
The last few summers I have been doing a number of tests for US pilots and in many of these I’ve been “reading” – that is, having the script in my hand. I have to say that after almost 20 years in a working environment where I learned lines for an audition, I prefer the cold-ish read. Not only have the results been satisfactory, I’ve found myself enjoying the audition more. I’m not worrying about lines – and I’m consequently more relaxed – but more unexpectedly I’ve found I hardly need to look at the script, even when I’ve only read the scene a handful of times. Just knowing you have your lines in your hand takes the pressure off and the lines tend to largely sink in on their own.
As they do it all the time American actors are rather good at the art of reading for audition, lifting the words off the page with a glance and working up a performance in short order. At any rate, the script is often out of shot and hardly detectable on film. The attitude implied by the practice is more improvisational; that the actors are there to give their take on the material, rather than a precise interpretation of it.
Perhaps our practice in Australia and New Zealand – of learning lines has evolved because on average we do less auditions and tests than an LA actor. Perhaps, because there are so many more actors in LA, their system has evolved to make the auditioning process faster and allow more actors to be seen. While learning lines is time consuming for the actor, from the casting director’s point of view it is a test, I suppose, of grace under pressure: can they keep their head, remember their lines and still deliver a result?
Against this the atmosphere on any set worth its salt is less reverent and looser about the whole lines “thingo” than in any audition room. We all know that the danger, when we hammer in lines, that we unwittingly cement in a way of saying them. This is the exact opposite of the flexibility and openness to change you want in an audition room or on set.
Yes, we have to know our lines. But in practice actors have their “sides” in their hands usually right through the initial read and blocking. This isn’t laziness, it’s because many good actors are still working out their performance at this stage. The whole scene doesn’t start to come together till the cameras roll, so it doesn’t have a chance to go stale. The knack of acting for camera, and particularly TV acting (where there are so many lines to learn), is to not learn the lines and performance too well, or be too secure. Rather, to be wholly in the moment, letting it all come together in the performance.
It seems to me that in audition the more relaxed LA style, which measures at least to some degree the improvisational quality of the actor, might be a better judge of performance for screen than our current “possum in the headlights” approach, which seems to be about testing memory as much as performance.
I suppose casting directors in New Zealand and Australia have come to expect line fluency from actors, given we have less tests to do than American actors. But it’s not just a time factor. Countless times on DVD extras I’ve seen top US actors testing with script in hand. It’s just a style that the Americans prefer (heck, like us, it’s probably just the way they have always done it). Anyway, it’s not like actors here aren’t busy just because we don’t test three times a day. We’re still rushing from voiceovers to auditions and back to rehearsal (or home again to change nappies in my case); doing all the things we need to do to survive as actors.
If we did change the way we do things in audition rooms we’d have to accept shorter notice for auditions as part of the deal; down from the current 72 hours to 24 perhaps, with the option to be sprung a different part to read for on the day. There would be much more flexibility in the whole casting process. Casting directors could see more actors, which, with shrinking casting budgets, could only be to their advantage.
While most of us would, I suspect, relish not having to expend time on line learning, for a job we probably won’t get, some of us might dislike having less time to prepare for an audition. Actors might find cold reading a challenge at first. And of course some actors – a surprising percentage of us are dyslexic, as it turns out – will have to carry on memorizing no matter what. This aside, you’d be hard put to convince some actors that too much time to prepare – and perhaps over-prepare – is a bad thing for TV and film acting. But having spent some time as a casting director and reader I can tell you: those loose, relaxed, off the cuff takes are always the ones on the money. Ask Harry Sinclair, NZ film director of Topless Women talk about their lives, Price of Milk and Toy Love (I appeared in the latter). He made a virtue out of improvisation by handing out the day’s scenes in the make-up chair. Initially, this scared me half to death. Yet somehow, by the time it came to the first set up, you had the lines in your head. And a less affected performance too.
Given that auditions are in essence a lottery, and that most of us have to do many of them to get one job, changing the rules might bring the benefit that we can focus more on simply enjoying the experience and spend our prep time bringing our interpretative skills to the party, rather than just drilling-in lines.
What would happen if we turned up to auditions with a hard copy of the audition scenes in our hand? Anyone for a quiet revolution?
This article first appeared in the MEAA magazine in 2011
Last week I was asked by Phil Darkins of NZ Equity to do a Q&A with Jennifer Ward-Leyland, Britta McVeigh and Miranda Harcourt on the Actor-Coach relationship. Flattered to be included in such exulted company, I accepted. The evening has come and gone, and it was a real pleasure. But the invitation itself presented something of a challenge. I know that an acting coach can’t instill talent. We can’t even magically implant good character or a work ethic (factors in the long run probably more important than talent). And, just because an actor gets a role and you happened to have coached him or her, this doesn’t mean that your coaching was actually responsible. So before I can even discuss the relationship, I feel I have to justify its existence.
The truth is that I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of actor training. Actors may need it at the start of their careers but, wherever it comes from, talent tends to rise to the top. You just can’t stop a force of nature. I’ve always thought there was a lot in David Mamet’s observation that the best drama schools in the world are because they are known to be so and therefore get the first pick. Being the best to start with their graduates are more likely to go on and have successful careers, therefore adding to the reputation of the school.
There are undoubtedly techniques that unfailingly work – inner objects/ internal landscape say, for screen. But I’m deathly suspicious of acting ‘systems’ – the idea that an overall set approach, if faithfully applied to any acting task, will inevitably produce a good result. This idea can condemn actors to wasted years trying to master some school or technique – that will undoubtedly have some benefits, but which cannot guarantee a result: nothing can. Some teachers love systems. And good actors will always do well with such teachers not so much cos the system is good but because the actor is – and perhaps the teacher is. But I do think it is telling that Meisner’s own wish, for example, was that they stop teaching his technique when he died. My experience as an actor myself is that nothing works for sure every time. It’s a slippery fish that can’t be possessed for long. Each role or script makes unique demands and each individual will have a different and eclectic approach to open up the work. Paul Minifie, an Auckland actor, did me a great favour when he told me: ‘only you know what works for you.’ Acting students need to be cautious. As William H Macy has advised: ‘if it looks like doo-doo and it smells like doo-doo – then it is doo-doo. If it sounds like complete nonsense for too long and every cell in your body is saying, “What does this have to do with acting?,” it is complete nonsense.’
So what good are we? Frankly not much if we overestimate our importance… but if we aim to empower the actor, and encourage their own quirky and unique approach, I believe we can be of use.
A start is to compare acting coaching to sports training. There used to be a fallacy about weight training, based on the known fact that a person of smaller size could sometimes perform greater acts of strength than another and bigger person. It was thought that if the smaller person got more muscle bound then somehow they might lose that edge. In fact this isn’t true. The smaller person is naturally stronger. This can be explained because genetically some people are able to activate a greater percentage of muscle fibres at any one time. BUT if that person trains and grows more muscle mass, they will be even stronger. In the same way sports coaching will make a really good athlete even better. And in theory sound actor training should also make a naturally talented actor better – and a strong actor excellent. As well the coach – who will usually be someone who has their own experience in the industry, and has learnt along the way – can save the actor time, money and embarrassment by imparting practical wisdom. Critically the coach can provide an environment that supports the actor, a space that exists solely to improve their craft, free of bitchiness, commercial competition and professional consequence. A place in other words where the actor can make mistakes, investigate their craft, explore their range and inner world.
I believe the actor needs this kind of coaching on occasion because the industry, while it can sustain actors economically, was never designed or interested in our needs as artists. There’s a technologically driven revolution going on in production and distribution shifting us all from a scarcity of supply to a surplus of product screen model. This means that creators of TV and Film will increasingly be able to make what they want and if they can connect with an audience be the direct financial beneficiaries. In the long run that bodes well for our artistry – the middle money folks will be pulled out of the equation. But in the short term the income side is yet to be figured out. This means that for now for paid employment we’re still stuck with the old commercial system. And traditionally, a commercial career holds the risk of consuming but in important ways not replenishing the actor.
Work is of course a fantastic education for actors. But time constraints and commercial pressures encourage actors over time to produce consistent results using tried and true old tricks. This is because producers are risk averse. They are not interested in artistry but what has been done before and can be repeated. Casting directors and many directors can find it inconvenient when actors grow or develop: they want the confidence of booking again a guaranteed, unchanging product. It’s up to the actor whether they abet this, to become stale, commoditized and, ultimately, discarded – as the new cohort comes through – or whether they take responsibility for their ongoing artistic development. A well-intentioned acting teacher or coach can be a useful part of such an ongoing investigation.
The alarming truth is that if I do my job right the outcome should be my own redundancy. It’s also true that the financial gains from acting in this country simply aren’t great enough for actors to be throwing money at their coaches endlessly. And a coach can’t DO the actor’s job for them. Nor should they. The coach must always remember that just as the actor is in service to the writer’s idea, and to the director’s vision, so must the coach be. As Michael Caine puts it, the director is the guv’nor. Just quietly, reading Chubbuck’s own book, The Power of the Actor, I get the sense that not every director has been thrilled to have their will contradicted by her contrary urgings to an actor or actress.
I’ve come to realise that I have to work alongside the actor as they investigate the scene. Otherwise I’m commenting on the surface of the work – the result. It’s up to the actor what choices they make, and over time learn which ones work better for them. I’m there to ask the right questions, helping them see how different scripts and genres make subtly different demands. I tell actors there is no right way to do it. I tend to encourage the individual, even quirky choice, the one that creates a texture and resistance to the situation and words. The choice that is unique of that actor. That keeps the work interesting, different and original.
Yet, while the work I do with the actor has to be about their own empowerment, that doesn’t mean it’s some kind of failure if, after a few years away, they feel the urge to return to classes or coaching. Mere insecurity (a normal part of the profession) shouldn’t drive them to it. If it aint actually broken then don’t fix if I say. But actors should I believe, to borrow Mike Alfred’s phrase, embrace the notion of ‘permanent training.’ Actors inevitably plateau from time to time and need to recharge or re-evaluate. We change and grow as human beings and what works for us changes. Actors rightly feel the need to extend their range and potential by trying new techniques, and be reminded why they became actors in the first place.
I believe that this work should never stop. Those talented actors don’t always last the distance. The profession is a marathon, not a sprint, and actors who are not easily satisfied but not too easily discouraged (who have good character in other words) – those actors tend to endure. Mike Alfreds’ reminds us that singers dancers and musicians know they cannot sing, dance or play an instrument without training. Their lives are accompanied by continuous coaching, study and exercise. But actors settle often for merely ‘competence.’ We diminish our profession when we do so.
Some coaches are ex-actors; some never were. I believe it does no harm that I still audition and work. But I’ve only ever been, or would want to be, a part time teacher. I love teaching and I learn a lot doing it (and for this I am very grateful to my students). But if I can help it’s only because I am also challenged, feed and replenished by other creative activity. I can’t have a superior approach when I myself am habitually confronted with the reality of barely remembering how to act, and pinching myself with surprise every time I pull it off (I’ve never known a better job to keep you humble). I also think it’s not such a bad thing that I don’t really have any importance in the industry. I don’t have any role in casting. Workshops by casting directors definitely have their place: they see so much raw acting and have immense experienced in fashioning it quickly into something better. But it’s hard sometimes not to feel that you might be being judged when a casting director in the room. As I’ve said, an acting class has to be a place where it’s safe to screw up.
A purely actor-coach relationship carries the risk, now I think of it, that you’ll only ever work on the actor’s present material, be it audition scripts or what they’re cast in. But the actor sometimes needs to also work on material better than this. TV – a medium dedicated to selling advertising – has its challenges and rewards. But working on three minute scripts forever may not stretch your acting muscle or excite your soul. Culture is not a luxury: story-telling is a human need that imparts necessary equipment for living. Working with great writing inspires the actor to grasp this and what the profession can be about – service to great ideas, rather than great egos. Fine writing invites actors to investigate more deeply, and they then carry this ethic back to lesser material. This is why so many great actors have strong theatre backgrounds. But it’s something you can also do in group classes. I learnt how to act largely in a scene group that ran weekly for several years with like minded peers, where we largely worked on good material.
At the equity talk I heard Miranda Harcourt and Britta McVeigh speak eloquently of their love for the work, and the actors they coach. I should add I coach a bit, and teach a lot; and I rather expect their workload is the other way around. In any case it is a privilege to able to explore and broaden our understanding not just of what works for people in acting, but what makes people work. I recognize that in class situation you’re experiencing a somewhat purist and rarefied version of acting, free of the necessary disciplines of commercialism. Acting employment should always be where the actor is headed. Only paid work can keep the actor engaged in their profession and – vitally important this – connected with an audience. But pay-cheques and applause alone cannot sustain them creatively. For that, classes and coaching can be a useful weapon in the armoury of the actor’s overall artistic plan for themselves.
So, alongside a mindset of permanent training and self-empowerment, I think acting coaches have their place. The premise of modern sports psychology and therapy is to start with where the person is, rather than where you think they should be. I think all good acting coaches adapt their approach to the actor’s needs, rather than imposing a ‘one size fits all approach.’ And like a good therapist, to be effective a coach needs to be someone the actor can trust. Trust that the coach is there for the good of the work, the good of the actor, and no other agenda. The good a coach can do depends on the quality of the relationship. That comes with trust – plus time.