This is something obvious. But wonderful.
You can just make up people that don’t exist and actors will bring them to life.
Yeah, it’s been a mainstay of civilisation for a few thousand years.
But I just found out.
And it’s awesome.
As detailed in other places (including the making of the portal podcast) I didn’t expect to write a script, I had worked with actors as performers, but never with very considered dialogue. It had been physical acting, some work with dancers over the years that had narrative, and some work with puppets (I love puppets) but never on what might be called a play.
When The Portal (the world’s least socially distanced live show) could no longer be performed to a live audience due to the pandemic and became an audio drama, it really needed a script. I enjoy pushing the boundaries of performance, but even I realised that mime just doesn’t read well down the headphones.
All this was kind of a blur and so during the writing of it, I didn’t really consider the end result, that some humans are going to act this stuff at the end of it.
When they did and the funny bits were funny and the happy bits were happy, I had a wee epiphany. I have read various directors talk about how the actor will know the character best. Because they only have to think about the one person, and a director has loads. I can see how this might often be true, and it stems from something I hadn’t really been aware of - preparation.
It’s amazing how much acting I see, at least 4 times a week I will see some people doing some acting, normally via some flavour of boxset drama or film. But that’s thousands of hours of life watching acting. Without ever having thought properly about how people do it.
I think I thought they just did it, turned up and started acting, I dunno, but it has been fascinating learning about preparation. We’re only working in audio, so the work has been remote, very quick and they don’t have to learn it. There is almost no rehearsal and so there isn’t a theatrical process of interrogating the work and the characters etc together.
Part of the preparation seems to be in just having said the stuff the night before, so the muscle memory is strong, that’s like practicing music, that is all quite familiar to me. The bits that are new and so intriguing to me are about emotional continuity. I don’t mean continuity as in making sure the accent doesn’t slip or whatever, I mean a believable human trajectory for a character from one place to another.
"Anna tells me she keeps diaries as her characters, this fictional person, who doesn’t exist, has become a person for someone else as well"
Photograph: Sandy Butler
Most drama is about humans doing stuff and changing as a result, of course over the duration of the whole show, but also within any given scene. So coming into a session with an idea of this - where to start in order to end in the right place, this is a different sort of thinking to practicing a piece of music.
Anna Russell-Martin, who is now the actor I have worked with the most, having been in all two of the dramas I’ve been involved in, has taught me a lot in this regard. Anna is highly trained, I’m not suggesting that’s the only way, but it has resulted in a remarkable consistency of performance. Return to comparisons with music and musicians, I see the similarity, consistency comes from control, and control comes from practice.
I speak in massive generalisations, but here I see a sort of definable skillset, like playing the violin or plastering without making massive dents and bulges.
However, the other bit of the preparation, the bit that’s not like music and the bit that blew my mind, is that they come in, not with the character you made, but a character they made, based on what you wrote down. As I say above I’m very late to this party, but it’s still super-awesome.
Anna tells me she keeps diaries as her characters, this puts a little glow in me; this fictional person that I spent so long with that I wanted to send them a birthday card, that character, who doesn’t exist, has become a person for someone else as well - for the brief time they do the job.
For those that work in drama or fiction of any kind, all this will be ideas that you have digested and moved on from a long time ago I’m sure, but for any, like me who hadn’t seen this magic close up, if you get the chance to work with some actors, I heartily recommend it.
Of course they are all professional liars, so do bear that in mind.