February 12, 2011

An Inspector Called

This week is the opening of the latest play I am in, "An Inspector Calls'. The classic JB Priestley piece is an indictment on the class system and the ability of people to think on a selfish basis about themselves.

As a quick recap, for those who don't know the general story: Upper middle-class industrialist Mr Birling, his wife and son, and his daughter and her fiance Gerald Croft are all celebrating the engagement after dinner one evening when a police inspector calls and gives them some bad news. 'A young girl swallowed some disinfectant and died after several hours of agony in the Infirmary this evening.' What follows is a savage dissection of the middle/upper class attitudes towards the lower class as each person in the room is found to have known and interacted with the dead girl in some way shape or form.

I first read the script about a year ago. Unlike a lot of school kids nowadays I was never forced to read An Inspector Calls as a set text during English lessons and I must say when I first read it I found it to be quite slow, static and - to be honest - boring. However the group decided that they wished to put this on as a performance and I applied for a couple of roles. I was fortunate enough to be offered the role of the Inspector (In fact in one of those 'It only happens in the movies' moments I was actually on the set of Steven Spielberg's Warhorse' when the call came through telling me I had got the role), and I set about learning the words.

We went into rehearsal shortly before Christmas and after a few weeks of blocking, moving around the set and trying clumsily to act, emote and read with a book in my hand I managed to get off the book and start delivering the lines in a less than amateur manner.

But here's the thing I always seem to forget when rehearsing a show: When you've worked with the text for so long you start to learn things about it that you don't pick up on the first reading. You identify the subtly little interplays that go on between characters. You learn the underlying emotional drive of certain roles and can bring them out as and when you wish.

But what you also do is you lose the overarching thrust of the play.

It happens everytime I do a role. Working so closely with the text you lose the major moments that can draw you towards a text. You lose the humour that can be there and you lose the ability to look objectively at the piece you are performing.

That's why when we get to the performance - in particular the first performance as we did last night - It is always a huge surprise when the audience picks up on these things that you had forgotten.

I've directed and acted in classic plays (Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde), modern plays (Alan Ayckbourn), comedies, dramas and even musicals. Everytime I come to the opening night I am always amazed at the differing reactions we get to a particular piece. Of course if it's a comedy and you've read the piece once or twice you know where the main laughs are. There are always the set-pieces and the great one-liners. But you also forget that there are little pieces of business that the director has put in which - although they seem innocent enough while behing performed in a rehearsal hall - become something much different when viewed by 150 people in a performance venue.

It also never ceases to amaze me how much an audience can make or break a performance. If we have people in the audience who are genuinely enjoying themselves (whether in a comedy manner or a dramatic manner ) it can lift the whole performance of the actors. Conversely if the audience sit there like a load of wet fish it's often hard to summon up the energy to make the characters come as alive as they could be. I've had performances where I wanted to go into the audience in the interval and apply the defibrillator paddles to jump start them again!

So we head into the second night of the run tonight. And it is - once again - a discovery. We, the actors, know what the play is. We know the bits we like and we know the bits we don't like (and there are always bits you don't like as an actor). What we don't know is what this particular audience will bring to the show. Will they be suitably liquored up and ride along with us through the rollar coaster of the play, or will we have to drag them kicking and screaming with us to the shocking denouement?

Who knows? And that's half the pleasure of performing.

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