Berkoff has directed and appeared in numerous stage productions and written plays including East, Decadence, The Secret Love Life Of Ophelia, Massage, Acapulco, Brighton Beach Scumbags, Kvetch and Sit And Shiver.
Here, he writes exclusively for Whatsonstage.com about his new production, which premieres tonight (23 May 2012, previews from 16 May) at the Charing Cross Theatre.
Six actors find themselves waiting in a hotel lounge for the director of the film to call them.
Film is a waiting game, but for all actors there comes a time when the waiting becomes a slow punishment. Actors need to act. That is their trade and their calling and when they become most alive. They are paid to wait and do this willingly, until a degree of frustration sets in, when they question their very existence. These six actors are waiting for the director to make up his mind as to when they are going to be called. Unable to express themselves before the camera or audience, they start to express their lives before each other and slowly their facades are peeled away. Each of them tries desperately to hold onto their inner core until the director comes to rescue them. They in fact live for the director’s command and only need the magic word…’Action’.
I’ve worked in numerous films over the years and sometimes there can be nothing more exciting for a stage actor after they’ve pummelled the boards up to eight times a week month after month. The sheer relief. The excitement of the new, most of all the expectation. The location, the sheer bizarreness of it all when you’re suddenly transported to some exotic location, picked up, chauffeured to the airport, most often flying club class to a four star hotel and all you have to do is learn a few lines that are invariably simple and at the worst of times could’ve been written by an Orang-utan. This is passivity at its most extreme. You are shaved, barbered, coiffured, made up, dressed and the most you may be impelled to ask is, “where is the catering trolley?”
At the end of the day’s shooting, which mostly consists of doing a short scene as well as you can, several times. Then doing the whole thing again from the opposite position for the sake of whoever it is you are speaking to. Then you might be required to do it again for close-ups. Sometimes the more ‘experienced’ hands will ask the cameraman by gesturing with his hand, how far down the lens will expose.
This actor likes to think he understands the complex linguistics of film and tend to hold themselves higher than those ‘stage actors’ who couldn’t give a flying fuck but will perform at full tilt on each take. Film acting though is not by any means to be scorned as somewhat inferior to stage in its demands since the massive expansion of sheer space on screen means you little faults are picked up and magnified and a good stage actor who is able to adjust their performance for screen are worth their weight in gold.
However, one cannot gainsay the fact that the stage actor is the ultimate artist and must sustain a performance for over two hours and longer and sometimes of the most lengthy text. This is something few film actors would ever relish doing. Many have tried and fallen flat on their faces, except those who were trained in the theatre and parted from it for a length of time and then came back to it. Al Pacino is such a one who can easily and courageously step back onto the stage after years before camera. Olivier successfully paired both and excelled in both and sometimes linked both as witnessed in his remarkable Shakespeare series which have never been bettered.
When a successful stage actor lights up the screen it is an event to be treasured, as Brando in Street Car, as well as Vivien Leigh. Olivier in his great Shakespearian roles. Orson Welles, George C. Scott, Alec Guinness, and scene-chewing comedians like Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams whose comic dynamics came from thousands of one night stands.
Farther down the pecking order, the supporting actors, the ones holding up the stars. Here the life forms become bewilderingly simple. Your work consists mostly of waiting for your cue. You are apt to wait in trailers sumptuously fitted out and where it would be folly not to bring your toys. Your laptop or iPhone chiefly, your cassette tapes, DVDS, cameras and amuse yourself. It is not unusual on film sets for the lesser players to have long and informed chat fests on the relative virtues of their mobile phones and recount lovingly all the multifarious functions available to them.
In the makeup trailer you will have a chance while sitting in your chair being powdered, to share a few words with the star, who will bore the living pants off you with a multitude of stories about actors long dead and gone and performances and plays best forgotten. This happened to me recently when actually sitting on the set between takes and having to listen to the world’s most fascinating windbag.
Actors who eventually opt out of the stress of the nightly demands of the stage may find themselves slowly wilting. Their voices and rib cages shrinking and the stage then becomes something they long for, reminisce about but ne’er dare return to.
Ultimately, few crafts have suffered as much corrosion from technology as has the art of Acting. Opera, Ballet, orchestral music all have not only retained the high standards intrinsic to their work, but have popularised their art, whereas actors have become so progressively coarsened, that it now becomes a relatively easy option for wannabes, models, ex boxers or anyone who feels like they’d like to have a go.
Nevertheless, film has been a great boon for stage actors and the reverse is also true that the most exciting stage performances have come from those whose first love was stage. Think of Ben Kingsley’s satanic performance in Sexy Beast, Dustin Hoffman in American Cowboy, Chris Plummer in The Fall of The Roman Empire, James Cagney in just about everything.
Ultimately, may film and stage be forever close of kin, and you great stars of screen sometimes step down from those peaks where the skill of the director has placed you, where the camera has beautified you, where the sound man has strengthened your piping thin chords and step on the stage where it is only you and no-one else. It is an experience that you will never, ever forget.
- Steven Berkoff
Six Actors in Search of a Director continues at the Charing Cross Theatre until 23 June 2012