Phil Gyford


Thursday 14 July 2005

PreviousIndexNext Ways Into Text

If I ever do anything with these acting classes, like spend a few evenings performing in a tiny no-budget theatre production somewhere out-of-the-way in London, then, with a whole lot of luck, perhaps even getting a paying part in something slightly bigger, leading to a role in a play people I know might even hear about which would allow me to say “I’m an actor” without feeling too embarrassed when strangers ask what I do, and I’d maybe do a few of those before dabbling in a bit of indie film-making for variety and a change of pace, while going for more endless humiliating auditions, eventually, with a following wind, getting a tiny character part in a real grown-up professional film with catering trucks and everything, and be on-screen in theatres across the UK for several entire minutes, and attend a premiere in Leicester Square that’s a lot of fun but, really, is a lot of fuss about a film ignored by most of the population, but all of which helps set up a flukey moment where, because of someone who knows someone who happened to be somewhere at a particular time with someone else who knew this other person who’d seen this thing once, it leads to me getting a role in an American indie film that isn’t to everyone’s tastes but gets a few four-star reviews for its integrity and painful honesty, all of which just about raises my profile high enough to, standing on tippy toes, be considered for a part in a Hollywood movie that even normal people would pay to watch from behind buckets of popcorn on stadium-style seating, and, after a lengthy series of hateful auditions and interviews and phone calls and parties and promises of favours I don’t even want to think about from my burned-out agent, I land the part and I can’t believe it and I sing in celebration and after an interminable period of pre-production, during which I descend into a deep, deep depression, convinced it’s never going to happen, I spend a couple of months filming, in the desert, in New York and, for too much of the time, in front of a huge green screen which will eventually be filled with more shiny, fast-moving and futuristic CGI contraptions than the human eye can take in, even when watching the Special Edition DVD frame-by-frame, after which I have another period of depression while the film meanders its way through post-production and seems to get lost in marketing labyrinths somewhere in LA while the production company is merged with its bitter rival who, the PR team smoothly claims, it actually has a lot in common with, not least its commitment to bringing the very best movies to cinemas around the world and, incidentally, increasing its profits thanks to the remarkable synergies and cost-savings now possible, but eventually the film, my film as I like to think of it, is released and my name is even on the poster, not at the very top, granted, but still perfectly readable if you stop and look, and I appear on talk shows with slickly-suited, self-deprecating American gentlemen to promote the film and if we, for once, cut the story short a little, I end up taking gradually more prominent parts in a few more films of diminishing worth but increasing profits, dabble with peculiar quasi-religions and have people working for me who insist they do important things for the international brand that is me, but I’m really past caring by this point and, after losing a lengthy battle to keep the flatulent and wobbling public off my perfectly golden private beach I sell up, sack everyone and retreat from public life, only to emerge ten years later in an LAPD mugshot, having been arrested while running, naked, with a long beard and curly black fingernails, from a conflagration I accidentally started in the hills while trying to build a fire in my elaborate treehouse out of rejected and increasingly inarticulate film scripts I’d been writing fuelled only by a diet of yoghurt-covered pretzels and forest creatures I’d shot with my eclectic but fearsome armoury, if that should ever happen, then the prosecutor will be able to direct the jury to the day that started it all, Saturday 8th January 2005, when I took my first Ways Into Text class at the City Lit.

Most Saturday afternoons this year I’ve been taking the “Ways Into Text” classes, parts 1 and 2, with Georgina Sowerby, and it’s been a lot of fun. The introductory classes I did at the end of last year were enough to keep me interested but had rarely left me grinning with enthusiasm (admittedly, quite a challenge). But “Ways Into Text” felt much different from the start.

First, Georgina was full of energy and ideas and encouragement and it suddenly felt like I was being taught something, rather than just playing a few party games. Second, the other students were, generally, more committed, experienced and better actors. Third, I must admit that having these classes in a hall with a stage, rather than in a pokey classroom, helped make the whole thing feel more like real acting. Last term we were in the City Lit’s old building, like a knocked-around brick school, with the erratic strains of In the Mood wafting in from another class each week. This term we’ve been in the sound-proofed, smooth-floored, sharp-cornered, white hall in the new building.

Last term we spent 2-3 weeks at a time on scenes from a varied bunch of scripts: The Crucible, Macbeth, Hedda Gabler and Flat Spin by Alan Ayckbourn. This term we concentrated solely on Lorca’s Blood Wedding which isn’t really my cup of tea — given the choice between moody, cold, North European romanticism and fiery Southern passion, I’m up there with the overcoats and the rainy skies — but I’ve enjoyed the play the more I’ve got to know it.

To be honest, I expected to enjoy the improvisation classes more than working from scripts, but I was wrong. One reason is that I’ve enjoyed the very different challenge of making lines that aren’t spontaneous sound believable and convincing. I’ve also enjoyed working with a plot that’s already worked out and honed, rather than trying to bring something to life out of nothing. And working on the same scene, from the same lines, over and over has also been interesting in terms of improving the performance, and challenging in terms of trying to make it sound fresh each time.

The thing that really took my by surprise however, was how emotional I’ve felt at various points. One of the reasons I started acting classes was to move round a bit and simply interact with people — things I do little of sat at my computer all day. But I hadn’t quite appreciated how little my emotional state varies from day to day either. I often get a bit fed up, and I’m sometimes pleased about something, but a graph of my feelings over time would look more like a cross section of East Anglia than the Scottish Highlands. From the first day of Ways Into Text, that Saturday 8th January 2005, I realised how emotional one could get when acting a part. I feel a rush of blood when I get up to perform anyway, but add to that the anger from doing a bit of Macbeth or the suppressed passion of John Proctor in The Crucible and I’d come off stage more excited, in one way or another, than I could remember feeling for an awfully long time.

When I started taking acting classes, part of me was wondering, hoping, if I’d have a magical moment where I think “this is what I want to do with my life!” These days I’m probably too old and self-aware to completely lose myself to a feeling like that, but I must admit that after the initial class, on Saturday 8th January, I probably came as close as I’m likely to.

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