Phil Gyford


Tuesday 29 November 2005

PreviousIndexNext Not being me

Last week I realised just how difficult I find it to not be me. This is going to be a problem, unless there are a lot of plays and films out there featuring characters based on me.

There were two occasions where I noticed I still felt like me when I should have been trying to be someone else. The first was when we had another go at the improvisation exercise I mentioned last time: a group of people having a conversation, an object with a great significance is placed on the table, and the same conversation continues but with the subtext now changed thanks to the object’s presence.

This time the group I was in decided we were soldiers, chatting about the previous night on the town, and the object was our orders, sending us to war.

(Something in me feels embarrassed to play roles I know nothing about; farmers the previous week, now soldiers. But the other half of my mind argues that: (a) the whole point is to be someone different; (b) this is just some stupid middle class guilt about how, as a gentle educated chap, I can’t possibly know what it’s like to be a hard-working farmer, soldier, etc, and I should get over myself; and (c) I’m hopeless at coming up with improvisation ideas, so I should shut up and get on with the scenes until I come up with something I feel happier with.)

The improvisation was alright, although I think we were all a little scared about crossing the invisible line that marks the difference between not letting the object affect you, and making the nature of the object way too obvious.

To get back to my original point, about how I find it hard to not be me… I started off feeling like I could pretend to be a squaddie who had been out drinking and pulling birds, but making that obvious, demonstrating it to the audience, was another matter. I didn’t really know what to say and, in these scenes, I always tend to let anyone else talkative carry on while I keep quiet. I felt something in me censoring what I was saying and doing — I could imagine how I wanted to appear, but it wasn’t happening physically.

Once our marching orders appeared I faced a variation on the problem. The news affected me internally — this was surprising news, I was nervous and excited, I looked around fondly at these friends I’d soon be fighting alongside. And yet I had no idea how to make this apparent, how to act it externally. It’s possible that sitting there quietly was the right thing to do under the circumstances but, if you know me, sitting quietly isn’t something I have problems with. I should be able to react to this news, and the feelings inside me, in the way someone else would.

The other occasion when I struggled to not be me was the following day, in Introduction to Stanislavski. We’re working on scenes from David Hare’s The Blue Room, and I’ve been looking at those featuring a fortysomething politician: in one he’s formally telling his wife how happy they are together, oblivious to her frustrations, and in the next he’s meeting a teenage prostitute in a hotel and planning to set her up with a place to live.

Our task was to “hot seat” the characters, and I was first up. Sitting in front of the class, in character, and answering whatever questions they ask of me. The only preparatory work we’d done was a very brief biography for our characters, so there was a lot of improvising of details involved. I thought my slightly evasive political bluster worked at times (although a Today programme interviewer would have wiped the floor with me) but, looking back, I had to agree with Georgina that there had been far too much of me sitting there. I realised how much of a gap there is between what I had — a sketchy background, a generalised idea of how a politician behaves when interviewed — and what I needed to create a complete and specific character.

This is all giving myself a hard time, but I need to be critical to work out where I’m going wrong. Among other things, I have to stop telling myself I could let go of my censoring inhibitions if I wanted to. And just relax and let go of them.

The more acting I do, the larger the gap seems between where I am and where I want to be. Which isn’t dispiriting yet. It seems a manageable challenge as long as I only look at one small element at a time.


The more acting I do, the larger the gap seems between where I am and where I want to be.

This sounds very familiar from language learning, I reckon it probably applies to most learning we do, especially as adults (when you're a kid you don't notice that it's taken you 12 years in school to learn to write coherently - as an adult we expect to notice improvements much more quickly for some reason).

In the case of languages, you assume until you try it that you'll jump from "My name is..." to fluency with not much in's only when you start studying that you notice the huge gulf between vague coherence in another language and fluency.

(Tortured metaphor ahead warning) It's like climbing a hill where you can't see the peak from the bottom and you assume it'll be a 1 hour climb. It's only when you get part of the way up that you realise you can see another couple of hours' climbing ahead of you and still can't see the top. Two hours later you see another three hours' worth of climbing etc. I'm not sure if you ever actually see the top, but the people who get good at things are the ones who manage to persevere without being discouraged by the apparently ever-lengthening road ahead. Realising just how long the road is without sitting down for a club biscuit and a cup of tea on a grassy hummock, then deciding to go back home and watch EastEnders instead is the first big hurdle, IMHO, so you go, bro. Am looking forward your starring role in Platoon II (or some such).

Posted by Sue on 30 November 2005, 1:10 pm | Link

You've brought back unpleasant memories of when I had to improv for what seemed liked ages in Mrs. Stephens Theatre Arts class (6th Form).

Being American, she thought it good that Dave Hossack and I should play US army grunts in Vietnam (an idea spawned, embarrassingly enough, after listening to Billy Joel's "Goodnight Saigon").

It was truly awful, and I'm a dab hand at "not being me" as you know. So I feel your pain!!!

Posted by ted on 13 January 2006, 6:47 am | Link

There must be something about school drama teachers and Vietnam - I had to be a US soldier captured by the Vietcong on more than one occasion while at school or in "Witham Youth Theatre".

Posted by Phil Gyford on 13 January 2006, 9:38 am | Link

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