Acting with Soul

Over the past year or so, I’ve been re-connecting with friends from my Berkeley Rep days, twenty-five and more years ago. The quest to do this began with a benefit performance at the Royal Shakespeare Company, given by their “long term” company for a member who had been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. The solidarity of the company, clearly forged by the deep work they had done together, brought memories flooding back to me of the extremely tough times the Berkeley Rep had in the early ‘70s, and the similar deep connections formed among the company  through those experiences.

This coincided with my studying to be a Spiritual Companion, and set me thinking how I might, as a Spiritual Companion, be of help to actors in their work. I haven’t formulated this yet, but am still working on the idea.

I have always thought that theatre can be a sacred event; that actors and audience can connect on the intangible level where consciousness meets heart. And, like Michael Leibert, who founded the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, I’ve seen that actors do their best work when they’ve been working together as a company for a long time, a couple of years, at least

I also agree with Michael that the purpose of theatre is Truth. If what happens on stage is true, then “it works.” If it isn’t true, it “doesn’t work.” When actors reach that inner source of creativity and bring it to the physical–the voice, the body, speaking, movement–that is Truth. And that’s when the audience is lifted up and experiences that Truth with the actors. That’s the transcendent moment. A sacred event.

Many of those moments washed over me during this benefit performance. Here is what I wrote to an actor friend several days after the show.

I’m just getting back to “normal” after an exhilarating afternoon last Sunday. The emotional memories I had then were what got me started thinking about the old days at the Berkeley Rep.

Preface: The Royal Shakespeare Company sign actors up for a minimum of two years in an ensemble. They work together for the two years,  “as cast” in all the shows. Stratford is not a big city, so they probably are in each other’s pockets a lot of the time they’re not working, too.

We went to a benefit on Sunday for James Gale, a member of the company who has leukemia. The ensemble got together and did a couple of hours of songs, dance, magic, etc. and auctioned things like an opportunity to work backstage for a day and help run a show.

The audience was full of actors, so it got wonderfully raucous at times. Man, what a treat to be in an audience that really participated with those on stage. English audiences are so sedentary and non-responsive in general. What really hit me in my solar plexus was the fullness of the affection these people had for James, that it was not one iota part of the acting. We were all crying together when the emcee read the note from James at the end of the show.

Before the show, actors circulated with red buckets to collect change from the audience. We had paid only £10 for the tickets so I decided to put a fiver in the pot. I looked at Sam Troughton, a young actor who is doing Romeo right now, and played Brutus last season (and, of course, as cast in other shows, including “Gentleman” and Dion in Winter’s Tale).  Seeing him in the crowd, I realized he’s only about 5’6″ or so. His presence is so big on stage, I’d thought he was at least 6′ tall.

I smiled at him and waved my fiver, and he came over. I told him that his stage presence far outstrips his physical size and he was pleased. We chatted for about ten or fifteen minutes. He’s bright and he’s very good, in a small family dynasty of actors. (If you get the recent BBC Robin Hood, he played Much in it.) His dad, David Troughton,  is an actor, and his grandfather, Patrick Troughton, was the second regeneration of the Doctor in Doctor Who, among other roles. Anyway, we talked about interpretations of Hamlet, and about my seeing his dad in Inherit the Wind at the Old Vic, and how his dad was brilliant in it and how Kevin Spacey was disappointing. [He “played” old instead of inhabiting the role. Disconcerting, to say the least.]

Sam is about 28 or 30 years old, I’d say, and I told him he ought to try to play Hamlet in the next couple of years.  He said he wishes his dad would do Lear soon. I said that his dad should play James Tyrone. He didn’t know the name; I had to tell him the story line of Long Day’s Journey into Night. So he’s going to go find the play and read it. I commented that he was very smart, signing on for two years with the RSC right after doing the TV Robin Hood, when he could have gone for the money in TV. He said he was very lucky to work at the RSC and that he knew how lucky he was. Got his head screwed on very straight. It felt good talking theatre again with an actor who knows what he’s doing

Anyway, they raised over £7,000 on the one afternoon. Not bad, but they project that James will probably not be able to work for about two years after the marrow transplant, so I think there may be more benefits.

As I say, seeing the company actors outside both before and after the show, having that sense of connection, was a real upper. Made me remember those times at BRT when Mitzi and the rest of us “admin” people postponed our salaries so the actors could be paid. Difficult days, but also joyful in the work people were doing on stage and the friendships forged there.

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