Ramblings on amateur vs. professional acting & on Cumberbatch in Star Trek Into Darkness (Spoiler Free!)

I was going to be involved in an amateur theatre production recently. I thought maybe it would be fun and helpful to my studies to take a published script, get together with some non-trained people and put on a production in a fringe theatre. It didn’t work out but in retrospect, I’m really glad!

I’ve often asked myself what the difference between amateur and profesional theatre is, particularly considering that in these hard economic times, many fringe theatre acting jobs are unpaid and amateur actors can go on to become professionals. The lines are very blurred, but I think I made a revelation as to my opinion of what constitutes an amateur play. It’ll probably sound snobby – so sue me!

We started working on the play without a director – a bad mistake. The focus for the amateur group I was working on was learning huge chunks of the script by rote. The play was a four-hander with complicated and subtle dialogue, so I felt that group members were learning huge big swathes of the script blindly and subsequently, words were being learned and then spoken with no understanding of why the character was saying those words. Subsequently, the dialogue started making no sense.

I’m quite dyslexic. Dyslexic people get easily confused and distracted, particularly with words. I would say that I get distracted because in reality, words are just an strange collection of marks someone makes on a page. If the understanding behind those words starts loosing sense, I switch off.

I wanted to start acting out scenes with group members, script in hand if necessary, in order to learn scripts. No – the emphasis had to be on learning first. It was clear that to my colleagues, the script was the most important thing.

Fundamentally, a script doesn’t matter! It’s a strange collection of marks on a page. Plays are not about words, they are about actions and doing. That’s why it’s called “acting” not “script speaking”. So get up and act! Play with the characters to develop the characters! Then, as you’re playing the characters, you find that you learn the words as the characters, with all the meaning understood and without this hard graft of learning the script by rote.

In conclusion: for me, the difference between amateur and professional is that amateurs’ most important job is speaking the script, whereas a professional’s most important job is acting the character.

I’m working on a short film next (called Requiem in Grey) and am spending my time preparing by understanding the character. I am of course looking at the script, but I’ll worry about it more when we are rehearsing it on the day of the shoot.

Leading on from this – I saw Star Trek Into Darkness last night. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it! I have some issues with it (terrible name, has some massively sexist moments and fails the Bechdel Test miserably) but all in all I really enjoyed it, mainly due to one particular performance: Benedict Cumberbatch.

Cumberbatch just drips malevolence in a way that is really quite frighteningly good. I’ve always been quite physically attracted to Cumberbatch but I realise that I absolutely wasn’t attracted to him in this movie, he’s just too scary! I read an article online on the Wall Street Journal (seems to be behind a paywall now) where Cumberbatch said:

“The physicality for me was very much about having incredible, sudden violence. The containment of emotions wasn’t like brute strength, like Bane [in “The Dark Knight Rises”] or kind of a bulldozer, but someone who was like a spearheaded arrow who would just carve his way through people. I wanted there to be a real suddenness to his motions, absolute ruthlessness, and then in repose I wanted it almost to be like sleep mode for that body. The physicality can just lay to rest and become more reptilian and very cold-blooded.”

You see this in every single word spoken and every move the character makes. He seems to spit the words out without moving his face much. It’s almost like he’s using the most efficient way to do everything – including speaking. There’s a beautiful moment where the character sits down and you can see his spine and back muscles through his shirt. There’s something really disturbing in the sharpness-yet-relaxedness of his posture that just automatically makes you uneasy. It’s amazing to think that someone can do the simple act of sitting down and make it so malevolent!

So here’s to being an actor and to characters who are so well-rounded, that words make sense to a dyslexic and the act of sitting down genuinely looks threatening!

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