Stage Lightning

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In 1987, I was at drama school in Cardiff: by the sea, and all at sea. A swotty, wannabe rebel who’d done well at university, I’d swerved into a one-year acting course where closely argued, thesis-synthesis intellectual habits were useless. More than useless. They were, the gimlet-eyed improvisation teacher said as I gurned and stuttered through her class, a problem.

Thank goodness, then, for Brian Bates. I can’t remember which teacher told us to read his new book, The Way of the Actor (1986). But I can remember the sense of relief when I realized that, despite the icky subtitle – A New Path to Personal Knowledge and Power – it was written by a professor of psychology and had footnotes; this I understood.

Bates’s ideas were intriguing. Using his own interviews with four leading actors – Charlton Heston, Glenda Jackson, Anthony Sher and Liv Ullmann – and excerpts from hundreds of other performers’ interviews and memoirs, he laid out a theory that actors were shamans for the modern world. They were, he said, men and women in touch with their many subconscious selves, what older societies would have called the spirits. More, at a time when it was common currency to be snobbish about actors – they were frivolous, possibly neurotic and, in the male of the species, certainly unmanly – Bates argued that they played a vital role. They acted, literally, as lightning rods to carry and defuse society’s repressed needs and desires.

The book delved at some length into why it is necessary for actors to be outsiders, how charisma is created and perceived, and the ways in which great performers can make huge spaces shrink and seem intimate. But Bates seemed particularly intrigued by the idea of extreme manifestations in performance, when actors become so absorbed in the characters they are playing that they either physically transform in some way, or have out-of-body experiences. In the rushes of The French Lieu

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About the contributor

Isabel Lloyd is the international culture editor for Newsweek. She lives in London, and tries to stay permanently in character.

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