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All the World’s a Stage

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When I was a child, people of a certain age who met my father often remarked, ‘You look just like Simon Callow.’ I had no idea who Simon Callow was, so my father bought me his autobiography, Being an Actor (1986). Over the years it has become my battered treasure, all creased corners and cracked spine, highlighted and annotated, lent to friends and quickly sought back. Callow takes us into a singular world where the emotions and anxieties of ordinary life are exposed, examined and amplified. He offers insight into what it is to be an actor and, I would say, what it is to be human.

Callow’s roles both in film (notably Four Weddings and a Funeral) and in theatre are too numerous to mention. But there are surely few who could step nimbly from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Woman in White, from playing Orlando in the National Theatre’s As You Like It to Dickens in Peter Ackroyd’s one-man show The Mystery of Charles Dickens – as well as directing operas such as Die Fledermaus and Così fan tutte. In addition to all this he is a seductive writer.

When I was eighteen, I wrote Laurence Olivier a letter. Hereplied, by return of post, inviting me to join the National Theatre company – in the box office. I accepted immediately,and as I crossed the foyer to be interviewed by the box office manager, I thought, crystal clear and without any sense of destiny about it: ‘One day I shall run this place.’

The essence of Callow is contained in that one little paragraph: first, in the way he skips over the fact that even as an 18-year-old his writing had the power to catch the attention of Laurence Olivier. What was in that letter? He never says. Second is his ability to create a theatrical moment as the young Callow crosses the foyer towards his future. Third is his honesty – no

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When I was a child, people of a certain age who met my father often remarked, ‘You look just like Simon Callow.’ I had no idea who Simon Callow was, so my father bought me his autobiography, Being an Actor (1986). Over the years it has become my battered treasure, all creased corners and cracked spine, highlighted and annotated, lent to friends and quickly sought back. Callow takes us into a singular world where the emotions and anxieties of ordinary life are exposed, examined and amplified. He offers insight into what it is to be an actor and, I would say, what it is to be human.

Callow’s roles both in film (notably Four Weddings and a Funeral) and in theatre are too numerous to mention. But there are surely few who could step nimbly from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Woman in White, from playing Orlando in the National Theatre’s As You Like It to Dickens in Peter Ackroyd’s one-man show The Mystery of Charles Dickens – as well as directing operas such as Die Fledermaus and Così fan tutte. In addition to all this he is a seductive writer.

When I was eighteen, I wrote Laurence Olivier a letter. Hereplied, by return of post, inviting me to join the National Theatre company – in the box office. I accepted immediately,and as I crossed the foyer to be interviewed by the box office manager, I thought, crystal clear and without any sense of destiny about it: ‘One day I shall run this place.’

The essence of Callow is contained in that one little paragraph: first, in the way he skips over the fact that even as an 18-year-old his writing had the power to catch the attention of Laurence Olivier. What was in that letter? He never says. Second is his ability to create a theatrical moment as the young Callow crosses the foyer towards his future. Third is his honesty – not many of us would admit to the ambitions that our teenage selves dared to entertain. Essentially Being an Actor is a detailed study of the two sides of creativity, a study that is applied here to the theatre but which can be applied to all types of creative output: one side is flair, art and instinct; the other is painstaking craft, failure and determination. The first is glamorous and sparkling – the face that everybody sees. The latter is craven, self-doubting and difficult – the face that you see in the mirror. Callow describes appearing, as a drama student in Dublin, in a ‘monstrous’ production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, adjudicated by one of his heroes, Micheál Mac Liammóir.

As for me, I was appalling. The earth opened up under my feet every time I stepped on stage. It was a shallow, nasty piece of work. I didn’t know what I was doing, while at the same time knowing all too well. By now, I had become an avid theatre-goer, and I knew what was good. This was not.

Mac Liammóir’s damning assessment of Callow was that he was not a natural.

‘Micheál,’ I said to him afterwards, ‘you said I was not a born actor.’ ‘Ah, but you could become one,’ he replied.

Callow sets out on an intense period of study and preparation. He shadows Mac Liammóir backstage. He begins to engage with the question: Who am I? And he leaves university in Dublin, moves back to London, auditions for the Drama Centre, and is offered a place. There follow years of being broken down, dissected and criticized by his teachers, tormented by anxiety and self-doubt. Then, one night on stage, he lets go. ‘I had no time to think about my performance . . . I just did it. Suddenly, for the first time, I was acting. Not performing, or posturing, or puppeteering. I was being another way.’ This is the moment when Mac Liammóir’s idea, that with enough training one can be reborn, finally begins to make sense. ‘It was then, in that moment, that acting became second nature to me.’ Becoming an Actor is a startlingly honest book, a self-portrait of the actor, neuroses and all, from his first reactions to drama school – ‘It is not too late to leave. Everyone is better than I am . . . I must be mad to have come here at all’ – to the experience of feeling itchy and claustrophobic inside his own skin:

I was, in fact, in a state of continuous torment. I hated myself for my cowardice, for not having lived . . . I had long and terrifying periods of utter blankness, feeling nothing. I tried to write, to paint. No go. I couldn’t find a crack in the wall of my personality through which to escape.

For Callow these excursions into the murkier parts of his psyche are his most powerful fuel, his engine for improvement: ‘Through it all, I was sustained by an enormous strength: I knew how bad I was. Had I thought that I was any good, I would have been lost.’ As well as exposing the nuts and bolts of the theatre, bringing that world to life in a way that is compelling for an outsider, Being an Actor is an attempt to unpick the method, to explain the magic of the ‘perfect performance’. Yet in the end, Callow remains as baffled as he ever was by those lucid moments where everything just works, as in his 1985 role as Molina in The Kiss of the Spiderwoman:

I proceeded to give the best performance of anything I have ever given in my life . . . This has happened so rarely in my career that it is worth drawing special attention to it. It is a real mystery . . . It seems deeply immodest of me to speak like this, but it is the opposite, because I can claim no credit for it . . . It all leaped out of me, fully formed.

Being an Actor evolved from a speech Callow gave at Goldsmiths College entitled ‘The Actor as a Paradigm of the Human Condition’. Though rather tongue-in-cheek, it seems apt. The process of discovering who we are is often a series of performances of who we believe ourselves to be. We try out different characters, discover and test the various aspects of who we might become as we settle into our own skin. Actors are made acutely aware of their progress on that journey every time they take to the stage. We are all inwardly aware of the unnerving gap between our secret insecurities and our outer shell, and perhaps actors feel this even more keenly. Being an actor requires you to present yourself with total assurance and confidence, all the while knowing that you are a half-formed thing. In his preface, Callow writes that the book will have served its purpose if people outside the theatre world read it and think, ‘Oh that’s what it’s like to be an actor.’ As a non-actor and occasional theatregoer I have read and reread it many times, and I have thought over and over again, ‘That’s what it’s like to be.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 64 © Helen Richardson 2019


About the contributor

Helen Richardson writes fiction and poetry, and is a producer of documentary films and commercials. Her first novel, Waking, was published in 2017.

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