A few weeks ago, I took some swipes at audiences’ ever-increasing ignorance of the proper theatre etiquette, their abuse of the standing ovation, and their propensity to applaud scene breaks and changes. Now it’s the performers’ turn in the barrel.
I suppose I sound like most old codgers railing against the diminishing standards of one thing or another and how it was better in my day. Well, sorry -- it was!
The source of my irritation this time round? Actors whose voices can no longer hit the back wall of a theatre without electronic aid and who are incapable of writing a bloody professional bio.
Back in 1980, I worked the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles in a Sherlock Holmes play, THE CRUCIFER OF BLOOD, with Charlton Heston as Holmes and Jeremy Brett as Watson (and he was just as brilliant as Watson as he was later as Holmes). The Ahmanson is a barn. About two thousand seats. Not an intimate space compared to, say, the neighbouring Mark Taper Forum in the same complex which has only 750 seats.
When I played the Ahmanson, there were strategically placed support mics hanging from the grid and discreetly positioned on the apron, as I recall…mostly there to enhance stage dead spots and give a slight boost to the sound of the natural voice.
But none of the actors wore a body mic of any kind! Let me repeat that. NONE OF THE ACTORS WORE A BODY MIC OF ANY KIND!
More importantly, none of them NEEDED a mic. They had all been trained to project. They all knew how to support their voices, project, and hit the back wall of theatre and the upper reaches of the furthermost balcony. If one had not learned this simple skill, their likelihood of a career in the theatre was probably dicey. In my time, the ability was regarded as a minimal requirement to be an employable actor.
I’m not sure where and when all this microphoning of actors began. I suspect it started in the musical theatre, however. And probably as early as the 60’s. During a Fantastick Evening, a celebration of the songs of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, at the Pasadena Playhouse a few years back, Jones told a anecdote about their production of 110 IN THE SHADE, where producer David Merrick wanted terrific actress Inga Swenson, playing Lizzie, to wear a microphone. Swenson flat out refused, telling Merrick, “If the audience can’t hear me, then you can mike me, but I want to control my own performance!”
Brave words and a great lesson for any actor. “I want to control my own performance.”
But as mics have become more pervasive…first in musicals, now more and more in straight shows…do actors control as much of their performances as they once did? We’ve all heard body mics scrunch under clothing or pick up belches or tummy rumblings. We’ve all heard how they can often make a voice hollow, tinny, and false. We’ve all heard the balance of sound often get thrown out of whack or elicit the occasional ear-splitting whine or malfunction to the point where it’s not functioning at all. We’ve all seen little nub-ends of mics sticking out of wigs and tell-tale cords snaking down the backs of costumes.
Of course, these little distractions to our willing suspension of disbelief have now been abandoned altogether for the dreaded visible head mic that loops around an actor’s ear and slashes across his jaw, utterly destroying any illusion of reality anymore. Who thought this bright idea an improvement? It’s the single worst introduction into the theatre ever. It is always there assaulting you and violating any sense of belief, time, or atmosphere the play is trying to create. It is the Anti-Christ of theatre performance.
I once saw a musical done with head mics in a hundred seat theatre where you could walk from the front to the back in less than ten steps. If it had been any more intimate, the audience would have been sitting in the actors’ laps. Now, granted, it was a student production, but I don’t care. I could stand on that stage and talk in a normal voice and be heard in every seat in the house. Hell, I could whisper and be heard in every seat. How lazy do your actors have to be? And, since it is a school production, shouldn’t we be teaching students basic disciplines like projection and vocal production? How to breathe and speak so you can be heard distinctly?
The local summer Shakespeare festival has also succumbed to head-mics. To hear Shakespeare’s language and poetry filtered through electronic devices is bad enough, but to see the intrusive, ugly head mics twined around Anthony and Cleopatra’s profiles or Falstaff’s jowls defies good taste. Of course, the venue it is done in…a large field…doesn’t at all serve Shakespeare, the actor, or the audience anyway, but here’s a clue: If your actors can’t hit the back wall with their natural voice or because there is no back wall, then your venue’s too big!
I’ve seen plenty of outdoor Shakespeare where the size and shape of venue is controlled and contained…notably the Southbank’s Globe…but also in parks and outdoor theatres that accommodate the actor and the performance and where the actors didn’t need mics…headsets or otherwise…to be heard and where the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief was not challenged or nose-thumbed.
If singers or some theatres really must have mics, can we go back to those hidden in hairpieces and that occasionally rustle under clothing. But, please, let’s at least abolish the horrid head mic. It’s just too Vegas and what happens in Vegas must stay in Vegas.
Oddly enough, the wife and I came across a natural amphitheatre in our perambulations the other day where one, speaking in a normal voice while standing down in the flat performance area, could be heard by one at the back of the rise. We’re not telling anyone about this discovery, but keeping it to ourselves, plotting a performance of some kind there some day…
I realize there is a prevalent philosophy in America that everything must not only make a profit, but must make a HUGE profit, so we want to pack as many bodies as we can into something approximating an airplane hanger…or The Louisiana Purchase. But that kind of greed is rather self-defeating where theatre is concerned.
I really think, in future, performance spaces must be designed with performance in mind, not maximum capacity…it will certainly serve the audience better as well as the properly-trained actor who has mastered the simple tricks of projection and can easily hit the back wall without sacrificing the nuance of his performance.
And while we are training our young and upcoming actors to project, can we also teach them how to write a professional programme bio?
The facts found in programme bios are beginning to resemble the self-absorbed indulgences of a Facebook or Myspace page. They are far too disclosive and intimate, giving an audience member reading such confessional paragraphs far more information than they need or want.
Here’s a tip for actors writing your bios. If I’m in the audience, it’s unlikely that I’m your personal friend. It’s unlikely that I am one of the eight hundred of your nearest, dearest bosom confreres on your social networking site. I’m not coming over for dinner, I’m not preparing your taxes, I’m not arresting you. I don’t need to know your personal information. I just want to know what you’ve done. Tell me your credits. Maybe I’ve seen you in a film or TV show or even on stage before. That’s all I want to know about you.
I’m tired of actors writing bios that sound more like acceptance speeches for awards they haven’t won. Save your Tony/Oscar/Emmy speech for when you actually win that Tony/Oscar/Emmy. Or worse, they use their bio as a platform to brown-nose and suck-up to the directors and producers who’ve cast them, in hopes of future gigs.
You know what I mean: “Arnold is so honoured and humbled to share the stage with this talented cast and crew and to be working with such a distinguished director as Joe Blow in this historic theatre. He wants to thank his lovely wife/life-partner/children/mother/father/pets/God for their love and support and dedicates his performance to his wife/life-partner/children/mother/father/pets/God.”
If you were good enough to get cast, don’t go publicly currying favour with those who cast you. Be grateful on your own time. Otherwise, it smacks of desperation. A professional shouldn’t go Uriah Heeping around for being talented enough to get hired. I’m sure you weren’t cast out of any altruistic sentiments of charity or pity.
And what is this whole thing about dedicating one’s performance? What if one’s performance is lousy or critically-lambasted? What kind of honour is that dedication bestowing on the recipient? And are we talking about every performance or just one specific one? The ones where you missed entrances, or fluffed lines, or daydreamed about getting Chinese food after the show?
I’m convinced a lot of actors invoke their wife and children in their bios just to let the audience know that, despite being in the theatre, they are a card-carrying heterosexuals. And, vice versa, those who dedicate their performance to their same-sex partner want to proudly proclaim their gayness. All I care about is whether you can act or not, not who you sleep with.
If your partner is someone of note or in the business I don’t mind a simple, “Arnold lives in Brooklyn with his wife, a stage designer, and their three children.” But please do avoid cutesy crap like: “But Arnold’s proudest production is little Megan, his two-year old daughter with his wife, Mary Louise.” Great, you’re fertile! But you’re not there to spread your seed on the stage. Puh-leeze, don’t make me want to slap you before ever make your first entrance.
The less I know personally about an actor, the less baggage I bring to the role he is performing. He more easily assimilates the character for me. If I’m thinking, “gee, he plays a straight guy pretty good for a gay guy or he plays a gay guy pretty good for a straight guy”, I’m being taken out of the play.
Be a professional, give me your credits. If you’re young and don’t have a lot of credits yet, then your bio should be short. Don’t pad it with gibberish. Don’t inflict your personal life and views on me. The only way I want to know you is as an actor.
My favourite bio of all time is the one Diana Rigg wrote for the National Theatre production of HUMBLE BOY a few years back in which she co-starred with Simon Russell Beale and long time colleague, Denis Quilley. Here it is: “Diana Rigg has been around a very long time and this is the sixth time she has coupled with Denis Quilley.”
Welcome to Pogue's Pages!
I'm POGUE...known by many as Chuck Pogue, a few as Charles Pogue, and billed professionally as Charles Edward Pogue...just because it really looks BIG splashed across a theatre programme or a movie screen. From that last remark and the profile on the left, you can see I'm a theatre man...And the term "theatre" encompasses stage, film, TV. I've been shooting my mouth off on other people's blogs and message boards for forever. So having finally gotten the hang of it, I've decided to build my own soapbox from which I can pontificate, blather, and muse...mostly on theatre, film, writing, music, books...but ultimately anything that interests me, irritates me, or just catches my fancy. I invite you to join me. I'll try to be faithful and update regularly, so that when you visit there will always be something fresh percolating and maybe even provocative that we can discuss, dissect, or debate.
Charles Edward Pogue
Charles Edward Pogue