Actor-writer York pulls acting tips from Bard's plays

Michael York casually ducks out from behind a bookshelf in a popular downtown Boston bookstore and, beaming, strolls to a lectern, surprising the 40-odd fans who had been expecting the actor to emerge from a nearby open vault that once belonged to a bank on these premises.

York, star of films such as "Romeo and Juliet," "Logan's Run," "The Three Musketeers" and, more recently, the "Austin Powers" series, is accustomed to making unorthodox entrances. In the book he is here to promote, "A Shakespearean Actor Prepares," the actor notes that he was once unfurled from a carpet in a stage production of "Othello."

"A Shakespearean Actor Prepares" is not an autobiography, however. It is a book aimed for both actors and general lovers of William Shakespeare.

Co-written with York's best friend, European theater director Adrian Brine, it unfolded over a period of six years via fax messages across the Atlantic. The aim of the two authors was to redress Brine's complaint that academic examinations of Shakespeare failed to understand the plays "from the inside, like a director working with living material in space."

"There are lots of books about Shakespeare, but ours was from the supposition that Shakespeare was writing box-office plays for actors," York was quick to stress in a telephone interview from Los Angeles two days prior to the book talk. "Within these plays, there are the keys to how Shakespeare wanted them done, and if you tap into these wells, they energize your fantasy and release your talent."

York and Brine's book title is a sly allusion to "An Actor Prepares," by Konstantin Stanislavsky. This early 20th-century Russian director famously advocated "method" acting, by which actors would draw on memories of past experiences and bring them to bear upon the material.

In his bookstore lecture, York quips that the method school of acting is of little use in Shakespeare because "who has [ever] met the ghost of his father or ever killed someone?"

York isn't claiming that "A Shakespearean Actor Prepares" is a "how to" guide for actors, but he says that actors can learn a lot from "what the written word is bringing to the actor, rather than what the actor brings to the written word."

Writing the book has made York keen to do the Bard again. "It would be great to practice what one has been preaching. Or I could be setting myself up for a fall," he says, laughing.

The affable British-born actor currently resides in Los Angeles, where he chairs the California Youth Theater program for new writers, directors, and actors. His polished voice has also kept him in demand as a reader of audio books, such as "The English Patient."

He continues a low-key film career of mixed artistic and box-office successes. Last year, however, York found himself starring in "The Omega Code," a millennial thriller with biblical overtones. Financed by a Christian TV network, the film sneaked its way under the radar to surprising box office success despite a limited release. Earlier that summer, he also reprised his role of spy boss Basil Exposition in another surprise hit, "Austin Powers 2."

"I'd read the script, and I always go by instinct," he says of "Austin Powers." "There's a little light bulb that either flashes on or it doesn't. It made me laugh." Though he is unsure if there will be another Powers movie, York will be in a sequel to "The Omega Code," and in the coming drama "The Borstal Boy," set in Ireland.

York has acted with the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir John Gielgud. He says he is loath to become one of those actors who bores people with his stories about the theater, but he does admit that no other role has come close to the thrill of playing Shakespeare's Hamlet.

"He sort of haunts your imagination," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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