At a show, telling

Advice is a giving and a taking. A giving, anyway. The taking is a matter of choice.

It turns out that The Sheep's Head Theatre is an usual hybrid. A mix of professional and amateur. Since it's part of a university, you'd expect nothing but student productions. But membership is open to anyone.

The longer I am embroiled in my first Sheep's Head acting experience, the more it appears that I am, in fact, rubbing shoulders with a bunch of professional actors. They are mainly young and out of work, but this is no comment on their professionalism, of course. Acting is notoriously peopled with the underemployed.

So the Sheep's Head attracts "resting" professional actors, as well as rank amateurs like me. The professionals would rather be doing any acting, even unpaid, than no acting at all.

But I suspect that, from their point of view, rubbing shoulders with amateurs may involve a slight element of indignity. So - just to keep lines clearly drawn - why not dole out odd bits of advice to these amateurs? Just to separate the sheep from the goats, so to speak.

Allister, who is playing a Jewish convict named Shapiro, lets me know one afternoon how many years he's been in the profession. I am naturally impressed. He also suggests, when I complain that I could do with rather more rehearsal and a lot more direction, that Claire, our director, is "probably more used to dealing with professionals."

Later I overhear Allister giving a spot of advice to Dave about his song. Telling him, in fact, how to sing it.

Dave is playing a black convict named Ollie. As it happens, Dave is a professional black actor from Edinburgh. A generous-hearted man, Dave listens with every sign of appreciation to Allister.

But I wonder....

I'm reminded of a classic John Gielgud story. Gielgud was in a play with a number of other fine older actors, and one night a fellow actor came upon him standing on the wrong side of the stage for his impending entrance. He politely mentioned this to the great man, suspecting a memory lapse, perhaps.

"Yes, I know," whispered Sir John, "I'm avoiding Alan Badel." Badel had a reputation for handing out unasked-for advice and notes to all his fellow actors - even Gielgud.

At the Sheep's Head, it becomes quite clear that Dave, in spite of his graceful thanks, has no intention of taking Allister's advice. So Allister turns to me, the amateur.

"Of course, what amateurs tend to do," he observes helpfully, "is just speak loudly. Instead of underplaying, and being quiet and subtle, they declaim. Like some people play Shakespeare. They just project grandly without understanding a word of the text. But if you speak very quietly, the audience pays more attention...."

When one is tapped on the head with a sledgehammer like this, one tends to take notice. I start having doubts about my performance. I do not do my brief part in the play (at a moment of crackling tension) as Allister may have noticed, quietly. Besides, I am blessed with a strong projecting voice, developed by playing Shakespeare at school in an open-air theater. I can be heard above storm and tempest.

BUT Claire, when at last concentrating on my scene, told me: "I want more tension, more expression."

"I thought I was already overdoing it?"

"No. Not nearly enough."

So I let rip.

She seemed pleased.

I'd like to think that Alan Badel might also have been pleased. I read somewhere that he believed it is impossible to overact, so long as the center and heart of your acting is good and true. Something like that.

You should always take advice that agrees with you.

*A weekly series.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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