An Interview with Michael Attenborough CBE: Part 1

Domenique Fragale trained at Arts Educational Schools and recently moved to the United States to work in Los Angeles. She interviewed director Michael Attenborough about what he looks for when casting productions, his methods in the rehearsal room, and his advice to actors within the industry today. 

I’ve not stopped working for 45 years so I decided, certainly for the rest of this year, to turn down directing work. Instead I want to work with the upcoming generation, so when an opportunity to teach a course on Shakespeare and Stanislavski at RADA was offered, I immediately knew I had to do it. The main emphasis will not be to produce a polished production, but to explore the process itself.

Michael Attenborough

I want to work with young people (which is why I was at Arts Ed when I met Domenique), who are hungry, want to learn, want to know more. I think RADA is keen for me to come because I’m not a teacher, I’m a director. They want someone to come in and say ‘Right we have four weeks; this is all we have, how are we going to work?' It’s the real world once they leave those doors.

Before I took the course I thought it would be a good idea to go to a few classes and observe the teachers, so I hopefully don’t contradict all their work! I watched three Meisner classes; those classes are about a process you learn about as an actor to build up your equipment and ability, but which, on the whole, you don’t have time for in a rehearsal. It's the actor’s job to come in knowing this and being prepared.

The process we’ll be looking at in RADA will be the challenging question that faces any actor now, which is how do we marry together two apparently opposed traditions? The late sixteenth century oral tradition that is passed down through the word, through the sound, through Shakespeare’s text; and our current tradition of the contemporary actor - post-Freud, post-Stanislavski. So what we're aiming for is to forge is a marriage between the two, which can be very difficult.

As far as we know, Shakespeare’s actors didn’t have a director – when an actor stepped out at the Globe, with minimal costume, minimal props, no lighting, no sound, you have to ask yourself ‘what did this person possess, with which to grip three thousand people?' All the actor had were words. If I were to ask you out in 1590, saying, “shall we go and see a play tonight?” you'd be somewhat puzzled, as they'd say go and hear a play. Hamlet says, “tonight we will hear a play”. What are we when we go to the theatre? We’re an ‘audience’, we’re sitting in an ‘auditorium’. Most of the audience were illiterate, so the way they absorbed stories was through the ear. Modern generations are incredibly visually literate; they have been trained through video games, mobile phones, the Internet and advertising. But listen to Macbeth, where the majority of the play is at night; Shakespeare uses the most extraordinarily evocative language to convey the feeling of night and darkness. Shakespeare is infusing the audience’s imagination with a terror of darkness and the thought that evil deeds happen at night.

It is my firm conviction that contemporary actors need to start with the text - not just reading, but a forensic examination of the text and what it is telling you. Starting with ‘who are you?' Well, who you are, is the sum of all these black scribbles on a piece of paper. All the information you need is there; be like a forensic psychologist and analyse that character – you can discover a phenomenal amount. One of the great paradoxes about Shakespeare is that we know next to nothing about him. What makes him a great dramatic poet though, is not that he just wrote great lines, but that he wrote wonderful, brilliantly delineated characters. He wrote so rigorously, that if you come across a line or a phrase you consider out of character, you need to expand your view of them. A common mistake is to think 'My character wouldn’t say that’; but don’t cut the character down to fit you, expand your mind to fit the character. That’s how I start my rehearsals. Then you have to marry this work with all that modern actors understand - about their relationship to experience; to impulses, to reactions to what's just been said; to being in the moment; and above all to objectives, intentions and actions.

Hamlet/Shakespeare of course put it best...

'Suit the word to the action, the action to the word'. 

Is there a practitioner method you like to work with?

I tend to use different methods in the moment; on the whole I trust that actors have done their training. They all work differently, they all have different processes and I need to respond to them individually. In rehearsals sometimes you do find yourself being a teacher, but that's ok. I’m there to respond, refine, stimulate, stretch and pull things out of them that they perhaps never knew they had. Interestingly, when working on Reasons To Be Happy at Hampstead earlier this year, it was the first time Warren Brown had worked on a professional stage. It was a trifle scary for him, but I believed absolutely in his talent, so he didn’t mind me occasionally teaching him some essential stagecraft. 

When you cast Warren what made you take that chance to cast someone who has little to no experience to be in a West End production?

I watched him on television; I thought he was terrific and completely right for the part. The first time I was planning to do Reasons it was in a West End context and the producers were looking for four well-known actors, so I quite deliberately chose him because he would add something to the marquee. Then when I was at Hampstead, where the commercial pressure on star casting is pretty non-existent, I got him in again and cast him. One of the fears for a screen actor is 'can I project my performance beyond the camera? I remember directing the wonderful Billie Piper in Reasons To Be Pretty at the Almeida and she was very nervous. She said to me she'd seriously contemplated not doing any more stage work after her one previous experience. But when I brought her in to read for Neil LaBute and I it was clear to us both that she had the necessary power. It is not simply about speaking louder, but about projecting and communicating to your fellow actor. She was terrific and is now one of our top stage actors. That transition is totally possible.

Tell us more about the ‘Marriage Of Traditions’ concept of acting, stakes, and listening to your fellow actor.

“Suit the action to the word; the word to the action.” That sentence bridges four hundred years. I am sure Shakespeare didn’t mean a physical action, he meant ‘what am I doing?’ I say to actors that their lines are 'the best possible words available to you, at this moment in your life, to get what you want'. That sounds incredibly simple but it's deceptive – it's not that simple. It means ‘how do I best transmit what I’m trying to achieve?' Namely my objective. A fourteen-year-old Juliet's language, similes and metaphors will be utterly different from, for example, Cleopatra's.

It's crucial to keep the stakes high – actors must always ask themselves, “What is at stake?” If the stakes are high, you will reach for the best possible words, available to you at that time to get what you want. You have to own, befriend and identify with the language. And that is why we should forensically examine it before disappearing into a corner and building a Stanislavskian character. Don't take a pair of pliers to a character and try and bend it to yourself. That is one of the hardest challenges to face an actor.

Picking up on Meisner, one of the central elements of good acting is reacting in the moment. Some actors don’t listen. They think they are, but really they’re somewhere else in their mind, preparing themselves. When I did King Lear at the Almeida with Jonathan Pryce, we had a Q&A after the show one evening, and somebody asked him 'how do you prepare for what is arguably the greatest tragic hero in all literature?’ Jonathan replied, ‘By and large, I don’t. I sit in my dressing room, put my costume on, listen to some music, and go round and say hello to each of the cast. And as I walk up onto the stage I say to myself, 'I am the King of Britain and I am about to divide my kingdom into three' - and then I let the play happen to me.’ Brilliant. Of course he has rehearsed what his actions and reactions will be, but they are in his back pocket, not already prepared in his brain. Jonathan is a wonderfully chemical actor; if you feed him a line differently, he will react differently. He won't be on autopilot. That is what you’re looking for in an actor – that freshness.