Actors' Voices

Actors’ Voices gives a rare platform to the most undervalued creative employees in the theatre industry – the stage actors themselves.

As a 13 year-old student at St. Malachy’s College, an all-boys Catholic grammar school in Belfast, Patrick O’Kane was press-ganged into making up the numbers at a dress rehearsal of The Jew of Malta, a play about which he knew absolutely nothing and in which he had no interest whatsoever.
But the occasion unexpectedly gave him what he has described as “… a visceral excitement, the kind of buzz I had only ever got from doing sport.” From that moment on, his focus on being a part of that world never wavered.
O’Kane is one of the most gifted and intelligent actors to have come out of Northern Ireland, a real actor’s actor.  In 2005, he was awarded a NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) Fellowship, given to individuals who are considered to have achieved a high level of excellence in their chosen fields.  Each recipient is obliged to complete a substantial project, which, in O’Kane’s case, is Actors’ Voices, a collection of in-depth conversations about the actor’s part in the creative process, published by Oberon Books.
He talks to eleven actors, all of whom have worked in mainstream literary theatre.  Some of them continue to do so exclusively, while others have diversified into other areas of performance, writing and teaching. The conversations are very much exchanges between equals, with O’Kane’s probing questions and speculations emanating from his own first-hand experience of making work for stage, television and film over the past 22 years.
The subjects are Claire Price, Ruairi Conaghan, Mojisola Adebayo, Tim Crouch, Olwen Fouéré, Gerrard McArthur, Gabriel Gawin, Selina Cadell, Simon Russell Beale, Paterson Joseph and Jim Norton. Each contributes a thoughtful, sometimes startlingly honest account of the actor’s life in the context of their own personal experiences.
In the course of these wide-ranging exchanges, it gradually becomes clear that there is no such thing as ‘an actor’s experience’, rather that there are many different versions of that experience. What is most striking however, is the number of common themes and observations that emerge from individual performers, who come from startlingly different backgrounds.
McCarthur puts the case for the sometimes vexed relationship between an actor and his or her career in the most unequivocal terms: “Someone said to me, ‘yeah, but you choose to do it’ and I said what I think is true about actors: ‘I didn’t choose to do it, it chose me’.  I think that is a very common bond which actors have… otherwise you would be mad to do this job.  It is an appalling job – at least psychologically.”
And, indeed, it is the psychological demands of the job, which constitute some of the most interesting aspects of the respective exchanges.
Price talks of an agent, who put pressure on her to lose weight – “his assertion that success was contingent on a certain level of weight loss was a seed that bore very ugly fruit over the years.”
She speaks of her own ongoing need to please the director, describing the relationship between the two as being “… a child/parent thing … I still tend to think ‘Am I good enough for you?’” She continues the analogy into answering O’Kane’s question about the distinction made between the creative team and the cast.  “It’s another aspect of us being a bit like children – the children are allowed to play whilst the adults go away and make the big decisions about what the children will wear and how they’ll be lit.”
Conaghan talks of the financial pressures on actors and of the time when he fell out of love with the theatre. “I have worked in situations and with directors when you absolutely feel on the bottom rung of the creative ladder.”  But he counters that by speaking of the ‘fantastic actors’ and ‘brilliant directors’ and the ‘tremendous highs and lows he has experienced’ in the course of his career.
Danish/Nigerian Adebayo refers to her difficulties with the term ‘colour blind’ casting.  “It makes us all a kind of grey and is underpinned by the idea that we can pretend that we’re not different, we’re not diverse.  Colour blindness, or colour blandness, is not about neutralising us, it’s actually about conforming to a notion of whiteness, white Englishness or white middle classness.”
Fouéré is amusing about the notion that acting is generally perceived not as a proper job, from which one can make a living – “… the idea that you can’t just be an actor, you’re only trying it out until you’re famous.”  Russell Beale takes the same concept up a notch, “It’s a vocation; I hate it when people say it’s a job.” His view is shared by Norton, “It means everything, it’s my life, it’s my vocation, it is how I earn a living, it’s what I’m here to do.”
In the course of these absorbing conversations, we progress to the inside track of high profile landmark productions, as well as, perhaps, more unfamiliar shows and, in the process, revel in a delicious sense of eavesdropping on private exchanges.  We hear unfettered views on training, the rehearsal process, the tech, employment and unemployment, relationships with agents, fellow actors, directors and costume designers, contracts, pay issues, the excitement of opening night, the pressures of a long run, individual responses and approaches to the text.  There are a number of inevitable examples of the initiated speaking to the initiated, which do become a tad esoteric, but which are fascinating nevertheless.
The book is a rare creature, offering privileged and disarmingly frank encounters with the people behind the performances.  It will engage anyone involved in or in love with theatre – practitioners, critics, customers, administrators, agents, teachers, students...

Jane Coyle is a Belfast-based freelance arts journalist, critic and screenwriter, who regularly contributes to The Stage, Irish Times, Culture Northern Ireland and BBC Radio Ulster.

Actors' Voices
  • Review

Actors' Voices

Edited by Patrick O'Kane

Oberon Books, 2012

Buy this book