By BRUCE DENNILL
Live performance is both one of the main drawcards of being a performer and one of the most stressful parts of it. At one point in the process of being involved in a new project do you cross that line?
There is nothing better than a good live show to make you feel invincible and nothing better than a bad live show to make you feel like a complete failure. Concentration and a willingness to be a fool are essential to crossing from stress to enjoyment. As is being well prepared. So knowing your lines perfectly is a huge boost to confidence and hence enjoyment. Pre-show, to relieve stress, I breath in a steady rhythm to calm my heart rate.
Do you have techniques to improve either scenario – consistently enjoying the performance aspect (it is a job, after all) or mitigating the stress (of all the issues – from iffy pay to annoying audiences)?
As a youngster, I pinned my success or failure on an opening night. Not anymore. My shows have become constant works in progress, to the extent that I am tinkering every night. With the creative cogs always turning, I get consistent enjoyment out of the acting side. It is one of the best parts of being actor and co-creator. I am not tied in any way to someone else’s vision, which makes the creative process fluid and more interesting. This is not to say that I don’t live in a perpetual state of persistent fear of failure. It’s always there. After all, theatre is live and you cannot drop the ball for a moment. But having freedom to play once you have the basics in place mitigates stress and ups the enjoyment factor.
How do you choose projects? What needs to turn you on before you audition for something?
Around 95% of the work I do is not audition based. I have always believed in writing, producing and performing in my own shows. This gives me more creative and financial control. It also means more risk. I have not auditioned for any stage shows for 20 years. I have been asked to do shows with Janice Honeyman and Steven Stead and then it is largely about the people involved, more than the part. I like to do character-based comedy, so anything with a pithy comic lead always perks me up. In movies, I prefer being the villain or hardcore bad guy. On camera, I tend to look a little fierce, so this suits me. I enjoy a script where the comedy is embedded in character.
What are the hooks in a script that you like to hang a performance or the generation of a character on? Depth, dialogue, nuance, reality versus fantasy – what speaks most profoundly to you?
I start character with voice and body. Then the timing of the lines fit that mould. So much of the comedy can then come from character tics that I as the actor am in control of, and can be layered over the lines of the script. I love physical comedy, facial comedy, satire and wordplay.
The lifestyle of a working actor is a difficult one to square with family life, or a day job, or half a dozen other aspects of a traditional routine. How do you make it work?
Fortunately, I have a very successful and creative wife who runs a booming business and allows us a double-income household. She also understands the need for a non-traditional lifestyle, which we certainly have. But I have a beautiful family and enough money from something I have loved for 25 years. There’s not much more I can ask for.
Touring a show can be the holy grail for an actor – long contracts, plus the excitement of seeing new places and performing for new audiences. It’s also arguably the biggest challenge to relationships – distance, communication and so on. Where does it fit in your list of priorities?
Living in Durban means touring is essential for me. The market in Durban is loyal, but small. This year I am spending close to five months on the road. I have been lucky that my passion pays bills, which is fabulous. But I can tell you when those bills remain unpaid, passion is a tough love to hold on to. That’s why I must keep moving and remain relevant. Which means I need to be passionate about change and not too pig-headed about what I consider “art”.
As a performer, you’re often asked to deliver on a set of expectations – the playwright’s; the director’s; the rest of the casts’; the audiences’… What sort of input do you prefer to (demand to?) have as an actor?
I love to be quite forcefully directed. I like to take direction and not overdo my contribution. At the heart of it, I’m just an entertainer, a fool. Even in dramas I am only there for the audience’s enjoyment. Nothing more. I feel that making celebrities out of actors has ruined the art of performance. Egos are too big, and the need to shock, engage or entertain the audience has diminished. I try to keep the attitude of “I will work my hardest to get you to listen”, not “I deserve to be listened to.” Actors must be sponges and not forceful entities. We must absorb from the script, the director and the stage crew and melt it all into something that captivates others, not ourselves.
What other roles do you, or would you like to, play in the industry – now or in the future? Writing, production, direction? And what about each or any of those excites you?
I am not a learned actor. I have no training. So I am not educated in the roles that I “should” be playing. I like to write. I like to act. So if I can do both, why not?