Interview with Tony Turner

Tony T

Tony Turner has travelled the world as an actor and expert facilitator. At Ethos CRS his speciality is presentation and communication skills.

Where is the greatest place that acting/presenting/performing has taken you?

I did a voice conference at the Royal Shakespeare Company about ten years ago. We performed on stage in main theatre and their Elizabethan theatre. That was extraordinary because of the people that performed on those stages before me and the people I was performing with.

The most exciting place was when I did a tour of Italy and we performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a ninth century castle courtyard. There was a platform stage and a huge oak tree with rigged lanterns. That was sensational because the audience was made up of a lot of British Council people and the Italian Cultural Council Chief. I was awarded the bronze medal for artistic endeavour by the Italian Cultural Council Chief. It was amazing because no one knew that that was going to happen at the time.

What was the first show you acted in?

It was when I played an elf. It was called something like Santa’s little helpers and it was an infant school production at Christmas.

But the first serious one at school was in a play called Morning Departure where I played the Cockney cook. It was about a submarine that had gone out on trials during World War Two. It sank and was stuck on the bottom of the ocean. The play was a psychological thriller about how six men survived the next 24 hours waiting to be rescued. I was the comic relief with the funny lines.

The first professional show I did was a production called Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. I played Nogood Boyo and the Sixth Drowned.

What is the strangest thing that a role required you to do?

In a play I did at the end of a festival, which was supposedly written by George Bernard Shaw after he died. Let me explain that. A famous psychic called Rosemary Brown had written music that she said came down to her through the ether from famous composers. People like Mozart and Beethoven. She also had a play sent down to her by George Bernard Shaw from the ether called Season’s Revenge. The play was about Julius Caesar, Cassius, Brutus and Calpurnia. I played Brutus. They are all sitting around in an astral plane getting very bored. Brutus decides to go to back to earth. He gets in this machine which is meant to send him to Earth but Cassius damages the machine and Brutus ends up on Earth as a woman. So I had to play a woman for the rest of the play with a long blonde wig looking like Marilyn Munroe.

There have been other things. I did a show called Animal. Everyone was a monkey and there was one gorilla. We had to eat a lot of bananas. For about three years after that I couldn’t eat another.

Has the concept of performing changed over time?

I grew up in an atmosphere of English classical performance. You train your voice and your body to cope with the classical plays: the Greeks, Shakespeare, Jacobean’s, eighteenth century. Most actors were trained in that method right throughout the 1960s in England. At the same time there was a movement growing in America which they called The Method. The American method is a misunderstanding of the great Russian [Konstantin] Stanislavski’s system. That’s not to say that it’s wrong or bad. But they came up with a system that worked for them. The difference between the two was that the classical approach to acting is looking at the words and working with words and finding your intention and objective within the line as oppose to the American method where you create a character. And once you’ve created a character, it’s a question of being, becoming the character rather than playing the character and then approaching the words.

There’s a very famous story about an actor playing Hamlet in a park. His director said, ‘how are you going?’ and the actor said, ‘well, listen, I could act the hell out of that part if the words didn’t get in the way.’ That expresses what The Method is about. But acting is actually finding it from inside rather than sticking it on from the outside. The Methodhas cooled down quite a lot but it is still there in many training schools. Even in America they no longer teach that form. They realise now that what you need to do is have control over your voice and body. And you can’t do that if you’re being and becoming.

What we have seen in the last 20 years is much more of a concentration on physical theatre rather than the kind of acting that was going on in the 50s and 60s. By physical theatre, I mean using your body to express just as much as your voice. In Europe now, that’s what most acting is.

You recently judged the Shakespeare competition in Hong Kong. How did you choose a winner?

With difficulty. There was 12 performances and we could’ve given the prize to seven of them. It’s been running now for 10 years and it gets better and better every year.

As judges, we are given a set of things we need to look for and that we mark them on. One of the most important things, because they’re English departments that come from all over China, is their standard of English. Because if you can’t understand them, then there is no point them being up there. So that’s the first thing: can we understand them; do they understand what they’re saying, do they understand what’s actually happening in the scene.

Secondly, the quality of the acting. We need to be convinced that these people have got the words off the page and they’ve become the character.

Thirdly, the directing. Someone has directed it and we need to see how imaginative and creative the director is. How he has used the stage and the actors in order to communicate to the audience what the scene is all about.

And finally, the technical aspects of the presentation. The way they’ve used lighting, the way they’ve used furniture, props, costumes. What we don’t want is people burying a performance in technicalities. We want the technicalities to support and reveal rather than make the performance disappear.

Using those as criteria, we come up with a number. Then the other judges and I sit down and figure out the winner.

What advice do you have for those who wish to be an actor/presenter/performer?

Don’t do it!

When I had people come and audition in front of me at Mountview Theatre school, the first thing I would say to them is ‘go home now, do not do this’. No one ever went home but I say that for two reasons. One: it’s a heartbreaking profession: you will never be rich. You will always have another job, unless you’re in the one percent of actors in the world who become superstars. There was an amazing figure in the UK, that at any one time, 90 per cent of actors are out of work. And the thing about the acting profession is that it doesn’t matter how good you are in the job you’re in because it doesn’t guarantee you the next job. You’re always going in front of people who often know less than you do about the profession and who are saying no to you. You’ve got to prove yourself every time you go for an acting job.

The second thing is, if I say that to you, as the ex-head of a drama department, as the Head of Acting at a drama school, as an experienced actor, and you ignore it, it means that you have a drive and an energy to succeed. If you can go against what I say then I think you should go ahead and I think you should try it. You’ll never forgive yourself for not having a go.

How do you overcome stage fright?

Most actors have some kind of anxiety before they walk on stage. My stage fright when I began as a young actor, manifested itself in my having to rush to the loo and be physically sick. You overcome all that by just doing it. In the end, it’s not going to kill you.

There are some methods you can you use like deep breathing, relaxation and yoga. Any of those methods are going to relax you before you start. Professional actors have a warm up before they start and that puts them in the right frame of mind. What you have to remind yourself when you go on stage is that it’s not you out there. It’s actually the character. It’s not you walking on stage, it’s Hamlet. You become Hamlet before you even put your foot on the stage. You do that 20 minutes before. That’s a big help.

What strategies/methods do you have when things go wrong on stage?

You have to think extraordinarily quickly. You have to improvise. You have to make things up. In spite of what people think, so many things go wrong on stage that you learn how to fix things. It’s just a question of focusing on what’s happening. This is another reason why The Method was a bit of a problem because if you’re performing by becoming the character, you can’t stand outside of it and look at what’s going on. What you should be doing is looking outside of the character all the time. That way you have a third eye to see what’s going on.

The third production I was in was Romeo and Juliet. I played the part of Friar Lawrence, who marries Romeo and Juliet. There’s a moment in the play where Friar John has been sent to tell Romeo that everything’s alright and Juliet isn’t really dead. He comes back to tell Friar Lawrence that he hasn’t been able to get in touch with Romeo and Romeo has already left and it could be a disaster. This is a significant moment in the plot. When we played this scene my bit was to come on [stage], with Friar John and have a conversation and set the scene for the audience.

I went on but Friar John didn’t come on. So I kind of thought about it and sat down on the parapet and thought a bit more. And everyone was thinking that this was an important psychological scene where Friar Lawrence has to come to terms with the whole problem. And I thought, well I don’t know what I’m going to do because the play has stopped. So I walked off stage to the stage manager. And he said ‘go back on stage, I’m sure he’ll come on’. So I went back on stage, walked around for a bit more. Had a bit of a think. Still no Friar John. I walked off stage again. And I said, ‘you’ve got to do something. The play’s stopped. What are you doing to do?’ And he said ‘it’s alright, I know where he is, I’ll get him’. So I went back on and Friar John came on stage as though someone had pushed him on stage. Which is what had happened. He’d been standing at his entrance the whole time, frozen in fear. Someone pushed him on and then he was fine. Nobody in the audience noticed.

I was in a production of Macbeth once and in the fight scene at the end, Macduff’s sword completely disintegrated. But Macduff has to win. He had the handle in his hand, that was all he had left, so he had to hit Macbeth over the head with it. At the end, an audience member came up to me and asked, ‘Can you tell me how you got that sword to collapse like that?’ That’s the thing about things going wrong on stage. People actually think that they’re meant to be.

Best performance you’ve seen and why?

A production of Cyrano de Bergerac at the Comedie Francaise in Paris. It was the most stunning performance I have ever seen. I sat there with my mouth open. It was full of extraordinary, imaginative staging and had fantastic acting. It was the best physical theatre I’ve ever seen. It was all in French and I didn’t understand the entire thing. But it shows you that great performances are not necessarily based on the words that are said. What makes them great is everything else.

Have you ever had the chance to be on the other side of the table at an audition (watching, instead of auditioning)? What tips do you have for auditions?

Yes, for seven years I was the Head of Acting at Mountview Theatre School in London. We would audition 30 people every two weeks for 35 places. They came from all over the world.

My tips:

  • Don’t choose a difficult script, keep it simple.
  • Try to reveal your emotions because that’s what we want to see.
  • Make sure you’re articulate and precise in your vocal delivery, make sure we can hear you!

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