Can you always spot the difference between someone who is acting and real life? Or between scripted dialogue, improvisation and genuine conversation? If you took away the camera operators, the crew and equipment and watched two actors play the climax of a movie – would you believe it was a real conversation? In this piece, I want to look at what we can we learn about writing screenplays by placing fiction side by side with fact.
First, however, let’s look at the broader question – to what extent is it the job of actors and writers to recreate life as it is?
“The purpose of playing”, Shakespeare wrote, “was and is, to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature.” Hamlet’s famous instructions to his actors mocked the mannered, ostentatious performing style of the day but I am not sure we can deduce from this that Shakespeare demanded anything like modern day naturalism from his actors – he did, after all, write most of his dialogue in very tightly structured verse. My guess is that the bard wanted art that reflected life – but not that necessarily recreated it. However, fast forward a few centuries and audiences have come to expect writing and acting, especially on screen, to mimic ever more closely the way people act and speak in life. Yet even in the most ‘naturalistic’ of genres – mockumentaries, for example, or found footage horror films – a recognisable style of performance is nearly always apparent. Often the dialogue has a level of wit and craft that regular conversations do not, and of course invariably the people shown are more traditionally ‘good looking’ – whatever that means – but there is also something even less tangible that sets them apart as fiction, albeit fiction masquerading as fact. Whilst Liam Gallagher famously believed ‘Spinal Tap’ to be real, most people who saw Christopher Guest’s comedy recognised the film for what it was – the product of great writing, acting and improvisation, not an implausibly well shot documentary.
There are interesting theories as to why this separation persists and why such self-consciously naturalistic styles of writing and acting are still the exception rather than the norm. Perhaps it is necessary to keep a line between reality and art, in order to counter the effect of the ‘uncanny valley’ – the sense of disquiet we feel when something we know to be artificial is very nearly indistinguishable to the brain from the things it knows to be real. We find this experience so unsettling that we instantly fixate on the source – dismantling it and reassembling it before our eyes as we attempt to grasp its verisimilitude. For me, verbatim theatre often creates this sensation. The performances and text are so realistic, they can become an oddly alienating barrier to engagement.
Verbatim aside, perhaps there is another reason all those mockumentaries and found footage shows are so easily sniffed out at first sight – human speech is so complex, maybe recreating it with 100% accuracy as text is simply impossible? Perhaps there are just too many variables in play at every second for any writer or actor to capture? Each of us is played on moment to moment by a multitude of forces – upbringing, history, social climate, weather, health, diet, time of day, what we’re wearing – is it possible to capture such subtle shades? And, besides, is it even desirable to try? For whilst l’esprit de l’escalier is a common phenomonem in life, it’s obviously not a great deal of use for drama or comedy when we need our best lines delivered in the scenes, and not happened upon in solitude later on. As a writer I don’t want the punch line to a scene ruined by an actor with ‘naturalistically’ poor diction, or the weight of an important disclosure to be frittered away by the faithful recreation of ums, erms, verbal missteps and clarifications. I don’t want the audience watching with the creepy feeling of a voyeur, but for them to feel engaged and involved in the stakes of the story.
Yet for all that I believe the focus on recreating behaviour in its minutia should never be goal for writers and actors, the study of life as lived and language as spoken remains incredibly useful. Every day life is, after all, always the source for our work even when it isn’t the subject. So what happens when you place fact and fiction side by side? What distinguishes one from the other and, more importantly, what lessons for acting and writing can you discern from the comparison?
Over the last four years I’ve had a unique opportunity to explore these questions, as the director and editor of the ‘gonzo rockumentary’ I Gotta Be Me. IGBM is a unique mixture of fact and fiction, in which we have attempted to blend a character (created by the actor Phaldut Sharma) with a group of British ex-pat performers mounting a touring Rat Pack tribute show across the island of Cyprus. The series follows Paul Shah – a frustrated British-Asian soap actor who is fed up of playing cab drivers and terrorists on TV. Desperate to showcase his wider talents Shah heads to Cyprus for the chance to perform as his hero, Sammy Davis Junior – but his fellow performers just want to have some swinging fun in the sunshine…
Paul Shah shares much of Phaldut’s personal backstory; he’s a British-Guyanese-Indian born in Wales (though Shah’s accent is a little stronger), a former Welsh National dance champion, a tap dancer, a Sammy Davis Jr enthusiast and – whilst Paul Shah stars as cab driver Hardeep in our fictious soap ‘Faraway Close’, Sharma himself was appearing in long running BBC soap Eastenders at the time of filming. Yet Shah is most definitely a creation, his attitude and arrogance at the start of the series stands in stark contrast to Phaldut’s. Before we began shooting we developed the character together, and by the time we arrived in Cyprus we had pages of potential ideas, a clear understanding of the character’s journey through the film, even pre-prepared lines of dialogue. The rest of the company, however, believed they were taking part in a genuine documentary. So how does Sharma’s performance sit alongside the non-performance of everyone else? Furthermore, after comparing and contrasting acting and non-acting, script and speech whilst editing the 200+ hours of footage we shot out in Cyprus, what can I take away from the experience to make use of in creating new works of fiction? What is of use and what might be usefully thrown away?
The first and most obvious difference is articulacy, or the lack of it. After editing out hundreds of pauses, ums, errs and hesitations I can be fairly confident in saying that the absence of these most banal of vocal tics from scripted work is often no loss. Of course occasionally they are useful, when they betray a deeper emotion or psychology, and some writers utilise them with a poet’s ear for rhythm, but more often in real life they are merely a consequence of that fact that the speaker hasn’t yet decided on what they want to say. As drama is based around the conflict of characters with very strong wants and desires, this verbal apathy is rarely dramatically useful.
The fluctuating rhythms inherent in this indecision, however, do seem to me to have often under explored artistic value. Connected to all those ums and erms, pauses and parentheses, are a thousand subtle changes in pace, pitch, intonation, inflexion and vocal attack that betray the whirring of the cogs beneath. It is rare for an actor to capture this level of dynamic range within scripted work – and indeed we felt that to be the case with some of the scripted sequences we planned for the show. The delivery is too controlled, the tone too even, the pacing too regular. Of course certain actors have created entire careers out of the idiosyncratic ways they choose to break up a text – Chirstopher Walken being the obvious example – but often actors tend towards a level of control in their delivery that fluctuates from sentence to sentence, yes, but not from word to word with the energy of real human thought.
As a writer, the unexplored gift is that the real people in I Gotta Be Me are often ‘inarticulate’ in far more fascinating and creatively interesting ways than mere mumbles. Perhaps because they are performers themselves, or simply because we’ve all seen far too much TV, but their desire to express themselves in strong and quotable sentences often leads to their undoing – in ways I would never be brave enough to write without feeling I was creating caricature. Our Dean Martin, Andrea Morrelli, is certainly aware that saying “all the [road] signs are in British” is not correct grammar, just as our Frank Sinatra is aware that “all work and no play is a dull boy” is not quite the phrase he was after. In the heat of the moment we reach for these idioms, and sometimes we don’t quite get there. Everyday speech is littered with examples like this; sentences that start out one way and end another, that mangle one phrase with another, or that simply state the facts but get them wrong.
As both writers and actors it is important to remember that the characters we create are never as self-aware as we are when creating them. Phaldut observed a similar thing from working on the show, “all too often when working on a script as an actor, you can quickly begin to make choices from an overly informed place. It is so easy to be ‘right’, to say the line in the way that makes the most ‘sense.’ But in real life, particularly in moments of heightened tension, we don’t always make the correct or sensible choice – and cutting off those choices as an actor deprives the audience of the opportunity to be surprised.”
There’s a great example of this in episode seven of the series, when Paul Shah has arrived at a hotel in Nocosia after a big night out in Ayia Napa. Without wishing to spoil a great moment, let me just say that in the scene Shah receives a worrying phone call from his agent who demands he return to the UK, thereby jeopardising the remainder of the tour. On hearing they want to see him in London the following Monday, Phaldut does something very odd; he flips his dressing robe back to look at his watch. The strange thing is, he isn’t wearing a watch – and even if he were it wouldn’t help him work out how many days he had left before Monday. If this had been one of the scenes we had staged, as a director I would have shouted cut around about now. After all, looking at your wrist to tell the time when you’re not actually wearing a watch is a classic amateur actor fail! But in this scene Phaldut isn’t acting – far from it. Mischievously, I had arranged for Phaldut’s real agent to contact him and to tell him that his actual job in Eastenders was on the line. We played games like this constantly whilst filming the series, it was the most efficient way to ‘knock the scent off’ the acting and create something which can stand up with the real world. Phaldut’s reaction is priceless – disorientated, hungover and worried, he doesn’t know what’s happening and it is painfully apparent. The watch moment is tiny, a flicker, but it’s a prime example of the sort of nonsensical behaviour real life throws up all the time, but actors and writers often shy away from – if they even consider it at all.
There’s a prolonged example of this which didn’t make it into the final edit of the series – although it will feature in one of our Kickstarter rewards. Dean Martin (Andrea Morrelli) decides, a little the worse for wear, to open up about his family’s experience vacating Northern Cyprus after the Turkish army arrived in 1974. What made this unprompted revelation all the more intriguing is that Andrea chose to make it all in a Southern American accent and character. It was a wonderfully perplexing moment – a complex play of identity, performance, confession and obfuscation. Would I have been brave enough as a playwright to pen a pivotal monologue in a key scene in an unexplained accent? With no reference to it beyond Andrea’s sign off on the night, “wow – what happened there?!” Or had an actor made that choice in rehearsal, what director would let them pursue it?
Andrea late night video.
So what have I learnt from placing acting and non-acting, real people and invented characters side by side in this way? What will I take forward into my new work as a writer? Most of all it is to remember that the best choice for a moment may not be the one that makes the most sense, in fact, logically thinking it may not make sense at all. There is one character in the series, our security guard Psycho John, whose very being seems so inexplicable that everyone who watches the show is convinced he must be part of our fabrication. His movement and the way he carries himself feels so comic, so staged at times, that people think it must be a performance. But of course John is just being his glorious self.
I Gotta Be Me is currently fundraising to complete the final four episodes of the series on Kickstarter.
Steven Bloomer is a playwright and director, and co-creator of the gonzo rockumentary web series I Gotta Be Me. Theatre work includes: Boiling Frogs (Factory Theatre), You Were After Poetry (Hightide Theatre Festival) and Punch (Edinburgh Festival). Steven is an associate member of theatre companies,The Factory and Company of Angels. Follow I Gotta Be Me on Facebook and Twitter: @igottabememovie
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