Studies in Theatre and Performance

Studies in Theatre and Performance

Download by: [University of California, Berkeley] Date: 13 April 2016, At: 11:42

Studies in Theatre and Performance

ISSN: 1468-2761 (Print) 2040-0616 (Online) Journal homepage:

Methodology and praxis of the actor within the television production process: facing the camera in EastEnders and Morse

Kim Durham

To cite this article: Kim Durham (2002) Methodology and praxis of the actor within the television production process: facing the camera in EastEnders and Morse, Studies in Theatre and Performance, 22:2, 82-94

To link to this article:

Published online: 06 Jan 2014.

Submit your article to this journal

Article views: 19

View related articles

Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at

82 STP 22 (2) 82–94 © Intellect Ltd 2002

Methodology and praxis of the actor within the television production process: facing the camera in EastEnders and Morse

Kim Durham

Abstract This paper reviews, from an actor’s perspective, the demands of television perfor- mance that make it distinct from stage performance. The writer compares his experience in the multi-camera shooting of EastEnders with that in the single- camera Morse, drawing his conclusions on behalf of the acting profession.

There is an often-expressed assumption within the British acting profes- sion that there is no fundamental distinction to be made between acting on stage and before the camera. Speaking of film acting, the actress Janet Suzman argues that ‘There’s no essential difference, you try and reach the essential something of the character you’re portraying’ (quoted in Zucker 1999: 26). This would suggest that an experienced actor can exploit an underlying methodology for playing character that may serve in both media. On one level, this seems surprising, for there are mani- festly broad distinctions to be made between the circumstances in which a stage performance is delivered and those in which a screen perfor- mance is given. We may identify three major differences: 1 The relationship of performer to audience, where he or she is medi-

ated through a medium of mechanical reproduction, is fundamentally different from that which pertains when the actor is in physical prox- imity to the audience. There can be no direct interaction. Furthermore, the performer is dependent upon the decisions of oth- ers, both behind the camera and in their edit suite, to determine how he or she will be perceived by the audience.

2 The means through which dramatic discourse proceeds differ from screen to stage. This is evidenced both by a different aesthetic emphasis and by a radically different process of narrative construc- tion. Typically, on screen, narrative is constructed for the audience through a progressive montage of individual shots rather than, as on stage, the extended viewing of a broad stage picture. Aesthetically, the impulse is almost constantly towards a spectacle of realism. An early Associated-Rediffusion script-service booklet makes this quite explicit, in particular identifying what is required of the television actor: ‘The object of television acting, in so far as anyone has yet been able to define it, is to make the viewer believe that he is watch- ing something that he is not meant to watch, that he is, in fact, “dropping in on something that was going on before he switched on

D ow

nl oa

de d

by [

U ni

ve rs

ity o

f C

al if

or ni

a, B

er ke

le y]

a t 1

1: 42

1 3

A pr

il 20


his set and which will continue after he has left”.’ (Quoted in Hayman 1969: 155)

3 The production processes by which film and television drama are created are substantially different from the one practised within theatre. Originally, of course, television was a medium of synchronous transmis- sion, whereas film was always a medium of record. This distinction made for marked differences in their production processes. By the nature of its being a ‘live’ event, early television drama retained some of the character- istics of theatre. However, by the late 1960s television drama had become, through the development of electronic recording technology, an entirely pre-recorded medium, and much of its output could consequently be constructed like film. Each shot could be composed individually and dis- continuously, using a single camera, and the narrative constructed subsequently through the editing process. Nevertheless, for reasons of speed of production and economy, many long-running drama series and serials retain the use of the multi-camera set-up that was developed specifically to meet the necessity of capturing ‘live’ performance.

What follows is an examination of my own experience of working as an actor on just two television productions, one a multi-camera shoot, and the other a single-camera. In analysing the task of the actor in these production circumstances I attempt to assess the nature of any distinctive technique that is required, and whether it is indeed true that one underpinning methodology of acting can fit the demands of screen and stage.


1 EastEnders, September 1997.

EastEnders is the BBC’s most popular drama serial, its half-hour episodes cur- rently scheduled over four evenings each week. Production is multi-camera, using purpose-built sets for both interiors and for the main exterior site. At the time of my engagement for two episodes, in 1997, the production team was producing three episodes each week. With few exceptions, scenes are shot in their entirety in single sustained takes with some editing taking place simultaneously, through use of a vision-mixing desk, and final editing occur- ring in post-production. There is no time scheduled for off-set rehearsal.

Character Appearing in just two episodes of EastEnders,1 with a script delivered well in advance of the shoot, line learning would not prove a problem. With sufficient preparation, it was possible to be sure enough of the text for the playing of dialogue not to involve any conscious effort of memory. On the other hand, as a visiting actor there are issues of character that are different to those faced by the regulars. In my brief appearance, I was to be a man- aging agent who had arrived in Albert Square to evict a regular character from his flat. Although small – six comparatively short scenes – the part was well written and on the page gave a clear sense of character. Without being clearly stated, the writing sketched in an impression of background and what the character’s preoccupations were. However, due to the speed of production, there was no time for discussion of character with the director. There had been some prior discussion between the director and the

83Methodology and praxis of the actor within the television production process: …

84 Kim Durham

Costume Department, and a number of alternative costumes had been selected for me and were presented to me on my arrival – principally three overcoats were on offer, as well as a selection of ties. I was to make a selec- tion and show the director. The three overcoats – two sheepskin jackets and a camelhair coat – and the selection of lurid ties suggested, like the script, a clear, broad depiction of character. The same could also be said of my casting in the part. Having a thin, somewhat sharp-featured face, I am frequently cast as mean-spirited, often ‘dodgy’ characters (see Figure 1). My conclusion, in truth only reached whilst looking at my costumed self in the mirror in my dressing room, was that no playing of character was required from me. The creation of character had already been achieved, by the combined talents of writer, casting director and costume designer. No further conscious act of impersonation was needed from the actor.

The writer and director David Mamet takes the reductionist view that character is never the actor’s concern. To the question, ‘What should happen in the rehearsal process?’ He answers:

Figure 1. My Spotlight photo for ‘97 (to illustrate the point about my face and casting on P5).

D ow

nl oa

de d

by [

U ni

ve rs

ity o

f C

al if

or ni

a, B

er ke

le y]

a t 1

1: 42

1 3

A pr

il 20


85Methodology and praxis of the actor within the television production process: …

1. The play should be blocked.

2. The actors should become acquainted with the actions they are going to perform.

What is an action? An action is an attempt to achieve a goal. (Mamet 1997: 72)

For Mamet, ‘There is no character. There are just lines on the page’ (Mamet 1997: 52). Such an intentionally provocative statement is, I imagine, some- thing of a deliberate generalization. It echoes, but goes beyond Stanislavski’s view that ‘[a]rt begins where there is no role, when there is only “I” in the given circumstances of the play’ (cited in Toporkov 1979: 156).

It is perhaps easier for Mamet to argue such a case from within a culture where the casting of roles has been influenced, particularly on the screen, but also, to a lesser extent, in theatre, by the concerns first identified by the early Russian film-maker Lev Kuleshov that the actor should, of himself, be pre- cisely the right type for the part.2 In this case, the character might not make the same choices of clothing as I would, but, beyond wearing the clothes that my character might choose and supplying a face that carries a certain iconic significance, my responsibility towards the creation of character was simply to play the text as if his goals were my goals. As the character had a simple func- tional dramatic purpose, it was easy to deduce his principal objective: to repossess a flat. In preparation, it had been relatively straightforward to iden- tify from the text a number of actions that the character performs in order to attempt to achieve this objective and to overcome various obstacles that are placed in the way of succeeding in this. In addition, in preparation, I had examined the text for indications of the circumstances that influence the char- acter’s behaviour. From the character’s perspective, at least in the early scenes, he is performing a routine function. When that function is thwarted, it is a frustration, but not a major setback. We may recognize from the above that the task of character development has been carried out through the adoption of an orthodox Stanislavskian methodology.

2 Kuleshov is very clear that what is required of the screen actor is not an act of impersonation but one of personification. In a 1929 article he writes: ‘owing to the technique of film actors being quite distinct from that of theatre actors, and because film needs real material and not a pretence of reality – owing to this, it is not theatre actors but “types” who should act in film – that is, people who, in themselves, as they were born, pre- sent some kind of interest for cinematic treatment’ (Kuleshov 1974: 57).

A First Day on Set My first day’s shoot involved two exterior scenes, both taking place within Albert Square. The usual EastEnders production schedule breaks recording into an exteriors shoot day at the beginning of the week, largely on the external Albert Square set, followed by a series of internal studio days. Thus, a scene that concludes with an exit into a building from the street will be recorded on one day, and the interior scene that follows chronologically in the storyline will be recorded on a subsequent day. Similarly, an external scene that occurs in the plot after an internal scene will be recorded prior to that scene. Thus, the first day’s recording involved shooting both my first scene and my last: my arrival and my departure from Albert Square.

One of the hardest aspects of acting for television is that one frequently has to perform on one’s first day as a contracted player in an unfamiliar production. This contrasts markedly with the normal practice in the the- atre, where one’s first day on a production is given over generally to a

86 Kim Durham

reading of the script and an opportunity to meet the rest of the cast infor- mally. The anxiety of the actor amidst unfamiliar company is a factor that most manuals on screen acting consider to be of substantial significance. Leslie Abbott suggests that:

the making of films is so different in atmosphere from theatre that it is no surprise that anxiety can strike at the heart of even the most experi- enced actor when he makes his first appearance on camera … You are invariably surrounded by hordes of people who seem stunningly indif- ferent to your performance. They are preoccupied with so many other activities essential to the making of the film that your acting seems simultaneously of no importance and of the greatest importance … The first day on the set is always a lesson under fire. (Abbott 1994: 1–2)

As a visiting artist on a long-running show such as EastEnders, such an expe- rience is particularly acute, and calls upon resources of thorough preparation and concentration, as well as what social skills and self-confidence one can muster. In such circumstances, anything that can help to strengthen the inner creative state is of particular benefit in drawing the attention away from exter- nal concerns and anxieties that might otherwise overwhelm the performance. The exercise of the imagination in preparing a definite inner reality for the character can act as a bulwark in such circumstances. In other words, practice would suggest that the development of character internality has the prosaic benefit of easing performance nerves.

In a television or film script, the notional time of day is given generally at the head of each scene. This is to enable all concerned to deal with the discontinuity involved in the actual shoot. It is certainly a useful guide for the actor to remind him or her of where in the course of events the scene occurs. In this case, it enabled me to conclude that, as the first scenes were taking place mid-morning, my character probably had made at least one routine call elsewhere earlier that day. It is unlikely that the making of such a decision made any discernible difference in the playing of the scenes. However, from my perspective as the actor, it allowed me to deepen some- what the fictional reality within which the character was operating at that time. As part of my normal preparation, I had also created a simple, imag- ined, anticipated future for the character – in this case, a fairly straightforward removal of occupant and the handing over of the flat to a prospective ten- ant. This corresponds to a practice attributed to Michael Chekhov:

For the actor, it is not enough to simply have an Objective – nor even to feel a tepid desire for something. You must visualize the Objective as constantly being fulfilled … It is the vision of the Objective being fulfilled that creates the impulse for a strong desire. (Chekhov 1953: Afterword)

It is also, as I have discovered, a means by which reactions may be given greater substance. The visualized objective may become thwarted, or potentially thwarted, by circumstances. A clear sense of the desired objective will lead to the opportunity for the mental adjustments of the character to be played out internally at the point in the shooting schedule when such moments arise.

As both scenes required a substantial amount of movement, there were sev- eral rehearsals, to enable the two camera operators to practise the precise moves they would have to make in order to capture the action of the whole scene in one continuous take. Typically, in marked distinction to theatre, this is the only kind of rehearsal the actor has in television production. Although the director’s notes to the three actors in the first scene were entirely concerned with physi- cal positioning, the number of rehearsals gave us the opportunity to run the dialogue a number of times and to make small adjustments to accommodate how each other was playing the scene. In other words, in terms of the psycho- logical dynamic of the scene, the actors directed themselves.

With first and last scenes shot consecutively, it was necessary for me to make the appropriate adjustment, in terms of the energy and tempo of a character who, by the last scene, has received a substantial change in his cir- cumstances, having had, in the fictional time between the scenes, the extreme physical condition of the flat revealed to him. As the flat would not be seen, in real terms, until two days after the shooting of this scene, it was, of course, impossible to use any genuine reaction to it in the playing of the final scene. In such circumstances, my instinct is always to perform a simple imaginative exercise. Extrapolating from the script the known facts about the flat, I had sketched in a mental picture of it. This conforms to Stanislavski’s injunction that:

We must have, first of all, an unbroken series of supposed circumstances in the midst of which our exercise is played. Secondly we must have a solid line of inner visions bound up with those circumstances, so that they will be illustrated for us. (Stanislavski 1980: 63)

Reaction Shots and Spatial Awareness The dramatic discourse of television drama is heavily dependent upon the close-up shot of the face and the thoughts, emotions and reactions con- veyed by that face, rather than, as is the case typically in theatre, through words. In this case, following the receipt of a piece of information by my character, the direction in the script for my character read: ‘WE SEE THIS HIT’. The suggestion from the director was that, at this point, I should angle my face away from the other actor and towards the camera. A pecu- liarity of the multi-camera set-up is that the camera capturing one character’s face cannot be immediately proximate to another character; otherwise it will be in shot from the second camera’s perspective. Therefore, in order to be exposed full-face to the camera, the actor must look away from his or her fellow. In this case, the adaptation required, in order to justify such a turn away from the other actor and towards the cam- era, was not difficult and is similar to the requirement for the stage actor to be able to adjust his or her position on stage for the purposes of blocking and to provide a reason for such a move.

Similarly, in the interior scene concerning the discovery of the state of the flat, it was clear from the script that the dramatic pivot was my charac- ter’s reaction. In this situation, it may be that there is an advantage in the lack of rehearsal. One is not likely to become overfamiliar with the sur- roundings. Admittedly, the three or four rehearsals on camera, needed to

87Methodology and praxis of the actor within the television production process: …

achieve the appropriate camera angles and eye lines, meant that there was still something of an illusion of the first time to be created. In such cases I find it helpful to prepare blocking somewhat mechanically, avoiding taking in too much of the detail of the surroundings. Subsequently, during a take it is then possible to focus on specifics and examine them for the first time, hopefully achieving a genuine reaction. Here, there is a definite advantage to playing within a multi-camera production process. The opportunity to play the entire scene facilitates the exercising of the imagination and, at least in this case, afforded an unobstructed view of graffitied walls and gen- eral squalor, offering real stimuli for the generation of a reaction.

A more challenging aspect of the multi-camera set-up was the extreme spatial precision demanded in this scene. The use of three cameras demanded that the actors achieve a very precisely defined final position. In this case, myself and another actor had to be aware of our framing from two camera positions, one viewing frontally and one viewing from the side. The latter framing, of three faces in profile, each overlapping, but all visi- ble, required very consciously employed spatial awareness. I found, and continue to find, the concentration demanded to maintain, in such cir- cumstances, the level of attention to both fictional reality and technical requirement, a particularly challenging use of the actor’s split focus.3

Morse: The Wench is Dead4 Morse, unlike EastEnders, does not come into the category of fast-produc- tion television. It is shot on film with a single camera, each set-up painstakingly composed. Because of the time allowed for production, dra- mas such as Morse tend to involve far more periods of inaction for the actors than during the shooting of episodes of The Bill, EastEnders, and other ‘fast turnaround’ programmes. In the latter, the sets are generally well known to the crew and the whole technical process must operate slickly for the production to function within its time constraints. With larger budgets, much more time will be given to the preparation of each shot, in respect of refining the lighting, and the setting up of more complex camera move- ment. As a production process there is little to distinguish the making of high-budget television such as Morse from feature-film production. The budget is reflected in every department, including artists’ fees and, crucially, in the amount of production time – a six-week shoot for approximately two hours of broadcast time, as opposed to the average soap allocation of one week for one and a half hours of broadcast time.

3 Such a process will be familiar to most actors, whether on camera or on stage, not least to the nineteenth-century actor Tommaso Salvini: ‘ An actor lives, weeps, laughs on the stage, but as he weeps and laughs he observes his own tears and mirth’ (Quoted in Delgado 1986: 199).

4 Carlton TV, 1998.

5 The episode ‘The Wench Is Dead’, unique for the Morse series, involved period reconstruction, set in the world of Victorian bargees. Morse, languishing in hospital, uses his- torical records and documents to reveal a miscarriage of jus- tice.

Preparation and the Discontinuous Performance My own commitment to the episode involved six days filming, spread over a period of five weeks. This was due mainly to the fact that a number of the scenes that I was involved with included a narrow boat that had to travel through the English canal system to its various locations – a time-consum- ing business.5 As a perfect example of the discontinuous nature of filming, the first day’s shoot for the whole production, included my, and a fellow- accused’s public hanging, a scene which takes place, as one might imagine, towards the end of the drama. Although a substantial set-up in terms of set- building, the use of a large number of walk-on artists to act as crowd and

88 Kim Durham

89Methodology and praxis of the actor within the television production process: …

militia, the laying of camera track and the use of a crane to create camera movement, the scene was relatively short, involving only a few lines of dia- logue and some action. While the actors knew, from the script, the incidents that led up to this outcome, we had not had the experience of playing those scenes. However, certain decisions had to be taken in order to play the scene. What were the states of mind of the convicted men? How resigned were they to their fate? What were their relationships to their fellow- accused, who was present but not destined to be hanged? The answers to all these questions had some bearing on how the scene would be played and needed to be decided in advance on the basis of clues from the script.

In the theatre, such decisions would usually have been taken only after extensive rehearsals of the previous scenes, as well as of the scene in ques- tion. In this case each actor, preparing individually and privately, had come to some provisional conclusions about how he would play the scene. Although the cast for this scene had met briefly before, we had not rehearsed together or discussed character. Meeting again in the make-up trailer and subsequently over an extended breakfast while technical prepa- rations were being made for the first shot, we were initially tentative in engaging in discussion about the work of the morning. However, after some time, during which comparative strangers became more familiar with each other, the subject was raised and a discussion ensued. It is typical of television production that, although the medium itself may mediate far more between the performer and the audience, the work that actors do between themselves, when such opportunities arise, is often less mediated by the presence of a director.

When the actors were eventually called to the set, the director’s first instruction was for us to ‘show the action’. In other words, he had assumed that we had rehearsed the scene to some extent and could perform an agreed representation of it. Additionally, in this case, the discussion between the actors concerning previous events proved invaluable, as it was discovered, once the scene was played with the prepared camera move- ment, that the timing of one of the shots required some additional ad-libbed dialogue from the actors, which we were able instantly to supply. Whereas in the theatre there is an assumption that the director will involve him or herself substantially with the process of performance development, here the working practice of television production demanded that the director, as on EastEnders, focused almost solely on product. Far more than in theatre, process became entirely the actor’s private concern.

Adaptation A further consequence of a lack of rehearsal was evidenced by a discovery made during the recording of a scene featuring the horse-drawn narrow boat that was such a central feature of the narrative action. The mise-en-scène called for a police constable to instruct the boat to pull into the canal bank, follow- ing which the crew were to be arrested. My character, in a drunken sleep in the cabin, was to be ordered up on deck to be charged with the others. As soon as we began to rehearse the scene we realized that there were funda- mental problems with it. The script had a number of practical flaws. The whole scene needed to take no more than about two minutes. However, a

90 Kim Durham

horse-drawn narrow boat, we discovered, takes considerably longer than two minutes to be brought to a halt. The scene had to be rethought, partially rewritten by director and cast, and re-rehearsed so that the whole scene could be played to serve its dramatic function without the narrow boat com- ing to a standstill. New dialogue, new moves, new given circumstances, new objectives, new actions – all had to be prepared within a few minutes. Such rapid adaptation is not untypical of the demands of television production.

Stanislavski uses the term adaptation to describe behaviours that arise ‘naturally, spontaneously, unconsciously, at the very moment when emotions are at their height’ (Stanislavski 1979: 113). In other words, these are behav- iours that arise as intuitive responses to external stimuli. While on-stage adaptation may be recognized as a lively attentiveness to the moment and the subtle changes that may occur, the essential ability to adapt as described above is of a different order. What was required here was an ability to react rapidly, but consciously and creatively, to changing circumstances in order to adjust performances immediately prior to recording. Acting rehearsal, tech- nical rehearsal and rewriting had all to take place contiguously. ‘Blocking’ was improvised in one pre-shot rehearsal, while preconceived notions of the dynamics of interaction rapidly had to be replaced. To enable such rapid adaptation, it was nevertheless vital that each actor had brought a clear, pre- prepared conception of the essentials of the scene and his character’s part in it. Such a production process favours the actor who is able to prepare thor- oughly in private, but who is flexible enough to be able to change what has been prepared when it proves necessary.

Activities The above example also highlights another distinguishing feature of much screen drama. Because of the availability of practical props and real loca- tions, there tends to be a greater incorporation of activity, as distinct from physical action, into the dramatic action. By ‘activity’, I mean a series of connected mechanical movements that are undertaken as part of a charac- ter’s everyday physical practice. They might be work-related or play-oriented, and may or may not have psychological significance. I use the term ‘physical action’ here specifically to refer to the Stanislavskian concept of ‘a small achievable task with psychological reverberations designed to affect a partner or situation’ (Stanislavski 1980: 233).6

Having a real, functioning, horse-drawn narrow boat in a sequence, sug- gests a need for the actors to be convincingly able to handle a narrow boat. Many, if not most, stage plays, do have their moments where actors are engaged in practical activity and, indeed, such moments are often peculiarly engaging. However, it is in screen drama where such business really comes to the fore. There are advantages for the actor in being in the real location, the genuine place of activity, as so often happens with location shooting. He or she does not have to create the illusion of the activity, as may often hap- pen in the theatre. Albert Finney, describing his first experience of film work during the shooting of Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, recalls that,

When I was being photographed working at that lathe, then I could absolutely concentrate on what the character was supposed to do.

6 This concept is fre- quently, though by no means universally, consciously used and referred to dur- ing theatre rehearsals. While individual actors may use it in private preparation, it is rarely, if ever in my experience, referred to openly in television.

91Methodology and praxis of the actor within the television production process: …

There was no cheating involved, you know. On the stage it would have been made of cardboard, and part of my job as an actor would have been convincing the audience that the cardboard lathe was a real one. (see Hayman 1969: 108)

On the other hand, it did mean that he had to learn how to use a lathe – not just how to give the illusion of working a lathe, but genuinely how to work it. For the character, this is an activity that has become second nature, which can be performed almost without thinking. As much as it will expose insincerity, the camera is equally unforgiving in revealing basic incompetence. The film actor Michael Caine, describes his practice of preparing activities thus:

I go through each scene and do my actions the same way, over and over, exactly as I imagine I will have to do them on the set … If you’re going to initiate an action, PLAN IT. Organize your physical actions and tasks so that they are logical. (Caine 1990: 33)

We should be clear here that Caine is not using the term ‘physical action’ in the Stanislavskian sense. For him, much of his private preparation is sim- ply given over to rehearsing business, or physical activity. Such prosaic planning is of even greater priority where, as in the case of working with a horse-drawn narrow boat, the activity is habitual for the character, but completely unfamiliar to the actor.

In Stanislavskian terms, a facility with such activity is part of the given cir- cumstances of a character and must be convincingly incorporated in the performance. Such incorporation may require, of course, painstaking prac- tice. My experience on Morse, I believe, was not untypical. On those occasions where television productions have paid me for pre-shoot rehearsal time, it has generally not been to rehearse dialogue or discuss character, but, quite appropriately, to enable me to acquire the rudimentary ability to per- form some essential activity. As part of the crew of the narrow boat, I had a day of learning how to steer, lead a horse on a towpath, and hitch and unhitch a horse from a narrow boat. All of these skills proved essential, not only in enabling the actors to behave physically as their characters with some small degree of conviction, but also it made possible the unforeseen hurried adaptation of the aforementioned scene. There is little that is unique to the screen actor as opposed to the stage actor here. However, there is a distinction in how frequently one is called upon to incorporate convinc- ingly an activity as a ‘given circumstance’ of character in television.

Acting without Support As in EastEnders, there were key moments where my contribution to a scene principally involved a reaction. In one sequence, one of the protago- nists was to fall off the narrow boat into the canal and disappear, while my character led the horse along the bank. In the multi-camera production cir- cumstance of EastEnders, my reaction was recorded within the playing of the whole scene. Here, on a single camera shoot, it was recorded in isola- tion. Thus my reaction, shot in close-up, and then in a medium shot, was

to an imagined, rather than a real stimulus. Such a situation is rare in the theatre, where continuity of action gives one the opportunity for an unbro- ken progression of stimulus-response. Here, one had to create the illusion of the stimulus. While the action of the actor hitting the water was rehearsed, I was able to walk some distance along the bank and prepare in private. My tendency, I believe, in such circumstances, is to offer an over- reaction or an action that is too quick for the camera to register properly. I find it easy to either ‘snatch’ at a reaction or, conversely, to overdemon- strate it. The script describes a character disappearing into the water, as an eventual consequence of which my character is later to be hanged for mur- der. Of course, none of this is known to the character at the time. The splash of an object hitting the water is likely to be a not entirely infrequent phenomenon to a bargee. Thus, an initial reaction might be to be startled but not immediately overconcerned, although this might rapidly descend into panic as the possible cause of the splash is contemplated.

I consciously considered such a short logical development with its sub- text of unspoken thoughts: A splash – ‘What was that?’ – ‘Can’t see anything’ – ‘It was quite a large splash’ – ‘Why is no one visible on deck?’ – ‘What the Hell is going on here?’. While it is clear that to signal each of these thoughts would be an absurd exhibition of mummery, allowing these thoughts to pass through the mind as a subtext is necessary for a convinc- ing and sufficiently sustained reaction. Stanislavski, writing of stage performance, where the prime tool of communication is the spoken word, describes subtext as that which ‘makes us say the words that we do’ (Stanislavski 1979: 113). Preparation that creates such subtext and engen- ders it during performance is perhaps even more vital where no words are spoken and where the silent passage of such subtext through the mind of the character is itself the actor’s major contribution to a reading of the shot. Such private preparation, it seems to me, is made further necessary by the fragmentary nature of single-camera television production. Whereas in theatre rehearsal, and even in a multi-camera shoot, such moments might be resolved organically and intuitively, my experience is that for the single camera, frequently the actor, imaginatively and logically, has to prepare these privately for him or herself.

Another incident in the shoot also illustrates the need for the television actor to sustain performance in comparative isolation and without support either from the sequence of events or fellow-actors. A short scene involved my character lifting a hatch and, after the briefest of exchanges, being invited into a female passenger’s cabin. The scene was shot from both my character’s and the female passenger’s perspective. In both cases, the limita- tions created by the size of the cabin and the hatch meant that the camera filled the space where the character out of shot notionally would be. Thus, both the actress and I were required to perform without the presence of the other. Although it had been possible to practise this short exchange together earlier, using the location, for the performance on camera both of us had to rely on the re-creation from memory of an exchange rather than a real experience of one. With the camera in extreme proximity, the demands on the imagination of the television actor are extreme. As an added complication, this exchange, which took place at night, relied on

92 Kim Durham

93Methodology and praxis of the actor within the television production process: …

very limited and very precise sources of light. My first take became an exercise in finding my precise end-position within the frame. I needed two further takes to be able to marry the technical requirements of the scene with the necessary conviction for playing the scene.

Conclusions The above accounts are by no means exhaustive, but illustrate several of the concerns that are of significance when considering the circumstances of per- formance to camera as distinct from performance on stage. They would seem to suggest that a methodology for screen acting should enable the actor to: 1) Prepare privately to performance level an appropriately developed char-

acter internality. 2) Employ conscious techniques of relaxation and concentration. 3) Develop a flexible approach to preparation which will allow for a fully

formed performance to be substantially adapted at short notice. 4) Have an awareness of the particular importance of convincingly incor-

porating activity into a character’s ‘given circumstance’.

None of these is incompatible with the broadly Stanislavskian methodology which is the orthodoxy of British stage training. Indeed, they would appear to suggest that the screen actor, who works so much of the time without rehearsal or directorial input, needs just such a personal methodology to a highly developed degree. There is, however, as illustrated by my experience of characterization on EastEnders, a strong tendency for television, with its intimacy of observation and iconic shorthand, to favour approaches that emphasize personification over impersonation.

My experiences also suggest that there are certain technical requisites for screen acting that are of a different order to those for the stage. In the theatre, the actor requires a considerable spatial precision. However, on these particular multi-camera and single-camera shoots, as on others, I dis- covered occasions where the degree of spatial awareness required for the camera went beyond anything I have needed on stage.

One practitioner who did not underestimate the demands of screen act- ing, both in terms of a methodology of process and technique for performance, was, indeed, Stanislavski. Late in his life he recognized that ‘[a]n actor in the talking films is obliged to be incomparably more skilful and technically expert than an actor on the stage. Film actors need real the- atre training’ (Stanislavski 1963: 15). The conclusion is not ill founded. However the examination I have offered would seem to suggest that, while such a methodology may be capable of meeting the underpinning need for the development of appropriate character internality for the screen as well as the (realist) theatre, dealing with the vastly different practical circum- stances of television production requires some additional preparation. A recent National Council for Drama Training report concluded that:

drama school graduates seem absolutely unanimous in their view that their first television jobs were terrifying because they knew so little of how the process works, of who was who in the crew, of what was expected of them. (NCDT 2002: 9)

94 Kim Durham

This must be a matter of some concern in a current employment climate where, according to the same report, ‘it is in television that today’s gradu- ates are most likely to get their first professional acting jobs’ (NCDT 2002: 7). A training that only provides a methodology coupled with stage experi- ence, while failing to offer the experience of television production and an opportunity to develop the technical craft associated with performance before the camera, cannot prepare acting students for the profession as it currently operates.

Works cited Abbott, Leslie, Acting for Films and TV, Belmont, Cal.: Star Publishing Company,


Caine, Michael, Acting in Film, New York: Applause Books, 1990.

Chekhov, Michael, To the Actor – On the Technique of Acting, New York: HarperCollins, 1953.

Delgado, Ramon, Acting with Both Sides of Your Brain, New York: CBS College Publishing, 1986.

Hayman, Ronald, Techniques of Acting, London: Methuen, 1969.

Kuleshov, Lev, Kuleshov on Film: writings of Lev Kuleshov , trans. and ed. Ronald Levaco, London: University of California Press, 1974.

Mamet,David, True and False: heresy and common sense for the actor, New York: Random Books, 1997.

National Council for Drama Training (NCDT), Report of the Recorded Media Working Party, 2002.

Stanislavski, Constantin, An Actor Prepares, trans. and ed. E.R. Hapgood, Glasgow: Glasgow University Press, 1980 (first published, 1936).

Stanislavski, Constantin, Building a Character , trans. and ed. E.R. Hapgood, London: Eyre Methuen, 1979 (first published, 1950).

Stanislavski, Constantin, An Actor’s Handbook: an alphabetical arrangement of concise statements on aspects of acting, trans. and ed. E.R. Hapgood, New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1963.

Toporkov, V.O., Stanislavski in Rehearsal: the final years, trans. and ed. Christine Edwards, New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1979.

Zucker, Carol, In the Company of Actors: Reflections on the Craft of Acting, London: A. & C. Black, 1999.

  • Studies in Theater and Performance
    • Methodology and praxis of the actor within thetelevision production process: facing the camera inEastEnders and Morse
    • Kim Durham
    • Methodology and praxis of the actorwithin the television productionprocess: facing the camera inEastEnders and Morse
    • Kim Durham
    • Abstract
    • EastEnders
    • Character
    • A First Day on Set
    • Reaction Shots and Spatial Awareness
    • Morse: The Wench is Dead4
    • Preparation and the Discontinuous Performance
    • Adaptation
    • Activities
    • Acting without Support
    • Conclusions
    • Works cited

Comments are closed.