Director Jemma Gross interviewed Phil for her series THOUGHTS ABOUT ACTING FROM A DIRECTOR
Reproduced below by kind permission of the author.
A Chat with Phil Willmott
By Jemma Gross
I first met Phil as his Assistant Director on a production of Shakespeare's King John at The Union Theatre, (nominated for two Off-West End awards, Best Production and Best Director).
As with all Assistant/ Director working relationships I was tentative with Phil at first until a bond of trust was formed and I was incredibly lucky that from then on he often trusted me to work with the ensemble and individual actors on elements of the play.
Phil is often quiet when you meet him, but charming when you get to know him and his passion for theatre is wonderfully infectious.
SELECTING ACTORS FOR AUDITION
In these interviews I love asking directors, ‘What excites you about working with actors?’ For Phil the answer was quick to hand.
"Directors can do all the prep work and be really excited about their ideas and the text but you need the actors to bring that extra magic to let it fly and you can’t do that on your own.”
He believes it’s important to build a team of actors around you that you trust and who will, hopefully, bring what is needed to make your work look good.
He loves using actors he has worked with before and has built up a rapport with, but equally (and good advice for fellow directors here) as well as deciding who you want to keep collaborating with he says you also need to decide when to let a working relationship go. He has learned over the years that sometimes consistently working with the same people means things can get stale.
In casting a production he always tries to find a combination of actors who are still excited and interested in working with him whilst bringing on board and discovering new people.
Budget allowing he prefers to have a casting director select the auditionees, who'll always advertise via Spotlight and occasionally castingcallpro. But if making the selection himself he’ll always read the CV’s and check out the photographs. Whilst he knows it’s hard for actors to understand, it does sometimes come down to a split second judgement about who to audition and who to reject.
Phil says he has learned to read actor's headshots like a code, “Invariably it's their favourite photo, their fantasy of themselves, so you need to take things down a few notches to get a sense of what they really look like.”
If possible he will look at show reels so as to get a sense of the weight and presence of a prospective auditionee but admit's that can be a disadvantage for the actor. “Rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt based on a photograph, quite often I'll look at the show reel and think "‘Oh no they’re not right at all’ and then not call them in.”
When I worked as Assistant Director for Phil on King John I noticed in his auditions he had a very charming way of making any actor that came into the room feel listened to and valued. Phil believes that auditioning actors is a very important part of the director’s job.
"You want people to do their best and you also want people to want to work with you so that if they have a choice of several projects that they’ll say yes to yours.”
Controversially, Phil likes to audition people NOT using the text, which he leans in and tells me with a smile “drives people crazy”.
For a classical play he will ask an actor to prepare a sonnet because in a few lines there is a story, a through line and a clear character; all of which can be very different depending on who’s reading it. The actors usually want to come in and read the lead part but he would much rather start with the basics and see how they respond to a sonnet. Allowing him to quickly asses how the actor works with classical text, how they create a character, how they develop their journey and how they respond to direction.
If it’s an American play he will ask to hear an extract from an American novel to see how the actor portrays a range of characters and can engage him in a story.
If he’s auditioning a family show, he might give the actor a piece from a kid’s book for all the same reasons.
“Another reason I don't always use the text I'll be directing is that, say you’re auditioning Twelfth Night, you'll have to go through a certain speech with dozens of actors. You get so bored with it that by the time you get to rehearse it no longer seems fresh and spontaneous.”
Equally we both agreed that at the end of a long day of hearing the same speeches you can get tired and stop listening, which is unfair to the last actors.
Phil believes that even if you are absolutely certain who you want, right from the first audition, always recall as it can be amazing what you discover with a second look. Also "If an actor is prepared to come in for a recall it shows that they want to work with you because they've invested time and effort into getting the job"
In a recall Phil will finally look at the specific text, having ascertained from the first audition that the actor is the right fit for a project, he will usually match them up with other people and work on a duologue.
From his experience as a young actor Phil remembers the fear of heading into an audition thinking that the person auditioning you is trying to test or catch you out but the reverse is true! “We are willing you, just dying for you, to be fantastic.” So his advice to young actors is “stop thinking of it as an exam and think of it like an opportunity to open up and show what you can do.”
There is a final stage to Phil’s casting process. Phil will contact previous directors who have worked with an actor he wants to cast and if he gets "even a whiff’ of trouble" about their behaviour in rehearsals or performance he won’t employ them even if they have given a brilliant audition. He would rather go with someone whose audition may not have been as good but who will create a performance that develops as part of an ensemble.
Director to director, Phil goes on to say that there are the occasions when you have to work with someone "difficult".
Phil thinks there are two types of difficult actors. One is slightly unhinged and unfortunately there is nothing you can do about that. The second, perhaps a well know face, who is racked with career insecurities and terrified that you will make them look foolish. It’s important to establish right from the beginning that you are not going to do anything that makes them look ridiculous or exposes them. Show them that you are prepared to put the time in and listen to their concerns.
For Phil it is very important in the first stage of rehearsals to make the company talk together and laugh together and then “once you’ve cracked that it usually works out alright.”
THE REHEARSAL ROOM
If he can, Phil uses a process called Actioning, on “absolutely everything”. Actioning is a system of breaking down and scoring the text moment by moment or line by line with a transitive verb.
“ I think the secret of great acting, which is easy to say and hard to do, is to break down your part moment by moment and make a really clear and simple choice about what’s going on and then to play this clearly and simply. For me the very best way to unlock that choice is to use actioning to explore, beat by beat a characters journey.
Phil was taught actioning at drama school, (“badly”) and hated it. “I wanted to just get up and get the costume on and do some shouting.” He first started to use it again when he began doing Greek Tragedy and his actors had difficulty getting variety into the huge chunks of text. He returned to actioning as a last resort to help an actor break down a text to find the detail and the journey through it. Apparently it was so liberating and helpful that he now even uses it in musical theatre, and will help an actor find their way through a song using this method.
“It means that when the actor steps into a scene in rehearsals or the stage they know the part inside out, they know every single corner of it, every single nuance of it and then they can let fly…then they can bring their magic to it…but it will be based on a really minute understanding of the text.”
Phil will spend as long as it takes on actioning the text round a table though the process usually takes a week and a half. He explains to me that often actors will get frustrated and want to just get up and have a go so if he senses that’s happening he will try and mix it up with physical work as well. He will break the play into chunks, analyse a section and stand it up, but by half way through rehearsals he aims to have actioned the whole play.
Phil also believes it is good to action as a group so that everyone has a collective understanding of the play and the character journies. This does need to be played carefully because if the group is too big the process will take too long or people without the loudest voices can feel ostracised or left out.
“It’s quite a political process, you often have to deal with actors who believe that they can’t do it, that they’re not clever enough, that they don’t know enough words. What’s really important to get through to them is that it isn’t school, they aren’t being judged, there's no right or wrong answers, it’s about the actual process of talking the play through in detail and making discoveries. The process is more important that the result.”
The most important thing about finding these transitive verbs is that they have to be able to play them. You want something clear and simple that the actor will be able to play well. For Phil it can be fun to make up words, as long as the actor understands what it means and it comes from a discussion and an understanding of the text.
“…You don’t have to vigorously impose the rules if that’s not helpful, however, to a greater extent making the actors try and stick to the rules and find a transitive verb also pushes them and encourages them to think a bit deeper and so you have to gauge the mood of the cast about whether their going with the process… and then gauge how strict you are based on that.”
“Keep checking in with yourself – is this inspiring the actors? is this engaging the actors? Occasionally I’ll have an actor who's just not getting it, I’ll push them a little bit more but then I’ll abandon it.”
He follows a similar pathway to Max Stafford Clark who apparently challenges actors who are resistant to actioning to try it for three days promising that if at the end of that time they still don’t like the process then they will work another way.
Three days it seems is all it takes to then get the actors to appreciate the process. “Why would you not? It’s revelatory.” Phil grins.
"There's that magic moment, actioning a scene with actors who are wary of doing so, when for the first time you ask them to read the scene back applying the actions they've discovered in the discussions. Everyone goes, ‘yeah that’s amazing, that’s really brought that to life.’”
Actioning is a Marmite method of text analysis, you either love it or hate it. Through watching Phil use it in the rehearsal room (and Jessica Swale when I was AD on The Belle’s Stratagem) I have developed an appreciation of it for the moments when the text seems out of reach.
CRAFTING THE IMAGE ON THE STAGE
Phil admits he's a “fiend” for blocking (giving actors set moves) and has no time for “actors aimlessly moving about the stage hoping to feel it”.
Phil loves constructing the big stage pictures that help tell the story.
He pauses and then admits he doesn’t know how he does it, but is just thankful that somehow he does!
“I find that if I prep it, it’s not as good as if I just stand in the middle of the room, have the adrenalin, have the cast looking at me and then it just happens”
Having seen Phil work he is always drawn to the most important moment in the scene and how to make it as visually clear as possible to his audience.
BALANCING COMMERCIAL AND FRINGE WORK (& the Low Pay No-Pay issue)
Phil works all over the world on commercial projects, this summer he also directed The Oresteia at The Scoop, and he also continues to work at small fringe venues such as The Union.
As a director who still works in the Fringe and on low pay or profit-share gigs how does he feel about the low pay no pay debate?
His personal philosophy is, if he hasn’t got paid work he has two choices; he can sit around at home and watch bad TV or he can get some people together and put on a play.
“I’ll always get people together and put on a play. It’s more fun, I learn stuff, I make contacts and I just love to work. If I ask you to join me and you can’t afford to then just say no, nobody is making you.
He ridicules the idea that you could legalise against working for low pay
"What would you say? ‘Okay directors and actors if you make something for nothing you will be punished,’ I don’t know how that would work. We’re artists we’re allowed to express ourselves, it’s our human right, its freedom of speech.”
“We wouldn’t stop. We would get together in our living rooms and tell stories. It is an inherit human characteristic to tell a story, how could you stop people doing that?”
In America the Actors Union imposes fines against actors if they go against the Union rules of no pay, but many American Actors would prefer the choice of working for free on a production than sitting around not using their skill.
Phil is adamant that he would not have a career if he had not been allowed to work for nothing.
"The most important thing is - if you can’t afford to do it, then don’t- and be extra careful about the unpaid work you choose to get involved with so that you at least have creative enjoyment"
“I think if you ask yourself will this benefit my career and your whole focus is on that…then inevitably you will be disappointed. But if you’re practicing your craft and enjoying practicing your craft and developing as an artist, that’s the reason to do it"
"If you happen to be seen by a casting director and get a good job out if then great, that’s a plus, but don’t go into it for that as you’ll have a miserable time.”
“If you can’t find anyone to pay you to do it, then just get out there and do it. Personally I don’t come from a well-connected family, I didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge, there is absolutely no way anyone would have ever let me direct anything and they didn’t for years. So you either go "I’ll go do something else then or just get out there and persevere.”
He tells me the story of Javier de Frutos (the movement director he loves to work with). When he arrived in New York from Venezuela wanting to be a dancer, no one would see him, so he drew a circle on the floor of his apartment and began to examine as a dancer how you could use that square as a space to tell a story.
“We should always be drawing chalk circles on the floor, telling stories in the middle and enticing people to watch"
I asked him if he ever get's nervous.
“Yes! Every night before the start of rehearsals I still get nervous and I think the day I don’t is the day to stop. I can always tell whether my heart is in a project if I’m nervous at the Press Night, some nights I am unaccountably nervous.”
Phil’s advice to actors about working with directors:
“I don’t see how you can work with a director unless you’re prepared to jump in feet first and trust them. Only take jobs where you think you will be able to do that as anything less is going to hamper everyone's process and won’t be successful on any level, neither personally fulfilling or resulting in good work”
Phil’s advice to directors about working with actors
Do what you can to create an ensemble; the root of your project is a group of people who like coming into work and laughing together, talking together and creating together. Do your best to demystify the process, so encourage clear and uncomplicated analysis of the text as a group. Don’t get side tracked by stuff and exercises where the audience won’t see the result. If you have the type of actor where improvising what they had for breakfast is really going to inform the character then go for it but remember you have a job to do.
“You’re making a product, an extraordinary, magical product and that has to be your focus. You have to drive the whole rehearsal process through towards creating something extraordinary. The most creative state is when the actors are having a good time, however they also need to realise that they are serving the play and ultimately the audience.”
Copyright @JemmaGross 2012
Photographs by Scott Rylander of Phil Willmott and cast rehearsing Once Upon a Time at the Adelphi (colour) and Broken Rose (black and white)