Acting Up: David Hare

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In 1998 the acclaimed playwright and director David Hare took on his most challenging theatrical task to date: to act for the first time since he was in grade school. Granted, he would play himself in his own play, Via Dolorosa, but doing so would not only require him to tread the boards for the first time, but also to hold forth on stage alone for a full ninety minutes.

Fortunately, Hare kept a written diary from the first day of rehearsal, on to performances in London, and then to the final curtain on Broadway, a hundred performances later. I say “fortunately” because it is a wonderful read about learning to act by someone who had been in the theater all his professional life, but  who finally had to come to grips with a craft he knew little about from the inside.

As such, it’s quite different from most texts about acting. It’s full of quirky insights about the joys, frustrations, and struggles of learning to act, told contemporaneously as he wrestles with each day’s rehearsal or performance. It’s one of the best books I’ve read about acting and the theater because it takes the reader on the actor’s journey as it unfolds performance upon performance. In Hare’s previous playwrighting and directing work, he had collaborated with some of the greatest actors of the English stage, so throughout the diary Hare reflects on what he has learned from those performers, but also what he has had to sort out each day for himself.

It’ a funny, profane book and Hare is a cranky, boozy character who names names and is ruthlessly honest about himself and his colleagues. I’ve excerpted some of my favorite comments about theater from the book below. An essay could be written about each individual excerpt, but I’ll be quiet now and leave you to enjoy and mull over them yourself.

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[On receiving direction at the first rehearsal from director Stephen Daldry]: “I am confused by a mix of feelings brought on by direction about something I understand better than anyone else in the room, i.e writing, and something I do worse than anyone in the room, i.e. acting.”

***

“The slower people speak, the harder they are to understand. Dialogue is rhythm, and there is some scientific rhythm which I believe corresponds to the natural pace of activity in our brains.”

***

“I have always had a problem with assistant directors. . . What the fuck does the assistant director do, except wield power without responsibility? In the arts, opinion is cheap. Only people who are risking something on the outcome have the right to shape the performance.”

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[Hare directed Anthony Hopkins in King Lear; Hopkins said]: “I know I’ve got the performance worked out for the nights when the juice is there. But what worries me is that I still don’t have it for the nights when I don’t.”

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[Ingmar Bergman said]: “It’s part of a director’s duty to be in a good mood at work.”

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[After a seemingly unresponsive matinee performance] “I came off swearing …that they [the audience] were the worst bunch of motherfuckers I’d ever encountered. I walked back to a solid wall of cheering, almost the best reception I had ever had. Stephen [the director] told me it was the best show he’d seen. What do I know?”

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“As soon as you achieve a particular way of doing anything you can at once see the charms of doing its opposite.”

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“There are two kinds of directors…I call the two types editors and interventionists. Crudely, interventionists possess a vision of the work towards, which they are, at all times working….Editors, to the contrary, work pragmatically, looking all the time at what they are offered, refining it constantly, and then exercising their taste to help the actor give of their best…Neither kind of director is necessarily superior to the other.”

***

“Doing it ‘better’ doesn’t seem to make it any better. Is the greater part of an actor’s effort directed to a five percent improvement which no one notices anyway? Is it the thing itself which people respond to and are all our obsessive efforts around just on the margin?”

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[Mike Nichols who Hare directed in The Designated Mourner said]: “Only the very greatest actors can convince you that other people’s words are their own, and that there is nothing at all between you and their feelings.”

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[Harrison Ford who was being considered for a part in a Hare film, said]: “When I’m offered a part, then I’m aware that I bring a certain amount of baggage with me, in terms of how the audience views me. So the first thing I question is whether the baggage is going to be helpful to the picture or not.”

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“The play is not the play. It is the interaction between the audience and the play.”

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“[Voice coach] Patsy Rodenburg, from London, describes to me the frustration of regularly auditioning young actors who arrive to see her, well turned out, presentable, competent, assured. Yet they lack the element that would make sense of their chosen profession. They do not convince you of their need to speak.”

6 thoughts on “Acting Up: David Hare

  1. I just read the book over Friday night and Shabbat. I’m wondering where was I when Via Dolorosa was being staged in New York…my oldest son got married in February 1999 so I guess I was busy with that…wish I would have seen it.. Thanks for your post about the book. Now I have a lot of googling to do.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I also enjoyed meeting all those people and yes, he pulled no punches. There was an amazing quote that I have to find again in the book about how the play is like a sinking ship and the audience is on the sidelines helpless to save it.

        Liked by 1 person

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