A few months ago, a friend dropped off at my house a collection of finely tailored men’s wear — tails, morning dress and two dinner suits, complete with ties and cumberbunds and suspenders. These glorious togs had belonged to his father and ranged historically from the wardrobe of a midshipman in the 1930s Canadian Navy to that of a senior officer in the post-war era. The clothes also ranged in size from boy to man, with the more recent wardrobe offering a generous allowance for paunch while the older items were elfin in scale.
I was the delighted recipient of what my mother would have called these “glad rags.” I love old clothes-cum-costumes, and I wanted to add some tailored treasures to my collection (highlights of which, until then, had been a fairly ratty boa of dyed chicken feathers and a somewhat experienced top hat). The fact that I live in an old house with virtually no closets didn’t daunt me at all. I remain convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that my brother-in-law — the one with the big basement — is only joking when he says, “Over my dead body…!”
There’s no denying, however, that these costumes have created another kind of problem: and that is finding the right size of actor to inhabit them. Now, not only do we have to find a play that involves formal wear — and I guess that means a steady diet of Noel Coward from now on; we also need actors who are more or less custom-made for the wardrobe. It’s either that or surgery (to actors or clothes, I don’t care which).
As if we didn’t have enough trouble already. We are a humble amateur company that doesn’t know its limits. So we are unpardonably fussy. Some of our obsessions are technical. For example, we live in Canada, where people generally fail to differentiate in speech between “d” and “t.” Thus, that memorable line in one of our plays, when the hero cried out to a bewildered audience: “What SLUD would take this body in her arms?” Good question.
We do accept the danger — in theatrical terms — of fuzzy speech. So we search for actors who can spit out the consonants, land them precisely, sock the audience in the ear and take no prisoners. We are generally less obsessed with vowels. I remember being told years ago that, while Canadians have a measley 12 vowel sounds, the British have 42: no wonder we have a national inferiority complex. Hamlet may know a hawk from a handsaw, but I once confused my British cousins with a long story about a “hawk,” which they insisted on hearing as a kind of wine (“hock”).
Never mind. We like British plays at Linden House, but when it comes to Canadian vowel sounds, we’re prepared to live and let live. Sometimes you have to work with an actor who complains, for example, about the morning “noos” — and yes: we know that Noel Coward would have said “nyoos” — or fights a “do-ell” (pistols or swords at dawn). Never mind. We have shoved linguistic purity overboard in favour of talent (authenticity and the kind of imagination that lets an actor apparently inhabit the body and voice of another human being).
People sometimes ask what it’s like being on stage and pretending to be someone else. They wonder if it feels like you have actually turned into another person. “No,” I answer. “A lot of your attention focuses on quite mechanical things — where to stand, when to move, how to orient your face to the audience, to say nothing of marshalling the next line and figuring out what to do in that thrilling moment when your mind goes blank. You don’t have the luxury, in my experience, of forgetting who you are. You are simply too busy.”
Having said that, there’s a line you cross mentally at some point during the rehearsal process. In that moment, when you have thought and wondered and speculated sufficiently about the character you are portraying, you are finally ready to imagine yourself inside the skin of another person entirely. Only then, I think, can you speak convincingly for that person. Good acting has something in common with good fiction-writing, but it isn’t a common skill. Every child knows instinctively how “to pretend,” but most adults have simply lost the knack.
It’s not so much to ask, is it? Actors who will fit themselves not only into our costumes but also into the soul of their character. Unfortunately, we have one more requirement. We also want actors who are nice people. Linden House is a friendly place. Even if you have the perfect elfin body for our set of tails, we don’t want you if you are not lovable. Ideally, we want to build a company of friends, who come back year after year and who are — and remain — a troupe, a collective. And that goes for the production team as well as the cast.
Having laid out these criteria in black and white, I am no longer surprised at how difficult it is to find a full cast of good actors every year. Indeed, I’m astonished that we manage to find any. And yet we do.