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Few actors are more eloquent, honest or entertaining about their life and their profession than Simon Callow. Being an Actor traces his stage journey from the letter he wrote to Laurence Olivier that led him to his first job, to his triumph as Mozart in the original production of Amadeus. This new edition continues to tell the story of his past two decades onstage. Callow Few actors are more eloquent, honest or entertaining about their life and their profession than Simon Callow. Being an Actor traces his stage journey from the letter he wrote to Laurence Olivier that led him to his first job, to his triumph as Mozart in the original production of Amadeus. This new edition continues to tell the story of his past two decades onstage. Callow discusses his occasionally ambivalent yet always passionate feelings about both film and theatre, conflicting sentiments partially resolved by his acclaimed return to the stage with his solo performances in The Importance of Being Oscar and The Mystery of Charles Dickens, seen in the West End and on Broadway in 2002. Being an Actor is a guide not only to the profession but also to the intricacies of the art, told with wit, candour, and irrepressible verve by one if the great figures of the stage.


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Few actors are more eloquent, honest or entertaining about their life and their profession than Simon Callow. Being an Actor traces his stage journey from the letter he wrote to Laurence Olivier that led him to his first job, to his triumph as Mozart in the original production of Amadeus. This new edition continues to tell the story of his past two decades onstage. Callow Few actors are more eloquent, honest or entertaining about their life and their profession than Simon Callow. Being an Actor traces his stage journey from the letter he wrote to Laurence Olivier that led him to his first job, to his triumph as Mozart in the original production of Amadeus. This new edition continues to tell the story of his past two decades onstage. Callow discusses his occasionally ambivalent yet always passionate feelings about both film and theatre, conflicting sentiments partially resolved by his acclaimed return to the stage with his solo performances in The Importance of Being Oscar and The Mystery of Charles Dickens, seen in the West End and on Broadway in 2002. Being an Actor is a guide not only to the profession but also to the intricacies of the art, told with wit, candour, and irrepressible verve by one if the great figures of the stage.

30 review for Being An Actor

  1. 4 out of 5

    William2

    A handbook for youngsters, primarily British, who want to act for a living. It morphs halfway through into a scathing critique of the once hallowed institution known as British theater— and this has relevance for the wannabe thespian, too. The entire book works because of the author’s candid assessment of his successes and failures, and of those he has worked with. In Part 1 Simon Callow writes about the nebulous motivations and techniques of acting with startling concreteness. The process is A handbook for youngsters, primarily British, who want to act for a living. It morphs halfway through into a scathing critique of the once hallowed institution known as British theater— and this has relevance for the wannabe thespian, too. The entire book works because of the author’s candid assessment of his successes and failures, and of those he has worked with. In Part 1 Simon Callow writes about the nebulous motivations and techniques of acting with startling concreteness. The process is surprisingly rigorous. The trouble he had with the lead role in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus is an excellent example. After much struggle he picks up Otto Deutsch’s Mozart: A Documentary Biography and finds a quote from Mozart’s brother-in-law, Josef Lange.’Never was Mozart less recognizably a great man in his conversation and actions than when he was busy with a great work. At such times he spoke confusedly and disconnectedly… he did not appear to be brooding and thinking about anything… either he intentionally concealed his inner tension behind superficial frivolity, for reasons which could not be fathomed, or he took delight in throwing into sharp contrast the divine ideas of his music and these sudden outbursts of vulgar platitudes, and in giving himself pleasure by seeming to make fun of himself. I can understand that so exalted an artist can, out of a deep veneration for his Art, belittle and as it were expose to ridicule his own personality.’ The moment I saw this Mozart, Shaffer’s text fell into place. Every word, every gesture that he had written was consonant with the man. They simply needed a framework of character to unify them. Once I had found that, the playing style of the piece came easily. Psychological realism was out of the question in view of the kaleidoscopic sequence of scenes. Something akin to revue technique was called for, the capacity to start a scene bang in the middle of it, and to wipe it away as soon as it was finished in order to make room for the quite different emotions of the next. Shaffer’s is a theater of gesture. The whole body, the mask of the face, ways of speaking, external details are all of the essence of Peter’s work. The wig, the giggle, the little hop, and so on. (p. 115) (Emphasis mine.) Particularly vehement are Callow’s arguments against directorial tyranny. John Dexter, for example, would direct every utterance and gesture in such a way that, Callow says, the immense talent of the actors was stifled. Earlier in his career Callow was a member of the Joint Stock Company which used an extraordinary process of actor research and consultation directly with the playwright as a means of creating new works. It’s a leftist approach which empowers the “workers,” but so what? It worked beautifully. Under non-process oriented direction, he says, the actor often feels like a marionette jerked about by incomprehensible directorial whim, and is for this reason unable to inhabit the character. Edward Bond was another such tyrant. He was a dramatist who decided that he would direct all the premiers of his plays himself, despite having “no understanding of the processes of acting.” (p. 131) Yet Simon Callow has a prolific stage career. How was he able to do it? In Part 2 is a wry depiction of the stage actor’s life. First we learn about the wretchedness of unemployment and then about the anxiety of auditions. When this is over, the director (if, please God, he’s not on stage with you but in the stalls) will shout out: ‘Very interesting, thank you.’ Dread word, ‘interesting.’ . . . He’ll then clamber up onto the stage, put his arm around your shoulder and say, ‘Mmm. I’d like to try that again, if you don’t mind, like to have another little go at it.’ ‘Yes, yes,” you interject, passionately, ‘it was terrible.’ ‘No, it wasn’t terrible at all—I’d just like to see a little more vulnerability. [Or majesty, or fun, but it’s usually vulnerability. Hilarious that in this firing-squad situation, that’s the one thing you cannot produce at any cost.] OK?’ And off you go again, and it’s always better, and it’s always worse. So, baffled, you shake hands amid unreal checkings of your agent’s phone number, and your immediate whereabouts. As you leave the auditorium, action-replaying the whole episode, examining the director’s every inflection, you pass an actor on his way in and you know immediately that he’s going to get the job. (p. 147) These are the Part 2 chapter headings: Unemployment, Getting the Job 1, The Agent, Getting the Job 2, Preparation, First Read Through, Rehearsal 1, Character 1, Rehearsal 2, Character 2, Rehearsal 3, Rehearsal 4, Into the Theater, The Dress Rehearsal, The First Preview, First Night, The Reviews, The Run 1, A Good Performance, A Bad Performance, The Run 2, The Audience, Twenty-four Hours in the Life, The End of the Run, Unemployment Again, Manifesto, Gloomy Postscript. There are also priceless stories from the stage. One is about his astonishing meeting with Terry Hands of RSC late in the book. Another: I recall a radio program where Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson were interviewed. ‘Tell me, Sir John and Sir Ralph, do you ever give each other notes?’ There was an appalled silence, broken by Richardson. ‘Good - God - no!’ he cried, while Sir John cooed negatives in the background. ‘I can’t abide notes,’ declared Sir Ralph, ‘especially from a director. My idea of a director is a chap who puts me in the middle of the stage, and shines a bright light on me.’ (p. 175) Part 3 I’m a writer, not an actor, but much of what Callow has to say can be useful to any creative artist, such is the breadth and specificity of his commentary.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Colin McPhillamy

    The first time I read this book was back in 1983, the year of my graduation. I read with mounting frustration and envy; 'Why him?!' Thirty years on, the youthful ambition of a new actor has more or less evaporated, replaced with a modulated enjoyment of the craft. Callow's book is quite excellent. The original text remains unchanged and give a generous, personal account of his beginnings as an actor. The new material presents some close technical analysis of roles, plays, and the state of the The first time I read this book was back in 1983, the year of my graduation. I read with mounting frustration and envy; 'Why him?!' Thirty years on, the youthful ambition of a new actor has more or less evaporated, replaced with a modulated enjoyment of the craft. Callow's book is quite excellent. The original text remains unchanged and give a generous, personal account of his beginnings as an actor. The new material presents some close technical analysis of roles, plays, and the state of the profession. His prose is at once compact and eloquent, and what emerges is his love of theatre and dedication to it.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Whitney Moore

    I took a detour (from Anthony Sher's book on playing Lear) to read this lengthier-than-expected "look behind the stage curtains" by Simon Callow. I liked it very much, especially his honesty about how vulnerable it is to live as actors do. Frequently unemployed, for one thing, of which he says, "That’s the hardest: acclaim being followed by unemployment. One feels like a puppy, picked up and fussed over until a new diversion occurs, at which one is summarily dropped back on to the floor... it I took a detour (from Anthony Sher's book on playing Lear) to read this lengthier-than-expected "look behind the stage curtains" by Simon Callow. I liked it very much, especially his honesty about how vulnerable it is to live as actors do. Frequently unemployed, for one thing, of which he says, "That’s the hardest: acclaim being followed by unemployment. One feels like a puppy, picked up and fussed over until a new diversion occurs, at which one is summarily dropped back on to the floor... it has a horrible effect on one’s psyche." I found the author engaging to read, often amusing, and very insightful about the value of theatre in the first place. He considers it a 50-50 collaboration with the audience to generate a whole new opportunity to consider matters that matter, saying, "Into the auditorium they stream, battered, dislocated, alienated, unhuman -- feeling the loss of their humanity, the erosion of their human parts. Our job is to restore them, to massage or tease or slap the sleeping parts into life again. Above all we address ourselves to the deadened organ, the imagination.... In this sense, every actor has signed an unwritten hippocratic oath." I agree, and I think Callow's concept applies to all performing arts. There is something healing and nourishing about the communal campfire-type experience, something he describes as "ancient and new at the same time, which is potentially life-changing but which also reminds us of who and what we are, which binds a group of human beings together for the duration of the evening or afternoon to remind them of the sense of community otherwise dead or forgotten, which massages the tired imagination back to life and celebrates human possibilities in the living shapes of the actors themselves." See why I liked this book?

  4. 4 out of 5

    Suri Nath

    Perhaps the best book on acting, rather on preparing for acting, that I have come across. Precise in detailing approaches to various roles. When failed, no self pitying; when succeeded, no gloating. I liked his simple narration...

  5. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    Very interesting autobiography of a well-known actor

  6. 5 out of 5

    B

    This book is great when he's explaining the chronology of auditioning and rehearsing a play up through opening night, the run, and closing night. If you're an actor, you learn a bit about some obscure British theatre practices, but mostly you just sit there thinking "Yes! It is just like that!" Which makes me think that this is a book for people who aren't actors to find out what being an actor is like. The whole book is worth the First Rehearsal chapter. There's a theatre company I work for who This book is great when he's explaining the chronology of auditioning and rehearsing a play up through opening night, the run, and closing night. If you're an actor, you learn a bit about some obscure British theatre practices, but mostly you just sit there thinking "Yes! It is just like that!" Which makes me think that this is a book for people who aren't actors to find out what being an actor is like. The whole book is worth the First Rehearsal chapter. There's a theatre company I work for who made it a practice to read this chapter on the first rehearsal of every play. It's so great. Callow then wrote an afterword-type thing years and years after the first part of the book which I enjoyed less. He seemed pretty bitter and had quite a bit of opinions about how theatre companies are run and had a lot of differences of opinion with directors, so he became a director himself. Reading this addition, it is clear he has become a director who once was an actor and also a bit of a celebrity, so perhaps that belongs in a different book: Being a Director who once was an actor and is now a Celebrity and has worked with a bunch of Directors along the way that He didn't like so that has Shaped how He now Directs. A bulky title. But there's a nice lesson for directors in there. Actors are not your puppets to move around and do exactly as you say. They have brains and can be equal collaborators. Often, if you force an actor into your rigid sense of vision, it has the effect of shutting them down creatively and the production will suffer for it.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Lady Jane

    A new author! I have known his acting work for a while (through movies and the BBC), but did not know about his writing until I was given this book for my birthday. Although much of the book is thoughtful and interesting, it is also very funny in a wry, British way. I was sitting at the kitchen table laughing out loud, thoroughly enjoying myself as I read my way through his life as a youthful, idealistic, hedonistic and headstrong young actor. I am glad that although he added an essay or two in A new author! I have known his acting work for a while (through movies and the BBC), but did not know about his writing until I was given this book for my birthday. Although much of the book is thoughtful and interesting, it is also very funny in a wry, British way. I was sitting at the kitchen table laughing out loud, thoroughly enjoying myself as I read my way through his life as a youthful, idealistic, hedonistic and headstrong young actor. I am glad that although he added an essay or two in this reprint edition, he allowed his youthful voice to remain unchanged, showing his true maturity. And the brief glimpse of Alan Bennett (one of my favorite authors), refusing champagne and cycling off into the night after a successful debut of his theater show... priceless.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Lia Aprile

    I underlined and quoted from this book like ca-razy while reading it. His insight into the process of making theatre, discovering who one is as an actor, building a role, finding out--above and beyond being an actor--what kind of artist one is, and trying to survive the lonliness/unemployment and requisite self-doubt that comes along with the job are totally incredible. His stories from the 70's hey-day of fringe-y theatre are super great (I love how obsessive the Brits are about their I underlined and quoted from this book like ca-razy while reading it. His insight into the process of making theatre, discovering who one is as an actor, building a role, finding out--above and beyond being an actor--what kind of artist one is, and trying to survive the lonliness/unemployment and requisite self-doubt that comes along with the job are totally incredible. His stories from the 70's hey-day of fringe-y theatre are super great (I love how obsessive the Brits are about their theeeeeatre, and how this always seems to lead back to Lawrence Olivier) and for anyone who needs a little artistic pick-me-up/it's all worth it/keep on a'trucking kind of read, I highly recommend it.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Hank Lin

    In the land of blind, Simon Callow is a one-eyed king. No autobiography, nor memoir, nor acting journal has ever reached the pathos and technical insight this book offers into an industry/medium/art which purposefully obfuscates its merits. Strangely, the more Callow lays himself bare and becomes emotionally naked and individual, the more accessible he is as a conduit for any struggling, beginner, or professional actor.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Kate

    This book meant so much to me at the time I read it, seemingly on the cusp of being a real working actor.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Robert

    A great book on being an actor and trying to find and do good work.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sara

    The section on acting was entertaining and informative. The biographical section left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Bronwyn

  14. 4 out of 5

    Chris Rosser

  15. 4 out of 5

    Meaghan

  16. 5 out of 5

    Simon Mcleish

  17. 5 out of 5

    Fiona Davidson

  18. 5 out of 5

    Meg

  19. 5 out of 5

    Allison

  20. 5 out of 5

    Ben

  21. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Morrison

  22. 5 out of 5

    Robin

  23. 5 out of 5

    Guy Walsh

  24. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

  25. 5 out of 5

    Lindsay Frahn

  26. 5 out of 5

    Colin Smith

  27. 4 out of 5

    Michael Ripley

  28. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jack Beacham

  30. 5 out of 5

    Patrick Goodnow

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