A Chat with Phil Willmott

The members’ bar of the Royal Festival Hall is a lovely place to sit and work with a gorgeous view, free Wi-Fi, and is, in Phil’s words ‘cheaper than an office.’ I can see a small pattern occurring with these interviews…coffee, cake and discovering great places to work outside of the home. Phil is a prolific theatre director, writer and actor, for his full CV and Bio see his website here

I first met Phil as his Assistant Director on King John at The Union Theatre, (nominated for two Off-West End awards, Best Production and Best Director). Phil was the second director I assisted for who was passionate about using actioning, a way of working that through him I have come to respect from a distance! As with all Assistant/ Director working relationships I was tentative with Phil at first until the precarious bond of trust was formed and I was incredibly lucky to be used often in working with the ensemble and individual actors on the play. Phil is often quiet when you meet him, but charming when you get to know him and very passionate about theatre which is wonderfully catching.

YOU CAN’T WORK ON YOUR OWN

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.

Finding that team is incredibly important then. He loves using actors he has worked with before and has built up a rapport with, but equally (and advice for fellow directors here), as well as deciding who you want to keep working with, you also need to decide when to let that relationship go. He has learnt over the years that sometimes consistently working with the same person means the work can get stale. It’s about finding a combination of actors who are still excited and interested in working with him and then bringing on board and discovering new people. When he can afford it for a project he will bring in the skills of a casting director but he always advertises on Spotlight link and castingcallpro. From his perspective he’ll then get a lot of applications to wade through. He’ll always read the CV’s and check out the photographs and whilst he knows it’s hard for actors to understand, it does sometimes come down to a split second judgement in terms of how you respond to their photograph.

What does he think about the actor’s headshot? Phil says he has learnt to read them like a code so “if it’s their favourite photo then what do they really look like.” Equally he will look at show reels as you can get a sense of the weight and presence of an actor (even if you are directing for the stage), however, occasionally it can be a disadvantage for the actor. “Rather than being given the benefit of the doubt based on your photograph, quite often I can look at the show reel of someone who I think looks right and has the right kind of CV and go ‘oh no they’re not right at all’ and not call them in.”

CASTING & AUDITIONS

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.

“As 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 you.”

Controversially, Phil likes to audition people NOT using the text which he leans in and tells me with a smile he knows “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. So often when he is casting a Shakespeare play actors want to come in and read the lead part or part they’re going for but he would much rather start with the basics and see how people respond to a sonnet. “If you see an actor do a sonnet and then ask them what it means to them usually their explanation will be far more exciting than what they originally brought to the sonnet. So you say okay now do the sonnet showing me that…and that always seems to unlock lots of things.” In a short space of time Phil can see how the actor works the text, how they create their character, how they develop their journey and how they respond to direction. This is what he always does with the classics. If it’s an American play he will ask for a piece of prose to see how the actor engages with several different characters and keeps him engaged in the 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 do this, say you’re auditioning Twelfth Night and you have to go through a certain speech with two dozen 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 auditions listening to the same speeches you can get tired and stop listening, which is unfair to the last actors.

Directors: You must always recall. Phil believes that even if you are absolutely certain, right from the first audition, always recall as it can be amazing what you discover “with a second look.”

If an actor is prepared to come in for a recall it shows that they want to work with you and that they are investing their time and effort in working with you.

In a recall Phil will then look at the specific text, having ascertained from the first audition that they are right for the part in the project, he will usually give them a duologue and match them up with other people.

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! “They are willing you and just dying for you to be fantastic.” So his advice to young actors now 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. When you think you have found your team, check up on them. Phil will phone previous people who have worked with any actor he wants to cast and if he gets ‘even a whiff’ of trouble with another director he won’t employ them even if they have given a brilliant audition. He would rather go with someone who perhaps hadn’t given such a good audition but had heard who works incredibly well and will create a performance that develops and be part of an ensemble than someone who is fantastic at audition but that he has heard is difficult. For the actor who hasn’t mastered the delicate art of the audition successfully yet, the work that you do in the rehearsal room will also make you known and get you further work.

Director to director, Phil goes on to say that there are the occasions when you have to work with someone difficult. Either they are the celebrity on board the project or you have been hired to work on a certain thing with a certain actor and then you have to learn how to deal with that which is another necessary skill. Then it is a complex process of trying to make them feel comfortable so that they will trust you and work your way. 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 is probably 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 foolish 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, even more so then text analysis, to make the company talk together and laugh together and then “once you’ve cracked that it usually works out alright.”

THE REHEARSAL ROOM

Phil Willmott in rehearsal photo by Scott Rylander

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 play it clearly and simply. For me the very best way, I have found of quite calmly analysing beat by beat a characters journey is to use actioning.”

Phil was actually taught actioning at drama school, (“badly”) and hated it. “I wanted to just get up and get the costume on and do some shouting.” (The fact he hated it at drama school didn’t shock me, I felt the same way, what threw me was that he then came to rely on it so much.) 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 in despair to help an actor break down the text to find the detail and the journey through. 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 the rehearsal scene or on 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 it’s usually around a week and a half. He explains to me that often actors will get frustrated and want to just get up 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 would have wanted 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’s journey. 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 telling you that they can’t do it that they’re not clever enough, they don’t know enough words. What’s really important to get through to people is that it isn’t school, it isn’t right, it isn’t wrong, they aren’t being judged on it, they’re not being marked on it, what they come up with might not work but it’s about the actual process of talking it through in detail and making discoveries, so that 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.”

Again it is the difficult job of the director to juggle the needs and wants of several other people in the room whilst steering the journey of the play towards the direction you want it to go. If you have a director using actioning and it isn’t really for them then it can be quite destructive and boring for everyone concerned. “Keep checking in with yourself – is this inspiring the actors, is this engaging the actors? And occasionally I’ll have an actor and they’re just not getting it, and then I’ll push them a little bit more and then I’ll abandon it.” He follows a similar pathway to Max Stafford Clark who apparently says to actors who aren’t necessarily engaging with actioning to try it for three days and if at the end they still don’t want to 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 fantastic.” Phil similarly encourages people to give it a try and usually finds people are won over. There is the magic moment when you action a scene and nobody’s quite sure and are a bit wary of everything, “and then you make the actors read the scene back applying the actions and everyone goes, ‘yeah that’s amazing, that’s really brought that to life.’”

Actioning is the Marmite method of the moment, you either love it or hate it. And to those who don’t like it? “I would arrogantly say that people who hate it haven’t done it with a director who knows how to take them through 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. Here are two blogs I have found that weigh up the positives and negatives.

Phil has found his own take on it, having been taught it badly, and has come back to actioning as a method of working on a text at a time when he was looking for a way to clarify and lift a text. Perhaps then something all actors and directors should remember is that with all these different methods out there it is important to find out if it works for you or to discover your own way of developing it and using it. Without question it is Phil’s incredible enthusiasm for the practice of actioning that leads his actors into it.

CRAFTING THE IMAGE ON THE STAGE

It is important to Phil to visually represent an idea to audience which comes out of the actioning process as well. He is a “fiend” for blocking and can’t have “actors aimlessly moving about the stage hoping to feel it”. You have to decide what you want the audience to look at and it is one of the great pleasures for Phil to make 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 comes out.” I jokingly describe the desperate look of the actor wanting to know what he should do in the scene but Phil, also laughing, adds that there is also the desperate feeling of the director ‘oh my god, what am I going to do with this scene!” He can’t analyse that, it just appears to come to him in the room. My suggestion is that it comes from watching the actors, allowing them to inspire him with how they are using the text which then informs the stage pictures he wants to create. 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 count down 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 you in this and you can’t afford to do it then just say no, nobody is making you. The ideas that you can somehow legislate ….I mean 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.”

I posed that if we gave into no funding then brilliant works wouldn’t happen, but Phil disagrees.

“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 but to be extra careful about the 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 practising your craft and enjoying practising 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 stick to it.” 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 square on the floor of his apartment front room 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, assembling people around to watch and telling stories in the middle of it. That’s what we must do.”

Do you ever still get 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. Only take jobs where you think you will be able to do that as anything less is going to hamper the process and won’t be successful on any level, either personally fulfilling or the end result being any good.”

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 use clear and uncomplicated analysing 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 pull the whole rehearsal process through to create 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 an end product.”

 

Phil has several productions happening over the next few months, for a full list please click here

Copyright @JemmaGross 2012

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3 thoughts on “A Chat with Phil Willmott

  1. Interesting but my preference is to pay actors. We can’t allow people to get in debt while they are unable to work in a paid job. low pay is better than no pay I believe but it should be much easier to get funding than it is currently as it seems to be more about HOW you fill in the form rather than what you are doing. Phil is a fine director and if public funding was more about seed corn for interesting work and good luck if you make a profit rather than profit seen as something reprehensible then low paid opportunities to learn or stretch creatively would be more possible. As it is if we cannot find funding we are asking actors to put themselves in a difficult situation with a harder faced benefit system or struggle unless they can subsidise the piece. Understand I am not knocking the notion of making art for the love of it I just think that is getting harder to do.

    Regards

    Graham Howes
    http://missingpiecestheatreshow.co.uk

    • Hi Graham,
      Thank you for reading and commenting!
      Completely agree with you and yes we should pay actors (as well as all involved with any show) a proper wage. However I agree with Phil that if there isn’t any money to be found then it is better to keep on creating in whatever form you can. I’m starting to think as well that small theatre companies need to look to become profit enterprises as opposed to relying on subsidies. Perhaps to find other revenue streams that feed into the company and so productions.
      This is a topic we need a lot of discussion on as well as sharing of ideas and success stories.
      Jemma

      • It would be a good idea to change the Funding model to one of seed corn to get a company on their feet – if they do interesting work like Angie’s company then they should not be saddled with not making a profit because that creates dependency. If they make a profit which is frowned on by the Arts Council currently – they should be able to plough it back in so they need less or no subsidy. With Missing Pieces we are looking at a Private / Public model to go to full production.. Interesting times for our project and yours I think! We have just had a Development Workshop funded by he Arts Council of GB and Unity Theatre Trust and a sharing which Angie Bull attended and have stirred up significant interest – it was a blast and we were able to pay properly. I agree we need to keep the creative muscles exercised but in this economic climate it is harder to subsidise a company as a performer specially with the Government and DSS on your back. This Government appears to be anti Arts even though we are a significant economic driver! Let’s hope Mr Bazelgette has some better ideas for the Arts. It would help if sponsors could make subsidy more tax deductible but incredibly this Government both wants to move us that way and on the other hand appears to regard it as next to money laundering. How about a blog on Profit Enterprises someone has to keep airing this topic before we all shrivel and die as we watch more sponsorship models come into being that will mean money goes to those that have it already and away from the small to medium companies doing the cutting edge work but who are less of a Marketing opportunity than the Opera or large theatre
        companies

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