Florian Reiners, Professor of Lead Voice and Speech and deputy department head at the Max Reinhardt Seminar, spoke recently with Mel Churcher prior to her visit to Vienna about the significance of film and on-camera training, the transformed world in which actors now work, and what she thinks of Austrian film.

Florian Reiners (FR): Why do you think film training is important for theatre students?

Mel Churcher (MC): Most actors these days end up doing a mixture of theatre and screen work. Of course some choose not to, but most enjoy the mixture. I believe one enhances the other, and working on screen and seeing the fine detail is a great teaching tool for theatre, too. Jeremy Irons says in the preface to my last book that you can’t ‘pretend’ on camera.  It will find you out. That ‘psychic lens’, as Martin Scorsese calls it, will see whether you are truly listening or thinking. And you should be doing that on stage as well.

An actor trained for theatre will have all the basic building blocks, know how to work on a role, and be full of imagination. But there are many differences between the mediums. Here are the ones that I call, the big three:

Mel Churcher
Mel Churcher ©private

First, when you work in theatre, there is an audience. When you work on screen, there is NO audienceThis sounds obvious at first, but in fact, it is very subtle. We grow up making a distinction between playing, imagining and improvising, and performing to an audience using a script and when first we use text on screen, we are hard-wired to perform ‘to’ someone. But on screen, there is no-one except the people who inhabit our imaginary world – no audience while we’re filming. We need communication energy but within that private world. We don’t need to make ourselves ‘small’ or to do any less than we would do in life, but we don’t need to add that extra bit to reach across the footlights to an outside eye. The camera is not an audience – it is an inanimate observer. The crew is not an audience. We are existing only in the imaginary alternative life of the play: as we did in the games we played as children, and as we sometimes do during a wonderful rehearsal before the audience arrive.

Which takes us to the next big difference: For TV and film, there is NO rehearsal (or very little). In theatre we have weeks and weeks of rehearsals with all the actors present – and the director. In screen work, you may arrive on the set at eight in the morning and play a love scene with someone you have never met at ten o’clock. (The time in between being taken up with the make-up and costume departments.) Somehow the actor must prepare alone, yet know the world they are in: explore the relationships; understand the drives of the role; fill in all the specific details of the life they lead – and yet never ‘decide’ on a way to ‘perform’; never know ‘how’ they will play it or say it; and be able to add or change anything given new information and immediately accept, wholeheartedly, the other previously unknown actors as the other people who also inhabit this new world.

It’s all out of order, and each scene is repeated many times. The filming is not linear: you may bury your lover before you have married them; lose the war before you have gone into battle; spend the gold before you have found it. Each moment you can only know what you have done, you can never know what the future holds. And each take you have to forget the last and start again. (We do that in theatre too, but we generally have a break between each show.)

So – although so much of the preparation is the same, there are big differences as well. Not to mention the technical side. But, in my experience, actors find these differences exhilarating once they have adjusted. For too long, in the UK at least, there has been little screen training for actors at the conservatoires. It is so good to see that changing.

Whoa… that was a long answer…

FR: What will the students at the Max Reinhardt Seminar expect from your workshop and scene work, and what do you expect?

MC: I shall help with all or any of the above and explore, with the actor, the specifics of the scene and how to make the world come alive – how to put pictures in your head; acquire the muscle memory of the life you lead in the role; uncover what drives you in the role. Using a camera and a monitor, we will find out how to keep alive in the role. My work is always geared to each individual’s needs and to the specifics of the scene. So I can’t tell you exactly what I’ll do until I’m in the thick of it. On my side, I expect to work with excellent, committed, and talented actors, and to learn and be inspired by them – as I am in all my work with actors.

FR: You’ve worked with so many different actors and actresses: What’s the difference between the theatre students and actors who do only film? And why is camera training so underestimated?

MC: I think theatre students adjust more easily to screen work than the other way around. I would always like an actor to have been trained in theatre, but to have also had some camera work alongside – and for the training to culminate in both theatre and film projects. Theatre provides a grounding in teamwork and allows for the kind of in-depth exploration that isn’t possible in pure screen training. (I’m thinking here of those one-year screen acting diplomas – I think they work best if you’ve trained or worked in theatre beforehand.)

But I think camera training is underestimated because, you need to train for that too. Unless you have done film work, those big differences I outlined above are not immediately apparent. There used to be a feeling that the work for the actor was the same whether it was for stage or screen and – although the imaginative belief and much about the self-preparation will be the same – in the ‘doing’ of the work, there will be enormous differences.

And as you know, as a fellow voice and text teacher, how screen work can be a big trap vocally, too. In theatre, your voice has to be ‘connected’ in order to project. In life, it’s connected because we are relaxed. On screen we don’t often need to project beyond the other actors – and we are certainly not relaxed. If we are not very careful, we stop communicating and start talking to ourselves. We lose the ‘ring of truth’. I know you help the students with that. And by the way, many actors don’t warm up or cool down for screen. Why not? What wouldn’t they need?!

FR: This is your first time in Vienna. What do you think about the Austrian movie scene?

MC: Well, of course so many Austrian directors and actors (male and female) are working worldwide. Although, sadly, politics seems to be dividing us all – film is bringing us all together, as it has always done. Many films are funded and cast Europe-wide; actors work world-wide.

Some of the greatest film directors have been Austrian, including Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Fred Zimmerman, Otto Preminger – to name but a few. Nowadays, Michael Haneke’s wonderful films are known and applauded everywhere. And Christoph Waltz is an international film star, as are and were, so many of the luminous alumni of the Max Reinhardt Seminar.

I worked with the lovely actor, Martina Gedeck, on The Door (directed by Istvan Szabó), and she invited me to the showing of Die Wand, directed by another Austrian director, Julian Pölsler. I thought it was a terrific film. Incidentally, Martina said a lovely thing about working on that film over several years. She said it had a made her a better film actor (she was wonderful) because working for so long with animals meant that she had to be wholly truthful. She could never ‘pretend’. Isn’t that a beautiful thought? Especially since acting with animals can be very difficult, technically…

FR: Why is it important to work with teachers who are experienced actors and actresses, and not only with directors and theoreticians?

MC: Well, I think a mixture of many different kinds of teachers and teaching is useful. I believe in being an eclectic actor. But I think teachers who have been actors bring an understanding of being in an actor’s shoes; of knowing a single viewpoint in the drama; of understanding how to think as an actor and how to decode some of the director’s notes. (Because of time constraints, many film directors, understandably, ask for end results. An actor has to know how to change a role’s essence or up the ante in order to come to what the director wants from the inside-out as it were.) And – maybe most important of all – teachers who have acted understand the terror.

FR: Finally you’ve been doing this for a long time and are a Life member of BAFTA and a voting member of the EFA. How have things changed for actors?

MC: Technology has become much cheaper and more readily available, so many actors become involved in filmmaking – even if t’s just doing a scene on a smart phone.

The most important recent development has been the rise of self-taping or e-casting. Now, actors are asked to film scenes themselves for the casting directors. This puts quite a burden on them, and makes it imperative that they have the training to cope. But it also brings international opportunities. I recently had the pleasure of helping a German actress (who’d been to one of my workshops in Germany) with a self-tape. She went on to land a lead in a major UK drama series, and I ended up coaching her on it. So it was wonderful for both of us!

The other big change is from movies with single directors to big budget series – not only the classic TV ones, but also those by ABC, HBO, Netflix, Amazon Prime and so on. These have enormous budgets and shoot world-wide. An actor is dealing with ten scripts at once and working on many at the same time. These projects are not the vision of a single director, but producer-led and multi-directed. So an actor has to prepare really well, expect little help, and be able to move between and work with different directors over a long period of time – to keep the ‘soul’ of the role consistent. A young director said to me recently. ‘these, days we need ‘emancipated’ actors’!

I look forward very much to my work at the Max Reinhardt Seminar!

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