Christopher Eccleston - Masterclass - Report


Images by Stuart Allen / Masterclass TRH

Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, July 20
By Jen and Alex

The setting: Very ornate theatre; house lights were only slightly dimmed, so both sides could see each other. A chair (for Eccleston) and a side table (for a bottle of water) were set in the middle of the stage which had a nice false perspective background.
The audience: Mixed, but predominantly youthful – questions were asked by pupils, drama students, young professionals.

Christopher Eccleston started with a brief introduction, mentioning, not without some amusement, that he had just come back from South Africa where he filmed 'The Borrowers' and played Pod Clock, a role famously tackled by Ian Holm and Jim Broadbent – and that fact he was about to change. He was heading next to Newcastle and 'Song For Marion', to play Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp's son. Then it's back to Manchester for 'The Fuse', a new political thriller for the BBC.

At this point Eccleston realised he didn't get acquainted with the audience. The very first question, how many of the attendees were actors, revealed they actually formed the majority – and he reacted by pretending to instantly flee the stage. There were also discovered a bunch of directors and writers. The latter made themselves more visible later when Eccleston was presented with a script of a project in development. Finally, there might not have been a notable number of teachers, but one of them was Steve Keating who once taught Eccleston.

From here on the audience was encouraged to ask questions, and this report will try to summarize the most important subjects raised, grouping them thematically rather than chronologically. Utterances are all paraphrased.

Throughout the talk Eccleston stressed the importance of his background and upbringing. Manchester has always stayed a touchstone for him, and his parents were not only his support, but also a perfect example of the intelligent TV viewer who is fully capable to select the truly worthwhile programmes, and the level of one's education is irrelevant.

Then, it is essential to stay true to yourself – sometimes even at the cost of secure future. Eccleston himself has been running his career not with the head, but with the heart – choosing roles he deemed important instead of those that could have allowed a steady progress. He admitted that especially at the start these relevant roles were working class and that cemented his image. He later wondered how come this country was still obsessed with class – too much is thought out instead of felt.

Leaving London's Central School of Speech and Drama he was equipped with what at that time seemed like questionable skills, idealism and not much confidence in himself. While later, in real-life environment, he found that the training did provide him the necessary tools, he still regretted he didn't make more of the standard routines, and he also wished he'd had learnt dance and music and not just concentrated solely on acting. He supposed he kept the idealism.

Speaking about difficulties experienced by young professionals – and he spent the first three years looking for an acting job – Eccleston provided two examples of different feedback. At one audition he honestly admitted the problems he'd been having and the casting director told him to look for something else. After another unsuccessful audition the director there said, "You may have some potential." The latter director was Ian Brown who sixteen years later contacted Eccleston and offered him Hamlet at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Eccleston said that both the negative and the positive comments stoked enough determination in him to carry on, and he suggested to seize what you can from the various feedback you would receive. Eventually the break came for Eccleston with the help of Phyllida Lloyd and then him being cast as the main character in 'Let Him Have It'.

Playing this film's protagonist Derek Bentley had a profound impact on Eccleston, both psychologically and physically. Bentley stayed with him for almost a year. Eccleston thought the film didn't take the best approach by showing that Bentley shouldn't have been hanged because he was simple and nice. Eccleston emphatically argued that the film would've been made much stronger by focusing on Bentley's reality (he had a mental age of a small child and severe epilepsy, was heavily medicated with unrefined drugs), acknowledging that he could have been ugly and violent, but still maintaining that he shouldn't have been hanged.

With 'Let Him Have It', Eccleston's career took a definite turn towards television and the big screen. He wished though he had done more theatre. When he was studying, his drama idols were Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson. They were for him the rock stars of their day and he read a lot about them. However, when it came to reality, the stories Eccleston wanted to tell were found on TV. Interestingly, while he had always preferred working on stage to screen, he didn't believe in improvisation without structure.

Looking back, he also questioned his complete, blinkering concentration on work, admitting that only recently he started combining working and living. Beside not forgetting to have a life, Eccleston advised those stuck in an empty period to just take a break, get away from it, take up something entirely different – and not spend the time contemplating how tough it is – which was what he tended to do. He mentioned several times that his job situation had always been 'feast or famine'. These days when he's without a project he said he turned to running, listening to music and reading. Prompted, he listed "If This Is A Man" by Primo Levi on holocaust, "My Traitor's Heart" by Rian Malan on apartheid, "An Evil Cradling" by Brian Keenan, a hostage's account, and insisted that those books inspired him positively, adding bemusedly that they were indeed all heavy reading.

When asked what era he would like to go back to in terms of drama, Eccleston selected the start of the 1960s with the old black and white kitchen sink dramas; Albert Finney in 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning', Richard Harris in 'This Sporting Life', Tom Courtenay in 'The Loneliness of A Long Distance Runner'. Those working class dramas he'd have wanted to be in. Regarding American films, he thought their heyday was in the seventies ('The Conversation', 'Three Days of the Condor'), but the stories peddled now had ceased being relevant.

Christopher Eccleston gave a lot of advice for young actors, from sharing his opinion on some theoretic questions to explaining certain practical points.

For accents, he often used a voice coach (f. ex. Geordie dialect in 'Our Friends in the North') or alternatively asked a non-actor native speaker to record the lines for listening (but not a purposeful sit-down listening). It made it more interesting and prevented creation of false-sounding DIY accents. Eccleston was aware his Scottish in 'GI Joe' was much maligned and explained it sounded like it did because Stephen Sommers dismissed the realistic accent Eccleston suggested; also, the script was littered with Americanisms. So was American Scottish born.

From technical points, he explained how sometimes a film director actually preferred to have you distressed and unsatisfied with your own performance, using the 'off' takes to good effect; advised to trust the writer; not to dismiss your identity even if it's not exactly welcome; instead of focusing on yourself, work on the connection with the material.

Overall, according to Eccleston, when you are working, communication and generosity are key. He recommended to communicate with all parts of the production team, make use of collaborations with technical crews – their choices do influence you and your character. Second essential element is generosity. Eccleston claimed he didn't do or never would do method acting and said he didn't actually know what it was. He argued against over-reliance on technique – even if it gave amazing results. He explained that it could become a dangerous game with your own chemistry set, making you self absorbed in your own little world. In other words, if it's something that harms co-actors, it's worthless. Even if it was a hero of his practising it, he'd lose faith with him. One's performance should be about generosity.

Of actors who influenced him, Eccleston mentioned Peter Vaughan. He found Vaughan's long career and professionalism on set inspiring, and received the best advice from him when they were working together on 'Our Friends In The North': How to stay concentrated no matter the situation; to be punctual; to respect everyone on set. Eccleston was also fascinated by, among others, Simon Callow (who played Dickens in 'Doctor Who') and Sharon Horgan (Homily in 'The Borrowers') working on their own projects, such as writing scripts, whilst filming.

Eccleston also revealed he discovered that his telephone had been hacked into and that he was going to sue Rupert Murdoch and give him the boot. Not only for this, but for all the lies given out when the Hillsborough tragedy happened. Misleading representation of events in the press was also what marred his 'Doctor Who', he said, with journalists knowingly shifting the focus from the series actual unarguable success to his exit. He reiterated that the most important thing was that he did it, that it restarted the programme. Eccleston explained he left the show because he disagreed with the way things were being run, and once again stressed the importance of staying true to yourself.

While Eccleston didn't think he should be remembered in a particular way, he named two roles that were the most important in his life: Trevor Hicks in 'Hillsborough' (because of the cast and crew and the film's effect – hopefully there will be justice) and Hamlet (not successful, but huge role). Also Derek Bentley and the TV film 'Flesh and Blood' were extremely important. And Eccleston said he wouldn't retire – he could see himself enjoying being an old man playing theatre. Before that, he'd like to portray for example the former NUM leader Arthur Scargill because of the momentous change Britain went through in the mid 1980s. On stage he'd like to do more Shakespeare – or a musical.

Masterclass TRH after the talk video:

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2011-6-28 New date - Wednesday 20 July (2:30 - 4:30pm)

Info & tickets

2011-5-29 Christopher Eccleston is lined up for one of the Theatre Royal Haymarket's Masterclass events (Q&A session).

Masterclass "aims to offer young people exceptional creative opportunities and experiences with leaders of the theatre industry. A year-round programme of talks, workshops, special projects and career advice is intended to give people insight into all aspects of theatre from writing and directing to acting and producing. Masterclass strives to provide all the events for free, so that people of all abilities, status and background can be inspired by and learn from masters of the craft."

Admission free to those 30 years of age or under (must be booked in advance). Paid tickets also available.

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Originally was to be held on June 24, but was postponed on June 16 with the following official explanation:
We're really disappointed to let you know that, due to circumstances beyond ours and Christopher Eccleston's control we've had to cancel next week's Masterclass.
Chris wanted us to pass on his dissappointment and has assured us we'll be able to find a new date for the Masterclass - hopefully in the near future.
We won't be carrying your booking over but will notify everyone who successfully booked a place of the new date as soon as we know and before we make it generally available. We will, of course, refund any over-30's tickets bought in advance.
Once again - our deepest apologies for any disappointment caused and we hope to see you soon.


Neptunienne said...

Thank you so much for this report! I went to London for the cancelled Masterclass and couldn't make it for this one. I'm glad you got to go and I'm very grateful that you shared some of the things he said! I hope it was a great experience for you, too! :)

Alex said...

You're welcome. Sorry to hear you couldn't make it - it was really good. All the main points are in this report. Basically just the extended explanations and examples are cut in order to stay sensible. There were over 30 questions asked.
Thanks for reading! =)