Back Stage West July 14, 2004
Brits Versus Yanks by Jean Schiffman
Perhaps it’s a case of the other actors’ greenroom always seeming greener: American actors revere the golden-tongued Brits; the English, for their part, think Americans, with our relaxed physicality and easily accessed emotions, are the best.
So says teacher/director Dee Cannon, a self-described Anglo-American who was born and raised in London and teaches acting on both sides of the pond, as well as in other countries. Currently residing in Los Angeles, where she is coaching actors and holding master classes, Cannon is eager to share her unique perspective on the gifts and challenges specific to English and American actors-in-training.
“The English are supreme at working with language plays,” says Cannon, in an impeccable British accent. “They come into their own with Shakespeare, Shaw, Pinter, Ayckbourn, Stoppard, Coward, and Restoration comedies because these plays are very literate and there are not huge amounts of emotional content in them.” Clearly that stiff-upper-lip, close-your-eyes-and-think-of-England thing did a number on young British actors-to-be. “Not to be negative, but they feel comfortable almost acting from the neck up.”
Her own legacy is that her New Yorker mother, the late Doreen Cannon, had studied with Uta Hagen and brought Hagen’s Stanislavsky-based psychological approach to England when she married an Englishman. She taught at the Drama Centre in London for 20 years, then was head of acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) for another dozen years or so in the 1980s, training such actors as Simon Callow and Pierce Brosnan. Dee followed in her mother’s footsteps and has coached the likes of Jon Voight, Sinead O’Connor, and other luminaries of stage and screen.
Unlike the Brits, Dee Cannon’s American students are more used to being expressive in real life, and their bubbling emotionalism can get in the way of good performances. “Americans know you have to expose certain parts of yourself–vulnerability, humility,” she explains. “Vulnerability is so important. Without it you have one-dimensional characters.
“But here in America,” she continues, “they almost like it too much. It’s difficult for Americans to separate their own emotion from the character’s. I’ve been told by a few Americans, ‘But it was so real, so truthful for me.’ I had to get through to them that there are many different truths. I don’t want to see a contemporary truth for something that isn’t contemporary. It’s all in the choices. You find those characteristics within yourself, then you need to decide which you will use for your character.” Los Angeles actors are “so desperate to get into a showcase to show themselves off, so happy to be onstage,” she adds, “that [their emotions] all come pouring out, and it [sometimes] has nothing to do with the character or the play.”
Plainspoken British actor Helen Mirren (in Conversations with Actors on Film, Television, and Stage Performance by Carole Zucker, Heinemann, 2002) described the downside of Americans’ ability to emote: “It’s facile emotion, it’s not real, it’s false. It’s sort of a reproduction of an emotion. When you have emotional acting from European actors, it’s far more real.”
But Cannon finds that her British students are baffled by discussions of their characters’ “inner life” and don’t really understand how much of their deepest selves are needed for a role. “It’s hard work to find that inner life,” Cannon concedes, “breaking down the text, doing the research, finding all the transferences. [British] actors are not prepared to do that. It’s easier to be external…. Years and years of English culture tells you never to show your true feelings. This goes into what they do in life, and you can’t get rid of that [mindset] very quickly when you come to train.”
When Cannon teaches in England–she’s been the main acting teacher at RADA since 1993–she uses animal exercises to help the students release and open up. “I try to throw them off their own physical center, shut off that third eye in their head that’s watching themselves,” she says. She also uses songs and music, occasionally an affective memory exercise (“This is seriously terrifying for them!”). Still, it’s often an uphill battle. Among the last group of 12 young British actors (ages 18 to 23) whom she taught at RADA, the animal exercises seemed to have no effect. Half told her they never get angry, half claimed they hadn’t cried since they were kids, half told her they don’t know what it means to be frustrated. Not all of her groups, however, are this disconnected.
In scene work, whether in England or America, Cannon uses American plays (Williams, Odets, O’Neill, Shepard) and sometimes Russian or Scandinavian drama (Chekhov, Strindberg). “The kind of training I want to give them [isn’t suited] to a Stoppard play,” she explains. She goes for the heightened reality texts.
Cannon also reminds us that English society is based on a class system, and “generally speaking, working-class actors are more connected to their emotions, those with middle-class backgrounds less so.” That’s why, she believes, there are exceptions to the repressed-Englishperson stereotype; she mentions working-class types Albert Finney, Gary Oldman, Bob Hoskins, and Michael Caine. And she singles out some of the more middle-class British actors who have managed to transcend the stereotype, among them Janet McTeer, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, and Judi Dench. “They are able to take the best of English training–voice and movement–and throw away this English self-consciousness, make the characters live and breathe.”
Interestingly, Cannon says that in the other countries where she’s taught and directed–including Sweden, Israel, and the Philippines–young actors are more like Americans in terms of being able to tap their deepest emotions, although it may sometimes take them longer than it takes their American counterparts to understand the concept. She also notes that students in England who come from an Irish or other mixed European background also respond more the way Americans do.
Irishman Stephen Rea might disagree, though; in In the Company of Actors (Carole Zucker, Routledge, 1999) he comments that the assumption that the Irish are somehow “natively more spontaneous, less intellectual” than Britons is bogus and, if extrapolated, could seem racist. “Nobody made more plans and schemes than Cyril Cusack,” he said, of his fellow countryman. Rea, raised on American films, always identified more with American than British actors.
I asked Cannon about the aspirations of young American versus young British actors. “British actors all aspire to be like their American counterparts,” she says. They admire Ethan Hawke, Brad Pitt, Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman. Only about a quarter of them want to make their future in film, though; most are hoping to get into the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Globe, the Royal National Theatre, or other smaller companies. Angelenos, it goes without saying, want to break into film; in New York, where she also teaches, they are more stage-oriented. She also notes that in England most students train in three-year programs and then feel through with training altogether, whereas in America only a handful have gone through three-year programs and are more likely to attend independent workshops or hire private coaches, especially for film roles. In England, as a matter of pride, once you’ve graduated from your program, you’re unlikely to go back for more training.
Cannon says that it’s easy for audiences to be fooled by British actors: “They sound so genuine, but when they go offstage you know they’re just walking into the wings; there’s no sense of previous circumstance, of living a life. Americans are basing their opinions of British acting on films, or from seeing a few shows on the West End, and they’re bowled over by the slickness, the professionalism, the quite seductive external qualities.” Hugh Grant, Kristen Scott-Thomas, and the late Alan Bates come to mind for me–enormously charming actors who skim the surface. Cannon, to my surprise, mentions Alan Rickman, Ian McKellen, Ralph Fiennes, Derek Jacobi: “All coming out of a very similar school of acting, all mannered onstage. Yet Jacobi’s I, Claudius [on TV] was fantastic. When I saw Paul Scofield onstage, I almost had to leave the theatre, his voice was so grating. He’d found the character through the voice.”
However, Janet McTeer, asked about the difference between British and American acting (in In the Company of Actors), said, “The way acting is taught is ultimately slightly immaterial. If you’re really good, you’ll get at the truth.” However, she added, “That desire to be totally, totally real in its essence is something that we don’t really do in England, or certainly not to the same extent [as in American films]…. I’ve always been drawn to the kind of thing that’s considered to be very British: the wonderful speaking of text. But for me, if the wonderful speaking of text has no heart, I’d rather read it.”
I suspect it’s ultimately healthy that on the whole we Americans admire the skills of our English brothers and sisters, and vice versa. Surely each group can learn from the other.