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Paul Clayton: There’s nothing wrong with stealing the limelight

Scene stealer – Antony Sher as Richard III. Photo: Bill Alexander
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I have a dream. Not the sort that makes me wake up sweating, but frequent enough for me to worry about it. Standing on stage, centre stage, I have a very big emotional speech. The audience is laughing. I’m increasingly aware they are not laughing at me. Something is happening behind me. Something that I’m not in control of. Something upstage.

Of course it doesn’t happen in life… does it?

In my first year at the Royal Shakespeare Company, I played a chef in an Elizabethan comedy. Nice part. Funny part. First big scene reeling off a comedy menu of ingredients. “Be there 17 quails and a calf of lamb”. You know the kind of thing? Hilarious.

During this, the leading actor playing the villain entered. He sat at a table, and as I proceeded to work my comedy cookery lesson, he slowly destroyed a floral arrangement on the table. Pulling blooms from it and throwing them to the floor in time with my words. If I stopped, he stopped, if I speeded up, then so did he. He did it every night, and he got laughs. Nobody remembered the chef, but I bet everybody remembered the funny villain with the flowers.

Of course, they did. Those plays demand an extreme showmanship in the playing. When Antony Sher announced to the company that he was going to play Richard III on crutches, there can’t have been many actors who said, “Oh good, that should mean we all get a look in”. Yet his brilliant, scene stealing, mesmeric performance made the play.

When you see a lot of actors striving for attention, then excitement starts to happen. Watching a recent matinee on Broadway of a musical in preview, every single member of the ensemble performed as though the audience was watching them and only them.

It’s the duty of every actor on stage to know where the focus should be at any given moment, but there’s nothing to stop you taking an extra moment of that focus.

The slow swirling upstage movement crossing the stage behind the speaker. The intense interest in an object on set as though assessing the speaker’s words. A nice position down left or right staring out into space, disconnected from the speaker, can all bring attention. Props can help. A well-timed drag on a cigarette used to speak volumes even if you weren’t the speaker. Comedy glasses business, of both the spectacles and the drinking kind. There’s a rich and long list of discreet attention grabbers.

Fellow thespians may roll their eyes in the rehearsal room. “Is he really going to do that?” And indeed should you really be doing that? Shouldn’t you be sharing the love, working as a company. After all, there is no ‘I’ in team. No, but there’s very definitely one in ‘excite’. And surely that is what we should be doing.

So share the focus, but don’t ever be afraid to seize your moment. You’ve earned it.

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