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Matt Trueman: How much control do actors actually have?

Tonya Pinkins disagreed with director Brian Kulick's adaptation of Brecht. Photo: Lev Radin/Shutterstock.com
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There’s little in life as ambiguous as ‘creative differences’ – PR-speak for ‘don’t ask’.

There are ‘X isn’t up to the job’ creative differences and ‘Y’s a pain in the arse’ creative differences. The phrase can cover everything from affairs gone sour to co-star feuds, from better offers to, well, actual creative differences. It’s a versatile beast; the ‘family crisis’ of artsy get-out clauses.

At the end of last year, American actor Tonya Pinkins – best known as Caroline in Tony Kushner’s musical Caroline, or Change – withdrew from an Off-Broadway production of Mother Courage and Her Children. Creative differences had struck again – but, unusually, Pinkins and her director Brian Kulick made those differences public.

Transposing Bertolt Brecht’s play to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the artists disagreed over the level of specificity required. Kulick was content to generalise, treating Brecht as we do Shakespeare, while Pinkins demanded details of real history. Without that, she felt black lives were presented through a white lens, assumptions made from afar.

“For me,” she wrote, “the cultural misappropriation is unconscionable.”

They also differed in their understanding of the central character: Kulick interpreting Mother Courage as ‘delusional’ and Pinkins determined to emphasise her doggedness.

It’s not for me to arbitrate – partly because the mud-slinging since suggests there’s more to rehearsal-room reality than either statement admits – but I do want to dwell on what the incident implies about artistic expression.

One of my go-to interview questions for actors – always the hardest subjects, hence the ‘X wafts into the room’ cliches – is “Do you think of yourself as an artist?” Some do, some don’t and some do some of the time.

Beneath the question, there’s another question – namely, ‘How much control do you have over your art?’ An artist, in my book, needs to choose what their art expresses – but very few actors have that sort of control. Most don’t pick their projects at will. Most don’t get a say in a director’s vision. Most don’t get to sculpt their performance as they see fit.

In an overcrowded industry, where competition for jobs is fierce, actors have to get what they’re given and, more problematically, be grateful about it. Standard industry advice is compliance above all: “Be early, be ready and say thank you,” says Kenneth Branagh.

It’s quite possible, then, for an actor to end up in a production with which they disagree. More likely still, to appear in one they dislike. And, unlike Pinkins, not every actor can pull out of a show and release a public statement explaining their reasons (or can they?).

Artists don’t need absolute control – the Sistine Chapel was a commission and that’s art – but they do need a certain degree of it. If all actors are artists, some have more artistic expression than others – and that’s the biggest creative difference of them all.

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