Told By an Idiot: Being an actor… that doesn’t speak much

Monday, 16 December 2019

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Amalia Vitale on being an actor that doesn’t speak…much. At least not in a normal way.

Week five has been about working in detail, starting and stopping scenes and sequences and really looking for the most economic way to tell the story. The clog dance has been part of the daily warm up routine and both Amalia Vitale (Charlie) and Jerone Marsh-Reid (Stan) practice with the clogs on. Sara Alexander and Nick Haverson play piano and drums correspondingly.

I’m not a mime but recently I have been an actor that doesn’t speak…much. At least not in a normal way.

My niche has recently been work that has linguistic restrictions placed upon it, work that requires me to find alternative ways of communicating a story. When Paul Hunter (Director of The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel) asked me to take the part of Charlie Chaplin in a production which is in the style of an old silent movie, I jumped at it.

Paul first spotted me when I was doing a Tim Crouch show called Beginners, at The Unicorn Theatre, in which I played a mostly silent dog on a drizzly family holiday. Initially in the show you don’t realise that’s what I am, as I’m dressed like a human but through my interactions with the other characters you slowly realise… she’s a dog! The only time I really spoke was a monologue, written in dog. “Here’s a tale tale in a sniff sniff, wags and wag wag” and my favourite line “bum sniff everyone!”

Of course that’s not a normal way of speaking but the audience would find meaning and logic within it and after most shows someone would come up to me and ask – “are you a Labrador” or a terrier or whatever their pet was. In the spaces we left, the audience filled it with their own experiences, understanding and love…of canines. It was quite magical.

Prior to that I did another show with Tim where the restriction of the piece was that we could only speak using three specific words which were – Jeramee Hartleby and Ooglemoore. This was also the title of the show. Each word had to have a clear intention to communicate the narrative. What you find with this work is that intentions are a global language – doesn’t matter what the words are. So you need to get those intentions right.

I’m so fascinated by linguistic restrictions that my company All in, are about to start developing a new show with The Unicorn Theatre called Mountains. Partly inspired by the steep rise of linguaphobia in the UK, in Mountains each character speaks a different language to one another – none of which are English. Next week we will be in a room with 5 brilliant actors who speak Finnish, Greek, French, Spanish and Polish. Our aim over two weeks is to find a way to ensure our audience understand exactly what’s going on – without subtitles and with a healthy dollop of physical comedy.

I’ve also delved into the world of linguistic restriction in film, I recently voiced Lula in Farmageddon, Aardman’s new Shaun The Sheep movie. Recording Lula was one of the most ridiculous jobs I’ve ever had. I was hired to show up intermittently over a year and make long lists of alien noises into a microphone. Heaven! Lula scared, Lula eating popcorn, anything and everything in my alien arsenal, reams of gurgles and yelps that would give the animators something t
o work with. And the intention behind each sound had to be crystal – a whimper would be broken down into hundreds of variables each one telling a different story. Each time I went back, a little bit more plasticine would have taken shape and eventually it became my job to find sounds that fitted the mouth shapes already mo
ulded – known as pick ups. It’s a collaborative process on a vast scale, I feel very proud to have been a part of it.

It’s been and continues to be an interesting journey with this type of work. As an acting student I remember the first thing you wanted to know was how many lines you had in your end of year show…now I enjoy working with as few as possible! I think words can sometimes muddy a good story – and as Paul said today “when you don’t have lines to rely on you have to stay constantly active as a performer” because in that space we see EVERYTHING. Charlie Chaplin certainly knew this. I can’t wait to share The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel with everyone – it’s a brilliant cast and has been such an exciting experiment in restriction, intention and finding alternative ways to tell a story.

In the wise words of Boyzone – You say it best when you say nothing at all.

Amalia Vitale
Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel’

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel’ at Unity Theatre, Tue 18 – Sat 22 Feb 2020