Things to do in rep when you're dead

'Noël Coward lines are a form of hard currency among actors. And forgery is not unknown'
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Today I am handing over the column to a Very Famous Actor, who is going to answer all your questions about acting and the theatre and, of course, about being a very famous actor.

Today I am handing over the column to a Very Famous Actor, who is going to answer all your questions about acting and the theatre and, of course, about being a very famous actor.

How famous an actor are you? A Very Famous Actor writes: Very.

Would I immediately recognise your name when I heard it? A Very Famous Actor writes: If you have been inside a theatre in the past 50 years, yes.

Why do you wish to have your name concealed? A Very Famous Actor writes: To make myself seem even more famous than I really am.

Is it awful being recognised wherever you go? A Very Famous Actor writes: Not as bad as not being recognised.

Where are you not recognised? A Very Famous Actor writes: Abroad. Actors hate going on holiday, you know. Abroad is death to an actor with an ego. It means going to a country where you are not a household face. It is like being forgotten overnight. One wonders how Coward was able to stand being ignored in Jamaica.

Did you know Noël Coward? A Very Famous Actor writes: Dear Noël! I remember, once, he was talking to Olivier, and Olivier said...

Did you know Noël Coward? A Very Famous Actor writes: No, I didn't. But no one ever did. They just learnt his remarks off by heart. Noël Coward lines are a form of hard currency among actors. And forgery is not unknown.

What is the hardest part you have ever played? A Very Famous Actor writes: A corpse, as a matter of fact.

Which corpse? A Very Famous Actor writes: It doesn't matter which corpse. All corpses are the same. They all have to be played the same way - as a dead person. Until you die, you are different from all the other characters, with a different motivation and a different voice. Once you are dead, you have very little motivation. Playing a corpse, like mime or swordplay, is entirely physical.

You mean, it is very difficult to think your way into being a corpse? A Very Famous Actor writes: No, I mean it is very difficult to seem not to breathe. It is a long time since I played the part of a corpse - not since I was in repertory in the old days - but I can still remember that when a person is playing dead on stage and is therefore theoretically out of the action, still more people in the audience are looking at you than at anyone else in the cast. And you can always hear a child saying: "Mummy, he's still breathing!" The trouble is that just before you die on stage, you have been doing something energetic - indeed, most actors like to fall dead rather dramatically - and the temptation is always to pant afterwards. One thing a corpse must not do is pant. Or breathe at all, if possible.

Is there a technique for stopping breathing? A Very Famous Actor writes: Yes. It's called dying.

Are there any other techniques for stopping breathing? A Very Famous Actor writes: Well, there's hibernation, but unfortunately human beings can't do that. There's meditation. There's mentally transporting yourself into someone else's body. There's self-hypnosis...

Which one did you try? A Very Famous Actor writes: None of those. I tried reciting poetry to myself.

Did that work? A Very Famous Actor writes: Not really. I get bored by poetry very quickly, and I tended to drift off to sleep. Well, sleep is very like death in a way, but unfortunately I tend to snore, and once or twice another actor would have to kick the corpse discreetly to wake me up and stop me snoring. Once, apparently, when I had been playing the corpse for 15 minutes, I woke up and said very loudly, not knowing where I was, "Come to bed, darling! And bring a glass of water when you do come!" Then I went to sleep again. Normally the other actors can work an unexpected line into the action, but not when a corpse says it. And not a line like that.

Next week we shall have a Very Famous Explorer in this spot. Get your questions in early!

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