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Graham Eatough - How To Act

Actors love a guru. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is especially fertile in terms of its influx of young performers willing to argue the toss between Stanislavsky and Uta Hagen, possibly in a workshop type situation. Enter How To Act, a new play by Glasgow-based director and co-founder with playwright David Greig and composer Nick Powell of turn of the millennium theatrical supergroup Suspect Culture.

Eatough's own production for the National Theatre of Scotland pitches up internationally renowned theatre director Anthony Nicholl, whose own global quest for artistic enlightenment share assorted methods picked up in Africa and other cultures around the world. Cue aspiring actress Promise, a hand-picked participant who ends up turning the tables on the maestro in a meeting where the reality between life and art becomes blurred.

“It started at a time when I was doing quite a lot of large-scale visual art collaborations and inter-disciplinary projects,” says Eatough of the roots of How To Act. “I wanted to make a much simpler, purely theatrical piece, and I suppose try and re-connect with some of the things I felt were important about theatre-making. After doing all these visual art projects, I also wanted to see what the things that I brought back from those experiences might mean for my theatre making.

“I suppose the two starting points for me were academic and political. For the first, I wanted to look at what only theatre can do, and that got me looking at Greek tragedy, and how it approaches the big questions of truth and justice. The political aspect came from me becoming interested in Nigeria and the pollution of oil in the Niger Delta. The West's attitude to that is a symptom of something bigger, and is a terrible example of how our comparatively luxurious lives in the west could not exist without the suffering that goes on in the places we draw our resources from.

“Through all of that, I wanted to see if there was a way that once you stripped theatre of all of its multi-media spectacle you could look at all these big things, and what that might mean to an audience. Greek tragedy is about power, and to find a way of looking at that in a contemporary context, a theatre director conducting a masterclass creates an interesting corollary.”

By chance, two of Eatough's visual art collaborations have appeared over the last month. Nomanslanding was an international collaboration with four visual and sound-based artists from Australia and the Netherlands, and which resulted in a vast performed installation based around notions of migration and divided lands taking place at Tramway in Glasgow. No End of Enderby saw Eatough team up with artist Stephen Sutcliffe to create a two film installations for Manchester International Festival to mark the centenary of novelist Anthony Burgess' birth.

The original plan was to have Mark E Smith, the maverick driving force behind legendary Manchester group The Fall involved. Smith is known to be a Burgess fan, but what Eatough describes as “a brilliant lost day” with Smith “taught us why he couldn't be in it.”

Like these two projects, How to Act has been in development on and off over a four year period. During that time, Eatough also directed what he calls “the behemoth” of Lanark, the epic Herald Angel winning staging of Alasdair Gray's fantastical novel, which was the flagship of the 2015 Edinburgh International Festival.

“The scale of How To Act is in marked contrast to Lanark,” Eatough says, “and I suppose it might be some kind of reaction to that as well.”But How To Act has been through a lot of different versions, and I've been really privileged to have the space I needed to find out what it was going to be, and to realise that it needed to be written in a more conventional way. I was even going to be in it at one point, but thank goodness that didn't come to pass.

As Eatough observes, the power structures of theatre masterclasses have changed along with how they are delivered.

“You can get them online,” he says. “You get David Mamet, Dustin Hoffman or Kevin Spacey doing these videos, and they're quite funny to look at, because they're quite a performance in themselves. There's no way Kevin Spacey could run a masterclass without performing, but maybe they fulfil a need for something like that just now. It's about faith, really, about believing in someone and what they say in order to try and accrue something unreachable.”

As a director himself, Eatough has no wish to set himself up as a guru in this way.

“I'm very uncomfortable with the idea of doing a masterclass,” he says. “I get asked to do workshops all the time, and it's not false modesty, but the pressure of having to do something like that is not something I'd ever wish to pursue.”

How To Act, Summerhall, Edinburgh, August 2-27, 1.10-2.10pm.
www.summerhall.co.uk

The Herald, August 3rd 2017

ends

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