Thursday, 18 February 2016

Sprayed Dramaturgy: Tony Maudsely on being Edna

Lorna Irvine discusses Hairspray (so that I don't have to do too much work...): I have a great, extended interview with actor Tony Maudsley instead. Worth your time... read on...

What made you decide that it was an actor’s life for you?
It was probably as simple as watching children's television in the seventies. I was a TV addict from a very early age. I was also an avid reader and used to especially love the BBC and ITV dramatisations of my favourite books like The Secret Garden, The Phoenix And The Carpet, The Didicoi, Midnight Is A Place. And of course I loved the light hearted fun stuff too like The Double Deckers, The Kids From 47a and of course later, Grange Hill

The kids in all of these shows looked like they were having such an amazing time. I was desperate to be part of that world too. I used to write off to TV companies all the time begging to be taken on in one of their shows. But of course I had zero experience. I'd never been to an acting class and at the time there was little going on in my area to give me a leg up. 

Kids were I lived were more interested in playing football or smoking on street corners. I gave the football a wide berth but was a fully fledged very heavy smoker by the age of 11. I didn't give up on my ambitions though. I wrote to The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) at the age of 12 to tell them that I'd 'like to join!" They wrote me a very nice nice letter back telling me to reapply in about 6 years time. 

It's hilarious to think back now that at the age of 12 I was planning to give up school, move to London and become a full time acting student, without a mention of any of it to my Mum & Dad. God knows how I was planning to pay for it all.

My dream remained a dream for quite a few years, sidetracked by becoming a stroppy teenager, behaving badly at school, starting and finishing various jobs in quick succession as a milkman, a bingo caller and an MFI warehouse assistant. 

By the time I was 23, I'd travelled a lot of the world (with no money but having a fabulous time.) I'd been an extra on Brookside and I'd gotten myself in trouble with the police a few times (remember that bingo calling job I mentioned? They caught me fiddling the games for my own personal gain and I got arrested on the premises one night in front of 300 very disgruntled bingo addicts) I got a slap on the wrist and a £50 fine at the local magistrates court and decided it was time to grow up and sort my life out. 

My dream of becoming an actor still lingered in the back of my head. I thought, well if I don't do this now, I never will. I applied to go to drama school again. Maybe they'd give me a second look now that I wasn't 12 anymore but 23? 

This time I applied to The Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. I did a piece from Peter Nichol's 'A DAY IN THE DEATH OF JOE EGG' and another piece from 'RICHARD II' (which I didn't even understand.) To my amazement I was offered a place on the spot, Not the usual form...they usually make you wait a few weeks and then call you back for second and even third auditions. 

But I told the course tutor that they needed to tell me today as if I hadn't got in I was going to go to CAMP AMERICA to work on a kid's summer camp. He left his office for 5 minutes, looking a bit flustered, then came back in and said "Ok you're in!!" Result!!

What is it about this show that made you want to be part of it?
I didn't want to be part of it. I had to be persuaded. I hadn't done any work on stage for 12 years and I hadn't done a musical for 18 years. I was having a great career doing lots of great TV and film and wasn't that interested in going back on stage. 

My agent suggested to me that maybe it was time for me to get out of my comfort zone (I think that's agent-speak for stop being so fucking lazy) and think about doing some stage work before I lost the confidence and the skills that I'd trained so hard for all those years to acquire. 

She told me to at least have a listen to HAIRSPRAY and get back to her. And I did just that. I put the CD on and instantly fell in love with the show. I'd seen the original Broadway carnation about 14 years earlier with Harvey Fierstein in the role of Edna and I remembered that I had really enjoyed the show. I already knew that I had another series of BENIDORM to look forward 10 months down the line and so I thought, well why not? 

This could be really good fun and I've got absolutely nothing to lose (apart from a bit of face if my singing was shit) by at least going to meet them. So I did. I met them, sang for them (they didn't think it was shit), read  a few scenes for them and they offered me the job the next day and I accepted. 

And I'm so glad I did. I have had the most amazing time. I've reignited some of my old skills and learned lots of new ones from the massively talented cast and highly experienced team that make up the show. They've welcomed this non-musical theatre television actor with open arms and literally held my hand to the point we are at today. I feel very lucky. 

Was the process typical of the way that you make a performance?
The essence of creating the heart and soul of my character was a typical process for me. All actors work very differently but my own process is based on absolute truth. I question everything about a character. Where they've been, where they are now, where they want to be. In my head I put the character on a hot seat and delve into every aspect of their lives. 

It's the only way I know how to do it. If I'm ever struggling to work out how to play a scene I just always revert back to truth and the 'here and now' and revisit my process to ask how the character would behave in this very instant if faced with this very situation. I think that's a fairly  typical route that most actors take when building a character. 

The rest of the musical theatre process was not so typical for me. I was used to under performing for the camera but on stage I knew that I would have to give a more heightened performance (purely so that the people watching from Row M would be able to see what I was doing).

I also had to come to terms with the fact that occasionally I would inexplicably be bursting into song and hoofing a few nifty dance moves. For this part of the process I had to 100% rely on the people around me who were vastly more experienced than I was in this field. Once I reconciled in my own head that a musical theatre performance could still be a truthful one, I was up and running.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?
I hope they experience a little of what I experience every night. Hairspray is a joyful show. It pulses through you and crescendos to a point where you want to fling your arms up in the air and dance! And trust me they do! 

Every night thus far without fail! But as well as having a great night out at the theatre, I wouldn't feel like we'd done our job properly if they didn't leave the building with at least some questions about the human race and how we behave towards each other. 

The main themes in the show are racial prejudice and conformist issues where people (especially women) are under pressure to look and behave in a certain way. The show is set in 1962 against the backdrop of The Baltimore riots. It's now 2016 and only a couple of years ago that same city was still suffering a similar backlash as a result of how it's black community was being treated, We live in an ever changing world. Through our own advances in technology and engineering our world is so much smaller than it used to be. 

Countries borders are much more blurred than they used to be and different cultures now live side by side, more than they ever did before. HAIRSPRAY talks about changing gear, moving with the times and learning to love and live with other people's cultures and differences rather than constantly challenging and opposing them. The world would be a very dull place after all if we all looked and sounded the same and all thought the same things. 

Difference is good and we need to accept that more and learn to embrace it. It's a wonderfully colourful old planet that we live on and we need to grab it and make the most of everything it has to offer us in the short time we have on it.

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?
I don't really. I've been incredibly fortunate in my career to be play a whole range of theatre types, and hugely differing TV and movie characters. No two jobs are ever the same for me. I suppose that by stepping into certain genres of theatre and film you are stepping into someone's idea of tradition but for me each job is new and fresh and I try to treat it as such. 

I like to challenge what is expected of me and offer up something that might take a director by surprise. By trying to do that you keep it more interesting for everyone, I think. I once sat in a glass case at The Heywood Gallery in London for a week, for the renowned artist and film director, Peter Greenaway, who was a really lovely man. 

In the gallery there were 5 glass cases and every week he would have a different type of group sat in the cases. Some weeks it was 5 women in their eighties, some weeks it was 5 men who only had one leg, some weeks it was 5 children who didn't speak any English etc. Lots and lots of different group types. I was in the group '5 men over 20 stone.' I loved it! 

It was so exciting to be an exhibit, having all those arty type people staring at me through the glass case like I was a work of art. I think I only got paid £200 for the whole week but I wanted to do it (a) because it was different and (b) because I wanted to get in Peter Greenaway's good books for when he was casting his next big movie. And he did indeed call me in to audition for a main part in his movie trilogy 'THE TULSE LUPUS SUITCASES', but I didn't get the job. Bloody cheek! All those days sat in a bloody glass box, I at least expect a few lines from him!! Hahaha.

Are there any other questions that might help me to understand the meaning of dramaturgy for you in your work?
I suppose we could talk about appearance. How a character looks. You can alter many things in your characters head quite easily by just bouncing a few emotions and brain cells off each other but I guess appearance is a whole other layer. 

An important one though. An audience will more often than not, see how you look before they hear what you've got to say. You can always alter your appearance by affecting a walk or an unusual gait or a certain tilt in your bodily stature but on the day you are what you are. In the case of HAIRSPRAY, Edna Turnblad's size is very relevant to the themes in the show. Although they usually cast a biggish guy as Edna (the fact that it's always played by a guy was a choice made by the original screenplay writer, John Waters who cast it as such to make one more push towards subversiveness in challenging his audience and to also cast his friend, DIVINE, who was the very first Edna in the original 1988 film. It's a casting choice that all future productions have stuck with) there is still a need to accentuate her womanly curvaceousness and how by being housebound for so many years have taken their toll on her physical being. 

Although I'm already a big guy of about 6'4" and about 20 st (I'm being generous) to get the underlying themes of the show across to the audience,Edna needs to be bigger, exaggerated and larger than life. We achieved this with a body suit. 

An ample womanly shape, carved out of foam and lycra to fit over my own more masculine curves. The results are very effective and as an actor, once the suit was on and the costumes were dressed over it, I was immediately transported to a different place and a whole new gender. My own gait was instantly transformed, whether I wanted it to be or not. 

I immediately felt like a loving Mama the minute the actress playing my daughter Tracy flung her arms around me and gave me a hug. I suddenly felt very maternal and protective over her. Is that what having boobs does? I asked an actress friend and she said she completely understood that. 

She said boobs don't only feed your child when it's young, but they cushion your child like pillows and warm them when they're cold and protect them when you draw them in out of harms way. It made complete sense to me. Without Edna's fake boobs and curves I think I would lose so much of what I've brought to her over the last 6 months. 

And so creating a character like Edna is definitely a collaborative process. Without the help of an amazing design team behind me, I'd just be a man in a dress. Though I guess without me inside it there'd just be a pile of old foam on the floor, saggy and a bit loose at the seams, as they said about Bagpuss. There we go...we've come full circle. We're back on to children's seventies TV.  Probably a good time to stop.

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