Acting and Sir Tyrone Guthrie
An actors director.
Tony Guthrie. This was how I was introduced to the man. Having worked at the Stratford Festival in Canada, many of the actors in the company had vivid memories of the man. He was Tony to them. To others, he was Sir Tyrone Guthrie. He was brought to Canada to advise Tom Patterson, a local Stratford citizen, who wanted to bring a festival devoted to Shakespeare to his home town. A town with a connection to the bard and a town that needed a burst of tourism and economic growth.
My first introduction to Guthrie was in 1999, when I met my directing mentor, Robin Phillips. Robin had many stories about Guthrie and introduced me to actors who worked with him at Stratford. For those who don’t know Robin, he was the 4th artistic director at Stratford in the year I was born (1974).
I was lucky to have my first season at Stratford in 2004. During that time, we still had two company members who had worked with Guthrie directly in the early Stratford years — William Hutt and William Needles. In time, I would also sit down with Christopher Plummer and Douglas Rain, who also spent time with Guthrie in those early years.
Here are some of the lessons from Guthrie that were passed on to me by these great actors:
Guthrie apparently believed that great acting started with breathing. This will be no revolutionary surprise to anyone who has trained to be an actor. Bill Hutt said that Guthrie would always say that the deeper you have to feel, the deeper you need to breathe. Relaxation from breath is what opens you up to the feelings an actor drums up through their humanity. He would remind his actors to breathe constantly before they said or did anything on the stage. Bill said Guthrie stopped him numerous times for making ineffective pauses too. Breath and pausing go hand in hand if you are not in complete control.
Bill Hutt also mentioned that he learned how to move on stage with Guthrie. Actors think they are acting if they move on stage. Guthrie instilled the mantra of “you do not move on stage unless you have a good reason to move.” Bill took it to the next level, bouncing off of Guthrie, by declaring to young actors at Stratford, “only move if it improves on stillness and only speak if it improves on silence.”
William Needles told me Guthrie forced him to learn how to say several lines of blank verse in one breath. Guthrie taught him how important it was to have complete control of the verse (which relates to breathing and phrasing the argument correctly) and encouraged him to expand the range of his voice. To Guthrie, a great actor should be able to cover at least two octaves vocally. Not surprisingly, Guthrie was a huge believer in the repertory system as a training ground for all actors. He was adamant that actors should be playing several parts, of different sizes, in different plays, with different directors. This, unfortunately, is a lost art, with few theatres in the world offering this opportunity for long-term investment and work. Mr. Needles adored Stratford for this very reason. He was proud to have learned from the best and knew he had one of the best training grounds in the world.
When I worked with Christopher Plummer, I was intrigued by what he had to say about Guthrie. Chris said that Guthrie was not a big fan of improvisation when it came to the rehearsal hall or an actors training (Apparently, Guthrie did respect the work of Peter Brook, who was known to use improvisation in his rehearsals). Guthrie felt strongly about scripted plays because they taught actors to shape their phrases and to concentrate on breathing and vocal nuances. He felt that great plays have a structure that an actor must learn to follow and that they teach the actor technique. Improvising for Guthrie was more about the individual actor than it was about the playwright’s character and journey.
Douglas Rain remembers Guthrie’s belief in an actors range. Douglas said Tony was always encouraging a wider range and for the actor to constantly expand their range. We see many actors today, a great many of them on camera, who are always playing a variation of themselves. You will recognize the same manneurisms and the same laugh in every film, no matter what character they are playing. Guthrie saw this as deeply limiting and encouraged his actors to behave and sound unlike their everyday selves. This makes sense based on what Plummer said above about Guthrie and improvisation. Guthrie wanted the actors to challenge themselves constantly when it came to breathing, vocals, movement, and phrasing. An interesting thing Douglas said was that Guthrie felt most people didn’t have enough life experience to draw upon themselves, and this is why they were less exciting. They needed to commit to the imagination and the spiritual to release themselves (from themselves) to unleash parts they never knew were there. This is what Laurence Olivier could do because even those who were closest to him did not recognize him on stage. They did not recognize him because he released parts of himself that were never shown in his real life off stage. The actor must commit to doing everything technically possible to expand their range to achieve this versatility and virtuosity.
In concluding, I want to say thank you to these great artists above whom shared their memories of Guthrie with me. Four giant actors who are no longer with us. It is important we, as young artists, never forget them or the lessons they have left behind.
I often feel that I, myself, worked with Guthrie because of these vivid lessons passed down from these great actors. It’s like his ghost is always hovering above me as I am working with actors.
And to Tony (Sir Tyrone) Guthrie, who passed down these lessons to them. Thank you, Tony. I now pass down your lessons, through Bill, Bill, Chris, and Douglas, to the next generation…