Alan Howard, who is playing Bendick in Much Ado About Nothing during the current American tour of the Royal Shakespeare Company, explained some of the practices of the celebrated British troupe the other day.
How are plays chosen? For instance, why was Much Ado About Nothing which is rarely performed, selected for the present tour?
"We are committed to do a certain number of plays by Shakespeare at Stratford-on-Avon. Much Ado had not been done for a long time, and Trevor Nunn, the artistic director of the RSC, had wanted to do it. He directed this production."
How is the cast selected?
"Senior actors are invited to play certain parts. If you don't want to accept, you are allowed to decline. For instance, you might say you think you are not quite ready for the role. Then the director will argue that of course you're ready. Actually, I think most actors are eager to play all the good ones. Then for the smaller parts, younger or newer members of the company may be asked to audition. Morale is relatively high. It is no disgrace to fail to get a particular part in a try out."
When a play makes a long tour, is it redirected?
"Nunn came to San Francisco to put us into this theater. The Curran looks marvellous to us. It's smaller than the Ahmanson in Los Angeles, and we like that. We went through a technical rehearsal before we opened with Nunn making notes and comments. But he must now fly back to England, so for the rest of the tour, we'll be directed by the stage manager or the company manager.
"Actors can sense when a scene isn't going well. Often a couple of the seniors will merely suggest that it might be well to rehearse that scene. We are all eager to keep the production in good shape."
How does an actor research a particular part?
"Jack Barton is a scholar of the RSC. He's our bible. Some actors read as much as they can about a play. I try to find out what a line actually means. Sometimes an elaborate technical explanation makes no sense. Then two actors will try out the lines and suddenly everything is clear. I'm not a credo man myself. Peter Brook, one of our best known directors, is a Jan Kott man, but I have never read his book."
Howard had a featured role in Work is a Four-Letter Word a film version of the play Eh? He reports it played for a week in Los Angeles and has not been heard of since. He also had a relatively small role in The Heroes of Telemark.
"Richard Harris and Kirk Douglas were the heroes, and the rest of us were known as the insignificant seven."
When the company returns to England, Howard will play in Much Ado, Troilus and Cressida, The Revenger's Tragedy and in a new production of Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson.
San Francisco Chronicle, 6.3.1969.