The English writer and director Mike Leigh is best known in this country for his recent films Naked, Life Is Sweet and High Hopes. For 25 years, however, he has developed an extensive body of work for stage and film, all of it created from his own method of structured improvisation. His 1979 play Ecstasy, which is being produced Off Broadway at the John Houseman Studio Theater by the New Group through May 14, under the direction of Scott Elliott, marks Leigh’s first U.S. production.
Ecstasy is set in North London in 1979, and rooted in a very specific social and political context. What does it have to say to American audiences?
It is a play about the outer edges of working-class life in London. In some remote way it anticipates—although obviously unconsciously—Naked, because it also deals with a woman who is exploited and abused.
But there are any number of women in empty rooms around New York, for example, and any number of guys who are walking in and abusing them. There are any number of relationships between people who’ve grown up together and gone different ways, any number of women who have had multiple abortions, any number of working-class people surviving and raising kids against all odds, any number of guys prone to drinking their wages away, and so on and so forth.
In all those sorts of terms it would have things to say to any audience, and certainly to a New York audience. However, I’m not especially disposed—although I could if I wanted to—to sum up the one single thing it says, because I don’t think it’s that sort of play, and I don’t really make that kind of work.
The structure of Ecstasy is particularly interesting—the play’s most dramatic event occurs in the first act.
This may surprise you, but in a way I adhere to a very “Hollywood” convention of acts. Naked is very clearly in acts—the end of the first act is when Johnny leaves the fiat in London behind and goes off into quite a different world. But I think from a storytelling and aesthetic point of view, it’s important that acts in a play or a film are not merely chunks or continuations of the same things.
The spirit and the rhythms—almost, you might say, the styles—of the two acts of Ecstasy are quite deliberately different. In the first act there are sharp, short scenes that tell the story in a graphic way; it’s very precise and staccato and stark. It tells the story in a swift, linear way, culminating in the climax, which then sets up a second act which is conceived and executed in a completely different mode—in a long, detailed and (although I shrink from using the phrase too easily) a slightly more naturalistic mode. It’s all in continuous action; the spirit is warm and gentle and emotional. So having been presented with the characters in a slightly confrontational way in the first act, you are allowed access to their inner gentleness and vulnerability.
Do you encourage your actors to live “in character,” or do you prefer that process to remain strictly part of the structured improvisations?
I think living in character in a Method way is both unhealthy and creatively not helpful. It may make some sense in the context of work where the text already exists. But in order to create a piece of work out of improvisation, you have to have actors who can successfully go absolutely into character, be in character, but then have the capacity to come out of character and be objective about what they’ve been doing. If you’re playing a really hysterical character and you stay in character, you can’t at the same time be a working professional actor in the actual manufacture of a structured piece of work.
Actually, no matter what the characters are like, one of the main ingredients of my rehearsals is that everybody’s got a really good sense of humor, and a real sense of rapport and ensemble approach to creating the work. You can’t get that from people who are in character all the time.
What other qualities do you look for in an actor?
They’ve got to be good character actors, so they don’t just play themselves. It’s interesting talking about this in the context of Ecstasy, because the original cast had Julie Walters, Stephen Rea and Jim Broadbent. You just know from the work you’ve seen them. in how versatile they are. But at the same time, in this particular play—notwithstanding that they were all being brilliant character actors—they were also tapping into very specific social and cultural things that related to their own backgrounds.
Given this very specific context in which your work is developed, would you encourage actors approaching the plays as finished texts to do their own improvisations as they rehearse?
If they would normally do that, then that’s what they should do. And if they normally wouldn’t, then they shouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. I do what I do to create a play, which I then set down in a text. But they are doing a play—a very structured play—which exists, and which has all kinds of resonances which, if you mess about with the text or the action in any organic way, will fall apart.
Since your work is developed through improvisation, why is your credit not “conceived and directed by Mike Leigh”?
For a long time I used to say “devised and directed by.” But I think it’s more honest to say written and directed by. The play and the films have an author. No actors that I’ve worked with have ever questioned or would disagree with that. Also, incidentally, a lot of the dialogue is actually from me saying, “Well, why don’t you say this.”
On the premise that writing is all the words they say and nothing else, then I would understand your question would have a point. But the writing of a piece of work, the job of a dramatist, goes beyond merely all the words that everybody says. It’s not about words, it’s about the whole dramatic conception and construction. And that is what I do.
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