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The British Love to Say They’re Sorry - La Jolla Playhouse Blog

The British Love to Say They’re Sorry

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39 steps

Scott Parkinson performs in THE 39 STEPS at La Jolla Playhouse, August 11 - September 13, 2009. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

The British love to say they’re sorry. There is an extended gag in one scene of The 39 Steps where three British men stuck in a train compartment together cheerily apologize to one another anytime one of them attempts to enter or exit their claustrophobic confines. Does this longing for contrition on the part of the British stem from the fact that so many of them are crowded onto a relatively tiny land mass together and must find a polite way to muddle through? Or is it due to a repressive emotional culture that causes apology (almost mechanically) whenever one kicks up against the boundaries of social acceptability? Or perhaps it is a culture-wide subconscious need to atone for the sad legacy of centuries of colonization around the world? Whatever the case the Brits are world-class apologizers. Or apologisers. You say vapour, I say vapor.

Reginald Risdale attempted to make an act out of apology. Reggie grew up in a poor home in Islington in the early years of the twentieth century, and at a tender age discovered a talent for whistling, singing, and animal impersonations. In his younger years he would often perform informally for pocket money, frequently enlisting the begrudging aid of his siblings and the family dog. After playing the lead in a pantomime performance at the Prince of Wales Theatre in his teens, Reggie became bit by the acting bug that had successfully eluded the Risdale family line going all the way back to the Norman Conquest. Being small, blond, and graced with delicate bone structure, Reggie frequently found himself in drag roles in British pantomime, including the lead in Cinderella. He struggled against what he perceived as the limitations of the genre, always longing for the day he might play in more “serious” drama. A compelling need to infuse his caricatures with naturalistic aspects led to the befuddlement of producers, critics, and most audiences, but also to a very small and twee circle of admirers. One of those admirers, the agent Bill Lashwood, took Reggie in hand and developed his first music hall act, Mary Quite Contrary about a toothless Liverpudlian housewife who finds hilarious ways of playing devil’s advocate to anything her charmless neighbors say or think. The second act they created, Delighting in Contriting involved a Lancashire bumbler whose accident-prone behaviour would lead to extended visual and physical gags for the audience, and a flood of “So so sorries” from Reggie’s character each time his ineptitude struck, the number of “so”s repeated in the sentence generally indicating the degree of the particular ineptitude on display. He had limited success with the act, never appearing higher than third billing, and spent many years eyeing what he considered the more “legitimate” career of acting in the classics. Finally he got his wish in the momentous year 1926, when he was honored to appear at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre right after it had received its Royal charter. He was to play Yorick in a flashback scene in a production of Hamlet, and though he had no lines to speak he was delighted to be doing what he considered serious work at last. Sadly, this was the same year that the Shakespeare Theatre mysteriously burned down and the season was scrapped before Reggie made even one appearance. What is not generally known is that Reggie himself was responsible for the tragic accident due to an ill-timed flick of his cigarette into a pile of hay backstage (one can only imagine the number of “so”s involved in that particular apology, or how and why hay was being used in a production of the melancholic Dane). Reggie went back to the provinces and continued an undistinguished career in the British theatre well into mid-century.

What on earth does Reginald Risdale have to do with The 39 Steps, you may ask? It should be said first of all that while certain events in the above biography actually took place (and certain similarities to people who actually lived occur), Reggie and his story is completely fictional. The back story for this production of The 39 Steps centers on what remains of a down-on-its-luck provincial British theatre company in the 1930s attempting to put on a performance of John Buchan’s book (or is it Alfred Hitchcock’s movie?) with only four of its actors and with limited props, sets, and costumes (as well as a somewhat undisciplined and unseen stage manager). There is the leading man and lady of the company who take on the principal roles, and two vaudevillians who cover all the remaining character parts. Reginald is the alter-ego of actor Scott Parkinson in the production, one of the vaudevillians who takes on a number of roles in the course of our madcap lark.

Thinking up personal histories for their characters and how those biographies might have bearing on what happens in the play is typical of the sort of mind-centered work that many actors do when they create a role, but it is the idea of “accident” that obsesses us here and to which we return, because it is in accident where much of the glory of creativity (and comedy in particular) is found. More spiritually evolved people than I have described true creativity as something that happens when the thinking brain is not involved, but rather when a connection to “Being” is fully engaged instead, and when that higher consciousness is allowed to work its magic through the particular filter which is you. I think of those moments in rehearsal when an impulse strikes you that isn’t something you rehearsed at home or occurred to you while studying the scene at hand. For instance, there was the day we rehearsed the train sequence and came to the moment where fellow actor Eric Hissom and I do the constantly-changing hat ballet as we juggle five different characters between us, and Eric went to put on the wrong hat at a moment when I had a line indicating which character he should be doing instead. Or there was the moment when we rehearsed the London Palladium scene and I came to the line “It was supposed to be a cast of four” and held up four fingers, realizing that the character I was playing at that particular moment was supposedly not in possession of one of the fingers I had held up. If you’ve seen the show then you know how these happy accidents have found a place in the evening you witnessed, and these are only two examples (and only two of my own) of the many wonderful and happy accidents that occurred for all of us in this process. In a show like this one, “accidents” are welcome, so long as no one gets hurt and the theatre doesn’t burn down. It’s a question of mindfulness.

Which leads me to what I hope is an effective wrap-up. Actors can be notoriously hard on themselves, as well as insidiously reflective. Just think of poor Reggie Risdale. In a show like this one it is best if the actor never looks back. I myself am a meticulous perfectionist, and learning the careful choreography of The 39 Steps was often a confounding challenge for me. But once the steps were learned and I allowed for more accident, more carelessness, to creep into the very great care we all must take with this piece every time we do it, an interesting alchemy occurs. One of the great pleasures of doing the show becomes the instant forgiveness it requires, of oneself and of others, should anything go wrong; there is no time to dwell in a mistake because the play is relentlessly hurtling forward with or without you, and if you stop to think about where something went amiss then you will likely mess up the next thing that requires your strict attention. Zen Buddhists describe the art of staying in “the Now”, and doing this show can feel a little like that at times, much like riding a bicycle through downtown Manhattan – think about anything non-essential to the task at hand and you might die. Or at least miss an entrance. But stay involved totally in what you are doing, and an unlooked-for but potentially grand misadventure might occur.

And for that there is no need to apologize. Or apologise.

– Scott Parkinson