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Claudia Karvan: Opening up the performance space: rehearsals, the actor and the writer

Published in IndiVision News May 2008.

Claudia Karvan is one of Australia's most respected and acclaimed film and television actors. Her big screen roles have been numerous and illustrious, starring opposite Ethan Hawke, Ben Mendelsohn, Jim Caviezel and Hugh Jackman to name a few. For television, she has starred in, produced and directed several hit series including Love My Way and The Secret Life of Us.

At the IndiVision Project Lab 2008, she was a Performance Consultant and here she challenges directors about their relationships with actors.


Claudia Karvan: There are two things I feel really passionately about - one is rehearsals and the other is the relationship between the writer and the actor. Writer and actor - when do they ever meet? Usually never, but it's something that I feel really passionately about.

Rehearsals: Every director has the best intentions, and initially the approach to rehearsals is something like Mike Leigh's, but by the time you get to pre-production it's suddenly Home and Away. Script meetings, production meetings, casting sessions, location recces, camera tests, all take precedence. But there is also a natural ambivalence, or even a fear, that takes over in regard to rehearsals. Sometimes rehearsals aren't processes that bring forth tangible results, and in our budgetary dominated medium they often get pushed to the side. But I want to make a plea for rehearsals because I think they are invaluable.

What are rehearsals? In my mind, firstly, and this is my personal gripe, they are not the place to start rewriting the script. I believe rehearsals are anything from going to lunch with the cast, to sitting around the table discussing the script in any sort of detail. Even just reading the script through over and over again, up to the point of kind of kooky '101' acting lessons like throwing around the imaginary ball, all comes under the heading of rehearsals. Everyone, I think, feels trepidation towards rehearsals - they have this aura of the esoteric, some kind of earnest process which could possibly unveil you as a complete fraud or someone who doesn't have the faintest idea about what they're doing. But I think everyone feels like that before they go into a rehearsal room, so it's no excuse not to do it. Rehearsals can be arduous and amorphous and frustrating, and sometimes it feels like nothing is being achieved. But I really believe it's a great place to start off subconscious thinking. It gets ideas bubbling, and it's a really invaluable process of development. I once said to a director that I personally think of it as a place where I get to do all my worst acting, and he said, "Oh good, that's the place where I want to do all my worst directing". That's what it's there for; to have fun, relax, and allow yourself the possibility of being humiliated. It's the chance for the director to take their hands off the reins, off the script, and to muck around. You can do the scene in a million different ways, you can send it up. You never know what kind of ideas you're going to stumble upon from the script. But even if all you get out of it is making a fool of yourself then I think you've possibly achieved the highest result - because now the worst possible scenario has happened, it wasn't that bad, and you can trust each other.

Rehearsals are also really important in the low-budget world because if you can recognise problems before you get onto a set, then you've got a better chance of solving them in a creative and exciting way that is true to the original concept of the script, rather than trying to solve these problems under duress when you've got 40 crew members waiting, and you're losing light and going into overtime. And on a low-budget film you don't have CGI and action sequences to detract from performance. The performance is one big key factor of low-budget films, and the other is the script, which brings me to my next very passionate subject.

What I'd really like to get everyone thinking about is the importance of the writer in connection with performance, that interconnection between the writing and the actor's performance. What I've become more and more aware of is that the writer and the actor, two very creative people, are quarantined from each other. Yet this is such a potentially rich union and I think that they've got so much to learn from each other. So what you could do is think about putting aside four to five hours for the actors to be with the writer, with the director present, and go through that script scene by scene.

In that meeting with the writer, you can't even predict what the actor is going to get from it, but I guarantee you, they will get so much, even if it is simply respect for the writing process and the real thought that the writer has put into that line. If you could bug greenrooms around the country you would hear actors, under the anxiety of performance, saying, "F****** line, I don't wanna say this!" But you if you've actually discussed that with the writer and they've said, "Well, this is inspired by something my brother did when he was really anxious", you get the texture. Ultimately you're going to get much more depth and life to what you're playing around with.

Putting the focus back on the writer is a really healthy and productive thing. The writer has got so much to gain from that process and I think it would improve their skills of honing exactly what they want to say. Often they're working in isolation not answerable to the outcome of the work. So for me, as an actor, when I got into the writers' room it was like, "Oh my God, this is the Holy Grail!" I felt like I was cheating. You know, you've got this much time to develop a character and often you'd spend a lot of time being doubtful and anxious about the choices you were going to make or the ideas you had about the script or particular dialogue or words. This way you completely bypass all of that and get a whole lot of new ideas that you can play around with. It establishes, for me, a context for what a particular scene is about and why it's in the script. It takes away a lot of imaginary responsibility that actors often put on themselves. And I don't think actors and writers meeting up would in any way dilute the role of the director either. As long as you go into those meetings and everyone understands that it is the director's film, it only gives the director a bigger pool of ideas to pick and choose from.

Actor, producer and director Claudia Karvan speaks about performance at the Lab in January.


Claudia Karvan as Frankie in Love My Way. Photo: Jimmy Pozarik. Courtesy Southern Star Entertainment.


Vince Colosimo (Rex) and Claudia Karvan (Alex) in The Secret Life of Us.


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