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An actor's life

Simon Boughey | 01.10.2008

As a stammering teenager, it may seem an impossible dream to become an actor. Simon Boughey talks about his journey onto the stage.

Over the past 20 years, I've earned my living as a writer and an actor, and on both of these chosen paths, it seems to me that my stammer has exercised a considerable influence.

It makes sense, of course, for a stammerer to want to be a writer. The freedom of the written word is heady, intoxicating. And there have been lots of them - Charles Lamb, Somerset Maugham, Arnold Bennett, Philip Larkin, John Updike, Margaret Drabble and, supposedly, Demosthenes and Virgil.

Acting and stammering make far less easy and understandable bedfellows. To be honest, I don't know if I wanted to be an actor despite my stammer or because of it. It might be that I am simply attracted to the challenge, and would like to have my revenge upon the impediment, but I don't think so. I think I simply wanted to act for its own sake, for the love of performance.

But for years, it remained out of touch. It seemed as a teenager that a peculiarly vicious twist had been given to what was a very painful disability anyway: I wanted to do what my stammer had rendered impossible. And, of course, in those years and for a long time thereafter this was how I would view my stammer: not part of me and who I was, but an alien and external malevolence solely devoted to the task of foxing the real, fluent me.

The frustration associated with wanting to act and not feeling able to do so formed a steady drumbeat to my teenage years and 20s. I did once audition for a play at university, was cast, but then stammered so severely during rehearsal that I decided to drop out. It was as low a point as I've experienced. So much for that, I thought.

But the yearning didn't go away, and, at the age of 27 in New York, with the blissful freedom to recreate oneself afforded to the immigrant, I began taking acting classes. Within a couple of years I was cast in an Off-Broadway show of Importance of Being Earnest and have been doing it on and off ever since, most recently in an open air production of Taming of the Shrew in St Albans.

Coming to the conclusion that the pain of not doing something one desired so profoundly was worse than the fear of doing it was the first, and most decisive step. I would be dissembling though if I suggested that the path thereafter has been troublefree.

The first thing I think I learned was that I was not the first stammerer to tread this path. Marilyn Monroe had a stammer, James Earl Jones has a stammer, Bruce Willis has a stammer. The great New York character actor Austin Pendleton (known for roles in films such as Catch 22, Guarding Tess, My Beautiful Mind and many stage roles, including Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet in New York) has a stutter, as an American would call it. Austin became a friend and acting teacher to me, and helped demonstrate what was possible. Until the age of 33, I'd never really met any other stammerers, let alone acting stammerers. This was very unhealthy and getting to know someone who went through what I did was balm. I believe it is damaging for any stammerer, actor or not, to not have a support system of other stammerers around.

Trouble spots

The freedom from disfluency when acting is a much remarked upon phenomenon, and I don't pretend to quite understand how I can be more fluent on stage in character than in real life. But it is not foolproof. Normally, in any script, long or short, there are two or three words that might become trouble spots. I might have stammered over them in rehearsal or they might begin with traditionally troublesome sounds, but something about them sets off alarm bells. These landmines have to be negotiated, and normally I tackle them with a set of tools any stammerer will readily recognise: taking a breath before the line, stretching the word before, pausing for a second - anything that defuses the landmine and releases the fear associated with that word.

Potential for disfluency might develop quite a long way into the run of a show. Words that have been said with ease for a week or two suddenly occasion difficulty. You have to relearn to say the line again, tackle it a new way, be surprised into saying it once more.

One can drag around a pebble or a boulder, but, to a large extent, we determine which one it is.

But what is interesting is that these disfluencies are largely entirely psychologically rooted. It's akin to walking a tightrope and suddenly remembering that there is a drop below. It's like Jana Novotna famously choking in the Wimbledon final of 1993 and her body suddenly refusing to obey commands which only minutes ago had been routine.

The less one fears stammering, even on stage, the less this happens. It's the abject terror of disfluency that takes the mind on these alarming detours. This has been a long and difficult journey, but the less I have feared, the less it has happened. The less I have thought about stammering, period, the less disfluency has occurred. One can drag around a pebble or a boulder, but, to a large extent, we determine which one it is.

I've also learned, gradually, that the great majority of actors have enormous hang-ups about some aspect of themselves. They're all insecure about their looks, size, shape, voice, training (or lack of it), credits (or lack of them), health or sexual preferences. Not all of these are as visible to an audience as others, but, boy, do actors obsess about them. Stammering might be more of an obvious hurdle than others, but everyone walks into a rehearsal room pretty self-conscious about something. I used to dread the read-through because I thought I would stammer and then everybody would be thinking "What the hell is he doing here?" In fact, they're mostly thinking "What the hell am I doing here?"

Finally, it might be possible that stammering confers some benefits to the actor (though I can see, in my mind's eye, a younger version of myself looking at that sentence with withering scorn). But a disfluent person has a very lively appreciation of the possibilities of language. We know fear intimately; we know anger equally intimately. We are acquainted with a belief in inadequacy and frailty. We know struggle and triumph, even if it's ordering a coffee fluently. We can spot bastards easily. These aren't bad things for an actor to have.

Very few people make any real money through acting. It's something you do first and foremost for love. And because for so many years doing it was an impossible dream my love has endured longer, perhaps, than for many other actors. Every so often, in the dark, perhaps, waiting for the lights to go up, I'm filled with it.

From the Autumn 2008 issue of 'Speaking Out', pages 8-9