Alec Guinness on getting a laugh…

Theatrical audiences are fickle beasts and each audience is prone to its own sort of reactions and mood swings with regard to play performances; no two audiences are alike. So, it’s best to think of audience reactions as gestalt expressions of the moment and to not take them personally. Especially when you speak a line in a Saturday night performance that gets a huge laugh from the audience—and the same line spoken to a Sunday afternoon audience the next day lands like a sour note sung to a cricket symphony.

Sir Alec Guiness, writing in My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor, gives the following example of the fickle beast’s inconstancy, and sometime mystifying immunity to laughter, as a cautionary tale for the fragile actor ego:

“In 1937 [Sir Tyrone] Guthrie directed Twelfth Night at the Old Vic with Larry Olivier as Toby Belch, his then wife, Jill Esmond, as Olivia, and the adorable Jessica Tandy as Viola. Marius Goring was Feste and I was Aguecheek; for some odd quirky reason of my own I played him as if he were Stan Laurel. It was a very undisciplined affair, not good at all, but I was thrilled to be acting my first important part. Also, I learned a thing or two while doing it. Like every Aguecheek that has ever been I got a laugh on the line, ‘I was adored once too.’ One midweek matinee, with a sparse audience, no laugh came although I undoubtedly sought it. Larry hissed in my ear, “Fool! You should know a matinee audience would never laugh at that.’”

Occasionally, a schizophrenic quality in the audience will present itself in the traitorous bark of laughter from a single audience member. In cases like this, while I reject the belief some actors have that sometimes they “are performing for the wrong audience,” I fully believe that when a single audience member laughs when no one else is laughing that person is definately sitting in the wrong audience.

*** *** ******

Richard La Rosa is an American writer that once played Sir Toby Belch in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Antonio Arrives in London (1592)

23 April 1592


My English tutor, Thomas Watson, calls it a growling, hungry, leviathan that will swallow a man the moment he sets his boots down in Thames Street. And yet, in some ways, ’tis not so different from Venice with regard to the river Thames—which runs through the city from east to west. I wonder if the citizens revere the river in the same way that Venetians revere their canals.

“Londoners rely on its currents to transport them to and fro throughout the city,” Watson says, as if hearing my thoughts. “And to many other places besides.”

“Your gondolas are not so narrow as ours,” I say. “I also notice they lack the curved prow and stern as our boats and they are moved along with oars rather than a pole.”

“True,” Watson says. “And they are called wherries, not gondolas, and their captains are known as boatmen or watermen. Some have more than one boatman, which makes for speedy travel, and these men must be highly skilled to ply their trade—serving no less than a two-year apprenticeship before they are allowed to solo. This is a great comfort to the citizens of the town as London Bridge is the only foot bridge that spans across the river.”

I watch the continual flow of wherries crossing from one side to the other as other craft traverse up and down the length of the river and it seems like utter chaos.

Even so, Watson says the watermen are so skilled there are few mishaps.

“Moreover, the public wherries are considerably more comfortable than the common gondola because of the soft embroidered cushions on the seats. Ample room to stretch out your legs. Most are covered for protection from the rain.

And best of all, there is no haggling over the fare. It is a penny to cross from one bank side to the other. All other fares are fixed depending on distance and whether you are going with or against the tide.”


Excerpt from Shakespeare’s Apprentice, a  novel written by Richard La Rosa.