I had the honor of being on stage with Richard Griffiths as a member of the company of the 2008 Broadway production of Equus. I understudied the role of Jill.
Though the company operated as a whole and understudies were treated with courtesy, we were certainly in different stratums of the production. Richard’s star dressing room, next to the stage right entrance, rang with laughter and the clinking of brandy glasses after the show. I shared a dressing room many flights up, with bare walls and faded carpet, where I sat each night and listened.
Often, I would sneak into the high-up loft space next to the lighting booth and watch the show, particularly to watch Richard. I admired his total ease and simplicity, qualities as a young actor, I could only dream of one day possessing. One night, I got the idea to stand up in the dark and imitate him as he worked, doing his movements along with him, trying on his economy of gesture, and his poise. It felt different from how I moved when I acted. It was effortless, unforced. Though he was a large man, he was graceful, and imitating him taught me what economical acting must feel like.
The day came when I would go on, making my Broadway debut in a company I had never rehearsed with, in a role in which I had received no formal direction. When I arrived that morning for the matinee, it was Richard who met me and took my hand. “Are you ready for this?” he asked. “Just start small, simply. You notice how I always start quiet? That’s to get the audience to lean in, to listen. Then you can go big.”
On a shot of pure adrenaline, I got through the first show. And the second. At the end of the night, Richard said to me in the wings, “The first always seems better than the second, doesn’t it?” I smiled, but my brow furrowed, and I wondered if he meant I had not done well in the evening’s show.
Later that week, after I got the news I would be going on more, I was at a holiday party in Richard’s dressing room. People were packed from wall to wall, music played from a small radio, and I stood near his chair, where he sat holding court. He turned to me. “I hope you didn’t think, when I said the first was better, that I meant you didn’t have a good second show,” he said, reading my mind. “It’s like that for everybody. I thought you did a bang-up job. Now, you’re going on more, and you’re going to want to grow in it. Do you have someone talking to you about your performance?” I said I didn’t, as I had had little contact with the director, who was already back in England. “Why don’t you come by between shows next week, and we’ll go through some things.”
When I went to meet Richard, he and his wife Heather welcomed me warmly. He sat me down and opened the script, the one object he kept next to him on his nearly bare dressing table. It was unmarked, but worn, and he told me he referred to it nightly, continuing to study it, even though he had been with the role of Dysart for more than a year. He read my scenes with me, paying meticulous attention to the language and the way the scenes gathered momentum. “Why does she say that?” he kept prodding me. “Do you see how that line is a little bit of a challenge to Alan? How it’s just a little more of a confrontation than this line over here?”
Each time I went on (eight more), Richard was there before and after, encouraging me and giving me tips. One night, out of nowhere, all the tips seemed to come together in my head and in my performance. He caught me in the wings after curtain call, eyes wide. “There you go!” he said excitedly. “Did you feel that?” At the next performance, I lost some ground, and he didn’t mince words. “Remember that time you really got it? Well, it can’t always be like that. But remember that feeling, and you’ll be on the right track next time.”
I didn’t always understand what he meant, and I didn’t always know the actors he referred to in his anecdotes, but I remember his ease. And I remember his tips. Gone are the days when a production’s leading actor served also as director, and the rise of the director has created a certain hierarchy in which actors giving each other notes is frowned upon. But Richard impressed upon me the art of giving a tip, and the importance of older and younger actors working collaboratively and sharing practical knowledge that you just can’t get in an acting class.
Rest in peace, Richard Griffiths. Many can attest that you inspired the actors you worked with. What they may not realize is that you were generous, above and beyond, even to an understudy who took notes from way up in the rafters.
Amanda Quaid is an actor from New York City. This is her fourth contribution to the TCG Circle. Follow @QuaidAmanda