Many thanks to everyone who came to the Special Audience fundraiser with Kevin Spacey last night. Thanks to Melvyn Bragg for being such a superb interviewer. Above all thanks to Kevin for ninety minutes of joy and genius.
My daughter went with some of her drama classmates. Rarely have I seen a group of teenagers so inspired as when they came out of the Criterion theatre. A couple used the word ‘life-changing’, and even though there can often be a bit of hyperbole flying around after a good performance, inspiring it most certainly was.
It wasn’t just that he told great stories, did extraordinary impersonations, and made people laugh and think. It was more that he gave so much of himself in terms of what it meant to be an actor, what the arts meant to him, and what the arts meant to all of us.
He gave a truly brilliant description of the difference between screen acting and stage acting, which was rooted in the director having the power to ensure where the viewer’s gaze went on screen, while on stage it was the actor who had to ‘apply the focus pull’. His description led to several of Grace’s group, having assumed that movie stardom was the height of acting achievement, to say that theatre would be their goal.
Of course that is how great teachers operate. They inspire by their knowledge and wisdom, and they open minds. He described what it was like to be told, aged 13, by Jack Lemmon, that he had talent. He spoke of the teachers who inspired him in the way he now tried to inspire others. He told of the wonderful Jack Lemmon line that no matter how successful you get, ‘always send the elevator back down’, which he now used as his own management style.
He impressed too with his evident commitment to the Old Vic. As Melvyn said, when Kevin first started out, most of the media said he was unlikely to stay, that it was a passing fad for an actor who had got a bit bored winning Oscars and picking up millions for movies.
Kevin reeled off a list of UK arts success stories, from the Royal Shakespeare to the National, and described how panned they had been at the start. When the Old Vic came in for similar treatment, he gathered staff together and told them never to forget that if all of the critics came together to put on a show, they could not fill one single row of one single theatre. Great quote.
But it was what he had done on the social and educational side that I found most inspiring. When he arrived he asked staff to go and knock on the doors of the council estates nearby and find out how many had ever been to the Old Vic. 98per cent had never set foot in the place. They saw it as a rich person’s plaything. So he lowered to a fiver the price of a ticket for local people. He started up a major educational programme which means that he and other great actors now work with kids who have the same dream as he had growing up.
The Old Vic gets no public subsidy, so in one sense is immune from the current public spending debate, but he spoke with real passion about the fear in the arts world about planned cuts. Arts and culture, he said, were one of the UK’s greatest natural resources, and there was an economic as well as cultural case for investment.
But he is realistic to know an axe will fall on some companies which is why fundraising is going to be so important. I’m not sure it is what David Cameron means by the Big Society, but then again I’m not sure Tories get the arts in the way Kevin was describing them last night.
I am truly grateful to Kevin that he helped Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research last night. And I wish all the best to any minister who goes along with the Tory line that the arts are for those who can afford them, and so don’t need the kind of support that has helped turned our arts into something someone like Kevin Spacey likes and admires enough to want to devote a large chunk of his life to developing, improving and extending to, dare I say it, the many not the few.
Indeed, as the evening wore on, I began to wonder how long American citizens had to live here before they could run for Mayor. After all, if Everton’s Spanish midfielder Miguel Arteta is entitled to play for England, I think Kevin should be entitled to give Boris a run for his money some time. On last night’s performance, it would be a landslide.