What Albert Finney taught me about motivation ….

I wonder if all bloggers are obsessive about their stats. I freely admit that, since I started blogging again after a long break, I check the stats on my blog quite regularly. You can make your own assessment of my character from that fact.

Apart from the most recent thing I post, the most visited blog I’ve written is a piece called Ten Ways to Motivate the Unmotivated. I was a bit alarmed when I saw this. I wrote that post in August 2010, and subsequently turned it into a talk, which I gave at conferences and training sessions in a couple of dozen different countries.

And reading the post again, I realise that over the years, I have completely changed the talk, and I would like to completely change the post, too. So I’m not going to link to it here. I’m going to write it again and post a new version.

That will be my next post. First I want to talk about how the word ‘motivation’ affects me.

Whenever I see or hear the M word, whatever the context, my mind goes back to the time when I was one of the directors of the English Teaching Theatre. I used to dread hearing actors talk about motivation.

More about that later…

Before that – does anyone remember the 1982 movie Tootsie? Dustin Hoffman plays a talented but unsuccessful actor called Michael Dorsey who, after a long time out of work, decides to audition as a woman. He calls himself Dorothy Michaels and gets a part in a TV soap opera.

00 tootsie

For the majority of the film, Hoffman is in drag. He’s quite amusing as the woman soap character, but there are also some funny parts of the movie when he’s playing the male Dorsey character.

One of the reasons he’s so unsuccessful as a male actor is that directors think he’s really hard to work with. In desperation, his agent sends him to audition for a TV commercial. If I remember rightly, he gets the part of a blueberry in a breakfast cereal advertisement. All he has to do is wear a blueberry outfit and dive into a huge bowl of milk.

Dorsey still manages to cause problems. He calls a halt to the filming of the scene and stomps over to the director. Still dressed as a blueberry, he asks: “What exactly is my character’s motivation for diving into the bowl?”

I’d always thought that actors talking about motivation was some kind of joke, and Tootsie seemed to confirm this. But when I started directing actors at the English Teaching Theatre, I found that some of them were deadly serious about it.

Tootsie was released at a very busy time for the English Teaching Theatre, and also when responsibility for directing the show had devolved onto the three directors, Hazel Imbert, Doug Case and myself. We were all trained as EFL teachers, not theatre directors.

ETT 84
The English Teaching Theatre line-up that toured Brazil in 1984, left to right: Kieran Fogarty, me, Judy Garton-Sprenger, Matthew Devitt, Coralyn Canfor-Dumas

When the ETT had first started touring in the 1970s, most of the other performers were EFL teachers as well and we ‘directed’ each other. By the mid-1980s, the company had expanded and was touring almost constantly during the academic year, sometimes with three different groups on the road simultaneously. There was also a two-month summer season in the UK.

As a result, the company started to provide a lot of work for ‘real’ actors. So Doug, Hazel and I had to tell actors with no English teaching background why the material was written the way it was.

We occasionally struggled to make them understand what we wanted them to do. The actors were sometimes puzzled as to why the sketches were written in the way they were. They often thought there were more ‘obvious’ ways of making the same gag. We explained that a line that was obvious to a native speaker might be incomprehensible to a learner of English. The sketches were written in a way that intermediate students of English could understand them, and hopefully also find them funny.

Occasionally, with a particularly silly sketch, there would be a discussion about the character’s motivation.

An M-word moment that I particularly remember concerned a sketch called Ticket to Birmingham. It’s set in a train station, and a passenger is trying to buy a ticket.

It starts like this:

Railway employee: Can I help you?

Passenger: Yes. I want to a ticket.

Railway employee: You want a ticket?

Passenger: Yes. I want a ticket to Birmingham.

Railway employee: You want a ticket to Birmingham?

Passenger: Yes.

Railway employee: Why?

I can clearly remember the day that Doug Case and I wrote the sketch. We were batting ideas back and forth to try to find a way to start it. When one of us said ‘Why?’ after the exchange above, we both dissolved with laughter.

Ah, happy days, such simple pleasures.

At the end of the sketch, we discover that the passenger isn’t actually in the station ticket office and the railway employee isn’t actually selling tickets. But that hardly matters, because by then the audience is usually very engaged with the whole nonsensical feel of the material.

It was a very successful sketch.

We started to use Ticket to Birmingham in our auditions. When we advertised for new performers, we would get about a hundred people applying and we usually auditioned about half of them. The auditionees performed a two-hand ETT sketch with an existing member of the group, who would spend half an hour taking the actor through the script before the two of them performed it in front of other members of the group.

I was helping an auditioning actor with Ticket to Birmingham. At the first read-through, he looked puzzled.

“Is this supposed to be funny?” he asked.

That kind of question is like a red rag to me….

“It’s not just supposed to be funny, it actually is funny,” I replied, with just a hint of annoyance in my voice.

“But my character isn’t actually selling tickets,” he said. “What on earth is my motivation for carrying on like this?”

“Because it’s funny. What other motivation do you need?”

“Will I get a chance to talk to the director about this?”

Cheeky devil!

Despite this bad start, the actor gave a good audition (helped by a sterling performance from yours truly as the passenger) and got through to a second audition. He was good, but his use of the M-word had unsettled me. I had to find a way to answer questions like this in a way that actors would understand. I was beginning to think that I would have to study directing, just so that I could answer M-word questions.

Then, as so often happens, fate took a hand…

I come from a city in the north of England called Salford and I went to Salford Grammar School. One of the most famous old boys of the school is actor Albert Finney. He was friends with my older brother Geoff, and they played together in a very successful school first fifteen rugby team.

00 Albert
A young moody Albert Finney in the 1960s…

In the 1990s, Finney appeared at Wyndham’s Theatre in London in a play called Art by the French writer Jasmina Reza. The play had been translated into English and was playing to full houses every night. The other members of the cast were Tom Courtenay, another acting legend of Finney’s generation, and a young actor called Kenny Stott, who wasn’t that well known at the time, but who went on to carve a very successful career on stage and on TV.

Art is about the aesthetic and financial value of works of art, and also about snobbishness and narcissism, amongst other things. The Tom Courtenay character has paid 200,000 French francs for a painting which is basically a white canvas. Most of the play is spent discussing whether it was money well spent.

Finney and Courtenay played professionals of some kind, architects, I think. Stott played Yvan, a very unsuccessful salesman, who was hoping to advance his career by marrying the daughter of his boss. The other two made fun of him mercilessly.

My other brother Graham, who lives in Yorkshire, suggested we go and see the play. Graham was at the time the chair of the Salford Grammar School Old Boys Association, and I secretly arranged for us to go back-stage to meet Albert after the show.

We watched a note-perfect production with an enthusiastic audience. All the way through, however, I kept thinking – why do these two successful professionals spend any time with Yvan, a salesman they both clearly despise?

At the end of the play, I announced to Graham that we were going back-stage to meet Albert. He was suitably surprised and excited.

As we walked towards Albert’s dressing room, we saw him saying goodbye to someone. My brother Graham, a very gregarious and chatty person, recognised this other person as someone he was at school with and stopped to have a loud and enthusiastic conversation with him in the corridor.

I looked towards the dressing room. Albert was drumming his fingers on the door frame impatiently. Quite rightly, he was hoping to get away as soon as possible, his evening’s work done. I managed to pull Graham away from the conversation he was having and we went to meet the great man.

There was a woman standing next to him.

“So you’re Geoff Wilson’s brothers, are you?” asked our Albert. We confessed that we were.

“This is my sister,” he said, indicating the woman next to him.

“Ah!” said Graham to the sister. “You live in Urmston, don’t you? I think I know someone who lives in your street.”

And he and the sister went into an animated conversation about mutual friends in Urmston. Really, I can’t take Graham anywhere.

I therefore found myself in a one-to-one with one of the finest stage actors of his generation, and the question that had plagued me throughout the show came to mind.

“Can I ask you something?” I asked tentatively. “Where did you meet Yvan?”

“Who?” asked Albert.

“Yvan, the Kenny Stott character. I mean, he’s a salesman. And you don’t like him very much.”

“That’s correct.”

“So I wondered where you met him.”

“No idea,” said Albert. “In a bar, perhaps?”

“You’ve never thought about where you met him?”


“So,” I ventured, “you didn’t think about it when you first read the script?”

“No,” he replied. “I just thought it was a wonderful script. And when we started rehearsing it, it just got better and better.”

“So not knowing where you met Yvan didn’t affect your character’s motivation?”

I can’t repeat what Albert said about motivation in case there are any children reading this … but suffice it to say, it didn’t occur to him to ask those kinds of questions.

“Being in this play is like being in a jazz band,” he said. “Every night it’s different. It’s what theatre’s all about.”

You can’t imagine the confidence this conversation gave me in all my subsequent conversations with actors about the M-word!

PS If you don’t know anything about the English Teaching Theatre, you can find out about it here.

PPS One of the funniest books about acting is What’s My Motivation? by Michael Simkins, published in 2004.



5 thoughts on “What Albert Finney taught me about motivation ….

  1. Hi Ken – another very nice post, thank you! The 1984 picture of the ETT Brazil reminded me that was the year we first met in Maceió. The Cultura Inglesa in that capital city had been inaugurated in March the same year, and Rachel and I got married in December 1983. Cheers!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s