Tuesday 1 September 2015

Ken Campbell: Lighthouse

Sometimes people come up to me after a show to tell me that they can see the influence of Ken Campbell in my performance, even in an interrogative nasal twang that inflects my voice.

I used to mention Ken in the press blurb to my last show, ‘The Human Loire’. It was a somewhat crass attempt to give myself some professional back-story, to ride some famous coat-tails, given that no one has heard of me. (I should never have supposed that being ‘known’ was a meaningful attribute in its own right.) One listings website mis-read the blurb and stated that the show was ‘directed by Ken Campbell’. I didn’t write in to correct them.

When thinking up stuff and how to perform it, I always keep Ken in mind. He is the most discerning critic of what’s boring, half-hearted, lazy and self-indulgent. His role is a symbolic one; like Socrates’ daimonion, he tells me what to avoid rather than what to do. What would his opinion really be of my performances? I shudder to think.

Ken was known to get furious if you wasted his time on anything that wasn’t astonishing and fascinating. I was (fortunately?) not on the receiving end of his ire very often. At first I thought that he was being indulgent towards me purely out of mischief towards the experienced trained actors he would put me on stage with. ‘Look at Michael,’ he would hiss at the RADA graduates, ‘He’s brilliant, and he edits gardening books!’

Later I would learn that Ken simply respected no hierarchy on stage or off. (My dad was the same.) For Ken, every human being, no matter what their professional back-story, contained the latent potential to amaze and astonish other people and themselves. There were no rules as to what form this potential should take; it was different for everyone Ken came in contact with. It might even be the ‘legendary minus factor’: the ability to leave the stage and make it look somehow fuller. Whatever Ken thought you had, he would seize on and whip it into shape. I don’t think Ken ever really knew what to make of me, but his interest in me was never to mould me into an acolyte, but to goad me into discovering my potential and developing my self-astonishment. Only after his death did I appreciate how many hundreds of lives Ken had changed in this way.

For me and for many others, Ken was a lighthouse, showing up the dangerous rocks of banality on which so many boats have foundered and revealing the vast extent of the expanses of exciting waters that lie beyond everything we're comfortable and familiar with.

When I half-consciously imitate Ken with my nasal mannerisms on stage, it is a sign that I am being fearful, not confident enough to be adventurous with my own voice. I am sailing too close to my lighthouse. And in playing safe, I’m courting failure. He’d want me to strike out further, and that is what I will endeavour to do in the future. I’m glad to say I've taken his name off my press blurbs, but I will always keep Ken in view, if only as a speck of light on the horizon to assure myself that I’m not sailing headlong up my own arsehole. Only then will I perhaps one day generate a little light of my own.