The master of improvisation


By Jerry Tallmer

Mike Leigh has for 40 years now employed his own unique method of starting and building a play or a movie, and he has built plenty of both, gathering praises and prizes along the way. “First, the actors take part without any idea of the process,” he says. “Second, each actor only knows what his character would know.” 

What then ensues is improvisation.

Leigh, here in New York for the opening of “Abigail’s Party,” leaned back, stroked his scrubby bit of a beard, and said: “That last scene in ‘Secrets and Lies,’ the big barbecue, was a massive improv. Then we rehearsed it and fixed it and pinned it down, so what you finally arrive at—by the time I shoot it or put in on stage—is very precise.

“That’s the whole thing in a nutshell.”

The 1996 “Secrets and Lies,” about a capable young British black woman who discovers herself to be the daughter of a baffled working-class British white woman, won a Golden Globe and a host of other awards around the globe including Oscar nominations for Brenda Blethyn as the mother, Marianne Jean-Baptiste as the daughter, and Mike Leigh as writer/director.

“Abigail’s Party” is another cup of tea, or, rather, a tumbler of the gin-and-tonic that domineering Beverly, the wife of workaholic two-bit rental agent Laurence, forces on her guests whatever their own tastes may be. The guests on this occasion are Angela, an over-striving, under-brained registered nurse; Angela’s boorish husband Tony, a computer technician and onetime soccer star; and Sue, the neighbor, a recuperating divorcee who’s come over for the evening because her own house is packed with the teenagers her daughter Abigail has invited to a party.

We never get to see Abigail. We do get to see the spiritual and societal poverty of the bourgeois-Brit adults here in Laurence and Beverly’s house, as layer after layer of their varying pretensions are stripped off by themselves in a give-and-take under the whiplash, so to speak, of their hostess.

The New Group/Theatre Row production that’s at 42nd Street’s Acorn Theater is the American premier of a work that originated in July 1977 at London’s Hampstead Theatre. An author’s note emphasizes that it “evolved from scratch entirely by rehearsal through improvisation.”

“That was nearly 30 years ago,” Mike Leigh says now. “Very interesting to see how it stands up. Having done it as a play at the Hampstead, it was then [in November 1977] wheeled into a [BBC] television studio.”

What was the spark that set you creating it in the first place?

“Not easy, that kind of question.” He thought a bit. “I guess, the whole thing of not being true to what we are. The aspirational aspect [to be on some higher economic and social level]. Received ideas, misguided relationships. Consumerism. Something I do all the time” [write about such matters].

This is the fourth Mike Leigh play done in New York by director Scott Elliott. “He finally decided to do this one, and the bonus is Jennifer Jason Leigh” as pile-driving Beverly. Ms. Leigh’s stage mates are Max Baker as husband Laurence, Elizabeth Jasicki as Angela, Darren Goldstein as Tony, Lisa Emery as Sue.

“Next month it will be 40 years since the first play I ever did this way,” Leigh said. “That was ‘The Box Play,’ December 1965. About a family that lived in a box—a cage. I was 22—a long time ago. Now I’m 62.”

How did the improv-ing start?

“How—or why?” Leigh amended. “Well, I was trained as an actor at RADA [the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts]. It was rather dead. Uncreative. Formula stuff. Old-fashioned boulevard theater. You know, you learned lines and didn’t pull over the furniture.

“Then I went to art school, were you did life drawing. It suddenly hit me that what we were doing as art students we were not doing as theater students. Working from life.

“Then I did some directing, and found it uninspiring. I was writing, as well. And I suddenly found you could direct and write at the same time. At some point it just made sense.”

Hadn’t Elia Kazan, among others, been doing just that, in a sort of way, here in the United States?

“Yes, but I hadn’t seen any of his [stage] work. It was also what [Britain’s] Peter Brook was doing, and, you know, [John] Cassavetes [in movies]. My first love, always, was film.”

 Do you always work this same way, not telling the actors, and so forth?

“Yes, yes, yes.”

Leigh has a new play running now at the Britain’s National Theatre.

“It’s called ‘Two Thousand Years’ and it’s about Jews. In particular, it’s about a couple of old left-wing Zionists whose son becomes Orthodox, much to their secular horror.”

Mike Leigh was born in Salford, “a city attached to Manchester—like Buda and Pest”—February 20, 1943.

“My father, Abe Leigh, at that point in time, was serving in His Majesty’s forces in Southwest Africa. When he died of a heart attack, 20 years ago, I was in Australia. Sort of a poetic pattern. Didn’t get to see him at either end.”

How many Jews were there in His Majesty’s forces in Southwest Africa?

“Interesting question. My father was there because he was a doctor. My mother was a nurse. She was a Londoner, Phyllis Cousin, whose father was a kosher butcher. My grandparents were all from the Ukraine, Russia, Germany. A new film you haven’t seen, ‘Vera Drake,’ about a back-street abortionist [an admirable one], is dedicated to my parents. Who were not abortionists.”

Leigh is himself the father of two sons, one an illustrator, the other a filmmaker—“good guys”—in their 20s.

You know, Mr. Leigh, that unseen Abigail in your play, the willful teenager whose pals are turning her mother’s house into a smoke-filled zoo, would seem to be a bit of a horror.

“Well, she is,” Leigh said, “with every earmark of ending up a little Beverly. But I think she has a healthy streak, a certain freedom down the road.”

Give or take 30 more years and we’ll see. Improvisationally.