Author Archives: Jamie Bell

A couple of words: DUENDE AND FARD

When I walked into my audition for Vanya all those months ago, I was gunning for Sonya. I hadn’t even considered Yelena as an option. I had read the play, and had come to several conclusions, including, but not exclusively so:

  • I want a Marina in my life almost as much as I want a Madea.
  • Uncle Vanya reminds me of a bull in a small space
  • Astrov has some growing up to do
  • I hate Yelena.

I hated her. I hated her laziness. I hated the fact that she gave up her one and only talent in order to marry someone she thought was “famous”. I hated that she doesn’t smack Vanya in the face and tell him where to shove his “deepest, truest feelings”. I hated that she stays with the unbearable Professor when she could be frolicking in the fall leaves with the doctor. But most of all, I hated that the first thing we know about her is that she’s “good-looking.” To me, that was the final nail in the coffin. I did not want to play Yelena.

A more accurate observation would have been: I did not want to be Yelena.

So for this final blog post I would like to say a couple of words. Those words are duende and fard.


DUENDE (doo-EN-DAY): n. from Spanish dialectal (charm), from Spanish (ghost): the ability to attract others through personal magnetism and charm.

When I was twelve, I did my first professional production in the Repertory Players Theatre in my city. I was Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof, and I loved her – tough, brave, runs away from her family and her home to be with the man she loves but has only known for a month or two, ending up in a Russian jail somewhere. Wait, what? Then came Juliet – young, naive, runs away from her family and her home to be with the man she loves but has only known for a month or two, ending up – oh yes, dead. That same year I was to play Barbara-Ann, a “Texan bimbo” whose costume was a tiny waitress dress made for a nine-year old, and  Mary – the sexy main character of a murder mystery whose only three seconds on stage involve falling out of a cupboard with her throat slit open (the blood covered more than the lacy nightgown I was wearing.) It was the beginning of a seemingly endless string of beautiful women who ended up in horrible situations because all they had going for them was the way they looked or their horribly misguided love affairs. This was a trend that I was determined to put an end to. In high school I auditioned for the ugly roles, the old roles, the depraved roles, the male roles – anything but the Pretty Girl. By the time I got to play La Ruffiana – a 73 year-old prostitute whose language was almost as foul as her smell – I finally felt I’d made it. From then on, I played the oddballs and steered clear of the pretty women.

So when it was decided that I would play Yelena, I struggled to come round to the idea of reacquainting myself with the beautiful. But how could I when I had spent so many years stomping Duende out, eradicating it from my physical vocabulary? How could I access the calculated magnetism, the purposeful lure of Yelena when the “sexy” had all but withered away from my box of acting tools? It became even harder upon re-reading the text. Assuming I found my Duende again, where was I supposed to insert it when Yelena’s words speak so much of melancholy and emptiness? Then along came Ashley with her beautiful, easy smile and natural grace.

“Damn it. I can’t do that.”

When one of my professors asked how Vanya was going, I said “It’s great, but I hate my character.” That was when I received a short piece of invaluable advice that will seem intuitive to some. It went something like this: “It’s no good trying to be a character you hate – you won’t last a second in their skin if you despise being there. You have to like Yelena, or she’ll evade you forever.” That got me thinking – how is it that I can like La Ruffiana and hate Yelena? And then it hit me – a formula that I had constructed in my brain:

Beauty = shallow = boring

So I did some rearranging:

Beauty = usually self-defining = perceived as shallow = potentially quite interesting.
This same professor told me a story about a group of monks whose leaders must be killed by their eventual successor who then takes up the role in the knowledge that with his power comes his inevitable murder. So it is with beauty, I think. As the Duke Orsino so aptly puts it:

“For women are as roses, whose fair flow’r,
Being once displayed, doth fall that very hour.”
                                                                          Twelfth Night II.iv.

And so, the coolness arrived. I came to a conclusion about how I felt about Yelena. For me, she is a woman who knows that her beauty is transient, that it will fade, and when it does she will fall to the wayside and join Astrov in the ranks of the “once beautiful,” and another will take her place as the adored. To me, Yelena is not unaware of her good looks. In fact, she is too aware of it. She knows that it marks and defines her in the eyes of the people around her. Which leaves her with the question – “In five or six years, I’ll be old too”. What then? What do I have if I don’t have this face, these eyes? She has given up her musical education for a man who won’t stop bitching about everything he’s had to let go of. She can’t “miraculously heal and teach” people the way Sonya can. “All she does is enchant people with her beauty.” A few people asked me how I feel about Sonya, and I admitted to being thoroughly irritated by her. As Thomas points out in his post – she is good, she is kind, she protects and she nurtures, but she wallows in her plainness. Every time I walked into the window room to hear her lamenting about the fact that she’s “Not Pretty”, I wanted to grab her by the shoulders, shake her hard and scream “No, you’re not! You’re not pretty! You are skilled, resourceful, strong, smart, useful. And you are loved. You are not pretty, and you should thank your lucky stars for it.”

Yelena is not loved. Yelena is desired. A fact which she points out to Vanya. Like the forest that is so beautiful and so temporary, “you don’t actually care about me.” Astrov seems to know it too. He does not love her. “That’s how much I want you,” he says, and proceeds to ask for “just one kiss.” He at least acknowledges the need to take the beauty while it lasts, because one day, no one will give a damn about the gorgeous Yelena Andreyevna. Perhaps this is why she stays with the professor. Because even if there is no love there, he is not likely to leave her once she is old and Not Pretty.


FARD (FAHRD): v. from Middle English farden, from Middle French farder, of Germanic origin; akin to Old High German faro (colored): to paint the face with cosmetics.

For anyone who hasn’t given up on this post yet, I’d like to introduce you to my second word: “fard”. To paint the face with cosmetics.

Once I had understood and even come to like Yelena, I was still faced with a problem: How am I to portray the kind of mesmerising beauty that Chekhov calls for? She has to possess the kind of beauty that stalls a household for a month. She has to be obviously more “beautiful” than Sonya. How to do it? I believe in universal beauty – that everything has it, that it is truly in the eye of the beholder, so the idea of objective beauty was a difficult one for me to grasp. The only way I knew how to achieve that was the way society has always told us: slap on a bit of this here, a brush of that there, a few hundred strokes of this and voila!

You. Are. Beautiful.

A cast member walked in one evening before the show as I was redoing my lipstick for the third time and they told me that I shouldn’t wear make-up, that I was fine without it. This was a compliment, but it grated for some reason. I felt angry. I felt that I had to do everything I could to be as beautiful as I could, because otherwise –   what’s the point of Yelena?


While watching Act Three, I always wondered what Yelena is about to say when she trails off.

“I mean, someone like me, someone who’s…”

Someone who’s what, exactly?




To be a photographer.

There is a brief moment when all there is in a man’s mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record.

Yousuf Karsh

Yousuf Karsh was a portrait photographer. Born in Armenia and forced to leave during the Armenian genocide, he moved to Canada and made his living capturing faces in his little black box, and printing them out for the world to see. The subjects of his photographs include Mohammed Ali, the Kennedys, Albert Einstein, Grace Kelly, Ernest Hemingway, Fidel Castro, Audrey Hepburn and even Pablo Picasso himself. Karsh was the creator behind the iconic images we see of these giants of history. His quest was to find the inner secret hidden within every man and woman, and to reveal it. He would put his subject in front of the camera and wait for that revelation which would come, if it came at all, “in a small fraction of a second with an unconscious gesture, a gleam of the eye, a brief lifting of the mask that all humans wear to conceal their innermost selves from the world.” It was in this brief moment that Yousuf Karsh would bring down the shutter of his bellows Calumet and immortalise this flash of spirit before the veil was dropped, and it retreated back into the murky shadows of pretence.

In many ways over the last few weeks, I have felt like a photographer, only this time without my Nikon F3. The moments of greatest importance for me have been neither the grandest nor the loudest, but more the quiet, magical moments of minutiae that have shown me brief glimpses of the spirit out on that black rehearsal floor. The moments of fleeting eye contact, a brief touch of hands in passing, a slight smile in the crook of a mouth – these are the things that excite me most about this cast and this process.

Our exercises with Kali have been fun and loud and boisterous, and we have indeed learned a great deal about the vast world of the body. I wish I could say that I remember everything we worked on. I do not. There are entire exercises that even now, as I chase after them, slip from my mind – I don’t anticipate them ever coming back. I don’t remember all our catchphrases. I don’t remember all the movement exercises. I certainly don’t remember all our titles. But I do remember Thomas’ spit on the ground, his eyes growing wide, questioning, and asking me whether that moment could support our laughter. I remember Jaya’s furrowed eyebrows as she demanded I give her back her morphine. I remember watching Sam and Mike work the scene in which Astrov gloats about kissing Yelena, and I remember the betrayal in Phil’s eyes as he looked at me in that moment. “How could you?” We were just two observers, two actors watching a scene, but the moment grew. Suddenly, I saw how that kiss will have consequences for everybody. I saw betrayal and heart ache become real things that happen in the real world. A world apart from and so a part of Chekhov’s words. I remember Nick’s breath on my nose as we moved across the floor, pushing and pulling each other, repelling and yet holding on with all our might because we were afraid that to separate was to break something beautiful. I remember walking in a circle holding hands with Ashley, singing a song I didn’t know and feeling safe in the warmth of her hand, knowing that between us, we’d come up with a tune that suited us. I remember Faye glancing up at me from the floor through a mess of hair, eyes full to the brim with child-like urgency, asking “Do I look stupid?” I remember a suspension with Aurelia, a reach towards Sam, and a quiet and tender audition with Cynthia.

All these micro moments  are surges that come and go in an instant, that reveal themselves only for as long as it takes for them to touch you, and then they are gone. For me, this is what acting is about.  It is about breaking through the Act to the magma of spirit beneath, and hopefully catching a glimpse of its light. It is about the moments that make your heart skip a beat, and cause your throat to catch. In a way, it’s almost like falling in love.

Jeff, Kali, Jules – you may all deplore the fact that I cannot write a blog post about any one activity or exercise that I will remember and be able to repeat. But what the last few weeks have given me have meant something different. I have had the privilege of recording a few moments of soul for myself, and storing them in my little black box in the back of my mind, just as Yousuf Karsh did with his camera. I have seen life, and I am learning how to keep searching for it. I am learning when the exact moment is to close the shutter, to grasp the spirit of my fellow actors and hopefully to soar with them for a few glorious moments.

If there’s any one thing that I would like anyone to get from reading this blog post, it would be this: the next time we are all together in a room, working in calm or in clamour, try to be a photographer. Seek the spirit and hold on to it as long as it will allow. Then, and only then, do we cease to pretend.



Cabin Fever (No, not the horror film)

“Cabin fever is an idiomatic term, first recorded in 1918, for a claustraphobic reaction that takes place when a person or group is isolated and/or shut in a small space, with nothing to do for an extended period. Cabin fever describes the extreme irritability and restlessness a person may feel in these situations. A person may experience cabin fever in a situation such as being in a simple country vacation cottage. When experiencing cabin fever, a person may tend to sleep, have distrust of anyone they are with, and an urge to go outside even in the rain, snow, dark or hail ”

Thank you Wikipedia.

Three years ago I was in France for Christmas with a friend and her family in a beautiful 15th century manor house in Nimes. It was December, the snow was deep and crisp and beautiful to someone who’s used to hot sun and dry soils. There were six of us staying in this enormous chateau, and we had great visions of holing ourselves up for the winter, watching tv, eating bread and olive oil and playing romantic French songs on the old piano beside the fire. The first meal was perfect, we chatted away in rolling French and everyone seemed to be enjoying everyone who was enjoying them. A cosy scene indeed.
As time went on, however, the frost in the wind outside seemed to seep under the cracks in the doors and windows, and little by little we became disenchanted with one another. The food became less divine, the weather went from magical to thoroughly depressing, and my friend’s warm and welcoming family slowly turned into a small group of very sad, very irritable individuals. Time wore on, and spats turned to frequent screaming matches, until when I woke up in the mornings the house seemed a little smaller than it did when I’d gone to sleep the night before. The walls closed in around us, pressing us together and forcing us to accept our mutual humanness – our stupid mistakes, our boring conversations, our lack of talent and vibrancy in all but a few exhausted areas. I found myself wrapping up in every piece of clothing I had brought and venturing out into the deep, sludgy snow to get out of the giant hairy moustache that was that family.

To this day I hate snow, and I hate Nimes, and I haven’t spoken to the family since. It was a blessed reprieve to step out into the departure terminal in Paris, and I daresay they were relieved to see me go.

This is called Cabin Fever. When two or more people are isolated in a confined space for too long, without external stimuli or contact with nature, bad things happen. People start to go a little mad, start to do things that they would otherwise do. I think it hearkens back to our fear of being in a cave with a big rock rolled across it. Where do we go if something attacks from the inside?

There are only three things that scare me to the point of having a phobia:
1. clowns (whoever thought that was ok??)
2. the fear that I will one day be homeless and living on a moth-eaten patch quilt on the streets of New York with an anemic cat that I’ve called Miss Puss.
3. Being trapped in an inescapable place

Yelena is trapped in so many ways – she is trapped in a disillusioned marriage to a man she can’t bring herself to love. She is trapped in her obligations to her step-daughter which deny her the freedom to love the one person she could possibly have a chance with, and she is trapped in this house full of bitter, dissatisfied people whose hearts and minds are either too tired or too inaccessible to be of any comfort to her.

Of course, we’re all trapped in this little freak show that is Uncle Vanya, in our own twisted way. We are planets in orbit, revolving around and inextricably bound to a locus that seems to be a vacuum of What Ifs and If Only I Hads.

While I agree with Jeff that this play is a comedy, and I agree that we’re all a little cartoonish in one sense or another, I think there’s something very powerful about Cabin Fever and the way it’s going to affect us all out there on stage. Think about this, next time we rehearse, or next time you’re going over lines. ” A person may tend to sleep, have distrust of anyone they are with, and an urge to go outside even in the rain, snow, dark or hail.” Again, it begs the question – what do you do when something attacks from the inside?