“The dressing room is a strange space. Intensely private, full of superstitions, whirling with thoughts and emotions, yet simultaneously intensely public,” the great Cate Blanchett writes at the beginning of her prologue to A Time to Act, (Lannoo Books). Indeed, this extraordinary collection of behind-the-scenes shots taken by the amazing British photographer Simon Annand over the past 37 years gives the reader a unique glimpse into the bodies – and minds – of approximately 200 of the world’s greatest thespians as they prepare to go onstage.
As might be expected, there are a handful of wonderful shots of actors being physically transformed into their characters, from Benedict Cumberbatch metamorphosing into the Creature in Frankenstein to Andrew Garfield turning into the lesion-marked Prior Walter in Angels in America, Mark Rylance meticulously making himself up to become a convincing Olivia in Twelfth Night and Angela Lansbury donning her dotty wig to play the comedic clairvoyant in Blithe Spirit.
But equally thrilling is how Annand captures processes and poses we wouldn’t even think about, from Alan Cumming hanging upside down against a wall prior to a performance of his one-man show Alan Cumming Sings Silly Songs to Tom Hiddleston furiously working out before Coriolanus, Simon Russell Beale seemingly practicing a dance move during his run in Deathtrap and Jeff Goldblum tickling the ivories before going on in The Prisoner of Second Avenue.
I have to admit though, albeit surprisingly, some of my favorite photos in this book do little more than present such legendary actors as Jeremy Irons, Judi Dench, Michael Gambon and James McAvoy in repose; some look peaceful, others pensive, and it’s a joy – and challenge – to put oneself inside their minds.
Blanchett’s words aside, not all of the photographs on view actually show performers inside their dressing room. In fact, the final section of the book, “Curtain Up,” is dedicated to the final moments before the show begins. It showcases actors including Daniel Radcliffe, Carey Mulligan, Vanessa Kirby and James Corden on the stairs, in the wings, outside in alleyways and in other more secluded parts of the theater. Whether the shot is candid or posed, it is undeniably fascinating.
Indeed, throughout A Time to Act, Anand often catches a rare intensity and deep concentration in these actors’ faces that appears to immediately evaporate the second the performer is in front of the fabled footlights. You may never watch a stage performance the same way again!