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Continental Divide

Simon Russell Beale, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Miriam Margolyes, and other British actors discuss the differences between working in England and America. logo
Alan Cumming
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
British and American actors may speak the same language, but their lives on stage -- and off -- are sometimes as different as Cockney rhyming and Brooklyn slang. So say a number of British performers who have been lucky enough to work on both sides of the Pond.

Alan Cumming, who recently concluded a run of Bent at the Trafalgar Studio in London, has been the toast of both continents in the past decade. "Theater is an event in New York; there's an open, exuberant cult of celebrity. In London, theater is just another wonderful thing that's happening in town," says the Scottish-born star, who won a Tony Award for his performance as the Emcee in Cabaret. "And in New York, after the show is over, your evening is just beginning. In London, it's all about what's still open so we can get something to eat."

But there is one definite similarity that Cumming finds in working on both sides of the Atlantic: the behavior of American and British directors. "The director is always the anal one in the room, which is as it should be," he says.

Miriam Margolyes, who's currently playing Madame Morrible in the London production of Wicked, found one significant difference in working with American director Joe Mantello. "He expected us to be working all hours of the day and, if necessary, the night," she says. "In London, we have very strict time limits. Most of us live away from town and we need to finish work before the buses and trains stop running. Joe was amazed that we weren't prepared to work all those hours. We said to him, 'Sweetheart, we are in England now. You don't pay us enough to work that hard.' In America, they make much more money and work harder. Salaries for the ensemble are double what they are in London." On the other hand, she was shocked when Mantello asked if she wanted to take a vacation during the Wicked run. "I said, 'No I can't do that. If I'm well, I have to be there.' I made my commitment. That's how I was trained."

Margolyes has worked sporadically in the United States, most recently in Sir Peter Hall's production of The Importance of Being Earnest , which played at BAM in 2005. "I feel an enormous sense of accomplishment; to have played in New York is a mark of great success to me. There is no credit that I value more than my credit in New York. I received the O.B.E. [Officer of the Order of the British Empire] for services to Drama from Queen Elizabeth, but being in New York matches that."

Sinéad Cusack and Brian Cox in Rock 'N' Roll
(© Johan Persson)
"American audiences are so generous and openly responsive," says Suzanne Bertish, who has appeared in New York in such shows as the Royal National Theatre's production of Nicholas Nickleby and The Public Theater's Measure for Pleasure. "The British may like what we do as much as the Americans, but they don't always show it. Standing ovations, which routinely happen in New York, are rare occurrences in London."

Stage and screen star Brian Cox first came to Broadway in 1984 with fellow Brit Glenda Jackson in Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude and has returned numerous time since. "The Broadway community is a much tighter community," he notes. "In London, it's so spread out and so big. There's a theater here and two miles away there's another group of theaters. It's not like New York, where everyone's on top of one another and they all meet at restaurants after the show."

Cox, who recently starred in Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll in London and may return to the play if it comes to Broadway, does note one crucial difference between British and American actors. "At LAMDA, where I trained, we rebelled against the idea that the Americans and the Brits were divided. We learned from each other," he says. "But the main difference between us is our voices. We Brits were trained to pitch a whisper to the back of the stalls. That was what our training was about."

Olivier Award winner Simon Russell Beale, who will take over the role of King Arthur in Spamalot (which he has already played on Broadway) in the London production beginning January 8, has a very special dream: to create a Shakespeare company made up of British, American, and Australian actors all working together. "We will break the walls down and infect each other with our different techniques," he says.

If that dream comes true, he'd prefer that his company follow the New York practice that reviewers can see a show at any one of several performances during previews, rather than one specific performance. "In London, there is the sudden-death press night where all the critics are in the audience at the same time," Beale notes. "It's more spread out in New York -- and I like not knowing when the press is in the audience."

Speaking of the press: Playwright Martin Sherman, the author of Bent, thinks there is much more pressure to please the critics in New York. "The stakes are higher on Broadway, and it's much more tense," he says. "Not that the stakes are not high in London, because they are. London makes you nervous, but it doesn't make you hysterical. That's the biggest difference between the two cities, but it's a profound one."

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