Robert Cohen

Born in London, raised in Dayton, San Diego & Eastbourne, Robert now resides in the City of Brighton & Hove. He is married to actor & improviser Jenny Rowe – five years since, in fact, though they’ve not yet got round to moving in together – hence they were forced to endure the 2020 Covid lockdown in separate premises.

Still, he made himself busy, performing in online Shakespeare (he was York in The Show Must Go Online’s Richard II) and winning an OnComm Award for his web series Keeping the Faith, featuring the lockdown adventures of Quint, the traffic warden anti-hero of the solo stage show High Vis

His other solo shows have included the Hamlet paraquel Something Rotten (aka The Claudius Complex) and the true Cold War tale The Trials of Harvey MatusowMatusow was the subject of Robert’s return to live work, when, in October 2020, he gavethree performances of the show at the 8th Stroud Theatre Festival.

Robert won the Constance Cox Playwriting Prize for The Ragged Regiment, his black comedy about internecine warfare at a stuffed-animal museum in Cromer, and is currently working on Little Things That Keep Us Together, a play inspired by his old art teacher.

TO1%: When did you know you first wanted to be actor?
RC: In my last year at prep school I was in a play called The Royal Astrologers, by a guy called Willis Hall, who I later came to know as the co-author of one of my favourite films, Billy Liar, and much else besides. I played the Third Thief. “Cohen, R entertained as he attempted to wheedle his way out of trouble”, so said the review in the school magazine. It was a small part, but the experience was intoxicating. That’s when I knew. 

TO1%: What was your first professional gig?
RC: That came several decades later. In the meantime I’d gone to university to study drama, found I didn’t like the course, switched to English, then embarked on a career in journalism. Twelve years after that I started acting again, initially in a non-professional capacity; my theory, at the time, was that doing some acting would inform and thus improve my work as a playwright – in time, however, the acting came to achieve parity of importance. Anyway, I gave up full-time journalism in the year 2000, and the following year (finally getting to the point) I got my first professional job, playing Mr Pink (another wheedling thief) in a stage adaptation of Reservoir Dogs.

TO1%: Some people practise in front of a mirror; some people think that’s really artificial. What’s your take?
RC: I do a lot of rehearsal in the mirror – but then, I do a lot of solo shows, so knowing that I’m destined to be looking directly at the audience, the mirror is the natural place to be rehearsing – certainly the natural place to be whilst trying to learn my lines. 

TO1%: How did you get involved with The Other 1%?

RC: As I recall, I heard about Simon Moorhead through the Sussex Playwrights; in the Brighton showbiz world it was rather unusual to learn of someone who, it was rumoured
a) paid real money to writers and actors; and 
b) was interested in nurturing local talent.
So I started pitching him projects; eventually I would write four ghostly tales of Brighton, and one of the Protect and Survive monologues, but my first assignment was performing a couple of small roles in the epic audio drama The Boleyn Brothers.

TO1%: If you could play any film, TV, stage or literary character, who would it be and why?

RC: Having played Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius in my own one-man play Something Rotten (or, The Claudius Complex), I’d love the opportunity to play him in Shakespeare’s version.

TO1%: Do you practise your craft when you’re ‘resting’ and how?
RC: I never really rest. Even if someone isn’t paying me to act, I’ll have various writing projects on the go. At the time of writing (Dec. 2020), I’m working on songs for a musical adaptation of The Emperor’s New Clothes, fine-tuning a new play about my old art teacher, and gearing up to write a film script about scarecrows. 

TO1%: How much of your acting would you say is craft and how much instinct? 
RC: Well, I wasn’t lucky enough to go to drama school (at any rate, lucky or not, that’s how things panned out), so much of what I’ve learnt has been learnt on the job over the past 20 years. I guess I keep on learning, though that’s nothing really to do with training or the lack thereof; any actor who thinks they’ve nothing left to learn should be in another profession. That goes for writing too – you can quote me.

TO1%: In the States Method Acting is often seen as the Holy Grail; how do you feel about that?
RC: I think all the main religions have things to teach us, but I’m suspicious (as perhaps I would be, given my lack of formal training) of any attempt to elevate one particular technique above all others – be it the Method, Meisner, Actioning, whatever… The way I see it, whatever gets you through the long day’s journey into night is fine, as long as what you need to do doesn’t impinge on your colleagues’ ability to do their job. 

TO1%: Do you ever find you start to become the characters you play when you’re off stage or off set? 
RC: It can happen. 

TO1%: Has anyone ever noticed?
RC: On the most vividly recalled instance, I was on my own (sort of). I was driving across Brighton to deliver a letter to someone, and, because I was at the time in preparation for a revival of my stage show High Vis, I found myself improvising in character as Quint, the show’s traffic warden protagonist. Now, Quint is a man with anger issues, and as we were nearing our destination I found that he was getting more than usually irritated by the behaviour of some of our fellow road-users. Consequently it was Quint rather than myself that brought the car to a very aggressive halt outside the house where I was to deliver the letter. Returning to the car from having carried out my errand, I was aghast to see that the front passenger tyre was completely flat: in the heat of his passion, Quint had managed to burst the tyre on the kerb as he parked. I’ve not let him near the car since. 

TO1%: It’s a hard one, but if you had to choose and could only do pre-recorded OR live performance for the rest of your life, which would it be and why?

RC: Live, I think. I love the challenges and rewards of making film and audio drama, but for me, live theatre has the edge. Even if you have only the tiniest audience (and I often do), there’s nothing like the joy you get from connecting directly with people and feeling that in some small way you’re making a difference to their lives – which, in turn, of course, makes a difference to your own. 

TO1%: What’s your trick for learning lines?
RC: I wish I had one. I’ve never found it easy, even when I was young. At the very least – and it sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how often people seem to bypass this stage – you need to make sure you know the meaning of what you’ve been given to say. I once worked in a Shakespeare play with a leading man who had a knack for learning lines but only seemed to understand about half of them. It’s very difficult to convey any kind of meaning to an audience if you yourself are unclear as to what you’re saying.

TO1%: Do you read your reviews and at what stage in a run of a play?
RC: It’s no easy thing getting people to write any kind of review at all, let alone a good one, so as I expend a lot of time and energy (too much, really) writing and sending out press releases for my shows, it’d be churlish not to read what was written. As a former reviewer myself, however, I’m always conscious that reviews really aren’t primarily for the benefit of performers – they’re for the benefit of the reader and potential bum-on-seat. A reviewer has no duty at all to be “nice” to performers, only to be fair – not the same thing at all. 

TO1%: Do you have any superstitions other than not whistling in the stage wings and calling that Shakespeare play The Scottish Play?
RC: Ah, but I don’t call that Shakespeare play The Scottish Play; I call it Macbeth.

TO1%: If you could have a masterclass from one director and one actor who would they be?
RC: The director would be David McVicar, whose work I used to see when I went with my late mother to Glyndebourne. His Carmen was one of the best productions I’ve seen of any work in any theatre, musical or otherwise. His work is incredibly detailed; there’s no-one on stage, no matter how small their role, who doesn’t have something going on. In the wrong hands, of course, such an approach could result in a stageful of people pulling focus in a hundred different ways, but not so with McVicar. 

RC: And the actor? That’d be Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the most gifted actors of our time, and that rarest of things in showbiz: someone who really is as good as people make them out to be. Or, in his case, madehim out to be, cos of course he’s no longer with us. Which would make a workshop rather difficult to arrange.

TO1%: If you become a superstar, will you demand specific bottled water and go on a paleo diet?

RC: In the unlikely event of my becoming a superstar – by which I take it you mean a movie star – I’m pretty sure I’d never lose my disbelieving delight in the fact of being given free breakfast, lunch and tea every day at work. So no, I think my feet would stay fairly firmly rooted on the ground – although it’s rumoured that Maria Carey once demanded to be furnished with a basket of puppies, and I have to say that’s a demand to which I could relate.

There is one comment on Robert Cohen

  • Really absorbing filling some details I didn’t know of Rob Cohen’s life and career. Was always impressed for instance with Rob’s American accents in e.g. Speed-the-Plow and Glengarry Glen Ross; and now realize how authentically sourced they are too! Many unexpected corners. Writing about David McVicar and Philip Seymour Hoffman is revealing and makes me want to look at the work of both. Rob’s a very distinctive actor, love to see him as Shakespeare’s Claudius. And an even more distinctive play wright. The accidental trilogy (Men Without Friends) Harvey Matusow, Something Rotten and High Vis also channel Rob’s acting: a sardonic twist of lip and persona to a gratifying inner dark. Particularly strong in its greater scale is the Shakespearean Propaganda, crafted around the Essex conspiracy of 1601. Very much looking forward to seeing more work. My reviews of Harvey Matusow and Something Rotten are up on FringeReview. Must now properly look at Keeping the Faith on Rob’s website which is easy to find. Loved the Carey anecdote. Rob knows I’m a kinder reviewer than him! We’ve had that conversation… Thanks for all this Rob and The Other 1%.

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