Tag Archives: actor

The Waiting Game

wanderer

Peaks and troughs. Highs and lows. The acting profession has always been one of extremes. An actor friend of mine told me she’d been drawn to the job because she was ‘an adrenaline junkie’, and I think most of us can relate to that. There’s no thrill to beat a first night – that intoxicating mix of fear and excitement – to show you that you’re truly alive.

As for the highs, an actor’s life is peppered with many moments of joy, big or small, the best of all usually being the phone call from your agent to tell you you’ve got the job. Way back at the start, I will never forget the call that told me I had won a place at LAMDA. And then there’s the thrill of a happy discovery in rehearsal, a perfect show or just the pure exhilaration that comes from playing with other actors.

telephone

In terms of lows, they tend to come from the frustration of not acting. We are all familiar with the agony of unemployment, feeling you have so much to offer and yet not being allowed to join in the game. But there is another, smaller agony, that can sometimes feel even sharper – namely that difficult post-audition period, when you just don’t know if you’ve got the job or not.

This is a period of the purest torture, particularly if you really want the job, and it begins the moment you leave the audition room. Of course, you’re supposed to brush it off immediately, as you trip off to a stylish downtown bar to resume your dizzying social life with not so much as a backwards glance, but it’s not always that easy. It’s rather more usual to begin the Great Calculation. Let’s say you audition on a Tuesday afternoon. You stagger onto the tube afterwards, your head spinning as you replay the details of the meeting. Did you seem interested enough as the director spelt out their vision for the production? How well did you play the scene? How about that one pivotal line – did you hit it just right? And did you manage to leave the room without shoving your foot in your gob, by saying ‘See you soon’, ‘Thanks you’ or ‘Lots of love’? Hopefully, you’ll feel you did the best you could. If so, you can actually relax for a bit now, and maybe enjoy one or two of those glamorous cocktails with your glamorous friends, for one night at least.

cocktails

But the next morning, the beast awakens. Hmm, Wednesday morning, you think. Well, I probably won’t hear anything today, as they’ll still be meeting people. Unless, of course, they really loved me, and want to snap me up as quickly as possible… But Wednesday drifts past, and you don’t worry too much – this is still the phoney war, after all. Shrödinger‘s Acting Job, both alive and dead at the same time.

The next day dawns and your thinking is beginning to change: Thursday, Thursday… they’ve probably finished auditions by now, so they’ll be starting to make decisions. This is where the clock/iPhone watching begins in earnest. Haven’t heard by lunchtime? That’s fine, it’ll probably be this afternoon. An hour’s grace for lunch between 1.00pm and 2.00pm, when you can actually focus on something else for a bit, then it starts again. 5.00pm approaches, 5.30… Well, maybe tomorrow. By this point, you’re starting to entertain the idea that it might not go your way, telling yourself that if you don’t hear on Friday, well then that’s it, you haven’t got it. And sure enough, Friday comes and goes and the phone doesn’t ring.

But then there’s Monday. Maybe they decided to take the weekend to make up their minds…

calendar

It can be absolute agony. Inevitably, some jobs are worse than others, i.e. the ones you really want. And the torture is amplified if it goes to recalls or beyond. I was recently working with two actors, both of whom were in the middle of this situation, and both of whom were throughly miserable about it. One of them said that he felt it was actually making him ill.

There’s nothing to be done, of course. It is simply one of those things about the profession. You leave the room, and you’ve done all you can. They can take as long as they want to make their decisions, and that’s that. All the hours spent speculating about what they must be thinking, attempting to read the runes or to gain some sort of insight into a director’s thought processes is a waste of time. There are many areas of our business in which change is really overdue, but opening up the decision making process is not one.

danny lee wynter

The only thing that can be done is to let every actor know how their audition went, and happily this is an idea that is really starting to gain traction, thanks in great part to the #YesOrNo initiative, spearheaded by the actor Danny Lee Wynter, which is asking for all actors who audition for a role to be told whether or not they have got the job. It has always been one of the most brutal aspects of the profession, the idea that an actor can put their all into preparing for a casting, but once they leave the room, they simply never hear a peep about it again. The #YesOrNo campaign addresses this head-on, and recently received a major boost when both the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company committed to giving every actor who auditions for them at least a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer:

rsc tweet yes or no

And gradually, many other theatre companies and casting directors are jumping aboard too.

It might not completely eradicate the post-audition collywobbles, but at least it ensures that an end is in sight.

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Poetry Readings – #4: John Keats – ‘Bright Star’

A very beautiful sonnet from the quintessential British Romantic poet, John Keats. ‘Bright Star’ was written around 1819.

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

Poetry Readings – #3: Ted Hughes – ‘Wind’

This has always been one of my favourite poems. Wonderfully evocative, I think it really conveys the mixture of thrill and fear we feel when we realise how vulnerable we can be in the face of nature at its wildest.

This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet

Till day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-light, luminous black and emerald,
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.

At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. Once I looked up –
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope,

The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap;
The wind flung a magpie away and a black-
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house

Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,

Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.

Poetry Readings – #2: Charles Hamilton Sorley – When You See Millions Of The Mouthless Dead

The second in an occasional series of poetry readings,this is a stunningly effective poem from the First World War by the Scottish poet Charles Hamilton Sorley. Sorley was killed during the Battle of Loos at the age of 20.

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“Yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

How to meet your hero (and keep your childhood intact…)

bros

Bros are back, Back BACK!! and the world unites in celebration. A whole generation of 80s children (well, maybe a small sliver of a tiny British slice of one) will have been propelled back into their teenage selves at the news, and that tidal wave of nostalgic feelings will lift them up and carry them, purses open, all the way to the Ticketmaster website.

Most of us idolise performers as we grow up. We can all remember covering the walls of our childhood bedrooms with posters of our favourite singers and actors, and we’ve all fantasised about meeting them, and becoming their friends. I used to dream about meeting the Beatles (all four of them; how on earth this could have happened in 1987, I don’t know) and being asked if I’d like to join the group. Who knows what they could have achieved if I’d been there too… Of course, sometimes this strays into rather less healthy stalker territory, but for most of us, it stays within the normal bounds and is just another part of childhood. And as much as we cling to the hope that our longed-for meeting will happen and we will be whisked off to a glamorous and exciting new life, deep down we know how unlikely this is. The years roll on, and those crushes and fantasies fade away, the posters are taken down and put away with the gonks and Smurfs. Outside attending an enormo-gig at the O2 or Wembley, most of us will never share the same air as our heroes.

There will be the odd exception to this rule, of course – there’s always an outside chance you will stumble across one in the real world. I remember being in the menswear department of House of Fraser and seeing none other than Jimmy Page – Jimmy Actual Page – presumably shopping for something a bit more day-to-day than his dragon-embroidered trousers or rune-covered jerkins of yore.

jimmy-page

In that situation, there is a quick decision to be made. Do I allow the all-conquering rock God to track down that pair of comfy elasticated Gant slacks in peace, or do I barrel over there and invade his personal space, biro and crumpled Sainsbury’s receipt thrust forward ready to be signed? In this case, I left Mr Zeppelin alone, and it was probably for the best. These things can go one of two ways, after all… There can be nothing worse than launching yourself at the hero of your youth and being told to bugger off. In that brief moment, your happy childhood dreams are blown to smithereens.

However, for some of us, things are a bit different. If you somehow scrabble your way into the same profession as your childhood heroes, your chances of meeting them, and, indeed, working with them, increase massively (or dramatically, if you’ll forgive the pun). This is where things can get dangerous, as they suddenly stop being superhuman. You can even find yourself sharing a dressing room with them, and as we all know, there’s nothing more effective than that for finding out what someone’s really like. As you progress through an acting career, more and more of what you hear – or discover for yourself – shows you that all those towering  idols of your youth are just as depressingly human and normal as you are. Feet of clay, every one.

There is also the sobering thought that, even if you did want to work with those people, the chances to do so are diminishing with every passing year. I’ll never work with Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing now, will I?

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee

But recently, the chance to meet and work with my ultimate childhood hero fell squarely in my lap…

Allow me to take you back in time. If you had happened to stumble across me in 1977, you would have met a small boy obsessed with ‘Dr Who’. Saturday evenings at 6.15pm would invariably find me transfixed on (or frequently, behind) the sofa, as that iconic title sequence unfolded on BBC1:

The succeeding 30 minutes were probably the most important of the week for me. I had been watching the programme for a couple of years by this point, and now, at the age of five, my devotion to the show was absolute. I loved it all: the monsters, the sets and props, the music – but at the centre of it all was the Doctor himself, as played by Tom Baker:

tom-1977

The idea of travelling through time and space with this extraordinary alien – someone funny and eccentric and brave, who could face down the most terrifying monsters with nothing more dangerous than a jelly baby, seemed the perfect life to me. Like all superfans, I had the posters on my wall, the novelisations and annuals, the long scarf (albeit brown rather than multi-coloured and stripey), and the TARDIS pencil case. I even went to our Silver Jubilee street party dressed as a Dalek:

Self as Dalek c 1977

My best-ever Christmas present came in 1979 – a signed photograph from Mr Baker himself. ‘Happy Christmas, Christopher’.
What I wanted most of all, of course, was to meet the great man. I suppose I must have thought that it was a possibility; ideally, he would enlist me to help him defeat some horrible alien creature – a Rutan, perhaps:

rutan

or a Krynoid:

krynoid-1

– but I would have been happy enough if he had simply landed his TARDIS in my back garden, offered me a jelly baby and dematerialised again. However, it was also the beginning of an awareness that, as well as day—dreaming of being a real Time Lord’s assistant, I could conceivably appear in the television programme ‘Dr Who’ as an actor. Around the same time, I saw ‘Star Wars’ and started to think about what it might be like on a film set, and to pretend to be someone else. So it was a pretty significant time as far as determining my future career was concerned. Later on, James Bond joined in, and Sherlock Holmes, and then Shakespeare popped up – and on and on…

But Dr Who was where it all started – and, for me, that always meant Tom Baker. This wonderful actor personified the character in a way that, in my opinion, no other incarnation before or since has managed to do.

Of course, Tom Baker’s tenure as the Doctor came to an end in 1981, and so did my fixation with the show. I moved on to new obsessions (the afore-mentioned martini-swilling super-spy being foremost amongst them). The Doctor always hovered somewhere in the background – he was even the subject of a recent painting of mine:

IMG_2739

(prints available here, print fans)… But once Tom left the show, it was never the same.

I did once actually meet the great man, on Chiswick High Road, and he patiently listened while I attempted to put into words what he had meant to me. It was just a brief encounter, but I was still thrilled by it, and I suppose I would have been happy if that had been that.

But, for once, the acting gods decided to smile upon on me, and one day not too long ago, to my amazement and joy, my agent called with an offer to appear in a new ‘Dr Who’ adventure – with none other than Tom Baker himself as the eponymous hero. I have had many calls from my agent – some of them happy, many of them not so happy – but this will probably always remain the happiest.

The offer had come from that estimable company, Big Finish, who specialise in producing wonderful new audio adventures featuring many of the best-loved genre characters and series of the past – ‘Blake’s 7’, ‘Sherlock Holmes’, ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Prisoner’ amongst many others. But they are best known for their original ‘Dr Who’ stories, featuring many of the surviving Doctors.

big-finish

For years, including the period when the Time Lord was off our TV screens, Big Finish has kept the ‘Dr Who’ torch alive, creating wonderful new adventures in Time and Space. Initially, Tom Baker resisted a return to the role that made him famous, but since 2012 he has enthusiastically donned the scarf once more.

When the first day of recording came, I was very nervous, more than normal. I think my nerves came partly from a fear that I would embarrass myself in front of the great man: give a bad performance, make a fool of myself by unleashing my inner fanboy – or worse, clam up and not be able to talk. Most of all, though, I think I was afraid that Tom Baker would let me down. What if he was a bully, a dreadful bigot or a monstrous egomaniac? My childhood memories would be stomped to pieces by the very man who made them: Dr Who himself.

Thankfully, none of the above came to pass. Tom was an utter delight. He was immediately welcoming to all the cast, an hilarious anecdote-teller in the green room (and generous in listening to others’ stories too), and best of all, when he was behind the microphone, he was still The Doctor. It was a strange and wonderful experience for me to hear that voice coming through my headphones – and for me to answer it. To call him ‘Doctor’ and have him respond! My five-year-old self could never have believed that one day, he would not only meet Dr Who, but actually act alongside him too…

dr-who-thedius-nook-day-2-afternoon-10

Tom Baker and Your Author, 2016

I met my hero – and he is still my hero. What a relief.

jelly-baby

Jelly baby, anyone?

Portrait: #3 – Christopher Lee

Christopher Lee by Chris Naylor 2016
Christopher Lee was a giant of the cinema in more ways than one. Of course, his 6’5” stature put him very literally head and shoulders above most other actors, but he was also one of only a few in the profession to achieve international fame through association with a particular role.

Lee was one of my great childhood heroes. This was partly because I shared a first name with him, but also because he was the ultimate embodiment of one of my obsessions, namely Count Dracula. The very fact that I have chosen to paint him as he appeared in this role would probably have irritated him enormously, as he frequently expressed frustration at being associated with the vampire king, and could be scornful about the later Hammer films in particular.

Bur despite this, he will always be Dracula to me, and to millions of film-goers the world over. The image of Lee striding through his castle, his eyes glowing red and his cloak billowing behind him will always thrill me.

Close Encounters with the Third Age

pigeon fancier

Who has a job for life these days? That fondly-remembered (probably mythical) era when you’d start work in the factory at 17 – the same place your father worked, and his father before him – safe in the knowledge that you’d be clocking on until you were 65 and it was time to retire and give your days over to your racing pigeons or the rhubarb in your allotment… Those days have now gone. Nobody can really expect to stay in a job for very long. But at the same time, the ‘default retirement age’ as it is known, which had been set at 65 for decades, has been phased out, and UK workers are under pressure to work for longer.

They’re all getting a bit more like the humble actor. We theatricals must be more familiar than most with this sort of work landscape. Let’s face it, much of the time in our profession, as soon as we get a job we’re preparing for it to be over, eyes always on the horizon. Along with a flexible attitude to work comes a very loose approach to retirement. If you stay the course and battle through those difficult early years, chances are you’re in it for the long haul. Most of us are not waiting for the day we can throw in the towel – it’s far more likely that we are travelling hopefully, always waiting for the Big One and fully expecting to keep going until we finally peg out live on stage. Tommy Cooper, Sid James, Eric Morecambe; the profession is full of romanticised tales of seasoned pros breathing their last in front of a paying audience.

But as we know, the profession itself often has other ideas. Despite our ageing population, the acting world doesn’t seem all that interested in old people. In an industry that is passionately infatuated with Youth, is there a place for an actor over 50, 60 or 70?

sam and auriol

I spoke recently to directors Sam Walters and Auriol Smith, who founded the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, and ran it for 43 years. Sam retired as Artistic Director of the theatre in 2014, and although both he and Auriol are still active in the profession, he was sounding rather ground down. ‘My desire to be involved in the theatre at all has diminished enormously recently,’ he said. Describing himself as ‘considerably less enthusiastic’ about the profession, he decried the theatre world’s obsession with youth: ’The New is concerned with the Young. And the tendency is always to denigrate the past.’

Auriol Smith has always acted as well as directing, and says she is ‘just as enthusiastic, but more cynical about the way theatre is heading.’ The contribution Auriol and Sam have made to the profession over the past four decades can’t really be overstated, and yet they clearly feel side-lined.

There is much talk these days of the ‘Third Age’, which is defined as the period of ‘active retirement’, post middle-age. I imagine most actors in their late 60s and 70s would take issue with the suggestion that they are in any sort of retirement at all, rather that they are trying to engage with work in the same way as ever – we all know the stories of John Gielgud changing agents at 96 in his determination to keep working. But if the work isn’t there, how can actors stay engaged?

A number of recently-established companies are trying to grapple with this issue. The Visible Theatre Ensemble, under artistic directors Sonja Linden and Sue Lefton, is one such endeavour. Their intention is to create ‘exciting contemporary theatre that both represents and transcends issues of older age. Our vision is a future where the contribution of older actors is honoured by British theatre.’

WHO DO WE THINK WE ARE

Visible recently worked with playwright Sonja Linden and a cast of older actors to devise their very successful production, ‘Who Do We Think We Are?’, which was presented at Southwark Playhouse in 2014, and they are currently running a season of workshops under the heading ‘Gravitas’, for professional actors over the age of 60, led by seasoned practitioners such as Mike Alfreds and Max Stafford-Clark.

Visible contend that ‘there is a lot of negativity about being older in our society, and this is heightened for actors, continuously in the public gaze. What is missing is the recognition of what is their most powerful resource – life experience.’

james roose evans

Another company set up specifically to create work for older actors is Frontier Theatre Productions, led by veteran director James Roose-Evans. James’s extraordinary career spans 60 years; among many other achievements, he was founder of Hampstead Theatre, and adapted and directed the original production of ‘84 Charing Cross Road’ in the West End and on Broadway.

James told me that, while running a workshop in London with actors over 70, he’d had been struck by how open to exploration they were. ‘This set me thinking about what a huge bank of talented actors in their sixties upwards we have in this country, which is largely untapped.’

jake murray

James’s experience led to the establishment of Frontier with director Jake Murray, who was Associate Artistic Director at Manchester Royal Exchange from 2001 to 2007. ‘The Third Age is as rich and profound as any other phase in our lives,’ says Jake. ‘In the past, old age was seen as a great achievement, a time of wisdom and new insights. Now we have drawn a veil over it. As a consequence a vast amount of people have been made invisible. We must give them a voice.’

mercy

James and Jake hope to achieve this both by reviving plays, but also finding new writing. Their latest production is ‘Mercy’ by Clare Whitehead, part of the So And So Arts Club’s EverHopefull Repertory season. ‘Since Frontier was launched, we have been getting scripts from New Zealand, Australia, America, Canada, as well as from the UK,’ says James. ‘Clearly we have touched a nerve.’

James is also keen to involve younger actors in Frontier’s work, to give them the chance to learn alongside older actors. ‘Clearly older actors, if they have talent, have a greater experience of the craft of acting, which they can impart to younger actors.’

There are plenty of young actors out there, of course, but one of the industry’s main preoccupations has always been the need to attract young audiences. This in turn has fed a negative attitude towards older theatre-goers – the cliché of the ‘blue-rinse brigade’. During their time at the Orange Tree, Sam Walters and Auriol Smith built up a fiercely loyal – and very theatre-literate – audience. ‘Theatre-going is a habit,’ Ariol points out. Sam agrees: ‘It is something they have known and grown up with. For the older members of the Orange Tree audience, their theatre-going was an important and meaningful part of their lives. That is why I always reacted strongly to any disparagement of them.’

I asked James Roose-Evans if he thought theatre was generally more appealing to older audiences. ‘I don’t agree with this. When I directed Christopher Fry‘s ‘Venus Observed’ at Chichester, Patrick Garland included it in the season but not expecting it to do well at the box office. The production was sold out, and what amazed Patrick and myself was how many young people responded, discovering Fry for the first time‘.
Jake Murray believes it is a complex issue. ‘It’s partly generational, as theatre was part of the older generation’s landscape, educational standards were higher back in the day and theatre didn’t have to compete with Netflix, Playstation, Facebook, etc. But there is still a strong, dedicated young theatre-going audience out there who are excited by what they see on the stage.’

Maggie Gyllenhaal

Discrimination against older performers is also being raised more and more – actress Maggie Gyllenhall recently spoke out against ageism in Hollywood, and revealed she had been told she was too old to play the love interest of a 55-year old male actor. She is 37. It is certainly still true that women have a far tougher time of it as they get older. As James Roose-Evans observes, ‘After sixty, women tend to become invisible.’ His work with Frontier hopes to improve this state of things by producing new work specifically designed for older actresses. ‘One example which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been tested in the theatre,’ says James, ‘is the rich relationship between grandmothers and granddaughters who are in their late teens, early twenties.’

For his part, Jake Murray is optimistic. ‘There are more writers writing great parts for older women,’ he says, ‘and not just female writers, but men too. I tell writers to write for women, especially older ones, as there will always be more talented women in the profession than men.’

In cinema, as Murray points out, the ‘grey pound’ is being served targeted more than ever:
‘There is an increasing presence for big movies that deal with the older experience. The ‘Marigold Hotel’ films are a case in point, and movies like ‘Quartet’ and ‘Amour’. I think when people love a screen actor they enjoy seeing them still doing it in their old age, especially if they can be playful with their image.’

Diana-Rigg game of thrones

Television, most of all, seems willing to embrace its older audience. Shows like ‘Last Tango in Halifax’ and even ‘Game Of Thrones’ clearly recognise the value of casting older actors –performers like Diana Rigg and Julian Glover bring decades of experience, but also carry with them the weight of earlier roles.

The entertainment industry deals in dreams, ideals and fantasy, which often means avoiding the harsher realities of life. But we have an ageing population – a community which can’t be ignored and which has an abundance of life experience, time to consume entertainment and in many cases, more money than the young. And perhaps the tide is turning after all. Companies like Visible and Frontier are showing that the older actor still has an important place in the theatre, and one of the hottest tickets in recent years has been Theatre Royal Bath and Tricycle Theatre’s production ‘The Father’, starring Kenneth Cranham, which explores the devastating effects of dementia on an 80-year old man – although, there is a danger that the theatre treats older characters only in terms of declining faculties: as James Roose-Evans warns, ‘It is not all about Alzheimer’s.’

It’s time we embrace fully just how important stories about older people can be to our culture – and this means we need to support older storytellers, both actors and writers. Theatre should be a window onto the whole of life, not just the first part.

Frontier Theatre’s production of Clare Whitehead’s ‘Mercy’, directed by Jake Murray, is part of the EverHopeFull repertory season and runs from September 1st to the 26th at 6 Frederick’s Place, London EC2R 8AB. Tickets are priced at £10.