No Acting Experience Needed

My week of faking it as an Actor on the professional stage

After having taught An Inspector Calls as a GCSE set text for more years than I care to remember, the chance of appearing in a professional production of it was too good an opportunity to turn down. And not just any production. This was the legendary Steven Daldry production, which had improbably revived an old creaking classic when it first burst onto the scene at The National Theatre in 1992. The play had been steadily falling out favour as an exam text, despite its many qualities. In stock cupboards of English Departments all over the country, dog eared copies of the play were left gathering dust. The main problem was that it is, essentially, a very wordy play. Not much happens. It takes place largely in one room, where various people tell their story under interrogation from the mysterious police man, Inspector Goole. It’s the ultimate example of tell not show. The drama of Eva Smith’s tragic suicide is conveyed at a distance via the relentless question and answer technique of Goole. This is usually resolved in TV and Film versions by setting up a series of flashbacks, with an actress playing the role Eva Smith, despite the fact that the play makes it clear that the stories the characters tell concern several young vulnerable women, not one.

The Daldry production takes a radically different approach, honouring the text, and using, instead of flashbacks, scenery to ramp up the drama, and to underline the contemporary relevance. The ingenious collapsing house becomes a powerful metaphor for the collapse,  not only of the cosy successful upper middle class world of the Birlings, but also of a society whose structures are rigged against the poor and the dispossessed.

Having ossified into a wordy exam text, at a stroke Daldry transformed it back into a drama that thrillingly presents issues of fairness, poverty, and class divisions in a vital and engaging way for audiences, not readers. For English teachers it has another compelling quality. It’s virtually the only time in a philistine curriculum, when fifteen year olds learn about politics: parties, ideology, structures of government. As a result,  they also learn that boring old politics, despite what they are encouraged to think, produces significant material effects on everybody’s life. Your vote does make a difference.

Its relevance today is unmistakeable, when we have a government that is shockingly cruel, both by design and by outcome, to some carefully selected scapegoats. It’s impossible to sit through the Inspector’s last speech in the play without immediately thinking of our current shambolic set of charlatans who still cling to power. If they cling on for a further term, don’t be surprised to see it removed from exam specs. And in the Gradgrind world of the Tories, if it’s not examined, it may as well not exist.

So when I was sent a copy of the Facebook page of The Churchill theatre in Bromley, just round the corner from where I live, with a notice asking for “Community Volunteers” to take part in their forthcoming production of the play, I was intrigued. Reading it more closely, there was one detail that was the clincher: No Acting Experience needed. That was a selection criteria that I definitely met. Apart from a much talked about role as Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol, in a school staff/student Christmas  show, my last performance had been as a tree in my primary school nativity play. It was a role I reprised for several years for Hackney Red Star and then Acacia Dynamo, on the Marshes and Clapham Common, as a willing but limited Sunday League centre forward.

I emailed Charlotte Peters, the Company Director, and then promptly forgot all about it. And then, a couple of weeks later, the invite to take part was received. This provoked a strange mixture of regret, excitement and fear, all of which were in evidence when, as instructed, I made my way to the Stage Door of the Churchill Theatre in Bromley.

It’s a little embarrassing to report that that instruction seemed impossibly glamorous to me, a stranger to the world of theatre. The Stage Door! And even if the Stage Door at The Churchill is hidden in a nest of scaffolding and decay, it was still a thrill. The fact that we (the Community Company) were due to be taken through our part at about 3 pm on Tuesday afternoon and the first performance proper was at 7.30pm the same day, stoked all three emotions afresh. 

The Community Volunteers (left): Thomas, Rosie, Giselle, Peter, Colin, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Asti and Hugh

There were eight of us in the Community Volunteer group, and our role was principally to gather on stage in a cloud of dry ice to sit in judgement on The Birlings as The Inspector reached the climax of his investigation. This was done by taking our positions on stage, then, on cue, taking a threatening half step forward.

For all of our time on stage we were to be stony faced, staring into the middle distance. Then, we were to turn and walk off ahead of the Inspectors exit in the famous scene where the ingenious Birling House literally collapses on stage in a cacophony of fireworks, bangs and flashing lights. We stare at this spectacle over our shoulder, before leaving the stage.

The whole thing took about fifteen minutes. Sounds pretty simple, right? Wrong! In that fifteen minutes of hard-faced staring, one is left in stark isolation under the lights, in front of an audience, contemplating all manner of things to do with the workings  of the human body. An itch on one’s nose. Cramp in one’s left leg. Cramp in one’s right leg. The first, frightening tickle of the beginning of an explosive cough. A tiny belch. A runny nose. Hold that fart in. The palpitations of the heart and laboured breathing that in your fevered, overworked imagination, are clearly the start of cardiac arrest. Actors have died on stage, haven’t they? And then one’s thoughts are overloaded with the practicalities of managing a heart attack on stage, such that you miss the cue to begin your exit turn.

The walk back to the dressing room after successfully getting away with it on stage is a heady cocktail of euphoria and relief. We gathered together downstairs for a 15 minute wait before going back on stage for our curtain call. For three or four of us, there was an additional scene where they investigated the ruined house, but clearly, the criteria for selection for this onerous task was to be young and pretty. (and less than 6 feet 4 inches tall so you could comfortably navigate your way around a crowded space). That left me, a reject along with 3 other losers, to assemble on one side of the stage to take the applause. Sounds pretty simple, but we had to maintain our stony judgemental faces, when every human instinct is to smile in recognition of the audience’s acclaim. Impassive silence is not as easy as Buster Keaton makes it seem!

Well, we spent an awful lot of time together. The role involves an enormous amount of hanging around in the dressing room, so it was very important that we all got on. It would have been disappointing if we had just retreated into the world of social media on our phones for hours at a time. We did do a lot of that as well, but there was a lot of chat and a lot of laughs.

Mobile Phones and the Art of Conversation, above

We did this for 8 performances over 5 days. It was a strangely exhausting week, notwithstanding the fact that, really, we did very little. If it was acting at all, it was definitely the Robert Mitchum version of acting – walk on and point your suit at the audience. But it was a fascinating, thrilling experience, and I finished the week with a huge sense of respect for the skill, teamwork and professionalism that underpins putting on a quality production such as this. That judgement is reserved for the professionals we worked with, but what of the other Community volunteers?

The other people were fascinating. The 8 divided into various groups. First the Young Ones – Rosie and Thomas, who were Front of house staff at the theatre, relishing getting back stage and on stage. Rosie did a great impersonation of an air stewardess in her costume and organised several attempts to get us to do a Tik Tok dance routine. Thomas took great pleasure in mimicking the main players in the cast and took particular delight in honing his Scottish accent to perfection. He was also responsible for most of the photographs.

Then came the AmDram squad, led by the extraordinary Hugh, aged 81, who reckoned he had done about 1500 performances as a Community Volunteer, and who was also a veteran of amdram productions going back years, to the silent movie days. (OK, not quite) Peter and Colin were also heavily involved in amateur productions, with Peter a leading light of the Bromley Little Theatre (Licensee, actor and set builder).

Then we had Giselle, a professionally trained ballet dancer and teacher, whose day job was as CEO of Darcey Bussell’s dance fitness brand, DDMIX. She had boundless energy and would often fit in classes or other work commitments even in days when we had two performances. Finally, there was Asti, who, in between stories about the ABBA hologram gig she attended during the run, brought her laptop into the dressing room, to keep on top of her, remote, day job. In discussion, it quickly became clear that there were no shows or plays of note in London’s Glittering West End that she hadn’t been to.

The Community Volunteers ( minus Asti who was partying with Abba that night) above, right.

In comparison to the others, as far as the theatre world was concerned, I wasn’t even a rank amateur, I was nowhere. I concluded that the only reason I got the gig was because I was retired and available, I lived a 5 minute bus ride away, and I knew the play inside out, having taught it for thirty years or more. To their credit, the others tolerated me and my pretensions to write a novel set in a provincial theatre, (Coming, but not soon, “Exit Stage Left”) and responded patiently to all of my rather obvious questions that were from the box labelled “background research”.

The chat ranged far and wide over topics that included:

  • Lower league football teams – Middlesbrough, Plymouth, QPR. Also Crystal Palace – yes, I know, they’re not lower league yet, but they soon will be. (sorry Colin, but simetimes you have to be cruel to be kind)
  • TikTok and what it’s like to have 500,000 followers
  • Superhero Comic Conventions
  • The history and origins of the Little Theatre movement
  • Agatha Christie and rescuing her reputation as a Playwright
  • The importance of having an expensive lightsabre
  • Jim Davidson and the importance of not being rude and offensive
  • Where to get the best Hot Cross Buns
  • Modern theatre audiences drunkenly abusing theatre staff
  • The Police Force and institutional Misogyny and Racism
  • Stage Fright
  • Where to get hold of cheap theatre tickets
  • Telly: Gold, Succession, Happy Valley, White Lotus
  • The relative merits of Greggs, Pret and the local Greasy Spoon
  • A guided tour of great performances we have given. (I was very quiet during these particular conversations, which happened approximately every five minutes. There’s nothing that actors, particularly amateurs, I suspect, like better than talking about their greatest performances of all time. Colin even brought his script for his latest play, so that he could learn his lines. What a trouper!
Back to the Professionals

We were looked after for the week by Philip Stewart, who took us through the choreography of our scene, and checked in on us throughout each day to make sure we were alright. His main role was as the understudy for Mr Birling. Luckily, we got to see him perform the role in one matinee towards the end of the run. Like everyone else, he was excellent in the role: authoritative and convincing as a self-made, blinkered Capitalist. Birling is someone who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps to make something of himself and can’t see why all those who bleat about poverty can’t do the same. It’s hard to overstate how difficult being an understudy must be. They have to know the part inside out, and have the confidence to step in at a moment’s notice without it showing. Phil epitomised this – he appeared to have been doing the role for the whole of the run. The Company Stage Manager, Brad Fitt, was also very welcoming and helpful, making sure we got loads of photos of our experience.

Because we were onstage for only one scene, we got to know it inside out, and it was fascinating to see how the actors, individually and as an ensemble, varied it from night to night. We witnessed the Inspector’s interrogation of Eric, the young wayward son of Mr Birling, leading to the collapse of the family’s smug, pompous self confidence in a terrible physical confrontation between Eric and his mother, before his father smashes the whiskey tantalus, hits Eric and throws him to the ground. Eric was played by George Rowlands, a young actor in one of his first roles. We were privileged to watch him do this scene so close up. He changed it slightly every performance, but each one was as intense as the last. He’s got a big future, I think.

I’m sure all of the other actors were brilliant as well, it’s just that we didn’t see as much of them. We didn’t see the Gerald Croft character on stage at all, because of the structure of the play. Sorry, Simon!

I must confess that one of my concerns before the first day was how we would fit in with the professionals. I had a very stereotypical view of how that was going to go, assuming that we wouldn’t even register a flicker on the actors’ radar. After all, they had been together since August, and they see a new group of volunteers from the community every week. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if they had regally blanked us all.  Nothing could be further from the truth. They were all extremely friendly and welcoming, and did everything they could to put us at our ease. 

We (the community volunteers) were all struck by how much the audience communicate with the actors on stage, and how much they play a part, differently, in every performance. For the Am Dram crew, this was nothing new, but for the rest of us, it added a whole new dimension to the experience. I imagine we’re all familiar with the concept of a “Good House” or a “Good audience”, but to experience the reality of that was something else. During the matinees, and the evening performances to a lesser extent, in the first few days of the run, school parties, full of GCSE students and their hard pressed teachers, dominated.

For the kids, particularly in the matinees, this was as much an escape from the drudgery at school as it was a theatrical experience. And it was an experience they were determined to enjoy. They whooped! They cheered! They groaned! They showed their approval or disapproval of each character as they all told their stories.

As an ex English teacher with many such trips under my belt, this brought back many memories, some of them uncomfortable. Before we used to take a school group to the theatre, we would spend a lesson briefing them on theatre audience etiquette, emphasising that a trip to the theatre was not the same as going to the cinema, with its noisy, continual eating, and discussing the film (at best) or their social life (at worst). It wouldn’t have been fair to put them in an unfamiliar situation and expect them, instinctively to know how to behave. Even with the briefing, group hysteria and peer pressure would often take over, and we were left fielding disapproving looks and comments from all of the card carrying members of the Young People Today Are Awful Brigade. There were a few of them in attendance at The Churchill, several of them haranguing the box office staff for a refund because they were surrounded by kids. How terrible for them.

So, there were times when I winced at inappropriate laughter, chat, or whooping. But then, as the run went into Friday and Saturday, when the serious local theatre buffs attend, I began to long for some evidence of the audience’s engagement with the play. At moments of high drama, moments when the student-dominated audiences would gasp or groan or cheer, from the respectable burghers of Bromley, there was nothing. And on stage, even as a high class bollard, that was strangely deflating. For the principal actors, it must have felt like being ignored – chatting to someone at a party when you notice they are more interested in looking over your shoulder for someone more interesting. Not that that’s ever happened to me, you understand.

I was struck by the gruelling nature of life on the road for a jobbing actor. For the principal characters in particular, doing two performances a day must be physically very demanding. They’ve been doing this run since September, criss crossing the country, changing locations every week. Living in digs away from one’s family, only getting back for a break for a day every now and again – this is not an easy life. Nor a glamorous one.

Backstage, celebrating our glittering success (above right)

As a tiny example, at the end of the last performance on Saturday evening, the thing I was really looking forward to about the return to normal life was the opportunity to eat something vaguely green in colour. A salad leaf. A broccoli stem. A green bean. Even a frozen pea would have been welcome. An unvarying diet of sugar/grease sludge, snatched between performances in a high street chain is not good for you, particularly when combined with a visit to the pub every night. I had expected the actors and crew to conform to the stereotype of the wild thespian troubadors, out on the lash every night in a carnival of excess, but in fact, they were disappointingly sober and professional. Probably why they were all so good at their jobs, on reflection. Or perhaps they just went, sneakily, to a different pub, away from the Hoi Palloi. Hmm.

I was also fascinated by the innards of a professional theatre. Going through the stage door, and making one’s way down the stairs into the bowels of the theatre was real thrill. There was a warren of dressing rooms and ancillary rooms: rehearsal spaces, the wardrobe and laundry area, kitchen, the Company Stage Manager’s office, the Green room. I thought of all the great names that might have occupied the same rooms over the years. And Jim Davidson.

The wings and back stage were another mysterious area, full of shadowy experts silently going about their business to knit the production together. I was particularly struck by the member of the Company (don’t know if it was the DSM or ASM) following each performance on a monitor, in front of a Star Trek dashboard of knobs and controls, issuing instructions to the crew: “Open the house, please”.She was also the person who summoned us from the dressing room to the wings to be ready for our cue.

The strange world of “Back Stage” (above)

Overall, it was a wonderful, memorable experience, one I’ll never forget. It was the sort of thing that retirement, as a second playtime, was designed for. If only I’d followed up that performance as a tree in the Primary Nativity play, all those years ago, things could have been very different.

Me on set, a strange hybrid of a Tree and a Bollard

Lessons in Chemistry

Bonnie Garmus’ debut novel in “surprisingly good” shock

When I was thinking about this review, I searched for something from the professionals, and came across this, from Stephanie Merrit in The Guardian. Merrit is the real name of the very fabulous S J Parris, writer of the Bruno Giordano historical detective thrillers. And just like in those books, she is right on the money regarding this new novel from Bonnie Garmus. This is how she starts her review:

Every now and again, a first novel appears in a flurry of hype and big-name TV deals, and before the end of the first chapter you do a little air-punch because for once it’s all completely justified. Lessons in Chemistry, by former copywriter Bonnie Garmus, is that rare beast; a polished, funny, thought-provoking story, wearing its research lightly but confidently, and with sentences so stylishly turned it’s hard to believe it’s a debut.”

She’s exactly right. I started the book, primed and ready to savour its shortcomings. Not, I hasten to add, because I’m that kind of sour, narrow minded, mean spirited kind of person, you understand. No, simply because it’s an experience so common that it becomes an expectation. A couple of times a year, at least, a book rockets into the Literary Heavens, seemingly out of nowhere, and becomes the “Next Big Thing”. It’s endlessly tweeted about, suddenly all the weekend papers are splashing interviews with the author, and, in a sure fire sign that this is a genuine publishing phenomenon, it gets traction in mass market publications. The writer appears on the One Show, it’s featured in Hello! Magazine, and lo and behold, Reece Witherspoon has bought the rights and is making a 5 part mini series that can only be seen via some new streaming platform that requires you to take out yet another £9.99 monthly subscription.

I often read these literary meteors while they are still burning brightly. This is partly out of an interest in the Literary world in general, partly in an attempt to discern what the secret is to writing a best seller (though to be honest, I’d be happy with finding what the secret is to writing anything that other people – that’s people I don’t know, personally or professionally- might quite like. Maybe even read to the end of, one day. Well, one can dream.) And almost always, the result is the same. The book stinks.

OK, that’s a little harsh. Stinks is maybe pushing it. How about, the book is a little dull. A little obvious. A little lowest common denominator. A little, a book written for people who don’t really like books, in the same way that Ed Sheeran writes music for people who don’t really like music. Stop it. I’m just being deliberately waspish now. It is a weakness of mine. I often give into it and write damning reviews of these meretricious page turners, sarcastic and withering, condescending and judgemental by turns. 

This has become so common, I was beginning to fear it was indicative, not of falling standards in the literary world, but of a propensity to clever cleverness on my part. Not wanting to be perceived as being a part of the common herd, who fall for any old rubbish as long as it’s being featured in the media. These lumpen members of the herd are incapable of forming an independent opinion of their own, having such atrophied powers of analysis and comparison that they can never step out from the pack and say what they think before checking it against the approved opinion. Was I just signalling my own credibility as a cultural consumer by automatically damning the latest literary blockbuster without even reading it?

Still from forthcoming Apple TV adaptation, above right

With all of this in mind, it’s a relief and a pleasure to report that I can fear no more. It’s official – this is A Good Book. By the end, admittedly, it’s flaws have become more obvious, but the opening is so convincing, so welcoming, so right, that one forgives even the most jarring of errors that emerge as the story unfolds. Set in the dark ages of the early sixties, when the USA, outside of New York and San Francisco,  was a stultifying, homogenous sludge of conformity. The promised land if you were male, white and Christian. A treadmill of lowered expectations and domestic thraldom if not. Particularly for women. And it’s that group who the book is primarily concerned with, via a series of likeable characters who the reader is rooting for right from the get go. The obstacles faced by the protagonist, the intelligent, resourceful, attractive career woman, Elizabeth Zott, are petty, ubiquitous and insuperable. It seems barely credible to our twenty first century eyes that such talent was so routinely and unthinkingly suppressed. Of course, we know the story. We know the progress that has been made. But it still has the power to shock and disturb when we see it dramatically presented through the operations of a woman we instinctively warm to.

So the setting, characters, relationships, plot and themes all tick boxes. This is a book that, from the beginning, enlists our sympathy and support. But often, even such a list of positives is not enough. The clincher in Lessons in Chemistry is the prose style. It’s gorgeous. Immaculate sentence after immaculate sentence aggregate into a steadily growing mound of pleasure: precise, economical, engaging. This is not firework prose. It’s not meretricious. It doesn’t show off, or shout its own virtues to the heavens. Instead, it’s quiet, unassuming and effective. It’s the sort of writing that sneaks up on you. You pick up the book because you fancy a bit of reading, and then, before you know it, you’ve read 90 pages in a flash. It’s like a long cold glass of water when you’re thirsty – just exactly what is required. And, miraculously, all of this occurs in her debut novel.

Bonnie Garmus, above left

And ultimately, it’s that that immunises the reader against the novel’s weaknesses. The characters, although engaging, sometimes strain the reader’s credulity. I simply cannot believe that Elizabeth’s neighbour, even though she is locked in a loveless marriage, would get up at 4 am to mind Maddy, Elizabeth’s daughter, to allow Elizabeth to go rowing with her husband. The bloody minded intransigence of Zott, in the face of the nonsensical demands of 1960s American daytime TV, aimed at the only female viewer the executives recognised, the housewife, doesn’t really ring true. Nobody, except perhaps  someone a fair way along the spectrum, would continue not to recognise the commercial realities of both the university research world and the daytime TV world.

The other weakness is that the plot depends on more bare faced coincidences than even old Charlie Dickens himself tried to get away with. Again, the fund of good will the book has built up with the reader by the time we reach the home strait, generates a willingness to suspend disbelief, but the rope is a little too tight by the closing scenes.

Still from upcoming Apple TV adaptation (above right)

Then we come to the thorny matter of the dog. Yes, the dog. Not the one that didn’t bark, but the one that, apparently, as the arch rationalist Gormus tells us, has a vocabulary of nearly a thousand words. The same one that comments on the predicaments of Elizabeth, Calvin, Maddie and Harriet with more wisdom, insight and emotional intelligence than any human appearing on reality TV. I love a bit of Magic Realism as much as the next Joe, but this was a bridge too far for me. And yet, it does work, no matter how ridiculous it makes you feel as a supposedly discerning adult reader. The dispassionate observer role that the dog, Six Thirty, performs does bring something significant to the table. I just don’t know what, how or why.

Garmus with her dog above left. The dog is, strangely, important

Maybe a little mystery about the mechanics of an engaging novel is a good thing every now and again. As an  antidote to over analysing, perhaps one should simply experience a book, and take pleasure from it. After all, you can’t do a post mortem without killing the subject, so, just for once, let’s trust our reactions and let the book live and breathe without trying to find out why. Try it, and see whether you agree.