Thursday, 28 June 2012

Inequality Control

So Equity has finally spoken out and they’ve started handing out some knuckle-raps to some very naughty theatres. And rightly so. Because these theatres are guilty of trying to pretend us ladies don’t exist and have been putting as few of them as possible on stage.  I’m pleased they’ve decided to do this because it is a genuine problem. Despite not being a minority, women are wildly unrepresented. But the problem is by no means exclusive to the theatre world. It’s a problem that is present in all forms of media.

I feel sorry for the Hampstead Theatre who appear to have been singled out in this story. I understand that the figures don’t look great with productions such as Chariots of Fire which in a cast of 21 only featured 3 women but other theatres are equally guilty. Shakespeare’s Globe announced a few months ago that they would be putting on plays as part of their ‘Original Practices’ season. This means that they will be putting on all-male productions so that audiences can see how plays would’ve been performed in Shakespeare’s time. I apppreciate the gesture guys, but we all saw Gwyneth Paltrow bandaging down her lady lumps in Shakespeare In Love and that was more than enough, thanks. We all know how they did things before women were invented and isn’t that enough? Do theatres really have to do this antiquated method of casting just so they can justify having the wonderful Mark Rylance playing Viola? Shakespeare wrote precious few roles for women as it is so to have them then taken away and given to the boys is a kick in the teeth that I can't afford dentistry for.

But as I said earlier, this problem is certainly not just a theatre issue. Women are terribly misrepresented by television and cinema too. Look at the BAFTA Rising Star award that went out a few months ago. Yes, ladies made into the longlist but when it was released to the public to allow them to vote, the three women were left out and the five men made it into the shortlist. What a horrible result. But we can’t blame the viewing public. They’re the ones that are constantly fed so many leading men that it would make a cannibal blush and while I don’t want the industry to pander to women and give them leading roles as some sort of charity scheme, a bit of equality wouldn’t go amiss. Two of the highest grossing films this year have been The Avengers and Men In Black 3, both very male-heavy films which mainly seem to say that women really have very little place in blockbuster-type films. I realise every time someone makes this argument, someone will rather ironically say the word ‘Bridesmaids.’ Because yes, women have become the bridesmaids while men, yet again, get to play the bride.

And sadly it feels like a sensible solution is very far off. While everyone worries about ticket sales and viewing figures, they continue to make things that they think the public want to see and that will usually inevitably mean a lot of leading men and a few scantily clad women in the background. I don’t want the answer to be theatres putting on all-female seasons because that would feel horribly like knee-jerk charity.  I think we’d all just appreciate it if theatres and television programmes and films would finally admit that women exist and they deserve to be equally represented. Too much to ask? Apparently so.  

Monday, 25 June 2012

Puppet On A String

Last night, while the rest of the country was getting pizzas in and beers opened ready to watch a group of men kick a ball around for far too long, T and I went to the theatre. Oh yes, because we're bloody cultured like that. But what made us ditch a Sunday night in for an evening in a theatre on the other side of London? Well ask no more because amongst much inane ramblings, I'll probably eventually get round to answering your question.

So, the play in question? Something Very Far Away at the Unicorn Theatre. Now, I'm sorry to say that this play's run is already over so if you get excited about it then you'll need to cross your eyes, fingers, toes and stitches and hope that it's coming back. And believe me, you'll want to start crossing them almost instantly because it's bloody brilliant. And we very nearly didn't see it. We'd heard word that it was a bit damn good so we looked into going. Our first reaction very much involved several woops, cheers and a few high fives. The play was a mere 35 minutes long and there were still tickets available. I'm very much a fan of short plays as I'm more fidgety than a flea on a hot stove so hearing that a play was just over half an hour long was a bit exciting. However, that excitement was short-lived when we saw the cost of tickets: £15 each. Oh. That's quite a lot. As unreasonable as this may seem, I'm a permanent resident in the 'The Shorter The Play, The Cheaper The Tickets' camp. It's lovely here although we do live in hope of the perfect one minute play that will cost us a single dried broad bean. So, we left it for a while. £30 for two self-employed people is a lot of money and we have a serious cheese and crisps habit to fund.

However, we kept hearing about how good this damn play was. People kept going on about it. I'm sure people deliberately sought us out just to tell us how wonderful it was. So we eventually gave in. And wow I'm glad we did. It's puppetry but on a completely different scale. A small team of incredibly talented puppeteers create a gorgeous little world which is filmed and projected on to a large screen. A guitarist accompanies them as they tell the story of a man who, after the death of his wife, decides to travel further and further into space in an attempt to travel back in time so he can look back down on Earth and see her while she's still alive. And it's beautiful. After about five minutes, I had to get used to the feeling of a wet neck and chest due the sheer amount of tears that were constantly streaming down my face. Add to this the fact that they also play Sigur Ros over some of the more emotional scenes and you have the recipe on how to make a cynical actress into tear-stained wreck.

I've always been a fan of puppetry. Ever since seeing a rather terrifying version of Br'er Rabbit at the age of 5, I've always been in awe of seeeing people manipulate other little people on strings (I think that's why I'm such a fan of the acting industry.) I still get rather horrific flashbacks of the tar baby story but I think that's only testament to just how powerful puppetry can be. Without wanting to sound like a sycophant on speed, puppetry can transport you into a world in a far more imaginative way than actors can. It's powerful stuff and I have the upmost respect for those who are skilled at it. I've done a little bit in my chequered acting past and although I've always enjoyed it, my efforts have not been looked upon favourtably in the past. In an audition a few years ago, I was asked to create a blackbird out of a piece of material and improvise a short, silent scene. I had to sit behind a large box and then work the puppet in front of it which meant that I couldn't really see what I was doing. I was quite pleased with what I thought I was achieving but after about 20 seconds of frowns and squirms from the director, I was asked to stop. Clearly the magic of puppetry ends with me.

Friday, 22 June 2012

On The Offensive

'A new comedy for E4 is looking for Oriental women to play workers in a sweatshop. Payment details: expenses only.'

I don't even know where to start with this casting. Sometimes a casting is offensive because it only asks for 'hot' women who look sexy in a skimpy bikini. Sometimes I complain because the casting asks for a lot of gratuitous nudity. And then there's my favourite complaint when they don't offer to pay. But none of them come even close to the one above. Oh believe me, plenty have tried. But oh how they fail...

I've got to the point where I'm fairly sure that I've seen it all with castings. I've seen rude ones, offensive ones and downright confusing ones. It's enough to make a lazy actress feel like she's living in a Dr Seuss book. But then there are ones that suddenly appear and tick all the wrong boxes. And this one is a prime example. I had to read it a fair few times to make sure that I was actually reading it correctly. Surely no one would be this stupid. Surely this wasn't the work of a mainstream channel?

Now, regular readers of my blog will know that we are no longer to be surprised when well-known channels and production companies don't offer actors money. This has become as regular as John Barrowman turning up where he's not wanted. A new culture has entered the acting world where companies that seemingly make lots of money try and get away with not paying their performers. And while a lot of us don't do it, they know a lot of performers will apply because they'd like the exposure. So while these companies can get away with posting these adverts, they'll continue to do so and our profession gets ground into the ground even further. It's only when the companies get pulled up on these farcical adverts that they backtrack and either say it was posted by mistake or that instead they'll get friends and family to be involved instead. I could (and I do) complain forever about how insulting it is but instead of me repeating myseld yet again, I suggest you take a look at the most popular posts down the right-hand side of my blog to see my full thoughts on the matter.

But back to the casting in my very angry hand. The main issue with this casting is just how offensive it is. Firstly, the term 'oriental.' It's old and antiquated and entirely unecessary in a casting. I know the political correctness tightrope is one that many tread with difficulty and I realise that sometimes people can worry too much but surely there's a limit? And while I admit it could be a lot worse, it's a term that definitely jars. And then there's the stomach-punching offensive irony. Did no one look at the casting and think just how ridiculous it is to ask for actors to play roles in a sweatshop and then not offer to pay them? I mean, I can be slow on the uptake sometimes (I'm a pro at the confused 'I don't really know what you're asking me to do' face in auditions) but wasn't this one blindingly obvious? Oh, and then there's the idea of setting a comedy in a sweatshop. Comedy is a wonderful thing and can miraculously turn a subject on its head. But on E4? A channel that thinks Made in Chelsea and Desperate Scousewives are acceptable? Yeah. I'd bet everything I hold dear and the world's supply of Salt & Vinegar McCoys on it being deeply offensive and so un-funny that it'll snap your funny bone in half.

Each time I see one of these castings I think it'll be the last one. I thought the advert for a film that wanted to tackle the exploitation of women which was looking for actresses to work for nothing was the final straw. But no. And I'm sure another channel is already drafting up another casting that'll make us want to smash our televisions with our very souls. And have no fear, I'll be ready and waiting for it.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Any Extras, Sir?

Please believe me when I say that I wanted today's blog to be a positive one. To be honest, I didn't actually have any intentions of blogging today but, if I had, then all my intentions were for it to be a happy, sunshiny one. I mean, of course there would've been a few clouds along the way but ultimately I wanted it to be a fun one after yesterday's maybe overly negative entry. But then something happened yesterday afternoon. Something that means I'm finding myself repeating myself yet again on this blog. Apologies in advance.

Y'see, yesterday someone* posted on Twitter about their upcoming book and the fact that they were looking for extras to be in the upcoming trailer. Excellent. A well-known performer and author creating further work for others. Now that's what I like to see. That's enough to brighten up anyone's afternoon. Or at least it was until I clicked on the link to find out more. What I was greeted with wasn't a casting call but a competition. This job wasn't open to extras or any other performers at all, it's being directed at fans of the writer instead.

And why not I hear you ask? Why not indeed. I'm sure there are hundreds, if not thousands, of fans of this particular writer that would perform all kinds of ridiculous jumps to work with him for the day. For those who don't work as an extra or actor then I'm sure that this sounds like a most excellent way to spend the day. And I'm sure it would be much fun. But it worries me too. Firstly, why have they decided to cast it this way? Just as we've seen recently with other high profile companies choosing to cast extra roles by getting their friends and family to step in, this competition idea is a worrying development. Firstly it makes a mockery of the profession. What other jobs would you find being filled by way of a competition? Oh hey guys, ever fancied working in an operating theatre? Email us with 100 words on why you'd be great at performing lifesaving open heart surgery and you could win the opportunity to work as a surgeon for the day! I realise acting work is hardly live-changing stuff but it is still people's livelihoods. A mini Twitter storm happened after the message was posted and I understand that there are going to be some paid extras on the shoot too. But what's worrying is that there isn't the budget for all the extras they need so instead of working within their means, they're essentially filling other people's roles with free labour. Imagine that happening at your place of work. Bit annoying, eh? I realise that a publishing budgets are low. I know we all like to think that authors churn out books and then sit back in their ivory towers but that simply isn't the case. However, I do object to projects being made where the budget clearly doesn't match the vision.

Then there's the worry, as I've mentioned before in previous blogs, that when higher profile companies are employing these casting techniques that others will the follow suit. It's a bloody great way to get people to work for free and unfortunately gives other companies further ideas on how to spend as little money as possible on performers. Time and time again it seems that it's the performers that are the ones to be losing out. It was announced yesterday that a deal has been struck between the Writers' Guild and the BBC which means that scriptwriters will be be paid per-click when their work is watched online via BBC iPlayer. A most fantastic idea but what about performers? What happens when an actor's work is watched again online?  Absolutely nothing.

But let's ignore my negative views and just be happy for the lucky competition winners whose dreams come true as they get to work with one of their heroes for the day. I mean, I bet they'll have a ball creating their own costume and doing their own make-up. It'll be great sorting out their own transport and paying for themselves to get to the set. And then it'll be super-fun organising their own food as they watch other cast members and crew enjoy the on-set catering for 12 hours. Oh yeah. Sorry. I forgot to tell you all that, didn't I? No, and the entrants are barely told this either as most of  it is written in the teeny-tiny terms and conditions at the bottom. All suddenly sounds like less of a fun day out now, doesn't it? If nothing else though, at least the competition winners will get a taste of the true actor experience. And that really is something that money can't buy...

*I'm choosing not to name them here as I'm sure much of the decisions have been made by the publisher rather than the writer.

Monday, 18 June 2012

A Grand-Age For Theatre

The world of theatre-goers gave a slightly over-dramatic cheer last week when it was announced that Michael Grandage would be taking up residence in the Noel Coward theatre for 15 months. Michael Grandage has done wonderful things at the Donmar Warehouse and now the idea of him setting up camp in the West End with the added bonus of £10 tickets has made everyone come over all fluttery.

And rightly so. The chance to get West End tickets for £10 is wonderful. I've spent many a blog complaining about the purse-withering cost of tickets so I welcome this new scheme with open arms. Well, partially open arms. Because, if you're a regular reader of my blog, you'll know that when it comes to the world of acting and theatre and television and directors and pretty much anything else, I like to keep an eye on the negatives too. And so my first gripe comes, I'm afraid, courtesy of the ticket prices. Now, it's safe to say that other than the cast members that have so far been announced (more on that later) the cost of tickets for these shows is what everyone has latched on to. And of course they have. Over 100,000 cheap tickets is pretty exciting and it means that it will hopefully encourage younger audiences into West End theatres. But if you try and book a ticket online (which is infuriating enough anyway as you seem to have to click through each individual day rather than being able to select a certain one) and you'll quickly find that there are no tickets at £10. Not one. And this isn't because they're sold out. Oh no. What the press neglects to tell you is that there's actually a booking fee of £2 meaning that all cheap tickets are in fact, £12. Add this to the fact that all the '£10 tickets' on line are either so far back you might as well be sat at the top of Alexandra Palace or would need to possess the neck structure of a giraffe to see maybe an inch of the stage and you're better of heading down the National Theatre instead. The only way out of paying the booking fee? Book tickets for all five shows at once. Yeah, nice try Grandage...

And then there's the cast list. Go to the Michael Grandage Company website or read any news article about it and you'll find it pretty hard to ignore the cast they've got lined up so far. Of course they're proud of who've they've managed to secure but yet again we find ourselves stuck in this trap that a West End show has to have a 'celebrity' lead by law. Should you wish to see The Cripple of Inishmaan, be prepared to share the auditorium with a host of Harry Potter fans as they all eagerly await another poor performance from Daniel 'can't act for a year's supply of toffee' Radcliffe. I've complained on a fairly regular basis about the plague of celebrity stars in the West End so I won't prattle on about it too much but I should add that a friend of mine went to see The Sunshine Boys recently which stars Richard Griffiths and Danny DeVito. Although she enjoyed the play, she was horrified by the fact that both actors were greeted with cheers, applause and standing ovations the second they stepped on stage. That's what audiences have become. They no longer need fine performances or beautifully subtle wordplay. They just need that short guy that was in Junior and that bloke that was in Pie In The Sky to keep them happy.

But please don't get me wrong. I'm all for what Grandage is doing and I sincerely hope that it's a huge success. However, it's hard not to see these shows going the same way as every other West End performance where those with the money fork out for the top-price tickets, the dedicated hardcore manage to swipe the cheap tickets (or sell them on for profit) and yet again, everyone else from the first-time theatre goer to the average play-attender, get left out in the cold, desperately scouring Shaftesbury Avenue for returns.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

That Little Bit Extra

I've been a lot of things in my time. I've been a horse. I've been an eight year old boy. I've been a soldier and I've been that idiot that corpses on stage. The world of acting has made be a lot of things but not until yesterday had I ever been what is known as a 'background artist.' As an actress, the chance to wander around in the background rarely comes along. I mean you could argue that much of my CV is essentially background work but yesterday was when my official 'extra' virginity was taken.

To be fair, when I applied for the job I didn't realise that the roles weren't featured. The advert was rather vague and I'm fairly sure I wouldn't have applied for it if it hadn't been filming on a day I was supposed to be working and paid more than what I'd normally get for dragging my soul through the most skin-rippingly dull job known to man. I'm that desperate to not be in a job that requires me to talk to people that actually don't know whether they're called 'Mr Otter' or not that I now find myself applying for anything.

So, yesterday I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. After I was cast without an audition, I realised that the role probably wasn't quite as involved as I'd originally thought but that was ok. I wasn't going to work and that's really all I was worried about. Plus, as anyone who has been on a film set before will know, the most exciting thing is breakfast. Breakfast is great anyway but free breakfast? Watch out Mr Bacon Rasher and Mrs Fried Egg, Mama's coming home. I've been on many a shoddy shoot that has been saved by bountiful supplies of bacon sandwiches. So, if nothing else, I was looking forward to my bacon buttie and styrofoam cup of tea to cheer me up before we got started. But how wrong I was. It wasn't until a good hour into the shoot, long after the crew had all had their fill, that a bag of cold, greasy egg sandwiches were passed around us performers. I took one, of course. But it was only out of spite. And hunger. Desperate, nauseating hunger.

And the rest of the shoot wasn't much better. There was the humiliating moment when the 1st AD barked at us all to get in line because the director was shortly about to arrive on set. We stood there in the type of soul-destroying line that is normally reserved for the Royal Variety Performance and he irriatingly walked the entire length of the line, looking us up and down and he shook the hands of a select few (I'm pretty sure this was his secret code to the rest of the crew that these performers were to be sent to a concentration camp.) Add to this the reluctance of the crew to let anyone know what was actually going on and it was quite the infuriating ride.

But the shoot did also have its moments. There was the time when someone asked if what we were shooting were called 'vinaigrettes.' Nope. That'd be 'vignettes.' And then there was the whole body cringe moment when the director asked for someone with colour (meaning a colourful top) to be sat in a certain place. The 1st AD approached a black man in a plain white shirt and just went to motion for him to move before the director shouted, "No! I want someone with colour." The 1st AD turns and goes, "Oh sorry, someone with colour. I thought you said someone of colour." Tension meet knife.

But as shambolic sets go, it was still good fun. It was refreshing not to hear actors constantly trying to outdo each other although there was some incredibly staunch defending going on of part time acting courses. And although everyone appeared to be in competition over who had to travel the furthest/got up the earliest, I'd still choose sitting in a field making daisy chains while waiting for a crew to get organised over listening to an eldery lady tell me about her local church windows any day...

Friday, 8 June 2012

Network Fail

It's very normal to see a casting that only promises food and travel to actors. However angry it makes me, I'm used to seeing it now. So, last night, while taking one final look at castings before retiring for the day, I wasn't expecting to see anything particularly out of the ordinary. Maybe a few mentions of bikini-clad zombies who turn to a life of prostitution but nothing more. So imagine my surprise when I see a corporate casting that isn't offering any pay. That's quite a thing in itself because corporate work is one of the few strands of acting that can actually pay your bills but it happens very ocassionally for smaller companies. But this wasn't just your local start-up business. Oh no. This is the company that you probably complain about on a daily basis. This is the company that's responsible for making you late and meaning you spend your commute pushed up against a pain of glass. This little company is Network Rail.

Network Rail appear to be producing an internal film and they're in need of ten extras to help them out with this. Fair enough. But for your efforts, this company which made a profit of £754 MILLION last year, is only offering to give you food and cover your travel expenses. And I'm not sure, given their track (gettit? Track? Y'know, like rail track? Oh forget it...) record, they would even get food and travel right. An over-priced stale sandwich and infuriatingly late trains, anyone? And don't even get me started on their depressingly limited choice of crisps...

So what the heck is going on here? Why can't a company that made more money in a year than I'll see in a zillion lifetimes not even offer a minimal payment to their extras? Ten extras at a £100 each for a day's work. That would cost them £1000, about the same amount they make from one very small person purchasing the opportunity to possibly get a seat on the 10.04 from London Paddington to Reading. Even if they paid each extra £1000, that'd mean them begrudgingly handing over 0.001% of their eye-wateringly huge pile of money. But no, instead of paying actors (who make up a huge proportion of their customers anyway) they choose to smugly sit on their pennies and watch on in the hope that yet again, they'll find a few performers willing to pimp themselves out as a very unglorified slave.

Network Rail's ethos is the following:

‘We are passionate about what we do and take pride in a job well done’ 

Apparently it seems that their primary passions are keeping their grubby hands on their profits and exploiting actors for their own personal gain. Apparently a job well done means that Sir David Higgins, the Chief Executive of National Rail, protects his £560,000 a year salary by denying actors the right to even receiving the National Minimum Wage when working for them.

But the worst thing about all of this? The fact that this situation is becoming all too familiar. Actors have now gone for so many years where they've allowed companies to take advantage of them that it has now become the norm rather than the exception. Equity now know about this and I seriously hope they take action otherwise these money-grabbing, exploitative companies will destroy that final scrap of dignity that the world of acting is still desperately clutching on to.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Fear Of The Unknown

There are days when I feel supremely positive about my acting career. Those days when I send loads one email out and change the font on my CV. The days when I rearrange my credits on Spotlight and spend two minutes looking up showreel companies. And that time when I spent all of ten seconds thinking about writing my own show. Those are the times when I feel like the hardest working actor this side of a temping job. And then there are days like today. Days like today make me worry about just how seriously I take my career.

I had an acting job today. As events go, this is rather bloody exciting because my acting regime has been about as active as my exercise timetable recently. In fact, rather worryingly, this has been my first acting job since January. At this rate, I can look forward to a bit more work sometime in December and can use my sparse CV to heat the flat. But yes, today I was actually paid to do a bit of acting and that was great. Thing is, I didn't entirely know what it was for. When I applied for it, I knew it would just be as part of an advert on a website. It paid and it sounded easy so of course I fired off my begging letter and, to my surprise, they cast me without even asking me to audition. For some reason, and I'm not sure why, it never really dawned on me to ask what the website/product was. And as it got closer to the day of shooting, I actually rather liked the idea that I didn't know what I was letting myself in for. Aside from the blogging opportunities, it made me feel a little dangerous (and yes, I realise this is about as dangerous as crossing the road when the green man tells you to.)

So I arrived this morning feeling all rather exciting. Who knows what exciting kind of product I was about to talk about. It could have been the newest flavour of crisps meaning that I'd reached the pinnacle of my acting career at the tender age of 28. Excitedly, I signed the release form, desperately scouring it for a clue as to what it would be. In fact, I was doing pieces of three different products, none of which I'd ever heard of. No Walkers. No McCoys. Not even Asda SmartPrice. Damn. Looks like this acting lark is going to be dragged out for a while yet.

Once I'd signed my life away, I was asked to make my way to the shoot which was a couple of minutes down the road. Not a problem. I've left buildings before and walked down the road all on my own. I've been doing it for years almost glitch free so today should be no exception. But of course, it was. I got to the main door downstairs only to find that the door wouldn't open. I searched for a magic green button located nearby that would let me out. Nothing. I desperately flicked a lightswitch numerous times. desperately hoping that it was a door-opener in disguise. Still nothing. I pushed and pulled to the point where I was dangerously close to losing my fee to cover the cost of a new door. Finally, a man who obviously worked there appeared on the other side of the door, took one look at me flailing around like a fly in a bottle and let me out. Good start.

The rest of the shoot was actually turned out to be fairly painless. I was very quickly briefed on the products, told what to say and that was it.  Although it was being shot on a very busy high street full of very normal people who obviously hadn't seen a camera before. Firstly we had to contend with the man who seemed to deliberately turn up his very frantic jazz everytime action was called. And there was also the poor man who, while trying to buy a coffee, was shouted at by the director because he couldn't take his eyes away from the camera lens. A group of foreign students also watched and looked utterly dismayed as they were rewarded with the sight of me hitching my skirt up as I came very close to feeding my radio mic through my knickers. After that I think word spread around London pretty quickly and we were barely bothered again.

But despite the general public and the fact that I was improvising about things I'd never heard of before, it was all done very quickly. In fact, rather worryingly, in the two jobs I've done this year, I've spent about 30 minutes on set. Best put that BAFTA Fellowship on hold, folks...