Friday, 31 August 2012

A Few Thoughts

For probably one of the least glamorous jobs in the world, it’s amazing how glamorous people think acting is. We grow up believing that being an actor means constant meetings with Hollywood directors, accepting gloriously interesting roles with daring and respected directors and choosing which dress we’re going to wear when picking up our fifteenth Oscar. And it’s hardly surprising that we’re lead to think this. Unless you’re unlucky to know an actor in person, the closest you probably get to the life of a thesp is in interviews where hugely successful actors will endlessly talk about the wonderful projects they have lined up. Oh, of course, they’ll also mention the quieter times to make them sound human and we’re informed that those leaner moments are known as ‘resting.’

The phrase ‘resting’ will conjure up an image of an actress with her feet up on a chaise lounge while some poor fool feeds her grapes. Maybe she’s glancing over a few scripts or she might be conducting a few telephone interviews. What she’s not doing is living the reality of most resters. Maybe my resting is more extreme than most but it often consists of crawling out of bed way after BBC Breakfast has finished, sloping around the house in your pyjamas wondering how to make a stale loaf of bread and a three year old tin of sweetcorn last you the rest of the week and then spending a few miserable hours trawling casting websites looking for work. If you’re lucky then you might find a job that would cover maybe a week’s rent however, more often than not, you’ll find jobs  that either don’t pay or are looking for everything that you are not.

The problem with acting is that it’s not a very nice friend. It’s the friend that calls you up when it’s run out of other options. When there’s absolutely no one else to turn to then acting will come knocking at your door and expect you to drop everything at a moment’s notice. And, of course, you let it get away with such behaviour. Others will ask why you put up with it but you just tell them that that’s how acting works. They’ll sigh and tell you you’d be better off with sometihng more reliable  but you’ll ignore them and gaze at your phone, waiting for your fair-weather friend to ring again. And then finally, they call. Suddenly, just when you’re thinking of giving up on them for good. And you think that this is it. This will be the time when acting finally makes your friendship public. You’ll get bracelets with each other’s names on and you’ll start emailing them photos telling them that it reminded you of them. But of course, it doesn’t happen that way. After maybe a couple of days, weeks or months (if you’re really lucky) in acting’s warm glow, they’ll drop you just as quickly as they found you. You’ll be ok for a couple of days. When people ask how you’re getting on, you’ll have something interesting to tell them. And you’ll hope that acting will start to remember you now. Maybe they’ll call on you a bit more frequently. But of course they don’t and in a matter of days you find yourself wandering around the house in your dressing gown convinced that you’ll never get an acting job ever again.

Yet we still find ourselves sticking at it. This happens mainly because we’re stubborn fools who, despite our occasional negativity, we’ve trained ourselves to believe that the glass is always half full (of wine, preferably) and that that terrifyingly big job is creepily lurking around the corner. And who knows, maybe it just is?

Thursday, 30 August 2012


I learnt a few things yesterday but one of the main lessons that was bestowed upon me was how to spell the bastard word ‘supernumerary.’ It’s a word that sits in the same waiting room of my vocabulary as ‘mortgage’ and ‘dental floss.’ And, to the best of my knowledge, yesterday was the first time I found myself typing it. But why did I spend much of yesterday afternoon painstakingly slowing down my typing and furiously checking my spelling? Well, because yesterday West Yorkshire Playhouse announced that they were looking for two actors to be part of their upcoming production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Oh, sorry. They were looking for two unpaid actors. Of course, I instantly got my high horse out of its stable and climbed aboard. Twitter got the full brunt of my anger and disbelief spread quicker than an STD through a university on Fresher’s Week. West Yorkshire Playhouse were wonderfully quick to respond and explain that the request for actors was a mistake and they had meant to say ‘supernumeraries.’

But what’s a supernumerary? It’s not, as first thought, a superhero maths teacher. A few people asked me on Twitter what it was and I have to admit that had a friend not been one a few years back, I probably wouldn’t have known either. A supernumerary, in simple terms, is an extra on stage.  They’re the ones that hand out drinks and hold doors and don’t speak. And I learnt this the hard way. A friend of mine got a part in an opera and, being wonderfully supportive, a gang of us got the cheapest tickets we could find so we could go along and watch. Big mistake. Our friend was cast alongside maybe 49 others, all who looked exactly like him. And that probably would’ve been fine if our ludicrously cheap seats hadn't meant that we were basically sat on the roof. All we could see were the top of people’s heads meaning that most of the time we were just watching a series of dark-haired blobs swaying around on the stage. After about 10 minutes of desperately trying to convince ourselves that we’d spotted our friend, we eventually gave in and tried to enjoy the show (this resulted in one of our gang going to the pub next door and another sleeping in the toilets.)

But, more importantly, I remember being mightily impressed at the money my friend was getting paid for such a small role. I can’t remember the exact figures as my insane jealousy filtered out the figures but I know he was doing alright from being a voiceless and almost faceless member in the crowd. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t think he should’ve been paid. The exact opposite, in fact. Just because he looked almost identical to everyone else on stage, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be being recognised for his efforts. The show had quite a long run so he was giving up a lot of his time for very little reward (apart from cash.) Also, although he said nothing, they had been directed and without them, the show probably wouldn’t have worked. So, you can imagine how surprised I was yesterday when I found out that some supernumeraries (sorry, it had been a while since I typed it) don’t get paid. Unpaid work is never a shock anymore. However, when it’s being mentioned in the same sentence as a very successful theatre and a show that’s being put on in a 750 seater venue with tickets of up to £27 then your brain starts asking questions. Especially when they’re not even asking for a big ol’ crowd of people. They’re just asking for two people who will alternate the role of a servant. A servant will, at some point, probably have the eyes of most of the audience on them. So why the heck aren’t they getting their own share of the money?

I’m not saying West Yorkshire Playhouse are doing anything illegal. I understand it’s all being looked at by Equity as I type and that what they’re doing is correct in accordance with the contract that they have. So, because I don’t have all the facts, I’m not going to comment any further on this particular case. HOWEVER, I personally find it worrying that having unpaid performers in high profile theatres is still a thing. (We’ll ignore my stance on unpaid work in general for now otherwise we’ll be here all day going over very old ground…) But, if the director has decided that everyone on stage needs to be there then they should all be recognised for the work they’re doing. No, standing on stage with a tray of drinks in your hand shouldn’t mean you get paid the same as the lead performer who has spent weeks learning zillions of lines and has worked hard to create a believable character. However, if the lead actor is being paid then so should everyone else who is a part of that performance (be they on stage or working bloody hard backstage.) Just because their list of responsibilities is a bit shorter, that doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to have their work recognised in the form of a bit of cash. And if you’re not even being paid expenses then I honestly don’t know why anyone would do it. You’re clearly not being respected by those who have employed you so why should they benefit from your free labour? But, as usual, we get the problem that while people still willing to take on this sort of work then this sort of work will continue to exist.

Maybe the world needs this Supernumerary superhero to help rid the world of unpaid acting work? Shield your eyes, world. You’re about to see Miss L in some very ill-fitting lycra…

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Group Therapy

“How do you fancy spending the morning with a whole load of other desperate actors as you battle it out for a couple of precious roles? I mean, we could’ve organised individual auditions but it’s a lot easier just throwing improvisation games and scripts at a group of braying thespians and then watching them to see just how much they’ll upstage each other to get the part.”

This is basically what’s being said when you’re invited to a group audition. As soon as there’s mention of ‘workshop’, ‘group’ or even the phrase ‘we’ll just spend a few hours getting to know you all’ my heart shrivels and the urge to break everything in sight becomes almost impossible to ignore. I always have the feeling that I should relish the idea of group auditions. The chance to spend a few hours flexing my thespian muscles (they’re the ones that allow you to do jazz hands) should be an exciting prospect. I should love the idea of throwing myself headfirst into a game of Zip Zap Boing and I should get thoroughly excited when asked to play Party Quirks. But I don’t. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

As I’ve already said, the problem with group auditions is that you’ve got a group of actors, all ludicrously desperate for a job, all fighting it out for a newborn baby’s handful of roles. All the actors will pretend they’re being fabulously supportive of each other by laughing raucously at someone else’s attempts to be funny in an improvised scene. They’ll clap to the point of their hands falling off and will grin inanely at the director to ensure that their encouraging ways have been noted. But as soon as they’re up in front of everyone and it becomes a different matter entirely. I was in a group audition a few weeks ago and was part of an improvised scene with a few other actors. What could’ve been an interesting and amusing piece turned into a group of performers literally pushing each other out of the way so they could be seen. We had a whole studio at our disposal but oddly, the second I made the first move, the other actors were all stood on top of me trying to make sure they got their precious share of the limelight. What could’ve been an inventive little skit turned into what looked like an outtake of an audition for It’s A Knockout. 

I’ve never excelled at group auditions. I go in with the best intentions where I plan to push my way forward and do whatever it takes to make sure I get noticed. But I just can’t be one of those actors. I can’t be the actor that insisted on singing every single line that he said. I can’t be the actor who entered the room telling everyone about just how awesome they are at playing the cello. And I will never be the actor who, when asked to say something interesting about themselves, launches into an overly long and dubious story about how they went horse riding with Princess Diana. These actors make the room stink of desperation and instead of wanting to inhale and add my own vapours to the mix, I just want to sit in the corner and vomit continuously until we’re all finally put out of our misery.

And then there are the scripted scenes. Being put into little teams and asked to painfully act our way through someone’s poorly written words. What usually happens is that you’re put with an actor who will try and subtly look through the script first and check which character has the most lines. Then, when discussing who should play who, they’ll try and casually drop that they can only play characters whose name begins with the letter B and, oh, would you look at that! Bertha just so happens to have the most lines. You then end up playing Passerby Number 2 and have to milk your solitary line of ‘”Yes. I think so too” so much that you’re in danger of killing off the numerous lactose intolerant actors that will inevitably be in the room.  You then run through the scene countless times and one actor will insist on appointing themselves the role director. This actor will never be someone with a genuine feel for how a scene should be played but instead will be the actor who thinks it will be more interesting if you throw in a piece of interpretive dance in the midst of two lawyers talking about a murder trial. They’re also the ones that think creating a soundscape is a good idea. 

But it’s not enough that you’ve just spent the last 20 minutes rehearsing a ten line scene. After tirelessly saying “Shall we run that through again?” you then have to watch everyone else’s efforts. While watching countless versions of the same scene, numerous things will happen. Firstly, you’ll probably steal someone else’s delivery of the same line. You’ll also get mightily jealous of other groups that appear to have better actors in. You’ll convince yourself of who will undoubtedly get the roles instead of you. Oh, and you’ll get massively bored. But yes, instead of enjoying what other people have been doing, you’ll spend most of the time comparing yourself to others and finding that, more often than not, you’re not as good as you think you are.

Sadly if doesn’t look as if group auditions are going anywhere. So excuse me while I practice the art of actor-elbowing and get some white-water rafting with a bear stories under my belt because you know what they say: If you can’t beat them… actually no, I think I’ll just stick to beating them. With a large stick. Repeatedly.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Whining About Writing

If you're an actor then it's highly likely that, at some point, you've had a little whine about writing. Maybe you've had a little bitch to one of your fellow cast members about it and joked how you could've done a better job. Maybe you've had a word with your director and you've worked hard together to make the writing work for you. If you're lucky and working alongside a writer then maybe you've politely asked if it could possibly be changed ever so slightly just so it makes a bit more sense. However, unless you're Dennis Waterman, Amanda Redman or Alun Armstrong then it's highly unlikely that you decide to tell the Radio Times how fed up you are with it:

I admit, I've spoken many a time on Twitter about poor writing. When you've received scripts that contain lines such as...

I don't know if all the Spaniards have a so big, big cock. 

I think Paul is gay. He has girlfriends just cos he doesn't want his family knows it. But he is a (pause) poof.

We will not pose for others, you alone know how lingerie is to be worn.'s very difficult to stay quiet. But these lines have clearly been written by people who haven't got a clue. Writers of programmes such as New Tricks are professionals and yes, maybe they don't get every single line right but that doesn't mean they deserve having their hard work ripped apart by actors in the press. 

While reading the article, all I could think was just how horribly ungrateful they all sound. They should count themselves lucky that they're part of a long-running, BBC1 primetime show. They should be happy with the exposure that they get and that they get paid to do work in a ridiculously oversubscribed profession. But no. Instead they decide to complain and shown that it's really no wonder that a group of actors is often called a 'whinge.' Perish the thought that they might just say how lucky they are to be in work when budgets are being hacked at more than an unruly hedge. 

As far as I'm aware, no one is making them stay there. If they want to leave, as James Bolam did, then I'm pretty sure that they're free to do so. If the writing is so poor that they feel the need to tell a publication that has a readership of around 2 million (I found this figure by vaguely glancing at Google so my apologies if this is wrong) then why are they still sticking around? Why not give up their roles and let someone else take over? Someone else who might be a little more grateful and has a bit of decency about them. Maybe they're worried they won't get work elsewhere and now they've shown that they're happy to publicly criticise a programme, I imagine their employability rate has clumsily slipped down the ladder somewhat.

The actor I'm most surprised at is Dennis Waterman who, in March allegedly said the eye-opening, mouth-screaming, hair-tearing line:

"It’s not difficult for a woman to make a man hit her. She (Rula Lenska) certainly wasn’t a beaten wife, she was hit and that’s different."

Now that's definitely not a line that a New Tricks writers would pen for you. That's a line that has come straight from the chauvinistic horse's mouth. And I personally think he's bloody lucky to still have a job after making such an admission. Part of his defense was that Rula Lenska was a 'big girl' and could therefore defend herself. This isn't a suitable defense anyway but I've seen Rula Lenska many a time as I used to live around the corner from her and she's everything but a 'big girl.' So you'd think that Waterman would keep his head down and thank his sexist stars that someone is still willing to employ him.

However, instead he's said that this little whiny gang would rather be in Copenhagen working on some 'extraordinary television.'  I know. The idea of Waterman achingly trying to act his way through The Killing is utterly laughable. I'll just give you a moment to have a good ol' think and a good ol' chuckle about that image....... We done? Excellent. Now, talk about biting the hand that feeds you. I'm a big fan of what the Danes have been producing lately and think that Borgen is one of the finest television dramas ever made but that doesn't give these actors the right to be quite so rude to an industry that has been incredibly supportive and has regularly kept them in work. They are in a position where they should be championing British writing and showing a bit of gratitude to an industry that has kept them in employment for the best part of 40 years. I don't really watch New Tricks but I do know that this programme is a rare thing. This is a primetime show where all the leads are over the age of 50. How many other programmes (apart from maybe Waiting for God, Keeping Up Appearances and Last of the Summer Wine) have done such a thing. But all those programmes are over 10 years old. How many TV programmes (and no, Antiques Roadshow doesn't count) that are actually on now are doing that? Very few indeed.

To the writers, I'm sorry. I'm sorry that you've had to write for such ungrateful actors. And, if you want a grateful actor who'll maybe just put out the odd, poorly written complaint on Twitter, then you know where I am...

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Hell Is Other People

When you enter the waiting room for a casting and the other actors are talking about  death, it’s safe to assume that this is probably a bad omen. When one actress is holding court as the others look on sombrely as she recounts the details of someone’s dying moments, you are perfectly within your rights to sigh and yet again despair at your choice of profession. 

I was quite looking forward to this audition. It was for a reasonably well paid job with a wonderfully written script and those making it seemed like thoroughly nice people. So you can imagine how dismayed I was to have my optimism swiped from me the second I walked in the door. Conversations in casting waiting rooms are often dire affairs. If you’ve never been to one then just imagine a whole host of men thwacking their penises on a table and meticulously measuring their length before embarking upon embellished anecdotes about how they arrived upon owning such a thing. Now, replace those men with actors, the penises with half-baked careers and those anecdotes with dull tales of imaginary directors. It’s a tedious affair to not only witness but also because you find yourself having to take a deep breath and become one of these boresome beings yourself. You can keep quiet thinking that you’re emanating an exotic air of mystery but all you’re doing is boosting the other actors’ egos by making them believe your career is as desperate as a turkey with a strong will to survive on Christmas Eve. 

However, yesterday’s audition was an entirely different affair. I think it could’ve been somewhere within the realm of pleasant if it hadn’t been for one actress. The possibility of interesting conversation hung temptingly in the air amidst the water machines and cheap art but this particular actress was keeping it just out of reach. As I posted on Twitter yesterday, I think the following exchange rather perfectly sums up what kind of person she was. In the following scene, she is played wonderfully by Actress 2:

Actress 1: I was told by my agent-


I almost admire her for the fact she could make ever single sentence about her. Now I know that actors have a special knack for bringing conversations back round to them but this woman would challenge even the fiercest of networker. So many times an actor would embark upon a fascinating story only for this One Woman Jackanory to latch onto a particular word like a limpet and force us all down an anecdotal alley that none of us want to be on. But then it was just the two of us left waiting. At first I tried just going along with it. Maybe one of these tales would lead to something utterly fascinating. Or maybe I could get her to talk herself hoarse, therefore helping to eliminate the competition. But neither of these things happened. Instead she just kept going like the Duracell Bunny on speed. I'd already tried getting the other actors in the room to speak but this just encouraged her into further stories. So I attempted the age-old ‘I have my phone in my hand so please give me some peace and quiet while I pretend to be busy’ tactic. But oh no. As I did my bestest acting of looking interested at my phone’s homepage, she continued to talk at me about the string of actors she’d previously worked with. There wasn’t a famous actor’s cousin’s friend’s nephew’s postman that she hadn’t appeared alongside and wow, was she determined to make sure that I went away with her full acting CV imprinted in my now very weary brain. Even looking at the script and pretending that I wanted to do some work to try and ensure I got the job didn’t make a blind bit of difference. Instead she just launched a monologue on her script learning regime. If I hadn’t wanted the job so much I’d have fled the scene, screaming my Shakespeare monologue into the wind. 

But how did it all end, I hear you cry? Well, our Storytelling Actress called me pretty and I smashed the audition in the normal sense and not in my usual way which usually involves at least one member of the production team being carted off to the local A&E Department. Wonder if this actress is available for hire…