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Exit Stage Left: Actor musicianship – a blessing or a curse?

Posted on 09 December 2011 by Tristan Pate

Francesca Loren, who is currently starring in Dreamboats and Petticoats

Since the inception of theatre, writers and directors have incorporated live music into performances to serve their stories. As well as providing atmosphere and enhancing the action on stage, a song can be a vital mode of expression for a character when mere words are not enough. But does actor musicianship always support a production? Or can it simply be a way to keep the overheads down for producers hoping to consolidate their band and performers into one eager-to-please actor.

I spoke to actress Francesca Loren, currently performing in Bill Kenwright’s Dreamboats and Petticoats, about her varied career in the theatre. If anyone is to have formed a well-rounded opinion on this issue, it’s her.

Graduating in 2005, Francesca trained at Rose Bruford on its much-feted actor musician course, which has produced a great number of the finest actor musicians working today. In a class of 11, all with differing musical backgrounds, she describes it as an “interesting intake of students – as well as matching different characters they had to find a mix of different instruments, so we were quite a quirky bunch”. Her degree provided her with actor training as well as musical training: “At the time it was the only course in the country that trained actors in that specific way,” she tells me. However, when it came to classical musical training “you were left to your own devices in terms of your musicianship and the teaching was more focused on how you would use your skills in context.”

But did she realise how valuable her musical skills would be in terms of increasing her employment options? “No, I really wasn’t as pragmatic as that. I had absolutely no idea about the business – I chose it because I really loved both strands and I wanted to incorporate them together. But it transpires that it was quite useful,” she laughs.

In a musical education she refers to as “quite fragmented and a bit strange”, Loren first picked up a violin at age five, which she sheepishly admits was not for her due to a “general lack of co ordination”, although it’s hard to imagine many five year olds holding themselves up to those standards! After taking up the trumpet at school, it was at the age of 13 when she began performing with her Dad’s jazz band that she discovered a thirst for performance: “I learnt so much about performing and what an amazing experience it is to make music with other people. I was in this band with my Dad’s friends, and we played blues and soul music – it was a fantastic social experience.” It was around this time that she decided to learn the saxophone, which she picked up without any lessons, simply using the skills she had gleaned from playing live. Playing at the accomplished level she does now, it’s frustrating for a struggling saxophonist such as myself to hear her dismiss these achievements with modest flair: “I’ve never really had any formal lessons on the saxophone, but it’s not that hard!”

I asked Loren if she found a formal training in music underpinned with theory was completely necessary in her profession. “Generally, when you work with a musical director you will be working from his arrangements, he may sometimes sing you a line, but he’s always very specific about what he wants. During my training I hadn’t done much in terms of theory, I picked that up later on, but I read music and we did some modules on arranging at Rose Bruford, which was very interesting.”

With rehearsal periods shortening as a standard in the theatre profession, it’s easy to imagine the time-consuming process of learning the music for a show eating into the time spent developing a character. With the mixed ability group at Rose Bruford, Loren explains that the process could be laborious, but she didn’t realise how fortunate she was to have the time scale she did: “Reflecting on it now, having done a few actor muso shows, and how quickly you have to work, it’s a shame we didn’t have a shorthand for communicating arrangements. In the professional world it can’t work like that because there isn’t the time.” But has she ever found her niche to be a hindrance in other areas of employment? “For me it has been absolutely invaluable. I know some people find it can be a ball and chain because they can get stuck to a particular style of piece or network of actors – I guess there is a stigma attached to it and I think that’s a real shame, but for me it has been a fantastic asset. I haven’t found this so much as I’m always happy to work and always scared every job will be my last, but I suppose you can cast yourself into the ‘useful’ box very easily, although with lots of directors once you have shown your loyalty there is a way of breaking out of that. I love incorporating music into my work, I think it’s inherently theatrical to have instruments played live on stage – seeing people communicate with their instruments can be part of what makes a show fascinating.”

So what makes an actor muso show work particularly well? When does the convention marry with the intentions of the piece, and under what circumstances can it be more of a logistical hindrance rather than a supportive element? “I think it works really well as a convention when you’re working with a director who understands what you can achieve, but within a framework of what is logistically possible. Sometimes people aim for the stars, but then it just looks horrendously messy. The flip side is, just having as band on stage is the driest form of actor musicianship there is. To see it work really well is to work with people who use it as a theatrical tool, in terms of creating atmospheres and moving the story along.”

From an acting point of view, one can imagine having to work the music into a character’s journey can sometimes be limiting. “I think it can be as limiting as it can be liberating. It can often be a gift – for example, in a panto I worked on, to have a monkey that can also play the saxophone adds another dimension to that character; it’s like costume, it can be limiting because you can’t walk in it, or it can force you into walking in a particular way and there’s a character.”

She cites her work with Shanty Theatre Company, a charming collective based at the Marine Theatre Lyme Regis, as some of her finest achievements: “We work on a small scale, the shows are five handers, and everything is acoustic. I love doing rock ‘n roll shows as well, but that’s like a gig as well as a show – when you’re working with portable acoustic instruments and nothing is amplified it doesn’t go through anything to get to the audience, it’s from you to them in a very personal exchange. When I go and see a performance I don’t need to be bowled over by a big sound and massive sets, I like the grass roots simplicity of the storytelling.”

Loren’s musicianship has also been a vital tool for her outside acting. With an accomplished ability on her instruments she has often ‘depped’ as a musician in between acting work, as another creative outlet. “When you’re in between jobs and feeling a bit frustrated, if you get to go and play for an hour you feel like you’ve really touched base with that creative side of yourself,” she says “and the actor musician community being as closely knit as it is, if someone else is going off to do a job somewhere you can often step in and pick up the work they’re leaving! I love that about it, I find it very comforting and cosy, and it’s so nice to work with the same people again and again. There’s a kind of thread with actor musos, although obviously people are very different, but they tend to be quite relaxed and jolly, and not quite as cut-throat as people can be in other corners of the business.”

So what is Loren’s most valuable piece of advice for young actor musos? “Be as good as you can be on your instruments, and be prepared for every opportunity that comes along. Enjoy it and love it, and if you don’t love the music, then don’t be an actor musician. Above all work hard and be a nice person to work with!” Sage words that can be applied to all parts of the acting profession.

Perhaps the most inspiring thing about Loren’s varied career is that she has taken every experience and built on it, learning and improving herself along the way. As actor musicianship continues to permeate the mainstream with productions in the West End such as Kneehigh’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Craig Revel Horwood’s high profile muso revivals, it is wonderful to see that her career, a testament to hard work and determination, continues to flourish and diversify in line with it.

Tristan Pate

Tristan Pate

Tristan is an actor and musician and graduated from the Birmingham School of Acting in 2010. Since then he has appeared in plays, musicals and physical theatre pieces both touring nationally, and in London. He lives in Oxfordshire with his fiancée and young daughter.

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Behind the Scenes: how to work when you’re not acting

Posted on 15 November 2011 by Catherine Noonan

Acting is a notoriously tricky business to get into, and most commit to the career knowing that even if they’re incredibly talented, they’re probably going to experience periods when Olivier-Award-winning roles – or any roles at all – are thin on the ground. Actors do not have much job security, which is why knowing how to work when you’re not acting is a useful skill. So, for any actors wondering how to survive in between roles, these few pointers may just come in handy.

Get used to children: It seems like a rite of passage for actors to spend time working with children, so it may be beneficial for an aspiring actor to refine their childcare techniques. International actress Lenka Šilhánová travelled from the Czech Republic to the UK to work as an au pair. She recalls how working with children brought in money whilst leaving room to develop her career: “It allowed me to live in for free, gave me some pocket money to survive, and allowed enough free time to take acting courses, volunteer at The Actors’ Centre and explore how showbiz works over here. Most importantly, it allowed enough time to prepare for auditions at drama schools.”

However, not every actor is seized by an urge to look after kids. Actress Alix Wilton Regan recalls that she participated in “a brief session of teaching drama workshops to children until I realised this was more a babysitting club for overtired parents on a Saturday morning”. Whilst childcare is clearly not a job suited to everyone, it can help actors sustain a connection to their profession. Tristan Pate, who is currently starring in the UK tour of Dreamboats and Petticoats, found teaching kept him engaged in acting even when he wasn’t currently performing: “I was still interpreting Shakespeare and refining my own ideas and methods through directing. It made me feel hungry for the next acting challenge.”

If, like Pate and Šilhánová, you view childcare as an exciting acting challenge, it’s a survival job that can appeal in its flexibility and link (even if sometimes tenuous) to the profession.

Be prepared to do something a little bit humiliating: Whether it’s dressing up in ridiculous costumes or wearing next to nothing in icy weather, every actor has had their share of humorous jobs. Pate recalls a “humiliating experience” when he had to “dress up as an apple core for a police litter awareness fun day and go litter picking with some kids”. He adds, “Costume jobs can be grim. A friend of mine worked outside in full fairy regalia for eight hours last Christmas in the freezing cold.” Šilhánová certainly knows something about working in sub-zero temperatures;  she took on promo work to raise funds for her ticket to the UK. “I was one of the ‘lucky’ 10 or so girls to actually sign with the agency. I did jobs as a promoter at Christmas parties for various companies. It involved long hours for awfully low pay, in high heels and little black dress in winter months, in a mountain region.” Yet even these less desirable jobs can teach actors something useful for future roles. Šilhánová notes that the modelling and social etiquette training she received on the job has since been helpful for various acting roles.

Promoting Christmas parties and litter awareness aside, pursuing a career on stage can be an invaluable opportunity to live out your childhood dream of being a Disney princess, as actor Rod Henderson remembers: “I was laughing with the cast backstage at a panto when the ‘baddie’ grabbed my hand and tried to drag me on stage instead of the princess. Easy mistake to make I guess!”

Keep your head in the game: If you’re finding it hard to relate your job to your acting career, exploring another area of the theatre world can be a way to learn more about your craft whilst making money, too. Henderson advises taking jobs vaguely related to your  field and using these as a way to gain “experience of exactly what it takes to make theatre”. Henderson has worked as a lighting and sound designer, a technician, an assistant, a stage manager, and even as a writer and director, and has found these positions have taught him more about the acting profession: “As an actor I used to be arrogant enough to assume that being on stage was the most difficult part of theatre. Working around the stage, but not on it, has shown me otherwise!”

Alternatively, if theatrical jobs are hard to come by, finding ways to gain transferable skills in unrelated jobs can help you feel that what you’re doing is worthwhile. Actor Dewi Evans has taken on bar work since graduating, and says that although it is completely unrelated to his training it has helped him learn how to deal with customers and run events. Similarly, Šilhánová notes how “working as a receptionist and helpdesk operator helped me with my communication skills.” Even the most dire of part-time jobs can provide useful skills in between pulling pints and working on your telephone manner.

Don’t expect to automatically hit the big time: Most actors admit that the current state of their career doesn’t match the expectations they once held, even if they are making progress in the industry. Wilton Regan admits, “I thought that by now, having been to LA and been signed to some very big agents, I would be much further along the path of ‘rising star actress’, but unfortunately the universe has other plans.” Henderson shares a similar sense of not quite reaching one’s dream, adding, “I had hoped I would be on the London Fringe a bit more, aiming for The National or national tours.”

Yet even these actors have faith in the path they have taken. Henderson says, “Just because I am not on the Olivier Stage or at the New Vic does not mean I’m not making my way there, I’m just on a more circuitous route. There are times when I wake up in the morning and I genuinely don’t know how many different hats I will have to be wearing that day. I like that sort of excitement.” And Henderson’s more circuitous route can have unforeseen benefits, as Pate discovered: “One thing that does surprise me is finding myself in Musical Theatre. I trained as an actor, and although we did do a lot of singing, I barely picked up an instrument in those years – it was only after graduating I realised what an asset musical abilities can be in getting you work. I have surprised myself by ending up on a number one commercial tour. It wasn’t really one of my ambitions but is an achievement none the less!”

Being realistic about the difficulty of breaking into acting is wise, as is an awareness that survival jobs are just a more ‘circuitous’ way to reach your overall goal.

Don’t lose the faith: Even when you keep your goal firmly in mind, spending so much time in survival jobs can be a bit demoralising, as Wilton Regan knows: “You get constant pitying looks from part-time employers along with the words ‘I mean it’s just SO HARD being an actor (pitying sigh). I’ve really no idea how you do it. All the unemployment, no job stability and you’re constantly broke right?’ Yes, we are and no, we’d rather not be reminded of it.”

Whether you’re pouring drinks for other people or teaching their kids drama on a Saturday morning, the key is to make acting your priority and keep faith that it will all work out. Pate advises that “the trick is trying to do things on your own terms as much as possible, so you don’t risk getting into full time employment and struggling to get time off for auditions. I did this was by calling in favours from friends who could get me a few hours work and then trying to make my own opportunities around it.” Evans found a similar tactic was helpful: “Bar work is a great way of earning money whilst being an actor as you are able to swap shifts and interact with the public. I recommend building up a relationship with your managers; if you’re flexible with them when you can be, they are more likely to be flexible with you when you need to take a last minute audition.”

Šilhánová recommends seeing every job as “an opportunity to learn something new… the more interesting life you live, the better actor you become.” Wilton Regan adds: “Use your imagination. It’s the biggest gift you’ve got as an actor, and one you absolutely have to strive to keep alive.”

In other – slightly idealistic – words, even if you’re stuck looking after somebody else’s children or promoting companies knee-deep in snow, trust that the jobs you take between roles will eventually lead towards that elusive Olivier-Award-winning role.

Image credit: Stuart Miles

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The Wicked Stage: Is it enough to be a ‘triple threat’ performer?

Posted on 30 October 2011 by Sarah Green

A key term in musical theatre training is learning to be a ‘triple threat performer’, which means the ability to act, sing and dance to a high standard. An example of this is Sutton Foster’s performance at this year’s Tony Awards, where she performed the title song from the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes – she belted out the song whilst also performing a tap break.

Now, as good a performer as Ms Foster is, there is debate about whether it is enough to be able to just do the three elements – maybe there is even the need to be a ‘quadruple threat performer’. The Lion King requires you to learn puppetry and even stilts for some animal characters, Starlight Express required performers to be on roller skates, and many shows now require you to be both an actor and a musician. It is this last group of performers, those who are both actors and musicians, that I want to focus on.

In 2008, Craig Revel Horwood directed a production of Sunset Boulevard where everyone except the characters Norma and Max played instruments on stage. In 2004 there was a production Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street which didn’t use an orchestra, but had the 10-piece cast playing instruments on stage instead – an idea that also transferred to the 2005 Broadway revival of the show. So the question raised is: do performers need to have an extra trick up their sleeve to secure work?

Katie Pritchards, who graduated from the same university as me and is currently working as a swing (someone who is an understudy for chorus parts in a show) in the West End show Dreamboats and Petticoats, tells me that “It wasn’t until I left uni that I realised that I could make a career out of doing my two loves – playing instruments and musical theatre. I saw it as a way into the industry. I figured that I only had a degree from Buckinghamshire, which is not a drama school, and that there couldn’t be that many actor/musicians out there, so I should be in with a good chance!”

This goes back to another age-old problem of making yourself stand out from the crowd. One of my close friends got the lead in Mack and Mabel during our second year because she is brilliant at tap. Even so, in the dance call she messed up, but did it in such a funny way that the director gave her the lead anyway. It’s not to say messing up puts you onto a winner, but in that moment she stood out and was perfect for that character. In a similar way Katie identified a way to utilise her extra skills to forge a path into musical theatre: “Once I had left Uni I used my music skills as a means to getting into the industry. I knew I was going to have a hard slog if I didn’t get some credits soon after I graduated, and I was struggling to get musicals because my training and agent weren’t considered the top of their game, so I snuck my way into the industry via the actor/muso door, and it worked – now I’m working as a swing in a West End show!”

Before I get too carried away with saying how four is the new three in terms of amount of skills needed, there is a cautionary tale. I asked Katie if she thinks it is required to be a ‘quadruple threat’ nowadays: “I’ll be honest, I don’t think it is required at all. There are some days I wish I didn’t play instruments, because then I would get seen for more leads, as the leads even in actor/muso shows don’t tend to be musicians, and bigger companies will save good musicians for the ensemble and instrument tracks, no matter how good they may be for a leading role.” Katie goes on to mention that there are only two actor/muso shows on in the West end at the moment, Dreamboats and Petticoats and Million Dollar Quartet, and the latter is closing in the New Year. So whilst there are shows requiring the actor/musician combo, there are more shows that don’t require it, so it isn’t a completely essential skill to have.

So to answer my title question, I believe it is enough to be a ‘triple threat’ performer, especially as the bulk of the musical theatre back catalogue doesn’t require you to do more than this. However, I also think it wise to heed Katie’s advice that having an extra skill such as musical instruments can open unexpected doors.

Image by rickz.

Sarah Green

Sarah Green

Sarah is a musical theatre graduate now studying for her Masters in theatre practice with hopes of going onto a PHD. She has been writing for A Younger Theatre since September 2011 on all things musical theatre related.

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