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Review: Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off

Posted on 03 June 2013 by Ryan Sullivan

Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. The title handily provides a synopsis of the show, but allow me to embellish it for the sticklers for detail out there. Mary is the story of the Queen of Scots and her first cousin once removed, Elizabeth I. It is remarkable to think that all these events really happened, full as they are of betrayal, sex and blood. Using the old Scots language makes this feel like a time-honoured play, but it benefits from being a modern work.

Mary is presented as a classic being performed in a cabaret bar: a dirty cabaret bar which closed years ago, and now the MC lives in the condemned ruins. So we are given La Corbie, played by the mesmerising Shelley Lang, as our narrator. She speaks to us with a fag dangling from her bottom lip and a bottle of neat vodka in hand. She wears a black velvet gown that has been ravished by time. Riches and extravagance are built upon poverty and ruin.

Mary was written in 1987 by Liz Lochhead and reflects the tensions in Great Britain at the time. Under Margaret Thatcher the north/south divide was stark; that anger can be felt seething under the surface, but does not distract from the engaging story of rival monarchs. Preachers lecture us on the singularity of truth, but what is a country to do when two monarchs sit on two thrones on one island? This is made all the more complex when they are two women of differing religions.

Royalty has always provided inspiration for dramatists, but this seldom-told tale is highly engaging. This is the first time Mary has been performed in London in 25 years, and the King’s Head and director Robin Norton-Hale have made a good choice here. I really must commend the King’s Head for its compliance with Equity pay – a feat unheard of in venues of its size. They are getting excellent value for money as the cast is one of the strongest I’ve seen on the London fringe.

You are lucky to see one performer as talented as Shelley Lang in a production, but Mary gives us two when you add Sarah Thom, playing Elizabeth – indeed, not only Elizabeth but, as with the whole cast, many other characters too. She has a wonderful line about keeping things simple by making them as complicated as possible. This is true for the performance itself, which is so many things at once, but none of them interfere with delivering the action.

It takes a while to attune your ear to the Scots language and dialect at the start. This was made more difficult to begin with due to the overly loud sound of rain that drowns out the first monologue. The end of the show is a scene in which the events unfold again in a playground rather than a royal court. It is an interesting idea and one which I’m sure would resonate for anyone who grew up in a divided community, where which school you attended marked out the sort of person you were.

In pop culture we see a lot of Queen Elizabeth but we don’t often get to see her like this, in a fascinating look at her relationship with Mary Queen of Scots, the closest thing she had to a sister. There is enough of a story in the family dynamic alone, but the politics make the stakes all the higher. Mary spent 20 years locked in a castle – don’t let it be another 20 years until Mary is let out again.

Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off is playing at the King’s Head Theatre until 22 June. For more information and tickets please see the King’s Head website.

Photography by Christopher Tribble.

Ryan Sullivan

Ryan Sullivan

Ryan is a writer and director interested in every medium that will have him: working on everything from sitcoms to comic books. Moonlights as an office worker.

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Filskit Theatre: The actor – a disposable commodity?

Posted on 19 February 2013 by Filskit Theatre

jobs,jpg

“When an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, ‘It’s in the script.’ If he says, ‘But what’s my motivation?, ‘ I say, ‘Your salary’.”
– Alfred Hitchcock

Would a technician do a large job for nothing? Would a plumber not charge you? Would a lawyer kindly forget to send you a bill? Probably not. For these are deemed to be ‘skilled professionals.’ Yet time and time again actors (and not just the young, sprightly ones) are offering their services for free or for the bare minimum wage.
For those of you who chose to take the university or drama school route, you will be the proud owner of that official piece of paper that declares you have a degree in your chosen subject. Does that not imply that you are skilled?

The competitive nature of the acting profession has made it an oversubscribed market where continuous waves of new drama graduates join the battle. The ferocity of the competition means that sometimes the sector will take advantage. This unfortunately can stem from as early as the initial drama school auditions. We’ve heard many tales of shocking auditions (and have a few scars of our own) – a familiar story is the scenario where you pay £30 for the privilege of being eyeballed by a panel for all of 25 seconds. This already sets up a feeling that the students should be honoured to apply let alone dream of winning a place. This for many can be a tough financial sting, particularly if applying to several schools. This places these establishments on even higher pedestals as hundreds of hopefuls grapple for limited places at the schools. Already we have a fierce battle on our hands.

Then once you have completed your degree, you enter the big bad world. Outside the drama school bubble, jobs are inevitably thin on the ground. Again, performers are expected to offer their services for free or for the promise of a profit share which is likely to equate to double figures, for hours and hours of hard work and dedication. It doesn’t make the performer feel like a professional, as they are clearly not being treated as such.

We are a small company with very little money. We put in many hours for free, as we see it as investment in the future of the company and ourselves. We hold the belief that one day we will be able to work full time, for Filskit. This is the aim, and it should, eventually, be an achievable one. However, when we work with others, wherever possible, we make it a priority to pay them. It stands as a mark of respect to those we work with, whose skills we require, just as we need to pay the lighting technician, the printing company for our posters and flyers, and all the others who are needed to make things happen.

We have to be honest that we are not always able to pay for rehearsal periods, unless we have supported funding, and as a result we minimise our cast numbers and intensify our rehearsal periods to help make this a minimal encumbrance to everyone involved.

Groups like Equity and ITC draw out clear guidelines for Equity minimum payment, whilst Arts Council England exists to support artists and make sure they get paid for their work. So why is there still such expectancy to work for free?

We were prompted to delve into this subject after reading an anonymous article on Ideas Tap. The contributor admits they have “a company of over 30 members, who work free of charge because they share our passion”. This may appear dedicated but at the end of the day “passion” doesn’t pay the bills. It is an unsustainable way of working and ultimately limits growth. We were guilty of performing for free when we first formed as we felt honoured just to be performing. But there comes a point where you have to see the value in what you are doing, or who else will? Maybe it is our responsibility as a young company and members of the theatre community to promote payment for services rendered, and offer performers the professional status they deserve.

Image: Little known JOBS PROGRAM provides plenty of work for everyone

Filskit Theatre

Filskit Theatre

Filskit Theatre are an all-female ensemble with a passion for micro-projection. The company, Sarah Gee, Katy Costigan and Victoria Dyson, have been making work together since 2008. As graduates of the European Theatre Arts course at Rose Bruford they were brought together by their shared love of projection and cake.

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Exit Stage Left: the low pay/no pay debate

Posted on 17 January 2013 by Tristan Pate

money

This month Spotlight is hosting a consultation with its members, both actors and casting professionals alike, on the much discussed “low pay/no pay” debate.

In recent years a culture of internships has become the norm in a number of British industries. Having struggled their way through three years of higher education (and now paying £27,000 in tuition fees for the privilege), university graduates are commonly expected to then volunteer in their chosen sector for an indeterminate amount of time until they have sufficient experience to progress to paid work.

Such poorly paid positions are often thought to be vital exposure for a fresh face in the industry and a valid way into projects of a higher profile, but, for a lot of us, working for nothing is simply not an option. I’ve never been able to afford it. My only foray into the London fringe was in 2011 when I undertook a profit share production with a group of fellow graduates. In this instance I had to save the money from six months of hard touring to pay my way through it, and I only took it on as I felt the material and production team were of a bankable quality. The company’s accounts were clearly made available to all involved so we were assured that we would be receiving an equal share of the profits. However, many actors are not treated in this way. Taking on a fringe production is often nothing short of a gamble for a young actor: they have no creative control, the shows are often under-rehearsed, and the production is usually reviewed early in the run before the piece has had a chance to settle. There is never a guarantee of it leading to any further work and the (very poor) majority of actors end up working overtime at day jobs to fund such endeavours. Alternatively, to some, the option of performing in a profit share piece is an elitist thing, available only to actors with rich benefactors to fund it.

Above all though, it is thoroughly unfair that actors are always the last people to be paid in these arrangements. Because producers know that so many actors out there are desperate to perform, they are certain to find those who will work for free. They end up paying the director, the designer, the venue etc. and leaving only the actors to work for nothing. This is unacceptable. We are highly trained professionals in a skilled, competitive industry and we deserve to be valued just as much as anyone else. It’s bad business sense to give something away for free, and acting for free devalues us all as performers. For this reason it is especially upsetting to hear that many producers make a lot of money out of not paying their talent properly. The Menier Chocolate Factory is a venue I’ve heard accused of this, despite the fact that it sells out regularly and a lot of its shows transfer (Mark Shenton wrote a brilliant piece in the Stage about this). In these circumstances to refuse to pay a living wage is nothing less than exploitation.

Theatre is a heavily subsidised industry and cuts have hit us all hard. There is an argument that exciting new work is generated on the fringe and we would miss this if creatives weren’t prepared to offer their services free of charge, but I believe it is only by Equity and Spotlight members standing together that we can stamp out this kind of manipulation. We need the government to make a bigger investment in this country’s theatre, which is not only (let’s face it) the best theatre in the world, but pays its investment back twice over into the UK economy every year. It is also of utmost importance that we continue to campaign for Equity Minimum Wage for all performers across the board. This requires something of a leap of faith for all those that rely on low pay/no pay work to get a foot on the ladder, but one we all have to make together, a bold new commitment to stand strong and learn to value ourselves more highly.

Image: Images_of_Money

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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AYT USA: The pesky facts of life

Posted on 27 November 2012 by Sophie Schulman

New York is one crazy place. I recently submitted myself for a non-paying gig and could not get an audition slot. Yes, you heard that correctly: the show was unpaid, but the competition to work for no money is so steep that they didn’t have time to see everyone. And we’re not even talking about competition for a role, we’re only talking about competition to get in the door. It’s a madhouse.

Recently, though, I was lucky enough to not only get in the door but to actually book a national children’s theatre tour. In fact, I’m writing this on the road – we’re currently driving through scenic West Virginia. Hour five and counting. Oy.

Luckily for me, the company I’m touring with treats its actors pretty well. We’re entitled to a decent weekly pay and per diem, overtime, and even rest invasion, or extra compensation for any hour worked that encroaches on the required 12-hour break between the time you arrive at your hotel for the night and the time you have to be at the van and ready the next morning. Touring can be difficult and exhausting, but this company has really done everything in its power to make things manageable for its actors.

This should be the norm, but unfortunately, it’s not. Every actor in the city is clamouring for a chance to perform, and many are willing to accept less than ideal working conditions to get that chance. It’s a city full of scabs. But, honestly, who can blame an actor for taking work? After spending four years and thousands of dollars on training, and busting your butt at a thankless day job, any role seems like a miracle.

There are some opportunities that seem too good to be true – showcases throughout the city that promise an audience full of agents and other theatre professionals scouting new talent. All you have to do is sell or buy a certain number of tickets (and, in some cases, pay your accompanist), and you will get to sing or do a monologue for these industry insiders.  Now, I don’t want to completely knock these showcases. They give actors a chance to practise their craft in front of an audience, and they also make decent quality video recordings of the performances, which are a life saver when it comes to submissions. And, while I don’t personally know anyone who has landed an agent from this type of performance, I would assume that someone, somewhere down the line has got work from this type of performance opportunity, or no one would do it. I can’t help but wonder, though – if the performers are the ones selling the tickets, who is inviting the agents and casting directors? Won’t it just be an audience full of the actors’ friends?

Theatres everywhere are struggling, and I understand the need to cut corners just to keep companies alive. But it does seem unfair to take advantage of actors who are just anxious for a chance to flex their creative muscles. Still, we actors don’t always help ourselves. It sometimes feels as though we push down our asking price by taking any job that comes our way, regardless of how terrible the contract might be. It’s difficult to say, and at its core it’s probably just a very vicious cycle that can only be solved by more money going into the arts, either through patronage or governmental support. Because, in order to survive, theatres need to make money, and actors need to act. Unfortunately, actors also need to eat and pay their bills. These are the pesky facts of life.

Image by Monica Reida.

If you are an American reader of A Younger Theatre and would like to contribute to the AYT USA blog series, please contact blogs[at]ayoungertheatre.com.

Sophie Schulman

Sophie Schulman is a proud recent graduate of the musical theatre program at American University in Washington, DC. While in school, she studied abroad at the British American Drama Academy and fell in love with the London theatre scene. She is interested in all genres of theatre, and enjoys looking at and writing about current arts events from an ethics perspective. She recently relocated to New York to work as an actress in the big city.

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