This and that. Bits and bobs. Things and stuff. Here and there. Thank God that English, despite having one of the greediest vocabularies of all the languages (I mean who needs ten different words for the thing that you point at the TV to turn it on?), affords actors such a generous cornucopia of prevarication for use when someone asks us The Question: “So what have you been up to?”
Indeed, I imagine this is not just a relief for actors, but for anyone who works freelance – those of us who do not have the convenient marker of being frequently seen on peak-hours public transport wearing uncomfortable shoes to ease the mind of the onlooker who wonders, “So what do they contribute to the world?” As soon as you choose a non-nine-to-five career, you also accept having to prove to anyone who takes an interest in your life that you are just as productive as they are, even though often, through no fault of your own, you’re not. Or so I thought until quite recently.
Thankfully, I’m about to embark upon an all-female Macbeth at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town (whoops, was that a plug?), but for the first four months of this year I had no acting work at all. I had just finished my training at a good drama school in September and had worked (touring panto is acting too, right?) over Christmas. When I ran out of money I quickly scrambled together a job at a pub, and though I was doing absolutely everything I could to find acting work, still my inbox remained emptier than Nick Clegg’s birthday party. I dreaded being asked The Question, as a truthful answer would involve a lot of Carlsberg and pork scratchings and the providing of these to other people, and plenty of sitting on my arse roving desperately around the internet.
Many gut-wrenching conversations with non-actors had convinced me that most people thought that pretty much anyone could be a successful actor, and that it’s only show-off egotists who carry it as far as getting an Equity card. I thought that the only success that would satisfy a non-actor asking The Question would be something they’d actually watched or at least heard of in TV or film. Theatre never made the radar, even if you were performing a sellout one-man Hamlet at the National Theatre. Actors were desperate, talentless, scarf-wearing, Big-Brother-applicant, jobless attention-seekers unless they were Daniel Day-Lewis. Why couldn’t they just get a job on Doctors? Hadn’t they TRIED writing to the BBC? Indeed, despite my enormous exaggeration of this twattishness for your amusement, I think this is actually true of a very few people. But nonetheless my problem was that I was massively overestimating the crippling social consequences of saying to someone, as an actor, “I’m unemployed at the moment.”
As the empty months rolled on it became more and more tiring to keep coming up with half-truths I could shove at people to bat away their enquiries – “Oh, just little bits here and there really, did a panto at Christmas and thinking of writing a play… I’m planning my next show with my theatre company. When will it be? Ooh not for a while yet…”. It was pathetic.
However, as soon as I bit the bullet and one day answered The Question truthfully – “Nothing at the moment, it’s been pretty dead on the auditions front recently” – I realised that most people would sympathise, talk about how hard it must be to find acting work, and finish the conversation with a cheery platitude and a wish of good luck. Even the people who clearly read this as “I AM A GIANT FAILURE” weren’t openly rude about it and didn’t bother me too much. And then, as if I were in some cheesy film where the hero/ine must battle their demons in order to win the guy/girl at the end and live happily ever after, I was finally offered a part in a great show. The end.
I’m writing this sitting on my sofa at four in the afternoon on a Thursday. I’m wearing slippers rather than uncomfortable shoes, and I’ve got no makeup on and unwashed hair. I’m a fright. However, so far I have spent my day warming up my voice and body and doing some atrocious singing that might eventually get better the more I do it, checking around seven or eight different avenues online looking for acting work and applying for a few jobs, emailing a director about an audition and a casting director about a TV programme I have heard he is casting, learning lines for a play I’ll be starting next week, and writing a blog. But you can’t really give people a detailed run-down of these things when they pose you The Question in real life so you have to be OK with just telling them you’re out of work. Perhaps I am just an attention-seeking egotist but I know that just because I’m not this very second on Dr Who, it doesn’t mean that what I do day-to-day is worthless. Now, to pitch that one-man Hamlet idea to the National…
Photo: Hamlet statue in Stratford-on-Avon from Flickr user khrawlings under a Creative Commons Licence.