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.