Plea to ‘The Stage’ to Review Fringe Shows

There has been a lot of debate about actors not getting paid on London’s fringe scene. This week Mark Shenton, of The Stage has said he will no longer review plays where the actors and crew aren’t paid. This is meant to punish the producers, and I appreciate his attempt to back actors, but in my opinion this actually punishes the already unpaid actors.

To work unpaid or not to work unpaid. The choice as an actor is yours. You’re an adult. So why is there so much talk of exploitation. Of course, if others are being paid, this does look like abuse of the actors’ position. But, during all the unpaid work I did, no one was getting paid. We all worked for profit-share. I only got profit once, I admit, but I knew the score. Removing the reviews would reduce audiences and shrink potential profit even further.

Shenton argues that the theatre companies who can’t or won’t pay can become amateur. This demeans the value of all those professional actors working in those productions. Yes, they are still professional even if they aren’t paid. If you are a trained actor you are a professional. If a trained doctor volunteers in a Red Cross shelter is s/he no longer a professional? Of course not. Nor is it their hobby.

It’s tough as an actor on the fringe, rarely being taken seriously by friends and family who think, like Shenton, that if you’re not paid you are not a professional. As if there isn’t enough industry rejection to make you feel inadequate. Now we get this. The payslip argument is reductive. Professionalism is also about attitude and ability. By Shenton’s definition all untrained celebrities getting work due to their profile are professional actors even when they can’t act.

Shelton says he feels he is “endorsing a system that advantages some at the expense of others.” This presumes that the Equity work or paid jobs are running on some kind of meritocracy. When we know that looks, status, connections, level of agent (to mention just a few) all contribute to how far an actor can get in the ‘system’. There isn’t a meritocracy in the paid work either. In fact, there’s usually been far more meritocracy in the casting of the fringe show where these factors are less of a priority.

To suggest that if friends work together for free it is ok, but as soon as there is an audition open to all it is not. The former could be seen as nepotism in action and the latter as meritocracy. The intention is good, but the result is the opposite of the intended objective. i.e. unconnected actors struggle further.

So for those disadvantaged actors trying to find an agent and gain exposure, this hurts them. For those trying to collect reviews to help their US visa process, this hurts them. For those trying to get good at their craft – which takes 10,000 hours[1] – I believe this would also hurt them because they would be less likely to do amateur work that could not go on their resume. Like extra work, listing the experience on their resume will set them firmly into the lower echelons of the upstairs/downstairs class system that goes on in acting.

I appreciate the attempt to protect actors, but I don’t think actors need protecting from doing day jobs to be able to afford to do the fringe, that is a choice. To choose night buses over cabs, to follow our dreams rather than take holidays or buy stuff. It might not pay us back financially, but it isn’t all about money, even for the professionals.

Lastly, when I worked as an understudy on the West End, I was hugely glad of the hours of experience I had got in my eight agent-less years on the fringe. These meant I could go on, at short notice, in a lead role, and hold my own. The first time I got paid about £40 to go on each show. The next time I understudied, (so therefore had more experience) the Equity terms had changed. I had to do two consecutive shows before any amount would be paid, and by then it was less than £40 per show. Obviously I still got my weekly cheque, and I was delighted to perform, but my point is, that being in Equity doesn’t mean you are protected. But, yes I did get my tea breaks!

[1] Malcolm Gladwell’s statics from Outliers

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The importance of being (fe)Male – aka: Show me the women!

It is a frequently bemoaned point that there are far fewer roles for women than men on stage and on screen, and that this gets worse as women get older. Something that is painfully ironic in an industry which draws far more women to it than men in the first place. Nothing new there. What is new though, or rather on the increase, is the casting of men into what were and are – female roles.

I first noticed it when a man was cast as Miss Trunchball in the musical version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. It left a bad taste in my mouth then. Partly, to see such a great role be taken away from the female actors in this age group, and partly because I wondered if there is a more worrying suggestion underlying this choice. A suggestion that these women (the Miss Trunchball’s of this world) are old, ugly and are therefore essentially masculine – so they can be played by a man equally as well, if not better than a woman.

What angers me is that for years they have been saying women can’t be funny. Now they seem to be suggesting we can’t be a whole host of other seemingly unfeminine things either. It’s reductive to show women only as one stereotyped 2D version of what it is to be a woman. These castings suggest that being nasty, twisted, mentally unstable or violent is not feminine and therefore not female. Women, of course, are never evil and nasty, they are delicate, kind nurturing creatures ALL of the god damn time. Just ask Myra Hindley.

Most recently, David Suchet, has been playing Lady Bracknell in the Importance of Being Earnest. I have it on good authority that David is a lovely man and I am sure that like most actors is glad of any acting challenge that comes his way. But, this is another great female role for older female actors taken away from us. What is going on? Is this the Mrs Brown affect? And where is the uproar?

We have always had the Shakespeare thing of course. In Shakespeare’s day women were not allowed to be actors, so all those great female parts from Beatrice to Lady Macbeth were originally played by men. This is justification for many companies to continue producing all male productions, despite there now being no restriction – in the UK anyway– on women leaving the kitchen to appear in a play. The argument for continuing with all male productions is that it’s a valid representation of how the play would have looked in Shakespeare’s day.

With the exception of the Globe, the purism rarely extends to insure other non-sixteenth century-isms are also excluded such as modern lighting. But, more interestingly is that no-one would dream of blacking up an actor to play Othello. Yet, in Shakespeare’s time Othello would have been a blacked up white actor. So, surely there is a double standard here. Or perhaps we are not so purist about our Shakespeare as we’d like to believe.

            I believe this misogynistic casting trend (and no – you don’t get away with it because its ‘art’) is not simply about removing work from female actors. There is a bigger issue here. Women are being overlooked. Our parts and most importantly our stories are being stolen. It’s not acceptable to simply replace older women with a man in a skirt. It’s offensive. The female story deserves to be told and heard; the full female story, not just the one that fits into man’s story. As well as sexy girlfriends and yummy mummies we are everything from from brattish, cute young girls, to large matronly ladies and delicate grannies. We are mothers and murderers, we can manipulate, mislead and bewitch. Stop limiting us to arm candy and stop suggesting we can’t be trusted to play ourselves.     

      We deserve to see women represented on stage by women. Be they old, hard, soft, ugly, fat, thin, evil, kind or just that brilliant all rounded mix of all of the aforementioned – show us the women!  

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Feminine and Funny – can we be both?

There is frequently a debate about whether or not women are as funny as men? This usually always relates to stand-up. No one doubts (I’d hope) that actresses are as funny as actors. Women have been performing everything from comic theatre (Coward, Wilde, Shakespeare, Ayckbourn) to televised sitcoms (Fawlty Towers, Gavin and Stacey, Friends, Modern Family, Peep Show, Absolutely Fabulous) for years.

As comedy writers women are becoming more and more successful. Ruth Jones, a personal heroine of mine, co-wrote the brilliant Gavin and Stacey. Ab Fab was written by Dawn French and Jessica Saunders and Fawlty Towers was co-written by Connie Booth as well as by John Cleese. Stateside we have Len Dunham writing, producing and starring in Girls, not to mention the success of Tina Fey and that’s just off the top of my head.

So, we are considered funny as writers, funny as actors, it is only stand-up where we are not yet seen as comic equals either in fees or visibility on television.
 This initially makes no sense. If you can write comedy – as it’s proven women can, and you can perform comedy as many actresses have done, why should women not be able to do stand up which involves both these talents; writing and delivering? The simple answer is, that women can do stand up. The complex one is that is it less accepted by our society and more threatening to the status-quo. When women do stand-up, they speak up. They take the stage and take the risk that stand-up involves; the risk of failure, the risk of judgment and additionally of being seen as as unfeminine.

So, in my view, the first obstacle is that stand-up is seen as macho and therefore unfeminine. It takes confidence to take the risk, almost an arrogance to say “I am funny” and the majority of stand-up still has its roots in macho topics (women, sex, body functions) and tone (vulgar, mocking). Not surprising when you understand that it originated in working men’s clubs.

It has taking a cultural shift for people to accept women doing it at all. I say people because, from talking to audiences, both men and women still find comediennes an unwelcome novelty and suspect they might not like them. Liking is important because we only usually laugh at people we like. Your female friend will have you in stitches but when a woman steps up to a mic to make us laugh we are uncomfortable. We still see them as having stepped into male territory. Perhaps we fear for them.

If culture still asks women to be lady-like then we might feel concerned seeing them in the stand-up arena with its history of macho humour. So maybe we also judge as well as fear. Maybe we’d like women to be nicer than that. In terms of this type of humour, I personally would like men to be nicer than that and prefer the surreal imaginative comedy of Eddie Izzard or the obscure non-observational comedy of Stewart Lee, but that is just my taste. If we as a society think vulgar comedy has a place, then men and women should both be accepted doing it.

A photo of Charlotte Thornton doing stand-upSecondly, we live in a society where women are valued on looks; beauty, sexiness, elegance. None of these is compatible with stand-up. Comedy, usually asks that you pull faces, do silly walks, trip over and generally look idiotic. You are the clown. We accept this of women in sitcoms but less so in a stand-up comedienne, especially, if they are good looking. We understand why an unattractive woman might pull faces for a living, but why would an attractive one? I was once midway through a joke that involved pulling a silly face when my boyfriend stopped me to tell me, well – more like warn me, that it was making me look unattractive. He seemed genuinely uncomfortable, embarrassed even. It was not the first time this had happened to me. This is not only absurd, it’s revealing of our culture, of the pressure on women to look nice, always.

Not only do we grow up thinking our role is to be pretty, first and foremost, but we are also told to be more sensible, grown up even. So whilst the boys are allowed to be boys and lark about, which teaches them some of the comedy basics we lose the opportunity to learn and our comic muscles go unflexed. So that even if we do decide to be a stand-up we are behind.

Also I think men are brought up to feel more comfortable with taking the space. As a stand-up there is no sharing, you take all the glory (and all the risk too) and men seem more comfortable with this. As young girls, whilst the boys are being boys we are asked to not dominate, be quieter, share, give. Consequently women have leaned toward and been more accepted in ensemble groups doing sketch comedy or improvisation. But alone, intending to do stand up comedy, we (the audience) are confused, maybe even annoyed that they don’t know their place. It seems as if we have been conditioned to find a man’s confidence attractive and women’s as a sign of arrogance. Stand-up takes balls. So society might argue it prefers only the men to have balls.

I know that even I have found myself making the judgment “who does she think she is?” If we are all taught to be quiet, humble, to look nice, to share and then some other woman dares to take the stage solo, to speak up, to presume they are funny, to defy the need to being attractive, maybe the women who have done as they were told feel angry instead of inspired. There is the annoyance of a driver stuck in traffic watching some cheeky rule breaker speed through the bus lane, or in this case the man lane.

But who are we not to? It’s time women became rule breakers. They weren’t even our rules in the first place. We have a right to be heard, to tell our stories? Whilst we are still shy about taking our space, still so judged on how we look (and judging others), and still asked to be the gentler sex at all costs, then there will be prejudice against female stand-up comediennes.

So, let’s give some of these brave female comediennes a chance and let’s show respect to those who have made it. Jo Brand who smashed the stand-up glass ceiling and taking some unbelievable nasty media stick for it and Victoria Wood who shows stand-up can be gentle, intelligent and compassionate whilst still being hilariously accurate.

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The Living Day Job

Little Moo, a cuddly toy cow

Little Moo

There are very few actors who escape having to do some sort of day job at some time or other. I have done masses. I used to do PA work for the first years out of drama school and then later, when I yearned to get away from a desk, I taught drama, dance and song to 4-8year olds in after-school drama clubs. But my best ever day job was during the summer holidays when there were no classes to teach and I retuned to the temping agency.

The job I got was a two week job, as the PA to the CEO of the Energy Saving Trust, whilst his PA was on annual leave. The Energy Saving Trust (EST) is a public body created to help us reduce our energy use. Now, normally several things occur when I temp in an office, one is that I am underwhelmed with everyone’s hatred of the job and two I get offered a permanent position there – mainly because I try and make myself indisposable so that I can go to auditions without risking my job. This time at EST, neither thing occurred.

One – everyone was passionate about what they were doing and so loved being there, they were positive happy, smart, they made tea happily and shared baked goods. And two, guttingly my two weeks ended and no one offered me a permanent job! For the first time, it was me who wanted to stay. I loved it! It helps that I too am passionate about the environment, of course.

So after asking my temping agency if there was any more work at EST, and heard the reply of “No” that told me they hadn’t even asked, I asked myself. I cheekily sent an email round to the whole of the company saying my two weeks were up, but that I’d love to stay, did anyone need any further assistance. My proactivity paid off and the very department I had envied from afar (the Communications team of well dressed, gorgeous women, the noisy group who got to drink wine most Friday afternoons – celebrating some story or other) asked me to join them for a two week trial.

I stayed for two years. I left in between to do a tour of a Richard Bean farce entitled In the Club, with James Fleet and Carla Mendonza, and to go to LA for 6 weeks, but essentially EST became my main job. The people were and still are amazing.

The company has been shrunk and most of my team have gone to pastures new, but we still all meet up. It was my team at EST who gave me my mascot, Little Moo (pictured), when I got into Little Voice, after being on the brink of abandoning my acting career. I remember emailing my boss that I was leaving and she leapt up so pleased for me she didn’t get to read why, she just knew it was an acting job. It felt like the scene in the factory where the woman in An Officer and a Gentleman gets picked up by Richard Geer and they all cheer. Well, in my head anyway.

They all had faith in me, even when I’d lost my own. And so EST will always be very special to me, as will Little Moo who will be coming with my into the theatre tomorrow for the start of Aladdin. Thanks EST – everyone go to their site, follow their tips, and help protect our planet as well as your wallet….

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Do You Dig It?

Most people ask me, when I’m off on tour, or heading out into the regions to do a show: where do you stay? This question is usually followed with: do they put you up in a hotel? Ha! No! We wish! Actors on tour or away from home are given an amount of money to live on – subsistence – and you pay for and organise your own accommodation out of that. The company or theatre will give you a digs list, which will include hotels on it and B&Bs should you wish to supplement your subsistence from your own pocket (it wouldn’t stretch to a hotel on its own) but mainly the digs are rooms in other people’s houses and they can be hit and miss. Essentially, for those who’ve never had the experience, think of digs as the reverse of Cribs.

I have done quite well in Oxford as my digs consist of two rooms, a single room with sink and desk that reminds me of my Uni days, and a small kitchenette with toaster, kettle, microwave and mini oven. Being able to cook on tour is luxury for most actors and I also am conveniently located near to both the rehearsal barn and North Wall where we’ll be performing. So I’ve done well.

Conversely, when I was in Cambridge two years ago doing Blithe Spirit at the Arts Theatre, I had my worst digs experience. It was a cold, wet November night, after our Monday show, when I arrived in pitch black at a musty old house and was shown my room. The room was freezing but as it was 11pm by now and too late to do anything about it. I got into the uncomfortable bed with its broken mattress and stingy covers fully dressed in my tracksuit and drew the strings on the  hood up tight. It made little odds, I couldn’t get warm. I slept in 20 minutes bursts like you do when you are ill and too uncomfy to sleep except for the snatches of unconsciousness your exhausted body steals before waking again from the cold and aching.

I got up in the morning feeling like I’d slept on a plank. I looked under the ‘mattress’ (I assume it had at one time served as a mattress) and discovered – I had slept on a plank! The old lady had literally supported the broken mattress springs by putting a rectangular piece of wood over the bed base, though it didn’t even completely cover the bed base. Agony! I left that day at the crack of dawn, paying off the old lady and limping off red eyed to a cheap hotel, before one of my wonderful colleagues and now dear friend took me into her Cambridge family home. Bliss….

Luckily, my Oxford digs are working out quite nicely. So in addition to their long standing competition in university league tables, boat races etcetera I add in Digs. Oxford 1, Cambridge 0.

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Rollercoaster of Moods

week two rehearsals

Rehearsal periods can vary in length before you get into the actual theatre to do what is called the tech (technical rehearsal for lights, effects, props etc.). Different companies rehearse over different periods depending on the production and the amount of money in the budget! For me, four weeks is about average, so this three week rehearsal period we have for Aladdin is a smidge shorter  –  especially as we are creating an ensemble piece with singing and chorus numbers as well. (Though my good friend David, who rehearses pantomimes in a week, thinks it’s a luxury!) But either way we are working really intensely, and this week I’m feeling it.

We’re half way through our rehearsal period and the show has taken enough shape now to see how much or how little we have to do, yet not enough shape to have the safety and solidity we’ll have once the show is up and running. It’s an in-between time, and it can be really emotional. The rehearsal period is – of course – the time to explore all your choices and ideas before selecting which ones work. But, when you are in a new group, suggesting and trying things (some of which will inevitably fail) takes courage. Add to that physical and mental fatigue, illness, being away from home (and its support network), stress etc and you can end up with a roller coaster of emotions.

Now, I love acting because it uses all aspects of being human; physical, intellectual and emotional, but this too can add to the rollercoaster of moods. Without spoiling the show for you my character, Mother (I have no name) experiences both grief and guilt in the show, as well as joy and jubilation. At times, Mother is so overwhelmed and exhausted she just faints. This week, Mother and I feel pretty similar!

I have been up and down through a whole range of emotions. None of which have any real reason to them other than it’s just the process of the show. We’re all being changed by the process. We’re absorbing, creating, improving, learning. And I am hugely grateful for that. That is what I want to do daily. But it is a stretch at times, and that can feel painful, like a muscle being broken before it heals back stronger than before.

I’m a big believer that emotions are just energy in motion and the best way to release them, to move on, is to simply and unapologetically experience them. Fortunately as Mother I can release some of mine in disguise, as it were, in the scene. But also, though it can feel lonely at times, I’ve been reminded this week that I am not alone. I am in a company, and in Aladdin I am in good company.  Despite a lot of hype about the industry being competitive I find most good actors share their talent on stage and share their vulnerabilities off stage. It bonds and unites a cast to do so. Which makes for a nicer human experience as well as a better show.

After all, we’re all in the same boat – a metaphor that will seem much more relevant and unoriginal once you’ve seen though show, but not that much more.

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‘Laddin I am Your Mother

week one rehearsals

After a year of little theatre and, whilst I am appreciative of the ad campaigns that have kept me afloat, it is wonderful to return to text, and even more excitingly, to song. I haven’t been in a musical show for some years and have been longing to do one for ages. They’re just such fun. As the monks say – we don’t sing because we’re happy, we’re happy because we sing. And so it is. There is just something lovely about choral singing both to participate in and to hear – this week I’ve had the fortune of doing both.

So, it’s week one of rehearsals for Creation Theatre’s Christmas production of Aladdin. It’s a Christmas show rather than panto, we’re in the arts centre, don’t you know!

Anna on silksAnna (Ring Genie) suspended on silks, moving to ring

We (the cast of seven) have been thrown into the deep end learning songs and harmonies, written by the OST (Oh So Talented) Jack Merivale before he leaves us briefly to be talented and brilliant somewhere else for a bit.

Physically we’ve also been put through our paces. Director Charlotte Conquest is ensuring we are all fit enough for our 12-shows-a week schedule by starting the morning with a physical work out – a DVD of an American fitness coach is projected onto the wall….

“this is a work out, not a play out”

…fitness man reminds us each day for half an hour of what is essentially body pump. I am delighted to be forced into getting fit after a somewhat cosy time in the new home with the wood burner and the kitten, and am impressed that Charlotte is the kind of director who leads the way by doing the work out herself. But that hasn’t stopped me hurting in various places after any sustained period of rest. Luckily, I’m in digs (bumpy bed) and it’s week one of rehearsals – so there haven’t been many of those.

As a director, Charlotte is creating an atmosphere of collaboration and contribution which is exciting and refreshing. I am reminded of why I became an actor as we, the cast, in our chorus roles (it’s a very ensemble piece) are encouraged to play  with the various props and costumes at our disposal; umbrellas, fez hats, lockets, coins, scarves, boxes, fans. I am six years old again, playing dress-up and messing around with characters.

And when we’re not playing indoors, we’ve also found time to explore outdoors, discovering a very cool tree-house in the field by our barn. Isla, Chris, Nick and I (aka the Princess, the Genie and the Visor) were not too cool to climb up it though and nor were we too grown up to slide down the fireman’s pole it had fixed to it, either…

And, yes, we are rehearsing in a barn. But it’s a posh one, in Yarnton, with a mezzanine level. We need the height so the OST Anna can hang her silks, her trapeze and do her aerial work. This petite beauty can do chin ups! Yes, people this is the level of talent I’m dealing with daily. But, I am loving the fact that the bar is raised so high – literally. Week Two, bring it on!

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London 2012: I Was Wrong

Team GB fans

Team GB fans

Like many, I was very cynical about the Olympics, London 2012. I am not a huge sports fan. No scrap, that – I’d say I hated sports. I am quiet outdoorsy but watching sports bored the hell out of me. So the thought of 2 weeks of it dominating not only the media and my TV schedule but my capital city as well seemed infuriating! I thought the cost to Londoners would be huge both in money and chaos. I also doubted we’d host the games well, and that we wouldn’t win many medals. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The reality is that I have never watched so much sport in my life, never been so engaged with it, excited by or moved by it.  And I was brought up in a house hold of two sports journalists (see my blog on commentating for Eurosport) one of whom is my mum and who kept trying to convince me to see the drama in sport where all I could see was the sexism that – even if I did like, or could play football- a woman playing for England would not get the same level of support, fans, money or respect. Furthermore football seemed a fake. Good teams buy better players and just get better. No-one is actually from the place their team is from. And the game seemed to involve standing in the cold and wet, chanting idiotic and sometimes abusive chants, whilst stuffing a pie in your gob and getting stressed over a 90 minute game of maybe none to two goals, total!

And therein lay the confusion. Sport to me meant football, and other perceived male hobbies (darts, motor racing). Because, those are what dominate here in England in terms of attendance, scheduling, media attention and of course, wages.

London 2012

The London 2012 Olympics has shown me the other side to sport, or rather the full spectrum of all sports, played by both genders, all nationalities. And it has shown people playing for passion, for their country and not for money . The side of dedication, hard work, pain, sweat, tears and all the other cliches we’ve heard these last 10 days. But cliches or not, I haven’t been able to tear myself away from watching team GB in whatever sport I  happen to catch. And let’s face it, they’ve been phenomenal. I feel truly inspired. I keep racking my brains thinking about whether I’m too old to train for something next time round. Except that this is the only time it’ll be in London in my lifetime. And I feel an idiot for not getting excited earlier, for not trying to get tickets. For being a cynic. So, I went to Hyde Park today and  I watched the triathlon today for free, with about 200,000 people and it was awesome!

Men's Traithlon Hyde Park

In these years of economic decline, bad news about this, bad news about that, the Olympics feels like a lift to everyone’s spirits. And I think new people will be inspired and not just in sport, inspired to achieve, to be their best. My other hopes (now that the Olympics has smoothed out some of my cynicism) would be that football loses some of it’s power over us now, as a nation. Let’s put our money into the pockets of some of these other hardworking players and athletes. Let’s support people who deserve our support and are worthy of our admiration. And maybe the media could continue to look for more positive stories of inspirational people instead of reverting back, after the Olympics, to finding the stories that make people and the world seem nastier than it actually is. Now that would be Gold.

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