To Be or Not to Be – The Typecasting Dilemma

Those of you, who heard my talk at the Actors Expo this year, will know I have a non-conventional view when it comes to the problem of being typecast. I totally understand that all actors, who can act, want to act in a variety of roles; to be challenged, stretched and to show their versatility. We fear being typecast, stuck forever playing the same role. Bear in mind though, that if you are in a position where this is a genuine concern, then you are getting paid work in a visible arena and so you are incredibly lucky! Many actors give up on acting having never been given the chance to share their gifts, so be grateful if that is not you. That doesn’t mean we can’t look at a strategy to manage the situation, but do start from a place of acknowledgement and thanks. This will help you keep perspective.

When it comes to typecasting there are three key points to consider here.

One is that there is a limit to what we can play, however much we deny it. As a middle-class, forty-year-old living in Surrey, I am not going to be cast in the sequel to 8-mile, however great my rapping is. And it is surprisingly good!

Risk Averse

Two: the industry, especially TV and Film, is risk averse. If they want Welsh they will find Welsh. They won’t hire an actor to fake a Welsh accent anymore because there is an abundance of Welsh actors to choose from. You can replace Welsh with most other adjectives that define roles from accents, to size to class, and the same rule will apply.

There is however an exception to this and that is – high profile actors. Which are the same, whatever you call them – named actors, stars, household names, famous people – it doesn’t matter, what they have, that you don’t (yet…), is box office draw. Which brings me to point number three.

Show BUSINESS

Three: we need to consider business before creativity. We think that if we are amazingly talented that the business (work and money) will follow. We need to reverse this thinking. Consider your acting career as a business that brings work and money in. THEN, when that is happening you can have the luxury of worrying about creative expression.

It sounds like selling out, but it is just a strategy to get leverage first. You do not need to do roles you loathe or that go against your values. It’s just about understanding that acting is a business. The bottom line is important to producers, so it needs to be important to you. Bringing work in means you not only have the chance to be creative and act, but you can build your own box office draw, which in turn gives you the power to get roles outside of your ‘type’.

Box Office Draw

Me and Ian in feature film "Confetti"If you can prove you will bring an audience with you (i.e. bring money in) you will be taught new accents, given time to slim down or fatten up AND play roles outside of your ‘brand’. Think Charlize Theron in Monster or Rene Zellwegger in Bridget Jones. When we have a name and a recognisable face, we have power. Power we can then use to turn down work we don’t want.

Let’s take the actor Hugh Laurie. He was fed up with the UK industry limiting his casting to bumbling, comedic buffoons so he went to LA. There, as we know, he booked the lead role in House, which broke his type completely. Since then he has returned to the UK and played roles that align more with his House character than Wooster, or his characters from Blackadder.

You might think this goes against my point. He was typecast. But look at the bigger picture. He got the lead on long running TV series expanding his casting, his creative expression, his audience and his bank balance. He managed this because he already had a substantial body of TV work and a high profile.

Bigger Picture

I am essentially asking you to think of the bigger, long-term picture. Take high quality work regardless of whether it continues to confirm a certain type or not and slowly build your power. Run your business successfully and this will free you up to be the creative genius you were born to be.

To read more advice on enhancing your acting career chances buy my book here Talent Isn’t Enough.

 

 

 

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What’s In Your Mental Diet?

At Juiced June, I talked about how our subconscious is always on. It is always recording everything, all the time. Everything you see, read, hear and feel is memorised by the unconscious mind. Even things you don’t want to absorb, like that slightly offensive billboard, goes in. It goes in unchecked and affects our beliefs systems and therefore our lives.

When it comes to physically putting food into our bodies, we are all aware that what we eat affects the health of our body. Our body rebuilds and repairs itself using the fuel we give it. Hence the phrase you are what you eat.

 

The connection between the quality and quantity of food we consume, and the workings (or failings) of our body are proven and accepted. What’s less understood or considered is the impact which our mental diet has on our thinking and consequently our lives. As with the body, there is a strong connection between what we put in and what we get out.

At the most basic level, the quality of your life will depend upon the quality of the decisions you make every day. We make thousands of micro-decisions a day from whether we snooze or get up, to what to wear. They seem unimportant, but together they create your life, inspiring or dull, healthy or ill, effective or ineffective. So, those of us keen to get a better, happier, more fulfilling and more successful life must make better decisions. When we are conscious we can do so. But, sadly this is only 5% of the time. The rest of the time we are acting unconsciously, which to most of us means repeating patterns of behaviour that we call habit.

Changing habits is hard because it involves getting our subconscious on board. There are several tools that can enable us to do this, but all tools will struggle if our basic mental diet is full of crap. So what do I mean by crap? Technical term, obviously, for anything you read, watch or listen to that reinforces negative beliefs. If you hang around with people who think, “only 1% can have an extraordinary life, so why bother” – then that will impact your own subconscious beliefs. Which in turn affects those subconscious behaviours, habits and decisions. Even if, you, in your conscious mind, believes you are just as able of having an extraordinary life as the top 1%. (Which you are!).

Get your 5-a-day. And I don’t mean fruit and veg. Though that too, because mind and body are connected. I mean read positive and inspirational books that reinforce the beliefs you need to believe to live your dream life. We need to believe we can succeed so fill your brain with that. Watch films where the hero makes it against all odds. Hang around with other successful people. Turn off reality TV and the song with angry lyrics. Burn the gossip mags and reduce wasted time making social media comparisons. Then watch your self-image improve and your judgemental habits start to wane.

In short, raise your awareness and raise the bar! Fill your mind with everything it needs to carry out positive unconscious behaviours, which align with your goals. Remember, the subconscious mind is always listening, even when you are not.

For more tools and strategies from Charlotte, why not buy her book, Talent Isn’t Enough, on Amazon

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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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