Steve Scoles delivers a self-absorbed musing upon the business of being in a play following his unexpected casting in Northampton Arts Lab’s Lullaby of a Bottlecap Queen. For a full review and summary of the show NeneQuirer recommends the excellent Super Weird Substance…
It turns out that one of the very best things about being in a play is the look people give you when you tell them you’re in a play.
Admittedly you need to lay the groundwork and spend most of your life showing little or no thespian inclination, possibly even engaging in friendly rough-housing banter with actor friends about whether they have pretended to be anyone interesting lately. The phrase ’empty vessels’ needs to be bandied about.
Then (for reasons I shall go on to explain) you jump on board. You cancel meetings and become unavailable.
“I can’t be there, I’m at a rehearsal for a play I’m in,” you say and your friends give you a gorgeous slackjawed: “what?”
It’s a beautiful moment but it does mean that your days of showing acting no respect are over.
Fast forward to the opening night and I’m in a very different place. I am in a controlled environment – not controlled as we are used to these days by the algorithmic pulsing of modern technology and a guy in a high vis waistcoat but by the ancient magic of lights, painted boards and people making believe.
Backstage at The Playhouse Theatre the cast is operating under radio silence to avoid creating a hissy undercurrent of whispers to the action out front. We are an ad hoc company of peasants in cultural uprising stiffened Magnificent Seven-style by veteran actors. This is Northampton Arts Lab performing its latest production Pax.
Suddenly the leading lady appears from the stage in a state of shock. She had blanked on a section of her dialogue. She is angry and devastated, furious with herself and tearful. She’s not one of the Arts Labbers. She has been coming a long way to help us out and the gods of theatre have rewarded her kindness with this horrific moment. An expectant audience. An empty mouth. A nightmare of silence and paralysis come true.
The other veteran thesps close in around her. If someone was experiencing this kind of emotional crash in the workplace they would probably be on their way home. And she was doing this for fun. I try to imagine the rest of the play without her in it. Nope. Not happening.
Fast forward again to the curtain call. She’s done it. The audience has seen a serious play. As an unexpected bonus they’ve seen raw courage. They’ve seen a prize fighter hit the canvas, get back up and punch their way out of trouble. Actors are amazing. We are amazing. I didn’t really do any acting. I did some reading out but I am still amazing. Smiley face.
So how do you get mixed up in a crazy business like being in a play when you’re not an actor? Let me warn you that it sneaks up on you. It starts with the kind of casual conversation that once upon a time would have got you recruited into a branch of the secret service.
“There’s this thing that needs doing. It’s nothing much. It won’t take too long.”
In this case it was the Arts Lab’s chief puller of strings Megan Lucas offering me the role of Dr Pomatia – a deceptively simple part consisting mainly of reading out a report from a clipboard. The artistic challenge is not to come across as someone reading from a clipboard, at the same time as actually being someone reading from a clipboard. Somehow I have to look like I’m acting while doing the thing I’m actually pretending to be doing. If I don’t get this right I will just be pornography for people who like clipboard related announcements.
Just like in the Magnificent Seven, the veteran gunslingers among us prepare the inexperienced cast members for the theatrical shoot-out ahead. There are warm-ups and exercises in which we are dismantled and put together again.
No-one says: “It is not the man with the scar that you want, it is the man who gave him that scar…” and in fairness, it’s probably an even cooler line for a doctor than a gunfighter, but I decide against incorporating moments from classic westerns into my part.
Some of the advice seems contradictory. On stage we are taught that we cannot be too loud when we are delivering our lines. Back stage, on the other hand, a whisper can travel a thousand miles. No-one seems to address the elephant in the room: it would make more sense to whisper the whole play from behind the set – a style of delivery that has some appeal to a newbie like me.
The moment of peak anxiety is not the performance. It’s the point in rehearsals when I realise this thing is actually going to happen. I put it to the rest of the cast that the character of Dr Pomatia is not necessary to the story. It looks like a wobble but it’s more a symptom of my confidence that the show is going ahead. My concerns are dismissed as though they have known me a thousand years.
Stage manager Katy is my personal saviour on a number of occasions: the moment I get myself stuck with my arms upright when I try to squeeze into the wrong undersized costume during a quick change, the moment I missed my cue, the moments I nearly missed my cue…
She is also the person who investigates and restores the scenery after a partial collapse on the final night. Back stage all we hear is a bang as it goes down. The cast members spend a moment looking at each other with “who farted?” expressions on our faces but it is Katy who takes control of the situation. She is the exact opposite of a trail hardened cigar chewing western gunfighter but she steps up like one and fixes what needs to be fixed.
As a theatregoer you forget how perilously close to disaster every second of every theatrical production actually is. Every second of every show you ever see is basically about distracting you from that disaster lurking in the wings and looming in the gods. It had our leading lady in its claws on the first night. It angrily batted down some scenery on our last night. This is the monster actual actors live alongside to do the thing that they love.
From the Playhouse Theatre to Royal & Derngate and London’s West End performers sing and act and dance and we are dazzled by their skills, but the most dazzling thing of all is the thing they do everything they can to conceal from us – the courage it takes to step on stage in the first place.
Find out more about Northampton Arts Lab here.