Ah, what a year for high-class interviewees we’ve had; everyone from Sheridan Smith to Imelda Staunton has chatted to Official London Theatre. What better way to celebrate 2011 easing towards 2012 than to look back on what these towering thespians have taught us about the acting profession?
“Acting is hard,” One Man, Two Guvnors’s Oliver Chris made it very clear to us. “A flippant way of saying it is you pull your trousers down every single day and you ask people to look at you and say ‘What do you think?’ Nine times out of ten they go ‘Don’t really like you very much’.”
To be honest, we’d never thought of it that way before. When his co-star Daniel Rigby told us that because of the hit comedy, “My hands have now coarsened and my torso is a bit like an old leather chair,” it left us rather concerned about the entire One Man, Two Guvnors cast until he explained that he was playing his body like a musical instrument… which is fine.
For TV’s Ben Miller, who returned to performing in plays in The Ladykillers after a decade or so of sticking to screen work and sketch shows, the difference between working practices is palpable: “[In TV] you just turn up and have not so much as a corned beef sandwich before you’re emoting about your dead guinea pig or something. This theatre lark, there’s a lot of effort goes into it.”
Quite how much work was explained by actress Lyndsey Marshal, who led the cast that devised Greenland for the National Theatre at the beginning of the year. Creating the work, she told us, could be exhausting. “There have been days when it’s just daunting, where I’m just knackered, I can’t devise any more, I can’t think any more, I can’t see another map or another statistic or another quote, I just want to rehearse the play, but there is no play and I have no block and I don’t know where I am, I don’t know what I’m going to be wearing.”
It didn’t help, of course, that when she explained the premise of the environmental piece to her mother, Marshal’s mum responded with “I can’t think of anything worse after work than going to see that.”
But if actors in the West End think they’re being worked like high-kicking pack horses, Haydn Gwynne has a word of warning about the approach in the US: “You’re on a very tough schedule on Broadway. You only have two weeks’ holiday a year, compared to four [here]. I had eight months of a minimum six-day week before I had a week’s break. Doing musicals is an absolute attrition. They just accept that people are out on long-term injuries because they work you really, really hard. Too hard I would say. We twice did 16-show runs [without a day off]. That would never happen here.”
If it’s not the work causing you stress, there’s always the possibility that your fellow cast members are concocting the best way of winding you up, as we found out from Olivia Williams, who told us: “It’s important to be able to work together, but it’s important to see where you can flip the other person’s switch, you can see someone ignite and what makes them tick.”
Some actors, of course – Imelda Staunton, we’re looking at you – deliberately pick roles that will cause their minds to delve into dark places. “Damaged goods; that’s what I like,” the Sweeney Todd star told us. “I like things that are complicated, they’re much more interesting than playing the ‘Morning Jean, would you like a cup of tea’ woman. It’s much more interesting to play someone who’s damaged.”
Other performers, like Steve Pemberton, who told us “On my shelf I have a severed head of my own head and I’ve got all these weird pictures of me dressed up as a woman with a pig nose,” sound as though they’ve already been pushed too far.
But what should you do if all the pressure of creating, performing, exploring dark recesses and being wound up by fellow performers gets too much? Work with puppets!
Nicola Stephenson certainly found that when she joined long-running family drama War Horse this year: “The pressure isn’t on me so much, because people mostly come to see the horses,” she laughed. So did Adrian Scarborough, who starred opposite an animatronic porker in Betty Blue Eyes. “The pig! The pig’s phenomenal. Nobody looks at anything else so I’m mightily relieved I don’t have a number with the pig. It’s gorgeous, it’s absolutely to die for. I imagine she will need continual attention just because she gets a lot of wear and tear. There’s a lot of stroking going on, how can you not?”
So puppets and, as former Shrek The Musical star Amanda Holden told us, a strong work ethic, are the tricks to surviving life as an actor: “I was always taught, when I was at drama school, do as much as you can because then you’ll get paid.”
Do as much as you can. Fine advice, as is ‘Be prepared to talk about underwear as if you were a spokesperson for Victoria’s Secret’. Flare Path’s Sheridan Smith told us she has “got my big pants at the ready” in case the people behind Bridget Jones The Musical give her a call, while Matilda The Musical’s terrifying Trunchbull Bertie Carvel has “spent a lot of time discussing what material [his breast-designer] was going to use such that the sports bra had to do its work properly.”
It is probably Carvel, in fact, who offers the definitive reason for performers taking to the stage night after night, week after week to entertain London’s appreciative audiences: “It’s a huge joy, because you know that what you’re doing is going to give people enjoyment. It’s a great thing to go in to work to do every day. You can be feeling jaded or tired and know that if you do your job well the likelihood is that people are going to be cheering and go out of the theatre feeling a lot better than when they came in. You can’t argue with that.”