You don’t get to choose what you’re remembered for. We were sitting listening to Tim Pigott-Smith at the end of an acting class. He’d come in as a last-minute replacement, and had worked through some exercises, leaving the final half hour or so for a relaxed Q&A.
In the nicest possible way he was name-dropping a little, giving examples of memorable performances he’d witnessed by great actors. Somehow the topic got around to acting drunk, and he cited Michael Caine in Educating Rita as the best he’d seen. It was Thursday afternoon towards the end of a gruelling week, and despite our enthusiasm, our body language was distinctly low-energy. He mentioned that he’d worked with Caine on one of the worst movies he’d ever made, set in a World War 2 prison camp. Cogs in the brains of Robert Murray and myself – the two football fans in the class – began slowly to turn, and then more rapidly to whirr and whizz. “You’re talking about to Escape To Victory!” He was talking about Escape To Victory. From that point on the remainder of the session was hijacked, and a first-rate actor with a career spanning decades was obliged to answer questions about Pelé and Ossie Ardiles and John Wark and Sylvester Stallone, to the exclusion of the entirety of his other work.
There’s a lesson for young performers I suppose. You should always be careful about signing a contract, since once you’ve done so and you’re out there doing it, people will assume that this is what you do, what you’re happy doing, and it may well be what they end up remembering you for, whether you like it or not.
That week of National Opera Studio classes at the National Theatre was unforgettable, and I still lean on many of the lessons learned there today – as well as Pelé’s friend, we had sessions with Toby Jones, Erica Whyman, Nigel Planer* and several others. (In one of those situations you’d never foresee before you start out in this odd career, I was called out of Planer’s session by a phone call for me at reception, which in fact turned out to be a fake message from the real Harrison Birtwistle who was auditioning upstairs and wanted to hear me. The audition turned out to consist mainly of being photographed beside a table. It’s a long story for another time.)
Tim Pigott-Smith, best-remembered for his work with Mike Summerbee, was on hand because he was appearing in Eugene O’Neill’s three-play cycle Mourning Becomes Electra at the NT. I must have been impressed with his session since I went along to see it the following weekend. Tim’s character Ezra Mannon died halfway through the second play. Oh, sorry – Spoiler Warning. In opera, he’d have been allowed to take a solo curtain call at the next interval and go home for his tea. The last thing I expected to see was him hanging around for the curtain call several hours later, but sure enough there he was – not even for a solo call, but a regular team-effort company bow. I loved him for it.
Theatre curtain calls always strike me as an affair for grown-ups, although they tie themselves up in as many knots as we do worrying about them. What are they for? Why are they so variable and capricious? Since when and why have audiences started booing the antagonist, and do we ignore it or play up to it or what? Why can’t we all just go home? Do any of these people even remember which character I played?
The most extreme example of the latter question came in Barrie Kosky’s production of The Nose at Covent Garden in 2016. The entire huge cast, bar the lead, had (almost) identical prosthetic noses fitted, and so we paraded onto the stage at the end in our threes and fours to receive the baffled approval of a squinting public. In fact, after make-up none of us in the cast had much idea who any of the others was either, which was quite a liberating feeling backstage, in the manner of the story about Brian Clough and the Nottingham Forest trainee. **
Singers in the time of Coronavirus seem to have divided into two distinct groups. Those who are bombarding their social media friends and followers with daily online performances from their front rooms. And the others who are seemingly struggling to summon the motivation even to maintain their usual practice routine. Extroverts and introverts? There are plenty of performers who fall into both categories, or a combination of each at various times. I wonder how they correlate with those who enjoy curtain calls and those for whom they’re an ordeal.
I’m definitely in the latter category. I’m always very clear in my own mind how well or otherwise I’ve performed, and while I’m glad if I sense an audience has had a good time, it doesn’t change how I feel about it. I’d much rather have a one-to-one chat with audience members in the foyer bar afterwards – that’s when you get the real feedback. Like any crowd, an audience can’t really begin to make sense to you or itself until viewed as a hugely disparate collection of individuals.
But don’t go away thinking I don’t miss you. Just that it’s more about what’s happened to us all, the slice of life we’ve shared together during the performance: it’s about the journey rather than the destination. Simon Callow typically puts this far more eloquently than I ever could: “What matters much more is what has passed between us and the audience over the course of the evening. Of course that may involve applause – especially if it’s a musical – but even then, it’s the minute-by-minute interplay (as often as not silent) that really counts; the sense of communication, the engagement with an audience.”
That’s exactly what I miss. And, introvert or not, what I’d love to be part of again someday soon.
* – Nigel Planer’s session was the day after Russell Osman’s friend Tim’s, and upon being told we’d been working with him, Planer described how he’d had to apologise to Pigott-Smith for photo-bombing him at stage door in character as Nicholas Craig. The latter’s book ‘I, An Actor’ is one of the greatest works of theatrical insight ever published, and for one thing coins the term “actoplasm” for the oral emissions of a stage performer – the physical range of which is currently a hot scientific topic.
** – Clough phoned the training ground and asked to speak to one of the coaches. The teenage trainee who had picked up told him, “You can f*** off.” Clough, justifiably incensed, demanded, “Young man, do you know who this is?” The trainee replied, “Yes. Do you know who this is?” Clough told him he did not. Trainee: “In that case you can definitely f*** off.”