Posts Tagged ‘ performing ’

Not singing


For the first time since my Sixth Form days (way back in the 20th century!), I am acting in a play. True, in this century, I have played a whole host of characters in a pantomime, five operas and over two dozen musicals, but a play really does feel like a very different thing.  Some of my characters in these shows were non-singing, but I still added vocals to ensemble numbers, sometimes from the wings. I have always said that I approach a musical from the perspective of the words and the character, believing that if these are not in place, the music means nothing. But doing a play forces me to put my money where my mouth is. Can I act without music?

The play is The Year of the Hiker by John B. Keane. An Irish play first performed in 1963, it wasn’t one I’d ever heard of before. But I have grown to love it, as the characters have gradually revealed themselves during our rehearsal period. I am playing Joe Lacey, a young farmer who is forced to deal with some very complicated feelings. His father left 20 years ago, but returns in the play’s second scene. Joe has to work out how he feels about this and what to do when the reasons for his father’s return are revealed. He also has to negotiate a stormy relationship with his younger brother, and the conflicting demands of his other family members.

For the first act, Joe’s true feelings remain unseen. We see some flashes of anger, but not the reasons for them. We see that he doesn’t smile or laugh as much as his relatives, but we don’t find out why. This all comes out in a flood during the final scene, in one of the most emotional moments I have ever had to play. There is some resonance with characters I played in Footloose and When Midnight Strikes, dealing as they did with suppressed emotion in one case and serious daddy issues in the other. The balancing act of portraying a character who has all of this underneath the surface is hard – his eventual outburst needs to be surprising, yet not come out of nowhere.

When I do a musical, I can come offstage aching and sweaty. With the play, neither of these are true, yet I am still exhausted. Playing Joe is emotionally draining. And there are times during the play (particularly in the second act) when I don’t dare go back to the dressing room and sit down, despite having long periods offstage. To do that would break the spell – standing alone in the darkness backstage helps maintain my mood and focus. A musical requires a great deal of concentration too, but the need to stay in my character’s world here has a different quality to it, is more intense. I’m sure the professionals could cope much better, and snap into character in a moment, but I can’t, not for this. I need a bit of a run up!

Some audience members have told me that the show, and particularly one of my moments, has made them cry. I can’t remember anyone saying that since Footloose back in 2010. And there are times – not every time – when I really feel it, like a punch to the gut. I feel his hurt and anger, his bitterness, his incomprehension, his fortitude and later his lack of it. Some actors say they always experience this, that if they don’t feel the character’s emotions themselves, they can’t portray them. I don’t hold with that, but it is a powerful and somewhat frightening thing when it does happen to me.

It is often said of musicals that characters sing when words alone aren’t enough. Joe is a character who metaphorically can’t sing. He can hardly express himself in speech, and if an underscore were to start, I believe that there would be no melody, no harmony, no dance steps for him. His ability to sing and dance left him when his father walked out. He had to grow up overnight, and for Joe, part of that was leaving anything fun behind him. We get a hint that he had a social life, even a love life, once upon a time, but even that would have been a quiet, unemotional thing. As he puts it (speaking of filial affection) when he finally allows himself to sit down and talk to his father, “that kind of feeling isn’t in me.”

With two performances left, I am proud of what I have achieved here. I have proved to myself that I can act, not sing or perform (though I can do those things), but act. Take on a character and move an audience without the aid of music. And even when I’ve tied myself in knots with the script once or twice, I have been able to extricate myself and my fellow actors while remaining in character.

Will I do a play again? Absolutely. And hopefully it won’t be another 22 year gap between The Year of the Hiker and the next one, as there was between A Doll’s House and this. But I’m not going to give up musicals. Each is deeply challenging, each is deeply rewarding. The processes are much the same, but they feel so different and give differing qualities of satisfaction. I suspect I will remain a musicals man primarily, but now I know that I can be happy not singing.

The Year of the Hiker - flyer

Midnight Strikes again


WMS 2013 flyer

Lightning may or may not strike twice, but midnight most certainly can. During the last two weeks of August, I revisited a show I first performed in during 2010, When Midnight Strikes. Although this production of the show was with the same company as the first (Lights Up Productions), there were many differences – only a few cast members were the same, it was performed in a different venue, and we put it together over an intensive nine days of rehearsals. For me, though, a key difference was that I was playing a different character. Quite a challenge, and quite a fascinating experience seeing the show from a different perspective.

Last time I did the show, I was worried about letting others and myself down because the role was so different to the sorts of things I usually do. This time, I was worried because the role was quite similar to my usual casting – a character who exists almost entirely for comic purposes, a function much needed in what is quite an emotional show. What worried me was knowing that the comedy needed to be funny, but my character, Edward, needed to remain real. It would be detrimental to the style of the show if he came across as a broad caricature, and given that I have played several parts recently where hamming it up was strongly encouraged, I didn’t want to give in to that temptation.

Edward is one of the outsiders at the party which the show follows. Although he was invited (unlike some of the eventual ‘guests’), he does not fit in, to the extent that even the host and hostess don’t really want to talk to him. He falls in love at first sight with another character, but is far too nervous to actually talk to her, and makes a number of social mistakes throughout the course of the evening. For me, to make him real, I had to live inside his world for the whole show and think whatever he was thinking, even if I was sitting on a chair at the back of the set. Whether he was trying to join a conversation, working out how to talk to his intended love, or wondering whether a shocking announcement was true, he was always thinking something. And although he sometimes put on a cheerful front (particularly once the alcohol had been flowing for a while), there was a profound sadness to him. He desperately wanted to fit in, but knew that he didn’t. Even when things began to go his way, in his/my mind, he couldn’t quite believe it was really happening. Most of these thoughts and feelings would have gone completely unnoticed by the audience, but they helped me a great deal.

Nine days of rehearsal was a tight schedule, but still allowed for plenty of character work alongside the technical necessities of working out who goes where and when everyone’s head should move in the ensemble numbers. We would often stop to work out what each character’s reaction to a particular moment was, and we were strongly encouraged to develop our own storylines when we weren’t directly involved with the action. As the show is set at a party, we were all on stage for much of it – what were we doing, thinking, feeling during those times when we weren’t talking or even when we weren’t aware of what was being said by other characters? The ensemble nature of the show meant that the 12 different personalities interacted in numerous (sometimes quite complex) ways, and exploring these was fascinating.

Our director and musical director were both very keen on details. There were times when we all had to breathe in a song, regardless of whether we needed to take in air. There were head movements that had to happen at exactly the same time. Certain props needed to move from one place to another at exactly the right moment. Good enough was not good enough – we were aiming higher than that. All of this (in addition to the individual details) helped bring the ensemble together as a true ensemble. By the time we arrived in the theatre, the whole team (actors, musicians, stage management etc) was a team. We were all doing this together and it was worth doing.

We know it was worth doing from the reaction we’ve had since. People really enjoyed the show, and fed back positively about everyone involved. There really wasn’t a weak link in the cast (if we’re honest, we all know that there usually is, and we always know who it was) and it is a privilege to have been involved with the production. We coped with some major challenges, both emotional and technical and put on a great piece of theatre. Personally, I know I made a far better Edward than Christopher (the role I played last time). There are still things I’d like to have done better, but this was definitely a productive use of two weeks of my annual leave. There aren’t many shows I feel the need to revisit, but I would happily have midnight strike a third time in my life.

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Related posts (about When Midnight Strikes, the first time around):

The Singing Librarian – being both


singinglibrarianI’m a librarian. I’m a performer. And being both makes me better.

Librarians have a key body of professional knowledge and a set of professional skills. If we didn’t, there really wouldn’t be much point to us.  Performers, too (whether professional or amateur) draw upon a set of skills and a body of knowledge.

In the case of librarians, the perception may be that we rely largely on knowledge rather than skills.  This is not really the case.  In terms of finding information on-line, for example, we don’t learn the ins and outs of every search engine, digital library, repository or on-line archive. We draw upon skills that we have learned (formally or otherwise) and then honed through experience to help us when we encounter new resources. Similarly, the ability to work out exactly what it is that someone is actually looking for is a skill.  On the other hand, performers do not (or should not) rely entirely on skill. There is a body of knowledge to draw on in terms of creating a character, using voice and so on. Perhaps more importantly, theatre has a language, etiquette and culture that have to be learned – sometimes, knowledge of this can avoid injury, so it’s rather important.

But how do the knowledge and skills from each side of my life relate to each other? In many ways, but in order to keep things relatively short, there are five main areas where I see my performing activities and my library work intersecting: memory, adaptability, use of voice, confidence and organisation.

Firstly, memory. It is a common misconception that librarians know everything – our job (or at least my job) is to help other people access information, not to know the answers for them. However, I find it is useful to have a lot of information ready to retrieve from the mental filing cabinet – whether that is the status of particular book orders, the location of books on the Spanish civil war or the best database to use for locating information on CTG. In my other activities, memory is just as vital. Lines, harmonies, dance steps, location of clothing for quick changes… the list of things to remember during a show is worryingly long. Thankfully, I am usually a quick learner, and I think this may be partly due to my work-life combination.  Each side of me exercises my memory storage and retrieval capacity, though in different ways, and so each side of my life enhances the other.

Secondly, adaptability. Sometimes, in theatre, things just don’t go the way they should. Someone forgets to enter for a particular scene, a prop shatters as you pick it up, words get jumbled or a follow spot operator has a bad day. As a performer or member of the technical crew, you just have to cope and carry on, preferably without most of the audience realising that anything went wrong at all. This is relevant in library life surprisingly often. I have to demonstrate various websites, software packages etc. to many different people, sometimes one-to-one, sometimes in lecture theatres. And, of course, things go wrong. A site goes down for maintenance, the internet connection decides on a go-slow or the network cuts out entirely. In these instances, I don’t pretend that nothing is wrong, but I either have to keep the audience entertained (as it were) or come up with an alternative plan. Improvisation is an important skill!

Thirdly, use of voice. As I don’t tend to engage in mimed performances, the use of my voice is rather key to the performing part of my life (most obviously when singing). I therefore know how to project my voice, and have strategies I can fall back on to keep my voice going when it’s tired.   I do so many lectures and workshops on campus that this is extremely important to me in the work environment as well. We have two training rooms in our library, and one of these has a microphone that can be used. I always book the other one to leave the mic. available for colleagues. I’m not a naturally loud person, but I know how to make myself heard. And when there are times of year when you go from workshop to lecture to tour with barely any breaks, being able to take care of your voice is important.  The techniques I’ve learned as a performer have thus been invaluable as an academic librarian.

Fourthly, confidence. I am not confident when meeting people I don’t know, or when being myself in front of people. On the other hand, I am (in some ways) confident when I get up and perform as a character. That may say all sorts of things about me psychologically, but the strange “I’m terrified, but nobody can tell” confidence I have on stage can translate into work situations, such as large lectures. To a small extent, I take on a character. His name is David and he’s a librarian. Yes, he’s me, but being able to perform in some way helps make the whole thing less disturbing. I also tend to leaven my presentations with a light sprinkling of humour, as any public speaker probably should.

Lastly, organisation. Unlike many of my colleagues, I’m not one of the world’s tidiest people, but as a librarian, I do have a certain professional appreciation for order, for the proper arrangement of information, for categorisation and sequencing. This can help me as a performer, particularly if a show has a myriad of costumes or other items to keep track of – everything has its place and all is well. It’s even more useful in other aspects of theatre. As a director or a stage manager, I am super-organised. I have lists and spreadsheets and diagrams and more lists.  Yes, there’s certainly plenty of room for creativity and spontaneity (lists can always be re-written), but the librarian approach to life definitely makes me more efficient and effective in the theatre. Managing and organising information is not a pointless skill beyond the walls of the library, it reaps bounteous artistic rewards!

Of course, none of these things are unique to librarianship or to performing, but it’s interesting how they interact and how different parts of my life feeds back into others. I firmly believe that as the Singing Librarian, I am stronger – librarianship helps make me a better performer, and performing helps make me a better librarian.

Beyond the dilemma of the work-life balance, how do your leisure activities impact on your work? Or vice versa? I’d be fascinated to know – leave a comment!

Time to train


Sometimes people ask me why I’ve never tried to take up performing arts as a career.  There are many reasons for this: I already have a career as a librarian; I’m scared; I don’t know that I’m good enough; even if I am good enough, I know that being good enough doesn’t guarantee success…  I could go on.  Generally the reason that I give is that I know very well that I need training, and I can’t afford it.   It is still true that I simply cannot afford full-time training, but I have finally managed to make myself take a first step and join a part-time training course.

So tomorrow morning, I will start a course at the London School of Musical Theatre (a.k.a. LSMT).  One term’s worth of Saturdays which will involve acting, singing and the ever-scary dancing.  I am both very excited and rather scared (but then, I am scared of pretty much everything, so that’s hardly news).  I want to do this course, because I want to get better at performing, particularly the dance aspect of musical theatre.  Whether it leads to more or different opportunities is essentially irrelevant – I want to improve.  My involvement in musical theatre is much more than a hobby, and I take doing well on stage as seriously as I take doing well at work – that is, very seriously indeed.  But regular readers already know this.

This course is important to me.  I will have to get an earlier train every Saturday than I do during the week to get to work, and a day on the course is the same length as a work day (and probably more tiring).  But those things don’t put me off.  I’ve re-arranged much of the rest of life to make the space and time to do this.  It’s too good an opportunity to squander – training at a highly respected institution, a chance to improve my skills and my confidence, to meet new people (also scary) and to get better at something I love.  I have no illusions – this is going to be hard work.  If it’s to have any value, I will have to push and challenge myself (or be pushed and challenged), and I will probably experience more than  a few moments of frustration when I struggle to pick things up.  I am probably going to have to unlearn bad habits I’ve picked up along the way.  My dictaphone may well wear itself out from overuse.  But I know it will be more than worth it.

Tomorrow morning at 9.30, my stomach will be tied in knots.  But while it’s true that I’m scared, I’m very excited.  This term is going to be exhausting, but it’s going to be absolutely fantastic!

Suppose you was a little cat…


I have performed many songs, but if there’s one I’ve performed more than any other, it has to be ‘Mr Cellophane’ from Chicago.  It’s my party piece, the number that gets pulled out when I’m asked to sing outside the context of a musical, and as such has had outings in Darley Dale, Bakewell, Elham, Postling, Canterbury, Whitstable, Newport Pagnell, Dover and possibly other places I’ve forgotten about.  Each time is different, as the circumstances change.  Sometimes it’s a capella, sometimes there is musical accompaniment ; sometimes the audience is largely friends (or at least friends of friends), sometimes they’re complete strangers.  And each time is different because I’ll put a slightly different spin on things, bring out different aspects of the song.

Needless to say, I love this number (music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb).  It strikes a difficult balance between being funny, being sweet and being terribly sad.  It is the lament of an ‘invisible’ man, who gets passed by in life, feeling that even those people he sees every day don’t notice him.  When I first performed the song (over 10 years ago now), I felt very much like him and I found that singing his story was cathartic.  These days, when I take on the properties of cellophane it is out of choice – there are times when it can be quite useful to fade into the background.  As a performer, part of the song’s appeal is that is builds gradually from a tentative start, taking on more force and power as the character gets more frustrated with the way people see (or rather don’t see) him.  Then, in a stroke of songwriting genius, it drops off again sharply, half way through the final line, ending with a completely appropriate moment of bathos as the man’s normal state of quiet transparency returns.

A little cat

Last week, Mister Cellophane made his most recent appearance in my repertoire. Bearing in mind how many times I’ve sung the song, it ought to be possible for me to perform it in my sleep. However, this was not to be. Having completed the first verse and chorus, I began the second verse. “Suppose you was a little cat…” Then…nothing. A complete blank. My thought process ran something like :

  • “Suppose you was a little cat,”
  • Oh. Oh no.
  • What on earth comes next?
  • It must rhyme with “cat” and…there’s something about scratching ears, but that’s not yet.
  • Don’t look panicked – look sad, look meek.
  • It’s very quiet…
  • Oh, that’s because P won’t carry on playing until I sing something.
  • I am so embarrassed. What happens if I never remember the line?
  • I ought to make something up.  Something about what the cat does.
  • What do cats do, anyway?
  • !!!  Got it!
  • “Residing in a person’s flat.”

The whole thing can only have taken moments, but it felt like forever. I’m told that it was barely noticeable (the musical director thought I was simply ‘acting’ and other members of the company either didn’t notice or said it was a second or two at most, though that’s still an age in performance time), but those moments were absolutely terrifying.  I’d like to think I’m never complacent when performing, but this was an excellent reminder – no matter how well you think you know what you’re doing on stage, you could know it better and you still need 100% concentration, every single second.

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Related post :

Finding my feet again


Having reached a place of despondency with Footloose, things managed to get worse before they got better.  Part of my attack of the glums was probably caused by general feelings of physical exhaustion, as the mildly stuffy nose turned into an uncomfortable sore throat and a somewhat more than mildly stuffy nose.  In order to ensure that breathing was at optimum level for singing, I became quickly identifiable (and quite popular) backstage due to the smell of Olbas Oil.  Several others had been ill in the lead-up to the show, and I believe a good proportion of the cast is now feeling the effects as well.

On the Friday night, I experienced one of my most terrifying moments on stage.  A few lines in to my solo, “Heaven Help Me”, my mouth continued moving, but not a sound came out.  So I sang ‘Someone’s got to … … … … If I don’t who will?’, which made very little sense (for the record, someone’s got to take the high road).  It was only a brief moment of nothingness, but it was truly terrifying.  My mind raced with the horrifying possibilities – what if my voice had run away and I had to continue mouthing the entire song?  Was there any way someone could rescue me, even though I was alone on the stage?  Thankfully, a deep breath at the end of the missing line, and things return to normal.  I still wanted the earth to open up and swallow me, but had to change from ‘at home’ to ‘at church’ costume ready for the final scene of the act.  I don’t know whether it was the nose and throat, some sort of mental affliction or just random fate which conspired to create those few seconds of personal horror, but it certainly galvanised me for the second act – I had to just pretend that act one had not happened and get out there and be the best darned Reverend Moore I could be.  Apparently, I found out later, it looked like a problem with my mic rather than with me, though that seems rather unfair to the hardworking sound man.

After the Friday night show, I opted to walk home, giving me a chance to experience some quiet, some fresh air and a chance to have a good long talk with God.  I expressed my frustrations and anxieties about the role, I told him about the feelings from life in general that had got tangled up with Footloose, and I tried to listen to Him in response (something I am so very bad at doing).

On Saturday, I was still feeling ill, but I was feeling calmer than I had felt all week.  And I started to enjoy the show.  I had enjoyed spending time with my fellow cast members and there was much entertaining people-watching to do, but it wasn’t until Saturday that I felt able to let go and enjoy the experience of performing the role rather than fretting and being neurotic about it.  It was still hard work – Shaw Moore is a very challenging part – but it became considerably more enjoyable than I had made it earlier in the run.  Whether you choose to put this down to God’s influence or to something else, this was most definitely a good thing.  It would have been a terrible shame to have been given such a great opportunity to truly act and then not enjoy it at all.

After the show on Saturday, quite a number of people I had never met came up to me and congratulated me on my performance as Reverend Moore, saying that they found it very moving.  This was very encouraging, and made me want to cry in a very good way.  I still feel I could have done better, but can’t we always do better?  However, I definitely found my feet and am sure I am stronger because of the experience.

A week in the Tower – Day 3


So, opening night.  The moment of truth.  That was the end point of Day 3.  First, though, we had a day in the Tower to get through.  Starting once again at the top of the show, we ran through in costume, stopping to deal with technical issues (mostly scene changes, tightening up the choreography of the arrival and departure of the tables, chairs, statues and so on) and to fix some scenes that hadn’t been working as well as they should.  Sadly, we didn’t have time to work on my insanely quick costume change, but we did stop to work on a moment which had been causing significant anxiety for a while – a kiss between myself and another character.  It had been stressing both of us out, but the moment was reblocked to make more sense in context.  A weight off everyone’s mind, I think.

After our lunch break, which happened a few scenes into our work, the cast sorted out the curtain call in the theatre foyer while the crew finished off some more tasks on stage – getting some scenery items up into the flies, fixing flats and so on.  Throughout the day, they were busy with finishing touches on paint jobs and securing the last few props we needed.  Hard-working doesn’t even begin to describe the crew and technical team for this show!

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