1. Professional snogging. Theatre is the only profession I know of in which you can expect a full on mouth-to-mouth kiss from each of your colleagues after a hard day’s work. I’m not talking casting couch flattery, or those tantalising doomed romances held during rehearsal cigarette breaks (although expect them too, obviously). I mean that gender, availability, whether or not you can stand each other aside, after a performance, you will laugh like a maniac and kiss all your colleagues on the actual mouth. It is always unnerving, but don’t worry about what it means: it is not sincere, it is merely the thespians’ handshake, because our emotions are running high and that’s the way we like it daahhhhling.
2. Your wages will be given to you in an envelope, possibly under the table at a wine bar. It’s not illicit, but for some reason, theatre companies like to behave as if they are. I have known a thesp to keep his £800 of earnings in a paper bag in his bedroom and use it to pay for everything in cash. That my dears, is proper hand-to-mouth living, and you can expect that until you have a six-month run at The Globe.
3. Poverty. Theatres are presently on a plethora of money woes that began with the invention of the motion picture – some are closing down, few are profiting, and all are propped up by some degree of donation. No matter how beautiful the façade of a theatre, no matter how ornate the stone masques on the front of the building or how thick the gold leaf, the backstage area will be crumbling. I have never worked in a theatre that had enough money to be properly carpeted all the way through, or indeed fully painted. In most, the carpet and paint will run out just beyond the greenroom, which will itself resemble a Thatcher-era classroom. And did you want the radiator on? Just kidding, there’s no radiator. Like everything in the business, façade first, content later. And I’ll be jiggered if ‘later’ ever comes.
4. Flash friendshipping. Imagine the set-up: when you begin rehearsing a play, you meet several strangers. They are all people with whom you have at least one massive thing in common, and by and large, thesps are slightly more emotional, insecure and vain than the general populace. From being total strangers, you are suddenly thrust together several times a week for several hours. Conversations evolve to this model by being based on what happened since you last saw each other, and generally become deep and involved very quickly. I have directed 12 plays and in not one of them have I not both given out and received love life advice. Your life will very quickly become intertwined with theirs and the world often shrinks to the size of the rehearsing room, where you blurt out your secrets, fears, frustrations and crushes. It is a struggle to stop every rehearsal becoming a heart-to-heart. Then! the play happens and you never see each other again. What? Those friendships you made were so deep and beautiful that they’ll last forever? Nope. Soon you will pass each other in the street and think “Huh, I wonder if she figured out her sexuality or not.” And that’s if you’re lucky. I have been involved in plays that ended up in love triangles (and twice a love square), obsessive friendships and even genuine friendships that completely exploded in the faces of those involved when the real world intruded. That’s not to say you can’t make real friends and at least amicable acquaintances, but tread very carefully when feeling intense attachment to your acting colleagues. It is much more likely to be the intense atmosphere than it is to be true love. And while it’s easy to say, try to be careful what you tell others – with or without malice, theatre is a gossipy business where your reputation is everything.
5. Strangers will be bafflingly impressed, whilst also having no idea what you do. I once met a guy at a party. Not a uni guy, a full-on Non-Student Guy. He asked me what I do, and rather than say I was a literature student and allow him to patronise me about the usefulness of being well-versed in Icelandic poetry, I said I was a writer. “Wow,” he said, “that’s amazing!” Is it? I grant that being a good writer is something our society values a lot, but from what I’d said all he could accurately deduce was that I sit on my arse in front of a computer a lot of the time. He asked what I wrote, and I said I had written and staged around ten plays. He lowered his voice. “Without blowing your cover, would I ever have heard of you?” No, good sir, you would not. But this reaction to writers is surprisingly common. Disdain is not uncommon either, of the yeah-good-luck-with-that-I-have-a-real-job variety, but next to that is perplexing ill-informed enthusiasm. The best theory I have been able to manage is that most available jobs are very far from creative. Most jobs exist within a structure of necessity, and are delegations from the delegates of the delegates of the people who make the necessary things. That means that most people have absolutely no idea about creative industries, how saturated they are, and how talent and productivity ≠ fame. A good comeback to the suggestion that you ought to be famous because you do something creative is “Well, who have you heard of?” Because let’s be honest, the average person has only heard of five playwrights, and most of them are dead guys.
6. Bullshit. I recently left a company because the man who ran it was always giving me bullshit. “We have £10,000 to make this film! We are borrowing £10,000. We can raise £10,000. You can raise £10,000. We have no money.” I was then picked up by his ex-business partner (guess why that guy left him), and told in no uncertain terms that we could do this project so long as I signed away financial control to him. He was insistent that he got to produce and to bear the financial costs and rewards. Then he got a full time job and left theatre. The first guy at this point tells me he knows people at Dr Who who will do us some special effects! And he’s been hired by the tourist board – well he’s going to be – probably. This happens all over the industry, especially in small businesses. Frankly, I don’t believe that these people are deliberately lying – they’re just fanciful. That’s not a requirement for someone to work in a business that revolves around creating illusion, it is in face a handicap, but it’s a very common one. Never. And. I. Mean. Never. Put all your eggs in one basket, or give anyone any money without garnering lots of impartial advice. Projects fall through all the time, and half the time in theatre, all people are looking for is someone else’s money to cushion them when they do.
7. Big coats. I don’t know whether it’s the romantic image of it flapping in the wind as you walk down the empty streets at midnight, or the pockets for holding all your little theatrical nik-naks (lighters and sewing kits a speciality), or whether deep down we do still all want to be Lord Byron in his cloak. But I do know that any thespian worth their salt has a massive down-to-the-ankles-wraps-round-you-twice coat. Mine is cavalry twill with brass buttons. Buy one. It will be good for your career.
8. Dude, it’s so white. It really is. I’ve seen an all-white production of Rent, a play all about disadvantaged minorities, pass without comment, unlike The RSC’s casting of a black actor as King Lear http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/931905.stm. Not to mention that even at university level, I have heard mixed-race actors saying that they know they won’t be cast – in fact, the only black actor I have seen in my university theatre was playing the slave in The Crucible. Like most cultural pursuits, theatre is subtly reserved for white people, through the general willingness to perpetuate plays by dead white guys instead of new work, to use the oldy-worldyness of these plays to argue that non-white actors would be out of place, and because economically theatre is exclusive, which often keeps it in the hands of Middle England. Sadly I have no advice to offer about how to stop an entire institution being racist, all I can say is that we must encourage debate, because the more informed people are, the less they will be able to defend positions like “Black people can only act black parts, which means only white people can ever be in the entirety of Oscar Wilde and most of Shakespeare. No, white people playing all those Latin people in Romeo and Juliet is a completely different thing.”
9. Fearlessness. Yours, that is. Things I have asked actors to do: kiss people of the opposite and same gender, simulate sex, simulate vomiting, simulate injecting heroin, simulate a seizure, smoke, be referred to as ugly, appear in underwear, play with a knife, scream, cry, simulate self-harm, cross-dress. I am not a particularly cruel director, and this is run of the mill stuff. Do not ever agree to something in the audition that you won’t actually be comfortable doing in front of a hundred people. I had an actor drop out of a play because he didn’t want to wear make-up, despite having agreed to it in the audition – apparently it “filled him with dread”. It put the play two weeks behind while we replaced him, and was completely immature and unprofessional. Last time I saw him he was playing a comedy policeman. Similarly I’ve directed a play where two boys were playing a couple. One actor was gay and the other was straight. After having rehearsed their kiss a few times, the straight actor told me he couldn’t do it because he was sick at the idea. Naturally I felt unable to tell him to do something that made him feel sick, but it threw off the play and had I been able, I would have re-cast. It was left to me to tell the other actor, who was understandably upset and felt that the other man had made presumptions about his sexuality equating to comfort kissing a man, whereas he found it awkward too. Acting: it’s doing stuff you wouldn’t normally do.
10. Critics. Have you ever seen an unabashedly good review? Journalism is based on the idea of the superiority and integrity of the journalist – they must feel that they are able to comment on everything, and that they are never out of their depth. So it was that I once staged a tongue-in-cheek coming of age story set in a public school and was ripped apart by one critic for my “OTT” depiction of the upper-classes. Jokes from this play include a marriage that can’t happen because the aristocrats involved aren’t related, and the public school’s end of term bear-bating. She just didn’t get that it was a parody of the way upper-class children are usually troped onstage. It was a form of comedy that went way over her head, whereas the audience gave it a standing ovation and many of them said it was the best under-25s play they’d ever seen. But it was her who got in the paper. This will happen to everyone at some point in their theatre career. Don’t worry. Plays are for the audience, who will feel whatever they feel, not for the critic, who has to criticise.