Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Posted On January 22, 2021

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Attending auditions as a young actor, I made sure I got on really well with the person or panel putting me through my paces. I reckoned that if they liked me, they might employ me. Even if there were much more talented candidates, I was much more fun. ‘See how easy I’m going to be to work with?’ I tried to convey. There would be no luvvy tantrums from yours truly. Rehearsals were going to be a breeze. Surely that counted for something?

So, I would chat, joke and stay as long as they would let me. The longer I was there, the better I felt it had gone. Conversely, if I was ejected from the audition room speedily, it meant that they definitely weren’t interested. More fool they, I tried hard to feel. If only they had given my charm long enough to weave its web of wonder upon them. Like a fine wine or a piquant cheese, it needed time to ripen. What did they think I was, some cheap and easy Beaujolais Nouveau?

Sometimes I would be there for ages. I remember (or at least think I remember) being at a venue all day, taking lunch in the café, bumping in to my interviewer several times before quitting the establishment to catch the last train home. Maybe I am exaggerating. Regardless, I definitely felt that the measure of how the whole thing had gone was how much time they were willing to spend with me. Counter-intuitively, I found that my lengthier stays were invariably followed by lengthy response times, which in turn were followed, with equal invariability, by rejection.

Once, on a session break at the National Theatre, I was chatting with some fellow thesps about – well what else? – acting. We had being doing a class on musical theatre auditions and the guy taking it had commented on the difference between actors here and in the States. There, apparently, the performer walks in, plonks the sheet music on the piano, grunts a few advisory notes on pace and phrasing to the accompanist, sings their song, picks up the music and high-tails it to the door. Only if the MD or director verbally arrests their speedy getaway does he or she, reluctantly, turn on their heels, glance testily at their watch (this was before smart phones) and concede that they might have a few seconds to grant before their next audition. Although not actually stated, it is certainly implicit that the next audition is more important and this has simply been a useful warm-up.

Well, we all know what this is. It’s called playing hard to get. And though we know it works, we are rarely brave enough to risk it. Because when I say ‘we know it works’, what I really mean is ‘we know it works for other people, but I’m not sure that I can pull it off.’ Anyway, I and my new NT chums chatted about our audition techniques, such as they were. We agreed that it was like the status games we played in rehearsals for roles and everyone else plays in life for real. If you affect a taciturn and aloof demeanour, you are intriguing and evidently possess hidden depths. People will credit you with talent, savoir-faire, artistry and, quite probably Newtonian levels of intelligence. If you are verbose, effusive or just chatty, you come across as lightweight and needy. And the only reason you’re needy, of course, is if you’re not very good.

One by one we all admitted that we had probably talked ourselves out of more jobs than we had got. Apart for this quiet, blond, floppy-haired fellow who looked like he could have just walked off a Brideshead set. He hadn’t said a word and had to be drawn out by one of our company. For these purposes, our company representative is called Greg.

Greg:            ‘What about you, do you get a lot of auditions?’
Sebastian:   ‘Yeah.’
Greg:            ‘Do you talk much in them?’
Sebastian:   ‘No.’
Greg:            ‘No?’
Sebastian:   ‘I say nothing.’
Greg:            ‘Do you get cast much?’
Sebastian:   ‘All the time.’

I suppose it’s like any relationship, really. When you meet someone, they are an unknown quantity. While they remain an unknown quantity they are exciting, a mass of mystery and potential wonder. A new land to explore. Slowly, each part they reveal is amazing. They are so talented, funny, easy to get on with and so much more besides. It seems that they feel the same about you. Gradually, you are encouraged to let your mask slip and to confess inner insecurities where before there stood simply the façade of steely strength. Initially, this makes you even more loveable! Not only can you do the things you do with an air of ineffable ease, in actuality, you are suffering untold torments and a Dante’s Hell of inner demons. Your stoic silence in the face of such unimaginable odds puts old Job firmly in the shade.

This lasts a really short time. Very soon, your paramour wishes you would shut up about your worries and woes which, in truth, are not a patch on theirs. From hero to zero or winner to whinger is a short but terminal drop. The land that was exciting to explore, once conquered, frankly turns into a bore. So, for fear of ridicule and rejection are we all better to keep our darkest thoughts, fears and weaknesses hidden from others?

The witty raconteur, writer (and star of the Cadbury Fruit and Nut ads) Frank Muir once said in one of his effervescent live performances that he should not reveal any more about himself, in case it destroyed the magic.

I am reminded of a tale about an actor which, to borrow one of Frank’s phrases, is true but, if not, then a lie. Now, I am sure you know this, but actors have a million hysterical stories about things that have gone wrong on stage, either to them or others that, in hindsight are double-up, laugh-out-loud hilarious. To them. You probably know this also, but a lot of actors live in Brighton. London-by-the-sea, you see.

There was once (and I am sure still is) a midnight train that left London bound for the coast. At the time, this was the last train of the night and gave those performing in the West End sufficient time from curtain down to wipe off their slap (optional), get back in to civvies (advised), sign stuff for stage door johnnies (unlikely) and manage a swift 3 or 4 in the boozer (compulsory) and still make the train. Knowing actors, they probably thought it had been laid on by British Rail just for them. I mean, there was even a bar. There, they would prop up said bar for the hour’s journey south. The train would also scoop up all the other Brightonian gallivants who had been on the town, following the exhortations of Brannigan’s (now defunct, I gather): drinking, dancing and cavorting.

One night, an actor was thus disposed when he found himself standing next to a fellow imbiber. Feeling cheery, he said hello and, as such conversations between chaps go, the fellow enquired after his profession. The actor humbly confessed to being an actor and then, his heart possibly warmed by the ale, reciprocated. Blushing, the fellow replied. ‘Me? Oh, I’m just an accountant.’ Employing all his Stanislavskian training, the actor summoned up a fascinated face and said, ‘Really? How interesting.’

Seemingly emboldened, the fellow proceeded to regale the actor with amusing accountancy anecdotes, employing figures of fun, dealing in dodgy double entries and bringing in business bon-mots and witty one-liners from the world of work. Not an integer, fraction or percentage was spared in his hour-long performance.

As the train pulled in to Brighton Station, the actor held out his hand and declared it a pleasure to have met the fellow. The latter said he hoped that he hadn’t bored his listener. The actor assured him that he had delighted in every moment. The accountant pressed him further. ‘Surely, some parts were a bit dull to you, particularly given what you do.’ Following a couple more promptings, the actor acknowledged that, yes, some parts of his new acquaintance’s narrative had not been the most scintillating moments of his life. A strange transformation came over the accountant’s face and he leered triumphantly.

‘Well now you know what it’s f***ing like to have to listen to f***ing actors’ f***ing ‘hilarious’ f***ing stories every f***ing night on this f***ing train all the f***ing way from f***ing London to f***ing Brighton for a WHOLE F***ING HOUR! Goodnight.’

I suppose the accountant would be mortified, if not entirely surprised, that this was told to me – and I have passed it on to you – as just another hilarious actor’s story.

So, you may ask, having presumably learnt lessons from the above experiences of auditions, relationships, the words of Mr Muir and the strangers on a train, why am I still here bending your ear?

Good point.

I shall go now. I sincerely hope I haven’t outstayed my welcome.