Last year, musicOMH contributor and occasional actor, Richard Ings, took a show up to the Edinburgh Festival.
Having been well and truly bitten by the bug, this February he left his comfortable media job behind in order to take a touring production of Pygmalion on the road – to Italy.
Following his progress as a travelling thesp in his regular blog.
Let me firstly resume the last two weeks of our Italian job, which were not without incident. It is some indication of how far expectations rose over the course of the trip when we got to the Teatro Sociale in Treviso, a cinema-theatre (that is, an old theatre, now primarily in use for films butwhich also hosts the occasional play) with one tiny communal dressing room, no wings to speak of and entrancesfrom stage left only. Six months ago, as astalwart of theatres on the London fringe, none of this would have felt outof the ordinary; having since been insome fabulous, spacious Italian theatres over the last couple of months, itwas a real comedown to find ourselveshaving to cope with such a limited space. How times change.
That said, it is also a mark of how flexible we have become that we dealtwith it professionally andconscientiously, albeit while quietly grumbling in a faintly diva-ish way. Ispent most of my time trying to makeit as safe as possible loose cables and darkness are the sworn enemies ofthe performer’s well-being, and havebeen my personal bug-bear throughout the tour. Yet, I know that I have neverbeen this fussy about productions inthe past, and who knows how I will cope with not having my own dressing roomwhen I return to the glamorous worldof the pub theatre?
In Padua, we had a flying visit from our producer-director ChristineAppleby of Say Two Theatre Company, whowatched the show quietly at the back without us being aware of her presence.She was not impressed. Unfortunately,some of us had allowed the pressure of touring to affect our performances,and we took both barrels from her. Itwas tough, and I felt sorry to have disappointed her and, by extension, thepaying audience.
It reminded me that, regardless of one’s emotional and physical state, itis the actor’s job to find energy andengagement at every turn, lest the audience be short-changed. “Phoning itin”, as the Americans might call it, isthe worst thing an actor can do, and while we all have a bad day at theoffice, not trying hard enough is thecardinal sin of the profession. In some ways, under the circumstances, it isbetter to resign or accept dismissalfrom a job than carry on without feeling an option I refused tocountenance, instead choosing to make the lastweek as strong as any we had done before. I have absorbed the differencebetween being a full-time professionalactor and a part-time amateur one.
As the curtain fell on our last show, in the perfect setting of thebeautiful 19th century Teatro Mancinelli inOrvieto with an audience of cheering students, I realised that this wasreally the only thing I felt passionateenough about to take the criticism and grow from. We all have to find ourjustification for enduring a beating nowand again primarily it’s the need to pay the mortgage but we also haveto care enough to make those experiencesfeel, on balance, worthwhile. It’s an old clich that if you don’t enjoywhat you do, don’t do it; but it’simportant not to confuse work with going to the funfair the ride is notalways the best bit.
Three important lessons I have learned, then. One don’t put salt onyour food, the Italian cooks will do thatfor you in quantities that would kill a horse. Two don’t order cavallounless you want to eat that horse. Three remember, everyone on tour reads your blogs: so be nice.
Another interesting thing is that a longing for home is exacerbated by the welcome attendance of friends and family at our curious show. In Milan, my mother made it over, while in Mestre, just outside Venice, Heather (playing Eliza) had her boyfriend and extended family in attendance. At the start of last week, my good friend the writer James Wallace made it over. I was struck by the fact that the words of Abba’s “Super Trouper”, their paean to the alienating world of the tour, kept popping in to my head: “I won’t feel blue ’cause somewhere in the crowd there’s you”.
At the risk of sounding like a scratched record, knowing that there are people in the audience who understand what you are doing raises your game enormously. A show without an audience is a rehearsal, and different audiences make for very different shows. My example of the audience that wouldn’t behave and caused me to lose my temper in public is one. Knowing that the finer points of the emotional weight behind the lines “I was supremely independent and content before we met/Surely I could always be that way again? And yet…” are being fully grasped makes them feel even more poignant when they are sung.
The other day in Pordenone, just prior to curtain up, we were told, to our surprise and pleasure, that a large proportion of the audience were from an English-speaking school. Suddenly, the air was alive with chuckles at the jokes and gasps at the brutality exhibited by Henry Higgins. When the Professor called Eliza “a damned slut”, you immediately realised from the audience reaction that the play which shocked theatregoers by using words such as “damn”, “bloody” and “arse” still has a power to stun. The difference is only that where once the uttering of oaths was in itself a scandal, now it is the unsentimental brutality of such an expression that still takes an audience’s breath away.
The reasonable amount of downtime we have had has meant that I have had the pleasure of being able to read more than I ordinarily did when I was combining acting with the day job back in England. My choice of reading material compounds my homesickness however as I am currently ploughing through Peter Ackroyd’s London: the Biography. It is a mixed bag of interesting anecdote coupled with, in my view, weak historiography, as he ventures to elide different historical periods with their specific social context under chapters that stress continuity over difference.
Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable process, being taken down the streets of the city I call home in a lively and passionate way. As I walked around Venice yesterday, the smell of the city in the 30 degree heat and its narrow, labyrinthine streets, so easy to get lost in and I did made me think that this is how London must have looked and felt, and perhaps to some visitors still does appear, to a public of less than a hundred years ago.
In the several blogs I have now written, I have yet to say anything substantial about the individuals involved in it. This may seem strange to anyone reading it, but the paradox of writing a blog is most acutely felt here whatever goes on tour must stay on tour, and feelings towards colleagues are best kept private. This will be frustrating for the average reader, but confidentiality and privacy are a much undervalued commodity at the moment where gossip is good currency on the front page of The Times, let alone anywhere less respectable.
However, if you want a different take on all of this, you should really check out the other cast blogs, in particular Ed Bassett’s, who plays Colonel Pickering (www.myspace.com/napoleonx) or Vicky Poole’s, who plays most of the female characters (www.myspace.com/dramaqueen1uk ). They will tell you things I couldn’t possibly comment on myself.
Returning to the UK for Easter, as we just have, has thus been a double-edged sword. What is most interesting about it is how far six days at home, rather than the six weeks in Italy, becomes the true “holiday”. Relaxing with friends, getting up at normal times and generally returning to “normal life” is the break I and my theatrical comrades all enjoyed rather too much.
The first few days back in Italy after the break have been hard as we return to the “up at 5.30am, set-up, perform, get out, travel to next town” routine. Initial high-spirits, as we swapped stories on the plane, faded as we realised we had another month to go before we could go back home again. Fortunately for all of us, we have friends and family popping over to cheer us on. Rather like the marathon, it is the people clapping on the sidelines that will help us get through the Wall and carry us over the finishing line in May. Next week, I have my mother watching the show in Milan and Heather Saunders, our Eliza, has her family and boyfriend coming the following week. It is surprising how happy this makes us it will be great to have some audience members who understand 100% rather than 1% of the show and with whom we can share the experience properly.
This touches on a conversation I had with my brother-in-arms, actor Michael Chadwick, while I was back in England. We discussed the problem, previously mentioned in this blog, of the lack of feedback from an audience someone to congratulate you afterwards, the tokens of gratitude that make the experience less alienating than it has been for us here. He somewhat disagreed, stressing the importance to an actor of enjoying what you are creating on stage, regardless of whether you have anyone to massage your ego in the bar afterwards.
While I felt his point was a valid one, there is, I will reiterate, something missing when a show is not fully understood by an audience. However, this is a problem our show shares with productions of Shakespeare the language of the Bard, as well as some of his best jokes, are now so foreign to most English-speaking ears that few beyond scholars of the text will “get” everything. You do what you can to make it understandable and hope that those who have a passion for it will get something out of it.
And when an audience aren’t getting it, they can make it very hard for the actor as well. It may have been the stress of the return, the back-breaking get-in or general tiredness, but I lost my rag for the first time ever on stage in Macerata on Saturday. Probably too late in the show in many ways, but we were just finishing the penultimate scene where Eliza announces to Higgins that she can “do bloody well without you” and the chattering, burping and general disruption from the teenage boys at the front of the stalls that had been going on for most of the show finally got too much for me.
I turned to our lighting and sound technician, positioned at the front of the stage in the audience, and asked him to tell them in Italian to shut up, which he did and they did. Shaking from the experience breaking out of character to tell the audience off is quite disruptive to your concentration I stumbled through the end of the scene and the “happy ending” of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face” and realised that the impact had been not only to silence them which was great but also rob the show of some of its fire. The usual whoops and cheers at the end of the show were absent and the audience simply clapped politely. I guess that’s the risk you take. I hope I never have to take such drastic action again.
As I began to hint at last week, places tend to become for us less interesting destinations to explore in ourtime off, more sites for our travellers’ reconnection with the necessities of life shopping for fruit, washingclothes and a more modern obsession checking email. The more difficult it is for us to complete any one ofthese mundane tasks easily, the more the town is coloured by its “awkwardness”. Small, beautiful towns in theshadow of nature’s wonders are thus grossly miscast in our minds as deserts of civilised life. I am pleased to saythat Lecco and Trent in particular have escaped this grim classification.
More than this, it is alarming how few of the theatres I can now remember. Details about hotels areusually reasonably strongly recalled, as are the restaurants we ate in, with no more than a little memory-jogginginvolved. However, we are all suffering from a form of collective amnesia as we desperately try to remember detailsof get-ins, audiences, stages and so on. Disquieting conversations over dinner saw us remembering everything aboutmany theatres right up to the stage-door threshold, with only darkness beyond, rather like a David Lynch movie.Which is a neat, as the Italians might say, segue.
It has also been Twin Peaks country for me as I was pleased to supplement my sources of privateentertainment (I have exhausted the reading material I was able to carry in my suitcase and finished watching thethoroughly enjoyable Family Guy series 4 that was one of the parting gifts from my colleagues at Playboy)with the first half of the too-long-unavailable second series of the David Lynch-created supernatural soap opera.Another simple pleasure was taken in finding it while browsing the copiously stocked shelves of a Blockbuster shopin one of the provincial towns we slipped through a chain as reassuring a sight as it is surprisingly ubiquitousin this country. There are very few cinemas showing films with the English soundtrack here thank heavens for theDVD which has no qualms about presenting features and series with a full original language track for the thirstyseeker after audiovisual culture.
Watching Twin Peaks was more than just nostalgia for some excellent, gripping television, which ispleasingly something that is easier to find now than ever before. It was partly a palliative for the fact that Ihave as yet been able to watch Inland Empire, which has opened in the UK in my absence, and slipped from themultiplexes here in Italy having been released in early February. It was also a chance to escape from therepetitive experience of touring and remind myself that there is a world of scripted drama beyond our little showthat I am keen to participate in when I return to the UK for good in May.
Our imminent week-long break from the routine will be welcomed as a chance to recharge the batteries, stock-upon English reading material and TV series the best thing for long absences from home and primarily see oldfriends and reconnect with the valuable things in life. How it will impact on the return to Italy is harder tojudge. Having settled into a routine that keeps us all chugging along, it will be interesting (if that is not tooeuphemistic) to see how breaking it affects us on our return to the tour the following week.
Laundry has assumed a disproportionate importance in my life. Whether this is because, culturally, we attribute too great a value to cleanliness or whether I just don’t want to hum like a rotting fish, I’m not sure. What is clear is that finding a laundromat is a mission I find myself accepting for every new town I end up in.
It is not only apparel cleanliness maintenance that taxes us all out here. It is things like internet connections. I brought my laptop specifically for the purpose of remaining connected to the world outside of our tour bus however, finding wireless hotspots has been a Sisyphean chore. The sense of joy I get when I find I have a free wireless connection in my hotel room is somewhat comparable to that of shipwrecked mariners clinging to bits of flotsam when they spot dry land. This is the strange, hermetically-sealed world of the foreign theatre tour.
These tiny things remind me that civilisation is something we strive to achieve and there are good reasons why we cling to it loyally. Not being able to get a decent cup of tea in a strange land might sound very ‘Little Englander’, but the things we miss most are often the apparent trivialities that help ground us without us even realising it. Being away from home for this time and under these circumstances really helps focus the mind on questions of what one considers to be of value in life.
Bear with me all of this does have some relevance to the actual world of theatre. Little things you simply take for granted at home are missing here. For example and it really brings into focus the kernel of the ‘entertainment business’ there is very little feedback after shows. Not to say audiences don’t clap, whoop, whistle and cheer (and chat) to an extent that is unheard of in the quiet decorum of the English theatre – thank goodness they do (although I could live without the talking during important dramatic passages); but ‘at home’, one gets a lot more from a theatre audience. One gets written praise in reviews, face-to-face verbal praise, passed on comments from friends of friends or in my case, one accidentally overhears Linda Robson (comedic actress from Birds of a Feather) as she passes by the stage door after seeing a show you’ve just finished singing your praises to her chums.
As we never meet our audience properly, as there are no reviews, and as there’s no local hostelry to retire to to overhear people talking loudly about how brilliant the show was, there is a massive ego-sized hole at the heart of this particular experience. This is not just the luvvy in me talking. The need for praise that goes beyond a collective response to an individual one extends more widely than the world of the over-sensitive thespian.
Indeed, to bring it back to the very show we are performing, after Eliza storms out on Higgins, Henry’s mother’s first question to him is: “You didn’t thank her, or pet her, or admire her, or tell her how splendid she’d been?” as if the fact that Miss Doolittle could now officially pass as a duchess was not enough for her. The importance of a kind word of encouragement or praise, sincerely delivered, cannot be underestimated. It may be the lifeblood of the actor, but it runs somewhere through all our veins. It’s very nice when the “team” is praised for its results, and even sweeter when the boss takes you aside during the celebrations and mentions your own personal contribution to that success.
Anyway, that’s the social psychology over with. Other than that, Italy’s great, sun is shining, wish you were here. I’ll be popping out to look around fair Verona shortly the machine’s just finishing up the spin cycle now.
However, this is clearly not the case, and when we are not in the wind-swept post-industrial towns of the Italian heartland, we are also knee-deep in historical Rome, Bologna and Florence. As I left it last week, we had arrived in Rome and I had a full two days to explore the city. Of course, two days is not enough for a city for which the Italians say “Roma, non basta una vita”, and it really wasn’t.Guidebooks generally recommend people with limited time “doing” the Vatican bit (St. Peter’s, Sistine Chapel, etc.) but, profoundly secular as I am, I decided instead to go to the pantheistic Pantheon and Coliseum.
“Latin’s a dead language,” ran the playground poem, “as dead as dead can be. It killed off all the Romans and now it’s killing me.” At school, I remember talk of trips to Italy for A-level students of Latin, and I admit at the time this filled me largely with indifference (I dropped it at O-level). I also remember one of my Latin teachers being bowled over by Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (dialogue completely in Latin), remarking how naturalistic the Italian members of the cast made the language sound. Twenty-years later, I think I see what he means, although I wonder how far his interest in the film was entirely linguistic. Walking around the Roman Forum or the Coliseum, regardless of whether you’ve seen Ben Hur, it becomes possible to picture an ancient civilisation in motion, and given what they achieved in terms of literature, art and architecture, one immediately wonders how much more advanced we might already have been today if their great work hadn’t lain buried by marauding hoardes and expanding Christianity for several centuries.
To borrow and amend a favourite rehearsed putdown of stand-up comedians, isn’t it terrible when you go out for a conversation and someone builds a theatre around you? Our audience of Roman teenagers were the rowdiest we have had yet, reminiscent perhaps of a time when theatre audiences would make their own entertainment while actors sallied on with their lines in the background. Later, we were told by our Italian hosts there is a Roman mentality of “we built the world, we’ll do what we bloody well like” to explain the indifference of the crowd; personally, I think if you bring 700 streetwise urban teenagers into a darkened arena for two hours, you won’t get much of their attention for long. The provincial Italian audiences, for whom this kind of thing is an exciting novelty, are much more swept-up in what is going on on stage than their big-city counterparts, for whom farting loudly, booing the actors and throwing stuff appears much more fun.
Although our whistle-stop tour took us to Florence, we arrived at 5pm and left the next day at noon, so had little time to be knocked out with Stendhalism, a recognised medical condition, apparently, which manifests itself as an overwhelming feeling of giddiness brought on by visiting the Basilica di Santa Croce. A condition named after the French author himself, there are, I kid you not, about a dozen cases a year. Makes you want to sit down for a bit, doesn’t it?
We ended the week in Bologna, once a hot-bed of student radicalism and still bearing the marks of its rebellious past (Lenin Avenue, anyone?). The theatre made me strangely nostalgic for those 70’s fleapit cinemas I once frequented, complete as it was with heavy chocolate brown curtains, the sort that used to confuse Eric Morecambe as he tried to take the stage behind Ernie Wise. We must be doing something right now as the audience are literally screaming their appreciation at the close of the show making us all feel a little like rockstars. But I bet it’s a long time since The Rolling Stones carried any of their own spotlights out into the back of a van at the end of a show.
I definitely got in to acting for the early starts and the heavy lifting, but joking aside, I have, this week, gained a newfound respect for the life of the jobbing professional thespian. Up at 5am to start putting up the set at 6, ready for a show at 8.30am followed by another at 11.30am and then everything packed up again to travel to the next town – repeat every day (except Sunday) for nine weeks. The difference between the professional and the amateur is not simply one of money, it is of several degrees of commitment.
Over the last seven days we have kind of been working our way down the Adriatic coast, with a sudden spike towards Florence bang in the middle of the week. Our first day (remember, these shows are all taking place around 9am, so, sadly, traditional talk of “first nights” is wholly inappropriate), was in Rimini, a sort of Mediterranean Blackpool, except with a enchanting medieval centre you rarely find in north-west English coastal towns. The venue, in common with many of the spaces we will be working in, was a cinema which doubled as a theatre.
I had been warned about the likely reaction of Italian audiences. When Say Two toured Romeo and Juliet in 2005 here, they were somewhat surprised to encounter the clapping, cheering, booing and hissing reactions of the young spectators. As the lights come up on our show, a huge cheer goes up as the paying customers seem to roar us on, something I don’t think I have yet encountered in the more gentile, reserved English theatre. Throughout the show, stage kisses are clapped, Eliza’s cockney hollers are loudly parroted (a hundred people hollering “Garn!” back at you is quite something), and shouts of “Bravo!” and “Brava!” are commonplace.
The ladies in our cast are enjoying particularly strong attention from the males. Our Eliza (played by Heather Saunders, who superbly carries the show with the lion’s share of the songs and fantastically energetic dancing) is having to get used to being wolf-whistled during her performance of I Could Have Danced All Night where Higgins’s housekeeper, Mrs Pierce (played, among other roles, by the terrific Vicky Poole), changes her into her nightclothes. Despite the less-than-bashful reputation Italians might have for public displays of nudity on television at all hours of the day, seeing an exposed set of shoulders and legs on the stage is still considered pretty racy, it seems, and gets an unsurprisingly exothermic response from teenage boys.
So far, my favourite experience has been in Fermo, a small town in the region of Le Marche in the east of Italy, which some have been describing as the “new Tuscany”. A medieval treat – all winding cobbled roads and open sewers (only joking) – the Hotel Astoria we stayed in was a surprisingly three-star luxury type of place and, perhaps more importantly, the theatre was a grande dame of a place, with a massive stage and five tiers of audience level, all sectioned into boxes taking ten people (120 boxes in all). Built in the late eighteenth century, it was recently restored to its gilded glory, and it is breathtaking – not literally of course, since in fact the acoustics are astonishingly good; as good, in fact, as most West End stages.
Putting on my Alan Whicker hat for a minute, I thoroughly recommend Fermo as part of any Grand Tour of Italy you might be planning in the future. The whole region is worth a good week of anyone’s vacation time.
This week, we up the tempo, with eight shows to get through, and an all-too brief visit to Florence on Wednesday. At the moment, I am exhausted, and really hoping my stamina will improve, as we have a fairly long way to go yet. Neither Pygmalion, nor Rome, were built in a day.
Most would consider this an act of folly, with the possible exception of disciples of Andrea Dworkin and what remains of censorial feminism. A prestigious job in broadcast television is not to be sniffed at, whereas a precarious existence pretending to be someone else for a living would have most people scurrying for the hills quicker than you can say “mortgage repayments”. For me, it’s a question of living life to the full and always doing something daring that has the potential to scare as well as exhilarate you – and getting paid to prance about on stage.
Fortunately, it wasn’t a change of profession in abstracto, but a real job offer that saw me turn my back on the world of erotica. A three-month tour of Italy performing as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, in fact. So not quite the same as giving up the day job to be a background artist on EastEnders (not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, if it makes you happy).
Rehearsals took me out of my London comfort-zone to a small town just outside Preston, in north-west England, the home of the Say Two Touring Company. Say Two primarily work in the Theatre in Education (T.I.E.) sector, performing Shakespeare to schoolchildren. However, in 2005, they took Romeo and Juliet to Italy with a Milan-based company called Palchettostage, and the production was such a success, they decided to take the classic Pygmalion story, with accompanying songs by Lerner and Lowe, to the southern European peninsula.
As with many touring productions, economy is everything, as budgets will not extend to full chorus lines, and taking a big cast abroad is incredibly expensive. Difficult as it may be to imagine, the show is thus being performed with just five actors, which involves much doubling up of parts, phenomenally quick costume changes and all set changes being done by the performers. As well as the role of Higgins, I also have to don a flat cap and braces to appear as a member of the labouring classes for big set pieces such as “I’m Getting Married in the Morning”.
The biggest challenge for English-language productions in foreign countries is, not surprisingly, the language. The show is being specifically performed for students of English, aged from 13 to 25, and so the onus to perform it with absolute precision of gestures and clarity of diction is even greater than it might be on the English stage. When performing to a native-speaking audience, actors can get away with talking indistinctly and using movements that do not support the text, as there is a better than average chance that the audience will understand what is being said – clearly this is not always the case with foreign audiences.
In some ways, it is the same discipline that is required for performing Shakespeare to a modern English audience. Clarity and precision is everything when the mode of expression is unfamiliar. The danger is only of sacrificing a truthful performance in the pursuit of making things clear, something our cast has struggled with under the catch-all direction of “talking very slowly” in order simply to be understood.
Three weeks later, having got up to speed with such intricacies as the Viennese Waltz and the Polka, our small team is now in Italy and preparing for our first performance tomorrow in front of several hundred Italians in the Teatro Corso in Rimini on the Adriatic coast. We travelled down here from Milan last night with our set tightly squeezed into a transit van, a remarkable achievement that took four hours longer than anticipated as the Italian crew packed and repacked pillars, flats, tables, chairs and costumes into a space no bigger than a large broom closet.
The show starts at 9.15am – no, that’s not a typo, it is the morning – which will be a wholly novel experience for actors more accustomed to finding their way to the theatre for 7pm. Not only that, but as setting up and striking the set also falls to our small band of plucky performers, we are required to be at the theatre at 6am. Once the show is over at about 11am, we will somehow have to try and squeeze everything back into our tiny van and we will be off to the next town where the process will repeat itself again, and so on until the end of May.
Suddenly, the world of bunnies, mansions and the cozy life of the office seems a long way away. Hi diddly hee, indeed.
Follow Richard Ings around Italy as Henry Higgins on this page, and if you’d like to write to him, click here