Many years ago in Virginia I was taken for a Chinese meal and the other diners must have wondered what the joke was when I burst into a peal of laughter that almost brought the restaurant to a standstill. What caused the sudden outbreak of mirth was, on opening my fortune cookie I read ‘You will be attracted to the glamour of the theatre.’ Or was it ‘the romance of the theatre?’ Either way into my fifties I’m told that is my fortune? But, yes, I suppose thirty-seven years earlier as a fledgling at university, on being cast as Hotspur in Mister Willy Shagspaw’s play Henry lV. Part 1 and wallowing in it, I was attracted to the romance of the theatre and have spent my life in it one way or another; that is, when wanted. When not wanted, like too many actors, my life had to be taken up with occupations elsewhere. But all grist to the mill as the old saying has it and much of my writing has been influenced because of these experiences so it’s an ill oboe nobody blows good.
Show bizz (Yuk!) has always been grossly over populated and every year sees more and more young, eager, wide-eyed, hopefuls tumbling out of drama schools and universities joining what for them is going to be a lifetime of bits and pieces and the dole queue. I remember many years ago when I was doing bits and pieces on the telly, a day here, a couple of days there, more if lucky, I was standing in the dole queue at Chadwick Street in Victoria which was then, until some jobsworthy thought fit to change the rules and we were all banished to our locals, the labour exchange favoured by thesps, and in front of me was a guy looking particularly miserable so I asked him what his problem was and he replied, ‘Today is my thirty-first birthday and what have I got? A tin of sardines.’ At that moment I wondered if it was worthwhile even continuing or whether the time had come to change horses even though it might be in mid-stream.
So what is it about the theatre that it lures all these young hopefuls? A dream of fame maybe? Those who become names are very few and far between when you consider the thousands there are all striving after the same objective. For most of them penury, a hand to mouth existence, is never far away. I remember in those far off days doing a walk-on for an ATV production, I seem to recall it was ‘The Lady of The Camellias’ and on the set was a table laden with real food! Real food!!! Food, glorious food! Not your usual plastic chickens and wax fruit but real food and production staff kept a beady eye on it in case the extras, like wolfish Syrians descending on the fold, ravished it before transmission.
There is the story of the actor laddie who enjoyed his time in a particular play because there was real cake to be consumed and the Victorian actor Wilson Barrett, whenever he heard of a starving actor, (which must have been pretty frequent) invited him to breakfast and, having seated him at the table, excused himself on some pretext and left the room so that the poor actor could satisfy the inner man without embarrassment.
Fame or disillusionment? There is the story of the actor in a production of ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ who, when asked what the play was about replied, ‘It’s about this ambulance man who carts this crazy woman off to the nuthouse.’ Or words to that effect. I guess at times we all must feel like that, not necessarily that we’re carting off this crazy woman, but that we are ourselves “it’s a mad mad world, my masters” in the nuthouse.
Whatever… eighty-one years old today… the fat lady hasn’t sung yet but for me it’s history and, as my sainted mother would have said, all over bar the shouting. I’m glad though that I didn’t change horses.