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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

A drama dream comes true

For the first decade and a half of my life I remember thinking that if your schooldays are the happiest days of your life, then I was going to have a wretched life. Things were not much better at my first university (Cambridge – nothing but the best for me), where I failed to work nearly hard enough, at architecture, and from which I retreated ignominiously.

It was only when I switched to another less grand university (Essex) that the connection between educational institutions and being happy started to make sense to me. I learned a lot about politics, but I did it mostly by watching, listening, and reading. I did not participate in politics, if only because what I was being urged to participate in was, I increasingly realised, mindless sub-Marxist twattery. No, what got me going was the university drama club, rather grandly known as the Theatre Arts Society, TAS (pronounced TASS) for short. We were the TAS Clique, and we loved it. It turns out that TAS is still going, and is still called that!

Although I acted, my particular speciality to start with was ticket selling, which was how I first got seriously stuck into using the then-as-now ever-changing technology of communication to get maximum impact for your message with the minimum of cost. (I first started to learn, you might say, how to do Libertarian Alliance publications.) I can still remember the thrill of my first, first night, full house. From that moment on, and for the first time in my life, I was somebody.

As for my acting career, a friend said to me after my last bit of acting at Essex: “You know Brian I’ve seen you in lots of things, but I never knew you could act.” That was after I had played one of the junior Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, during the performances of which I finally learned what decent acting felt like. Ah, happy days.

And happy days that soon ended. Having decided not to become a real actor, I dabbled briefly in the idea of doing amateur acting as a hobby, and signed up to be in a production of Noel Cowards’s Private Lives for the local drama club near where my family home was. But the magic had gone, and I gave up drama and switched to political stirring and scribbling, which I have been doing ever since. As the decades passed I occasionally pondered if I might even get back into drama, in some capacity or other, but the opportunity never arose. Shame, but there you go. You get old. You stop doing things.

But then, a few weeks ago, suddenly, everything changed. A friend of mine (Elena Procopiu – the babe on the top right here) is herself a would-be actress. She is realistic about her chances, but is giving it as much of a go as she can fit in with earning a living, having a life, etc. In pursuit of her drama ambitions, Elena recently signed up, and paid, for a short course in radio drama. The course itself fell through and she feared a rip-off, but in fact she (a) got her money back, and then (b) found herself taking part in reading and recording plays for this operation, which is at least as good a drama training as regular training would have been. (She has already been, among other things, Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest.)

The state of play with this operation is that at the moment they are better at technical sound manipulation than they are at recruiting actors so ambitious and or so desperate or enthusiastic as not to need paying, and in particular, as always when acting for peanuts is the agenda, there is a shortage of good men. I presume that because of that everyone was asked if they knew any more good men, and Elena thought of asking me if I was interested. Which I absolutely was. Would I like to join in a production of … A Midsummer Night’s Dream? You bet. I went along to my first read-through/rehearsal/casting session, expecting to be a junior Mechanical again, but hoping for something grander like Peter Quince, the organiser of the Mechanicals, or maybe even Theseus, King of Athens. By the end of that day I found myself doing Theseus and Oberon (!!). (Elena is Titania.)

This activity is the answer to my personal drama prayer, and I now realise that I had been waiting for something like this to turn up for about thirty years.

Because we are reading into microphones, there are no lines to learn by heart, which is always a desperate worry for amateurs like me. (The reason I finally learned to act at Essex was that I finally got given a part with few enough lines in it for me to really know them, and thus to have spare brain capacity available to do some actual acting.) And because it is radio there are no costumes or make-up to bother about, which always were my least favourite aspects of stage acting anyway. Besides which, I have a good voice, but look like a rather spotty pudding.

Compared to regular amateur dramatics, recording plays takes up very little time. Occasional Sundays is all this is occupying. Compare this with the nightmare week-after-week and finally night-after-night schedules that amateur actors must endure, and which are so hard to combine with having any kind of regular life.

True, I do need to do some homework, learning how best to read my scarily numerous lines (in two different voices), but for me that is also a plus. I have always wanted to study literature, and now I finally have the incentive to do this that a show-off like me needs. The trouble with literature, I find, is making sense of it, which is why I tend to seek actual reading pleasure in contemporary low-brow fiction and contemporary higher-brow non-fiction, about such things as history. But I know that I am missing a world of fascination and erudition by not reading Shakespeare, Dickens etc. (After MSND, the next production they are talking about is an adaptation of Oliver Twist.) Well, now I have a motive to study literature. For me, there is no better way to study literature than to be in it.

All of which is utterly fabulous, darling, but I have not even got to the best bit of all about my new hobby, which can be summed up with one word: ambition.

What I now realise that I loved about university acting was that we had delusions of grandeur, and a few of us had actual plans to become grander. We entered competitions. We went to student drama festivals and got denounced patronisingly The Observer drama section. Some of us applied for Arts Council grants and tried to make a go of being professionals, running progressive theatre companies which would perform in schools and prisons. Some of us had friends in the real theatre. One of our number even got an actual paying job at the local rep. I still wonder what became of him. There was one hell of a barrier to surmount, between am-dram such as we did and real drama complete with an Equity Card, but given time, some of us might climb over this barrier. And we had time, because we were young.

Old-fashioned amateur dramatics of the village hall, not-slagged-off-in-the-local-paper-no-matter-how-crap-it-is variety is entirely different. With that you cannot possibly delude yourself that any of you are going anywhere at all. This is it. This is as good as it gets. This is as far as we go. You are not going to be spotted by any movie producers, slated by any real drama critics in real newspapers. You are not going to win any competitions or go to the Edinburgh Festival. No matter how good you are, you’ll never really be any good.

The horror of this kind of amateur dramatics was summed up for me by something that was said to me at the party after Private Lives (the only truly well organised thing in the entire experience). One of the husbands present turned out to be a lighting expert working for the BBC, or some such grand thing. It’s a pity, I said to another member of the cast, that we didn’t have him helping us out. Oh no, said the other caste member, he’s far too good for us.

That bloody did it. I was out of there. Too good! There was, he was telling me, an upper limit of quality in everyone’s minds higher than which it was simply not worth bothering to try to go. And do you know the really ghastly thing about what that bloke said? He was right. I now realise that I was being given words of wisdom by an old lag, Porridge-style. Dreaming of being “too good” was like dreaming of getting out of prison instead of serving your time, and you would only make yourself unhappy if you indulged in such fantastical fantasies. Know you place, or get out. I made my choice. And I assumed that from then on, given that I did not want to be a real actor, acting would be a closed book to me.

This radio thing, on the other hand, and in addition to all the other huge attractions and conveniences of it that I have emboldened above, has that vital spark of ambition about it that I remember from Essex.

Oh it’s the usual shambles. This Sunday’s recording of MSND had to be postponed because the recording studio we were originally going to use is now unavailable. Promptness was not good, for the last rehearsal a fortnight ago. A few of us were there on time, but we only got properly started over an hour later. And I still do not know who my Puck is going to be, without whom I (Oberon!) cannot get MSND’s plot going properly. But, they will get another studio. We were read the riot act about promptness by the supreme boss, in a scarily quiet voice. And the director, who after a worryingly late arrival chucked his weight around very encouragingly, will do Puck if we are still Puckless come recording time. I know all this because I know that these people want to go places with this enterprise. They want this on their CVs, and they want it to look good there. Nothing will be “too good” for them.

All of this, of course, has been made possible by the new technology of recording and of communication, and by the fact that so much of it is now cheap enough and ubiquitous enough for amateurs like me to make meaningful use of it. However, it is worth stressing that the blurring of the distinction between amateur acting and real acting that I am experiencing could only work if the new technology also encouraged some of the professionals to go slumming with the likes of me. The people running this show know what they are doing, when they twiddle their knobs and fade in their musical effects. The supreme boss will probably be switching us to a radio studio which he personally constructed. And the actors, who are mostly quite young (hence me doing two of the big older guy parts), are all trying to be professional actors, even though they are mostly still at the stage of having real world jobs of the sort they will later want to discuss with Jonathan Ross but which in the meantime they really need. Elena is one of these young actors, and the only reason it never occurred to me to volunteer for this before she asked me to was that I assumed I would not fit in, what with having had no proper training as a actor, and having little in the way of serious acting ambitions. Anyway, my point is that all this new technology (the internet, internet downloads, cheap CD copying etc.) is mingling with older technology, in the form of that decent recording studio that they are borrowing at the weekend, and in the form of people who know how to scrounge such a place and how to operate it. In my opinion, if there were no aspirational professionals to guide the newly enthused amateurs like me and the young starters-out like Elena and the other bright young acting things, operations like this would not work. The new technology, that is to say, is not just a way for a whole new bunch of alert amateurs and tyros to break through the ceiling between them and really going somewhere. The new technology also creates new opportunities for alert old-style professionals.

If that were not so, then as I say, things like this would not work nearly so well. We lesser beings all want to do our best, and for that we need technological expertise and dramatic guidance, especially with a play like Midsummer Night’s Dream, which absolutely depends on good sound effects (it is saturated with musical references) and on being, you know, really well spoken.

The new technology is also, of course, creating equal and opposite horrors and scary monsters for other old-style professionals. Imagine a world in which your average drama critic compares, e.g., something like our best shot at MSND with the similar effort just done by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and says that in some ways ours is better. We are almost there.

The parallels between all of the above and blogging are obvious, I think. And as a blogger I have been reading about things like this happening, or being about to happen, for many years now. Arguably, pop music has been in this state of fluidity ever since the tape recorder was invented. And see also this piece, which I personally published, about a corresponding process that is going on with film-making, by our own David Carr, or for that matter this earlier piece, by David Botsford, which David Carr’s piece was a response to. See also this attempt to market with a blog a decidedly different but very professionally made movie, already mentioned here a few times. Once again, you see the mixing of old-style professionalism with the opportunities created by the new digital technology.

But it is one thing to read about history, quite another to actually experience it, even if it is of the peaceful, “social” variety. I always knew I would be some kind of writer, so when a new kind of writing came along, it changed things for me, big time, but it did not utterly transform them. But with acting, the new technology has been for me the difference between a whole new world of fun, aspiration, effort and potential achievement, and bugger all. That is a huge difference, I think you will agree. And it all happened very suddenly. I went from zero to Oberon in the space of a few days.

Am I the only old bloke who shone a little as a student actor but who then recoiled in dismay from the futile grind of old-style amateur dramatics? Surely not. Other amateurs are bound to come crawling out of the woodwork, once they see that there is now a new world out there, in which they might have the chance to do something truly excellent, and in time that they can truly spare.

Maybe, following on from those two pieces by the Davids, I will even find myself doing movies some time soon. And although I am not in this for money, I will take any that is offered eagerly, and will attentively listen to any plans that Mr Spielberg might have for me.

I am starting, in short, to have those delusions of grandeur again, without which, in my opinion, showbiz is no fun at all.

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2 comments to A drama dream comes true

  • What you were saying about the advantages of radio work (no costumes, no lights, being able to read your lines) all apply equally to another form of acting: animation voiceovers.

    A lot of professional actors, including some “big names”, have been involved in voiceover work, especially in the last few years. It’s a different challenge since they only have their voices to work with and have to match the mouth movements of the animated figures, but it’s also very enjoyable for them and a lot of them have gotten hooked on it. It’s a challenge, so there’s an opportunity to demonstrate artistry and to give the eventual audience a satisfying performance. And it’s also much less of a hassle than working in front of a camera.

    Voiceover acting is a legitimate profession in its own right, especially in Japan where voiceover actors are referred to as seiyuu). And this guy is arguably the best seiyuu alive today. The length of his CV is astounding considering he isn’t even 40 yet.

  • I am starting, in short, to have those delusions of grandeur again, without which, in my opinion, showbiz is no fun at all.

    Jeez Brian, aren’t you doing it backwards? I mean, aren’t you supposed to be a successful actor, and then start telling us how the economy, politics and our lives should be run? And if you are doing it backwards, I’d recommend being appointed a symbolic UN Ambassador on World Hunger Relief or maybe the chief of the British Delegation to the EU Parliament. If the size of your political soap box is directly related to your acting success, then you’ve a few loose ends to tie up in the political world before you sign that $20 million contract to star with Brad Pitt in the new action blockbuster “Thermopylae.”

    In all seriousness though, good for you. Break a leg. I recently re-discovered road bicycling after a 15 year hiatus, marriage, offspring, and 3 trouser sizes. The rediscovery and rejuvenation of one’s youthful hobbies is what I imagine kissing the first girl I ever loved would be like, only better. After all, in the case of bikes, they have gotten lighter, better looking, and faster than that first girlfriend in the intervening 20 years…