It may be a little hard to believe, but I actually started out my career (as in ‘careering out of control’) as a children’s entertainer.
It was all down to that bloody drama degree, of course. Once I had got a taste for the smell of the crowd and roar of the greasepaint, what was there to stop me? Well- reality, maybe, but that’s another story.
I applied for a few acting jobs from The Stage and eventually got taken on by the West Midlands Children’s Theatre Company for a four-month tour round the country performing a piece called ‘Harlequin’s Holiday’ to appreciative audiences of three to ten year olds (if you were eleven, the whole thing kind of sucked).
Inspired by Commedia Dell’Arte, only without the arte, or the commedia (unless flying sausages make you chuckle), the play had a cast of three- two men and one woman who, in a commendable nod to equal opportunities, played the Harlequin. She also played the love interest, which was handy because it meant the company could pay less wages. There were five or six other groups also performing the play at the same time.
The first week of touring made me realise that the song ‘Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee‘ wasn’t giving the full story of what an actor’s life is about. Far from lying in bed till after two, we were up every morning at five before driving for three hours to that morning’s show. We might have two morning performances then another drive before an afternoon show at another town, probably miles away from the town we were at first thing.
After getting the set up, we would have about twenty minutes to prepare ourselves in, which generally meant drinking coffee in the school staffroom, having slightly strained conversations with the teachers, before it was time to rush off and get into our tights.
And I don’t mention tights metaphorically either- I had to wear thick, black woollen tights that were guaranteed to make the older boys piss themselves laughing when I flounced on stage in a purple tunic and ruff. I still shudder, thinking about those costumes. They were all kept in a suitcase and laundered whenever we had a chance- which, given we were doing twelve or fifteen shows a week, wasn’t often. God, they stank.
During that first week, the tour manager/other male actor and the girl playing Harlequin got drunk and ended up shagging. The tour manager thought he was on to a good thing here so, when it was time for us to relocate up North, he took the liberty of booking a double room for them and a twin room for me which I had to myself. For one night only.
Harlequin was horrified and gave him the ‘you know, we need to have a professional relationship here’ speech, followed by the ‘I’ve just decided I’m not that sort of girl’ routine, which meant no more nooky.
The tour manager, who was on a cocktail of mindbending prescription drugs for his various personality defects, took this rather badly and tried to get me to side with him to have her sacked. She was trying to get me to side with her also, so I had to put up with them both bitching to me about each other for the next few weeks. I didn’t really take sides, as I thought they were both twats, but my sympathies were definitely with her. God knows why she slept with him though- you do the casting couch before getting the job, not after.
Every evening, the tour manager would get horrendously drunk until two in the morning, drug himself up with chill pills, then wake up three hours later and insist on driving. He refused to let me or Halequin drive, not wishing to give up that little bit of power and control (as he saw it) that driving the van brought. This despite the fact we were taken on specifically because we had driving licences.
As I said before, the play was specifically aimed at little kids, yet the owners of the company would take any booking. One day we found ourselves arriving at a young offender’s institution where surly youths jeered us from the windows as we pulled up. When one shouted we were “All fucking dead!” as we were dragging the set out of the van, I flinched, hitting my head on the door frame, which concussed me and drew a fair bit of blood.
Even had I not been concussed, it would still have been a horrific performance, what with the constant interruptions from inmates in the courtyard banging on the metal screens over the windows and gesturing that either particular audience members were dead or, on more than one or two ocassions, us actors. It was hard to concentrate, what with still bleeding and the menacing sniggers and remarks of “Fucking wankers” and “This is fucking shit” coming from the audience. We decided to cut out two whole scenes so the play didn’t make any sense at all, and got out of there as fast as we could.
After a few weeks in the North, the tour manager decided we would spend the rest of the tour based in Coseley, the home of the Company, just because he liked the pub round the corner from the digs.
Coseley is an awful dump in the Black Country. Our digs, above the company offices, were indescribably bad. Three different groups of actors were staying there at any one time, so I had to share a box room with four other guys. One snored and another one stank.
There was no heating to speak of, save for a gas fire that hadn’t been safety tested in a decade. It belched out carbon monoxide, giving us all headaches. The landlord, the brother of the woman running the company, advised us to leave a window open if we were going to turn the fire on- which, to me, defeated the whole object.
I got a mate to post me an eighth of soap bar each week, which I would smoke in the kitchen, wondering if this was really what an actor’s life was like. For a great number of them it probably is, barring the long periods of unemployment euphemistically referred to as ‘resting’.
I began to understand how military people feel towards the end of a gruelling tour of duty.
As we limped towards Christmas, I convinced the tour manager that, for his own well-being, perhaps going on the road again after only a three week holiday wasn’t the best idea. Not if he wanted to retain whatever scraps of sanity he had left. Strangely, he listened to me, and decided to give himself a break. Last I checked, he was in his friend’s unfinished film project- a zero budget comedy about aliens or something in need of crowdsourcing.
I also opted out, wanting to spend a while at home to recover, although the directors of the company told me that I could tour with them again any time I wanted. It’s an offer I’ve yet to take up.
As for the West Midlands Children’s Theatre Company, I later found out that the reason our contracts were non-Equity was that we were working at least fifteeen hours longer each week than was legal, plus were getting paid about half of what we should have been. It also didn’t help that the guy who ran the company had punched the lights out of one of Equity’s directors at a charity dinner some twenty years before.