It doesn’t get any easier. From my first school play through weekly rep. at Frinton-on-Sea to playing John Proctor in Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, the “why am I doing this?’ terror does not go away. For me anyway – and, I suspect, the majority of stage actors.
I haven’t been on the stage for a long time. Not as an actor, anyway. The last time for me was in the understudy run of ‘Skylight’ for the National Theatre. I was understudying Bill Nighy. I never had to go on during the run but the statutory internal understudy performance was still scary, though. The two of us (it’s a two-hander) had invited friends, agents, casting directors etc. to fill out the auditorium of the Vaudeville Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue for the event. We did our bit to make our show a meaningful event and very fine it was too, by all accounts. But that was fifteen years ago.
Performing for television or film doesn’t quite have the same quality of scariness as does the bungie jump ‘now or never’ moment of making a first entrance on a first night in the theatre. If working with the camera is scary, it’s more of a kind of private frisson than the full-on shared experience of theatre, which bears more resemblance to going over the top to face the bullets and shells of battle in a close company of soldiers – with no disrespect to those who do that for real! Filming is more like going into hospital for an operation. You trust in the calm professionalism of all those around you and privately hope that you’re not the one that fucks it all up.
That said, THE most scary “beam me up Scottie” experience of my professional career was in a TV studio. There is a form of television that, for the performer, exquisitely combines both forms of scariness mentioned above into one – The Sitcom. In 1994 there was a Granada TV sitcom called “The House of Windsor”. This short lived series was set behind the scenes at Buckingham Palace. I played a character called ‘Sir Robert Butlers’. I have never been so terrified in my life. As I said, sitcom combines all the fears associated with live performance (sitcom audiences are actually quite large), with the more subtle terrors of causing the complex machine of TV production to grind to a halt if you cock it. Take it from me, it is a heady mix. I don’t remember ever feeling quite so ill waiting for my call.
On the other hand, one of the most pleasant and unthreatening professional experiences I ever had was when filming an episode of ‘The Royal’ for Yorkshire TV in 2003. It was a short scene out on location involving me talking to Wendy Craig whilst sitting on a public bench overlooking Scarborough bay. It was a bright day with a hazy sun and there was only a slight sea breeze – a perfectly peaceful scene. We were there to do a job but for the two of us sitting on the bench overlooking this perfect and calm vista, while the crew reset between takes, it was like being paid to meditate.
There is something particularly surreal about filming on location. All around you is the familiar, a shared experience, places that people inhabit or visit in the normal course of their lives and never think twice about, but there you are, in this bubble, this cocoon of unreality, of pretend. That cocoon is defined by a camera, lights, sound boom, camera track probably, twenty or more crew – to say nothing of the ‘offstage’ paraphernalia of mobile dressing rooms, makeup, wardrobe, catering, toilet and generator trucks. And you know what? If you’ve got lines to speak, IT’S ALL THERE FOR YOU! There you are – it’s the real world, same as everyday, you can see it all around – but for these few hours it will seem that the sole purpose of the universe is to capture just a few seconds of you. Seductive.
In this instance filming ‘The Royal’, the situation just occurred as so beautifully absurd, captive in my own pleasant reverie, being paid to be there and surrounded by the intense professionality of director and crew going about their jobs. Every now and again we’d be asked if we were ready, camera roll, “action” – we’d speak some script to each other – “cut”, and then peace again all wrapped up inside of this soft machine that is all about me (and Wendy Craig). Strangely, I’ve rarely felt so safe.
But I digress – this is supposed to be about scariness and so far it has had all the focus of a Jeremy Clarkson article.
What I was getting round to is the fact that over the past year or two I have experienced another kind of stage fright. I play rock/blues guitar in a band called Rockpool. We do covers of classic rock and blues tunes – some well known, some not so. The interesting thing is, in many ways, I have found this more scary than performing as an actor.
I don’t personally know anyone else who has experience of both kinds of performance ( I must distinguish playing a lead solo instrument from accompanied singing here), but I would be fascinated to know if my experience is a shared one. You see, while I can reasonably depend upon my powers of speech and voice to not let me down while being an actor, (I have been practising those skills since I was born), I do not enjoy the same level of confidence my mastery of fretboard and strings (skills relatively recently aquired). Added to which, rock guitar is played chuffing LOUD and out front – there is no hiding place, bum notes cannot be hidden. But the factor that makes all the difference for me is that if I am playing guitar, I am playing it as MYSELF.
Oh dear. You see, by and large, I’m OK performing as someone else. I’m used to that. You could almost say it’s within my comfort zone, however bizarre that may seem to some. That tells me that I find a kind of comfort being behind a mask, however terrified I might be of entering the stage. In fact, it tells me that the terror of going on stage is that the MASK MIGHT SLIP!
Ha! You thought actors were show offs! Not a bit of it. In fact, acting is a clever way of remaining concealed whilst cunningly drawing attention. It’s a high risk strategy, granted – but the pay-off is pretty good; it’s YOU that actually gets the applause, not the person you pretended to be.
However, whilst a Fender Stratocaster is a great prop, it doesn’t turn you into someone else. Performing as a musician I’ve never yet had that experience that is familiar as an actor, the feeling like just before you go into the sea for a swim – the horror of the first moments of cold pain on your mind before the plunge is taken – then after a few moments everything is OK. The feeling of entering into a place of comfort as you find the breadcrumb trail of your character, your temporary alter-ego, your way back through the evil forest of the stage to the dressing room. Somehow, playing with the band, I still feel thoroughly exposed, scared of my own ineptitude – and while I enjoy playing, I don’t get the quintessential reward of experiencing that peculiar duality of feeling safe, at the same time as being exposed and at risk, that I have experienced in acting.
By being an actor, you make the ‘throw your cap over the wall’ commitment to accepting some pretty weird experiences that test the extremes of your comfort zone and beyond. What is interesting is that the human mind is still capable, within that framework, of adopting strategies that protect personal identity within an environment that is extremely hostile to the ego. However, it seems those strategies don’t work for me when I’m being a guitar player.
Maybe I need to be a better guitar player – or a better person.