Year 8

I could never be a teacher. I don’t know how so many of you do it. Sometimes I tutor people into Drama School one on one. Even then, if you don’t care much about it I don’t care much about you. Sometimes I do workshops in universities. That’s been fun over the years. Prisons are lovely too. People are starved of stimulus and long for it. But schools? What madman teaches in a school? Nobody can learn in those places. Big swelling schools full of shouting kids? How? Still, that was roughly what I did today, while longing for the simplicity of a maximum security US prison where people want to learn.

I was out in the East End, talking about IT consultancy to year 8. Getting them enthusiastic. About IT consultancy. Oh yes. Yes indeed. What fun. Getting them to problem-solve. This is a workshop designed by adults for adults but also kids. It’s wordy. They want the kids to apply their thinking to develop technology in groups that will help with the refugee crisis, the aging population/healthcare, or food security. The heart of it is really firmly in the right place. They have to invent and pitch a bit of digital technology that can practically address issues around those subjects. It’s talking about applying technology to ethical problems. It requires them to work in groups, together, towards a common goal that they can set. There’s a lot of freedom. But it’s not simple. It needs focus.

My job is to lead it, to try to engage people in it, and to make it fun. The teachers are supposed to do crowd control but they just catch up with marking and leave us with baffled teaching assistants who do very little. I have no desire to instigate discipline and as a visitor it’s not my job. So when I’m on the line I don’t care. But my voice is worn today because I had to tell them to stop being such bastards to each other when THEY were on the line. They were fine to me. But when their fellow students had to present their findings they devolved into monsters. And I had to try to teach them empathy and stop them from being so aggressive to each other’s work. Which took away from my cache as a visiting expert. You can’t be a visiting expert AND a disciplinarian. But they were doing something I can only describe as “work-shaming.”

There are kids who want to learn, but in this school I noticed a culture of laziness supported by the stronger personalities. I come across that a great deal in different contexts. I always worry when I do. It’s the culture that Trump is giving permission for, but it’s always been there. Inquiring minds are framed by the group as somehow “boring” compared to pedestrian obedient minds. Kids with interesting thoughts are being yawned down by kids who might have more interesting thoughts but don’t want to express them for fear of being thought “interesting.” People don’t want to be seen to try. What sort of a culture is that? Where does that lead?

I went home a little upset because all I want to do on the rare occasions I visit a school is to help expand some horizons, and encourage kids to push their own boundaries a little. I hated unearned authority as a child and that means I don’t want to come in unknown and immediately discipline people. I think that the work did land, but I hate to see kids leading themselves and each other into willful ignorance.

I’ll be back in tomorrow with year 7. One year younger, they’ll probably be less self conscious but more swamped by the material. I bet they’re more willing, less afraid to admit to curiosity. Still, we do what we can. Onwards. Bed now. Zzzz

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Funerals

Most of us will end up in a box, carried by a bunch of strangers to the sound of an organ. We won’t be aware of it, but it’ll happen. There’ll be some songs. “Abide with me?” “Thine be the Glory?” That guy from the local amdram that wishes he was Placido Domingo will lead the church flat. Whichever of our friends are still alive will clutch a piece of paper with that photo we never really liked on the top. Why did they choose that photo? They’ll bellow along to the hymns, an enthusiastic solemn cacophony. The vicar will pretend to know you, but bets will be out as to whether or not he’ll get your name right. He might make some positive statements about your personality with the sincerity of a recorded voice saying “I’m sorry for the delay.”

Some mate of yours that still owes you 20 quid from that last game of backgammon will hesitantly hobble up and attempt to make sense of where you went in a jumbled speech. It won’t make much sense to them yet that you aren’t about to jump up and say “I’m here!” Our true friends are immortal, surely? That’s why we can be so shit about calling them.

Lesson time! Everyone will nod sagely as the wisdom of Ecclesiastes tells us unquestioned that there is a time to hate and a time to kill, oh as well as a time to love and a time to die because that’s why we’re here. But there’s definitely time to hate and kill too. While we decide who to hate and kill there’s sad music. Maybe some sad children wear suits.

Then our heavy corpse will be expertly lifted and hustled off to the crematorium, where the guy who does the logistics is just hoping he’s got the bodies in the right order. There’s a queue waiting outside with the next body, and someone in there when you arrive. The flowers might get jumbled so you burn as”Doris”. Afterwards the family probably just get a generic pile of ashes in an urn, the remains of someone’s lunch, with “Grandma” on the label. Already more idea than truth. But it’s all about symbols, about belief and about overlooking, this business of dying.

I’ve had my share of funerals. Too many already and I’m relatively young. I see the need for an end of life ritual, but this version is somehow counter to my tastes. But I also see with an entertainer’s eye that sometimes you just gotta give ’em what they want. And it’s familiar, easy closure.

Today was the funeral of my cousin. It’s a branch of my family in Folkestone – my maternal grandmother’s side. Nigel was a good guy, an architect, changing the landscape in that area. Last time I saw him outside of a family gathering was when I played Turner at Margate Theatre Royal. At the time he was building the Turner Contemporary Gallery on the harbor arm. I was thrilled he came to my show. We hung out afterwards.

I was glad to see him off today. It was a solemn but apt funeral. It’s impossible not to have a conversation about Boba Fett when I see that side of the family. My cousin Emma knows the actor in the costume, and sees how he makes his living via conventions. “You could do that. All you need is that part in Star Wars.” Yes, universe. That’s all I need. That part in Star Wars. I might turn down The Sun. I won’t turn down Star Wars. And GO universe!

And so we go on. And for me, fewer and fewer of the older generation remain to annoy me with their opinions. I’m glad I made the trip to see him off. Say what I will about the traditional service, it’s familiar. And familiar helps. Hopefully next time I go to Folkestone it’ll be for pleasure.

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Martin

“Your whole life is a work of art.”

Thus spake an old teacher of mine, today. I like it. It’s delightful challenging and strange. Much like the man who made the comment. Here we are together.

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I sat in a pub with Martin Tyrrell after having delivered an employability workshop at his son’s school. His son was auditioning for the school play after hours, so I got to catch up while he waited. His son goes to John Lyon School, which neighbors my old secondary school Harrow. It’s an independent fee paying day school. It’s named after the founder of Harrow School, because Lyon’s charter was always meant to be for local kids.

I went to Harrow. I dislike admitting that, but here it is in public. Yep. It’s one of the most expensive schools in the world. My dad was on a mission. He gave me fantastic privilege. That’s me. Hi. I went to one of the most expensive schools in the world. Fuck.

I knew I wanted to be an actor when I arrived there. That’s not what they want, really. Although it worked out for Cumberbatch. Martin was the first man who took it seriously. He gave me the role of Camille in the school play of A Flea in her Ear at a time when I was universally known and mocked by the tiny pool of socially derelict monkeys that made up the bulk of my contemporaries. Camille was the right part, in that he appears to be incapable of clear speech with a cleft palate written phonetically. Given the correct mouthpiece he becomes intensely erudite, desirable, and funny. From time to time the mouthpiece gets knocked out and hilarity ensues. Suddenly, thanks to Martin, I was able to make people in my limited circle laugh with me rather than at me. And then they didn’t treat me so horrendously. It was the beginning of the good times when these nasty little turds looked elsewhere for their whipping boy.

I loved Martin as a teacher so it was very pleasant to sit and reminisce with him. I’ve given so much of my time and energy to theatrical forms that are outside the norm that it’s pleasant to see that he’s still curious, still generous, still happy that I’m happy, still kind. He’s contextualising what I do for himself, and I appreciate that. I’m trying to do this on my own terms and he understands that, and knows how hard it is to do so. He did at one point this evening accuse me loosely of being a puritan, but I remember that we clashed a few years ago about my thoughts regarding delivery of verse in Shakespeare, so I’m cool with that. My thinking is less rigorous now than it was then, but I still firmly believe that until you understand rigour, freedom can be a general splat, and not satisfactory to watch. Freedom grounded with rigour is true freedom on stage. A mixture of the fixed and the flowing. As Patsy Rodenberg used to say, “It’s about the work.” It really is. Hail Eris/learn your lines.

Tomorrow my agent has got me an audition but she doesn’t know when! Yep. I’m going to show up at ten as I’ve got a funeral to attend. Hopefully I won’t get sworn at. This job is still as arbitrary and beautiful as it was when I started. I’m lucky that, somehow, I’m still going.

Home

Returning from Ascot I find my old life waiting for me. Dear friends staying on my sofa, auditions for weird short projects, messages asking me to do acting or presenting or dressing up or facilitating. The house is filled with home made alcohol. Brian has been busy. There’s cherry brandy and various ciders. We have enough to poison a whole church. I’m looking forward to getting stuck in. But now I’m off into a week of work in schools. More early starts. More mentoring. Sure I’m good at it. Sure I care about it. But bring me a role in a play for crying out loud. This is the longest it’s ever been now.

Ascot was like a holiday from myself. Partly because there’s a distance between who I am on the floor and who I am. I’m glad it’s done. I’ll be pleased when the money comes in, but the money is not enough for the work. I do miss the guys on my team. Adversity brings people together. We used each other to make it better. They even bought me farewell chocolates and wrote a lovely note. I couldn’t get them anything. My routine was work drive sleep drive work drive sleep.

Today my body shut down at 1pm. I had to sleep for an hour. It’s like it remembered that it’s normally the crazy time and just went “NO”.

Tara, my old flatmate, used to work shifts like that all the time in Intensive Care. She was stopping people from dying. And earning fuck all for it. I was oiling a money machine and shoving food into peoples gormless faces. At least within that I could make a community. And I’m glad I did. But it’s not worthy work. I want to do it on my terms if I do more of it. On more human, kinder terms. My direct manager didn’t treat my staff as people. It wasn’t her fault, she was in over her head. But when you’re in over your head sometimes you sink, sometimes you swim, and very occasionally you fly. She had rocks in her pocket.

I was offered a meeting for a commercial today, for The Sun. I turned it down. My ethics are confused in the sense that I’ll sell my week to Ascot and give it my all, but I won’t meet for a single day’s work for The Sun that would pay me as much as the whole week at Ascot. Beggars can’t be choosers? I choose not to beg. The right work will find me and I can wait until it does. Says the man that just lost a week.

Post audition I hung out with my friends Jon and Fliss and their little son Ethan who is 1 today. It’s hard not to be broody when so many of your friends have made or are making people. I’m so aware of the inevitability of death. If I had a kid now and I was lucky, I’d live long enough to see them married. I’d like that. This world is a shitstorm at the moment, but the pendulum has to swing. Maybe it’s okay to try and bring another person into the fray, and hope that they’ll be converting negativity to light. I suppose that’s the best we can hope from our kids.

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Exhausted AGM

Well, that’s done. Royal Ascot. It’s a fascinating logistical exercise. You get sent a load of staff on the first day for training. You train them. Then the next day they send you a completely different bunch of staff who haven’t been trained. Then throughout the week they constantly reassign your staff and send you new people.

Added to that they randomly assign jobs to people who have never worked in catering before. “I’m a wine waiter. It says that on my wrist.“ “Open that bottle of champagne.” “Er…” *squeek* *pop* *sploosh* “shit” “I’ve already got a wine waiter. You’re better off in back of kitchen.” “But I’m a wine waiter! It says it here.”

I’m not entirely sure of the point of the training day if they can’t keep any consistency of staff. And I don’t understand why they assign duties regardless of our assessment of their capabilities. Thankfully I built a loyal team. Or at least they built me. They were looking after me by the end. Here’s the bulk of the core team and me. We were all exhausted but I felt sad to see the end of it because they were just a bunch of legends.

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Because I’m usually a mentor and am reasonably clueless about the detail of service, I treated this whole floor management shenanigan as a mentoring job. I wanted to help people come into their strength. I chose people who I thought were future leaders and I tried to help them understand that about themselves. It allowed me to have a great time watching them realise how good they were in the roles I found for them.

Now I’m back in town it’s back to the acting. I went to the AGM for Actors From The London Stage. I’ve just had a curry with Scott who runs it in Notre Dame Indiana. AFTLS is part of the reason why I write this blog. I had to write as part of the last tour I did for them, and people responded well which helped me allow myself to write this. I was proud to see that they were using a shot of our company as their publicity material too.

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That was happy job. I imagine/I hope I’ll do it again one day. AFTLS is also the perfect actors community. For actors who are willing to make something complicated without an outside eye, take ownership of it, and deliver it beautifully. The company has been running for over 40 years. The AGM was mostly a time to reconnect and I sat in a room full of old friends. I ran into a friend from years ago whose daughter was in the room. I then had a brilliant chat with a six year old. She’s moved around her whole life and she’s made of bricks. When she lived in Kenya, a banana tree fell on her head and she didn’t cry. Now she’s in Dubai but she’s staying in Bolton but it’s okay because she can Facetime her dad every day.  I told her how I couldn’t do that when I was a kid, but I’d sometimes see him on the telly if the winner Olympics were on. We actually made friends. Anna, her mum, was grateful to have her distracted so she could catch up with friends. She kept thanking me when she came back which was unnecessary as I’d had a good conversation. It made me feel broody. I’ve only got a limited time left to build a human. I’ve always liked the idea. I’ve got enough useless knowledge to be a pretty effective dad. Problem is, that involves falling in love….

 

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It’s all done. I’m trying to reground myself by staying up all night despite no sleep for a week. Because that’s always the best solution.

Fuck. That was a week. I feel emotionally stretched. A beautiful week but a hard week. I’ve been thinking about frames of reference. It takes as great deal to shake someone from privilege into a state of empathy. The final day is when the people with less money tend to come. We had lots of competition winners in the room, and generally the people were more grounded. One guy had won a trip from Australia by filling in a competition on the neck of a bottle. The crowd today were considerably more generous to my staff than the CEO’s of the major companies that were there earlier in the week. If you don’t know what it is to be a waiter, you don’t know how hard the work is for terrible money, so you are less inclined to be generous. “They’re just minions”. I was pleased to sign off tips today that meant my waiters had been paid more than I had.

Now I’m home and coming in under the word limit for the last time, now with no photo either. I’m too tired to be sad, but I’ll miss my staff. They all flourished. Tomorrow I’ll be sad. Right now, I’ll refer you to my Father’s Day blog and use the Get Out of Jail Free card I embedded there:

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Morning after. What a week. I completely failed to even manage to copy and paste the content before I passed out. Tristan, Roxana and I all stumbled back home fraught and in flux, and deconstructed all the poison we had been converting throughout the week while necking red wine. Poison can be turned into medicine. Now I’m trying to establish the best way of getting a foot massage without walking anywhere.

I had one guest take me aside to talk about one of the hosts. Their job is to greet and troubleshoot, like the managers. They are paid the same as the managers, with the advantage of not having to work so hard. Whenever anyone leaves the table, the host appears as if by magic, and makes sure if they can that the tip doesn’t go to the waiting staff. My guest was impressed with a host and pulled me aside. “You see that girl? She’s an actress. She isn’t just in hospitality. You, this is what you do and you trained for it. But she’s an actress, not a professional. And she’s brilliant at it as well. But she’s an artist too. She’s multitalented.” “Yes sir,” I responded. “I understand that professionals in the arts must learn to be adaptable in order to put food on the table.” “Well she has. It’s remarkable.” “I agree with you entirely sir. Can I send one of my staff to bring you anything for the table?”

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I’ve been staying in the Korean wing of Royal Holloway University, out in Egham. It’s bloody luxury. When I were a student it was little tiny beds made out of rocks. This place has double beds and ensuite bathrooms, and the room gets turned over every morning.

It’s got down to a smooth machine now, the service. My waiters have it all worked out to the extent that I feel I could leave the floor and not panic that I’d get back to dead guests and fire. And it makes me feel proud. Although as I touched on yesterday it’s not surprising. These kids are all just making a bit of money while waiting to finish their degree in nuclear brain surgery. When my head falls off they’ll be the ones stitching it back on.

I can’t really remember what happened yesterday to be honest. Mostly it was me surrounded by tables being charming while thinking about 8 things simultaneously. The good thing is that by simply filling out lots of forms I’ve successfully got gadgets for loads of my guys. Laura won a Fitbit and they surprised her with a TV camera. She just laughed in a mixture of horror at the camera and surprise at the Fitbit. They wanted her to speak in a complete sentence for their internal footage but there was absolutely no possibility that that was ever going to happen. They asked her tons of questions and she responded with giggles. She quite proudly said to me afterwards “Well they won’t be able to use any of that.”

We are driving in for one last push. Today will be fine, by comparison. We’ve got all our stuff which means we have to play car Tetris.

We look so much healthier here than we actually feel.

My feet have no sensation left in them. My head is full of cotton wool. I talk to everyone in my manager voice. My name badge calls me Alex which is convenient as it lowers the chances one of the waiters goggles me and discovers I’m an actor. But of course some of them are trying to get into drama school.

We’re arriving. Work time. One day more… IMAG0996IMAG0996