Leg breaking

So I suppose it could be said that Tristan and I are “resting.” In the sense that we’re actors and we are not working, even though the job we just finished wasn’t acting work. I hate the whole “resting” language. It’s like the widely known superstitions. I find them hard to honour. “Break a leg”, “Macbeth” whistling etc. They’ve become common knowledge, property of everyone. I’ve rarely met an actor that really cares if you say Macbeth. I’ll honor it with any stranger older than me though. I’m working on “The Scottish Play” with The Factory, and if you’re in it, you’ve got to be able to say it, so I can say Macbeth as much as I like until we’re done. Which might be years if Hamlet is anything to go by. And honestly, I won’t send you out of the room and make you turn three times, spit and ask to come back if you say “Macbeth”. However I’ve met many dedicated amateurs and volunteer stewards and keenly passionate supporters of our industry that care enormously. So I honor it as best I can lest I upset someone.

I will certainly rarely say “good luck” to an actor before they go on, but conversely I will never say “break a leg”. My habit is to say “smash it,” which can devolve into “smashy smashy” or “smashy smashface,” or endless variations on the theme of smashing. I thought I had evolved that as a solution at Guildhall, but I hear it from many sources and I question that it is mine. Convergent evolution? Who cares? These things just spontaneously evolve.

I don’t say “break a leg” because I don’t feel, as an actor, that I have ownership of “break a leg.” It’s a known phrase. People who want to appear knowledgeable tell me “oh, you don’t say good luck do you? Ha ha! You say break a leg.” I respond “ah well I don’t personally, sir, but yes, some people do. I prefer to say I hope you smash it.”

Often people ask me the origins of the break a leg. Nobody knows. I have a working theory.

It is 1717. You’re playing the lead at Drury Lane. As is often the case, you share a dressing room with your understudy, Sam. Sam is your friend. You’ve been on the job a long time. You’re fit and healthy. You go on every night, and it’s a sell out. Five stars across the board. It’s running and running, packed every night for months and months. It’s the making of you. You can’t take a night off, the public want you. Sam knows that. Sam’s happy with the way the cookie crumbles. You see each other daily. You know the details of each other’s personal life. You go drinking together, you hang out. You and Sam are friends. But Sam’s job is to show up and sit in the dressing room night after night. And Sam knows they can smash it.

If there’s an incident mid show, like in 1989 with Day-Lewis having a breakdown in the ghost scene of Hamlet at The National, the understudy (Jeremy Northam in that case) finishes the audience’s show and cements their name in the process. You both know and understand this

So it’s showtime and you’re in costume, and you head on, ready to smash the hell out of it. They’re calling beginners. “Here we go again,” you mutter, ready, and you head to the door. “Break a leg,” says Sam, smiling.

Sam’s comment catches you unaware. You laugh. If you were to literally break a leg, Sam your understudy would play that part. Sam saying “break a leg” under those circumstances is reasonably witty and apposite.

This snarky understudy story works better for me than theories I’ve heard about “breaking” the curtain legs, especially considering the German version is “Hals und beinbruch” Break your neck and your leg. There’s something about the laconic, provocative way that actors interact with one another that makes my theory make sense. We all know we are interchangeable, unless we have serious ego problems. We relate accordingly.

However it all came about, more people who aren’t actors care about it than people who are. The emoji movie for instance. It will affect how people use emojis. Just a few days ago I referenced Withnail and I, which is a remarkable film about actors that has touched the public imagination. There is much that is accurate, and much that is fanciful. But the story has affected the frame people have for the reality.

Having finished that event I’m glad to have some downtime. I’m”resting” from the event despite my distaste. I’m spent.

Rather than sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring, Tristan and I have been driving around Wales actively hoping it won’t. At about 6pm both of us visibly relax because our agent hasn’t called to tell us we need to be at Spotlight for 11 the next morning to meet for a beer advert with 700 people who look just like us. We would drop everything and go back for that opportunity should it arrive. But for now we can continue our meandering peregrination through Prydain. Before long we’ll get back to the stone walls of London. But for now it’s trees, grass, wind and cheap pubs.

I’m in Carmarthen now, an old Roman settlement with the remains of the most westerly amphitheatre of the empire just casually hanging out near the city centre. That was entertainment, back then. As a vocational performer it’s a curious thought that a large portion of one of the greatest civilisations in the world preferred watching terrified naked people being torn apart by hungry bears than the old Homeric bards. I like to make “live experience” work, but I’d like to do it without having my spleen hooked out by some starving tormented brute beast. Let’s get on it. I’m going to bed. Too late. Night. No photo today… X


Author: albarclay

This blog is a work of creative writing. Do not mistake it for truth. All opinions are mine and not that of my numerous employers.

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