Fail better

I moved upstairs on site.

Tristan and I destroyed pretty much everything in the mushroom basement of doom. Now it’s just the ceiling and a couple of bits of dressing on the walls. The bulk of it is in piles of timber, perspex, metal and rubble. Now we are in the offices of the FBI.

My mind is behaving strangely now when I look at things. I immediately try to establish how they were created with an eye to taking them to pieces. On site I have invented personalities for the people that built the set. Some of them really cared about doing a good job, and I don’t like them for it. The better the build, the harder it is to wreck it. “Glue-gun guy” in particular can fuck right off. He’s made a lot of work for me. And “Screw crazy lady” who would never use one screw when 27 will do. Although removing screws is somehow satisfying even in their thousands.

Some of the carpenters did a fantastic build, with multiple layers, shoring it all as they went, adding insulation. Fuck that, it’s theatre. Make it out of balsa wood and gaffer and then paint something pretty on the outside? Although I guess this had to be as nicely turned as possible. It was a huge scale immersive show with a high ticket price, giving gainful and respectful employment to so many people, including Tristan and myself as wreckers. It was an ambitious large scale drive.

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In this case it didn’t work out financially. Arguably part of the fact it didn’t work out is because it was opened before it was made, both creatively and physically, and it never recovered from some atrocious press. Immersive shows often reach a point where they can no longer be rehearsed without an audience.

I’ve spent far too much of my time with well meaning directorpeople trying to pretend to be audience members but you can’t prepare for the random joyful mixture of willingness and fear, insecurity and bombast, nonsense and sheer fucking JOY that a real human watchy-person will bring to the half finished character concept you are fleshing out with the creative team. The wider the frame the more fun people can have. I’ll never forget some of the people who have surprised me in Carol – old ladies sharing their own Christmas poem, Romanian folk singers taking my accordion and showing me how it’s really done, lovers proposing just before the spirit of Christmas yet to come…

But as a performer you’ve got to be secure enough in the direction the scene needs to go. You have to know the end point and be flexible enough to get any group’s energy there. It’s not about scripting for all eventualities. It’s about collaboration, shared trust and the act of creation in the moment. Know what you can and can’t say. All of this deepens with time… The guys on the show I’m taking down now – they were just making sense of it. I saw the last night. It was smart. Witty. Occasionally flat still, and occasionally arbitrary. But it was alive at the point it had to die. I wonder what might have been.

I’m having a lot of thoughts, as I work extremely hard with a crowbar, hammer and impact driver, deconstructing this thing. Sic transit. Everybody involved talks in terms of what they’ve learnt. I think that’s a thing. The upshot of all this is a better entertainment industry. Fail. Fail again. Fail better. And eventually you make a masterpiece.

I am mushroom

When you walk down the stairs into “The Boardroom” it hits you. A wave of hard damp. It’s like walking out of an airport in the tropics, but cold. Tristan and I have been there for two days now, taking things apart. Somebody had left a humidity monitor on the bar which I found while we were taking the bar to pieces. 89%. No wonder it feels like I’ve been gargling yogurt. Ach. The kid who used to get pneumonia is not impressed with the grown up running around with tools in a stinking damp underground shithole. The remains of various industrial level air fresheners lie scattered among the timbers. Most of those timbers are bitten with damp. Some of them reek with it. If your head touches the wall your hair comes away soaking wet. This is going to be a hotel. Maybe they should make this the steam rooms…  Right now it’s no place to spend time. It’s like the dimension of the Mushroom King. ALL HAIL OUR FUNGAL OVERLORD.

I’ve been getting to know my tools in this nasty place. My fingers are chewed up and my body is hammered but they’ll grow back. I’m spent, as I always will be at the end of the day. It’s a good kind of spent but it’s still *mushroomy* spent.

I should be moving my stem to Hampstead tonight. Tom is staying and Kitcat is back from her wandering, so the best way for me to have a bed is to do my duty as a fungal house-sitter for Mel, and to let those two warm-bloods get on with it at mine until this darkdelved job is done.

I’ve got Burns’s Night on Saturday at home of course – (come and bring a poem) – but it makes more sense for me to be commuting from Belsize Park to Moorgate. It’s a straight shot. It’s not like I’ll be doing anything other than waking, working, sporing and sleeping for ten days. Belsize Park is about half an hour closer to the site than my flat is. I’m just gonna be workshroom until it’s all over and I can see how many moths are in my wallet.

Hopefully tomorrow we won’t be underground. I’ve felt a bit like one of those characters in eighties arcade games who have to walk through earth in order to clear it. Mister Do. Dig-Dug. Just with no bouncy ball. There were definitely rocks I could’ve dropped on myself. And I am now officially a mushroom.

My mushroombum is so cold. It got damp almost immediately, sitting on an ill advised bit of carpet as I took some stairs apart. It remained damp all day, as how could it not working as I was inside a giant phlegm flavoured blancmange. Just after lunch I put my pants on back to front as I was worried I’d rub my bottom raw. It worked to an extent but it’s nothing to write home about. I’m going to have a hot bath if I can later, but knowing I have to try to get to Hampstead means I can’t really relax until I know where I’m sleeping.

There are motivational posters and deliberately egregious slogans scattered all over this hideous dank basement. “Hit your targets” dominates one corner. I’ve been reading Solzhenitsyn recently.

Here’s Tristan getting started on taking the bar apart, lit dramatically by the sporadically failing temporary floodlights.

Careful if you meet me right now. After a second day in the basement I might start trying to eat your clean nice tasty face with my dirty dirty bad bad toothyteeth yesssssno gills. My people must live! And spread! Come to the damp. Anngravvvrunnth the mushroom king will welcome you with open gills.

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My very own power tools

Within five minutes of arriving on site this morning I knew that I wasn’t going to get anywhere without my own tools. Just too much to deconstruct and not enough in the way of power tools to go around. Sometimes in the past there’s been someone with two drills. Not this one. If I’m going to be on a get-out crew for a fortnight it’s incumbent on me to have some kit, really.

Thankfully I was tipped off that Screwfix had a good deal on right now for just what I needed.

It’s about time I had my own set. Now, after two ubers and about half my fee gone, I’m the proud owner of a set of shiny De Walt impact drivers. I’m the guy with two drills. A big one, mostly for drilling, and a little fast snub one for taking out hundreds of screws no matter how threaded they are.

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I’ve been taking up a mezzanine to get to the steeldeck with the snub-nosed one all day. I’ve also got myself a wrecking bar because whoever put the mezzanine down had a gluegun and really wasn’t afraid to use it. God. And a month ago I was just prancing around in a nightgown.

It’s a very safe floor, the floor I’m taking up, which means I have to really work in order to get to the screwheads. The floor tiles are glued on so hard. I’ve been swearing at the installer most of the day for doing such a careful job as I’ve been hammering my wrecking bar under them. Building theatre is a balance. Yes it’s got to be safe, but it’s also got to be taken up again. Screw them for doing such a good job…

It’s a different kind of tired today. Tristan very kindly bought me some kneepads which are a revelation as now my knees don’t hurt so much, even though I forgot to take them off so now I’ll have to wear them home and remember them in the morning. The rest of me hurts though.

I guess I’m not as young as I used to be. This fortnight is either going to fix me or destroy me.

I ran out of painkiller after lunch so my shoulder has been shouting, but I’m also trying to ease back on the meds as they should be necessity only. I’m not about to get dependent on over the counter opiates. I still don’t know what’s wrong so I can’t tell you if I’m making it worse or better by being intensely active. It’s one or the other though and I guess if I work without numbing myself I’ll know if I do something I ought not to.

Bed was eleven last night and I think it might have been a spot too late for my purposes. Gonna try to crash at ten tonight.

It’s lovely to finally have my own set of tools. Actual decent tools. And a fortnight to get to know them.

These things are perhaps more for wrecking than for building, but if I get a box of bits I can use them around the house to put up pictures, take out and put in doors, sort out shelves etc etc. There are lots of little jobs around the house that have been neglected for too long and for which there’s no way in hell I’m paying the rate I can get on the internet from my postcode. I’ve often mourned the lack of a drill at home. Now I’ve got two and I’m going to get to know them. I’ve already given them my blood to bind them to me. Lovely lovely shiny shiny tools. All mine.

Wood to the van

I remember now. That’s the thing they call “work”. My feet hurt. My legs hurt. My back hurts. My shoulder hurts. My hands hurt. I’m sprawled on the nearest sofa to the building I’ve been labouring in, gathering enough energy and blood sugar to get myself across town and into my bath.

I don’t have my own drill which is an oversight as there are lots and lots of stairs in the building and if you aren’t peacefully taking screws out of timber frames then you’re carrying the wood downstairs and hurling it into the back of a van. It’s like some perverse modern exercise class except you don’t have an insipid kiwi woman in jogging shorts shouting at at you on a chin-mic. Instead it’s a glorious tiny greek woman who happens to be one of my dearest friends so she can shout whatever the fuck she wants to me and I’ll just do it.

Occasionally Rich showed up with the van. Bastard has my job. He’s ferrying all the desks and bits with worth attached to them back to Davies Street. “There’s not much room left in Davies Street,” he confides in me after his first trip, in a worried voice. Oh I’ve been where you are, Rich. You should try the Bishop’s Stortford warehouse some time.

Carrying wood downstairs is simpler I guess, if more tiring. I’ve got a fortnight of this. Day one and my thumb is crushed. I’m curious to know what my shoulder does once all the codeine wears off.

I remember doing The Open Golf Tournament, restaurant managing while some arsehole South African line manager called Sean was trying to throw me under a bus for his incompetence while I was recovering from falling out of a tree and off my nuts on codeine. My dosage is much lower than it was back then but I’ve got the same level of total body and mind exhaustion at the end of the day. I’ve ordered a beer but I’ll have to sit up in order to reach it and my stomach muscles don’t want the work. Thank God all the humans working in the building I’m working in are lovely. If there was a Sean I’d have dropped a fridge on him by now on purpose and now I’d be staring down a long relaxing jail sentence. I put up with him because the money was excellent at the golf. For this I get less per hour than my waiters did before tips, and they were all fresh out of school.

Nothing wrong with a good honest day’s work, whatever the rate. It’s all money in instead of out, it gets me fit and it keeps me out of trouble…

Right. Time to sit up, to consume this single pint and to fight my way home on the tube. There are sausages in the fridge. And I’m going to need to be bathed and in bed asleep full of sausages before eleven if I’m going to survive this fortnight.

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Getting ready for getting out

And suddenly I’m embarking on a regular existence for a while. This will be unfamiliar. I will rise in the morning at the same time as many many other human beings in this city, and I will be forced to put myself onto those angry morning tube trains where everybody hates you. I will follow my drama school footsteps to Moorgate Station, alongside all the unfortunate souls who push buttons in front of screens all day in the square mile while pretending they actually care about that company they hate.

I won’t be pushing buttons though. I’ll be derigging cables. I’ll be packing lights. I’ll be smashing walls in and carrying stuff to skips. I expect I’ll be cold and tired a lot, but I’ll be in good company and in all likelihood there’ll be music playing. I’ll have to make sure I take care of my shoulder as this is likely to be as physical as I make it. But irrespective of the fact I still don’t know what’s wrong with it, I suspect that careful usage is going to be better than no usage at all. Even if over about two months now there have only been two days when I haven’t been woken up by pain. I need to get my body up and running again. 4 press-ups in 7 seconds is shameful, bad shoulder or no bad shoulder.

I’m quite looking forward to the regularity of this coming fortnight. It’s nice to be an ant for a bit, and get stuck into some actual labour rather than the usual pretendyface stuff I do. It helps ground me. And it’ll likely make me fitter.

Today we went to a meeting about the lovely tour we did in the good old US of A. The University of Notre Dame has a beautifully located London premise just off Haymarket, and we all gathered in there to discuss what went well and to express any concerns we had about things.

We went to so many different places on that tour, and had such immensely different experiences in all of them. But looking back it’s clear how remarkably well looked after we were everywhere we went. Four out of the five of us were there for the meeting and when we were gathered in the foyer it immediately occurred to me what an excellent working unit we happened to have become. Despite wildly varying worldviews and priorities, the five of us formed a very positive company that cared as deeply about the work as we did about one another’s welfare. I was sad not to see Katherine as it felt like a family reunion missing one member. Still it was lovely to revisit that group. Often in this industry you form a unit, share some very deep experiences, and then never ever find the same people in the same room again. Companies are made and exploded and remade job to job. The repertory system of old is mostly deceased. The chance to repeatedly work with the same actor is rare and precious. It’s what binds me to Jack. We’ve got an extremely detailed shorthand given to us by chance and time.

But it’s past twelve. The bath is run. I’ve lined up some sleepy-drink tonight. My breath mask and gloves have all arrived and they fit. It’s time to wash, dose up on painkillers, drink the sleepy drink and sleep on only my left side once more… How much longer?

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Last Wolf

Quarter to ten and I’ve just come out of watching the last night of the immersive Wolf of Wall Street in Moorgate. Right now the building is still open to the public and they’re gently shepherding the muggles away so the people who worked on it can get stuck in to celebrating the end of the run. There’s plenty of fizz left behind the bar so I’m worrying about this whole damp January getting a little wetter. I’m here by virtue of the fact that I’ll be on the team for the get-out, running around with tools deconstructing and carrying things in this very cold building. I’ve ordered a proper breath mask and some heavy duty gloves online because sometimes it’s worth having good kit and I’m going to be here for two weeks.

It’s a big old show. Three floors it was, loads of big rooms made into more small rooms and then dressed up to look like it’s the nineties and we’re in Long Island. It’s been a tough one in terms of the audience and the basic logistics of it. I think most of the company are relieved it’s finished and they can get back to more sensible jobs. But I can still sense from the atmosphere tonight that they’ll find themselves missing aspects of it. The decompression is a big part of the job when it comes to theatre. And these guys are decompressing like they’ve got The Bends. And the party hasn’t even started yet.

I came on my own in a trilby and ended up being pinned as “Frank Sinatra” by most of the actors that didn’t know me, and roundly victimised by those who did. I had to do a press up competition with a very healthy looking twenty-something Argentinian called Dennis and was roundly humiliated (with my shoulder as my silent excuse to myself.) I managed four to his twelve in seven seconds. I really need to get more exercise. Perhaps that’s February. Although this get-out will be a good start. Fuck me it’s going to be a lot of work. I wouldn’t even know where to start with it. Maybe a sledgehammer.

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The company marshalled and awarded each other numerous certificates. The bar was out of beer and red wine at the start of the evening and most people in the know had brought their own. It stands to reason they wouldn’t restock when we are coming in with the hammers on Tuesday but I hadn’t got the memo about no booze left. It was lovely to watch them decompress with nothing to decompress from myself and I remained mostly sober although Sam did give me a Budweiser.

A tough show. They are bunch of troopers. And I thoroughly enjoyed my evening watching them work despite the reviews.

Rebecca and I did a French exit, as we were both feeling the end of our engagement while the party was just kicking off. She lives on the same side of town as I do which is rare for currently working theatre professionals. We shared a number 11 bus home and tried to unravel reach other’s bullshit.

All in all a lovely night and I got home at a reasonable time, oh joy. Bed now.

R&D with songs

Today was a Research & Development reading for a play about a singer from a very specific part of the world some time ago. I was in at the last minute as an actor reading the scenes in between the songs. I signed another Non Disclosure Agreement. They are rife in this industry, and anyone that knows I blog might not trust my instinctive and hard-wired discretion. But this is why I’ll be vague.

Much of the idiom was completely unfamiliar to me culturally, which made for an interesting experience even while the woman sitting to my right sometimes inadvertently giggled as I  confidently banjaxed my attempts to sightread a language so unfamiliar that I literally couldn’t tell you its name. If it were the million dollar question I’d guess at “Arabic” and be roundly humiliated for my basic ignorance of anything outside my narrow frame of reference. Some of the text was not translated into Roman characters, but mostly that was the songs so I was able to attempt it phonetically.

It’s a play with music, and the creative team love the music. It’s more like music with a play really. There wasn’t much for us to do, partly because there’s not much dialogue and partly because nobody in that room cared about the nuance in what little dialogue there was. It was just fluff before the next song. And it was all a little bit “on the nose”. A frequent thing in new theatre writers. People just speak their inner life to each other. “I am angry with you.” “I am happy with you.” “I like your singing.” “I am in love with you.” Still. The script is a frame for the songs.

Some of the songs, complete, can last 55 minutes. There didn’t seem to be any concern, although I expect they’ll be cut down for the final edit. There are many interludes in the script that are specifically timed to music, where nothing is happening on stage for two minutes while we hear the song. This is culturally completely over my head. The snippets I heard are achingly beautiful though. And beautifully delivered, sung live to us with drums and synth by skillful musicians playing in a tiny room above a shop in Mayfair with an extremely oversolicitous caretaker. Sometimes you get to have remarkable and unfamiliar experiences in the course of this line of work. A lot of the script I encountered required specific knowledge of the person and their life to make sense of it, though, which I definitely didn’t have. The assumption must be that the audience will know it.

It’s a frequently occurring issue in our industry. I think it’s something we fell foul of in The Factory from time to time. We can all forget that we are the only people that know the things we know about the art we are making. We can make work that is extremely powerful for us because of our specific knowledge base and set of experiences, but we totally overlook the need to fill in people who have a completely different context. The greatest work can inspire connection and familiarity with everybody no matter what context – which is arguably why Shakespeare still persists as the greatest of all theatre makers. Even despite the now archaic nature of his language, and the fact he was writing largely in verse, he still has a close eye on keeping the groundlings happy in case they start throwing shit at the stage, whilst ministering to his extremely dangerous highly strung aristocratic patrons that at best could pull his funding and at worst could have him done in for treason.

This piece will have great beauty but it is also divisive. It will have more beauty for those with context than those without. It’s the sort of thing I much prefer to be in than to watch. If I were to tour with it I would come to learn the idiom and love the detail. But it takes time to understand how to appreciate anything, from unfamiliar music to olives. It’s always worth it when you do. Perhaps I should see if I can get on board in a small part for the tour. So long as I don’t have to sing. Then I’ll be surrounded by it.

Perhaps the most delightful part of the whole affair was that one of the other actors was in my year at Guildhall. Wonderful to be in the room with her again. And of course I took no photos so it’s a winter window shot…

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