Majid and radio

This morning when we woke we were going to have a long day off, free of obligation. Then an email landed checking that everything was “still good” for Jack and I to do a two hour long live Radio Sheffield spot talking to Majid Majid – the remarkable Lord Mayor of Sheffield. We had both ignored this obligation in favour of thinking about other things. Suddenly our day off was a little less … off. But a lot more interesting.

I got up and got out in the morning. Sleep was in short supply, strangely, and I wanted to explore Kelham Island – our local area. We won’t be in Sheffield for long, and it’s a town full of history. The biggest issue I had this morning, frankly, was that I had to be on BBC in the evening. No chance of sampling all the real ales and craft beers here in the “real ale capital of the world,” according to Majid.

We were partnered with two other makers in Sheffield – Kitty and Hassun.

IMG_20181204_000941

Kitty makes music, and sings with “Speed for Lovers,” works for Mencap and does a podcast for autistic kids. Hassun does a scientific podcast, he’s evidently full to bursting with interesting facts, and he looks very much like Mo Salah.  And Majid is brilliant. He was straightforward and smart and not self important despite being made Lord Mayor of Sheffield at 28. That lack of self importance is the single quality that I look to in authority figures. Expectation of respect based on notional status is a huge turnoff for me. We are all playing let’s pretend here, and worldwide right now the people who have the plastic crowns are setting fire to everything. If there’s a 28 year old with an honorific who is trying to make things better, I’m behind that. I am so utterly fed up of seeing politicians putting their JOB before the thing they should be doing for work. These dogshit humans who have never had perspective but have had privilege… They’re like some of the fools I went to boarding school with. Pointless, cruel and ultimately dangerous. We are actually literally killing the world to line their pockets. Sure, nature will survive and perhaps it’s for the best that we find a way to wipe out a huge chunk of humanity. But I’d sooner avoid it, despite having no children, because it seems like a lot of misery for something that we might still be able to prevent if we can just destabilise corporate greed.

But you can tell my mind is in the show. Scrooge’s journey is from terrified and damaging self interest to a wider perspective. He was visited by three spirits, and changed his ways over the course of one night. Some of his reasons are selfish, but he cares for Cratchett and for Tiny Tim. It’s the season to realise that no matter how far we think we are gone, there’s always a chance of redemption.

If any of you know any spirits, we need to get them to work overtime with this particular rolling cabinet of frantic ambitious sociopaths. You never know what might be buried under the varnish on some of their faces. They might  have good hearts that have just learnt from the culture to pretend to be robotic. Surely this landscape can change. Majid is a torchbearer. Bring it.

Week one Carol done

Sheffield.

I barely know the town, but here I am. I’ll be here for a few weeks. Up until now it’s been work to sleep to work to sleep. Tomorrow we have our day off. Monday. The actor’s weekend.

People here are good. The audiences have been solid, involved, grounded and fun. There’s been none of that London “impress me” shit. They’re coming out to have a good time, and they bloody well do. The faces and bodies of people here are often somehow deeper. People look and feel inhabited. And everyone is looking at and talking to each other. In London there’s a disconnect that you barely notice until you spend time in the North, where the woman that takes your money for coffee continues a conversation you started three days ago because she remembers your face and wants to pass the time.

We have made Scrooge’s Parlour in the corner of an old Carpet Right, and every night we fill it with warmth, song, food and fun. We are officially finished with the build now, but an inevitable consequence of the actors building their own set is that we’ll be adding tricks and details throughout the run. It’s rare and special to have that freedom. Jack and I keep experimenting and detailing, shifting and changing. This Sheffield space is great for that as it was a blank canvas when we arrived. The audiences are not packed out yet, which is just as well as we literally couldn’t seat them if they were. They’re willing though. Last night there was a lad who never goes to theatre. He came, dragged by his wife, and loved it so much he got tickets over the bar for his parents to come today. I put his dad on the debt board and they were front and centre in the Sunday matinee.

The director was able to come and see the show last night. Thankfully he enjoyed it. The bulk of his notes were exactly what we needed – a skilled outside eye. He was bringing candles into scenes so that our faces were visible, adjusting the timing of tricks and lighting levels and so forth. Technical stuff, and a few old reminders – particularly that we shouldn’t rush the sentimental stuff. We end up rushing it every year because it doesn’t seem to have intention. But we do it because we are modern actors looking for action and movement and forgetting that back then it was common to just sit in a sentiment for a while. By the time it comes, we’ve earned it. There’s a section in Christmas Past that is just Dickens’s words, basically in monologue form, delivered by me with a candle for approximately twenty years. One man with a candle speaking Dickens. I guess Callow can do it every year for an extraordinary fee. Someone will have to carry that baton when his liver finally succumbs. I might as well get my practice in now, and hope that Richard Curtis starts making movies again and casts me so I’m well enough positioned in a few decades time to stand and read a book for thousands of quid.

Here’s hoping. Right now it’s bed. G’night.

20181203_002825

Home

Here I am in my bugs bunny onesie, surrounded by artists. Two show day today, and the director is up to watch it. He’s not been on hand so much this year so it’s golden when we get him. He will be sleeping on our bare Ikea sofa tonight. Brian did it the other night, but Brian will sleep in a hole full of dogshit and tell you he slept beautifully. Tom will probably end up in bed alongside either me or Jack. I’m angling for Jack by playing the “man most likely to snore loudly” card. I won’t remind him that I’ve been in albergues for the last few weeks. I’ll play the “forever single” card. And cry while I’m doing it.

It’s so lovely to be up north with this show. We had one guy who is sending his dad tomorrow. He has worked out when I will go running outside and he intends to be there in the car park to be a little orphan boy. He even persuaded me to put his dad in Scrooge’s debt board. I love that board.

20181130_173948

It represents five years of me collecting silly Dickensian names and turning them into narrative. It has become a huge silent partner. There are audience members that disproportionately adore it. It’s a delight, that the contents of my head give so much pleasure, augmented by five years worth of my #SillyDickensianNames hashtag on Twitter. Like all theatre it’s a group effort and there are some wordgeeks who I’ve never met who have added layers to this show. Names like “Horrible Grunting,” “Lady Chlamydia Vicegrip,” “Volumnia Soake,” “Absorbent Biscuits”… It’s always better with multiple imaginations.

I’m so happy up here tonight. Jack and I are in our ridiculously new apartment. Tom is sitting to my left. He’s made this show every year for 8 years now. Now he’s in London validated big style by our industry. He’s the running assistant director at The Donmar Warehouse, which is a tiny theatre but positioned in the industry in such a way as to get high faluting celebrity attention and guaranteed full houses pretty much no matter what. Rebecca is sitting opposite me. She wants a tarot reading, so I’ll do that when I’m done writing to you lot. But I’m home. Working as an actor. Surrounded by friends. Happy and looked after. And I’m going to take a free pass on my 500 word minimum. Because I want to enjoy being with the people I’m with…

20181202_010245

First night

First show done. I’m back home. Jack and I have spent the last couple of hours squabbling about absolutely nothing, as you’d perhaps understand from friends who have worked together for so long. It’s extraordinary in the true sense of the frame of theatre to be able to follow a friendship through so many different permutations and colours. At the start of this madness of a friendship, we worked together by chance. We were doing Shakespeare in Yorkshire. Hester and Liam were footing the bill with Sprite. I still miss it. We were Malvolio and Feste under the guidance of Lucy Kerbel. We could never have anticipated the years of collaboration that followed. The world kept throwing us together. It seemed inevitable. Now we work with each other on purpose when we can. We trust each other deeply. And we complement each other well – we are very different, but with similarities at heart.

I’m sitting here in a Bugs Bunny Onesie thinking about what worked and what didn’t, tonight. He’s worried that the cheap scran we bought might give us food poisoning. But I need to switch off fast after what we did tonight so I’ll wind down.

What did we do tonight? Well… Stuff.

We built Srooge’s Parlour into an old Carpet-Right in Sheffield. It’s a Theatre Deli space now, and it’s glorious.

We are so accommodated by the people who work at Deli, and tonight the bulk of the audience all stayed in the space to hang out with us.

Five years, I’ve done this. It’s hard to quantify. It would be easy to say it all blurs into one, but it doesn’t. I’m going to be out there, playing Scrooge. But what is that for me? It’s employment, sure. I’m bloody marvelous at it. But that’s because I understand the version of Scrooge’s journey that makes sense to me. We can all Scrooge ourselves. My understanding is of someone who just can’t do the social stuff. He can be totally brilliant with numbers and investments but if anyone wants to know his favourite anything, the question makes no sense unless someone can teach him how.

This run will be glorious. We have been able to build what we choose. We will move to York for the final week, and lose all of the detail we have built. We will shift into a space where we have to be so careful that we are waiting to hear whether we can fire the smoke at all. We have to work around oil paintings of ancient dead people. It’s touch and go about whether the status quo monitors think the deadies are important enough for them to stop our negligible ambient smoke to preserve their faceshrines. We will see. The space looks beautiful. We will make whatever we can.

But right now I’m done. Too late. Too much. Two shows tomorrow and it’s past 3… I must sleep.20181201_010941

Making theatre

I’m wearing two different hats. Actor and Stage Manager. (Any stage managers that knew me of old will find that jarring. Yes, I’m looking at you.)

Today I’ve been building the space for actor Al to roam free. Jack and I are just … getting stuck in, as always. Many hands make light work. We know this show, and the director can’t be on site because he is busy at The Donmar. Creative acting stuff is harder to detail without him. No real point rehearsing. So mostly Jack and I are creating a space for the show and working out the tricks and world changes and practicalities and dressing. We are laying the foundations for ourselves to play the show. We’re world building.

We have our first show tomorrow. The set looks brilliant. We have an amazing small team. Three of us at the core – a new show runner but I haven’t her permission and I won’t blog her without.

Last year’s snags are covered though. There’s heating in the venue so no audience members will be moaning about the temperature. The electricity isn’t going to be a problem. No dogshit from nocturnal guard dogs. No portaloos or exploding water tanks. We have sightlines. I’m not worried about it.

But it’s unusual for the leading actor to be wiring hazers the day before opening night, and thinking about sightlines and all that. Traditionally I should be burrowing up my own asshole.

I slipped into my assistant director mode today to call the tech. Someone had to temporarily do basic talking and run the room. “Is everyone ready” “so we are going from X line” etc. In theatre I’ve never really liked the separation of people into closed jobs. Of course I’m happy to work in a job where I’m closed off as an actor – I understand that dynamic and it means I get to go home really early in rehearsal, and get lots of clapping when it’s open. But theatre is group storytelling. It’s a team thing.

Skills take time to learn. Training helps of course. But everyone gets protective of their “area”. I trained as an actor. While watching actors I have to monitor myself when I see people who aren’t taking care of what I think of as “the basics.” I often shout at people who are lying on cheap TV. But why should “the basics” cost three years of time and money? You can learn not to be a twat on the job (which is “the basics”) even if you’re beautiful – as long as your mind is open and you can let go of your own shit when necessary.

I’m learning stage management on the job as best I can. I have been by osmosis for decades. I’m always curious. We are making theatre. That’s a passion. Theatre is many skills, many people, much passion, no money. Yeah, sometimes you can hit a zeitgeist and make something huge. But Jerusalem is rare despite all of us pilgrimaging to it. Mostly we just tell the truth in a corner and hope there’s someone listening. Why? Because we are a beautiful bunch of geeks. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m a lead character actor. But I have a growing hat collection.

The first time I was “acting ASM” was maybe a decade ago. It was a tour. We had to build a load of flats and repoint the lights in different venues and work around whatever we had to work around. It was an eye opener. I’ll never forget the moment where an actress who is still a respected close friend walked in and immediately complained about a door that was clipping on a rake. (A rake is when a stage slopes towards the audience. Some old theatres are raked like ski slopes. Richmond Yorkshire. Margate. It makes the actors look like giants, if they are “upstage”. But it’s a bugger for doors.)

We had taken that door off three times and planed as much as was rational so it could open at all before the company came in  She arrived and behaved like we hadn’t noticed because it scuffed a tiny bit. It was the deepest rake we had built on, the deepest we were going to build on. Any more off and we’d have a gap under the door for every other venue. We had weighted the flat as well, to raise it. I learnt a lot about being an actor from observing my friend as she said “Come on, you just need to take the door off and plane it down.”

… I’m being technical. The point is, if you’re making theatre you’re probably not there to be famous or rich. You might pull  that off But at heart you’re there to make theatre. And theatre is multidisciplinary. Much more interesting to understand the lot, so when the machine is turning you know exactly what your cog has to do.

I’m going to have a ball this month, and probably write lots more stuff like this. But my head is in my craft again, and I like it being there. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.20181129_142211

Carol build

The first time I did Christmas Carol, five years ago, Scrooge’s debt board only had three names on it, written in chalk on crepe paper taped over a pub blackboard. That was in Manchester. We had built into an old “Hooters” restaurant. We had hessian closing off the roof, chandeliers made out of polystyrene, and lots of good will. It was glorious. As part of the spirit of Christmas Yet to Come I had to instinctively understand that there was something under the crepe paper next to my great big chair, and tear it off to reveal “RIP Ebenezer Scrooge.” It was a cognitive leap that required me to park my rational faculties. Scrooge, for a moment, was magically psychic. Fine if the audience get it, and they did.

Since then we’ve rolled this beautiful show around going hi tech to low tech and back again. We’ve done it in a pub, a West End theatre, a village hall in Rochdale, a warehouse in Shoreditch, and the room in York’s Guildhall where the £200,000 Scottish ransom for Charles the First was counted in 1647. This year we’ll be back in York for a week in an equally historic room that we have to treat with respect. But first, we are in a custom space at Theatre Deli Sheffield, where we can build what we want.

We have made something that already pleases us. It’s really exciting, even if lots of our surfaces and dressing has been aggressively eaten by other shows. I guess I can do without Ebenezer’s creepy bird. We can make this show in a pub with nothing but a board and some paper. Everything else is just noise. Still it’s good to try and make nice noise. We wouldn’t be us if we didn’t.

This is the first year the show has been in Sheffield. The first few weeks look like small houses, as we are not known here and Christmas is still a long way off. But I can say with confidence that it’s going to be a glorious show.

This little Christmas job is the only gig I’ve done for which I get repeatedly stopped on the street. Funny considering the audience is necessarily small because of catering. But often someone leaps out of my day and tells me wonders like “We were on a first date at your show and now we’re married.” Or “You’re Scrooge aren’t you! That was our first night living in London and we both went home so happy to have moved to this city. You welcomed us to London. Thank you.”

Or the more frequent “Can you tell us where and when so we can book again with our family? We have X number of guaranteed ticket sales.” “No. I can’t. I’m sorry. It’s completely random and there’s no website.” People stumble on it, love it, and come back if they can work out how. There are few enough seats that it’s a treasure hunt.

We had a guy propose once during a show- (he had given us advance warning and the producer laid on a choir for him to sing with, projections of their life together and loads of confetti cannons.) I’ll never forget it. We sat her in Scrooge’s Power Chair to play a game. She blindfolded herself and he came and sang to her there. She thought she was just going to be playing a game but thankfully it wasn’t an unpleasant surprise for her. She said yes. They came back the next year to actually follow the show. We gave them free tickets. His line: “I couldn’t focus for the first half for nerves,” her line: “I couldn’t focus for the second half for nerves…” Sweet.

It’s coming together slowly… Bed now.

20181128_203748

Deli

In Sheffield, next to an Office Outlet, in a huge car park, there’s a great big old retail space that is currently occupied by Theatre Deli. Deli have existed for over a decade now. They’re a charity, set up by three old university friends who care about community and theatre. They’ve all been mates of mine for decades, and they are still making opportunities for emerging artists, as well as old lags like me. It’s a coincidence that I’m in one of their spaces, in that I didn’t drive the connection, but I’m thrilled about it. One of the three, Jess, showed up today in the venue. I run into Roland frequently in London. Effie is more elusive. She’s in LA, and I couldn’t raise her in pilot season when I went and kicked that particular ants nest and started this blog all that time ago.

Theatre Deli take over unoccupied buildings for a short while and they fill them with life. They make jobs for arts professionals. They make theatre for communities. They take empty space and turn it into life and joy. It’s a great business model and a great calling. Jack and I are going to have a lovely few weeks doing Christmas Carol here. All we need now is an audience. We even have all the candles.

IMG-20181127-WA0006

BBC Radio Sheffield came in today and recorded a bit of rehearsal footage. Then they did one of those interviews where we get really enthusiastic about everything. It was a pre-record, so they can save it in the edit. It’s going out tomorrow I think. I won’t be listening if I can help it.

Every year we partner with a charity for this show. This year it’s St Mary’s “Timebuilders”, a local Sheffield charity that provides community and meaning to dissociated people who might otherwise have slipped through the net. The catering is being organised by them, and I have a feeling we are going to have some strong personalities bringing dinner in to Scrooge’s Parlour over the next few weeks. We met Graham today for the radio spot – he seems to be in charge of the team and he’s a man that positively radiates both calm and kindness. We are in good hands.

Jack and I are settling into our minimalist IKEA digs, although we are bemoaning the lack of various basics like dishcloths and bedside lamps. It’s as spare as spare can be. Even my wardrobe is basic. I couldn’t work out where I’d hidden all my clothes before I sublet my room in London, so I went to Primark at lunch and bought sweatshop stopgaps to take me to Christmas. Now at least I’ve got some pants and socks, lovingly made by crying Bangladeshi children.

I’m settling down to an early bed now in my ripoff Star Wars jimjams. Rest is going to be important these few weeks. At capacity we will be playing to a very big long room, which I did the first time I played this show in Manchester, and which I know is very tiring energetically and vocally – but I’m fit. Although weirdly I’ve got shinsplints. I never had them for the whole of the walk but they kicked in yesterday just strolling from A to B. My lower body, which mended itself so effectively while I punished it for 50 days – it’s now doing the things it refrained from doing when I had to walk fifteen miles a day. Glad it saved it until now but it better damn recover fast.

So – an early bed for us in our warm empty rooms. And tomorrow it’s building the set. Joy.