Tuesday, 2 September 2014

A Sucker for Surveys.

Yet another survey! I know I'm not alone, being bombarded with email requests to respond to a Survey Monkey or similar online questionnaire almost daily. I'm about to bin them, then I think, well, I seldom get any joy from the political ballot box so perhaps this is a way I can add my small voice to others and, if not move mountains, perhaps together we can shift a little bit of earth from here to a little nearer to wherever it is we are trying to shift this particular mound. 

This one, though is different and came via my agent - by no means the first - from a student requesting answers to help with course research; and, at whatever level, the questions fall more or less into the same pattern of requested information. I thought I would share the questions and my answers from this one here, so that, with a bit of luck, this can be my last full answer. In future I can simply add what is missing from future surveys and post a link to this page. 

Sent: 01 September 2014 12:34
Subject: A level project

My name is ... and I study A level Performing Arts at ... Academy. I have been given the task to set up an A level project to develop my understanding of the job roles of an actor and what skills the job involves and what tasks it consists of. To gather this information I would like to have a short interview over email where I hope you will take the time to answer a few simple questions, thank yuk[sic] very much it would be a great help.


Q1. When did you start out in the business?

September 1957. I was 19 years of age and I was interviewed for the job of student actor/ASM in a weekly repertory company, and offered the job at the interview. This either meant that I was the outstanding candidate, the one who seemed most willing to accept the conditions and very low wage on offer, or the only one that replied to their advert.

Q2. How did you find work? And what work did you do?

At that time, I used to search the situations vacant columns in The Stage weekly newspaper among those looking for "Stage cat for pantomime - must have own skin". I had been learning acting and different technical skills with The People's Theatre in Newcastle upon Tyne, an amateur company with its own theatre. George Bernard Shaw had thought highly of the company and had given them one of his plays to premiere and they were well respected in the region.  As well as skilled amateurs, the company was made up of 'resting' professional actors and directors, student actors, those like myself aspiring to join the profession and those who had given up the struggle to make a living to support a wife and family. The output of The People's was far in excess of the usual amateur group and the production standard was extremely high, so that over the course of my nine months with the company I had: acted a small role in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible", which I took over at 24hrs notice when the original actor went down with chicken pox; which led to an audition for the juvenile lead, which I then played, in "The Mulberry Bush" by Angus Wilson; worked with the wardrobe mistress making & preparing costumes for one production; was ASM for another and DSM on 'the book' for Christopher Fry's "The Lady's Not for Burning"; and  on another learnt basic lighting design & operation from a skilled technician. This last was very exciting because the production required flashes and explosions which we rigged up electrically and set off on cue by flipping a switch. When I applied for the professional job, which was advertised in The Stage, at a theatre less than 20 miles from my home, I knew that this varied performance and production experience would stand me in good stead for a job requiring both acting and backstage experience. 

Q3. Did you earn enough of money to support yourself financially when you first started out?

My first few weeks of training was paid at a weekly rate of £2.10 (shillings). After 9 weeks, when I was able to change from being a student member to a full member of Equity, the actors trade union, this was raised to £3. In this first job I supplemented my income from a small savings pot I had managed to put away the previous year working as a temporary civil servant. During that time I had given my mother £5 a week towards my board & lodging, but I discovered later that she was saving it for me and when I got this job she gave it all back. Because of the distance from home, and the length of the working day, I couldn't continue to live at home and had to rent a room near to the theatre. This took almost the whole of my student wage, so I couldn't have afforded to do the training/job without that money behind me. The company actors were very kind and would buy me my supper on Friday nights when we all had fish and chips. My landlady very generously provided me with a Sunday lunch, though that wasn't in our contract!

When that job ended I moved to outer London to stay with one of my older married brothers for a few weeks until I could find another theatre job and I don't think I paid anything towards my keep, though I might have done when I got the hospital job. It was only with the Colchester job, see Q4, that I became self-sufficient from my wages alone.


Q4. Where did you live in the early years of your career?

While staying with my brother, I found myself a London agent who also found non-theatre work for resting actors as well as acting and backstage jobs, and I worked in a Notting Hill hospital for a couple of months as receptionist in the x-ray department. Then I moved to Colchester as a scenic painter, assistant to the designer of the repertory theatre. I took a room near the castle, which was an army base, in a lodging that was mainly used to house army people. After a few months I had a long contract (for a year and and a half, more or less) in the North West of England, where I started off in a room in lodgings, then after a few weeks, moved to a small flat, in a private house with two flats as well as the family quarters. The other was also occupied by an actor at the rep.

Q5. How did you ensure you were successful?

How do you measure success? I was happy to be working in a job I loved. I don't think the concept of 'success' ever entered my head. I had a couple of long-range ambitions about companies that one day I would love to work in - one of these only recently achieved, but I didn't think of myself of having a career as such... how can you, in a vocation that has no structured path of achievement, no progressive pay scales. This is not a job, it's a love affair. I moved from one job to another as each contract expired. These days, you are hard put to find a contract that lasts more than a day or two (film & TV) and four weeks in theatre.

Q6. Did you spend money on general living costs?

Well, , even if I had had surplus funds, there wasn't any time to spend it on anything else in my working week of 7 days (performance, rehearsals, line-learning, costume alteration & finding - (and, with my stage management head on, add: prop-making & collection, furniture borrowing, set building); continuously, with a play change every week. But I got by most of the time, though hardly living in the lap of luxury. There were days, at a point when one company was struggling to break even, when our weekly Saturday payday was delayed until Tuesdays, but no-one walked out... we just went on doing what we always did. Because it wasn't just a job, it was a way of life. .

Q7. Did you ever have a back up plan?

At that time, no, because I was working most of the time in theatre, and the longest I was without work in the business was never more than a few weeks, although I didn't always work as an actor, for which I thank my broad training. Before becoming an actor I earned money while still at school, and as a student, on a very broad spectrum of paid work, in shops, restaurants, offices, factories; delivering newspapers; acting as a sports instructor - so I could have turned my hand at different things.  But for young people starting out now I always advise them to learn a trade or profession before embarking on actor training, because acting is a part-time occupation for most of us, and you are more likely to make a living from the back-up job than you will acting, and you need something that will provide an income when you are older - your pension pot will be a small one if you rely on acting to build it up.  I had many years away from the profession while raising a family and I was fortunate to fall into a teaching career, so before I reached pensionable age that was my back-up; but I also ran workshops and school drama projects which brought in a modest income. I now have a pension, which is my back-up income.

Q8. What is your biggest strengths?  Are!

I have an excellent London agent with whom I have a good relationship - very important. I'm old but still able to work. I keep fit by exercising three times a week at a gym. I am willing to travel, and I say "Yes" to audition requests without hesitation, even if they are for the next day. I have kept up with technology, so when requested I can do a Skype audition, or self-film and edit an audition piece to upload to Vimeo for a director and/or casting director. As a performer I am versatile within my playing age: accents (I have quite a few in my head from places lived and parts played previously, and I can learn a new accent in a few days), physicality, acting style (theatre studio or large auditorium), radio, TV and film. From my time in stage management, I have a good eye and memory for prop placement and actor positioning, so I'm good at continuity and consistency across different shots in the same scene (for screen) and moves and positioning in stage rehearsals.  I am told that I have the ability to 'lift' a character from the page for radio - important because there is very little rehearsal for that medium. 

Q9. What is your biggest weakness?  Are!

My agent, and those who work/have worked with me - other actors, directors, camera and sound technicians would know that best. I'm not convincing at selling stuff, so don't get cast for commercials (I try to avoid that sort of castings, but my agent has to make a living, so I'll go along to one when he asks).  I tend to be forthright in auditions where the character I'm up for is a sexist, ageist stereotype, and that probably doesn't go down very well; though I notice lately that TV is presenting more characterful parts for older women, so clearly others have also been making the same sort of noises. I don't learn my lines accurately ahead of rehearsals or shoots. This is deliberate, because I want to be able to learn moves and technical things to go with the words and to adjust to the other performers' interpretations; and to get a feel for their characters so we can build up the inter-character relationships together before doing it for real. This probably annoys some directors, though I do then learn the lines accurately very quickly once those first walk-throughs are complete.

Q10. What do you find most enjoyable about your job?

It's different for every job... so I think my answer has got to be the challenge that each brings. 

Q11. Are you in a union of any sort?

British Equity.

Q12. What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out a new business?

Research thoroughly the one you have chosen. Listen to as many informed people you can find to learn more than you can discover by reading.  Know your own strengths and weaknesses, not only in the area of expertise in the job you choose, but also in life skills generally and consider a) if you are cut out to follow the chosen path through thick and thin; that you have the will and application; b) find out if can you train, or otherwise prepare yourself in order to improve on those areas you feel are your weakness; c) can you realistically take on the financial hardships that might result from your choice; d) practise 'reflective learning' in order to test, evaluate and improve; and, finally, if it comes to it e) have the courage to admit that you set out on the wrong path and change your job. Nothing is fixed for life. There are always other openings if you are willing to look for them.

Thank you for your time,

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Phew! Last two weeks have been crazy.

I live in the English Midlands,  and for the last two weeks have been whizzing up north and down south at a right rate: two London visits and three to Manchester  in the space of nine days. Fun,  though.  One rehearsal,  two readthros, an audition and one get-together with other  actors  and our agents,  and a morning workshop in a Lichfield  school.  The next three weeks look to be just as busy. It's a basic law of acting that you spend weeks with no work and then  the entire year's work falls in the same date slot so you're hoping they won't clash but they frequently do.  Keeps you on your toes.
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Saturday, 3 May 2014

Catch-up time

A timely word from my agent about keeping up to date on Spotlight left me feeling quite smug, because I'd updated mine only a few weeks ago.

Then a need to link to my CV for a funding application I was making on behalf Shoebox Theatre took me to my personal webpage where I was shocked to discover it was last updated months and months ago. I've put that right now.

I'm off on a break soon, after a pretty exhausting few weeks of work travel and filming. Looking forward to a rest and spending more time with my blog, before beginning on a new project.


Friday, 25 April 2014

Actors and Accents, and a family gathering.

It's been a hectic couple of weeks. Several days filming, two casting interviews in London, the beginning of a new school group/library collaboration project and then the Easter holidays which brought our sons and their offspring to our house for a joyous family get-together. We were in total six adults plus six grandchildren between the ages of two and twenty. As you see, that was quite a crowd.

Photo: Robin Manuell


Actors & Accents

Many posts ago I wrote  how I was told by the actor manager in my first professional/training job after a week of playing a comedy character in a broad  Tyneside accent, that I had only a short time to "get rid of that Geordie accent".  Of course he only had my best interest at heart - and it was part of the training regime, because at that time, 1957, all actors were required to have a neutral voice in RP (received pronunciation) AKA the Queen's English.  Having only one voice is limiting to an actor in any generation, but was particularly so in the 50s, when most of the theatre repertoire consisted of classical plays, or those with a distinctly aristocratic or upper middle class setting. Apart, that is, from those broad comedies for which 'Mummerset' or some funny voice voice from 'oop north' would suffice. J.B.Priestley was an exception in that his plays explored social and moral dilemmas with a working class perspective, but his characters were largely from the upwardly mobile middle classes, where the fathers might talk with a regional accent, but who married into 'class' and sent their sons and daughters to private schools. The social realism of the angry young men of the John Osborne generation had only surfaced in 1956 and it wasn't until 1958 that Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey was staged. Joan Littlewood was experimenting with a socialist voice at the Theatre Workshop in London's Stratford East, but the standard West End and provincial repertory theatre fare spoke with what was a decidedly 'posh' voice. 

Victor Graham, for it was he who tasked me with the transformation, didn't offer any clues as to how I might go about this, but he gave me four weeks in which to accomplish it. Not that I could give all my energies to the job - a small matter of ASM duties and small  roles to play nightly with two matinees, and next week's play to rehearse and lines to learn in the spaces between. But I went to it with enthusiasm in the post-show gap between returning to my room and putting my head on the pillow. Fortunately I was born a night owl, for whom the traditional hours of theatre are a perfect fit - late mornings and late nights.

So where to begin? As an avid follower of  drama on Radio 4 (the Home Service as it was then known) I knew the perfect place. The BBC, of course. How many millions of listeners across the world have perfected their English over its airways? I have met one or two of them over the years: one a young Chinese woman, exiled  to the countryside as a child with academic parents who were required to do farm labouring as part of their political re-education during the cultural revolution, taught herself the language from scratch using her father's clandestine recordings; and I marvelled  at the human spirit's response to adversity, as well as the excellence of her English.

A year previous to my first theatre job and this injunction to change the way I spoke, I had been turned down by the Rose Bruford College of Dramatic Art. I was subsequently  offered a place at The Central School of Speech and Drama, but didn't take it up because I found myself actually working in theatre, which suited me better. The interview panel at Rose Bruford had advised me to see a  therapist to work on what they called a speech defect - my 'weak' r sound. So, back home again, I sought out a speech therapist who laughed when I told her what they had said. "That's not a speech defect. That's your Northumberland accent!" She suggested one or two exercises to help overcome the 'defect'; so it was to finding a 'correct' way of delivering the letter r that was my first listening task. What would I have to change to find the crispness of a clean English r and the rolling sound of the Scottish r.   I found by experimentation that changing the positions of mouth, lips, tongue and throat; and flexing and relaxing the various muscles produced different effects in the voice; and as I listened to the different voices on the wireless, I tried to match these physical movements  to make the sounds I was hearing. With practice and perseverance I found I was actually able to learn new voices. It is what I do today, I'd presented with a new ascent challenge. Using internet radio I seek out a local station in the address I'm interested in, and just listen. Then I write down the characteristics in my own devised symbols - I've never been able to grasp phonetic notation; listen some more, then try to sound it out, but always returning to listening. That way the brain seems to absorb the sounds and the cadences, so that it settles into the memory and becomes part of a repertoire of voices to be recalled later.

That was how I did apparently "get rid of that Geordie accent" within the time limit Victor had set. Was it a decent RP? Who was I to judge? But I now had a new voice, less Tyneside, more 'acceptable' for the formal occasion and 'straight' theatre. And I found I could acquire other accents in the same way that I had apparently 'lost' my Geordie. But, you never really lose your mother tongue, unless taken from other native speakers at an early age and raised in a new tonal environment. When I learnt French and Spanish at school, I didn't forget how to speak English. We have this amazing linguistic ability to store several languages - multilingualists amaze us with their ability to store an impressive number of them.

Non-actors have the idea that we 'put on' accents, but it's more subtle than that. I know my head is full of other voices: some learnt for specific character roles; others picked up during residence in different part of the country. Just as I picked up the language of Swahili from living in Tanzania, so I acquired a Black Country voice from my years in Wolverhampton. I find, when I have a new character to play, each seems to suggest its own voice as I read the script, and an accent that bubbles up from memory.

We talk about regional accents as though each is homogeneous, but each area has a variety of voices within its spread. I would go so far as to say that each individual has her/his own variety of the local tongue. In my family of origin, each of the five of us spoke with a subtly different Tyneside accent.
At influence here was not only the fact that each of us had spent our earliest formative years in a different area of Newcastle/Northumberland, but the observable fact that each generation develops a voice that differs from its parentage.

Some years ago, when I set out to learn a Shropshire accent for a rural, historical role I was auditioning for, I found it was useless listening to the children in and around Shrewsbury - they had a vaguely Midlands voice. I was directed eventually to an older man, a traditional coracle maker living in a cottage by the river Severn and the iron bridge that gives the village of  Ironbridge its name. Eusty Rogers, like his father and grandfather before him, spoke with the rural Shropshire accent of that village. In fact their voices had been recorded by the BBC, and used as learning aids for actors, as I found out when I got the role in "Precious Bane" and was sent a sound tape of Eusty's father to help me learn the accent.

I spent a fascinating afternoon listening to Eusty's tales of the river and the villages around. In his grandfather's time, he told me, each village had its distinctive accent, so that you would know a man's village from the way he spoke, although to an outsider, unless a specialist in dialect, the difference would be too subtle to spot.

The Staffordshire market town where I live has a rich history going back at least to the 9th century kingdom of Mercia, and used to have a very distinct accent. Today you'd be hard put to find anyone under 60 who speaks it. It isn't an accent I can speak, but I recognise it immediately I hear it - the voice of a true Sandyback or Tammy. There have been, from the 1930s to 90s, successive waves of incomers from Birmingham settling in the town, so that the local accent had given way to a hybrid in which Brummie voices predominate. 




Saturday, 5 April 2014

Second of my two episodes in The Archers

I'm minded after a comment made on social media about my rubbish Geordie accent as Heather Pritchard to blog about dialects and accents and intra-regional differences.  You have to laugh, really, though indignation was my first reaction. Come on, this is my Geordie accent, the one I grew up with, four miles north of the Tyne! But that blog will have to wait till tomorrow. Resting up after an exhausting filming day. Just joking. Half an hour's drive, two and a half hours hanging around and twenty minutes filming. Typical of a film shoot, but somehow I find that more exhausting than doing a workshop with a group of lively teenagers - and they are much more fun! Perhaps that's the secret.

In the meanwhile, here's the second of my two outings with The Archers for those able to access the BBC iPlayer http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03zdm66

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Lest We Forget - and my first 'appearance' in The Archers!

The community actors were excellent in the performance at Tamworth Library on Monday evening and received some lovely feedback from the audience. When I have posted the film to YouTube I will include a link in a later blog. First I have to split the film into parts so it can be uploaded.

In the meantime, here is a link to one of the The Archers podcasts in which I play Ruth's Mum, Heather, or, as we Tynesiders would call her, Mam. This link will only work for the next 6 days and might not be available universally: Ruth needs her Mum