Blog : applause

15 Fabulous Firsts When You’re An Actor in a Play

15 Fabulous Firsts When You’re An Actor in a Play

When you’re an actor in a play, there’s a bunch of first times during the course of the production, juicy first moments, that happen each time you do a show, that are fabulous milestones and a special part of the joy of performing. Each feels lovely but a little different – each one makes you tingle, and you’d miss each desperately if it didn’t happen. Here’s a few of them:

The first time in the audition room that you realize it’s going well. When you step outside yourself and realize you’re playing and having fun and creating. Jeez, it’s almost like a rehearsal already! You’ve got ideas, the director is laughing at your jokes, you feel at home – wait a second. Yeah, that first time you’re all of a sudden pretty sure (but not 100% sure) that you are right for this … and (whisper it) they are gonna cast you. (Oh yeah, baby, that’s right – you’re looking at a proper actor here … Focus! Keep doing what you’re doing! And relish suddenly, for once, being … the one.)

The first time they tell you you got the gig. Usually by email these days but 100 times better by phone – that way you can’t help but hear the bright smile in the producer or casting director’s voice. (They have to deliver bad news so often, this is really fun for them too.) We’d like to offer you the role of … Oooh, that’s so good, you almost forget to say “yes.” The way your heart surges at the hammer-and-tongs excitement of a new creative journey. And you float for the rest of the day. Bad drivers don’t bother you. You flirt with shop assistants. You take out the garbage with aplomb. Life – is – good. (I did say yes, didn’t I?)

The first time you sit down with the script, a sharp pencil and a cup of coffee. You feel like an actor – because you are one. You got a job to do. You’re gonna come in rehearsal Day One ready. It feels like good work. Doing your homework. Making notes. Finding beats. Seeing patterns. Noting questions. Imagination. Character study. Fleshing out the words. What will inspire you? What research books might you need to read? What obscure point of reference will make it click? Objective. Superobjective. Status. Secrets. Imagined body. Key Values. Moments Before. All that juice for your engine. All that detective work. And reading that script again. And again. And again. (Oh, and yeah, of course, highlighting your lines …)

The first time you do a full read-through. The first day of rehearsal. You’ve rushed to get there because you’ve never been to this space before … so you’re half an hour early … so you go get a cappuccino … and swan in with it … and everybody is already there chatting. And they have tea! And it’s the first time you see the other cast members and put faces to roles you’ve been imagining – and they’re not what you thought, but then suddenly they’re much better than what your little brain could imagine, much more colourful and deep and … fleshy. And you’re rapidly introduced to all these lovely and brilliant designers and producers and front-of-house you won’t see again for ages, and it’s a bit dizzying (so many names!), and you’re making very nice jokes and comments about the weather that won’t offend anyone … And finally you get to sit at a bunch of tables, assembled into a big square, and you say your first line aloud and another actor replies with theirs … and the lines chime like two notes off different wine glasses – delicate but ready for more. You have begun.

The first time in rehearsals you manage a full run-through of the show, off-book – without calling for “line.” Yowzahhh, touchdown, the relief! It’s like being a dog suddenly let off a leash. It’s like letting go of your baby blanket. It’s like a baby chick jumping off a cliff … and flying. It doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do it next time … but you’ve done it once, so you can do it. And that’s all you need right now. Don’t go burning the script … but you can start really believin.’ (Even though you did mangle that one line in Act 2. But nobody noticed. Except your stage manager, who gives you that look. Thank God you brought him Jaffa Cakes last week).

The first time you put on your costume. The designer comes in, maybe she’s shown you drawings but now the real thing is in her hands, and it’s coming your way, and it’s got texture and pattern and smell and weight. For me, primarily, it’s the shoes – the feel on your feet, how it changes your walk: industrial boots? shiny spats? awful moccasins? But I am always told, when a coat lands on my shoulders, my character deepens. It’s when you really start to breathe like your character. Sweat like your character. Ache like your character. It’s so sweet.

The first time you walk on the actual stage you’ll be performing on. You leave that rehearsal room with its taped-markings on the floor for “rooms” and “doors,” and you are in a theatre. Lights. Wings. Seats. The legendary smell of the grease-paint. An arena awaiting an audience. Gosh, it is possible to have electricity running through wooden planks? To have stardust jingling at your feet as you take your first steps on that stage? Practising moves … gently. Touching furniture … carefully. And knowing now it’s a countdown to showtime. (Now where’s my dressing room?)

The first time you know which chair in the dressing room is yours. So you can put your bag down. See how far it is to the clothes-rack (and the loo). Unpack your make-up, your water bottle, your tea-bags. And most importantly – start sticking your inspirational postcards around the mirror, and making it your second home. (Even if just for a week).

The first time you get to be in the theatre alone. Maybe you arrived early to warm-up, maybe everyone else is having a meeting in that other room, maybe you just woke up from a nap and found the place empty. But right now it’s all yours. The air is cool, even a touch frigid. Your footsteps suddenly echo. You walk around stretching out your arms, caressing the velvet of the seats, sitting in the very back row. Dare you try a line in the space? You do, and it rings. It resounds around the room. God, theatres are a wonder. This is your church, and soon you will do your soul’s work. But take one more minute to bask in the silence, the space, the stillness – the anticipation. (Before that rabble come back in making fart jokes).

The first time you hear the hub-a-bub of a big crowd arriving in to see the show. Maybe you’re being told to get off the stage by your overstretched stage manager, but you can hear the sounds of the lobby through a crack in the door. Maybe you’re in the dressing room hearing the overhead speaker of people taking their seats. Maybe you have to wait on stage before the show, and you’re peeking through the curtains. It’s PEOPLE! Coming to see the show. That’s why we do it, remember? Holy cow, we might have a full house? Are they normally this rowdy on a Thursday night? Wow, they are hungry for this. And that’s okay. They’re lucky. You’re ready to knock their socks off. (Do I need to pee one more time? Yeah. Just one more time).

The first time you step out into the lights in front of an audience. The crackle of it. You leave the safety of the wings, and suddenly they can see you. They’re looking at you. You’re in a show. Now. Now! NOW! Holy crap, your brain just went blank! No, I’m all good, I’m in the story, I’m the character now … and you’re breathing … and listening, living, being … and there’s your first cue … and you say your first line. It’s real! Hey, this is fun. You start moving around the stage, saying more lines, playing. And then you get your first laugh of the night. Your first gasp. Your first sigh. Hey this works! The audience is into it! You’re doing what you love. What could be better?

The first time you say your last line in the show … and you can hear a pin drop. The lights dip. And it’s still quiet for one delicious beat more … and then the applause lashes down like a sudden rainstorm. Genuine, joyous, relentless – and you bow with honour and admiration for the audience. You can’t help smiling, and they keep on clapping. Eventually, they let you go from their warm appreciative noisy embrace and you exit stage left, into the dark behind the flats, past that heavy muffled door and into the corridor … and you’re a little bit at a loss, wandering a little waywardly – for the first time in hours, you don’t know your next move. But then you stumble into the dressing room, and over the intercom you hear the audience laughing and quoting lines and saying how great that was, and you’re back in your purpose. Wow, we did it. (Now where’s the cold cream for this damn black mascara?)

The first drink on Opening Night. It’s been a long day’s work; the end of a long week of final rehearsals, tech, repetition, the stress of bringing it all home, each night crashing home to bed like a good soldier; hell, it’s been a long month all of a sudden. But that opening show is done, and done well, and that first clink of glasses with your cast and crew is like bells of gold, and that first sup of lush, celebratory, well-earned beer on your dry, harsh, work-worn throat, is like nectar.

The first time you get a really great review for the show in a newspaper. I’m just about old enough to remember when, if you stayed out drinking after opening night late enough, you could pick up the fresh-printed morning’s paper and scan for reviews. We all pretend we don’t care about the reviews – I don’t read them, man – and Lord knows, the baaaaad ones stay with us much longer – and in all reality they are just tomorrow’s fish-and-chips wrapping – but reading a glowing review of your performance in the cool morning air is a unique thrill.

The first time you overhear an audience member praising your performance, genuinely, delightedly, they just can’t help themselves – and you luckily overhear it, maybe passing in the lobby or on the street outside or in the pub next-door, so you know it’s not forced flattery. It’s just nice. Really nice. (But keep walking before they spot you!)

And then suddenly, it’s the last time you do the show. The last time. The last time. And it’s gone.

And you can’t wait for the next … first.

 

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My New Campaign: Let’s Save the Standing Ovation

My New Campaign: Let’s Save the Standing Ovation

I’d like to talk to you today about an endangered species.

The genuine standing ovation.

He’s a bit like the red squirrel, that lovely Irish creature, rather gentle and delightful, who is being routed and pushed aside by his rapacious and rude American cousin, the grey squirrel. The red is now disappearing from Irish woodlands because some fool introduced the grey to his environment, and the grey is much pushier, more aggressive and rather less soulful, and so is taking over and pushing aside gentlemanly ol’ Red.

I don’t like it. And now, I am seeing a similar phenomenon happening with standing ovations in Irish theatre audiences.

Now, as an actor, there are few things more joyous and gratifying that receiving a true standing O from your audience. They have appreciated your work that much. Wow. But let’s be very clear about what a standing ovation is.

Good theatre is invigorating. It’s live, and when it’s finely done, it makes us feel alive. It moves us. Literally. Initially our innards, our emotive juices, our gut, the electrons of our brain, our groin and our heart. What Elizabethans (who saved theatre after the Dark Ages and produced, y’know, that Shakespeare dude) called the Humours. It’s viscerally right in front of us (in a way that the gentle caress of a novel on our mind or the distanced magic of the cinema screen isn’t), performed right here right now for us by brave actors, you can hear the words reverberating in your ears, you can smell the sweat in your nostrils, you can taste the storm of tension in the air. And more than anything else, you feel it. If it is a well-told story, it builds in stages to climaxes, provides rushes of information to our mind and thrusts emotion to our core. It gets into our bodies and produces all kinds of strange, wonderful and touchable feelings. It is physical. And when it ends, we need to, have to, respond physically. And the best way we’ve culturally learned to do this is to applaud. To smash our hands together in unison to say well done, kudos, thank you for those actions and your courage and the impact they had on me.

And sometimes. Just sometimes. Probably rarely. But certainly at the best of times. That show has been so impactful on us – touching our hearts so much we have trouble swallowing and our eyes are heavy with tears, making us laugh so plentifully that our bellies ache, drawing us into the story so much that we have been clenching our fists along with the hero and sitting on the edge of our seats – that the physical reverberations inside us … well, just clapping isn’t enough to release the gathered explosions of how much we’ve been moved inside.

We have to put our whole bodies into it. We can’t stay rooted to our seats one second longer.

We have to stand.

And when we feel this way, we must do that.

I’ve been to hundreds of plays, and I can recall only a handful of times I’ve been that moved. You remember them. They stay with you.

Such as Steppenwolf‘s engrossing August: Osage County on Broadway. David Cromer’s revelatory Our Town at Barrow Street Theatre. John Breen’s gorgeous rugby play Alone It Stands in Dublin’s Andrew’s Lane (ironic considering the title!).

Once, after watching Propeller’s The Winter’s Tale at the Dublin Theatre Festival, I was so wrapped up in the show that when Hermione moved, I believed she was a statue coming back to life, and I wept with blissful joy and appreciation. And at the end, I stood, you better believe it, and applauded raucously. And only as the applause around me started to settle and fade, did I realize I was the only one in the orchestra standing. Initially I was a little embarrassed (eeeek, who’s that dude?), then I was perplexed (what show were you watching, people?!) and then I was serene (well, I loved that show, that was my true reaction and I’m so glad it was).

And there’s the rub: the urge to stand and applaud needs to come from inside. From all those swirling, tumultuous, electric feelings inside you that have been created by the play.

It doesn’t matter a damn what is happening outside you. That’s not relevant. Obviously.

I think you know where I am going with this.

If you weren’t so moved by a show, and don’t have those feelings inside your arms and legs, then there’s no reason you should stand.

Even if people all around you are.

Because nowadays, people are giving standing ovations utterly cheaply. And that inflation is slowly, relentlessly murdering their worth.

I started to see it on Broadway, where you’d go to terrible productions … and people would stand. I saw a stale, miscast, lumbering version of Les Miserables, that was on its last legs, and closed shortly thereafter, that you could barely give away tickets to. Yet, at its curtain call, people stood in their droves. Huh? All around me, throughout the show, I’d seen people shifting in their seats, yawning, scratching, I didn’t hear one gasp, see one tear on a cheek, hear anyone mutter Omigod Jean Valjean. (And listen, Les Mis done properly is incredible; when I saw the movie in the cinema, I wept so many times my cheeks were salty). They were plainly not that into it. Yet, at the end they soared to their feet. Huh? And then you start to reason it out, and you remember, most people seeing a Broadway show have paid a lot of money. Quite possibly they’re on vacation from out of town, and expect a brilliant experience, and can’t wait to tell their friends about the show they saw and stood for. Instead of an instinctive reaction, on Broadway, it’s become part of the routine.

And you want to know how to test that? See how long the standing O lasts. If in the amount of applause time, the cast can go off into the wings, wait three beats and the crowd are still applauding, and the actors need to come back out for an encore bow, that’s more likely to be legit. But I bet it ain’t that long.

Because applauding for a long time is hard work on the hands and forearms. After a while, genuinely clapping starts to hurt. But when the urge is internal and needs to be released, that doesn’t matter. Walking out into the lobby, with palms that are still stinging a bit but a head buzzing with the show you’ve just seen, is an ace feeling.

And now I’ve started to see the fake standing ovation at shows in Dublin. Ugh. Not everyone has been to Broadway, so I wonder if it’s years of watching awful manipulative shows like Pop Idol and The Voice where standing ovations are a trope, choreographed and not special at all. But it has seeped in. I’ve seen people give a standing ovation for 20 seconds, and then stand and put their coat on while the applause ends. I’ve seen people pop back on their phones during a standing ovation. I’ve seen people clearly miming clapping so they won’t have to put the effort in! If these things are happening, that’s not a standing ovation.

That’s peer pressure.

Lads, you’re not 14 years old. Be honest. Be true. Be brave.

Luckily we have an alternative. This awful plague hasn’t yet swept good theatre in London or on the continent. (Touch wood). There, standing ovations are still rare. Rather, if someone really enjoyed a show, they keep clapping. And the cast must keep returning for encore bows. It’s lovely. And the crowd stops clapping when they, as a unit, are done. Any day of the week, I’d take length of applause over height of applause.

So let’s not let the standing O be worth zero.

Please, next time you are at a show, think of the red squirrel. Of course, please applaud. And keep applauding until you are satisfied that the urge within you is spent. And if that urge is so strong you just need to stand and applaud, bravo, go for it. But don’t worry about who is standing around you. Be your own person. Have your own response to the show. Don’t be a lemming jumping off a cliff into cheap mediocrity.

C’mon, people. Let’s Save the Standing Ovation.

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10 Theatre Companies That Inspire Me

10 Theatre Companies That Inspire Me

Today’s blog is a very fun one for me, because I will be talking about ten theatre companies around the world that have really inspired me. While I deeply admire the giants like the National in England and the Abbey in Ireland, and of course get a kick out of a fun spectacular on Broadway, I am most attracted to medium-sized theatre companies that develop and present engaging new writing or provide a bold, exciting take on classics and adaptations, and deliver a warm, welcoming experience for their audience.

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Audiences

Audiences

Okay, I admit it, I love audiences. Well of course I do, as a theatre actor, they’re what makes the show – and what in the world is better than a crowd of people snuggled together, excited for you to step into the light and tell them a story right there and then, maybe one they’ll never forget. It’s an amazing feeling, privilege and duty. And I am always so thankful for each and every one who turns up.

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