Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Survival Tactics


“And what do you do?”

This is a question that should make me want to swing from the rooftops. I should want to grab this person, hug them and delightedly tell them that I do the best job in the world. Ideally, I’d be doing so well that they wouldn’t even need to ask what I do for a living. So why, when facing this question, do I feel my soul shrink away along with my knowledge of economics and my desire hang the washing up?

The fact is, it’s quiet at the moment. Maybe not for you. I really hope not for you. But for me it is. I haven’t had an acting job in quite some time. Why? I don’t know. As much as I probably should, I’m trying not to look inward. I’m also trying not to look outward and blame the rest of the world. To stop myself from either screaming at the mirror or screaming at everyone else, I’ve had to come to the conclusion that no one is to blame and that it’s just ‘one of those things.’ Na├»ve? Maybe. Not likely to achieve in me getting work? Almost definitely. Healthier? I certainly think so.

But it got me thinking about how we cope during these quiet times. How you can stop yourself from spending every waking hour wondering where it is you’ve gone wrong? When you find yourself not able to do the job you love, how do you stop yourself from becoming a shrivelled up scrap of bitter?

One of the biggest survival tactics is making sure that you fill all this sudden spare time with good things, and that includes whatever it is that you have to do to make money. I’m exceedingly lucky that I have a brilliant job that is massively flexible and that I also enjoy.  But even before then I’ve always tried to make sure that my resting job is something that doesn’t make me want to cry for the rest of eternity. I’ve found that letting people know you’re flexible for work is always a good thing. It’s meant I’ve worked on the phones at a takeaway (not the greatest job in the world but it meant free meals and also the embarrassment of accidentally calling Holborn Police Station to tell them that we were out of vine leaves.) It’s meant I’ve worked for a record label (I got more paper cuts than I thought imaginable but I did get to witness a terrifyingly music-savvy office listen to a new track and compliment it only to realise, 30 minutes in, that the record was stuck.) And yes, I’ve done call centre work but I made sure it was for a tiny company that didn’t seem set on selling my soul. The work is out there, you just have to be a little bit open about what you want to do. Basically, if you’re not selling your soul or your body (unwillingly) then you’re probably doing OK.

But you also have to make sure that you’re keeping even the feeblest grip on the job that you love. I know that some people find that working in theatres or teaching drama can help as it can make you feel that you’re still involved. Personally I find writing hugely beneficial. It keeps my brain ticking and although 99.9% of it is utter rubbish, coming up with a phrase that makes you smile can be all that you need sometimes. If I was blessed with the gift of writing plays then I would but sadly the evidence of 8,492 opening pages of things I’ve written and angrily discarded is enough to tell me that it’s not for me. Or, if writing or teaching or selling ice creams ain’t your jazz bag, then go to classes. Sometimes they can feel like pulling teeth or teaching your grandmother with a Guinness World record in sucking eggs to, well, suck eggs, but they at least make you feel like you’re doing something. Even if that something is running around a freezing church hall pretending to be a goat hiding from the Mafia.

But most of all, don’t feel guilty for indulging yourself when you need to. Being self-employed can make you feel that you need to be ‘on’ all the time. That you’ve got to be constantly looking for work and writing to people and checking emails and bloody networking. You don’t. If you find yourself on a Wednesday morning in need of 3 sharing bags of Doritos and Uncle Buck then do it. Yes, you’ll feel guilty for the first 10 minutes but rest is equally important and will ultimately make you a happier and more employable person. The other afternoon, after a morning of trawling websites desperately looking for acting roles to apply for, I found myself on the sofa in my pyjamas watching The Karen Carpenter Story. I followed that up with a nap. No, it didn’t get me any work but not feeling stressed for just a few hours is worth its weight in gold, silver and Giant Cadbury’s Buttons.

You might’ve read this blog post and thought it was all a bit self-indulgent. That’s because writing it is one of my survival tactics. Thanks. 

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Accentuating the Negative


I’ve never been good at accents. Any attempt at an accent results in people wondering when Ireland went on a gap year trip to South Africa, Peru and the moon, their wonderings quickly followed by a letter summoning me to a tribunal for crimes against voice. So watching Peaky Blinders on BBC2 this week called for my biggest hypocrisy hat. Not only do I have no idea what turn of the century accents should sound like but I also couldn’t pretend to be from Birmingham even if my parents had flung me out the day I was born and ill-advisedly asked Ozzy Osbourne and Jasper Carrott to bring me up (although I do think the world is missing an act who performs rock versions of insurance claims…)

But Peaky Blinders got me thinking about accents and what dodgy terrain they create for actors. I’ve never been blessed with a good ear for accents. In fact, all I really have is a bunion for them, awkwardly and painfully trampling on them wherever I go. The general consensus, whether correct or not, was that some of the voices on Peaky Blinders were on the dubious side of believable. I’m not going to write a blog about that because, frankly, I don’t have any idea on how realistic they really were. Despite how I may look some mornings, I can safely say that I wasn’t around in 1919. But I do want to talk about how tricky changing your voice can be.

My heart sinks when an accent is called for in an audition. Interpretive dance? No problem. Pretending to be a tortoise playing the harmonica? Bring it on. Reading two sentences with a German accent? OHGODWHEREISTHEDOOROUTOFHERELOVELYTOMEETYOUBYE. And, for some reason, I never seem to get any warning of what my voice box will be asked to deal with.

I’ve spent many years wondering what my speciality is. I can’t sing, I can’t really dance and, as we’re learning, I certainly can’t pretend to be from somewhere else. But what I can do a good impression of someone who isn’t phased by accents. As is the problem with most actors, we’re pretty bad at saying “No.” Whatever is thrown at us, we’ll smile sweetly and have a damn good go at it. So that’s always been my approach with accents. I mean, I could just hold my hands up and say, “Look. I’m not blessed with an accepting ear and phonetics classes made me as sad as a dieter at Cadbury’s World, so I’d really rather not.” But I don’t. Instead, I take a deep breath and bloody go for it. Very occasionally something alright comes out but usually I just end up roaring something that ends up with me being forever known as The Pitchy Racist.

And then there’s the reactions that I have to cope with. I’ve had winces, looks of surprise and, more than once, I’ve been congratulated for somehow creating an accent that managed to retain a lot of my own. After each failed audition, another accent is scratched off my CV. The only reason I haven’t had an audition in so long is because it’d be impossible to go into minus accents. Honest guv.

The problem with performing in a voice other than your own is that you’ve got to sustain them. We can all say ‘conjunctivitis’ in Geordie and we all know the beercan/bacon trick but once you go past a few sentences, that’s when it starts on its round the world trip. And of course, especially when that accent is being performed on camera, it’s also got to persist through take after take. Tiredness starts to set in and the need to get the take right becomes far more important than whether your voice might actually start becoming offensive.

But still, those accents were bloody awful, weren’t they?