Thursday, 27 March 2008

The Half

The Half is the time you have to be in the theatre before the show starts. It is calculated to be 30 minutes ahead of Beginners, which is 5 minutes before the curtain goes up. So, 35 minutes before the time the play begins every actor must have checked in through the stage door and be, if not in their dressing room, then very close to it. There are no exceptions.
Of course, this is just the minimum time and only really applies to men and to contemporary plays. Actresses cannot get into wigs, corsets, make-up and costume in under half an hour, especially when you add cigarette breaks, cups of tea, panicking time and the really important chat with another member of the company. It is strange if the first time you speak to a person in a day is when you bump into them on stage; they might have cut their hair or got a black eye or be extremely unwell. Best to find out before you have to kiss/hit/fall on them.
Every actor has their own pre-show ritual. For some, this is about luck, they feel that certain superstitious practices will help them to avoid a disastrous show. For others, it is about tuning their instrument to the best possible performance pitch. An increasingly rare few spend The Half balancing their drug/drink intake. This means that throughout the building you may come across actors wearing their lucky pants, doing headstands, swigging from a flask. Occasionally, this will be the same person. 
Some companies have their own way of preparing for the show and will do group exercises to encourage trust and sharpen reactions. These are really completely different species of actors and those who dislike that kind of thing will go to great lengths to avoid rolling around on the floor in a leotard with a beach ball between their knees shouting 'Daffodil!". However, most actors will have to warm up in some way and there will be at least 15 minutes in The Half, after the Stage Managers have set up for the show and before the house opens, when the stage is available for actors to clear their throats. If you are still in the dressing-room during this time, you might turn the Show Relay (Tannoy) down so that you don't feel like killing the colleague who repeats their favourite poem in six different voices at varying speeds while running up and down the aisles in the empty auditorium. The important thing is to remember to turn the speaker back on before the show starts.
During all this preparation, the Stage Manager who calls the show will be making announcements over the Tannoy. They are somewhat old-fashioned. 'Ladies and Gentlemen of the X Company, this is your half-hour call' will be the first address and however hysterical the residents of the dressing rooms become during the following 30 minutes, the announcement is unfailingly polite and calm. Actors are always 'Mister' and actresses are always 'Miss' and even if there 20 people due on stage at the start of the show, every single name will be read out. Twice. This is because actors are not very good at listening to the Tannoy at the right moment. 
Throughout The Half, much like the actors, time ceases to behave in any predictable manner, so that covering a tattoo, which usually only takes 5 minutes may seem to take an hour or a few seconds. Your mind wanders, your stomach churns, the lines dance round in your head like so many attractive but elusive ballerinas. The only thing worse than being backstage for The Half is not being there when you should have been. 
Not being in the theatre for The Half is considered unprofessional. Also, some people will want to stove your head in with a tyre iron. This is either because a) they are the producer and there aren't any understudies or b) they are in the play and don't trust the understudy. The understudy themselves may have mixed emotions. If they know the play really well and were looking forward to this opportunity they will be excited but slightly annoyed, since they didn't get a chance to call their mother/agent and tell them to get a ticket. Also, they will suspect that just when they have finished squeezing into/safety-pinning the petticoat, the delayed actor will arrive with some breathless excuse. If the understudy does not know the play very well they will be spending some time reflecting on alternative careers.
For the actor still heading toward the building, the adrenalin is akin to being in a small car crash, something they will undoubtedly contemplate as an alternative to just 'being late'. I have missed The Half twice; once through sheer stupidity and once because of a sheep. When you are late for The Half, you go into 'The Book', a large volume in which the Stage Management record all the mishaps of the show. You can also be fined some of the costs that the producers will have to pay to the understudy who had to get into that petticoat. But what you really have to pay is incalculable, as the lost moments of your sleep and peace of mind in years to come, slip through the hourglass of your life. 
The Half; the most expensive 30 minutes in the world.  

Friday, 21 March 2008

Gaffers and Grips

Gaffers work with lights and Grips work with cameras so they are necessarily guys that you spend plenty of time with on set. They know everything and have seen it all. There isn't a freaky actor out there who could surprise them, though if you are lucky you might catch the look on their face when they turn away.
The Gaffer will have a Best Boy and a team of electricians, Sparks, who will work on the lighting plot with the Director of Photography (aka Cinematographer, Lighting Camera). Although much of the work will take place when the actors are off set, using stand-ins, there will be plenty of final touches during rehearsals. The lighting team will bring to life the writer and director's vision for the look of the film. This means lighting for day or night, interior or exterior, summer or winter, regardless of where and when you are actually filming, (Michael Powell's 'Black Narcissus' set in stormy Himalayan mountains was shot entirely in Pinewood studios and a garden in West Sussex). 
The job of a Grip in the UK involves the equipment that the camera is mounted on. If the camera has to travel at all, it will usually be on a Dolly that moves along tracks. Hence the term Dolly Grip. The Dolly can also be used for moving the camera up and down. The Key Grip is the chief, and sometimes only, Grip. The Grip has to move the camera precisely, often in difficult conditions. Complicated camera moves, in tight spaces, with particular timing that is dependent on performance, mean that the Grip, along with the Focus Puller and the Camera Operator, can be under a lot of pressure during a take. 
You can make the life of the Gaffer and Grip easier; you can hit your mark, you can go through a rehearsal at the right speed and with a decent summary of the action. It's always worth remembering: they're in charge of the lights and the camera.

Saturday, 8 March 2008


Every job invites certain questions. When I was at school, I couldn't imagine what the teachers talked about in the staff room and I would never believe that you could get sick of eating marzipan if you worked in the marzipan factory. Lawyers often get asked how they can defend someone they know is guilty, and "How do you come up with ideas?" has probably driven more than one writer back to the mini-bar. These are a few of my favourites.

How do you remember your lines?
This may be rhetorical, as in 'It must be difficult to remember all those lines'. It is. 

Do you get to keep the costumes?
Sometimes you can buy your costumes at a reduced price. If you are in a television series the costumes will have to stay in stock and the same often applies to theatre. For many actors, the costumes are associated with the character they have played and will have been bought or made with the character in mind. The last thing you want to own is a dress that you wore for a month while being chased around a submarine by an alien.

Didn't I used to know you?
Always hard to tell. Sometimes people think you were at their sister's wedding in Chicago or that you went to school with their son. Sometimes they have seen every film you ever made. It is best not to assume the latter; you really might have been to school with their son.

Doesn't your boyfriend get jealous?
Probably not. My partner has a rule that as long as the other actor and I are both being paid, by someone else, then we can do our job.

What was so-and-so really like?
It is a bad idea to form an opinion based on third party information. I will always say they were lovely. I play poker so I won't tell you how to know if I'm lying.

Are you resting?
If I haven't told you within 5 minutes of seeing you what I am working on than I am either not working or I have been abducted and an alien is inhabiting my body. Maybe the alien from the submarine. Best not to ask.

What are you doing next?

Is there a part you've always wanted to play?
The only time I really set my sights on a part, I was overjoyed when I was asked to do it. I was terrible. 

What do you do during the day?
I was asked this at a reception for supporters of the theatre when I was doing a play. It is true that once the play is running, there are only a few rehearsals called during the day; understudy rehearsals, line runs, get-ins to a new venue, or short rehearsals of the bits that aren't working, and there are usually only two matinees. So, technically there is quite a lot of free time during time during the day. Still, it is quite an annoying question because it makes you feel like a slacker. 

Have you read the book?
There might be a very good reason not to read the book, such as the director forbidding it, but usually it will be the first source available if you are working on an adaptation. If it is a faithful adaptation, then the book will be very helpful. If it is a radical re-working of the text then the book could be a liability. Since the script will already be written, the last words a director or writer want to hear begin "But in the book..."

And what are your FAQs?

Friday, 7 March 2008


Occasionally there will be time in pre-production to discuss what car your character will drive, but more often the decision will be made based on practicalities; what period the film is set in, whether the car has to get involved in a crash/accident, the cars the other characters are driving and, no doubt, what deals the production can get.
Whether or not the actor can drive, there will usually be a stunt driving double. This will save the production money; when the actor is working on the main unit, the second unit can film driving scenes. If the actor can drive, and has a valid driving license, they will perform most of the driving scenes themselves, but there are plenty of ways to make it look as if an actor is driving. If the camera is very close and the car just rolls into shot, you can be pretty sure the actor doesn't drive and several crew are crouched behind the boot hoping the actor doesn't reverse either.
The most common shot you will see is an actor getting into a car and driving off or pulling up and getting out. If you're watching a cop show or movie, you'll see that a lot. They can take a while to film. The actor might never have driven the car before and will go on a test run with the stunt driver or the car owner/driver. Local police officers will be controlling traffic as only they are permitted to do so. The visual effects department will have set up any rain/snow machines and the Director of Photography will have lit the inside of the car and the street, if it is night (characters like to drive with their sun visor down and the interior light on). There will be some form of microphone in the car, if not an entire sound recordist squashed in the foot well. 
There are certain hurdles for the actor to clear in these scenes, primarily one of timing. The set ups are narratively necessary but rarely of interest in themselves, so they can't be lingered over. The reality means getting to the car, unlocking it, opening the door and getting in, putting on seat belts, starting the car, getting into gear, indicating etc, pulling out. Costumes, mud, props and combustion engines can all conspire against you. If you are pulling into the shot, then you will also have a critical stop mark. Above all, being a girl driving in front of a predominantly male crew, you will not want to stall.
There are plenty of other ways of filming with cars. A low loader places the car on a flat bed truck with room for the camera and crew. Cameras can be attached to the sides of the car, or the camera operator, and focus puller, might sit in the car with the actor. Rear screen projection inside a studio is not used much anymore, if it is it will usually be in an ironic, 'homage' way. If there has been a stunt shot, you will have to do close-ups, probably parked outside the studio while someone screams "left, right, spin, hit the window with your head!". Driving stunt doubles for women are thin on the ground, so actresses will spend days doing close-ups of accidents to cover for the large man with an ill-fitting wig who performed the original stunt.
When I was filming 'Heartbeat', I drove a rather beautiful but ungainly, Citroen Safari. It was very low slung but in immaculate condition and felt like what I imagine driving a hearse might be like if you were allowed to do 40mph on a country lane. At least it had synchromesh gears. On 'A Summer Story', I drove a vintage 1930's car (I cannot recall the make). It had to be double-declutched to change gears, a process involving much footwork and more arm strength than I can easily access. We were filming on Exmoor and had run over schedule and at the end of the film I was left with the second unit, bombing on my own round the National Park like Mr Toad. So reduced was our crew by this time that when we finished a long shot, the traffic was mistakenly released before I returned to base. The lanes were one car width, edged by dry stone walls, the brakes were heavy. To all the tourists I met on my way back, I can only say, Sorry.