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.  


  1. Do you have a pre-show ritual?

  2. Hi Niki,
    I used to be very casual about that 30 minutes and dash in to the theatre just before the half. Perhaps because of my lack of formal training I didn't really understand the 'ritual' aspect. But I learnt the hard way that being in the theatre early and having some time to think before the show instead of wildly throwing yourself into costume and wigs was, unsurprisingly, better for the performance. Now I take time to warm up my voice and to go over scenes and take a breath. If the company I am working with has a group warm-up, I am happy to take part but otherwise it is more a matter of collecting my thoughts. Oh, and I do like some music in the dressing room. (And a doughnut)

  3. "Music is the universal language of mankind" - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
    "Music is what feelings sound like" (Author unknown)
    I`m sorry I have no quotations for doughnuts, but the truth is I don`t really like them lol (shame on me) ;-)
    Thank you for answering my question, Sophie :-)

  4. "Donuts. Is there anything they can't do?" - Homer Simpson

  5. HAHAHAHA, you got me!!
    "Don't go nuts with donuts" - Nikita
    Hehehe ;-)

  6. There is no where a Voodoo Donut won't go.