Friday, 26 October 2012

Have we all been "Brand"ed?

Before you jump to conclusions I haven’t got a burnt image on my bottom like a cow’s hide in the Wild West or succumbed to the effects of Russell like many a female starlet, but I’m marvelling at the pull of big market brands on us all.

I heard yesterday that the town of Totnes in Devon had successfully fought off an application from Costa Coffee to set up a branch in their high street.  “In yer face big soulless corporation!”  They wanted to preserve the independent businesses culture found in the town and, for once, the corporation listened and retracted the bid.  It must have been a hard fight for they succeeded where so many have failed; I am sure Tesco wouldn’t have been so humble, they seem happy to jump into the empty grave of a pub with tactless haste.

I like to think that I am all for local businesses and independent traders; I recently found a stunning local cafe in Twickenham called LuLu'z (@LuluzTwickenham) and will thwart bigger chains on the high street for their comfortable sofas and epic cake selection.  But I have to hold my hands up and say that this has not always been the case and I can’t promise I will never be seen holding a Starbucks Chocolate Chunk Shortbread again, (to the detriment of local business and my hips.)  For no matter how much tax certain companies get out of paying, a trip to a coffee chain is like going home for your Mum’s roast; it is familiar, comforting and you know what you’re going to get.

We have become creatures of habit blinded by brands and scared to go out of our comfort zone.  I have previously joked that the touring cast of Avenue Q should have been given shares in Marks & Spencer’s Food Hall but the same can be said for any touring actor; despite our meagre wages we rely on Fuller for Longer microwave meals and ready to eat prawns.  We all gravitate like Lemmings to the Starbucks or Costa in any town and are quick to label certain towns as “dumps” if they have yet to open a recognisable coffee house, “Oh how I miss London,” we lament.  As much as I spent hours trying to explore each town and find spots of local interest, I would collapse in a recognisable chair full of crumbs in a franchise brand and drink green tea because it was familiar. 

When you are working away anything that is recognisable becomes a comfort and lessens the miles between you and home.  I shamefully remember sitting in a Starbucks in every German town I visited on the Mamma Mia! tour instead of sampling the local cafe culture, but perhaps the fact that I was fake-tanned like a tangerine in deepest winter is the more shameful part of that memory. 
Or as they say in Germany "Ich liebe es!"
Another tangerine dancer friend was worse; he would screech “The Golden Arches!” in his Glaswegian drawl as our coach drove through a new town, because seeing a MacDonald’s meant he could eat for the next 14 days.  Was he a heathen sucked in by corporation brands or just homesick and unable to swallow any more Kartofflen and sauerkraut?

Like it or not, we have all succumbed to branding and I think it would be an interesting experiment to see if we could last a week without having any brands in our life at all.  I am not sure if I could – my friends would certainly miss the fake name game that is the current trend when visiting a Starbucks.  Could we be as angelic as the inhabitants of Totnes and really fight for local culture instead of just chat about our gripes over a Costa cappuccino?  Or are we allowed to have this modern human weakness for soulless but safe beverages that always taste the same from Tyneside to Truro?

But what about poor Martin from Totnes?  He contacted a radio programme discussing the fight against Costa and said, “I would have quite liked to have a Costa here, I like their coffee!”  Spare a thought for that lemming who will have to get on a bus to Newton Abbott for his caramel latte.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Read all about it! - What goes on tour stays on tour

Oh dear Gareth!  It must be a slow news day, despite more pressing headlines such as the murder charges against Mark Bridger the celeb gossip section exploded with another alleged affair between the married Gareth Gates and an on-stage co-star.

I say “another” because he was caught out in his last touring musical, Les Miserables, and now his wife seemingly has to endure more headlines about his alleged musical theatre infidelities.  Post Levenson, we are all aware of the underhand tactics certain parts of the press will take to find (or create) a scoop and having personally witnessed such vile antics I am not quick to believe anything I read. Despite the likelihood that these rumours and photos are creating something out of nothing, it got me thinking about my experiences of the musical theatre tour bubble and the effect it can have on your “normal” life.

Being on tour as an actor is not unlike a 12 month work conference at an out-of-town Holiday Inn or the Christmas party in the office world; all routine situations, morals and sense become skewed.  Behaviour or feelings that you wouldn’t even register in your normal life become available and accepted in what can only be described as a bubble.  It is only you and your cast mates with the routine of daily gym visits, trips to the local Nandos and in-jokes.  The bubble grows over a contract and suddenly bursts on the last performance and you happily return to your normal life, as I hope Mr Gates can do if it is intact.
Bubbles are beautiful but they always burst

Over my 11 years as a professional actress I have played all the roles in this set-up.  I have been the partner left at home trying to understand the closeness between virtual strangers with jealous inclinations threatening a relationship and more recently, I have been the partner away working.  It is probably because I have learnt from what I have witnessed or experienced in the past that I did everything in my power to keep my relationship my priority this time.  Not wanting my other half to know what it feels like to wait by a phone when the curtain has gone down and to know that I would always choose coming home over Saturday night bevvies.  The one thing that flummoxed me in today’s article was the fact that the Gates’ show was playing Wimbledon and he was seen heading to the digs of his co-star instead of travelling the few miles home to West London.  If they were in a far flung city it is easier to comprehend socialising after a show but to me when you are performing in a venue near home it is a no-brainer; surely you rush back to your wife and child?

I have also seen the damage resulting from a young cast member basking in the light of the affections of a leading man.  It is more intoxicating than Doctor Footlights himself, the feeling of being chosen, special and by their side.  You start to live your on-stage romance for real with all the glamour and enticing angst that it entails and once you add a hint of celebrity to the mix then it becomes a lethal cocktail.

What is it that makes actors fall for each other?  Why should kissing someone on-stage every night suddenly become an off-stage activity lit only by the flashing call from your spouse on a mobile phone?  You spend 3 years at drama school learning “how to act,” so why are some people unable to keep their emotions separate from the acting?  Just because your character falls in love with your co-star doesn’t mean you, the actor, also has to; kissing someone for a living shouldn’t distort reality.  Most actors acknowledge it is actually quite a disconcerting and embarrassing thing to do, especially TV actors who are more worried about hitting marks and the technicalities of such scenes.
It is possible to have a dramatic kiss without the drama

And yet it is such a common story; two leading actors falling in love.  Obviously sometimes in-cast relationships can work but both parties being previously unattached always helps; certain people still hate Angelina for ‘stealing’ Brad from Jennifer but we celebrate the union of Greg Wise and Emma Thompson because as far as we know, no-one’s feelings were hurt.  I spent a whole pantomime season spouting my wisdom about touring bubbles to my leading man turn partner and have thankfully been proved wrong, plus the fact that we have been married on stage over 100 times also lets him off the hook for a bit!

But when the two characters are not totally single it can be awful, even for the rest of the people in the tour bubble.  You have to see the visiting spouse whilst knowing it is not your place to reveal the certain events you were privy to in a recent Wetherspoons, everybody is put in an awkward position. 

For the majority of “jobbing actors” such mistakes are made out of the media glare but that is sadly not the case for somebody with a celebrity status.  The theatre world is a small one; everybody quickly learns of your business without the aid of The Daily Mail and sadly the characters in both the latest scandal and the Les Miserables rumours surrounding Gates are known either by me or by many of my colleagues.  Some may be outraged and protective over the allegations others may be nodding knowingly, either way it leaves a horrid taste in your mouth.

Whether the speculation is true or not, it can’t have been nice reading for Mrs Gates or a proud moment for the actresses’ parents.  The press seems to forget that real life relationships are not as easily resolved as the ones we portray on stage. 

See for yourself;

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single actress in possession of her audition folder must be in want of a treat!

I am heartily disappointed in Starbucks.  Not as part of an anti-commercialism vendetta, I love to support a local business but I don’t pretend you won’t see me in a Nero or Costa.  The reason for my annoyance with Starbucks and Co is that they, like many other eateries, have now put the calorie content on the signs next to their treats.
hmmmm....well done me!

So I now know that my favourite Chocolate Chunk Shortbread is a calorific 497 calories with a heart-clogging 18g of fat – it is only the size of my hand and yet it constitutes a whole meal and a half with enough fat to insulate a small bear through winter.  I wish I didn’t know the full horrors of the shortbread because that biscuit was my audition treat and now I have to think twice before I part with my £1.75.

Audition treat, I hear you ask? 
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single actress in possession of her audition folder must be in want of a treat. 
A post-audition treat to be precise; I’m sorry Ms Austen for bastardising your wonderful words but I’m sure even you would crave some sugary satisfaction after a particularly hard meeting with an editor!

For some strange reason I feel obligated to reward myself after an audition as if the two minutes of singing to strangers is enough cardio to warrant it!  I like to think that it's a reward for the whole process – from the phone call from your agent, to the frantic hunt for sheet music, maybe a trip to Chappells to buy a £25 compilation just to use one song, the early rising for vocal warm ups in the shower, the anxiety that lives with you all day until the 4.45pm call time to the final two minutes of screeching inappropriately to a panel who are mentally already on their trains home.  Phew!  You see a reward is clearly needed.

I am not the only one on this reward scheme; so many female friends do similar things.  Starbucks is a habitual recurrence in their admissions perhaps because there literally is one of every corner especially near London rehearsal rooms.  One drama school colleague goes for the cinnamon swirl, another prefers a chocolate muffin.  A dear friend of mine went to an open audition for The Lord of The Rings musical and after queueing since dawn and managing to sing 16 bars of Meadowlark in a different key to the one played by the accompanist she ended up in Haagen Daz in Leicester Square.  Whilst weeping to her Mum down the phone she nursed an ice-cream sundae, her reward for getting through such a trauma until one of those pesky Leicester Square pick-pockets, a pigeon, came and swiped it.  Obviously the weeping became wailing and a bad day became worse, the pigeon had denied her the one good thing about her day!
These Ballet-Boyz at an open audition don't look the types for beer or cakes!

This post was prompted by a conversation whilst rehearsing The Last Five Years that opens tonight.  My character Cathy has a song called “Climbing Uphill” where we see her audition disasters recounted over dinner with her Dad.  I suggested that she may have some kind of junk food because after a bad audition ALL actresses eat rubbish; this observation was met with confusion by the others!  But they trusted me (probably because of my 11 years worth of experience of bad auditions and chubby thighs!) and we now have Cathy munching a McDonalds whilst singing about going to the gym.  This does seem to be a predominantly female reward scheme, when I have mentioned this to other male theatre friends they look at me incredulously.  “No,” they reply with confusion, “well, I suppose I do go and have a pint.” Ah ha! We all do it but in the “Men are from Mars, Woman are from Venus” way!

This behaviour may worry nutritionists and is probably classified as emotional comfort-eating.  There are countless articles and books about how to stop emotional eating and the dangers to your health and well-being.  I read a scary article on this subject titled “You’re not a dog, so don’t act like one.”  This kind of reward eating is like drooling for a bone but it also harks back to childhood routines (what kind of psychotherapy doesn’t?!) where we were given treats if we were quiet/tidied our room/did well at school.  So perhaps the answer isn’t switching my Starbucks for fruit or nuts but in fact re-training my brain to think I actually don’t require a reward for doing my job!
I personally have to curb this kind of behaviour not only because my metabolism is now over 30 years old and therefore on shut down, but mainly because what if I suddenly have 5 auditions in one week? 
The anxiety + 2485 Starbucks calories = one week nearer to being air-lifted out of my house by crane on one of those daytime programmes. 
Actually, who am I kidding, what actor or actress has 5 auditions a week nowadays?  Sadly in today’s climate we are more likely to get 5 every 6 months so with my brain re-training and this lull in auditions I may finally be able to kick the habit.

So as I go into ‘tr-eating’ rehab the only person who will suffer is Mr Starbucks; without us emotional eating actors you’ll only have the yummy mummy’s for your profit margins and they’re always on diets!