13 Dec 2009

The reality of working in show business

I'm not going to pretend to be objective about reality shows. I hate them. I've hated them since the very first Big Brother leeched its way onto our screens in Australia nine years ago and I've studiously avoided them in any shape or form. I particularly loathe the talent-show versions where people with average voices and minimal stage presence win competitions voted for by the public and get massive record deals. But the main reason I hate them is because they have taken away budgets for decent television programming and work from trained performers - and not just in television. Suddenly lead roles in theatrical productions are being given to individuals with little or no formal training and certainly no formal experience.

We were given tickets to see Oliver! last week. I had a vague idea there might be someone from a reality showoliver!-theatre-tickets-theatre-royal-drury-lane-london playing Nancy (the coverage of these shows means it's impossible to completely ignore them) and I was pretty sure she'd won a competition to play the role. However, when we got there, the 'alternate' Nancy was on for the evening, Australian actress, Tamsin Carroll. Tamsin was exceptional, as I would expect from a young woman who has been working in the theatre since childhood. But it got me thinking. Why was there an 'alternate'? Not an understudy (the role of Nancy has two understudies), but someone who plays the role for a specific number of performances each week.

carrolloliver_1225380120 Most West End shows run eight shows a week (six nights and two matinees) and often additional rehearsals during the week for understudies and swings (performers covering multiple supporting roles). That's two hours a show onstage and for a production like Oliver!, leading actors usually have some vocally strenuous numbers. So logic would dictate that you're going to need some strong singers. Singers with training, technique, experience. Singers who can handle eight shows a week, two hours a night and not lose their voice by Saturday night.

I don't know anything about Jody Prenger, who won the reality show competition for Oliver! other than what was in her bio in the programme (lots of reality TV and a Disney cruise ship gig) and a YouTube video, which, to be honest, wasn't a patch on Tamsin's performance the other night. I also don't know anything about Connie Fisher, another reality-show winner who went on to play Maria in The Sound of Music. But I do know she also had an 'alternate' after her voice packed it in three months into the run.

Two for two. Add Martine McCutcheon (television actress and former pop star), who had to drop out of My Fair Lady for 'health reasons', three for three. Is anyone else seeing a pattern? Tamsin Carroll played the role of Nancy in the Australian production of Oliver! (with no alternate) and Jody Prenger's replacement next year, Kerry Ellis (who understudied Martine McCutcheon in My Fair Lady) doesn't look like she'll have an alternate either.

I feel I'm stating the obvious here, but evidently it needs to be stated, because it keeps happening. Actors like Tamsin and Kerry, who work their way up through the ranks of the chorus, understudy and supporting roles – 'work' being the operative word – who have the talent, skills and guts to play the leading role to its fullest, aren't given the opportunity because those roles are given to the folks who've been on the TV. Regardless of whether those TV folks  have the talent and stamina to handle the role. They're famous, so they'll bring in the crowds.

Musicals are not the only genre where this is happening – Daniel Radcliffe garnered lacklustre reviews for angodot350 average performance in Equus, Josh Harnett lacked the presence and gravitas of his theatre-trained co-star Adam Godley in Rainman (but Harnett was aware of it, and suitably humble in his curtain call) and Kelly Brook has been hired for her 'talents' to play an 'ordinary woman' in Calendar Girls. Not to say 'famous' equals 'no talent', I saw the superb (theatre-trained) Gillian Anderson in What The Night is For, Brendan Fraser and Frances O'Connor were just perfect in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (and I'm eagerly awaiting James Earl Jones and Adrian Lester in the latest production of same), John Barrowman was wowing theatre crowds long before he was Captain Jack Harkness and I can die happy knowing I saw Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Waiting for Godot. But these are all performers who put in the ground work from day one, who earned their dues and got the break they worked for. They have talent which made them famous, as opposed to  mass-market personality appeal which made them famous.

There are arguments for getting the famous people in - what good is a show if no-one comes to see it? And people will come to see it if there's someone famous in it, regardless of whether they have the chops to carry off the role. I rebutt this argument with 'then educate people about the difference between good and famous'. What if all school children were inspired to see wonderful productions for the production's sake and not so they could say they'd seen Kelly Brooks' baps? The famous people argument reduces theatre to water cooler chat. People go to see the shows to say they've seen it, regardless of how bad it is. So what's the point in getting the good people in, when no-one will see it? May as well have a less-brilliant show that thousands see for the wrong reasons than a brilliant show that hundreds see for the right reasons, right? And so it goes, until there are less and less good shows to see.

Then I ask myself – would I have seen Waiting for Godot if Magneto and Captain Picard hadn't been cast? The truth? No. I wouldn't have. Because the London tickets were £50 each. If they'd been £10 then a much better chance. But I'm not about to fork out a fortnight's worth of groceries on the off-chance the show might be good. I paid a tenner to see Cyrano de Bergerac at the National Theatre some years ago, Stephen Rae was in the lead role and it was bloody awful. But McKellen vs Stewart? They could recite the phone book and it would be awesome.

So what's the solution? Aside from abolishing reality TV? In my book, education. Get the kids while they're young, expose them to good story-telling, beautiful production values, moving performances and teach them how to appreciate what they're watching. Let them know that performance is a job, it's work and not just something you fall into because you're an Irish set of twins with big mouths and big hair. Think of all the wonderful stories we'd all get to see and hear, how much more beauty and light there'd be in the world, how much more hope and productivity there'd be if people were inspired, Roddenberry-style, to want nothing more than to enrich their souls. There is nothing enriching in reality TV. It is voyeurism in its most despicable form – the twitch of the net curtain to gossip about your neighbours. It is stealing jobs from talented performers, writers and directors and, worst of all, robbing us of the stories to weave into the once luxuriant fabric of our community and culture. It has no place in an intelligent society and I look forward to its ultimate demise at the hands of a public so bored they have no choice but to seek out new stories.

8 Dec 2009

When did I become a Ma’am?

Pret A Manger caffe latte, England, Britain, UKI was in Prêt a Manger today, which I am most days, as I buy my morning latté from them. Prêt make the best lattés of all the chain stores in London. I'll go to Starbucks at a pinch (and load it up with vanilla or caramel), Costa as a last resort and Cafe Nero ONLY if the baristas are Mediterranean. English Cafe Nero baristas evidently all drink Nescafé at 40 degrees Celsius and wouldn't know a good latte if it imploded in front of them. The best coffee I’ve found in London (so far) is made by the lovely ladies at MUGI in Ealing Common. Polish construction workers drink it at 7.30am with nothing but cigarettes, so you know it’s good. Should you find yourself on the Ealing Common High Street, I recommend a detour, for the coffee and the hilarious music videos on Russian cable television.

I am a caffeine junkie and used to drink five or six cups a day. However, in a begrudging concession to my health, I only have one coffee a day now, as it made my heart beat irregular when I was a stage manager working 80 hour weeks in my 20s. So my one cup a day is significant and not to be treated lightly. I've tried to support my local small businesses and have gone to all the independent coffee shops in the five blocks around my office (mostly run by aging Italian men who employ contemptuous eastern European girls) and they all make terrible coffee. I mean the kind of terrible that makes you wish you'd ordered Maxwell House instead. I suspect they're all using Maxwell House to make coffee for their English customers, assuming they won't know the difference and keeping the really good, fresh, medium-roasted Italian good stuff for themselves. Bastards.

Anyway, when I was ordering my latté from the friendly folks at Prêt today, I realised that one of them had called me 'Ma'am' when she gave me my coffee. Ma'am. As in 'Madam'. Mrs. M'dme. Missus. M'lady. Not Miss. Or even Ms.

I realised that people had been calling me Ma'am for quite some time. In restaurants, bars, on the phone (where I tend to get 'Mrs' in front of my surname too) and certainly in the mail. And it made me wonder, when did I become a Ma'am? When did it become obvious that I was no longer a Miss? That I was now 'of a certain age' that commanded this level of respect from customer service types?

Is it my expanding waistline that lends me a matronly air? My lacklustre work attire (who can be bothered making an effort for pie charts?) or sensible walking-through-the-park trainers? I refuse to believe it’s crows feet, I have too much natural collagen (mostly thanks to 20 years of chips and chocolate), so it’s got to be my attitude. Evidently I have thrown off the exuberance and naivety of my youth and present myself (to customer service folks at least) an imposing worldly figure impressive enough to inspire in them the use of a befitting title. Or at least fear that I’ll get more annoyed with them if they call me ‘Miss’.

They might have a point.