Why we love theatre but perform elsewhere
Updated: Aug 23, 2020
✨ LUCY EATON
Let me tell you about the first time I stood on a professional London stage.
I was fresh out of university and had secured a treasured place in the Old Vic New Voices’ 24 Hour Plays (the legacy Kevin Spacey wanted to leave behind, rather than the one he sadly has…) For those of you who are unfamiliar with the premise, it involves a small group of actors, writers, producers and directors coming together and creating a handful of short new plays in the space of 24 hours. Everybody meets at 10pm on Saturday evening, writers are feverishly typing through the night, then actors and directors are given their scripts first thing Sunday morning and by 7pm you’re onstage performing to a packed out audience at the Old Vic.
I will never forget being handed my script on Sunday morning to see the opening stage direction:
Mia is standing alone in her underwear in a spotlight centre stage.
#MeToo anyone? “Who’s playing Mia?” I quickly asked, knowing the answer already. Thankfully my writer was the incomparable Ella Hickson (you will have seen her work since at places such as the RSC, the Almeida, Soho Theatre) and a brief, understanding conversation led to my grand entrance being somewhat more clothed. But the experience was still pretty hair-raising.
I can only describe it as a real-life “movie moment”. I was 21 years old and I wanted desperately to be an actress, so when I walked onto the Old Vic stage all alone in a blackout then felt the light snap on, blinding
me to the 1067 faces gazing on, my head was (unashamedly) entirely composed of “Look Mummy, I’m a star!!” Then I remembered that I had lines to say and I eagerly got going. It was mesmerising from start to finish; adrenaline pumping throughout, I was welling up by the time I squeezed my costar’s sweaty hand as we bowed. You can still see the montage video the Old Vic cut together for us here; it gives you the tiniest of ideas of how nerve-wracking and exhilarating the whole thing was. (That's me singing Walking In Memphis in the middle, and I look like I'd rather be on a boat halfway across the River Styx than sat there at that moment.)
The reality though, is that - human as I am - I get used to things. However much I love my career, situations like that would now only leave my belly filled with a handful of flutters where it used to be a butterfly house. Of course every theatre has its own unique feel, but they nearly all create the same sense of “me up here in the light, you out there in the dark”, the same disparate relationship between audience and actor, and the same sense of routine and repetition that somehow lets us off the hook. Not all spaces or productions are like that - I was fortunate enough to be in an ambitious production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar Warehouse last year that succeeded in breaking down those barriers - but certainly most are. That moment that so thrilled me at 21 can now be, dare I say it, mundane. “Me being in the light up here, you in the dark out there” gets old.
But what I get to do with Revels in Hand never gets old. I can never get used to it.
How can you get used to something when every single room you perform in is different: the entrance is on the left, on the right, behind you; sometimes there’s a sofa, sometimes a sun lounger; this place the lights can’t be dimmed, that place the coffee table can’t be moved; one night you’re performing to an intimate dinner party of 6 people, the next it’s a 45-strong audience. And there’s the heart of the matter. The audience.
Ah. The audience. Mi Amor.
How can you get used to performing when your audience ceases to be a homogenous mass, a single character in the dark? In the dressing rooms of a theatre mid-show you’ll often hear actors analysing that most important of characters: the audience. It is, as an entirety, either good or bad, exciting or unkind. But with Revels, you’re more likely to hear us commenting on “that woman on the left who loved the plumbing joke” or “the hostess’s husband who audibly gasped at the end of Act 2”. Sometimes members of our audience literally talk to us mid-show. Their dog walks into the playing space and we’re apologised to. Or challenged! “What are you going to do with that?!” We can hear a daughter turn to her mother and comment “that’s just like you”, or one friend leaning to another asking for a top-up of champagne.
We can hear it all, and we notice it all with joy. We are performing in a space where our audience are not only lit in the same light as us and merely a few feet away, but they are alive and kicking! They are responding and, most thrillingly, we get to respond to them. It takes a very special kind of actor to weather this storm, but if you can, it’s one hell of a ride.
So yes, theatres are magical spaces and I intend to perform in many more during my lifetime, but the living rooms and gardens of our clients’ homes provide us with something all of their own. Not just a living, breathing set that money could never buy (we've been lucky enough to perform in some of the most beautiful homes in London, the top floor of the Club at the Ivy, a private dining area at The Dorchester...) but an intimacy and excitement that is lost when the stage is separate to the auditorium. As Joan Baez, American musician and activist, once said: “The easiest kind of relationship for me is with 10,000 people. The hardest is with one.”
And where’s the fun in doing something easy?
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