Saturday, 29 March 2014

Back on the Boards

I trekked up to Stoke Newington earlier today. Only 20 minutes by bus from the end of my street, it's a neighbourhood which, like much of East and North London, is changing so rapidly that any description of it today is likely to be history tomorrow. Suffice it to say that yuppies and Turkish (Cypriot?) immigrants vie for retail and restaurant outlets and it's often hard to tell the difference between the two, with a typical example being the Olive Café on the High Street.

I was at the Olive to meet Matt and Kellie, producers and writer-star and director respectively of A Man Who Lost His Mind. Having worked with me once in a very short film that took almost 24 hours to shoot, and having seen my Californian Lives, Matt (that's him in the picture) decided that I was the person to cast in the role of the Commuter - a bowler-hatted gent who appears in the bedroom of the Man (Matt) in the afore-mentioned play.

It's been almost a year since I last trod the boards and smelled the greasepaint and other odours of over-used and under-cleaned theatres, and so I didn't hesitate before accepting the part. (When I told him, the Other Half looked at me sceptically and asked about payment. I didn't like to confess that the thought hadn't crossed my mind and I muttered something about profit-share. Memo to self: ask Matt about money: is there any?) And so today Matt and I, under Kellie's watchful eye, rehearsed our two-handed scene.

It's a nice part, the Commuter. I have to act pompous - which comes naturally - and there are comic moments that are easy to draw out. I've learnt most of my lines and Matt and I have an good rapport on stage. I'm much more relaxed than I was when I started acting; I know what I'm doing and I'm confident in my ability to do it. And because it's only one scene at the beginning of the play, which is over in ten minutes, I don't feel pressured. After I bugger off backstage I can spend the rest of the play doing the Evening Standard sudoku or working on my own next masterpiece. As for the play itself - a surreal portrait of, you guessed it, a man who has lost his mind - it's short and intriguing. If you're in South London and have nothing better to do on 13th or 14th April, come to the White Bear Theatre in Kennington and see for yourself whether I made the right decision to go back on the boards . . .

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Stars in our eyes

Fourteen of them, to be precise. One four-star review and two three-stars. We're all pleased - well, Chris Annus and I are; Chris Peacock maintains a stately indifference to all reviews, good or bad. And in fact they aren't bad for a first run featuring an actor for whom it is only the second time he has appeared on stage in more than thirty years.

The best response came from What's Peen Seen. Four stars and the magic words "captivating, engaging, expressive", all of which can go down in future publicity material. Next up was TheGayUK; three stars, but the words "strong performances" and "a strong sinister theme that packed a punch". Finally The Public Reviews, which was mostly a précis of the stories and said very little about the performances, direction or writing, but nonetheless gave us three stars.

Of course the reviews came in too late for us to round up hordes of the public and ticket sales have been low. Which meant that once again we have lost money. But with our biggest audience booked for tonight, we will certainly go out on a high. And the good news - for all you sorrowful punters who missed the opportunity to head out to South London - is that both plays will be back as part of a triple bill at the Etcetera Theatre in Camden in July. I will, of course, keep you informed.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Small but perfectly formed

Christopher Annus as Frederick Rolfe
"Small but perfectly formed" describes our first night audience yesterday. A grand total of two in the audience - a gay Catholic priest and his male friend. Not quite the crowds we had hoped for, but better than an empty auditorium. And the enthusiasm that greeted both plays - Angel: Take This Body, about a priest torn between his faith and his sexual desire, and Now We Are Pope: Frederick Rolfe in Venice, about the English writer whose dearest wish was to be Pontiff - from both of them seemed genuine. "Excellent writing. Excellent acting." Music to my ears . . .

The good news is that we have a bigger audience scheduled for tonight, press night. And if our two actors both meet and surpass their performances tonight, it augurs well for the rest of the run.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Farewell to Facebook

I've been on Facebook for three or four years now. As with all new technologies, both physical and cyberspatial, I've gone through different phases of using it. I started by only "friending" real friends and using it as a diary. Then I realised that I was revealing too much of myself to too many people. Even among friends there are different levels of intimacy. You admit more secrets to your partner than to anyone else. Close friends know a lot about you, but not as much as your partner, and those whose company you enjoy but whom you see less often will know much less. The same is true for emotions. In the real world our partner is the one who sees us at our best and at our worst. Friends that we see occasionally see only one side of our character - the side that we prefer to show to the world.

It took me a little time to understand that Facebook does not distinguish these levels of intimacy and I found myself giving out too much information to people who didn't need it. Pre-Facebook it didn't matter if only the Other Half knew I was in a bad mood, but what was the point of my anger spilling out into the internet? Did I really want friends across the world, who I saw perhaps only every five to ten years, to get the impression that I had become an embittered old man?  

Of course not. The point of a private life is that it should be private, which meant that it had no place on Facebook, which is anything but private. So, I thoroughly erased that account and started again. The new FB was only for my professional side. I created a page that covered my interests of bookselling and theatre and occasional commentary on the rapidly deteriorating world in which we lived. And to promote my professional interests, I went on a befriending spree, adding FB friends across the world if I thought we had even the slightest interest in common. 

That lasted for a year or so. For all my efforts I did not see any great reward. My bookselling business continued to grow slowly, but it wasn't Facebook friends who were buying. Theatre was more difficult, but here too it was clear that my FB page was having no impact. 

I decided to change tack. I kept my personal FB page and continued to use it only to post "public" announcements. The number of "friends" dropped rapidly - which didn't particularly bother me - and I was pleased that I had a small but slowly growing number of "followers". And to focus on my particular interests I set up professional / speciality pages - one for Arbery Books, one for Arbery Productions (it started off life as the production Californian Lives), on for Tadzio Speaks . . . (an intermittent production) and one for atheism, about which I used to write a regular column.

For a while the number of followers grew, although none have hit the 200 mark. I made regular announcements relevant to each page and was pleased to see that, according to FB statistics, they reached the majority of subscribers. Then, about 6 - 12 months ago, I noticed that the number of people who saw each post slumped, at the same time as Facebook started offering me the option of paying to "promote" the posts. Promote odd bits of information? I thought about it - for about 20 seconds - and decided no. I continued posting, wondering if perhaps there were some other reason that fewer people were seeing my posts. The statistics did not improve. It really was a case of, if I wanted to use FB to tell people about the various projects I was involved in, I would have to pay.

I won't pay. Not because I disapprove in principle. I'm happy to advertise if I can see a response. But my long, and often bitter, experience of business is that most money paid by small businesses on advertisements is wasted. The cost per customer is too high. I succeed in selling rare books not because I pay to tell the public I sell rare books, but because I have an interesting selection of stock and increasing numbers of people buy from me and come back to buy again. 

Not paying is not the only decision I have come to. I have also decided to stop posting on the professional pages I set up. There is no point in wasting time when only one or two people see each post. And so I am back to my personal FB page, on which I spend no more than ten minutes a day. The time I save by abandoning the other pages I devote to other aspects of my work. Life is easier now. And who knows, maybe a year or two from now even my personal Facebook page will go. 

And then I might think again about this blog....

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Labor Intensive

No, I haven't gone USAmerican. The spelling is intentional. It was the name of a character I auditioned for two days ago.

Yes, auditioned. No, I haven't auditioned for more than a year. But when I made that decision not to go for more acting jobs, I did have the caveat that I would go for those where I was called and where money was involved. And my ugly mug on Casting Call Pro (the same face you see at the top of this column) was interesting enough to have the director of a student film invite me to audition for his short, fantastical film. 

The role was Labor, the head of an institution with only one teacher and two students, one of whom died early in the film. I wasn't totally convinced by the script, but I liked the role and I dragged up in suit, red shirt and black tie and, in what I hoped was a suitably authoritarian manner, presented myself to young Alberto and his-female-colleague-whose-name-I-have-forgotten. 

I was asked to improvise in character. I hate to improvise. I got words wrong and although I had been clearly directed to act towards my interviewers, I found myself acting away from them. Politely, they asked me to do it again and to react as if someone had sneezed in my face. A slight improvement. I still had problems thinking of words to say (I was supposed to reviewing a line of students) and when it came to reacting to the other person's sneeze, the sneeze came from me. 

Alberto and colleague went through the routine of "if we choose you, are you available on these dates?", I asked what time we would be called and then made a stupid joke about Italians and punctuality. Not quite offensive, just stupid. It was totally in character. It was intended as a friendly statement, with the underlying message "I can relax with you", but of course I forgot that true communication requires both parties to be on the same wavelength and, in this case, for whoever I'm talking to to share my sense of humour. Which means above all that they have to be Brits, which Alberto and colleague were not. No sooner were the words out of my mouth than I regretted them, but of course I couldn't retract them. The reaction was a blank stare rather than a smile of recognition... 

I haven't been called back. I'm assuming it was my failure to get totally into the character and to take exact direction rather my humour. I'm not upset. In fact the experience has reminded me that my acting skills do not reach the high level that I would want and expect. There are probably still parts for me out there, but I don't know where and I'm not desperate to seek them out. Directing is much more my métier. 

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Hanging my head in shame

Am I getting lazy in my old age, or was I always careless? I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between. The question arises because I have just discovered a mistake I have made. Not a serious mistake. Nothing to lose sleep over. No money lost. No crime committed. Nonetheless, I have embarrassed myself and hereby hang my head in shame.

My error? To assume that The Play of Hadrian VII by Peter Luke was merely a dramatisation of the novel Hadrian VII by Fr. Rolfe. Rolfe, the Baron Corvo - as regular readers of this blog know - is the subject of my upcoming play Now We Are Pope, in which the writer is depicted living in Venice, enjoying the company of young gondoliers and living his fantasy as an English Pope.

I have been sending out various leaflets and emails and tweets and FB postings and so on, promoting the play and claiming that it was the first to portray Rolfe (pronounced, by the way, "Roaf") on the stage. Back comes a letter from Cecil Woolf, publisher and Corvinite extraordinaire, informing me in the politest of tones that actually, Mr Luke's play got there almost half a century before me. Aagh! I grimaced and rushed - well, we were meeting that night anyway - round to the house of Christopher Annus, who is to portray Rolfe on the stage, and from him I borrowed a copy of the play.

And there the truth stands revealed. In Luke's full-cast two-act drama, Frederick Rolfe is onstage more or less throughout, first as his real self and then as Hadrian. I could blame C Annus for my mistake - after all, it was he who suggested I write my play and he is more of a Corvo fan than I am. And he had read The Play of . . . years ago, although he had since forgotten that Rolfe appears in it. But of course it isn't Chris's fault. I was the one writing the new play and therefore I was responsible for the research; if my research was incomplete, I have only myself to blame. Which is where we came in - I with my head bowed, wondering if I have always been careless or whether this is something new.

It's not, I tell myself, a disaster. Although the subject matter is the same, my play is different from Luke's. It's shorter and with only one cast member. It takes place in Venice rather than London and Rome. It includes Rolfe's sex life - or lack of it; you'll have to come to the theatre to see how I treat that interesting question - which the earlier play does not. Besides, why shouldn't I tackle the same topic? The more people who write about Rolfe, the more others will become interested in this flawed, fascinating figure whose words and personality still have the power to amuse, annoy and attract admirers and antagonists.