July 11, 2014
I haven't been this scared since I did a stand-up gig at the dreaded Buzz Club, Manchester 1994. Yes, you heard - stand-up. Since then I've jumped out of a plane, dived in open water with a leaky mask, lived in Elephant and Castle. Nothing, nothing has touched that walk to the mike for a 5 minute stand-up spot.
Now 20 years later, I'm in the Swan wings, hair backcombed, squeezed into a replica of Sharon Small's body-con costume for the Arden of Faversham public understudy run - PUS (ick) and I am dumb, dumb with fear.
Trish from Wigs has magicked me up a replica wig and fake eyelashes - there was me thinking understudies get whatever's in stock cozzies and 'use your own hair luv, we've none left' - but I look uncannily like Sharon Small (if she were done by Madame Tussauds - I'm so scared, I have skin like wax, like a corpse).
Photo: Sharon Small (top) and Lizzie Hopley preparing to be Alice Arden.
Up until now, this understudy lark has been a breeze. I've never done it before and it's been a bit of a revelation. No pressure rehearsals, everything you need already in the room - it's been like following a guide, watching Sharon Small forge on up ahead with the map and the torch doing all the concentrating, the dangerous stuff. Now Private Hopley's suddenly at Base Camp eyeing this enormous mountain called ALICE ARDEN, suddenly realising it's the biggest friggin rock face on the planet. The LEAD. The LEAD ROLE IN A PLAY AT THE RSC.
Of course the whole point of an understudy is not to f*ck up the play or throw the rest of the cast should you go on. Most often, understudies are instructed to just watch from the sidelines and reproduce. Sam Caird, our beloved Assistant Director, has given us a little more rope. We've done our homework but we also have room for interpretation - at least in the PUS. Coz for one night, this show is ours. In theory - great. In reality - little bit weird.
My Alice Arden grew out of the text as all characters do but she's heavily influenced by Sharon Small as I've heard Sharon's voice say her lines for weeks. My Alice is me but not me. I don't inhabit her like I have any other role. The purpose of her is to fit a jigsaw that I wasn't part of making.
There hasn't been the same discovery process, the discarding of wrong choices, the nurturing of right ones over weeks - the dress rehearsals to iron out problems, the previews to find your footing, the audiences to develop in front of. It's like being suddenly thrown to the lions when you've just been looking at a row of helmets, thinking 'ooo, that's a nice one.'
The morning of the PUS (ick), my mum and boyfriend are staying. They're both coming of course (why did I suggest that). My boyfriend is silent, he can sense my fear and is leaving me alone. My mum is trying to have a conversation about my sister's wedding. Now, she knows me better. I can only think this wedding must seem more important than my impending doom. I fight the urge to burn her on the grill with the bacon. Yes, I'm cooking breakfast. Like this morning is NORMAL.
In the pre-PUS (ick and bleugh) warm-up, I nearly cry doing the downward dog. Nia, our beyond-talented voice coach tells me it'll be ok. My throat tightens like a gnat's arse, undoing all her good work. What is going on? My mind is a massive clock count downing to zero - the cue for my first entrance.
Sam Caird gives a short talk to the PACKED HOUSE. (Those Pussy Club Swines I mentioned last week, waiting for cock-ups). He explains that this is a one-off event, the entire Arden understudy company showing their weeks of work. We will never appear onstage as a collective again. (Unless half the cast is gunned down whilst shopping in Stratford). Applause.
Tony Jayawardena and Chris Middleton (as Jeffrey Freshwater and Ian Redford) start us off. The clock ticks down for my cue. I hear it, a bomb goes off, I shriek my first line. I can't remember deciding to say it - it just comes out. 'Husband?!' And I totter onstage in 6 inch heels, feeling slightly drunk (I'm not).
There is no saliva to be found onstage in the 1st scene WHATSOEVER. My mouth is a desert. Thank God for the Pussy Club. They, and the rest of the Swan company, here in support, are the best. Audience. Ever. True, they collectively hold their breath as they can smell our fear.
My whole being is set at the top Government Emergency Warning. CRITICAL - for terrorist attacks and nuclear wars. I'm in pure survival mode - 2% brain getting the words out - 98% preparing for death/axe-murderers/nuclear bombs.
If the entire zombie cast of Walking Dead stormed the Swan stage, I'd take 'em. Actually, I'd be the other end of the M40, my flight impulse tonight is stronger than my fight. Every hair is on end (good job I'm in a wig) and my eyes are saucers (enhanced by the fake lashes). And all I'm doing is acting in a play.
Stage fright's a bitch. It's made some well-known names literally do a runner, sometimes mid-show. Others drink to calm the nerves (tried this at drama school - wouldn't recommend it). Some set buckets in the wings to puke in. I used to get it so bad, my teeth chattered. Ian Holm calls it the actor's industrial illness. His famous bout during The Iceman Cometh made him stick to movies for a long time. An actor who says they don't get stage fright is an actor I don't trust. The day I don't feel it at all is the one I'm most scared of.
Someone told me this quote once to stop me chattering:
'Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world.'
They said it was by Nelson Mandela. He knew a lot about fear. But they're not actually his words. It was written by a woman.
I'm not sure if my acting serves the world but I get the words out. Not all by Anon, I admit. (Weird actor fact: our brains invent words of exactly the right syllables to fit the verse when we dry. Although one point, I forget a word completely and just tail off into Chris Middleton's face.) The PUSSIES love it when we cock up (I begin to wish we'd planned more cock-ups). They love Ken Nwosu sprinting across the stage to answer himself. They adore Peter Bray acting to his own bike helmet.
My favourite moment? The bit in the final speech when Alice Arden mentions Mistress Reede's curse coming true. There's a little murmur from those in the audience who have made the connection that I usually play Mistress Reede (or Lorna, as I've privately called her.
My Mistress Reede works in Aldi and has 3 kids whose favourite meal is Findus Crispy Pancakes - the cheesy ones. There now. No-one knows that apart from you. These are the details that make a character yours and no-one else's.)
I'll admit, I adored playing Alice and, as I wish Sharon Small all health and happiness coz she's ace, I hope never to play her again.
But even this week, two understudies in the RSC Company go on, including our own Peter Bray. Then Antony Sher goes off in a Henry IV. Although my Alice may never totter before an audience again, she has to be ready to at any time.
After the Arden PUS, I have a shaky night as Mistress Reede. For some reason, I want to wear tartan and go independent. Sharon Small puts it perfectly afterwards. 'I took you onstage tonight,' she says to me. 'It wasn't a bad thing but I definitely did.' Yes, Elspeth Brodie's Edinburgh Reede was with me that night too (she's my understudy in Arden). And no, it was no bad thing, but I wasn't alone. It was a nice feeling to get back into my tabard and reclaim my boiler suit. Smell those Findus Crispy Pancakes…
by Lizzie Hopley
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