I am sitting at my desk in my New York apartment at the Ritz Plaza off Times Square. As I write this, the view in front of me is the Allianz building and to my right and 29 floors down is Broadway. Cars and bright yellow taxis stop at the traffic lights at 50th and Broadway. To my right and behind me is Times Square. It has just started to rain; the clouds so low that I can't see the top of a skyscraper across the street. Sirens blare, cars hoot and jackhammers are tearing through something on the sidewalk. And there is a hum in the air, like a physical manifestation of New York’s energy. It thrums.
I was worried about coming to this city. I always wanted to see it one day and yet there never seemed to be any opportunity and I always put it off. I have usually assumed that I have an aversion to loud cities. I have mostly lived in Bristol and that size city is just right for me. New York comes with its own mythology. A huge canvas of dreams and failures fed to me through movies and books that I have encountered over the years. The striving for scale bigger than any other city in the world. And the people, I was always told, were rough and rude and didn’t give a damn who they insulted. All of this created in my mind a city to fear or at least one that you should approach with caution.
There is truth to this but there is another kind of truth that surprised me. I have now lived in New York for three weeks and I am into my last week here. There is a directness to the people. They own their feelings on things and speak or shout it when they can. You know where you stand with a New Yorker. Those I have asked for help have been friendly and display a certain pride in their city. This has surprised me most of all. There is none of that reserve you find on the tubes and in public spaces in London. This has made the city come alive for me - the interaction between people and the space that makes it feel ok to speak up if you want. Because the scale is so much bigger here, you also don’t feel constantly bombarded with people on sidewalks and in public spaces.
I learnt to quickly navigate to Brooklyn on the subways. The one thing you have to be careful of is finding the right entrance for each station, one that goes in either Uptown or Downtown direction. That was confusing at first and it made me appreciate how well organised the London Underground is and how well signposted. Then we met all the people from BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] that have hosted us so well. We have been superbly looked after from the start. No question went unanswered and speaking to the stage crew you get ideas of places to see and good restaurants to try in the area. The show, King Lear, has gone well. It has been a joy representing a well-respected Royal Shakespeare Company. The audiences and indeed the crew backstage seem to look forward to the visits of the RSC and so every night received standing ovations.
I am aware that I am living in some kind of fairy tale in the sense that I am a working actor being paid to be here in a great apartment and situated in a vibrant part of town. The theatre we are working in, the Harvey Theatre at BAM in Brooklyn, is one of the most beautiful stages I have had the honour to work on. It was once a cinema and then fell into disrepair and was abandoned for many years. Then the restoration happened but in such a way that they kept the decayed, abandoned look and restored the theatre around that aesthetic. It is a lovely space to act in. It feels very intimate and yet has a vast auditorium that is very high. You can forget that people are sitting way above your eyeline. The stage crew, dressers and management have all been professional and have worked hard to learn the show and make us feel that we are in safe hands. The tech went smoothly, and we knew that we had nothing to worry about.
In a weird way, this month has been exhausting. Sitting home at your apartment has not really been an option with a brand-new city to discover. I have never been to the USA before and so all was up for grabs. I have done so many amazing things and seen such sights. It’s difficult to say what have been my favourite experiences, but a slow walk around the West Village comes close to a perfect day…stumbling upon the first coffee shop to serve cappuccinos in New York, and the Stonewall Inn where gay liberation began. A circle line cruise around the whole island of Manhattan taking in all five boroughs was another. I turned 43 in this month away and saw my birthday in at Times Square, had a magical walk to the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, which has been creatively linked in my mind to one of my favourite plays Angels in America – a profound experience - and after the Sunday matineé, a sunset Staten Island Ferry cruise past the Statue of Liberty. On the way back, the night lights in Manhattan came on and a boat next to Lady Liberty let off fireworks. That was a perfect day.
This whole month has been a gift. One that the RSC has given me. So glad that I get to tick off the ambition of being a working actor in New York. Unavoidably, now I want more…I want to come back and explore all the things that I haven’t yet. I want to work here again. Once is never enough. This place is familiar to me from being immersed in its myths and screen legends but I also found a city that I could live in and that is something I never thought I would ever say about New York City.