Bee Season

There’s more to London’s nightlife than musicals and plays. After you see a show in the West End, why not step into Soho, where you’ll find some of the trendiest hotspots in London. Just around the corner from The Palace Theatre, you’ll find Kettners where you can enjoy some bubbly at the champagne bar or relax and listen to the pianist in this lavish lounge…”

I had a paid gig for the London Tourist Board to promote local businesses to theatre goers who would receive a short DVD when they booked tickets. Of course it wasn’t really a tour of hotspots, because the hotspots don’t need the extra P.R. But I didn’t mind, it was a good gig and it only took two days to shoot. By the end, I knew every street in Soho – no small feat. Besides, I got some good on-camera experience, even if it wasn’t really acting. It’s hard to give an emotional delivery of lines like “With its trendy clothes shops and hip record stores, Soho is the center of urban cool.” Plus it was weird looking straight into the camera when I’d always been taught not to. We shot during the day – I don’t think the tourist board really wanted to promote some of the more interesting late night sights, and they conveniently left Peter Street off their tour.

Later that week, Marcus called and asked if I wanted to get together, so feeling like an expert I suggested Nanobyte, one of the bars I’d passed by while doing the gig. I’d only seen it in daytime when it was empty, so I was taking a chance on what the crowd would be like, but it looked cool enough. “Wardour Street has long been associated with the film industry – it was the home for early innovations in color films,” I resisted saying. I didn’t want to turn into Cliff Clavin, spewing useless knowledge of Soho to anyone who would listen.

Marcus said he wanted to grab a bite and suggested Hummus Brothers instead. Now I like hummus just as much as the next gal, but probably not enough to make a night of it. Luckily, their menu was more extensive than the name suggests. Marcus apologized for canceling on me the last time and I pretended it was no big deal. He gave me the lowdown on his projects in development, the problems he was having getting funding and a grant for which he’d applied. I was reminded just how long it takes to get things done in this business. It took Salma Hayek 10 years to get Frida made. But I didn’t have 10 years. There’s only so long a person can live in this limbo. I decided then I’d give it two more years.

“Lucy… Lucy?” Marcus had caught me not listening. “Let’s get out of here. You up for a bit of a walk? I don’t want to stick around Soho.”

I couldn’t have agreed more. There was something about all those self-important media people buzzing about – especially in summer. At times, it was energizing, but on the wrong day, it was just a reminder that you could get stung.

“How about Long Bar at The Sanderson,” he suggested.

There are eyes drawn on the backs of the chairs so that even if it’s empty, you still get the sense of being ogled.

“You know what, I changed my mind. Let’s stay in Soho. Follow me.” I took him to the least trendy place, the place least likely to be in a promotional DVD: Garlic and Shots. It was a dive bar with goths and bikers and I think I saw a fake (I hope) coffin in the corner. We had a blast and made some new friends who showed us their tattoos and piercings. We were still laughing when we stumbled out onto Frith Street at 2 a.m.

“Did you know that television was invented in the top floor rooms above what is now Bar Italia on Frith Street,” my inner Cliff Clavin couldn’t resist. I could sense Marcus wanted to shut me up, which he did by kissing me.

Reality Bites

On my first paid acting gig, I earned £50 for a full day working on a “TV pilot”. It sounded exciting – six characters living in trendy Hoxton. We’d be filming all day. Sure £50 wasn’t a lot, but there was the hope that future work, at Equity rates, would be forthcoming.

Unfortunately, when I turned up I realized we were being paid to do the writer/director’s work for him. He had no script, no plot – just the idea for some characters based on his friends. He wanted us to improvise as these “characters” all day. I wondered if we’d get paid wages for writing as well as acting. He didn’t even have the characters flushed out beyond a two-sentence description.

He was some rich guy that invented a technology for creating customized jeans and apparently he now had some money to burn. I had to give him credit, at least he was paying the actors something, but it seemed wrong somehow for us to do all the creative work for him in exchange for less money than a house cleaner’s wages.

So I spent the day dealing with a loud actor whose idea of improvising was to make lewd remarks to the female characters and laugh at his own jokes, and other actors who ranged from befuddled to obnoxious.

After this experience, I was a bit skeptical when my agent told me that she had an audition lined up for another show. But I checked the details she’d emailed to me. This one was for real. It was already commissioned by Channel 4 and it was being produced by Endemol. I re-read the e-mail. This could be it – THE break.

I got up early on the day of the audition and did a little warm up at home. I tried to get in the right mental state. I visualized.

I was greeted at Conway Hall by two production assistants: one who gave me a contract to look over and showed me to the craft services table, and one who sat behind a desk, looking trendy.

I was trying to mentally prepare, but I had to take care of business so I read through the contract. The audition was going to be filmed (standard) and I had to agree that they could use any of it in the final broadcast. (Was this going to be like American Idol?) For the use of my audition material, I had to agree that £1 was fair and equitable pay. Yes, right there in the contract I had to agree that the value of my time was £1 per day. I’m sure I could earn more begging on a street corner. In fact, I could probably just find more on the sidewalk if I looked around for a few hours. But that’s not as glamorous as auditioning for Channel 4.

Furthermore, they would not disclose anything about the show: the name, the genre, the format. It was “highly unique” and had “never been done”. Everything’s been done. But what could I do? Here I had a chance to audition for what could be a big break, not to mention a real paying gig.

I walked into the audition room. It was a large theatre space. All the chairs had been cleared out, making the stage look like a gymnasium with a stage. The audition panel sat behind a big, long desk, Flashdance style. The event was being filmed by two cameras at different angles. The panel asked me some questions then had me do a few improv exercises. They laughed at first (a good thing) but mid-way through I was sure I’d misunderstood the instructions and I basically threw a theatrical air ball. I hoped for mercy.

“Am I supposed to keep going,” I asked. I wasn’t sure if they were going to call scene or if I should carry on ad infinitum. I noticed a third camera aiming down from the catwalk. Great.

There was an afternoon group session as well. I felt I really redeemed myself and performed better than most, but in my gut I knew it wouldn’t be enough.

For weeks, I was haunted by images of my horrible audition being used in ads for the show, like the American Idol parade of idiots. They could slice and dice my audition in editing and make it look even worse! I’d have to ask all my friends to keep their TVs off for a week…or plan a last-minute group holiday – to somewhere remote – and invite everyone I knew.

When the show finally aired, I was relieved they didn’t use anyone’s audition material. I was not disappointed about not getting the gig, as the show was a horrible reality show where the actors trick the “real” people into thinking they’ve gone into space. The show, like the contract, was laughable – and not in a good way.

I never did get my £1.

Back to School

Every few months, an actor needs to put something new on her résumé to show she’s been active, engaged in the industry and is thus employable, i.e. not a lazy couch-surfing wannabe who’s hoping for her big break to fly through the window.

I was well overdue for a résumé refresh, but short on time, so I signed up for a few one-day courses at City Lit. An interview was required to get a space so I assumed the class standard would be high.

The first course was called Casting Day. In the morning session, we met with two agents who covered basics like headshots, not paying up-front fees, always keeping your agent apprised of your schedule, etc. They also said to be aware of your “type” because all of your early career work will be “with type”. One of the class members, who had a thick Italian accent, launched into a half-hour debate about how she didn’t want to be pigeon-holed and that she should be considered for the part of, say, an English housewife. The agents couldn’t seem to make clear to her that the show’s writers would then need to alter the script to explain how an Italian immigrant ended up in Cornwall married to a local fisherman. After awhile, the rest of the class gave up hope of having any time left to get their questions answered. We were all just watching the clock in anticipation of our lunch break.

The afternoon session was run by two casting directors who gave a handful of helpful tips. They confirmed my suspicion that audition monologues are only needed for drama school and The Actors’ Centre and occasionally for getting an agent. (Thank goodness because my monologues are getting seriously rusty.)

The casting directors emphasized that you need to be passionate about your chosen career. Bizarrely, a couple of people in class argued this point, again eating into class time with pointless polemics. As it’s not polite to blurt out “YOU’RE WASTING EVERYONE’S TIME”, the rest of us just thought it instead.

The other course I took was Acting for the Camera. We did various exercises focusing on precise repetition of movements, hitting marks, etc. Then we did an Uta Hagen exercise in which you do an activity for two minutes that you would normally do alone at home. The focus was on specific movements, making it look natural, etc. Even in doing two minutes of “nothing”, there is something going on. For instance, we could often infer what time of day it was, whether the person lived alone and what their relationship was with the objects around them (all without any dialogue from the actor).

We all had our two minutes of stage time followed by 10 minutes of discussion about the two minutes. I thought I did pretty well, but nevertheless got a few notes from the teacher. One of the girls, apparently in her first ever acting class, took 20 minutes for her two-minute scene. Worse, she sang along to two stanzas of some insipid song on infinite repeat. I thought about sending the recording to Guantánamo – I know I was ready to confess anything to make the music stop. Later, she happily declared she’d written the song. Eee-gads.

As we worked throughout the day, I started thinking about the tedious parts of acting for the camera. So much of this business is so technical. Could I really be passionate about it?

Towards the end of the class the rookie actually asked the teacher “so, do you think I can act?” The teacher replied with as nice of a non-answer as anyone could muster, but it was enough encouragement for the rookie who declared “well, acting’s not as hard as I thought it would be”. No one seemed willing to burst her bubble.

My bubble has been burst many times, but every so often a little hope is breathed back into it. Like when, after class, the teacher asked me to stay behind. She wanted to explain that she gives really positive feedback to the beginners but always gives more critique to her best students, and that I was one of the latter. I floated out of class.

I might not have learned all that much in those classes, but I got a bit of the passion back, and that was enough.