A thumbnail sketch

Do you ever think that it’s odd how one thing can be important in the progress of another unrelated thing?

On the block where I live in New York there are four nail salons. Which is useful for an out of work actor, because as Hamlet says: “…the hand of little employment hath the daintier sense.” At this writing my life experience includes just one manicure.

I’m pleased to report that in two weeks I start another play, Tovarich, at The New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre, then later, I’ll go back to Florida for Dial M For Murder, and in between these gigs I will give readings from my book. Get your copy here, if you haven’t done so already.  But in one of those unavoidable gaps between the end of one play and the start of another, the actor’s mind turns to alternative careers—well mine does.

Doctor? No. Endless years of medical school, and I find the side-effects advertised on television so confounding, that weirdly, I’m not entirely sure about the conventional approach to medicine. Lawyer? Equally, no—and think of the paperwork! Astronaut? Astronomer? Appraiser?

Years ago I took a practical, hands on, course on how to build a house. Not because I wanted to be a Builder, but because I wanted a place to live. I thought maybe I would build such a place myself. There was a company in England called Constructive Individuals. The course I joined was twenty five strong, ranging from a retired lady ballet teacher in her seventies to an eighteen year old bricklayer with film star good looks. I was then in my thirties.

And we did build a house. In three weeks.

A three story, timber framed house. Most of the wood was in eight foot lengths of 2” x 4”. For the rafters and the joists we used 6” x 2”s. And the studs were placed on 14” centres. In America 16” centers (note different spelling) is the standard. The foundation was a slab, which had already been poured and cured when we got there, so half way through the course we poured the slab for the next house.

It was hard work and early on I missed a 4” ‘brightwire’ nail and hit my thumb at full force with a hammer. It felt like this:


The thumbnail survived, but only just, hanging by a slender thread. I bandaged it and was more careful for the remaining two and a half weeks. Which was just as well because a little later I was cast as the solo actor in a commercial for a breakfast cereal, and my fingers were required to be in close up.

I had a manicure. The manicurist fitted a false nail over the battered thumbnail and filed and prettified the others. I duly did the commercial in which I played two contrasting characters. The false nail was a masterpiece. It looked 100% real. So much so that it fooled the lens.

The commercial was a big hit. They played it all over Britain as though it was a matter of national importance. As a result I experienced a taste of celebrity—when strangers recognize you without quite knowing where they’ve seen you before. And I got excellently well-paid. The money was charming. Pay for acting in TV commercials bears no relation of any kind to pay for acting in live theatre. When you act in live theatre it is almost always the case that you are personally subsidizing the production in particular and the cause of theatre-at-all in general. But back in the days of that hit-wonder commercial I got paid. To the extent that I was able to move my growing family from a small starter home facing on to a busy, noisy road, to a garden flat with mature trees at the back.

Inspired and educated by Constructive Individuals, I built a studio in the garden. But it was the manicure that saved me. I’ve never had one since.

Maybe I should.


2 replies on “A thumbnail sketch”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *