The Wages of Acting is Fun


Tovarich was literally the hottest show in New Jersey this summer. I mean it. Spectacular reviews, rapturous audiences and an air conditioning system that collapsed due to the invasion of a chipmunk. 

The run was extended by one week, but even with all the enthusiasm, business did not justify the full eight shows that is the normal weekly quota so we were slated to play just five including a Saturday matinee. On Thursday evening the company reconvened after three days off (unusual in live theatre), and we got the bad news about the A.C. It would have seemed graceless to resist doing the show (that thing that must go on), given that the extended run and the slimmed down workload meant a week’s extra pay and another one of those crucial medical insurance qualifying weeks (USA only).

So we went on. 

My role in this production amounted to a small vignette in act one, and another telling cameo appearance in act three (of four). How bad could it be? I asked myself. Act one was set in a Paris attic in November. Cold. Accordingly my character, a prosperous banker, arrived in a full three piece suit as pictured above, but also with a heavy overcoat, hat and gloves. As soon as I went through the pass door into the backstage, I knew the answer to my question: pretty bad.

Stages get hot anyway with all those lights. My costume suddenly felt like mediaeval armor and I perspired so much that I couldn’t see my fellow actors. It was like driving at night in a thunderstorm without windshield wipers. But the irony came into its own when in my second appearance clad merely in full dinner dress, my line of greeting was, “It’s turning rather cold.”

It was tough enough for me, but exactly how those playing featured roles, to say nothing of the two leads who were on stage the entire time, got through it, was puzzling. I am not exaggerating when I say that it was as hot as a Bikram yoga class. Bananas, water and salted potato chips were supplied at first by one of our more sensible cast members, and then by the company.

The Saturday matinee was cancelled, which was an essential move. So we ended up doing just four shows in these sauna conditions. By the end the wilted company’s goodwill was wearing thin, and if this disaster had happened in the middle of the run, there would have been protest and maybe mutiny.

Bonnie our director, and as the artistic director of the company the one upon whose shoulders sits the six figure problem that is a new air conditioning system, came through in big style. After the final show she took the entire company to a sit down four course dinner with an open bar. It was a meal that could have happened in pre-revolution Ukraine.

Leaving aside the swelter-skelter of our final week, Tovarich as produced by The New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre 2013 has shown that this semi-lost play can be revived and once more taken to the world.

Meanwhile, in another part of the entertainment forest, I spent a single sweltering night somewhere beneath the 495 freeway on an indie film set. My character was a disheveled newsman come to investigate a crime scene.


It’s hoped that the piece will go to Sundance. There was some surreal-absurdist dialogue. 

In my time as an actor I’ve done three night shoots in the semi-surreal world of astonishingly well-resourced commercial television—Alleyn Mysteries, Zero Hour, & Pan-Am—for any archivists reading. This set staffed by passionate shoot-on-a-shoestring inventiveness was no different in terms of the timing. By which I mean that as dawn rose and bounced off the distant Manhattan skyline, the director was composing his final shot having left exhaustion behind some hours previously. The grainy eyed cast mustered their energy one more time and tried once more to give their best work in the early morning light.

The giant steel supports holding up the 495 were a translucent lime under the night time film lights, as dawn came up they lost their glamor though, and a stream of big semi-trailers rolled past our location sending ripples of traffic thunder into our dialogue. The last of the coffee was burnt and bitter, and the remains of the midnight luncheon of veggie wraps and lemon chicken lurked unheeded in an improvised mess as dawn broke over Brooklyn.

A theatrical company becomes a family within three days, geography has a lot to do with it, working as you often are a long way from home. Intimate strangers do plays all over the world. Not so in film. A film shoot seldom gathers the entire cast, as only those actors in the scenes to be shot are needed at any one time. Strangers in the night exchanging glances sums it up.

As I’ve said in these pages before, being an actor takes you through many landscapes. Some are bucolic like the parkland in which NJ Shakes has its home, some are post-industrial bleak and stark, like the indie film set. Each is fun in some variation. 

Put it another way, if there’s one thing that beats acting for not a lot of money on stage, it’s acting for no money at all on film.





Honestly, I go away for a couple of years …


I’m delighted to be back at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (formerly The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival) rehearsing Tovarich the little known French play about post-revolution Russians in Paris. The picture above is the incomparable, well-known film actor, Ms. C. Colbert in the 1937 film of the play.

Tovarich was a massive hit in Paris, London, and New York in 1932 and for a few years afterwards but fell from fashion and is today largely forgotten. It’s a lasagne of a piece with some style comedy, some class-reversal, and an examination of life’s dark underbelly. One strand among the themes is the perfidy of the banking system and the unholy alliances of big business and government interest … so, nothing too disturbingly topical.

But …

Over and above continuing to produce year-round quality theatre (sort of miraculous in the current economic climate), “NJ Shakes” as we call it in the trade, has acquired a spectacular new facility. 50,000 square feet, a building that was once a valve factory. The building now houses all aspects of the company’s behind the scenes action. The costume, set, and prop shops, the stores, the offices, a large green room—complete with ping-pong table, a climate-controlled rehearsal room, and all the offices.

It is a completely spectacular achievement on the part of the Artistic Director, Bonnie J. Monte to have brokered the deal that made this possible. I heard from other actors what an amazing difference this new facility had made to the company, but until I saw it, I didn’t quite get it.

I last worked at this theatre back in 2010 and all this happened since then. As I said at the top, I go away for a few years … Amazing.

Not entirely paid for, mind you. If you are feeling philanthropic and would like to support the work of live theatre in this part of the world, a tax deductible couple of million would take the company out of the red.

If that sort of money is a little steep for your wallet, donations starting at a single dollar are also immensely welcome here.

Go on: click the link.

It will take you to a kickstarter page detailing an upcoming independent short film. Indie film begins and ends with money. This is the people’s studio.

I mention it here, because that little-known film actor Colin McPhillamy will be playing the Newsman in this one-week end-of-August shoot.



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.



Exit West Palm Beach

"Exit the King" at Palm Beach DramaworksShakespeare again,  

“The King’s a beggar now the play is done,

All is well ended…”

Every now and then there is a cherry on the cup-cake of an actor’s life. Exit the King was one of mine.

I love last performances in a run. The knowledge that each line is uttered for the last time and at the second it’s spoken passes into the theatrical oubliette. It was here, but now it’s gone. There’s a raw beauty in that. Or is it a savage poignancy?

And this one was poignant.

Mostly because of the lovely company. My fellow actors in the show who gave such excellent work, but beyond that, who can encounter the enthusiastic House Manager Theda Reale and remain uncheered? And the positive energy of the ladies of the Box Office helmed by Sophie Crowell. Or production management guided by Josh Aune and his crew—incidentally a man whose brother Jake cooks steak the way that might have been mentioned in the book of Genesis—But the whole venture is working—and let’s face it how many theatres can say that these days?

I played Berenger. A once in a lifetime role. 

Modesty forbids me linking another review. Oh, alright then, since you insist:,63,2

I usually over-estimate the amount of energy and free time I’ll have during the run of a show. It’s an odd rhythm. You work three weeks days (rehearsal), then you work two weeks days and nights (tech, production & preview), then you work three weeks nights (the run, with three days thrown in).

And I under-estimate the absorbing quotient involved in doing a show. Even if you’re playing a small part, there comes a time when you live and breathe the play and there’s hardly room for shopping, washing and banking on the day off.

Which means I also over-estimate the amount of useful shipping. The Equity allowance is a generous 400 lbs, and I take full advantage of it, bringing a printer for example, with me.

This was a special case. As I’ve mentioned before in these pages. “Exit” took a lot of puff. There was a section in the middle of the show equivalent to playing one of the great Shakespearean leads and I found myself seriously worried about whether I had the stamina to get through eight shows a week. I built some strength over time, and I believe if we ran for another couple of months the day would have come when I did the show without breaking a sweat, but that day was not during our run, by no means. And I always napped deeply between the shows on matinee days.

But I was not idle and even though I didn’t get to catch up on my youtube editing and various activities, I did record my book (watch this space for availability), and an excerpt for the local NPR station, now also active as a podcast, run by Caroline Breder-Watts and her husband John Watts. Link here:

I played a little poker at The Kennel Club, and came out a modest three figure sum the right side of the ledger. I swam in the ocean, and kicked myself for not doing more of it. I did not take any Bikram Yoga—but I’m planning to.

The show was there and now it’s gone. Another in the series of constant testimony to the ephemeral nature of theatre. A metaphor for the brief business of life. Exit the King riffs on decline, decay and death. It would be hard to work on this play and not spend a little time thinking about mortality and the questions of the great hereafter.

Palm Beach Dramaworks is a theatre on the beach, and like theaters everywhere its existence is a triumph of the improbable over the impossible. Doubly courageous then to produce a challenging absurdist drama that confronts its audience with what must shortly happen to us all.