Acting Alternatives


I would like to say that straw bale building is the future.

Why so?

Because straw is currently a waste product.

Because when properly constructed with the right techniques, straw bale building is

thermally efficient, durable, eco-friendly.

Because it’s a lot of fun.

See what we did?! You could have one too!

But much as I’d like to say that straw bale building is the future, returning home along i80 through Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and finally New York State, and becoming increasingly aware of the monoculture that flanks an interstate highway, as mall follows gas station, and giant placards advertise what passes for food in our chemically infused culture, possible though straw bale certainly is, at scale it seems unlikely.

A week and a day ago I drove out of Westchester County, New York, crossing the Cuomo bridge and then along i80 West, in company with many trucks. For the first 4 or 5 hours thickly wooded slopes on both sides were all there was, all punctuated by the above-mentioned malls, gas stations and placards. Another 4 or 5 hours and I arrived in Cleveland Ohio for a stop-over at my old friend Haley’s house. She and I braved the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1999, and she and her family are recently transplanted from urban Brooklyn.

The next day I drove to lower Michigan and found the building site about 3 miles from the small town of Manchester.

I arrived a day early and set up my tent, having had some practice with a couple of Haley’s helpful elves along the way.

Me and the tent elves

The forty acre site comprised two alfalfa fields over a rolling hill on one side, leading to a small wetlands area and a flat height on the other, divided by an unmade road.

Dawn at the site

Preparations had been made. Two shipping containers were in place, one holding tools and building supplies, the other stacked with foodstuffs. Generators were powering a mobile kitchen, and there was overhead tenting above trestle tables.

A fire pit was ready to go, and further down the track the house itself, with pristine wooden framing rising from a concrete slab. The gaps between the wooden studs were waiting to be filled with the straw bales which were stacked in a cart and, somewhat concerningly, open to the sky. You’re meant to keep the bales dry at all costs – or so I thought. On either side piles of lumber were neatly arranged.

Getting ready to unload the bales

This was reminiscent for me. Many years ago – and for my younger readers I mean way back in the previous millennium in England, I did a similar building workshop. The company then comprised 20 people ranging in type from a muscled eighteen year old bricklayer (male) to an elegant retired seventy-two year old ballet teacher (female), and everything in between. The build was a conventional wooden frame using many 2” x 4” lengths of timber, many 8’ x 4’ sheets of ply, and lots of sheet rock. And I did use these skills when I later built a studio at the bottom of my London garden. 

Ah … but that was when the world was young, and I was too.

Don’t get me wrong. In this group seniors were well represented. I met a lady farmer in her seventies, clearly infused with the pioneer work ethic whose constant effort made me mildly embarrassed by comparison, and a married couple of similar age who travel in their mobile home. I was the lone Brit in the group, and there was the odd Tea and/or 1776 joke, as well as a Bill Bryson connoisseur who had spent a year at Durham university, where Bryson was Chancellor from 2006 to 2011.

Brandy is enthusiastic about Bryson (and plastering)

Others in the group – and we were 54 people give or take one or two – were couples of various ages hoping to homestead and build a non-toxic house. You know the kind of thing – the house that does not release chemical gasses, the one made of bio-degradable materials.

Bruce about to trim a bale with a chainsaw
Wall going in!

The deal with these eisteddfods is as follows: the owners of the site, the ones who already have a site and want to build a house (in this case using straw), host a week- long workshop which is run by an expert straw-bale enthusiast, a chap called Andrew Morrison. Check the site. It’s easy to find because it’s usefully called Some time ago I joined his mailing list, and so I knew that this was to be his last workshop (his 98th). So if I wanted the skinny it was now or never. Actually he is handing the brand over to a couple of successors – Timbo who has successfully designed and built straw bale for clients, and Dainella who shares the passion and has a business background.

Hosting included supplying the group three meals a day, and some mobile toilet facilities (this last feature needs no description and is best left to the imagination). There were four showers of varying temperament rigged in the field delivering water of varying heat. But the cuisine was impressive and nicely varied – especially so, considering we were in field conditions.

Maria and Chrisie
Indian food in Michigan – who knew? Delicious!

So. Straw ……

Yes, I know the story of the three little pigs.

Here’s how you do it – follow this method and I am assured that you can achieve an R-Value of 40 (as if I knew what that means). You compress the straw by re-tying the bales, and then leaning on them in a move known technically as “bale-humping”.

Peterson in that technical move

Once cut to size and compressed, the bales are tightly stacked in the wall cavities, and then tamped to achieve maximum possible compression and smoothness. 

Meaghan tampes a bale

The next stage involves waterproof flashing (as if I knew what that means), and encasing the installed bales with wire netting which is then sewn with a bale-needle and twine  from either side. After that treatment the bales become rigid and stable, such that even a squadron of large pigs or wolves on steroids (I forget which) could not make a dent.

But it’s the three coats of plaster – one of clay, two of lime – that are the great secret. Because the plaster, as it cures, actually turns to limestone, which is a substance harder to penetrate than a 1990s politician’s indifference to global warming. At least so I am led to believe.

First scratch coat

Straw is a waste product. Straw is plentiful. Straw is thermally efficient. And when packed and plastered – fire resistant. Adaptable. Free of toxic chemicals. And although labor-intensive, easy to install. 

But… the quality of available bales has declined because Big Ag likes to cut the straw lengths as they are harvested because shorter stalks are easier to dispose of. And.….there  is plenty of resistance from the quarters you might expect.

At the moment straw bale building is a niche method and unlikely to become a majority one, but it does have international presence, along with rammed earth, slipstone, log and sod. Interestingly the group on this one reflected, by its diversity of interests, the growing awareness that there might be other and better ways. Permaculture, clean wine, and hydroponics to name a few.

And then…There was that phenomenon that I am used to with theatrical troupes. Which is that by day three you feel as if you’ve been on the gig for weeks, and it’s the only play you’ve ever done, and you’re all one big family with all the well-known family dynamics.

The group watching the first plaster mixing

The inclusivity took its tone from the guy leading the workshop – a man always ready with a joke – but with a depth of experience, and knowledge of building in general, and of straw bales in particular. Also a guitar player and singer who gave impromptu concerts around the fire when the day’s work was finished.

The hosts whose house we were building took their duties seriously, supplying generously, including some choice wines and beers.

Jen smiles

I had answered truthfully when asked what I do, and so it was known that I was an actor. Kyle invited me to give a demonstration. So one evening around the fire pit I recited the fourth chorus speech from Henry V – You know, the one that begins, “Now entertain conjecture of a time when creeping murmur and the poring dark fills the wide vessel of the universe…”

I have to say it was, more or less, ideal conditions in which to do that speech. It was dark, and the flames leaping from the large metal drum that encased them were casting spooky shadows. The gathering had had a chance to mellow after the day’s work and were lubricated with a little hooch, and I reckon I was a novelty item. By which I mean surely you don’t get more than four or five classically trained actors reciting Shakespeare on any given straw-bale build? And if it’s not too immodest to say so, it went well, and the group was generous in its appreciation.

It’s the working together that brings people together. There were some with experience of working on building sites, and some with none, and everything in between. But having to shift many bales of straw more than once and having to share tools, and having to ask more than once, “How do you do that?” eases the distance between people.

Jen and Yasser
Bob and Yvonne.
Brooms were important. Straw gets everywhere

In the mornings Andrew gave a talk and we proceeded to the next stages – the special knot, the wire mesh, the lath, the ties. But (to my mind and eyes anyway) it was at the scratch coat of plastering that something almost magical happened. We, all fifty plus of us, we became a Unit. We rough plastered the exterior of that sucker, to use the American vernacular, in the shank end of an afternoon. And if it hadn’t been so tough on the shoulders and upper arms I would have said it was as much messy fun as a boy could have and stay legal.

Sandy smiles

At some point I turned to Bruce, a fellow straw-baler, and said incredulously, “And we paid to do this?”. He agreed that we did, and we remembered that Mark Twain got there first when he had Tom Sawyer charge his friends goods and money to help him paint a fence, “Does a boy get a chance every day to whitewash a fence!” Says Tom, planting desire of the hard-to-attain in his neighbors’ minds. Genius.

Raymond with a bale

It was a unique experience and a lovely one. To an urban softie like me, the challenge of sleeping under a tent braced by waking in the cold night and having to stumble though alfalfa to pee, was obliterated by the vision on the one night when there was a clear sky, and the vivid stars were secretly commenting on the huge stage where we all live. See Shakespeare, sonnet 15, he puts it better than me.

Some of the group survey one of the window openings

I left on the morning of the final day. A few others had already departed to take up their lives again. I reckoned the remaining majority would finish the interior plastering faster without me. That sense of connection with people you don’t really know very well, but who you can quickly talk to when put together in unfamiliar circumstances, has a poignancy to it. Actors know what I mean. Because you never see that exact combination of people again. You might remain in touch with a few of them or even quite a few, but that exact company doing that exact thing – that doesn’t come again.

Charles. I bet him a beer that it wouldn’t rain. It rained on all nights except two.

Civilizations rise and fall. As do houses. When this one goes back into the earth one day, it will have done “none harm”.

The owners Meaghan and Nayan plant the very first bale. An emotional moment. It’s been quite a ride to get to this point!


As the old year comes to a close it seems appropriate to post some early work. I’m grateful to an old friend from college who spotted this eclectic collection.

This little piece is from way back in the last millennium. It is the result of two days work (one per character). They played it like it was a matter of national importance (i.e. a lot) and it remains, thirty five years on, the highest hourly rate I’ve ever been paid for acting.

If it doesn’t load where we want it, the bit with me begins at 5:27.

Other than that:

New Perspective

I’ve taken the unusual step of asking my agent not to submit me for anything outside of certain secret select categories.

I have finally realized the wisdom as expressed by another old chum from college, “I long ago gave up the idea of being a big star, now I just want to be fabulously wealthy!

“How many of your clients tell you they don’t want to work?” I asked my agent.

“None of them.” He said.

Fair enough. The corollary to an answer given by a doctor to a friend when he asked, “How many of your patients die?”

“All of them.” Said the doctor.

So I’m taking the next year to write, barring something irresistible from the two select categories mentioned above.

I’ve read Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.

It took about 10 minutes to read, another 10xn to appreciate and I guess it’ll be multiples of 10 hours, months or years (if I live that long) to apply them.

Meanwhile here is attempt at what not to do when writing books, as Elmore has it:


There had been rain. Rain that was deeply and meaningfully wet. But now it was snowing moodily. The flakes drifted down like celestial dandruff. She put the kettle on for tea and scant minutes later the jolly whistle announced water at a rolling boil. “Do you want some honey in your tea?” she enquired abruptly. “How long have we been married?” he rejoined, sarcastically. “Too long!” was her unspoken thought. “Didn’t you oughter know bai now!?” he continued, lapsing into the twang of his rural vernacular, flipping the pages of his newspaper in a huff with a noisome grunt that annihilated any residual sweetness in the room. She sniffed, blew her nose, coughed, dried her hands handily and poured the angry water onto the placid tealeaves.

Forward to 2023

So now that I am finished with acting for the time being (except for the S.S.C. – secret select categories), what to do? I know! … I’ll be a writer.

I’ve read Annie Lammot’s book, Bird By Bird, and Stephen King’s book, On Writing, I’ve thumbed through Strunk and White’s, The Elements of Style, I’ve watched masterclasses on Masterclass from Aaron Sorkin to Walter Mosely. I’ve taken to heart the maxims:

Don’t get it right, get it written.

Don’t make it good, make it by Tuesday.

Any fool can write, it takes a man to re-write.

Tricky one that, in these gender-sensitive days. Phases sometimes used in legal contracts to indicate inclusion might help. Is it better rendered: Any fool can write, it takes a woman/man/human/person/sentient being/humanoid native of planet Earth to re-write?

I have no answer.

This comes late for Hanukkah, early for Christmas, but bang on for the Solstice and for Yule.

You could say “Season’s Greetings”. For a comedic take, see Alan Aybourn’s play of that title and my retrospective blog post about touring in it with the late great Marti Caine

Whichever way you celebrate, best wishes to you, and have a fantastic New Year!


The Long Wait is Over…

Back in 1984 Simon Callow (you’ve seen him in the films) published a book called, Being An Actor. In it he wrote, “I don’t know of any other attempt by an actor of my generation to describe the theater in which we work.”

Well Simon…


Big thanks to you personally and to everyone who has followed this blog. The book would never have been written without you.

Now available at Amazon.



Were you wondering …?

51lfhzvvejl-_ac_us218_… Just in case you were wondering what it looks like when a plutocrat with possible kleptocratic tendencies has sole charge of a great institution which he might, in fact, regard as his personal ATM, there could be no finer prototypic manual than the theatrical memoir, Stage Blood.

This outstanding volume by that distinguished man of international theatre, Michael Blakemore, compares and contrasts the regimes of Sir (later, Lord) Laurence Olivier with its basis in public service, and Peter (later, Sir Peter) Hall with its accent on a percentage.

Happy New Year!


We Are Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On …

The Scream by Edvard Munch


Spoiler alert: there are a few self-referencing, free-associative links in this post.

I’ve had it again: the actor’s nightmare. The one where you’re in act one and you realize with shock-horror that you don’t know your lines for act two.


That’s the basic. Obviously there are as many variations on this as there are actors. In this one I had played one of my favorite scenes in all literature. Here’s how it goes:


Scene: a garden patio some where in Buckinghamshire, England. It is Sunday morning and a middle-aged couple are having breakfast over the Sunday papers. After a pause …

Him: I can’t say I’m very taken with this marmalade.

Her: No, neither am I.

Him: Then why did you buy it?

Her: They didn’t have our sort.

The exchanges continue in this vein and the button on this opening segment of Act One, Scene Two of this masterpiece, Relatively Speaking, by Sir Alan Ayckbourn is …

Him: If you ask me we’d have been a lot better off with jam!

I consider this scene to be the finest exposition in all drama on the state of British middle-class marriage in the second half of the 20th century.

Bit of backstory here:

A few years ago I was walking on in Brian Bedford’s extraordinary production of The Importance of being Earnest (see this blog December 2010) designed by the late, great Desmond Heeley. It was a very agreeable and comfortable engagement, Broadway money, minimal work required, plenty of free time.

Then the offer came to cross the country to San Diego and play a named part in the US premiere of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s 82nd (!!!) play. Well no matter how comfortable or well-paid a walk on, the offer of a real role will rouse the blood of any self-respecting actor, after all it’s why we joined. But there’s more to it than that.

On the whole actors are sensitive to augury. Do I take the best friend in a fungal infection commercial, or do I play Cleopatra in drag in an all male production touring to Iceland, Greenland and the Falklands? Give me a sign.

So this play, Life of Riley, Sir Alan’s 82nd or 83rd – can’t remember which offhand – suffice to say he knocks ’em out, plays a cheeky joke on all of us with a bit of self-referencing (bit like this post, following in the steps of the master). In that, the opening scene is a couple rehearsing the scene above (yes, my favorite) for a local production somewhere within the world of the play. And Relatively Speaking was Sir Alan’s 10th or 11th, or it may have been 16th play, but his first commercial hit. So, Sir Alan is here referencing his early work. The reference is undisclosed, it’s an in-joke, not unlike say, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew getting the astrology wrong in Twelfth Night. Not only that, but each of the four scenes in Life of Riley opens with a variation on the Relatively Speaking scene (rehearsed, rehearsed in strife, rehearsed in exasperation, post-show discussion including how it should have been rehearsed).

But wait, there’s more.

I had a few years previously directed this very play, Relatively Speaking, in the very same San Diego.

And the name of the role in Life of Riley, and the guy rehearsing my fav. scene?


Therefore, a pun on my favorite scene in my favorite play, as US premiere of my favorite author, and the role spookily, my own name. Throw in San Diego in the summer, Jacaranda blossom, The Old Globe theatre, well appointed old-world accommodation, beaches nearby. Somehow the drastic salary reduction didn’t seem to matter.

Another, at that point unknown, jackpot was that my scene partner was the incomparable Henny Russell (see this blog June 2011) with whom, to my delight I am about to work again (see this blog last entry), although sadly in The Audience, Mrs Thatcher and Churchill say nothing to each other – although perhaps another famous dialogue could be adapted thus:

Mrs Thatcher: If I were married to you I’d poison your tea.

Churchill: If I were married to you I’d drink it. 

We pick up the actor’s nightmare when I’ve played the scene, the marmalade one,  and I’m relaxing in my dressing room. There’s a book, there may be a fine-quality whisky (even though I never drink during a show – seriously I don’t – afterwards is a different matter), but if there isn’t actually a whisky it feels like there is one. I’ve taken off the jacket, tie and shoes and am leaning back on a chair with my feet on the make-up counter, I’m reading something pleasing (don’t know what it is, but it’s making me smile). The dressing room lights are mellow, and the counter resembles the practical confusion of my study. There are books, papers, bills, there’s make-up, and other theatrical accessories all piled irregularly in happy confusion and I know where everything is and I’m looking forward to the curtain call where I’m confident there will be a warm reception.

Suddenly something alerts me. I’ve forgotten something. What play are we doing? Relatively Speaking, ok, all I have to do is wait for the final scene … no, hold it, I’m confused … somehow I’ve got the idea that I’m on tour and I’m in the company of The Madness of George III where I played a telling cameo, and also once when one of the other guys was sick, took over as the vicar giving a blessing in the very last image of the play. I look down and see that I’m half dressed in religious vestments … but … wtf (!?!) … it’s not George, it’s RELATIVELY SPEAKING.

The chair comes upright and I spring from it and furiously rummage the counter for the script (where the f**k is it???) as whisky, books and make-up go flying. Over the p.a. I hear dialogue from the scene where my entrance is coming up. I sprint (if that word can be applied to undressing and dressing) out of the vicar’s garb into the tweedy jacket and cords of an Englishman in his garden and jam both legs into one leg of the trousers. There’s no time to undo this. Hopping around like a demented pogo stick, anxiety becomes terror as I at last find the script which has morphed from a slim volume into something Dickens might have written in one of his more verbose moods, and I riffle the pages desperately looking for my lines.

And there they are all neatly highlighted in yellow.

Do I know them?


These are lines I have never seen (and lines that Ayckbourn never wrote – or did he?). I turn a page and I see a block of text, again highlighted, it is the beginning of a twelve page monologue and all of it is strange to me.

What is to be done? Can I busk/impovise it? No! Don’t be ridiculous! Not even Eddie Izzard could do that! My entrance is coming up (a matter of seconds now). I am still wrongly dressed, I catch myself in the mirror and see that my thinning hair is now back-combed in horror and I look like a steampunk version of a pantomime dame. Adrenalin and some unknown hallucinogenic course through me.

Suddenly I’m in the wings, from the darkness I see the brightly lit stage, inwardly I invoke the genius of Ayckbourn, Moliere and Shakespeare, desperately appealing to all three to come up with some brilliant sleight-of-form that can save me and amuse the (enormous) audience. But I know it’s hopeless. I’m completely f**k*d. My terror escalates …

And then I wake up.

Sigmund Freud.jpg
Sigmund Freud

Do we need to send to Vienna to work this one out?

Not so much.

Although I am offering either a quality whisky or a free tarot reading for the best interpretation offered by my readers – 100 words max please – and the judge’s decision will be final. Yes, even actors (me) playing statesmen (Churchill) have to have day jobs (see

That’s what helps us keep the night sweats away.