Finding my mojo in Salford 25 years ago, what's R&D?..NO MONEY!!! & an old, hopeful face in a new Manc ensemble!
Being back in Manchester again checking out whats going on is great, but inevitably gets me feeling all reflective and comparisons with the past are inescapable, but there are a lot of positive things going on drama wise in Manc at the minute, sadly though of course, as is depressingly the norm everywhere else, no one seems to have any bloomin money!
I went to meet with 'Northern rep' a week last Monday, a new company that has pretensions to be the first repertory company in Manc in over 50 years, well me and about 70 others. They had what was billed as a face to face, which wasn't as the name suggests a face to face interview, and I was disappointed about this at first, but quickly got drawn into the infectious enthusiasm and big plans for the place. Standing around in a big circle listening to Tom who's the artistic director talk reminded me of my first day of being in Manchester Youth Theatre 34 years ago. Tom wasn't scary & formidable like Geoff Sykes, the AD of MYT was, but it was looking round at the big group of young faces looking hopeful. Even though I lacked the youth, I certainly shared their hopes for the thing to succeed. I wanted to be a part of it, I saw myself as the confident young actor that I dreamt of being when I was 19/20, but never was. I only got the minuscule parts where I could seemingly do as little harm as possible while at MYT!.
He wants it to be like a co-op where we all own it, even though of course we won't get to just be in it without auditioning. Everyone is encouraged to be a member of the ensemble from which they will cast future shows and hopefully have money to pay everyone a bit later in the year. Yes money, or the lack of it was the elephant in the room, well at this early stage of their development anyway. Such a shame that no, big commercial sponsor can be found, like all those years ago MYT had Ciba-Geigy, but the bottom has fallen out of such arts sponsorship and every enterprise hopes and competes for increasingly depleting arts council money.
I went to see their show, Midsummer Nights Dream in the space where they intend to build two theatres, with the setting in the sparse space being a nightclub, and even though I can think of at least 1 other immersive Shakespeare show set in a nightclub running at the mo, I thoroughly enjoyed this, was drawn in completely. It was fun, didn't seem like Midsummer Nights Dream, nor Shakespeare, and if they want to attract a bigger audience than just friends and families of the actors maybe that's a good thing. It helps if you know the basics of the story, but it really did immerse you and deserves hugely to be better attended than the 40+ people that were there on the admittedly probably quietest night I was there, Tuesday. I'm really glad I went to see Northern Rep, as it's reignited my interest in creating theatre for the first time since the huge disappointments of self producing my own play Beatle Mal over 2 years, and I really hope this is the genesis of something big.
Last Friday I walked into the past, down Bridge street and crossed the Irwell for the first time in ages and ages, in search of the genesis of my acting mojo and well my mojo generally I think, in Salford, 25 years ago!
I'd gone over to Salford for an audition held at the Kings Head pub theatre for a company called Lion Tamers, very short audition, very hurried. I could tell from this lad in charge's awkward demeanour, that I wasn't what he wanted. Anyway not disappointed as they're unsure of money, and only have enough to do what they call a 2 week R&D in the summer & even if they do get the cash to do a tour at some point, it's pretty small scale, no lions roar glory, in fact all a bit too tame! I wasn't familiar with this term R&D until recently, but a lot of theatre companies seem to be doing this, very in vogue. What they call Research & Development, as I understand it a workshop to interest schools or what have you in the project. The current R&D buzzword reminds me of a line from a favourite Peter Sellers film 'After the Fox', one of his funniest for me, with some great lines written by Neil Simon. In it Martin Balsam's character Harry cynically explains the then current creative buzzword 'neo realism' to the vain film star he manages, Tony Powell, (a very funny Victor Mature, sending himself up wonderfully!)
"What's Neo Realism?" asks Tony. "No Money!" replies Harry.
But anyway it wasn't to prove a wasted trip across the Irwell, with this year being my silver anniversary of my finding my acting mojo! my confidence to act, in actual fact, my confidence generally after awkward teens and so far tense twenties where I didn't have the confidence to even ask directions or pick up a phone, ( I'm still a bit rubbish at both of those if truth be told).
I was introverted and intense, desperately shy and added to this, roughly from the ages of 17 til 26, until ultra violet light treatment at Salford Royal eliminated it, my chest was covered in large areas of psoriasis resembling a primitive map of the world, which didn't help. Girls? Women were dreams. In actual fact they still are!
I walked past the Mark Addy pub by the river, where we all used to go, we being the first intake of students of the newly founded 'City Acting Studio', based initially in a warehouse in Salford, can't remember where, and ran by theatrical agents Laine Management. Inside what was quite a biggish space we established a theatre, then latterly a move to an old bank building on Chapel street, when the agents fronted by Elaine, moved into offices upstairs, the ground floor was cleared out & painted by us and what we called 'The Old Bank Theatre' was established. This was early 1992, I was working at the then Granada studios tour attraction and getting occasional extra work through Laine in Coronation Street, Cracker & Medics etc.
It's funny because even though I do spend a lot of time thinking about the past, I usually have a reticence about actively going back, seeking out old haunts or having reunions. Maybe because I'm making Manchester my permanent home again for the first time in 24 years, I'm acutely aware that my connections to the place are all past ones, even though I've come back sporadically over the years, I haven't lived permanently in this city since I left to go time drama school in Birmingham in 1994. For 5 years I've been thinking whether to reestablish myself in Manc, after 15 years or so living in London, but lack of friends, contacts, and of course not least job opportunities put me off, until now. So my little pilgrimage down Salford the other day is me re establishing my links to Manc, (and Salford) again!
Back in 1991 acting dreams came back to me 7 years after my first unsuccessful attempts to audition for drama schools and 2 unspectacular years with MYT, prompted by working on tv sets a lot, I wanted to act again.
We had Andy Devine, who's now best known for his time in Emmerdale, as our acting coach, studying Stella Adler technique, the method as some have called it. I liked Andy a lot, do remember having a fair few clashes with him artistically, but he was a good teacher, better than all but one of the people I was to have a few years later at drama school & that person wasn't an actor as Andy was.
For the final half of what I think was 6 months, (though in a good way it felt like a year), of these I think maybe only once a week night classes, after getting the new theatre space ready, we were rehearsing for our final showcase which was to take place for a few weeks over Easter 1992. Every scene we worked on had always filmed by a video camera on a tripod which we all took in turns to use, I remember Albert, in the class early on before he dropped out, always wanted to be camera man!
It was frequently painful looking back at this video footage afterwards, but it was meant to be, not just the mistakes, but the just watching yourself. Hugely useful though, picking up on all the nervous ticks & personal mannerisms that still crept in to the most unrecognisable characters that you created! I still have my video tape from back then and will eventually get round to watching it again. Sure it will probably help me as much now as it did 25 years ago!
Every month or so of the course we'd have a show open to friends & family usually, showcase scenes selected from plays or written and devised by us, with Andy of course directing.
For this last showcase excited that I managed to get Sophie Marshall, the then casting director of the Royal Exchange Theatre to see us one night. Anyone who knows me knows how I've always been obsessed with working in this theatre, and this night was the closest I've ever come to potentially working at my theatre of dreams.
I've a strong feeling she didn't stay till the end and I never heard from her afterwards what she thought. Although I do remember after this I did audition for something non Royal Exchange related in a warehouse opposite the old Granada HQ on Quay Street, for which she was sitting on a panel for with others, anyway at least she always seemed approachable, not the like the current caster there sadly.
For this final showcase in the new Old Bank Theatre, Andy Devine had us all do scenes from 'Feiffer's People', comic & bittersweet sketches about American domestic & marital life written by Jules Feiffer, who's probably best known for writing the screenplay for the movie Carnal Knowledge in the late 60's. We had our work cut out to adapt these, even for then I think rather dated and very American 2 or 3 hander sketches into a more familiar setting for all of us. Come to think of it I do remember doing a lot of other pieces at City Acting Studio with an American accent though, including Jack Nicholson's devil monologue about women from The Witches of Eastwick film script. "Eat Broccoli!"
In this final showcase I was in 3 scenes. I did a scene with Lucy who was a lovely girl who I had an almost brother and sister like friendship with. The scene was called Brewers Droop about a couple of course who can't get it on because the fella had consumed too much booze & couldn't perform in bed and Lucy's character in a sexy back underwear attempts to reassure me, playing him. I remember it was a hard.. ha ha scene to do. Just overcoming shyness at performing an intimate scene with her, even when nothing actually happens and indeed just before anything does and my uptight Woody Allenesque character comes to the realisation that "Sex is dirty!" the scene comically ends.
Another scene from Feiffer was called a "A Rose in her teeth" I did this with Pauline or Erina,
Dear Pauline, she helped my confidence grow enormously, and although I know it wasn't a particularly happy time for her personally, I've often thought of her over the years, hoping she's good, hoping she's happy, because the last time I saw her she was desperately unhappy.
She was a nurse, a stewardess for British airways, and she was a wonderful, sexy, generous, and just generally fabulous woman, and I'll never forget her, She believed in me and quite honestly the confidence I got from City Acting Studio was as much from her as from the course itself. All these years later I still buy Eternity aftershave because of her, I remember she told me she could shag a man all night, (or maybe for eternity), with that on!
I did find her on Facebook while writing this blog, and glad to say she looks likes she is happy. I have thought about contacting her, as well as the so far, 3 others I've found in the pictures of for our final show at the Old Bank theatre, which I have posted below. 25 years is a long time though and I'm not at all sure I should bother her, she'll maybe think I'm raking up the past for no good reason, and I worry whether she or the others will be receptive to what is intended as a friendly, good intentioned overture after all these years, I know they've all moved on and so have I. Maybe the past should stay past, and it's only me that is proud of this positive and important moment in my life, I do hope not. I do hope everyone else at least shares fond memories of this time.
Earlier at our previous base, (wonder where that was?), we'd had quite a few more people, many more than the 10 of us in pictures below, but we were the die hards who completed the course, survived to the end! As for Andy, It'd be nice to speak with him if I could find him, I read that since leaving Emmerdale 7 years ago he's been living on a boat up in Stanley, near Wakefield, West Yorks. I liked that he said in an interview I found with him, that he always wanted to be a pirate. Me too, must be something in 28th February born pisceans water wanting to be pirates, as she shares the same birthday with me!
Pauline's mum was from Ireland and she strongly identified with the Emerald Isle, as indeed do I, so she wanted to give 'A Rose in her teeth' an Irish setting. I loved playing this imposing Bill Sykes like Irish labourer character in donkey jacket and flat cap who when he enters the pub everyone notices. I love playing intimidating and supremely confident characters, a million miles from me. But this was Pauline's scene completely and I remember she played it beautiful and subtle, while I was chewing the minimalist scenery! I still have somewhere the red rose used as a prop, a fake one, plastic, though there was nothing fake about the emotions at work in that piece.
Everyone was good as I remember, that last showcase was full of high standard pieces, far better than the creaky source material sketches deserved to be, and I think allowing for the limitations of what showcases allow it was entertaining for our audiences to watch, better than any showcase I've seen ever since and I've seen a fair few. The best thing of all was, I think we'd all seen our confidence grow as the course had progressed.
I walked down Chapel Street trying to decide where The Old Bank Theatre had stood, I'd read somewhere it had been demolished, knew it stood roughly opposite Salford Cathedral and took a picture of a couple of bits of likely wasteland where there had been a big curved corners into side streets. I've since tracked down pictures of it before demolition, so I can. pinpoint exactly where it stood and the pictures I took, (the ones below), were spot on, I knew it!
Oh I'm there imagining standing there these big double doors on the corner of the building, where once certainly the most dramatic thing in the buildings history as a theatre took place.
One evening, I want to remember it as mid performance in one of our shows, but it might just have been us rehearsing, these doors were ram raided! Must have been strong doors especially made for Salford banks under attack back in the day, as they didn't fall, but the whole building shook and dust fell from the ceiling, (I'm fairly sure onto an audience), before the vehicle, never saw what type, backed up and sped off. Did they think the bank was back in business or did they just hate actors in Salford? Never found out, but whichever way you look at it, they severely dented their vehicle or their egos for no good reason!
I've read that the building which had been condemned as unsafe, (maybe our ram raiders had started something back then), was gutted in a fire before its eventual demise about 4 years ago. Apparently only one of many things it had been back in the day, was an Irish bank, looking after the accounts of a lot Irish Catholics in the city, including the Cathedral just opposite. Pauline & I had been spiritually at home with our Irish themed piece then!
Did hear a few years ago that there was a nice plan to build a wall, 'The Salford Wall', a nice non divisive, but creative kind of wall, but I hadn't really appreciated that the wall was to be built with this very buildings bricks which were salvaged and numbered by a local artist!
I feel as though I want to go and perform a piece on The Old Bank Theatre's derelict site as a tribute to its importance to me, very sad it's gone and that I didn't come looking for it sooner.This is indeed the first time I've been back in those 25 years.
I wonder how long it continued as a theatre after we were there, and I wonder about the hopeful actors who used it after us first lot. Hope they felt as positive about it as I did/still do.
For me my time there paved the way of having the confidence to try to make my own theatre. With Pauline's help, I tried to found a theatre company called Mischievous Fools, together with Lucy, my good friend Simon Lind, Chris Joyce who'd been with us at City Acting Studio, and a nice friend of Pauline's called Nigel. I had big plans to do an open air production of a little play I'd written called Robin Goodfellow. And a year later in the summer of 1994, just before I went to drama school in Birmingham, I did my own Treasure Island street show in Edinburgh. None of this and getting into drama school would have been remotely possible without what came to an end on this now, sadly bit of derelict wasteland in Salford in the week after Easter, at the end of April exactly 25 years ago!
Blimey 25 years since City Acting Studio, 20 years since leaving drama school, the anniversaries are racking up, but are they to be celebrated when I'm still so woefully struggling?!
It's bittersweet looking for ghosts of your past, being somewhere where once those people were close besides you, but are now are far, far away. As I look at the pictures of my dark haired younger self, I wonder how much I've changed apart from the obvious stampede of crows under my eyes, fairer hair, ( I must stop dying it, Trump has killed my desire to be a blonde), not to mention my considerably less slimmer outline. But not that much really inside, still living the dream that began here! I wonder about the others. Sadly I lost contact with everyone from City Acting Studio within a few months of Mischievous Fools finishing and Pauline too went out of my life.
That really saddened me even though I understood and I retreated into myself for a while, wrote Morrissey-like love poems as I've often done at such times. Added to this I'd lost my sister-like friend Lucy too. If I remember correctly she had joined a Christian group or something like that and apparently shut everyone out, wasn't contactable. Can't remember exact details of this now, but I lost 2 friends in quick succession and to lose a good friend is as bad if not worse than losing a lover, doubly so if they're both. But my confidence to keep acting kept on track.
Now with all this looking back, some might easily accuse me of being mawkish...urgh horrible word, maudlin….even worse. well lets just try over sentimental then? You're not on my wavelength if you do! I think sentimentality is good, it embraces detail, the little things, savours the moments of pleasure. Some might say don't dwell in the past, go forwards, not backwards, I am looking forward, that's a lot of what this blogs about. Going back is in actual fact a valuable way of re evaluating your life, and you have to look back to go forwards at decisive moments in your life, and as I do have the feeling that I've come to another of life's cross roads after a fair amount of time on a long, uphill road that's been in places scenically very lovely, and full of great things, but ultimately still has led to nowhere!