Friday, 1 March 2013

“What do you do in the daytime?” February 23 2013

This tour of “Birdsong” is long, about thirty weeks in all, meaning most of our evenings, and a few afternoons, are spoken for until early August. One of the most frequent questions that actors get asked when they’re working in theatre is: “What do you do in the daytime?”, and so I thought I’d spend some time answering that.

An actor’s day is pretty well structured. Everything is leading up to the performance that evening, or afternoon on matinee days. The performance is where we channel our collective energies to present the play as well as we can. It might be our fiftieth or hundred and fiftieth performance, but for our audience it’s the first time. Filling a theatre with your voice, so that it can be clearly heard at the back, often high up in an upper circle, takes a lot of energy. I find I sleep much longer after performing in live theatre than I do when I’m not acting, often a couple of hours more. I find I have to conserve my energy for the evening show, and while it’s all right to do menial jobs, go for a walk or do some shopping I try to avoid the temptation of regarding a tour day as being on holiday. 

We’re all working, and it’s a high stakes working environment, with hundreds of people watching. If you make a mistake it’s a very public one, so there’s high adrenaline flowing when one is on stage. People often say things like: “You look so relaxed onstage”, and in some ways that can be true, as it’s our familiar workplace, but it’s also something of an illusion. If we look relaxed then we’re doing our job, and the audience will relax and be taken on the journey of the play with us willingly.

Getting yourself into the right energetic state for a performance involves timing. For me, I find I get up late, so breakfast will often be late morning and the main meal of the day taken between four and five o’clock in the afternoon, so that it’s digested and fuelling me for the evening. Our working day finishes in a different way to that of most people’s too: in that we end the play bowing while hundreds of people applaud. It would be odd if it didn’t give you a kind of “high” and so we generally need a couple of hours “down time” after a show before we can think of retiring to bed. “Birdsong” lasts for two and a half hours, so it’s often past midnight before I can even think of sleeping.

Another consideration on a tour this long is the whole question of understudying. In the event of, heaven forbid, a member of the cast becoming seriously ill, or being delayed on the way to the theatre, we have to have arrangements in place to cover that actor. Some members of the cast have been assigned to understudy other roles, but of course there’s a cascade of role-taking that has to happen. A cast member with one of the smaller roles takes over a principal role, and so someone has to cover the role normally taken by that actor; it’s a tricky, complicated procedure and one not taken lightly. Actors aren’t known for being “off”, (as we call missing a performance), and we don’t “throw a sickie”, as the expression goes, because we want to be on stage and not being there causes mayhem. So an understudy going on is, mercifully, a rare event. But we need to be prepared: so another thing that happens sometimes in the daytime on tours are understudy rehearsals: keeping those covering performances tuned even though everyone hopes they will never be needed. 

Last week, in Cardiff, the whole cast participated in a run-through of the play with understudies and cast members who weren’t assigned those duties co-operating together, taking over scene-shifting duties where necessary and generally helping each other recreate the atmosphere of the play to give everyone a true taste of what playing these other roles might be like. Sarah Jayne Dunn, who plays one the principal roles, Isabelle Azaire, was given a long list of what Emily Stride, who plays Marguerite and other
incidental roles, as well as stage management duties, does throughout the play. Sarah remarked to me that she had no idea Emily did all that, and was marvelling at it all. I think Sarah captured the spirit of the afternoon - as I think many of us came away even more appreciative of what everyone else does in the play- and how much a spirit of co-operation is essential. 

The afternoon also prompted what, for me, was the Comment Of The Week. We had just finished doing the first “french” scene, where we meet the Azaires and the main part I play, Berard, and the roles of Rene Azaire and Isabelle were being played by Liam McCormick and Polly Hughes. Both actors did the scene really well and the last line is mine, consisting of me stepping forward and saying “Same time tomorrow?” As we moved away at the conclusion Liam, in a sotto voce version of his native Yorkshire accent accent, murmured: “Ah bloody ‘ope not!”

More from me next week in Malvern. If you have any questions about touring and the acting life then please write in and I will do what I can to explain! 


  1. powerful moving amazing.we hope you are enjoying llandudno. thank you

  2. Interesting insight into what it really takes to do what you do/did . Thanks again to you and the whole team. Birdsong clearly stretches actors to their limits with the very frequent time changes and for me watching and being absorbed by it was compelling. I can honestly say that there are few , if any, plays that I have appreciated more- I was going to say enjoyed but the subject matter perhaps precludes use of that word. I have written on Polly's blog that you should try to take this production to Ypres next year in recognition of the poor souls that went and never came back.

  3. Thoroughly enjoyed yesterday afternoon at the Theatre Royal, Brighton. Superbly crafted play - thank you.