We’re gearing up for Edinburgh Festival once again, where artists will put themselves under immense pressure to complete the rigorous festival schedule. But the artist’s responsibility to their audience isn’t a new thing, as a new theatre show has proven.
I need to tell you something before I start. My husband starred in said show. You can see this as a brazen piece of publicity if you like, but, at the end of the day, I am, on occasion, an actor’s ‘widow’. They head off on tours, sometimes to the other side of the world, and they perform on the stage regardless of whether they have a voice, a dislodged kneecap or even a stomach upset as dangerous as Vesuvius circa 79AD. So I’d say, as I’ve seen this behaviour first hand, I’m actually in a pretty good position to have an opinion on it.
Said show was called Mr Corvan’s Music Hall. And it wasn’t a work of fiction. Some artistic licence was used of course, but it was based on the career of 19th century Geordie music hall star, Ned Corvan.
Ned Corvan, who died in his late thirties, lugged his tired, TB-riddled body onto the stage until he could function no more. It brought the money in, put the food on the table and, at the end of the day, if he missed a show, his reputation took a battering and his once-glittering career would be no more. Sound familiar?
Of course it does. But we don’t really consider it from the performer’s side do we?
Who vented their fury at Sheridan Smith when she took a break from the West End after her father was taken ill? Who complained about Dolores O’Riordan’s ‘unreliability’ when The Cranberries cancelled some shows last month? And who had a pop at Ariana Grande for not immediately returning to the scene of the tragedy that she and her fans all experienced firsthand (I’m looking at you Piers Morgan – although credit due for the apology).
Why do we feel that we own the performing artist? They are not our performing monkeys.
So what do I know? Well, I know my other half (Chris Connel in case you’re wondering – the very man Denise Welch described as ‘the greatest actor you may never have heard of – but moving swiftly on from PR) took to the boards to perform in a Shakespeare play in front of the Duke and Duchess of Kent at Westminster Hall in a 40lb suit of armour with severe food poisoning, a bucket either side of the stage for him to chunder into when his guts could take it no more.
And later in his career, after falling off a ladder in Close the Coalhouse Door, he took to the stage a week later with crutches – it was written into the part. The shiny hospital-issue crutches were a bit of an anachronism in this 1960s play until Chris was comfortable enough to use just a walking stick.
In my line of work, if I have a stomach bug, I ring in sick. If I have a sore throat I work from home or simply explain that I can’t talk in meetings or speak on the phone. If I simply feel a bit under the weather, I can rock up to work in my jeans and trainers, slouch in my chair and fill my face with chocolate, Diet Coke and cups of tea. Not quite possible on the stage though is it?
Chris, on the other hand, would create a make shift steamer between shows to blast his throat with soothing vapours or have Vocalzones especially flown in from the UK when it’s quickly realised the big apple doesn’t sell them (and big thanks to a fellow actor, the lovely Angie Lonsdale, for that one – actors know how much each other relies on these little medicated sweeties). The ‘lovey’ simply doesn’t exist. Actors are quite simply hardcore.
It’s funny that they don’t have a reputation for it, but believe me, they push themselves to the limits. And yet, when things get on top of them, we curse them. How dare they ruin my night out? I spent £25 on that ticket.
I’m not belittling art – it takes us on journeys, it educates us, it provokes and inspires us and it creates empathy. But why do we think that missing one night out for the sake of somebody too traumatised or too sick to get out of bed is acceptable. Chris, in fact, flew to New York three days after his mother’s funeral to rehearse for the Broadway performances of The Pitmen Painters. It was incredibly tough. But as an actor, you feel you have to. You can’t forget that there are 1000 people who have booked tickets to see the show and you simply can’t let them down. And then there’s the theatre that has to fork out pay 1000 x £30 to refund the audience. Your decision has already cost £30,000. And then there’s the money that the audience have forked out on accommodation, or dinner reservations and transport. The pressure is simply immense.
Have you ever tried gargling Sanderson’s Throat Specific? No? I don’t blame you. It is absolutely revolting. But it’s the one thing that can keep your voice going just long enough to get the third Widow Twankey performance of the day out of the way and be heard over 500 screaming children. The lengths they will go to!
And they Just. Keep. Going.
When they do stop, we must remember that they are probably, literally, at death’s door (remember Tommy Cooper? He made it one step further, sadly). So next time your night out is postponed, just think about when you last took a day off work and maybe take a breath before your fury is aired on Twitter for all to see.