‘Getting there, doing it, and making a living out of it’: Paul Clayton on being a Working Actor

Clayton, PaulPaul Clayton has been an actor for almost forty years, a career spanning roles in Peep Show, Doctor Who, Wolf Hall, Hollyoaks and more. As his new book The Working Actor is published, he reflects on how it all started, what it takes to keep going, and how you can make it, too…

In my role as Chairman of the Board of the Actors Centre, I’ve hosted a series of lunchtime interviews with actors at various stages of their careers, helping them share their experience and expertise with others. Partly out of laziness, and partly out of a desire to achieve some sort of commonality in the framework for the interviews, I begin each one with the question: ‘How did it all start? When was that moment that you knew that this was what you wanted to do?’ The answers proved revealing. For Juliet Stevenson, it was reading a poem at school. For Josie Lawrence, it was finding out that she could entertain members of her family. For Douglas Hodge, it was a natural step from being a teenage impressionist. Mark Rylance recalled helping to build the scenery for a high-school play in America. Sir Derek Jacobi remembered a particular feeling as he ran down the street wearing his mother’s wedding veil.

For all of the interviewees, however, one thing was the same. There had been one moment when they knew the only thing they wanted to be was an actor. I think my own particular Damascene conversion happened in Miss Woodcock’s class, late on a Thursday afternoon, in an infant school nestling in the foothills and slag heaps of the Soviet Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire. Having press-ganged Susan Clarke and Christine Evans into sharing the stage with me, I played the role of a heroic soldier battling for his loved one against the forces of an evil witch. Imaginatively titled Evil Spirits, and with its envelope-pushing casting of myself as the heroic, and no doubt heterosexual, soldier, it entertained the other members of our class for nearly ten minutes. I remember the applause, and I remember thinking: ‘I like this.’ From that moment on, I can honestly say that I knew what I wanted to be. An actor. I was seven.

Getting there, doing it, and making a living out of it, is what my new book The Working Actor is about. I’ve managed to do that now for nearly forty years, something of which I am proud. I’ve spent a great deal of time unemployed. There have been weeks when seven imaginative ways with a baked potato has been my diet. Approaching sixty, I’d like to think I can call myself ‘a Working Actor’. It says ‘actor’ on my passport, and it says ‘actor’ on my tax return. I make a living out of it, and I know that I’m incredibly lucky to have a job that I always wanted and that I still enjoy.

No one can teach you to act, but you can learn how to be an actor.

Luck is obviously a great part of success, and that has to be acknowledged. Luck can be helped along, though, and working hard at your career will bring its own rewards. Understanding the business, how it works, and your place in it, is crucial. How to look at the work that is out there, the jobs, the opportunities, and how to talk to people who have the power to give you those jobs, and to give you those opportunities. To find out how they make their choices. To find out what you can do to maximise the chance of their choice being you. That’s what the book aims to do. To help you manage your day-to-day life as an actor. No one can teach you to act, but you can learn how to be an actor. A Working Actor.

One of the most important pieces of advice I think I’ve ever been given was from a fabulous old tutor called John McGregor at my drama school. He’d been a young hopeful at the RSC in the mid-fifties, alongside Olivier and Ian Holm. It hadn’t worked for John in terms of stardom, but it had worked for him in terms of being a Working Actor. When he was our technique tutor at Manchester Polytechnic in the mid-seventies, he was still regularly appearing in television dramas and making a good living out of his acting. His mantra was one I have tried to follow ever since:

‘Every day do at least one thing that might lead to work, and then get on with living your life.’

I think what he was trying to say was don’t let the whole of your life be consumed by being an out-of-work actor. Don’t forget to be a person. People buy people. So often in audition situations, sitting on the other side of the table, I have seen people come in absolutely desperate for the job to the point where I have had no chance to get to know them as a person. As a result, there is no hook with which I have been able to engage with them. They haven’t got the job.

The Working Actor consists of twenty-six subjects. An eclectic mix, and made as a result of my own individual choice. At the end of each article is a work task. So, on the basis of Mr McGregor’s mantra, my book gives you at least five weeks of one thing to do each day before getting on with your life. Assuming you take the weekend off! Not all of them may apply to everyone, but if just one of them leads to something, then I have done my job.

Not for nothing do people call it ‘The Industry’ or ‘The Business’ – a business is exactly what it is.

There may be a lucky few who, after leaving drama school, will jump from job to job, but for the vast majority it will be a constant fight, a struggle, to keep that employment as continuous as possible. It will require huge reserves of energy and focus to cope with unemployment, and it will rely on a constant input of imagination and creativity to maximise the opportunities that come along.

Not for nothing do people call it ‘The Industry’ or ‘The Business’ – a business is exactly what it is, and that’s how you have to treat it and behave in it if you are to succeed.

I sincerely hope that The Working Actor helps. Helps you on a day-to-day basis. Helps you to manage your career as a business, and to maximise your potential. Above all, I hope it helps you realise those childhood dreams.


Formatted

The Working Actor by Paul Clayton is published this week by Nick Hern Books.

To buy a copy for just £10.39 (RRP £12.99), visit our website here.

Join the author in conversation with Miss L (Twitter’s @ProResting) to discover the essential steps to building a successful career. A Samuel French event at Camden People’s Theatre, Monday 9 May, 8-9pm, booking required.

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I Am Shakespeare: by Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance

photo: Simon Annand

As actor Mark Rylance returns to Shakespeare’s Globe to play the title part in Richard III and Olivia in Twelfth Night, he reveals how his interest in the controversial Shakespeare authorship debate – the subject of his first play I Am Shakespeare, published this month by Nick Hern Books – led to the charge that he had betrayed Shakespeare. Nothing could be further from the truth, he argues in an introduction to the play, together with an extract presenting the case for one of the leading contenders.

The Big Secret Live ‘I Am Shakespeare’ Webcam Daytime Chatroom Show was created in the summer of 2007 for the Chichester Festival Theatre. Greg Ripley-Duggan produced the play, and subsequent to our run in Chichester, organised a brief tour to Warwickshire, Oxford and Cambridge University, amongst other places. This was not unlike taking a play that questioned Robert Burns’s identity as a poet, to Scotland. But, for some reason, the Shakespeare authorship controversy pierces deep to the heart of identity for some people, wherever you play. It was the extreme reaction of otherwise reasonable people that inspired this play. Their efforts to repress my curiosity, and frighten others away from the mystery, were funny in retrospect but extremely trying at the time, especially when I was Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London between 1995 and 2005.

I say that the play was ‘created’, as I had only written the first act and some of the second when the cast gathered in the Soho Laundry to begin rehearsals that summer. Under Matthew Warchus’s excellent direction, which included many improvements and developments of the script and idea, we then created the play. All of the original cast, especially Sean Foley who played Barry, improvised lines and situations, which I later included in the text. I am indebted to this spirit of adventure and collaboration, which, by the way, has always been my image of an aspect of the creation of the Shakespeare plays as well.

I Am Shakespeare (jacket)

Needless to say, I love Shakespeare – the work and the author – more than any other human art I have ever encountered. I have made my living, in many more ways than an actor’s pay check, on Shakespeare, since I was sixteen years old (which was thirty years ago at the time I wrote this play). I do not believe, as was charged against me at the Globe, that I am biting the hand that fed me. I am attempting to shake it. The fact that Shakespeare’s work will all disappear from the universe one day is more awe-inspiring to me than my own death.

Extract from I Am Shakespeare…

Act One Scene Three

The First Guest Ever: William Shakespeare

[Frank, a schoolteacher aged around fifty, has just begun the weekly broadcast of his chat-show about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, which goes out live via webcam from his garage in Maidstone.] There are two knocks on the door.

FRANK. Who’s there?

SHAKSPAR. Frank.

FRANK. Who is it?

WILLIAM SHAKSPAR enters.

SHAKSPAR. Hello, Frank.

FRANK. Who are you?

SHAKSPAR. Who do you think I am?

FRANK. Who do you think you are?

SHAKSPAR. No, who do you think I am? And more to the point, why do you think I am anyone other than who I actually am?

FRANK. What?

SHAKSPAR. Why do you do it, Frank?

FRANK. Why do I do what?

SHAKSPAR. Why do you get yourself in such a twist about who I am? Haven’t you got better things to do? You don’t need this to make you special. You should be proud of being just an ordinary good old teacher like your father, Tom.

FRANK. How do you know I’m a teacher? How do you know my father’s name?

SHAKSPAR. So what’s this all about? Books, books, books. Do you know there are more books about my play Hamlet than there are about the Bible? But then, I had a head start. There wasn’t an English Bible until a few years after Hamlet.

FRANK. Have you been sent here by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust?

SHAKSPAR. No.

FRANK. The Shakespeare Institute?

SHAKSPAR. No.

FRANK begins to speak.

No.

FRANK. Is this some sort of joke?

SHAKSPAR. You can’t fathom me, can you? Do you really think people have to be extraordinary themselves to do extraordinary things? I lived a thousand extraordinary lives in my writing – so many kings, lovers, murderers. They tired me out, Frank. But that’s not who I am.

FRANK. You dress up as William Shakespeare, break into my studio, hijack my show and then…

SHAKSPAR. It’s time you stopped, Frank. Please. Let it go. I don’t want to be man of the millennium. I just want a good millennium sleep. Every time you challenge me, some fool starts another penetrating biography: ‘Closer to Shakespeare’, ‘Shakespeare, The Player’, ‘Shakespeare, The Lost Years’, ‘Shakespeare for All Time’. Each one’s like an electric shock in my sleep, waking me up again. If I had known what it’s like to be a ghost, I never would have given them such small parts.

We see BARRY [Frank’s neighbour, age 35-45, a pop star who once had a top-twenty hit entitled ‘I’m a Sputnik Love God’] running round the outside of the garage.

FRANK. You think you can come in here, pretending to be William Shakespeare, sabotage my show…

BARRY rushes in.

Scene Four

The Interruption of the Neighbour’s Musical Genius

SHAKSPAR looks at the books.

BARRY enters, making sure he doesn’t forget a song he’s just composed in his head.

BARRY. I’ve got a song, Frank. After I rang you I went out with the guttering and BAM! I’VE GOT IT! After twenty-two years, my follow-up! ‘Long Green Summer Grass’. It’s got it all. Love in the afternoon. The great flood. It’s like a green love anthem. Sort of Al Gore meets Barry White!

SHAKSPAR. Hello, Barry.

BARRY sees SHAKSPAR.

BARRY. What are you doing?

FRANK. What are you doing?

BARRY. Who’s that?

FRANK. Yes. Who’s that?

BARRY. Why?

FRANK. Why what?

BARRY. What?

FRANK. Why?

BARRY. Why do something like this without telling me? Hiring a lookalike. I don’t think that’s very professional, you know, to keep secrets from your musical director. I thought we were working together on this. Oh, fuck it! Fuck it! I’ve forgotten the fucking song! I’ve forgotten the fucking tune! Look what you’ve done. I can’t remember it. It’s gone.

SHAKSPAR (singing).

Come on, baby, come on, baby, don’t say maybe,
When you’re way down, let me lay down –

BARRY. That’s my song!

SHAKSPAR (singing).

Lay down with you in the summer grass,
In the long green summer grass.

BARRY. That’s the song I just made up!

SHAKSPAR (singing).

I’m changing my drains down,
So, baby, when it rains down,
Ain’t no summer hose ban’s gonna turn,
Gonna burn, my long green summer grass to brown.

I thought the repeats helped the rhythm.

BARRY. Who is this guy, Frank?

FRANK. Why don’t you both just stop pretending. Get out. Go on, get out, the both of you.

BARRY. I never met the man before in my life! I swear on Brian May’s plectrum!

Scene Five

The First Interview Ever with William Shakespeare

SHAKSPAR. May I just finish this before I go?

BARRY. Do you know any more of my songs?

SHAKSPAR. Yes, but what I like best is that children’s book you’re working on.

FRANK. You never told me you were working on a children’s book.

BARRY. I never told anyone about Teddy and the Philosopher’s Guitar. What are you, like, a professional mind-reader? Is that your act?

SHAKSPAR. In a way, I suppose I always was, but since I died…

FRANK. Listen, you Shakespeare Kissogram, lookalike fake, bald-headed bladder-faced Midlands Pranny…

BARRY. Hey, Frank, why don’t you give him a chance to explain himself.

SHAKSPAR. Because his mind is closed, Barry. He doesn’t want to know who wrote the plays. He wants to know he’s right. And I think he’s probably got some kind of hang-up about common people creating great works of art.

SHAKSPAR gets up to go.

BARRY. Now you’re talking.

FRANK. No I haven’t.

SHAKSPAR. I’m off now. (Speaking into the camera.) May I just say thank you to everyone, actors and audiences everywhere, for making my plays the big success they are. I never imagined they would last so long.

FRANK (also into the camera). Because he never imagined them in the first place.

SHAKSPAR. I think I might go up to Stratford-upon-Avon and visit the Birthplace Trust. What’s the best way to get there?

BARRY. How did you get here?

SHAKSPAR. I don’t know… something to do with the internet and the weather? Look, I’ve written something for you, Frank. Just to show you there’s no hard feelings. One of your favourite sonnets. You wouldn’t believe the money you can get for any old document connected to me nowadays.

SHAKSPAR puts it on the desk.

FRANK. Oh, very impressive. Phoney Elizabethan writing. You’ve been up all night rehearsing this.

SHAKSPAR. Don’t you want a handwritten sonnet?

FRANK. No, I don’t want your lousy homework.

FRANK tears it up and throws it in his face. Sniffs him.

By the way, I don’t know if your friends have told you, but you have got severe hygiene issues.

SHAKSPAR. I’ll make my own way. Fare thee well, Barry.

BARRY. Fare thee well, Will.

SHAKSPAR. I’m retired; I just want to be left alone, like Prospero. Let your indulgence set me free.

FRANK. If Shakespeare’s so like Prospero, why didn’t he educate his daughters?

SHAKSPAR. They didn’t want to be educated.

FRANK. Why didn’t he write or receive any letters?

SHAKSPAR. I conducted my business in person.

FRANK. Why did Shakespeare never write about his home town, Stratford?

SHAKSPAR. Which would you rather go and hear: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, or The Slightly Embarrassing Day in the Life of John, Glove Maker of Stratford?

He goes out and they carry on talking around and out in front of the garage.

FRANK. People in Stratford had no idea he was a playwright?

SHAKSPAR. I kept myself to myself.

FRANK. Then, why was he so litigious?

SHAKSPAR. What’s any of this got to do with my work?

FRANK. That’s exactly my question.

BARRY. Will, you know you can see inside my head, can you see inside Frank’s?

SHAKSPAR. When? In the past, present or future? Once you die, your existence is not bound by time or space.

BARRY. What was Frank doing last Tuesday at, say, 11:37 in the morning?

SHAKSPAR. He was in a classroom, teaching my play, Romeo and Juliet, and he was just about to confiscate a mobile telephone from a young student named James who was texting a friend beneath his desk.

BARRY. What did the text say?

FRANK. It doesn’t matter.

SHAKSPAR. ‘Tosser Charlton is a dickhead.’ In the First Folio collection of my plays, Ben Jonson refers to the author as the ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’; there’s a reference to the author’s ‘Stratford Monument’, in Stratford-upon-Avon; and, my fellow actors, Heminges and Condell, also refer to me as the author. How do you explain all that? Why? If I wasn’t the author, why? Until you can answer that, you haven’t got an answer, you haven’t even got a question!

SHAKSPAR goes out into the evening.

NHB are proud to publish Mark Rylance’s debut play, I Am Shakespeare. To order your copy at the special price of £7.99 (rrp £9.99) with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the promo code box at checkout.

Tamara von WerthernA few words from NHB’s Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

“This is a lively and very funny play anchored in the present but exploring the secrets of the past. It’s great for companies who have a number of strong male performers and enjoy performing in costume. It’s a light-hearted piece that asks fundamental questions about identity and the nature of genius, and will be enjoyed by all audiences, particularly those with some knowledge of Shakespeare’s work (though, as the extract above shows, it wears its considerable learning lightly). And those of you who have seen or performed Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem will more than likely want to read a stage play by the actor who was the original Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron.”

Jez Butterworth’s JERUSALEM at St Paul’s

Image One

Art often imitates life, but it’s rare that a West End play gets taken up by a group of anti-capitalist protesters as the perfect encapsulation of their spirit of defiance. But this is just what has happened to Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, a play that is back in the West End with Mark Rylance once again giving his barnstorming performance as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron – a modern-day Pied Piper who refuses to bow to the eviction notice served on him by local council officials.

But head on down to the campsite at St Paul’s, currently occupied by protesters under the collective name of ‘Occupy the London Stock Exchange’, and you’ll find an alternative ‘performance’ of the play. A very alternative one, in fact.

Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth

Jerusalem playtext

Here, the man behind the project to bring Jerusalem to the protesters – a protester himself with no previous theatrical experience, who goes only by the name of ‘Bill’ – explains what’s going on in a series of bulletins from the front line.

****************

From: Bill

Date: Sunday 30 October

Subject: ‘Jerusalem’ at St Paul’s

The first play-reading will take place today [30th October] at 4.30pm. It may well turn out to be a shambles, raining and under-attended, but it’s a start!

With any luck, if the readings gain momentum, and a gang starts to get together, we might try and manage a ‘proper’ performance/production? But it’s all very much ‘see how it goes’ at the moment.

Am very grateful to Jez Butterworth for his kind permission to let us do this, against the usual rules when the play’s on in the West End!

Best wishes,

Bill

****************

From: Bill

Date: Tuesday 1 November

Subject: Mrs Theatre

The project has turned out very differently from the original idea because I haven’t seen either of the two people who wanted to do it too since the night of the big conversation about it (Thursday). It’s fairly usual for people to come and go without telling anyone. The upshot is, by Saturday, I began to realise I was alone with the project. I got quite frightened and wanted to drop out: I have no connection with the theatre, am not an actor, director or anything, secondly, it was impossible to find any appropriate space to do anything in the St Paul’s camp, and I was beginning to feel uncertain there, wondering if the interests of the protests might be better served by the Finsbury Square camp [a second scene of protest at Finbury Square, EC1].

By very happy chance I discovered someone had made a theatre in a tent at Finsbury Square when I moved to that camp on Sunday. This project would have been impossible without her (I don’t actually know her name. ‘I’m Mrs Theatre,’ she said.)

Have to go now but will e-mail later.

Best wishes,

Bill

****************

From: Bill

Date: Tuesday 1 November

Subject: Apocalypse Now

Today was a no-show too: it coincided with a big General Meeting up at the St Paul’s site (which won’t be cleared tomorrow after all, as a new legal development has postponed it again.)

I haven’t really left the campsites for the past week, and am grateful for the opportunity to make contact with anyone unconnected with them. They can get a bit hardcore. Finsbury Square, in particular, never sleeps. St Pauls is often manic in the day but gets quite peaceful in the middle of the night, (except for the bells, though I really liked these, one of the best sounds ever). Finsbury Square, meanwhile, is fairly laid back in the daytime, and the public use it as a walk-through, but when it starts to get dark it begins to change; the nights can get a bit ‘Apocalypse Now’. There have been a few problems. Some of the people are street alcoholics, (but no less brilliant for that). There’s often trouble from the public too, late night gangs of men screaming at us, provoking an even more furious response from volatile people on the site. Sometimes protestors arrive in the middle of the night from other parts of the country and can get a bit shirty if they are told they have to come back in the morning. A group of five trashed the kitchen tent at 1am this morning before raging off intending to camp on Parliament Square.

At the reading we had on Sunday, none of the participants had heard of the play, and only one person, Mrs Theatre, had much declared interest in theatre generally. Everyone was a non-actor. But immediately the play had everyone’s absorption and, very soon in, I didn’t have to do or explain anything any more, for all concerned were utterly carrying it. They laughed a lot. The part of Johnny was read by an Irish man of roughly Johnny’s age, no fixed abode, a hurricane of drink and he did it all joyously. He read quite fast, which the reading needed, and the beautiful thing was he’d frequently realise how funny the line he was reading actually was, halfway through reading it, and would crack up laughing. I hoped he might be around for further readings, but haven’t seen him since. Mrs Theatre really loves the play and wants to keep going with it – we didn’t get all the way through on Sunday and she wants to. The play connected with everyone immediately; my aim at the moment is to keep going with it in the hope maybe others will want to continue with the project and I can pass it over to them.

I have been asked questions by many people, and I’ve no idea who they are; questions like ‘is this your theatre then?’, ‘Are you running a company?’ and in some cases, while they examine a copy of the play: Are you the author?

Thanks, Jez Butterworth for this play, for its defiance against rising tyranny, and for creasing us up when we most needed creasing.

Best wishes,

Bill

****************

From: Bill

Date: Friday 4 November

Subject: ‘The Miracle’

The readings are starting to go exactly as hoped, for now: they are not performances, there is no audience. It’s just a reading group and it’s very casual. What happens is: two or three of us sit on chairs in a very, very small theatre tent (about eight foot square, the fourth wall open to the outside), reading selected scenes among ourselves for enjoyment’s sake between 1.30–3pm each day (though today’s looking unlikely: the site’s under six inches of water). When people come, one of us whispers to them they can take a seat if they like. If they sit down they’re handed a copy of the play and shown the page we’re on. They’re invited to join in if they feel like it. Then they’re left alone. No explanations or sales pitch: the continuation of the reading is what matters; people can take it or leave it.

So far, especially yesterday, this has worked well. One or two City workers on their lunch break have come and sat down, eating a sandwich, reading the play as we continue the reading. When the two or three of us read, there are usually 2–3 main character parts in the extracts we’re doing, then a fourth or fifth character might enter, or be there already but not saying any lines until well into the extract. This is when ‘the miracle’ happens: very often the quiet new ‘guest’, be it a City worker, campsite person, whoever, will spontaneously read out that new part, therefore becoming part of the reading.

When the extract finishes, we all go ‘Phew! That was all right, wasn’t it?’ and we all grin and laugh and talk about how funny the play is. The City people who have been present often say they’ve seen the play in the West End and love it, or that they want to go and see it. The campsite people are very often unfamiliar with the play, and don’t know it’s currently very famous. It’s just ‘some play or other’ which, they discover, happens to be brilliant, funny as f***, completely apt for today and apt for their own situation. Anyone who’s not heard of the play but comes to a reading on spec seems to become an immediate convert. They know also they can come and join a reading any time they like, for as little or as long as they want.

Have to go now.

Best wishes,

Bill

We hope to bring you further bulletins from Bill in due course…