Letters from a voluntary exile: The Bellman’s Map

I have just spent the last two weekends exploring using the Bellman’s Map. The Bellman’s Map is from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, where the Bellman, the captain of the group, presents them with a map that is “A perfect and absolute blank!” which his crew is delighted with, as it’s one they can immediately understand. Except for the bit about immediate understanding, I felt like a member of the crew being presented with a blank map by Scott Williams at a workshop on Meisner Technique, presented by Melbourne Acting Academy.

Scott is a teacher and director, originally from California, and trained with Sanford Meisner himself. He has been directing since he was 17, and has perused many activities both on and backstage, but directing and teaching has been his major focus. Since 1996, he has been based in London where he established the Impulse Company where he is currently Artistic Director.

I knew almost nothing about the Meisner Technique. I bought Sanford Meisner’s book  On Acting some years ago, but stopped reading it when I thought I really needed to do some of the exercises described before I could understand it. A friend of mine tried to explain Meisner to me just before I commenced the workshop, and succeeded in making me think, “Oh god, I don’t want to do that for four days.” Turns out she didn’t know what she was talking about. Didn’t stop her talking though. But I digress. Continue reading Letters from a voluntary exile: The Bellman’s Map

Letters from a voluntary exile: An alternative life …

Hello Greenroomers,

Something unusual happened to me this month; I got work as an actor!

Coming to a new city is daunting. One has to re-establish oneself without any of the support networks (or fewer and smaller ones anyway) that one had in the old city. I have to go out and network. I have two problems with this: I don’t know how to network, and I have no idea how I managed to get known back in Brisbane anyway. So it’s been a slow hard slog and the two gigs were very welcome.

My two acting jobs arrived on the one day, one via my agent, one via a friend (part of my smaller and fewer networks.) The first was a 50-worder on Working Dog’s next film, tentatively titled 25. I’m sure every actor has thought when auditioning for a 50-worder, ‘Oh, why don’t they just go with a photo? They know I can act from my CV or showreel. Surely all they are after is a look.’ Well, Working Dog have heard our thoughts, I gather, and I got the job without an audition. Constrained by a confidentiality agreement, I cannot say more than that, not that I can tell you much more. It was a pleasant afternoon’s work with a good crew.

Incidentally, I got paid for that job within three weeks – superhuman speed compared with my other experiences.

The other job, which I got after the film but did before the film, was at a corporate function for Opera Australia. IMB were celebrating some 25 years of sponsorship (or some such) and the theme for the evening was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I, along with my friend Gavin Ingham, played a magic tree. I was downstairs and Gavin upstairs in the cocktail area. Corporate gigs are good when the crowd is moving, or you are; three jokes are enough to get you through the entire two hours. Here were mine: There were little dancing girls as fairies being guides to the guests. I would indicate one and say “That fairy there, her name’s Nuff. Fairy nuff.” Or I would keep very still until the guests were close, then spring into life wave my branches and say, “Don’t worry, my bark is worse than my bite.” Or as they went up the wooden stairs, I would say, “Be careful on those stairs, that used to be my mate Trevor.” Thanks to Anika Vilé and Opera Australia for the work – all part and parcel of the life of an actor. One of the reasons I became an actor was to avoid doing the same thing every day, and here was that life come to … well, life.

Being an actor often means one leads a double life: day job, and real job or however you want to phrase it. And then, there’s the fear that one’s day job may become the real job. And then what do you do?

Being an actor often means one leads a double life: day job, and real job or however you want to phrase it. And then, there’s the fear that one’s day job may become the real job. And then what do you do? This thought occurred to me at my other job – the one currently keeping a roof over my head, clothes on my back and food on my table. I work for Metro Trains Melbourne, the private company that run the metropolitan trains in the city. They have only been on the job for less than a year. Metro Trains have improved the service, so far as I can tell, but there is still a long way to go. I could go on about public transport but that perhaps is for another time and site.

The bosses held a meeting to keep employees informed on where Metro is at, and where they hope to go – all very good and useful, and, dare I say it, inspiring. The men and women who gave presentations were from all over the world with long CVs and a clear passion for their work. Yes, a passion for public transport and trains. It was quite infectious. All of a sudden I was considering my alternative life. I could work my way up in Metro, from Leading Station Assistant to – well just about anything. There is a wide variety of jobs on offer, actual career paths, promotions, structured pay rises, holiday pay. Creativity has its place here too – even in my present entry level job. It’s also a job I don’t have to think about after-hours. I do my work at work and leave it there. This is also attractive.

I don’t have to rush off to job interviews (or auditions) at odd hours and in odd places, at short notice, wondering what the hell do they want this time, I don’t have to pay for photos or voice reels – on my to-do list for the next two expensive weeks. I could go to theatre just to enjoy it. So what keeps me going?

Till next time, gentle readers,
Love and mercy,

Nick

Incidentally, I have started to hate the word passion. A beautiful useful word in itself, it is often used to excuse rudeness, ignorance and anger. It is also a meaningless buzzword in many advertisements:

I have also noticed among some arty types a snobbery, with the odd belief that only artists have passion. What a limited world view! My brother, a pilot, has a passion for flying. My grandfather, an engineer, had a passion for mathematics. I could go on. Let us stop misusing ‘passion’ and give it back its dignity and power.

This post is part of a series by guest blogger Nick Backstrom, a Brisbane actor and writer who is now based in Melbourne.

A fifth letter: Thoughts while sitting in a waiting room

Hello Greenroomers

I had another audition the other day for a TVC. It was one of those dispiriting ones when they want to see what faces you can pull. I hate them. Oh well, it’s just TVC casting laid bare really.

Auditioning is of course the curse of our profession, a necessary curse. But at its best, it can be very enjoyable. No, really.

Do you know the story of  The Long-Jumping Jeweler of Lavender Bay? It was a short story by Hugh Atkinson, which then became a movie (1971), a Little River Band song and a novel, also by Hugh Atkinson (1992). It tells the story of a little man, living his humdrum life, who works as a jeweler in the Sydney CBD. To get to work he takes the ferry from – you guessed it – Lavender Bay. One day, lost in thought, he almost misses his ferry. On an impulse he runs and jumps the gap to land on the deck, to the acclaim of his fellow passengers.

Pleased by their reaction but more by the feeling he got while jumping, he makes this a regular thing, and lets the ferry get a little further away from the wharf before he does his leap every day. And every day the passengers wonder and bet on if this will be the day he does not make it.

Then he starts to notice something. As he jumps, while he is in the air, he glimpses a paradise and a beautiful woman, somewhere above the ferry’s roof. And as he jumps longer and higher, he sees more of the paradise and the woman, who is beckoning him. And soon he is jumping for the woman, not for the ferry. The jump gets longer and longer, he gets higher and higher and one day, inexplicably for his fellow passengers, he disappears: no thud on the deck, no splash in the water. The Long-Jumping Jeweler of Lavender Bay is never seen again.

This story popped to mind the other day while I waited for an audition. The leaping, the glimpse of paradise, the thump of the wooden floor as we land again – auditioning can be a bit like that. You may accuse me of romanticizing the process. But why shouldn’t we?

Love and mercy.

This post is part of a series by guest blogger Nick Backstrom, a Brisbane actor and writer who is now based in Melbourne.

Soul food: a fourth letter from a voluntary exile

Hello Greenroomers

Last night I watched Ratatouille, the excellent Pixar film featuring a rat (who is an excellent chef) and his adventures in a Paris restaurant. It also features Anton Ego, a critic of devastating reputation. Although Ego is used by the writers to satirize the role and cult of critics (as if his name wasn’t a clue) he actually has two moments that redeem him and critics generally.

When he sits down to write his review of the restaurant, that could destroy or make a career, he pauses for thought, then pens a review of unmitigated praise, that starts with these words:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.

This is salve to anyone who has ever felt the brunt of the critics’ scorn (and felt the nagging fear they may be onto something). But for me, an equally magical moment occurs some minutes before this scene, when he is served the titular dish. One mouthful and his mind shoots back to his childhood and memories of his mother cooking him dinner in a beautiful bucolic and fleeting scene. We discover Ego’s drive – he wants food that feeds his soul. He is bitter because he finds it so rarely.

I think all the great critics – of food, of theatre, of art, of literature, hell, even sport – are trying to find their equivalent of that mouthful of food that goes straight to their soul. And I believe audience members too want that, though perhaps they are not so mindful. But when they receive it, they know. I believe that because that is my experience when I go to the theatre, a film, pick up a book, or watch TV. Yes, much of that may be purely entertainment, fluff or time-filler, and excellent as examples of such. But I also need those shots to my soul. They may be irregular, but they must keep coming. Continue reading Soul food: a fourth letter from a voluntary exile

Letters from a voluntary exile: a third letter

GUEST POST: Nick Backstrom is an actor and writer, formerly based in Brisbane and more recently in Melbourne. He also sings, teaches and directs, though rarely at the same time. Nick’s Melbourne relocation will form the basis of his occasional posts to Greenroom. He would be delighted to respond to any comments or queries made here.

Hello friends

Let me tell you a story.  I went to a casting the other day for an RACQ commercial.  If I had landed it I would have been flown up to Brisbane to shoot it, and it was a Queensland-only ad.  As I waited, one of the other actors asked the receptionist if they were looking all over Australia for the right face.  She replied “Oh no, we just do all our casting out of Melbourne.”  I told them that was why I moved to Melbourne from Brisbane.  So it goes.

It’s been interesting reading all the stories recently about what’s wrong with Queensland theatre – or not wrong.  May I weigh in? Too few venues, too little funding.  I know, startling insights.  

Melbourne is chocka with little venues seating less than one hundred or thereabouts. These places are affordable, accessible and if it all goes wrong, it really doesn’t matter.  If it works, fantastic!

Continue reading Letters from a voluntary exile: a third letter

Letters from a Voluntary Exile #2: … and so it goes …

GUEST POST: Nick Backstrom is an actor and writer, formerly based in Brisbane and more recently in Melbourne. He also sings, teaches and directs, though rarely at the same time. Nick’s Melbourne relocation forms the basis of his occasional posts to Greenroom. He would be delighted to respond to any comments or queries made here.

‘Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down’ as the old spiritual goes.  How do we describe these spirituals nowadays?  Negro was the adjective of my childhood, but that’s at least three PC language generations ago. Slave, I suppose, would be the most accurate.  The adjective is important.  But I digress…

My last letter discussed how much more I was enjoying the audition process. This is a new step for me. Tom McSweeney told me as part of a class many years ago – my final year of uni in fact – that my job was now auditioning, and that I should see auditions as a chance to act, and not as a nerve-jangling job interview.  It’s taken me that long for that simple idea to penetrate my admittedly thick skull.  It is, in modern parlance, an empowering idea.

I did a workshop in auditioning last week with Ann Fay of Maura Fay and Gary Davy of Gary Davy Casting (UK). While there were no startling revelations or ideas, it was good to hear the casting experience from the other side and to watch them work with actors and take note of the advice they had to offer.  This was a free event organised by Equity – join the Union, people!

Fired by confidence and renewed focus, I went to my audition the next day for a very minor role in a very large production.  I had three scenes (only one of which was the character in question, the other two for roles I would understudy) and of course, I had learned all my lines, watched the film of the show so I knew the context – better to read the script of course, but not possible in this case – had thought about three possible approaches to each scene, vocally warm, physically warm and raring to go.  The auditions were running about 15 minutes late, not bad in the overall scheme of things.  I went in at about 2pm; I was out on the street at five past.

I was only introduced to two of the three auditioners.  I didn’t even get to do the whole of the first scene.

I had heard the two women at the sign-in table, looking forward to  Hairspray auditions, that would be, and I quote “real auditions.”  The warning signs were all there.

So it goes.

As it was a very minor role, I am certain that they were looking for a visual, and as long as I could do an American accent and remember lines, all the rest was how I would fit into the cast as a physical presence.  So they had indeed seen all they needed to see in those three lines (out of four) that I was able to say.

Still… I felt pretty low afterwards.  The rehearsal notice had said to be prepared to hang around for a couple of hours afterwards just in case. Turned out this was a standard clause for dance auditions.  I didn’t know that and, having hoped I would be asked to hang for a couple of hours, walking along Chapel St with an empty afternoon ahead of me was not my happiest moment.

I have discussed this with my agent and other actors and discover this is a fairy regular experience for a musical audition. Well, I guess it just goes to show that we live in an industry that at times cannot show simple respect for its members, and we accept that as normal.

We live in an industry that at times cannot show simple respect for its members, and we accept that as normal

Also, another city is not a magic remedy for the dispiriting experiences that actors go through.

Love and mercy to you and your friends tonight.