I have just started a long summer tour with a Shakespearean comedy. I auditioned just before my part-time drama course ended and was delighted to get a job so soon. The other cast members (who have all been doing this kind of show for years) have been very welcoming, but being on stage with them has really flagged up how much I still have to learn.
We are playing lots of different-sized venues including pubs and schools and when things get rowdy everyone else seems to take it in their stride and come up with great ad-libs and improvisations, while I still get thrown if we go too far off book. I have even had to be rescued with prompts once or twice.
I know experience is a great teacher, but is there anything I can do to fast track that experience? I don’t mind being the beginner in the cast, but not the weakest link.
Training, no matter how comprehensive, can only do so much to prepare us for the workplace. That “new kid on the block” feeling is one most of us will recognise and experience at each new stage of our career.
I am pleased the cast you are working with is supportive and hope that will be the case with any seasoned actor or ensemble who finds themselves working with newcomers this season. Whether or not every group is equally welcoming, if you are the least experienced actor in any production, try not to panic. Instead, see it as a chance to put into practice a principle that applies as much in your 40th year in the business as your first: training may come to an end but actors never stop learning.
Sometimes lessons will come directly from older hands. Not all of that advice will be useful or relevant, but it is certainly worth listening to with an open mind. There is also a lot you can learn by observation. Ad-libs are a good example. After a few years of regular live performance, especially in front of noisier audiences, many actors will have established a small mental library of tried and tested lines to cover heckles, latecomers, ringtones and other common interruptions. This library normally has two departments: public domain quips that have been handed down for years, but still raise a laugh despite (or possibly because of) their familiarity, and original lines that an actor may have thought of in the middle of a particular incident, but got too big a laugh to be used just once. Such gems then stay tucked away in the memory ready to be retrieved or adapted should a similar event occur.
You’ll develop your own arsenal of one-liners as your live experience grows
You’ll develop your own arsenal of one-liners as your live experience grows. Even if, initially, you get stumped by a heckle and only think of the killer line after the event, don’t lose heart. It is very likely that a similar occasion will arise at a future show. Then you can use the same gag again and leave everybody gasping at your powers of spontaneous invention. In the meantime, whether you create lines of your own or borrow from antiquity (which is how most of us started) remember that, as long as you are not stealing lines from somebody in the same show, it is often the confidence with which ad-libs are delivered, rather than any intrinsic comic genius, that makes them work.
This also applies to a lot of the other tricks of the trade you may feel you currently lack. Keep practising and watching and the more performances you get under your belt, the less tricky they will become.
Contact careers adviser John Byrne at email@example.com or @dearjohnbyrne
John Byrne is also a writer, cartoonist, performer and broadcaster. Read his advice columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/john-byrne