On my last birthday, I received the gift of a bus pass from Transport for London. Rather than put it to use, I hired a white van, loaded it with wooden crates and set off on a three-month tour of the UK with my new solo play, This Evil Thing.
Why would I do this? An arduous tour with no guarantee of even breaking even and, as my agent pointed out, I would be unavailable for other acting jobs. Especially after seasons with the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Peter Hall Company and nine months in The Woman in Black.
Tempting as it sounds to put on The Great British Bake Off and wait for the telephone to ring, I wanted to bring this story of courageous conscientious objectors from a century ago to a wider audience. And setting out on the road seemed the best way to do it.
Driving off, I spotted a poster on the side of a church, which said: “My greatest adventure.” I was transfixed, maybe it would be. At my age, with the length of the tour and the physical, vocal and emotional challenge of performing an 80-minute play with more than 52 characters, it is a daunting project. Then there are all the different venues – from theatre studios to Quaker school halls and medieval cathedral chapels.
I set this all up – from the play itself to the itinerary, publicity, laundry, programmes and stage management. All unfunded. But the joy is that in our uncertain lives as actors, waiting for an audition, mounting your own show puts you in control of your own destiny. Even with all the hours of admin and prep required.
There were bumps along the way: leaving the van window open all night, nearly running over a deer in Carnarvon and the unique challenges of performing to a hard-of-hearing audience in a Baptist church while perilously close to the wooden cross suspended overhead. Then there were the post-show question and answer sessions, including the six-year-old who asked: “Did you want to do this play or were you forced to do it?”
Yes, I did want to do it. It’s taught me to become so much more flexible and resourceful than when one’s only task is to perform. And I quickly learnt that there’s no time to be ‘precious’ – often grabbing a sandwich and putting on my costume 10 minutes before ‘curtain-up’, having spent all afternoon getting the lights sorted in a remote village hall. I also became less bothered if small things went wrong – people in those village halls just seemed grateful you’d come all that way to bring professional theatre to them.
I’ve had plenty of adventurous acting jobs over the years, but I think the sign on the side of the church was right – this had proved to be my greatest adventure.
When I got back at the end of the tour and unloaded the crates for the final time, I returned the van to the hire company, handed the keys over, and walked to the nearest bus-stop, feeling strangely empty. I hadn’t needed to take a bus for three months. But at least when it came, it didn’t cost me a penny.
Touring dates for This Evil Thing can be found at michaelmears.org