November 16th, 2017
One of my all-time favourite bits of dialogue, from Mel Brooks’ ‘The Producers’.
Food – where to get it from, when to have it, how much of it to have, and whether there’s enough time to digest it in before the performance – is a constant preoccupation for actors on tour, in strange towns and cities, with little time to spare. I’ve never met an actor who didn’t love their food, and who didn’t happily wolf down any sandwiches, cake or biscuits put in front of them.
My friends, the Vinces, who kindly hosted me for the next leg of my great adventure – playing Canterbury Festival, on October 31st – began a tradition when they started travelling around to see me in plays, of leaving a parcel at stage door for me. A food parcel. Full of goodies like pasta, nuts, and chocolate – plus the odd bottle of vino.
‘Oh you shouldn’t have!’ I would always cry.
To which they would always respond: ‘You never know when you might need a snack or some nibbles.’
The tradition begun, I looked forward to their visit each time, and discovering what lovely little treats they’d put together for me on this occasion. Good job they never saw me wolfing them down – (‘Actors! Have you ever eaten with one?!’)
One time, just before Christmas, when I was in The Woman In Black in London, they left me a large hamper! Too too kind. And so it came to pass that over time I started to feel a little guilty. ‘Listen, you don’t need to leave me a parcel every time, it’s enough that you make the effort to come and see the play.’
Be careful what you wish for.
Next time they came to see a play I was in, no food parcel. Nor the next time, nor the time after that… ‘Oh, so you took me in earnest then,’ I rather plaintively said to them on one of these occasions.
‘Well, you gave us the impression the parcels were no longer welcome.’
‘Oh they’re always welcome, I just meant you didn’t need to feel you HAD to leave one.’
Canterbury Festival was the first of three distinctively ‘spiritual’ venues in week 6 of my tour. Canterbury itself, place of pilgrimage since before Chaucer’s time, and bringing back memories of my own 500 mile pilgrimage along the medieval Camino in northern Spain, in 2003, to Santiago de Compostela.
St Mary’s Hall Studio Theatre, where I was due to perform, was a former church which had and still has as one of its walls, a Roman wall of great antiquity – one of the highest existing standing Roman walls in Britain. Tiny streets nearby, old buildings, a medieval pilgrims’ hospital, and the splendid cathedral of course – which I wasn’t asked to perform in on this occasion.
A lovely audience for my play, who would have stayed for the Q and A talking till midnight it seemed, if we hadn’t had to pack up and vacate. And such friendly ushers – one brought her dog, which slightly worried me. ‘Will she bark, do you think?’ I tentatively asked. ‘There are some loud explosions and music on the soundtrack.’
‘Oh no, she’ll sleep through the whole thing!’ I tried not to take that personally.
Then next day, on through country lanes dappled with glorious autumn sunlight to Beech Grove Academy, south of Canterbury, part of the Bruderhof Community, who had invited me to perform as a result of an American who saw the play in Edinburgh last year, who passed my details on to someone else in America, (it’s a small country) who passed them on to the community in Kent.
I had never heard of the Bruderhof, but it seems there about 3,000 members worldwide. Their philosophy is stated as: ‘We believe that sharing our lives and finances in Christian community is the answer to all that is wrong with society today. Here we are building a life where there are no rich or poor, where everyone is cared for, everyone belongs and everyone can contribute.’
What I experienced in my few hours there was incredible warmth and friendliness, and so many enthusiastic handshakes I almost got cramp. And at lunchtime i was told there was some food for me in the adjacent room. I went in to find a tureen of homemade mushroom soup and the largest plate of sandwiches I think I’d ever seen. (Had the Community watched a rerun of The Producers the night before, I wondered?)
In the Swedish Hall, all glowing wood, I set up my crates with another very friendly man Steve helping with the sound – who gently enquired about my spiritual journey and how it had informed my project. I didn’t go into too many details about my travels from being brought up as a Roman Catholic, veering off into rampant atheism, steering back towards agnosticism, heading down the path of Buddhism, then exploring Quakerism, and generally now having reached a point where I pretty much agree with Hamlet when he said: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.’
The matinee performance went off well, and I received another few dozen handshakes and a number of stories about ‘My father who was a CO’, or ‘My grandfather who was a CO.’
As I drove away back through the late afternoon sunset, I reflected that this project has brought me to places (like this Community, or like Bristol Cathedral) where very few if any professional actors get to perform. I feel strangely honoured and privileged. Not your usual theatre-going crowd.
Then it was on to the Quaker Meeting House in Ipswich – a smallish room which could just cram in about 70 folk. My sound effects were operated this time by Mike, the Warden of the building – a Quaker and ex-policeman.
I warn Mike that the police don’t come out well in my play (standing by as Bertrand Russell is attacked with wooden planks full of rusty nails.) He’s not bothered about that, he just wants to get the cues right, never having done this before. We go through it before the show, and he’s spot on when we come to do it for real. The Q and A takes place in the refreshment room downstairs, those who stay for it sitting in a circle.
Just as I’m about to start the Q and A, I’m offered a cuppa and a slice of delicious-looking home-made cheese cake. What should I do? Turn it down?
(‘Actors! Have you ever…’ etc. etc.)
So I gobble it down gratefully while listening to the debate which quickly sparks up about just wars and the inevitability of war in certain situations – reminding me of the pupils at Ackworth School the other week posing just such difficult questions. Then it’s back to my hosts Paul and Kate – (and their wakeful dog Nina, who didn’t come to the play – again, I didn’t take take this personally). And thus endeth a most varied and fascinating week.
Oh but I forgot – there’s a postscript to the food parcel story. At the Vinces’ house, after my performance in Canterbury, sat in bed in their cosy attic room, I reach out to turn on the lamp on my bedside table when my hand comes to rest on a box of Green and Blacks organic mini choc-bars. Next to which are a packet of very fancy nuts. And next to that some very tempting-looking biscuits. (Drat – I’ve just brushed my teeth.) Oh and three huge Braeburn apples from the local farmers market.
They told me next morning: ‘We reinstated the tradition as you’d looked so downcast when there was no food parcel for you last time.’ Was I pleased? Was I gleeful?
Look, I may be an actor – but I’m only human…