The joys of acting and being with John Malkovich

Mexican actor Diego Luna performs in an earlier US production of  Good Canary, also directed by John Malkovich. Alfredo Estrela / AFP / Luis Acosta
Mexican actor Diego Luna performs in an earlier US production of Good Canary, also directed by John Malkovich. Alfredo Estrela / AFP / Luis Acosta

I have just emerged blinking and bruised from the theatrical equivalent of a car crash; or “the opening night of a new play”, to give the event its proper job description. Not that there was anything horrific about the first performance of Zach Helm’s passionate and disturbing play Good Canary at the Rose Theatre, in which I’m appearing. On the contrary, reviews have been enthusiastic, and the audience gave the cast a standing ovation.

Yet my analogy is not as fanciful as might appear, for it’s been estimated by scientists employed to measure such bespoke activities that the amount of adrenalin and terror expended by actors on opening nights is roughly equivalent to being involved in a minor car shunt. Having just experienced it for the umpteenth time, I can vouch for their findings.

Showbiz is a profession often given to hyperbole. Phrases such as “life-changing”, “devastating” and “epoch-making” are often bandied about by critics for productions that will soon fade from the memory. Actors, too, are by nature fond of melodrama. “I’m over the moon” can often refer to merely getting a good review, while terms such as “catastrophe” and “nightmare” frequently describe incidents no more seismic than discovering that a button has come off your costume.

Nevertheless, first night performances really are not for those of a nervous disposition. For weeks you’ve been honing your product in the concealed bosom of the rehearsal room along with your new best friends – showbiz liaisons are often both short and intense – and now comes the fateful night when you lay your efforts open for the delectation of the paying public whose collective reaction on opening night, for good or ill, will affect your future employment prospects.

Add to this gathering storm a hefty dose of adrenalin, desperate hope and gnawing terror, and you’ll have some idea of what actors have to go through.

This production has been lent even greater piquancy by the fact it’s directed by John Malkovich, one of the greatest actors and directors in the business, and a man whose association alone ensures maximum coverage and large attendances. As it turns out he has proved a welcome balm to his jittery cast, for in contrast to the popular perception of the average movie star – shallow, narcissistic and combustible – he has combined skill, wit and imagination with a seemingly unflappable temperament.

The first performance itself inevitably comes and goes in a blur, but the moment the curtain is down and the final bow has been taken, anxiety and nerves give way to manic relief and exaltation. We did it. We made it through. Well done us. What an evening! Backs are slapped, glasses clinked and the sense of not being able to force down so much as a morsel of food into your churning tummy is replaced by a craving for carbs and sugar.

And thus to the after-show party. Usually held in the foyer, such affairs are raucous encounters at which friends and associates gather with the cast to celebrate or commiserate. These shindigs also offer the actors a chance to unwind before going to bed.

And then it’s over. By midnight, the food has been eaten, the stage doorman is jangling his keys, the well-wishers have departed and before you know it you’re on the last train home, exhausted and elated, to spend a fitful night, dreaming of incidents in which you can’t find your way to the wings, or you’re acting on a stage that has inexplicably become a giant trampoline.

The cold light of day reveals the same person you were the night before, only much older. The bags under your eyes, the headache and the tongue the consistency of a budgerigar’s sand tray, each a silent testimony to the previous night’s exertions.

For us in Good Canary, the ordeal is over and we can enjoy ourselves. Until, that is, the next job and the next premiere. Still, for all its horror, acting is a job few would swap for a normal profession. It may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but as Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone says in The Godfather: “This is the life we have chosen.”

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer in London

On Twitter: @michael_simkins

Published: September 24, 2016 04:00 AM


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