Thirty five years later, I am off the pencil ... for now

Michae Simkins reflects on the life of an actor who's always waiting for the phone to ring

An actor’s life is like a grotesque form of Snakes & Ladders, says Michael Simkins. Eloy Alonso Gonzales / Reuters
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Why don’t unemployed actors look out of the window in the morning? It’s a question I’ve often asked myself.

I’ve recently finished an acting gig in London and in the six weeks since it ended I have spent my time doing what all out-of-work actors do – trying to get another one.

The old phrase, “You’re only as good as your last job” may well apply in other professions, but in showbiz it’s a way of life. Even now, after 35 years in the profession, I’m still in the grip of exactly the same forces as I was three and a half decades ago, when I was a stage-struck teenager.

Will I get another part? Will someone else ever employ me or is this the moment when my luck runs out and I’m condemned to spend the rest of my life delivering sandwiches or collecting discarded trolleys at my local supermarket?

An actor’s life is like a grotesque form of Snakes & Ladders. When you’re in work, you’re king of all you survey and the view is glorious. The regular paycheque and nightly applause confirm what you knew all along – that you’re a special talent. Frankly, the civilised world is lucky to have you.

But the moment the job ends, both your self-esteem and your bank balance spiral down the snake, back to square one, where the long haul begins once again. Yesterday you may have been somebody, but today you’re back in the frigid waters of idleness and penury, swimming around with all the other loafers, trying to flag down a passing job to pluck you from your doom.

And then your phone rings. It’s your agent: “Darling,” she begins, “you’ve got an interview for a small part in ...”

At this point my agent may say that it’s “a part in an episode of a new TV drama” or a “play in the West End” or “a fringe show above a cafe in the back end of East London”, depending whether my luck is in or not.

“You’ll be meeting the director and the writer on Thursday. Please read the play and learn the lines of the scene on the email they’re sending you now.”

So you learn the lines and turn up as instructed, to find yourself in a room full of actors, all roughly the same age, shape and type as you, and each clutching their own dog-eared script. Their task is simple – to convince the director that they (and not you) are the only possible actor to be entrusted with this role.

Maybe your interview goes well. Maybe it doesn’t. Whatever your instincts, your only recourse now is to go home and wait. And wait.

Eventually the phone rings. it’s your agent: “Darling, they loved you. You’re on a pencil!”

“Does that mean I’ve got the job?”

“No darling, it doesn’t. It means you’re on a pencil.” This absurd theatrical euphemism is doublespeak for the fact you’re now a front-runner, but that your employers can’t make a firm offer until the executive producer (the guy who’s probably bankrolling the production) returns from his golfing holiday in Florida to make the final selection.

If you’ve really done well, it’ll be a “heavy pencil”. If, on the other hand, you’re one of three or four actors still under consideration, it’ll be “light”.

Your agent offers touching reassurance: “You’re on a pencil! Isn’t that wonderful?”

So you wait. You try not to look at your phone every few seconds. You try to occupy yourself with other things – shopping, gardening or helping your child with their homework. After all, “you’re on a pencil”. That’s as good as an offer isn’t it? Eventually the final call comes. Or maybe it doesn’t. If it does and the news is good, cue fanfare, fireworks and general rejoicing. But if not?

“Darling, I’m so sorry, but I’m afraid the pencil has gone in another direction.” This is another euphemism for “you failed”.

I’m lucky. My phone rang this week and I start a new play at a fashionable theatre in 10 days time. My misery is over. At least until the next time.

So, why don’t unemployed actors look out of the window in the morning? The answer’s simple. Because they’d have nothing to do in the afternoon …

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer in London

On Twitter: @michael_simkins