“Am I as much as being seen?” Play, Samuel Beckett
They probably cover it at some institutions already, but one thing my three years at drama school didn’t teach me was the importance of a good resting job. Some might argue that such an idea is counter-intuitive – obviously you’re going to have a career that doesn’t necessitate anything but acting work. Or you’re going to quit within the first six months. But for 99.7% of those graduates that make a go of it, that isn’t the case.*
I did my first front of house and box office work while at university at Warwick Arts Centre, and for a year and a half I loved it. The proximity to a creative hub, artists coming in and out, free tickets to shows – it didn’t matter that it all barely kept me in whiskey money.
A few years later upon embarking on professional actor training, such a job held nostalgic appeal along with the tantalising snapshot of my future glory-paved career. It was an opportunity to glimpse the boards I’d potentially be treading, to watch and learn from the other actors as they courageously slogged through a half empty mid-week matinee, to mentally bridge the gap between little-old-me dutifully practising my vocal warm-up and the veterans of the British stage – what could be a better way to make ends meet? Hell, I’d read Simon Callow reminiscing about tearing tickets at the NT – I’d only be following in his footsteps, right?
It was a job I fell into easily enough. The typical zero hour contracts reassure you that you’ll be free to do the proper work at the drop of the hat. Unlike the cesspit of telesales, there is no risk of sacrificing your soul to make the rent. Unlike basic temping, I avoid my newfound colleagues asking me what they might have seen me in and “why haven’t you tried doing some TV?”. Unlike private tutoring (big market, wish I’d got into it sooner), there is no feeling of guilt about abandoning students in their hour of need.
The job allows you to keep your hand in. Work any press night and you get a useful reminder of some of the movers and shakers operating in theatre; what they look like, how diligently they’ll ask for that receipt for a £4 programme to claim on expenses and whether or not they prefer an aisle seat seven rows back – which is obviously invaluable if you later want to pitch your performance exclusively to them when they come to see you in your one man show at a pub theatre (true story, and the info did come in useful, thanks).
It’s only incrementally that you become aware of the feeling of dislocation being an actor in such a job can bring. People you trained alongside end up booking their house seats through you (generally for some VERY IMPORTANT DIRECTOR/AGENT who NEEDS to see them). Other contemporaries notice you during an incoming either with pity (“Quiet year, eh?”) or predatory inquisitiveness (“Any jobs going?”). Casting directors you’ve met will look at you with a faint sense of puzzlement, anxiety and/or half-recognition.
You begin to notice the change in register when ‘someone of import’ switches from talking to you (the base ticket/programme seller) to an important other (producer/director/writer/designer/named actor – delete as appropriate). It’s particularly insightful when someone plays the “Do you know WHO I AM” card. You wring disproportionate joy out of when a member of the public recognises you from a show and throws you a compliment.
In the vast majority of cases, I’d say that working at a theatre in anything but an acting capacity pretty much eliminates the chances of you being considered for acting work. The more time you spend sorting artistic director’s house seats and casting director’s aisle requirements, the greater is the subconscious association with FOH rather than The Talent. But I have one pivotal example of the major benefits of being in the right place at the right time such a job can offer; one which I’ll happily share if we ever meet. This is not the place for that. But for me, in this one instance, I was fortunate enough to be the exception that proves that rule.
Are there any significant conclusions that I can make from my seven years working box office? Not really. Not being one of those actors who possesses a fully-fledged trade that can make rent during the quiet times, my only advice would be to make sure it’s as flexible, but also as bearable as possible. I’ve seen people ground down by such a job – it’s ‘close but no cigar’ proximity wearing the thinner skinned/saner to shreds. Like any resting role, it’s not ideal because it’s a resting job, and one which will probably require more Acting on a day-to-day basis than any audition. But it’s one with a particularly nuanced set of caveats.
*Yes, that’s a made up statistic, in case you’re a pedant – JH
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