When I left drama school, I expected to become a successful actress immediately. I sent my headshot to directors and agents. Every time the phone rang, my heart convulsed, but usually it was my mother, wanting to know about my latest audition.
Finally, I was cast in a production of Everywoman where I played the teenage daughter of a woman dying of cancer. I have sex with the plumber in the bath in order to grow up. Fortunately, we manage to do this without removing our clothes.
One night, there was a casting director in the audience and I wrote to her the following day. She called to thank me for getting in touch, saying she’d enjoyed my performance – it had shown depth. I was glad because my mother had thought I was trying too much in the play: you were doing that thing when you stick your chin out, she’d told me.
I asked the casting director if she had any advice, or perhaps knew of any auditions I might be suitable for.
There was a pause.
This business is hard, she said. Then she told me it was important to get an agent. They’re the ones to find the auditions.
Right, I said, realising that her job was to cast shows – not simply look for any parts, calling for a 5’6” twenty-two year old, with a tendency to overact with her chin.
I said that I’d written to agents, but hadn’t found anyone prepared to take me on.
She suggested I get the up-to-date Actor’s Yearbook.
Do you know any specific agents who are looking for clients?
Go for a big agency, she said, not giving any specific names.
I got more headshots. Sent letters. Heard nothing back. I knew it was important to chase everything up, but I wasn’t good at that. I thought about phoning the casting director again, but she would only tell me to send out more enquiries, make as many phonecalls as possible. Did I want her to come and hold my hand? Probably.
That’s when I decided to go on a quiz show.
Afterwards, I told people I did it for the car.
The first round of auditions had a group of us seated at a large table. We talked about ourselves. I said I’d recently finished a history degree, loved squash and that I’d grown up on a farm.
All the time, I wondered why I wasn’t mentioning the fact that I was an actress.
We had to perform a party stunt. I’d been up late the night before, learning a magic trick, but the whole thing had made me so nervous I decided to do something simple that wasn’t going to make me sweat. I put someone’s cigarettes on the floor, laid my feet out as wide as I could, and then bent at the waist and picked the pack up in my teeth. It was enough to get me on the show.
Normally, I wouldn’t have entered a quiz show because I would have been worried about not knowing any of the answers. But the point of the show was that the questions were easy – the hard part was the amount the contestants were ‘distracted’ when they were trying to answer.
Even though I didn’t believe it at the time, I was lucky. Later shows had contestants, sitting on perspex cubes with a hole in the top for their bare bottom, which had been smeared with peanut butter. There were dogs in the cubes.
What’s seven times three? the host would ask as the dogs licked.
The show was filmed in front of a live audience. We were brought into the studio, shown the stage and then taken back to a small room where we could get ready and meet the ‘stand-ins’.
In case someone has an accident, the producer said.
We were all talking about the brand new, canary yellow Volkswagen that was up for grabs. The week before I’d smashed into the back of someone who had pulled out in front of me on the dual carriageway without indicating. The producer of the quiz show was very interested in this crash, and the fact that the repairs were deemed more than what the car was worth. He took me into a separate room and questioned me about it. Then he brought me back with the others. I was certain they were going to rig the show so that I would win the car. My life was falling into place!
Drink plenty of water, the producer kept saying. The studio is really dry, and nerves can make your throat parched.
I knew about water. We’d spent a year at drama school, learning the importance of water. Nerves were something I could handle. What I didn’t want was to be answering questions in front of a live audience, having to pee. I took the kind of sips I’d been trained to take, and kept doing throat and tongue exercises to keep the muscles supple.
When we finally got out onto the stage, I couldn’t believe it. The applause was raucous. It felt wonderful to be hearing that crash of hands, standing beneath the bright lights.
The host began to question us. There had been dozens of forms to fill in during the audition process, asking about embarrassing moments, strange habits, things we regretted.
So, the host said to me. I hear that you once threw yourself down the stairs at work just to get out of your shift? The audience laughed.
Yeah, I said, feeling popular and hilarious.
Don’t you have any grandparents? the host said.
I wasn’t sure where he was going with this.
What’s wrong with phoning up your boss and saying that you can’t come into work because it’s your granny’s funeral?
The audience laughed again. I began to feel uneasy – though I couldn’t place it.
Yeah, I guess that would have been a better idea, I told him. The studio was quiet – too quiet.
Now, I hear you’re half Brazilian, the host said.
I am! I told him, swinging my hips a little, feeling better as I sensed the energy of the audience begin to rise again.
Okay, the host said, winking and gesturing to his body. Which half would that be?
There was laughter again, too loud for me to bother answering the question – not that it wanted answering. I was standing with one of the funniest men on TV. What did I think? That I would steal the show; have people chanting my name and land a super-sonic agent?
The host was now questioning one of the other contestants. This was a camp chap who wanted to get into musicals. There was nothing secretive about his desire to act. He was now singing the opening lines to a musical he was writing. Again, I felt that sense of disquiet.
Then there was the policewoman whose ex-boyfriend pays her for sex every now and then, and finally the other guy – who I hadn’t really got an opinion on, other than to think he was the last person I’d imagine wanting to come on a TV show: he’d looked annoyed every time I tried to speak to him.
The audience is charged up now. The host has them mesmerised. He announces the first round of questions will begin.
But first, he says, rubbing his hands together – we need to bring on the toilets!
I’m certain I’ve misheard him, but the audience are cheering about something.
I glance at the policewoman who looks like she sucked on a lemon. The side of the stage opens and a four cubicle, toilet block slides towards us. I remember how desperate the producer had been to make us drink. I think of the two stand-ins, and I understand now: it’s not that one of us might break our arm, it’s that we might refuse to take part.
The stand-ins had had this desperate, obsequious air about them, while the rest of us had acted like celebrities: we were the ones who’d been chosen. I pictured them in the wings, waiting for an opening. I know what it’s like when you don’t get chosen, and then suddenly an opportunity comes. They’d be out here, sitting on these toilets, happy to leave the door open, if it meant they had a chance.
I finally realise how shameful all this is, and why I was never able to tell them I wanted to be an actress. I would have been admitting I was prepared to do anything to make it. There’s no Steven Spielberg, sitting in the audience, thinking: wow, that girl has talent! Besides, the talented ones are at home, learning monologues, putting genuine work in.
Each toilet has been fitted with a sensor, the host explains. Pee if you know the answer and a red light will come on above your cubicle. It’s that simple!
We’re led around the front of the toilet block. Each cubicle has a pair of swing doors set in the middle, about a foot high. I can feel my bladder, gripping, saying: even if you did need to pee, there’s absolutely no way it’s going to happen in front of a live studio audience. We have to pull our trousers and pants down to our ankles. Everyone cheers when my red, lace knickers come down. I rest my arms on top of the door and bury my head.
There’s no express train to success. How can we hope to make admirable achievements without putting in the work? I’ve begun to learn the difference between the short stories I send out that get published and those, which barely even get a reply; and the fact that I’m the only person responsible – not the editor, for being unable to see my visionary style, or the magazine, for publishing crap anyway.
These days, when I sit down to write, I try to be honest about what I hope to achieve. If I just want to make some money with this one, get my name in neon lights, I know it’s time to back off – otherwise I’ll end up with my pants down again, full of regret. The days I work for the love of it, knowing that all I’ve ever wanted is to tell stories to people, it’s safe to continue. It’s better not to focus on the canary yellow Volkswagen, but to simply think about the next word.
Worth checking out
An agent’s view on short stories: http://www.booktrust.org.uk/books-and-reading/short-stories/articles/an-agents-view-luck/
Blogging as virtual love-making: http://deborahbrasket.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/blogging-as-virtual-love-making/
Language is for articulating how we feel now: http://alisonchandlerwriter.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/can-you-feel-it/