A Northern Broadsides blog

After several years of working mostly in television, radio and the voice over industry, I’m delighted to be back on stage again. Playing a brilliant part in a brilliant play. For a brilliant theatre company. And on tour. Now, I haven’t toured for over 25 years and it’s a bit of a shock to the system – especially at this stage in my life, where home comforts have greater importance and youthful vigour is compromised somewhat by the ravages of time etc… you know what I’m saying!

Isobel Middleton

Isobel Middleton in Much Ado About Nothing (Photo by Nobby Clark)

But it’s marvellous. Exhausting, but marvellous. Because, somehow, touring with a play is a distillation of all the psychobabble that’s talked about acting put into raw practice. You form a company, you learn a play, you get it up on its legs and take it on the road. And you can’t help but feel a strong connection with all the acting companies throughout history, going right back to our earliest civilisations; groups of performers packing their trunks and taking their stories to the people of wildly different towns and cities, unsure of the likely response, but hoping to find acceptance and interest and even, fingers crossed, enjoyment!

Funnily enough, the first tour I ever did was a Spanish Golden Age play about a Roman actor and his travelling troupe during the reign of the Emperor Vespasian. Lope de Vega’s The Great Pretenders climaxes with the crucifixion of said actor for over-stepping his theatrical boundaries and veering into the political. Fortunately, the worst punishment meted out today to a recalcitrant turn is a lousy review and unemployment but in former times there was considerable risk if the material or performance incurred displeasure from the authorities. And let us not forget that in many countries and societies elsewhere in the world this is still the case. Our freedom to express ourselves, and see our lives reflected back at us through drama should not be taken for granted. It is a tradition that I am proud to be part of and long may it continue, for the benefit of all.

Touring requires strength of purpose, resilience and the understanding of loved ones. It inevitably involves the occasional terse phone conversation with those at home, matched with bouts of home-sickness, irrational irritation with your workmates and waves of self doubt. Stamina is a must. As is tolerance and love because, of course, the other thing about touring is the potential for Things Going Wrong; a rich seam that fuels the endeavour, especially in the face of some challenging venues, punishing schedules and occasionally grotty digs. Like ships’ companies, hospital staff and, probably, all teams of people working in close quarters under any kind of pressure, a touring company thrives primarily on its robust shared sense of humour plus a steady supply of cock ups.

The cast of Much Ado About Nothing (Photo by Nobby Clark)

Luckily, in our company of 19, there is no shortage of comedy bones and unplanned happenings so that, even in the quietest moments, when tickling a snigger out of a near silent audience is akin to wrestling an octopus into a pair of pyjamas, there is sport to be had. Whether it is the joy of hearing a fellow actor running at speed around the drum looking for their entrance point, or the misplacement of a prop, instrument or costume leading to wild improvisation on the hoof, there is always the potential for hysteria. From the post-meal/pre-show internal combustion back stage to the random brain-farts on, no show is ever without its laughs, intentional or otherwise. It’s a hoot, touring. I’m sure it can be awful. If you don’t get on with your follow actors or crew. If there’s no shared sense of the ridiculous. If you don’t fluctuate between amazement at the ludicrous nature of your employment and the privilege of it. I bet those Roman actors were just the same. I bet they would have laughed their heads off, as we did at Peterborough Arts Centre all those years ago, when our lead actor ran round the outside of the building, in a snowstorm, wearing nothing but a loin cloth and found the emergency entrance he was supposed to be entering from accidentally bolted from within. Such is the magical stuff of tours. We are only two weeks into this Broadsides tour but I feel sure there will be many such moments to enjoy before we reach the end in May. I’ll keep you posted…

Isobel Middleton