Theatre Debut: David Westhead
Wednesday 20 January 1999
The year: 1987
WHEN I left RADA at the age of 24 the RSC offered me a contract to play small roles and understudy, but I was convinced I was going to get a job at the Traverse in Edinburgh so I turned them down. Then the Traverse role fell through and I was out of work for four months, a situation that encapsulates what you go through as an actor - most of the time having to take difficult decisions, and making a
balls-up of it.
But I got exactly the sort of job I was looking for in a three-man version of Marlowe's Dr Faustus by Mark Brickman that the Actors Touring Company were doing - which meant assuming a dozen guises, from the Pope to the King of Hungary.
Touring is the most knackering kind of theatre you'll ever do, and we went to about 50 or 60 over three months. Once you've lugged the set in and put all the lights up, the show itself is a breather. There was a rebellion fairly early on when we decided that there was far too much superfluous scenery knocking around and that we would conjure it in the audience's imagination rather than lug it in from the transit van. So the surgical skeletons that had been stuck on to sheets with gaffer tape were bundled away and not seen until we hit the Lyric Hammersmith. Ironically, on the press night the simplest part of the design - a table - broke 25 minutes before the end. I had to keep whispering to the others not to climb on it. Luckily, the critics didn't seem to notice.
The performance that stands out for me, though, was in Hereford. It was at the local cinema - they took the screen up for the evening - and it was opposite Hereford United Football Ground. Hereford happened to be playing Nottingham Forest that day. You couldn't hear a bloody thing because the crowd was making so much noise. There were only about 16 people in the audience, but that was some achievement. We raised our voices and persevered.
Somehow that evening brought home to me the fact that as an actor you learn most when you go to the audience rather than when the audience comes to you. You have to go out there and earn the right to be on their turf.
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