Tim Key: ‘I’ve got a part in a play. Is there time to go to drama school or hone a special voice?’

It’s 20 years since I skilfully played the part of Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream


I’ve just been cast in a play, which is both exciting and daunting. Exciting, because I’m a massive fan of attention and make-believe, but also daunting because, like anything these days, plays have their own rules and I’m having to get used to them very quickly.

The project that I’m involved in is dynamic. A short turnaround between being offered the part and starting to pretend I am a character has meant I haven’t had a chance to do things like go to drama school or perfect a special voice. Instead I am working on instinct. I ask myself questions: might it be nice for my character to nod here? Should I make him limp, so the audience can feel sorry for him? Should my character occasionally become aware that he is, weirdly, in a theatre? It’s confusing and it’s too much for me, and I am enjoying being all at sea.

Of course this isn’t my first acting job. I acted in plays at sixth-form college in the Nineties, once absolutely nailing the sh*t out of the part of Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The role, which included turning into a donkey and canoodling with a fairy queen, was miles outside of my comfort zone. I had almost no experience of love or braying, and things were complicated further by the fact that I fancied the fairy queen and the words were written by Shakespeare so it was all more or less garbage-language. But I staggered through it, I got across approximately what The Bard wanted to say, and I drunkenly accepted any applause that came my way.

It’s 20 years since I skilfully played Bottom though. I’ve been out the game for too long. I’ve hired DVD upon DVD of films where people are acting and have tried to unpick the magic, but there’s no substitute for actually hearing advice from someone who is still in the thick of treading the boards. So, I met my friend Orville for coffee and beer and drilled him about the basics. He is an actor with 35 years of experience in that and other fields. A real character, Orville wears make-up socially and was rude to the bar staff throughout our consultation. He imparted knowledge with great animation, though, like a cow expelling long, interesting pats.

Orville told me that, when acting, one should angle oneself towards the audience. The audience, he said, are your bread and butter. If it’s impractical, for example, if you have to face away to talk to someone upstage, you should regularly look over your shoulder to the audience. Check in with them. He told me to consider wearing a costume. This can give the audience an “in”. For example, he said he once played a farmer and dressed up in red trousers and a jumper and I told him I got the idea. As he got drunker and ruder, Orville started telling me all sorts of “tricks of the trade”: wink when your character’s lying, only touch the other players if it’s in the script, swear and stamp if you feel the show is flagging. He broke down in tears a couple of times, but he was fun to be with.

Meeting with Orville reminded me of the marvellous social element of the theatre. After the curtain comes down, fun can be had with other members of the company, or alone. Back in my Bottom days, I remember unwinding with Adnams and crisps and wondering whether life could possibly get any better. Prawn Cocktail! Beef! Playing pool, or trying to ingratiate myself to proud Titania. There is camaraderie that comes with being in a play that you simply don’t get when you write a column.

Orville’s final piece of advice really stuck with me. I was trying to cajole him into a cab as he held forth on “bowing”, his arms windmilling, his mascara running, scandalously. “The thing with bowing,” he slurred, “Don’t go too early.” I nodded and tried to make him take his cane. “That was my failing,” he said. “I’d bow before the end, and the other actors would crucify me.” This seemed like sage advice. I thanked him and he bowed deeply and I deposited him into a cab. Yes, work hard, push on through, and only bow when the job’s done. That’s my plan.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash the two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in new political order

Michael Ashcroft
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before