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

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

IT Security Advisor – Permanent – Surrey - £60k-£70k

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

MI Analyst – Permanent – West Sussex – £25k-£35k

£25000 - £35000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

English Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: The Job ? This is a new post...

Primary General Cover Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Southampton: We are looking for Primary School ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Photo issued by Flinders University of an artist's impression of a Microbrachius dicki mating scene  

One look at us Scots is enough to show how it was our fishy ancestors who invented sex

Donald MacInnes
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp  

Oscar Pistorius sentence: Judge Masipa might have shown mercy, but she has delivered perfect justice

Chris Maume
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album