Thoughts from under my Stetson

Joe McGann hardly needs any introduction. From one of the UK’s most famous acting dynasties, his successful career spans more years than we’ve had hot dinners and his skills on screen, stage and studio are simply outstanding. He can often be found wandering the countryside with beloved dachshund Minnie.

I was at work the other evening, sitting on stage in costume, slumped as if asleep in the chair as the audience filed in and took their seats. I’m in this position for about ten to fifteen minutes before the play actually starts, so I have time to ponder many things before my first cue.

For the first two or three shows of the run, I’d use this time to focus on my upcoming lines, to consider any notes I may have had from the director, to regulate my breathing and ready myself for the upcoming performance, as you might imagine, but by now, a week into the run, the play was firmly in my memory and in my body, so my mind is free at these times to take a little wander, so on this evening I sat there planning what I might say in this very column, among other things.

The audience see me, dressed as a cowboy (“Like the brooding figure of Death in a Stetson” said one reviewer, I’m strangely proud to say) but they would probably be confused if they could hear what runs through my mind.

On this particular evening, for instance, I had a persistent ear-worm soundtrack – the song ‘Crush’ by Jennifer Paige, if you must know – and it was all I could do not to sing or hum along, which clearly wouldn’t be appropriate.

I found myself thinking, too, that I wish the audience would hurry and get to their seats quickly as I was sitting in a very chilly draft from the door near to me which opened onto a Soho rooftop; I needed the audience as much for the warmth of their bodies and breath as I needed their artistic appreciation.

And I thank all of you that were there on that chilly night for your warmth! I was just thinking about the hot meal I might have after the show, when the music cue informed that I had to start the show. Game on.

My first action is to get up out of my chair with the music playing, then enter the main body of the set in a moody and imposing walk to herald the ghostly overtones of my character, thence to my second position, where I sit down on top of a TV set at the front of the stage, fold myself up into another cowboy position, switch the TV set off to start the dialogue from the two other actors who have appeared on stage, then sit there, silent and still, but in character, for about 15 minutes before my next cue, so more time for me to slip back into private reverie.

In this second position, I’m practically in the laps of the front row, so I keep my downstage (audience side) eye closed, but I’m free to peer from my other eye and in my very small field of vision I can see, from under the brim of my Stetson, a few legs and feet of our audience.

Tonight’s footwear includes three pairs of sensible court shoes, a very handsome pair of brogue boots that I covet, and a disreputable pair of Nike trainers that were last in fashion in the 80s in Hull.

I can also see a handbag from which an iPhone is sticking out, and I hope that the owner has taken care to switch it off; there are few things more inconsiderate and annoying than a performance interrupted by a call. “It’s just a little crush” sings Jennifer, in my head, and I change my breathing slightly to avert an imminent cough… all good. 

I focus back fully on the play for a second. Still about five minutes till I need to speak, I reckon. Everything seems to be going well, my two colleagues are firing on all cylinders and the audience are rapt and attentive.

We’ve all worked hard for the three weeks of rehearsal and the work shows the characterisations are fully three dimensional, the American accents are spot on; we all know our lines, not just what we’re saying, but why we’re saying them, and the dialogue flows like it’s freshly minted thought.

“I can see a few legs and feet of our audience. Tonight’s footwear includes court shoes, a handsome pair of brogue boots that I covet, and a pair of Nike trainers that were last in fashion in the 80s in Hull”

Speaking of mint, I can see a big sprig of it on top of the ice in a cocktail that sits on the floor next to those handsome brogues in the front row. I hope he doesn’t pick it up and slurp it during one of my speeches. 

My inner thoughts turn back to the subject of the few empty seats I can see. It’s not a full house, then. Mind you, it’s only a couple of days after press night, and the reviews are still filtering in, and word of mouth hasn’t really had time to kick in yet.

I tell myself, it’ll be better next week. I now seem to be listening to “Just a Gigolo” by the great Louis Prima – it’s nothing if not eclectic, my ear worm DJ, and I consciously stop my pointed cowboy boots from tapping the delicious swing rhythm under the nose of the lady nearest my size 11 feet; this is not a musical.

I then ponder what songs you could put in the show if it was. ‘Achy Breaky Heart’? Don’t be daft. Hank Williams might work, Waylon Jennings maybe, or Johnny Cash… I’m also thinking seriously about food again. I’ve got a pack of sushi back in the (communal) dressing room which I shall probably inhale before I leave the theatre to catch the tube home. Yum.

I tune back into the show, unconsciously, from some sort of professional instinct, and I realise my cue is imminent. I feel a low level surge of adrenaline, I look down to check my flies – all secure – I ready myself, my cue arrives, and as I speak my character’s lines and unfurl myself to my full height (plus Cuban heels) and commence my first speech, all other noise and distraction fades away and I’m in the play, happy in my work and rejoicing in my choice of career. Nothing makes me happier.

Hi Diddly Dee