Man of Steel

A long time ago, when men were men and dinosaurs ruled the earth, while Victoria Vetri was slaying those big lizards dressed (inexplicably) in a bikini I too was a servant of Thespis.

 

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No, not me! Although there might be something in the ears….

Yes, I bestrode the stage.  I was (darlings) a nactor!    

 

No, never in a bikini.

 

I would have done if somebody asked me to.  As an actor, assuming your looks fell short of the Vetri standard, you should be prepared to do anything.

 

Can you sing?

“Yes.”

Dance?

“Yes.”

Ride a horse?

“Errrm  y-y-y-yes.”

Speak Swahili?

“Of course – fluently.”

Wash Dishes?  

“Yes.”

 

Only one of these answers held any truth.  I could wash dishes.   I washed a lot of dishes, I served food on a lot of dishes – in fact, had there been a movie made about waiters, I would have been right there, carrying the dishes.

 

All the other skills I would lie about, study frantically if needed, or pray I wouldn’t actually be asked to do.  To be honest, though, nobody asked me – much.

 

I could mention the time when, directed to perform in a polka scene on a small stage with a troupe of girls in impossibly unwieldy dresses, I was literally crinolined into the orchestra pit.  Or I could mention the musical director for a regional pantomime who, discovering my voice’s true potential moved me first to the back of the chorus and then into the wings.

 

He placed me right next to the maroon which was meant to represent  a cannon shot…

 

“Here we come boys, here we stand,

With every man aboard.

We’ll cut and parry and then riposte,

And parry the old St. George!”  (BOOM!)

 

Plaster shaken from the ceiling, ominous rattling from the fly floor, drums blown from my ears.   Other than the sudden falsetto I hit (possibly the result of shock) the rest of my contribution to the song was a sort of improvised descant.  I was removed from the choir altogether for the next performance.

I could mention these, and other humiliations, but I won’t.  They still hurt.

 

So, like most actors, I had lots of jobs.   (How do you address a RADA Graduate? –  Big Mac and medium fries, please.) 

 

I drove taxis, I washed dishes, I made beds, I served dishes, I delivered milk, I cleared dishes.  Hotels and their darker subterranean regions were the stuff of life for me.  All for the occasional privilege of standing on stage with a big fan or similar prop while a nubile cast of dancers pranced through ‘Sleeping Beauty’, or making the odd appearance in a very minor part – which I could be relied upon to make even less important.

 

It took two years for the rose tint in my spectacles to turn a sort of rancid brown – an indecently long time in a young life.  Eventually I realized the stage was not for me because, in common with most very average actors, I was scarcely ever on it.  

 

I remember my Damascene moment.

 

A steel stockholders had been charitable enough to employ me and foolish enough to let me drive a crane.   A steel stockholder is a sort of wholesaler for girders – a vast shed where thousands of tons of heavy steel in various forms is stored before delivery to big construction sites. 

 

My job in a beam crane was to move stock up and down the long bays, either to lorries for delivery or between the welding benches upon which huge industrial size roof trusses were assembled.   Heavy industrial tools – drills, saws, reamers lined these bays.

 

This particular morning the piece of work on the benches in my bay was a truly massive truss, only just within the weight capabilities of my crane.  In sheer span it was wider than the bay.  At its apex it probably stood about twelve feet high. 

This monster had to be lifted to be transferred from the welding benches to the drilling bench, a matter of about forty feet further down the bay.   From my position in the crane cab, up in the warehouse roof, I could not see the clearance on my side of the bay.  Lifted, the truss was so long it extended beneath the cab. 

With guidance from a guy on the floor, I lifted and worked the piece gradually down towards the drilling bench.  My crane bogeys were grinding and slewing on their rails and I had visions of becoming derailed (which would have sent me, the crane and a lot of other gumph plunging thirty-odd feet to the warehouse floor).

Reaching the drilling bench, I stopped the crane’s lateral movement (or at least I thought I did) and began to send the carrier out far enough to swing the truss around, end on, so the drills could reach the part of the work where holes were required.  

 

As it lowered to his bench, the drill operative – a really nice guy in his fifties – took hold of the lower strut of the truss, intending to guide it a few final inches.  But the truss had not stopped swinging!   Why?  Because my crane had not stopped travelling.  The sheer weight of the piece was acting like a pendulum, keeping it in motion.

 

What made him hold on, I don’t know.  Some instinct for preservation, like the mechanism which keeps us clinging to the boat even though it is clearly sinking?  Whatever it was it kept him clutching desperately to that strut until some inner warning (or some shouted one) made him release it, less than a second before it hit the control panel of the drill and the whole truss went live.    Sparks flew, every machine in the warehouse stuttered and died.

 

That was the day I finally decided I was not cut out to be an actor.  Because pursuing my dream actually involved very little acting, and instead placed me in several occupations for which I was clearly ill-equipped.

 

Because I wanted to see those who were unfortunate enough to have to work beside me in those positions kept safe, and see a lot of very nice people like that drill operative go safely home to their families each night.

 

To be or not to be?  No – on balance, maybe not.

 

 

Within the Stranger

This is about characters.  I don’t know about you, but my stories begin with a character, then what befalls that person and that person’s actions, thoughts, whatever, becomes the plot.   Which means that the character has to be three-dimensional – a ‘real’, complete person. Which is where so many stories come apart.

My hard-drive is brimming with tales that started off as bravely as a Perkins diesel on a cold morning, only to splutter into archive after a few pages, or a chapter or two.  Why?  I fell out of love with the character.  I was not convinced by him (or her).  He did not ring true.

So were they not ‘real’ people?  Where was the resource that spawned Melissa, or Kieran, or Gavin?  Was the character someone I knew, or a mixture of people I have seen, remembered, possibly hated in the past?   Did I meet them in a pub, teach them once, or was I taught by them?  Where or how did they let me down?  What was missing?

This sets a thought in train:  how well did I know my character?   When I painted them, did I see their faces, the way they walked, their mannerisms; did I know their voices in the dark?  OF course I did – otherwise how could I write anything about them?  But it wasn’t enough.

To convince a reader I must go beyond superficial description and totally immerse them in that character; build a figure in their mind so real and substantial they might walk in through their door at any moment.  I think I am learning that to achieve this perceptible depth is not enough.  When I meet someone who intrigues me by a cast of their eye, perhaps, or a quirk of speech that draws me to them, it is easy to learn just so much about them, and no more.  I might spend half a life with someone without knowing how they would react if a gunman burst in, or they were accosted in the midst of their happy marriage by a sensual stranger.  I might think I do, and be completely wrong.  That will stand out for me like a beacon light from a false or a dishonest script.  And I will trash them just because of that.

There is another, deeper layer to explore before writing this person to a page.  Behind the face the world sees, behind the figure they themselves see, is an unexplored darkness I must find and bring forth, because that is where the drama lies.  That is the oxygen of a story.   How to enter that darkness is the essence and I think the only answer – the unwelcome answer, because not all my characters are likeable and some are downright evil – is to write a little of myself into that face.

Now personally I don’t believe in the dictum which says you should only write about yourself and the things you know.  That results in a stultifying parade of novels in which the hero is a middle-aged writer and besides, half the joy of writing is in learning and acquiring the new.  So the skill is to incorporate elements – just enough – like the character actor who brings forth Scrooge, or Shylock, or Miss Marple from something that is inside.   If I reach that essential element the result will be a true one – the performance will be as good as my humble abilities can make it.mrror pose

I’m reminded that Dickens would act out his characters.  He had a mirror in his room and spent a great deal of time playing out each one, studying the figure reflected in the glass.  A lot of his dialogue grew that way.   Maybe I should buy a mirror?