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The little white lie that many authors tell
When I was young I never harboured any desire at all to act - although I actually did so a few times at school - and nor was I exposed to very much in the way of theatre. About twenty years ago, however, I was bitten rather savagely by the live drama bug, and for a while after that I hung around Stratford and the Barbican soaking up virtually everything the Royal Shakespeare Company had to offer. I delved enthusiastically into Shakespeare then, and also started expanding my horizons with the work of other playwrights of virtually every type and from every possible period of dramatic history. I've seen some wonderful productions, and some absolute turkeys; I've seen great actors and bad ones who should never have been allowed on a professional stage; I've seen triumphs and disasters, popular stuff and plays I didn't always understand, and I've sat in auditoria ranging from the Maddermarket in Norwich to the Sydney Opera House. Each of those experiences has taught me something new and interesting about the theatre, and I've absorbed and processed every single one.
I love everything about the theatre. I love being front of house with the velvet curtains, the plush carpets, the excited chatter and the fanning of programmes, but I also love the mechanical stuff - the way the scenery works, the lighting, the sound cues. I love the costumes, the performances, the production design, the props (even when they can't be seen, like the giant invisible phallus toted around the stage by Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek in one production of 'Twelfth Night'), the bits of comedy business, the lot. I've grabbed every opportunity I was offered to take backstage tours of theatres and to examine the way things worked. I've always enjoyed going behind the scenes in places anyway - exploring out-of-the-way corners and forgotten cupboards - and backstage tours are a particular delight; props and weapons politely labelled with the name of the actor using them ("Mr Allam"), black-curtained quick-change booths set up in odd corners where a dresser waits with costume, wig, boots all set out on a chair … and if you accidentally find yourself in certain seats at certain theatres it's also possible, sometimes, to see actors making their quick changes in the wings and to marvel at the composed and methodical way they go about it.
Most of all, I think, I love the way actors can be anything at all the script or the director requires them to be - a clown one week, a villain the next - and the people surrounding them have to behave accordingly. When you're solemnly addressing someone as a mighty monarch, for example, it's no use remembering that he cuts his toenails in the sink or never washes his coffee cup; there is a distinct mental discipline required, and the inside of an actor's mind, with its watertight compartments, must be a fascinating place.
Multiply this by the number of actors in a given company, plus understudies and backstage personnel, and you already have an almost endless variety of permutations. Add in the actors who gain and lose weight for roles, grow beards or moustaches, shave their eyebrows or their body hair; multiply by their personal lives and interrelationships, who they love and who they fear, how well or how badly they behave to one another, and you begin to see a complex and intriguing picture without any clearly-defined borders. And then there are actors who are household-name famous, who would be recognised in the checkout queue at Tesco's or if they happened to pop into the public library; there must be times when they just like to be ordinary, to stay below the radar, to have a quiet meal out or an evening with friends and remind themselves who they are when they're not being Captain This, Inspector That, or the Duke of Whatever. All this adds up to explaining why the theatre rapidly became a world which - as an author - I just couldn't wait to jump into and explore.
But you have to have a place to start. You need a picture in your mind of your main protagonist; who is he (or indeed she), who are his friends, and if he's an actor what parts does he play? How well known is he? How successful? That's where the little white lie comes in - if that's what it is - because as far as I'm concerned every character ever written is at the very least 'inspired by' someone and probably shares a few of the more publicly-recognisable traits of their personality, and in my case this is particularly so with STAGE WHISPERS. Every copy has a disclaimer at the beginning: 'Characters and situations in this book are fictional and not intended to portray real persons or situations whatsoever; any resemblances to living individuals are entirely coincidental.' That's both true - because once we get the characters into our hot little hands whatever happens to them has very little bearing on the real world - and untrue, because characters are often inspired by something or somebody who already exists.
I'm not suggesting STAGE WHISPERS is packed with thinly-concealed portraits of real-life actors, but in my mind's eye I know who they all are and I can also hear their voices - which is true of many other authors I've talked to as well. It's not unprecedented, obviously; Jane Austen and the Brontës based characters in their books on people they knew, and no doubt so has every other author since the dawn of time - simply because it's easier to remember than to invent from scratch, and this is anyway a rare case in which mis-remembering something can be positively constructive!
So although it may amuse people to try to identify originals for some of my characters, I'm probably not going to confirm or deny anything. One friend of mine, having read STAGE WHISPERS at an early stage, confidently said that Actor X definitely wasn't in it - whereas he definitely is, large as life and every bit as unlikeable. If you had a list of every film, play and TV show I've seen since the 1990s you might be in with a chance of identifying people, but that really isn't the point. The point is that - no matter where characters have their origins - once they find their way onto the page they are altered so irrevocably that they are no longer the people they were. Bolted together Frankenstein-like, from bits and pieces of other people, they assume a life of their own; they go off and wreak havoc in their world, and there is little or nothing an author can do to control them.
Fiction writing is a form of role-playing, a chance to be somebody one isn't in the real world. I don't suppose I would ever have made a professional actor - or even a decent amateur - but in writing about the theatre I had a wonderful chance to immerse myself in it completely and live in that world for the best part of a year; that's all the role-playing I need. Writing is hard work, and it's absolutely vital to be able to write about a subject one enjoys exploring; that was very much the case for me with STAGE WHISPERS, and I can only hope it shows in the end result!
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