Monday, 7 January 2013

Tears, Tensions and Illicit Indiscretions

Touring can be hard. You are away from your friends, your family and you end up spending pretty much all of your time with your colleagues. I live in London and when I do a show here I do socialise with my companies but I don’t spend nearly as much time with them as I do with a company who I am out on the road with. When touring, your colleagues can become the first people you see in the morning and the last people you see at night. They are the people you drink with, eat with, laugh with and fight with.

Your touring colleagues can become just like your family. (Except you would never go on a night out in Sunderland with your family, chuck back too many tequila shots and end up in bed with your brother.)

I am about to embark on a tour and this one is a long one. Seven months going around the country with a group of people who were total strangers to me a matter of weeks ago but who will soon be the people who I turn to if I am homesick and who I arrange to see during the day when I am bored. My usual broad network of friends which feels large and varied will shrink quickly to the very limited social circle of my touring workmates. People Who Work In Theatre often describe being within a touring company as being ‘in a bubble’ which is definitely true.

A big, boozy bubble just floating around the country; drifting in and out of theatres, pubs and a variety of National Trust parks. (I’m not really a fan of the gardens but you can’t beat a stately home. Plus the cafes in them usually do a decent slice of Battenberg.)

As much as this beer-filled bubble can be pretty claustrophobic, the friendships which blossom within it can often end up a lot stronger than the connections which are made when doing a show in the city where you permanently reside. You get to know each other on a deeper level when you are out on the road. At a theatre in London I see my cast and stage management team for just a few hours each night. And after the show, people are eager to go home to see their partners, kiss their kids or take in three more back-to-back episodes of whichever DVD boxset they are charging their way through. However, on the road it is likely that during the day you have met with someone from your company for a coffee, a swimming session or an Orange Wednesday pizza/film.  And then once the show is done, people are always up for trying out a decent boozer or all trundling back to your shared house/flat for wine, pizza and an iPlayer catch up.

It is an element of the touring life which I really relish and I have formed very important and solid friendships from being out on the road. But just as this lovely little bubble can waft around the UK, buoyed by a gentle breeze, the isolation which comes from being held within the confines of this capsule lifestyle can be quite intense. Just as you may develop a sturdy alliance to someone because you are seeing them a lot, you may also find that peoples habits or personality traits can grate on you a lot more when you are in each other’s faces, pockets and pokey little dressing rooms.

It is an intense experience and having gone around the UK a few times now, I have worked out some coping strategies which can help me to keep the bubble floating as opposed to just having it burst due to stress, frustration and my loss of patience with someone who insists on repeatedly helping themselves to whatever (clearly labelled) Show Food they find in the green room fridge. (This incident mixed with cold, wretched digs, a stubbed toe and a lost phone charger led to the now infamous Colchester Tantrum  of 2007.)

Just as I can guarantee that you will find a Sports Direct mug in every Green Room round the country, I can also confidently state that It is unlikely that you will get through a long tour without some tears, tensions and illicit indiscretions. But I now do the following things to try and prevent them.

Firstly, during rehearsals it can be tempting to rashly suggest ‘Let’s ALL get digs together for the WHOLE tour.’ I usually book my own digs for the first few weeks until I have a grasp on who exactly I get on with. This generally means other people from the SM/backstage team. In the past I have stayed with cast members and found that even when drinking a bottle of wine in front of the box, I inevitably hear the words ‘I know you’re not at work now but…’ or ‘I do hate to talk shop…’

Tell you what, if you hate talking shop so much then don’t talk shop. In fact, don’t fucking talk. Night Cops is on.

I could probably write several thousand words on digs and no doubt soon will but sadly, digs are unpredictable and unless they are being recommended to you it is impossible to guarantee the quality. Even the decent ones can cause you issues. I once stayed in a very fancy house in Leicester;  stunningly beautiful bedroom with all mod-cons and a luxury bathroom. Sadly the clearly expensive shower not only had a large square shower head but also several jets which were built into the shower walls and gushed water out horizontally. The landlord of my digs was a strapping six foot seven bloke and these additional shower heads obviously washed his torso. But when I stepped my five foot three bod inside and hit the taps, I experienced what can only be described as waterboarding as the jets hit my eyes, nostrils, mouth and ears. Gasping and spluttering I spun around only to discover that the water sources went around me a full 360 degrees. In a blind panic I flailed about for the taps but only succeeded in making the water icy cold. The only thing I could do was duck down to a crouching position and finally get the water to stop. I mentioned this to my landlord who apologetically explained to me that he would have to pay for the engineer who installed it to come out and change the settings. Obviously I didn’t want to cause him trouble so resigned myself to crouching, Gollum-like, in the bottom of the cubicle for the entire week.

In a future post I will expand on the Do’s and Don’t’s of Digs but for now, all I will say is go with your gut instinct. If your phone call to book them is uncomfortable then don’t stay there. It’s really not worth it. Any places with lots of rules or regulations will also cause you bother and unease. Bad digs can be a huge contributing factor to how much you enjoy a tour and appropriate time and effort should be put into finding where you will reside. Booking last minute or in a rush can uncover real gems but it can also land you on a lumpy futon with a right wing housewife and several moulting cats.

But enough about digs. I have a feeling that you will be hearing more about my extensive opinions, advice and anecdotes so let’s get back to the touring thing.

I find that it is possible to get some kind of routine when touring and any kind of familiarity can really assist with dealing with the chaotic and unsettled lifestyle. Even if it is just having a weekly ritual. For me, once a week I like a Nando’s and a movie. The only good thing about globalisation in our country is that, when you are on the road, every single town is guaranteed to offer you a Nando’s and an Odeon. So even though you are in a different place every seven days you can still hold on to some kind of familiarity. Even if that familiarity is a lemon and herb chicken pitta with a side of fries and some Wild Herb sauce, followed by a darkened cinema auditorium and a small packet of sweet popcorn.

I asked on Twitter what advice people had and some people suggested ear plugs and eye-masks for when you are staying in those places with transparent curtains and paper-thin walls. I also got suggestions for apps which I have downloaded.

Yes I was downloading apps at quarter at four in the morning. What of it?

But mostly people said that they tried to make the time precious and just enjoyed it. Touring admittedly is not for everyone and I had the unfortunate experience a few years ago when I discovered that I was not built for tour bus touring, (sleeping in a carpeted coffin each night was not for me) but I really am going to do everything I can to savour this escapade.

So is the old saying true? What goes on tour, stays on tour?

Personally, I hope I manage to bring something home with me.
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  1. 7 months is so long! I had to work away for 3 months (only mon-fri, though)with someone I already knew well, and we ended up nearly murdering each other! =P

    Perhaps you could use Twitter to, maybe, challenge yourself to make friends with a follower from the area you're visiting? At least you'd mix up the people you meet, that way!

    Really enjoying reading the posts still. Loving your work!

  2. 15 years running English TOURING Theatre and I'm here to certify that everything that Jess says is true... And the rest.


  3. Very, very interesting. Thank you!
    It'd be awesome if you were to post a sort of diary of your adventures on tour... if you've got time and you're not too tired.
    Oh... and lovely apps you've got there. ;)
    Have fun!