According to whom you speak to, it was either Sir Donald Wolfit or Dinsdale Landen who coined the immortal phrase ‘I used to be a tour de force. Now I’m forced to tour…’
With running costs high and box office receipts unpredictable, taking a production out on the road is no place for the faint-hearted producer; but it can also be an equally perilous equation for the performer.
I’ve recently finished what has become known as in the business as a ‘Waitrose tour’ - six or seven venues, mostly in the south-east, some with easy commutes and almost all in towns and cities with a strong theatre-going tradition. Touring life doesn’t come much easier than this, yet even so, it’s still a hard knock life, one spent constantly dealing with a mild sense of dislocation.
Running for trains, waiting for lifts, coping with contra flows - and that’s before you’ve even got to the venue. Where am I staying? How do I get there? Where’s the theatre? The local M & S? What’s the pass code for the stage door? Where can I park my car? Will I be able to get home on the Saturday night for a few precious hours at home before careering off again on Monday morning?
The financial ramifications are equally complex, which is why the weekly subsistence allowance, so hard won by our union, is such a lifeline. For commercial tours the weekly rate is currently £250 a week (for subsidised theatre contracts slightly less), but while the sum might seem very appetising when you’re signing your contract, you’ll need every penny of it if you’re going to keep body and soul together while away from home.
For a start you’ll have two homes to support (it’s interesting to note how often flats and apartments on the provincial digs lists seem to cost exactly the same amount as your subsistence). In addition you’ll be eating out more than you’d like, and your days will be spent mooching round shopping centres, watching afternoon screenings of films in deserted multiplexes, and visiting National Trust properties you’ve never heard of. It’s easy to drink too well and eat too poorly.
And then there’s the professional angle to consider. You may be a huge hit in your show and glean wonderful notice from the Derby Advertiser and the Canterbury Evening Post, but don’t kid yourself that the movers and shakers in the business will be there to witness your nightly triumph. With so many jobs now cast from central London and Manchester (many at extremely short notice), it’s often difficult to persuade casting director or producers to travel three stops on the underground to see you at work. Once you’re beyond the M 25, many actors feel they become invisible, until of course, the job finishes and they can resume auditions and interviews back in town. So there’s a price to pay for the 12 weeks of itinerant jollity and regular wage slips.
Of course touring also has magnificent compensations, as I discovered last time round. As well sampling that special sense of camaraderie that only a touring company enjoys, I got to spend days walking the Malvern hills, punting down the Cam, and on one night in Bath, witnessing our elderly and much-loved leading actor perform an impromptu acapella version of My Funny Valentine in a late-night wine bar, one that brought a lump to the throat.
Oh, and the play wasn’t half bad as well…