Been doing a lot more writing than acting this year. Apart from two outings for the Men Without Friends triptych at Hove Grown and more recently Stroud (that's Matusow in the pic, at the British School on 1st Oct) , I've been somewhat short of offers to perform in other people's shows.
Annoying, undeniably, and yet a blessing simultaneously, it having left me free to proceed with projects that might otherwise have been disrupted by line-learning regimes. Topmost among these projects has been my musical based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes.
As you'll guess from the history of its working titles (first Fashion!, more recently Alchemy!), it's a fairly free adaptation. There again, Andersen doesn't give you all that much to work with. Some of his stories are immensely lengthy, while others, such as Clothes, are surprisingly slight. I'm not complaining, mind; on the contrary, I feel it gives me quite a lot of licence.
I've never written a musical before. I did write the book for a show called Miss Givings, weaving a story around a selection of great American songs sung by soprano Debbie Bridge; however, though I've written a few songs of my own, I've never performed any of them in public, nor have I ever before been compelled to create so many songs in such a short space of time. Not, of course, that I have to do anything; any deadline I have is entirely self-imposed. Nevertheless, I gave myself the length of this year to do the thing, and if it's not complete in about eight weeks (Jesus - where does the time go?!!?!!?!"?!!!?), I'll be very disappointed in myself.
Anyway, I've been seeking help and inspiration from various sources, including an excellent Musical Theatre Singing Course at the Academy of Creative Training, under the tutelage of Lesley McClymont. Of course, that's really about my professional development as an actor, but I can already feel my confidence as a songwriter grow with my confidence as a singer. More specifically I've been seeking to learn from the greats, hoovering up any and all musicals on CD and DVD, as well as reading useful literature by those who know. Right now I'm a little way into Tunesmith, an extremely well-constructed, user-friendly guide to the craft by the legendary Jimmy Webb, author of such greats as Wichita Lineman, Galveston, Up Up and Away and Macarthur Park - and yes, I'm aware that there are many who pour scorn on the last of those titles, but I think it the most magnificent of songs. Indeed, in my home town of Brighton I've been privileged to hear it performed live by two of my idols, Mr Andy Williams and Mr Jimmy 'that's right, the man himself' Webb. I even got to hear them do it for free, in return for writing 'em up for the local 'paper. Both of those reviews are reproduced on this very website here.
In closing, here's an interesting point that Mr Webb makes in passing. Songs, he observes, for the most part are made up of lines that rhyme, However, it's not always so. For instance, he notes, Paul Simon's America doesn't rhyme at all. "What?!???!?" I said. "America? Doesn't rhyme?"
Y'know what's funny, though? He's right. It doesn't. Not once. Check it out and see.
No, I've not been sent to prison. Not yet. Not that kind of "inside". Nevertheless, it does occur to me, as the weather turns prematurely autumnal, that I've spent rather too much of the summer admiring the sunshine from indoors. But then, I do that most summers, because I'm a writer.
I went once to a student press event in London - David Puttnam was launching his Cambodian film epic The Killing Fields - and I remember Bruce Robinson (who'd written the script) saying that the life of a writer is a very lonely one. He was right about that, but he might've mentioned too that it's also one spent largely in shadow. Well, mine is, at least. Whenever I've got a project at a stage where I can scribble all over a print-out, I like to take it outside and work on it - usually on a bench outside the church opposite my flat, or, if I'm at my pop's place in Eastbourne, then I'll work on it in the garden there (only problem being the ease of distraction - "Ooh, I'll just do a bit of weeding..."). More often than not, though, a project will require me to be indoors and chained to the computer.
This summer, of course, the thing keeping me indoors has been Fashion!, my working-titled musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes. It's robbed me of the summer, but at least now, having just completed the second draft and done a print-out, I might yet get to soak up a few rays as I slash and burn what's on the 100 or so pages before me.
P.S. I'm humbly aware (and doubtless Bruce Robinson is too) that the minor travails of the middle-class English writer are nothing compared to the problem of having your country bombed to shit by the Americans, then taken over by a bunch of sociopathic communists so far to the left that they end up round the other side of the circle and exterminate somewhere between 1.5 and 3 million people. Still, it's all relative.
Actually, now I come to look at that headline, I'm not sure what the "win some" might allude to. Maybe, after the horrors of the past couple of months - terror attacks and towering infernos - it's something of a win just to be alive to enjoy the unseasonal summer sunshine (unseasonal for the UK, I mean).
Yeah, maybe. On the other hand, it's not as if I've not got stuff to bitch about. Just last night I learned, at the monthly meeting of the Sussex Playwrights, that I'd failed to win the Constance Cox Award with my radio play Will. Still, at least I can take comfort from the fact that the first prize went instead to my friend John Dutton. No, really, I mean it, I'm delighted for him; it's just the second and third prize-winners I want to kill.
Anyway, it was nice to be shortlisted - which is more than I can say for my attempt to get into the company currently being assembled by the Kevin Spacey Foundation. Still, I won't be the only one to have learnt today that they're not getting a recall.
Watching my rivals do their pieces at the workshop audition a coupla weeks back, I was both inspired and depressed: no-one was shit, and most were much, much better than "not shit" - many were truly brilliant, in fact. Inspiring, yes, but depressing, too; not only because of the personal competition, but also because it so starkly underlines the injustice in our industry. So much paid work gets divided up among so few actors - and so very needlessly so, when there are people, including those I auditioned with, struggling to get as much as a little toe in the door.
Still cheer up, eh, Robert? There is stuff to grin about. Yes, it's true. In the writerly realm, I spent last week completing a first draft of my insanely ambitious Fashion! project (a musical adaptation of The Emperor's New Clothes), and I wrote a short story for the Brighton Prize competition. Added to which, yesterday morning I saw myself on the big screen at the Duke of York's Picture House, playing a detective in the thriller Angel on the Ceiling (that's me in the picture, without the beard). Written and directed by my friend Simon Drake, it's been a long time in the making - more than two years' shooting (I did my scenes just before Christmas 2012) and as much again in post-production. Glad to say it was worth the wait. I'm very proud to have been involved, and I wish hearty good luck to Simon and his collaborators in getting it seen now by the wider world.
Last week I went to London for an audition.
It was for a touring production of Hamlet, and if I'd got in, I'd've been playing both Claudius and the ghost of his murdered brother, Hamlet Sr. How "cool" (as they say) would that have been - to have triumphed in a one-man show about Hamlet's uncle, and then to have been cast to play the same role in Shakespeare's original!
Well, of course, it didn't happen - even though the audition, at least on the acting side, couldn't have gone any better. Granted, I stank fairly badly in playing the tin whistle, but then bringing an instrument was always an optional extra; as far as the compulsory elements went, I've every reason to think I impressed in the designated speech from the play (Claudius trying and failing in his attempt at prayer), in my own-choice bit of Shakespeare (Prince Hal's denunciation of Falstaff), and even in my a capela singing of ye ole sea shanty Liverpool Judies. Certainly, the three-person panel couldn't have been more attentive or supportive; there was nothing in their demeanour to suggest that I wouldn't at least get a call-back.
And that's the thing: people in these situations are so very brilliant at giving almost nothing away.
It occurs to me, looking back now on this and so many other auditions, that the situation is very much like the scene in 10 Rillington Place where Timothy Evans (John Hurt), awaiting execution at Pentonville Prison, goes before a panel of men with the power to save him. I don't recall specifically who these men may be - psychiatrists, perchance - but anyway, Evans is due to hang for killing his wife and daughter, and in the meeting he attempts to convince the panel that the slayings were in fact the work of his landlord John Christie (as brilliantly played by Dickie Attenborough). "It was Christie done it", he says - he keeps on repeating that "Christie done it", and the men soothingly respond, "Yes, old chap, we understand", or words to that effect. They really couldn't be nicer - and yet of course, once he's out of the room, they confer briefly before concluding that no, there's no reason to prevent "justice" from taking its course.
And that's just what it's like in auditions: you do your thing, they're really nice to you, and then they hang you.
Since my last confession I've put myself through the unenviable task of re-learning three one-man shows and performing them on succeeding nights at the Hove Grown festival.
Actually, it wasn't quite as big a deal as I spin it, all three shows - High Vis, Something Rotten and The Trials of Harvey Matusow - having been on the slate at various times during the past year, so that none of them was the subject of a full-on re-learn from scratch.
Quite a challenge, all the same - and that was the point: I wasn't expecting massive audiences, but if I could stage three different shows over three nights and do it without hitch, that would be reward enough. Of course, I owe big thanks to Sarah and Guy, the organisers, for making such a venture affordable - the participation fee was tiny compared to, say, the Brighton Fringe (and oy, don't get me started on Edinburgh).
Hove Grown is primarily about new work, but I was allowed a bit of licence, repackaging these three pre-existent shows under the umbrella title Men Without Friends - a title which seemed to me to reflect my strange affinity for unpopular protagonists. In the end, some of my men proved more friendless than others: Quint the traffic warden and McCarthyite supergrass Harvey Matusow drew decent crowds, but King Claudius of Denmark proved less popular; nevertheless, from my angle, Something Rotten was the most accomplished performance - perhaps (who knows?) because it was the only one of the three that got a full dress rehearsal in the space earlier in the day.
Anyway, those who attended were vocal in their appreciation, and as well as thanking my indefatigable consort Jenny Rowe for her brilliant work on the techie front, hats are off to some equally indefatigable punters - for instance in this snap from High Vis Wednesday, we see not only Quint McBride but also Clare Ryan (stripey top), who's seen all my shows along with hubby Steve, and fellow Hove Grown performer Murray Hecht (shiny head), who saw all my shows THAT VERY WEEK!!! The other illustrations herewith show me giving a taster of Something Rotten at the HG launch do (no, that banner wasn't there during the actual performance), and, in costume and character as Matusow, promoting the festival to a dedicated audience of shoppers in George Street, Hove.
Like the George Street shoppers, the press proved hard to entice to the performances; however, Simon Jenner was good enough to come and see The Trials of Harvey Matusow on behalf of Fringe Review, reassessing the show for the body which six years ago accorded it an Outstanding Theatre Award (and teapot). It was more than a little cheering to have him describe Matusow, in summation, as "Cohen’s first masterpiece".
Also cheering, by the way, is the news that FringeReview mastermind Paul Levy, lately afflicted by some serious ill health, is now well on the road to recovery.
Herewith find a few pictures taken a little before Christmas, when I spent a day in Deptford as Claudius of Denmark.
Working with Roger Elsgood and Willi Richards of Art & Adventure Productions, I recorded an audio version of Something Rotten, destined in time to be broadcast on the London-based arts radio station Resonance FM.
A&A's USP is a commitment to on-location recording - their projects have taken them all over the world - but, this being a somewhat low-budget production, it was necessary to find a location that could provide the atmos of Elsinore without our actually leaving the country (or indeed the capital). If not quite a Danish castle, the Master Shipwright's house in Deptford nevertheless exudes a powerful sense of history. Once at the heart of the workings of the adjacent Royal Shipyard, the house was apparently a regular haunt of Samuel Pepys during his employment at the Admiralty.
A long process of restoration being in train, the house's bare floorboards and exposed brick walls provided what should hopefully prove to be the perfect aural background to the on-mic ups and downs of King Claudius's brief time on the Danish throne. I say "hopefully" because Resonance have yet to specify a TX date for the play - perhaps in no small part because the file through which it might be broadcast is currently MIA - lost on an engineer's laptop, Roger grumblingly informs me. He's fairly hopeful that it'll turn up again, and I've no choice but to share his confidence.
Watch this space, as they say...
Yes, it's true: this Friday, Donald Trump gets sworn in as President of the US. Too much already written by too many bleating liberals on this subject, so I won't add to the bleating. Well, not much. It's a strange state of affairs, though, when you find yourself looking back in relative fondness on such as Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon; certainly, if the election campaign's anything to go by, I can't help feeling that Mr Reality's incumbency is likely to make Ronnie and Dickie scrub up by comparison like a couple of latter-day Abe Lincolns.
Still, every cloud, they say, has a silver lining, and for me (me! me! me!) it's the new relevance of my one-man show The Trials of Harvey Matusow. When, last spring, I was approached by a coupla profs from Sussex Uni (home of Matusow's archives) to consider doing some Harvey-related stuff in November's Being Human festival, none of us could have imagined just how topical the story of "America's most notorious liar" would come to seem. Back then, in early May, it seemed inconceivable that Trump would even get the Republican nomination; by late November, when I joined Doctors Doug Haynes and Diarmuid Hester to tell the story of Matusow over the course of a discussion evening and a performance of my play (that's "Harvey" and Diarmuid in the pic), Trump was President-Elect.
Whatever the shortcomings of Mrs Clinton (and it's too easy just to say that everyone against her was a woman-hating fascist), the fact remains that, over the course of the campaign, bad press was to Trump as flies to dogshit - and yet nothing, it seemed, could keep those who'd set their hearts on it from giving him their votes. In this is the relevance to Matusow, and, more to the point, his one-time chum Joe McCarthy - for as with Trump, so with McCarthy there were plenty of people questioning the factual accuracy of his red-scare grandstanding (by no means everyone was afraid to attack him), and yet he was twice re-elected to Congress, the second time after he'd been censured by his colleagues in the Senate. But for the fatal intervention of booze on his liver, it might well have been McCarthy instead of Nixon going up against JFK in 1960 - and who can say what nuclear fireworks might have resulted from that?
What craziness is this? Four months since my last confession? Just shows how busy I've been - and not just in my own one-handers.
I spent the festival month of May running from the proverbial pillar to the equally proverbial post as I performed in three shows: I played Aaronow in the award-winning production of Glengarry Glen Ross at the Rialto; I was Alfie in the immersive Hydrocracker/Blast Theory show Operation Black Antler; and I did a week of Something Rotten with Sweet Venues at the Waterfront Hotel.
I'd taken some persuading to do SR in the Fringe, being of the opinion that it's an institution with too many shows and not enough audience - and though I've not entirely relinquished that notion, I was nevertheless pleased to get a week of healthy crowds (OK, so it was only a 30-seater), a bunch of very warm reviews - The Stage invoked the word "superb" - and an Argus Angel Award from the local paper. What care I if they're too cheap to make with an actual, hold-in-your-hand physical award and I have to make do with the words "Argus Angel winner" in the paper? An award's an award.
That all done and dusted, I played Mazzini Dunn in Shaw’s Heartbreak House at the Brighton Open Air Theatre (BOAT), assigning to the character a Welsh accent which, given my half-Welsh heritage, I expected to be a tonguely walk in the park. In fact it was quite the bugger to get right, and yet all the evidence suggests I did so. Actually, there is no evidence to speak of, for though the show was well received by audiences, there wasn’t a single review written.
HH was immediately followed by the part of The Man in Brief Hiatus’s lightning-quick production of The Bacchae, rehearsed in a week and presented for just one blood-drenched night at 88 London Road. I then revisited the role of Quint the traffic warden in my one-hander High Vis, revived for the Stroud Theatre Festival, before diving into rehearsals for The Ugly One, Marius von Mayenburg’s surreal comedy about the use and abuse of human pulchritude. I've been working once again with Pretty Villain, the in-house company at the Rialto, this time under the direction of Lauren Varnfield. She may well be the best director I've yet collaborated with - working in great detail yet having the confidence to allow people to be trying new things all the time.
Anyway, that's me in the picture up top, with Tom Dussek (one of my former real estate colleagues from Glengarry Glen Ross, as it happens).
Among the excellent things that happened during my period of omerta (in fact just a period of insane busy-ness) was an early-spring visit to the Georgian Theatre Royal, in Richmond, N Yorks, there to perform Something Rotten as part of a festival to mark the 400 years since Bill Shakespeare shuffled off his proverbial mortal coil.
Along with the fabulous Jenny Rowe I headed north at the invitation of the GTR’s Clare Allen, who has championed my work ever since I did The Trials of Harvey Matusow at her English Theatre of Bruges back in 2010. I subsequently did High Vis in Skipton when Clare was running the Mart Theatre – known to her daughter Amelie as "Mummy's stinky theatre", owing to the venue’s daytime ID as a sheep market. After a brief period at the Stratford Arts House Clare is now very happily masterminding the Georgian Theatre Royal, a venue not at all “stinky” in spite of its advanced age.
Aside from doing a very warmly-received show at the GTR (“masterful”, quoth the Northern Echo), we got time to see some of the abundant joys of Richmond – which, apart from a tour of the theatre itself (a must-do for any visitor, whether or not you’re planning to see a show), included a perambulation around the walls of the castle (that’s it below there, as seen from our window at Clare’s), and, it being unseasonably warm for April, a leisurely wander along the River Swale to see the ruins of Easby Abbey.
Y’know back in the early ’90s, when Russian cosmonauts returned to Earth in a state of confusion because the Cold War had ended and they were now citizens of a different country (ie the Russian Federation) to the one they’d blasted off from some months before (ie the USSR)? Well, it feels like that returning to this blog for the first time since early April.
It’s easy to exaggerate the enormity and the impact of last month’s vote to leave the EU – and I won’t add to the hysteria – but even so, it’s a pretty big step the UK has voted to take. Though I voted to Remain, I’m not convinced the decision to Leave is going to be an entirely bad thing for the EU as a whole – it may yet shock the thing at last into some serious reform; but there’s little doubt it’s going to be a huge thing for the UK. We’ve already seen a big rise in racist and xenophobic attacks (giving wrongful credence to the idea that every Leave voter was a nazi), and both the main political parties are struggling to emerge from post-Brexit meltdown. Hopefully these aftershocks will pass, and the business of striking the best freelance arrangement can begin, but one thing’s for sure: however things go, the post-Brexit transition will make a lot of work for politicians, civil servants, and, above all, contract lawyers.
Robert Cohen – a man in showbiz so stepp’d in that, should he wade no more, to go back were as tedious as go o’er. These are among his musings.