These are some reflections on fame that have occurred to me after being present for The Old Vic (London) production of Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ four times, and lining up at the Stage Door on several occasions, and some comments on the production itself. Not a rant. More of a ramble. A long and winding ramble.
I admit to knowing nothing about the play before seeing it, and booking my first ticket because it starred Richard Armitage, one of my very favourite actors. All I knew was that it depicted Salem, Massachusetts, amidst its witch-hunting madness. I cried the first time. In the courtroom scene, Jack Ellis as Deputy Governor Danforth so terrified me that my stomach was in knots of anguish, and I actually wanted to cry out ‘No! Stop! This is wrong! Can’t you see what’s happening?’ When he explains the facts of witchcraft cases, where there are no witnesses, and you have only the testimony of the victim, he asks “What is left for a lawyer to bring out?” The logic there is so apt for the time, yet so warped by today’s standards that I was just dumbfounded. I felt like I was floundering for an answer. Well, the second time I saw it, I could have cheered when he entered, because he so gripped me that I knew I was in for a hell of a ride.
Samantha Colley as accuser Abigail Williams, and Anna Madeley as Elizabeth Proctor also made strong impressions on me, for very different reasons. Samantha was totally fearless and unforgiving, yet nuanced and scheming. Anna was subdued and sombre, showing little appearance of emotion until the end, when Elizabeth confesses to feeling uncertain of how to show her love for her husband, when she sees herself as “so plain and poorly made” that she didn’t believe she was worthy of “any honest love”. As we come to understand that John Proctor truly does love and treasure his wife, the awareness of their lost opportunities is incredibly poignant.
At first, I assumed that the play would be a starring vehicle for Richard Armitage, with the other actors in supporting roles. Partway through the courtroom scene that first time, it dawned on me that Richard hadn’t been on stage for quite some time, and although I love him to bits, I hadn’t missed him for a second. Because the other cast members were so completely ‘in’ their characters and the dialogue that I was dragged along by the hair and the guts with them. I think as soon as I left, I realised that I wanted to see it again, very much. Not because of Richard, but because of everything. Every aspect of the production.
This serves as an introduction to my thoughts about fame. My first visit was to a matinee. I returned at the end of that evening’s show to line up at the Stage Door, hoping for an autograph from Richard, and maybe a photo. I got an autograph, but while waiting in line, it was strange to see the other cast leave the theatre with little notice from the ‘fans’. Admittedly, I’d been sitting right up the top in a restricted view seat so I had trouble recognising some of them out of costume, especially the women who all looked quite similar from that distance, until removing their head coverings. But it was strange. We were lining up for this ‘star’ as if he’d done a solo performance and everyone else on stage was simply support crew. I recognised Jack Ellis leaving, that night, and felt a wave of new fangirl delight, and sadness because I couldn’t leave the line to speak to him. I live in London, so I could easily have turned up one night in the previous weeks for an autograph before this. But as I hadn’t then seen the play, I felt that I had not yet earned the right to ask.
I think it was three occasions after this that I went to the theatre in the afternoon, hoping to see some of the cast as they arrived. I had a notion that until they entered the theatre, they might still be in ‘real-world’ mode, and feel alright about talking to people. Plus, I’m pretty good at being nice and polite, remaining aware that I’m asking for a favour that they’re not obliged to grant. Although not having worked in professional theatre, I have been involved in amateur productions (as a musical director) and this matched my own feelings when arriving for a performance – once I get inside the building, let me do my thing, but before that, the preparation hasn’t really begun.
I met numerous cast members, and sometimes there were one or two other fans waiting as well. I remember the delightful Chris Godwin (Judge Hathorne) who had smiles and good humour for us all. He drives an old car and I had the clever idea to ask him about it. I complimented it, asked its age, and we were rewarded with a laughing tale of how he came to own it (the previous owner once ran out of petrol, and left it in their garage intending to buy fuel, but twelve years later they still hadn’t, so sold it). Because we were polite and respectful, he gave us a moment of his time and happily signed autographs and posed for photos. The beautiful and delightful Marama Corlett, who contorts her body so frighteningly as Betty Parriss, arrived, and I asked for an autograph on my ticket. She asked who to make it out to, and wrote ‘To dear Lyla, thank you, love Marama Corlett x’. I mentioned that my friend and I had thought she must be a dancer to move her body like that, and she said yes, she used to be. She also looked me up and down (not in a weird way) and asked if I’m a dancer (I’m a lot taller than her, have a long neck and relatively slim, but alas not a dancer). Perhaps my guessing that she’s a dancer is something that a dancer would say..? She did not give the impression of being in a hurry to get inside, and seemed genuinely pleased to receive our compliments. William Gaunt (Giles Corey) and Ann Firbank were lovely and happy to give a couple of minutes to well-wishers. One night I decided to tell Ann that her performance reminded me of Katharine Hepburn because of her character’s inner strength and stoicism, and she thanked me, remarking that Hepburn was “one of my gods”. I was thrilled to meet Anna Madeley one afternoon, and see her beautiful smile lighting up her face, after watching Elizabeth’s seriousness. She even asked the stage-door-man what time Jack was likely to arrive for me.
Speaking of the brilliant Jack Ellis, I am lucky to have spoken to him twice. On the penultimate night I lined up solely to see him and was able to speak to him briefly.
But Richard, on the other hand…
While I can genuinely say that I ‘met’ Jack, Samantha, Anna, Chris and Marama (not so as they’d remember me, though, obviously), I can’t possibly say that I ‘met’ Richard. He very generously gave his time to fans after every single evening performance (six days a week), signing autographs, posing for photos and accepting gifts. But fans are lucky to make eye contact with him, unless it’s down a camera lens, as he tries to autograph as much as possible. That’s not ‘meeting’ someone. His bodyguards gently ushered him along the line, trying to keep fans in order and off the road, but often had to cut short his time when people began swarming and standing on the road. On Friday night, when I arrived early to wait right at the Stage Door for Jack, I got to talk to these friendly gentlemen. One of them explained to me the situation: because the theatre doesn’t own the footpath, they can get in trouble from the council if they seem to be taking over and disrupting public space. It’s also a residential street on the Stage Door side. So if they don’t behave themselves, the council could stop them from allowing people to be there at all. There are apparently police patrols around there at times, too, watching them. Also, in the modern climate of litigation and blame-placing, the theatre is at risk of being sued if someone gets hit by a car while trying to meet a star.
I lined up again after closing night, as I had a letter for him on behalf of a Facebook fan group. Being in the stalls, I managed to exit through a side door pretty quickly after the bows, but, as usual, many fans had arrived well before the end just to line up (and probably more for the closing night). Hurrying away from the Stage Door, the end of the line was now around the corner, in front of the theatre. And it wasn’t even a ‘line’ now. It was a crowd. I saw one of the bodyguards, Ola, pass and remind everyone to stay against the wall. I asked helplessly if he thought Richard would make it this far, and he said he thought he’d try. But looking around me, I think I knew it wouldn’t be a positive experience before it happened.
We didn’t actually have to wait very long. Richard seemed to appear very quickly after the end of the play, and before we knew it he was suddenly at the corner. His bodyguards were actually pushing through people to make a path for him, heading straight for the front door of the theatre, and they didn’t return. They passed within about a metre from me, but the only way I could have given Richard or Ola my letter would have been through aggression and shoving someone else, so tightly packed were we at that point, and I’m just not like that. It was awful, and it made me so very sad.
Those of us present at any performance had cried, laughed a bit, and had our minds challenged and our hearts broken by the cast. Every minute of the play was emotional and thought-provoking. There are two mentions of ‘stone’ in the play, that I recall. John Proctor says, in anguish, to Elizabeth in Act II something like ‘if I were stone I would have cracked for shame this seven-month’. In Act IV, Danforth urges Elizabeth to convince John to confess, and her lack of outward emotion leads him to shout “Are you stone, woman? An ape would weep at such calamity.” Whatever may have been in the hearts of audiences taking their seats in The Old Vic this summer, there could certainly have been no stones unshattered three-and-a-half hours later.
And this is why the chaos at the Stage Door so appalled and upset me. Yes, I’d been part of it on other nights, although the line in the side street was well-behaved when I saw it, and quietly gave their thanks to Richard and let him move on. But the swarm of people around him on Saturday… He became a commodity that we all wanted a piece of, like the latest iPhone, or a packet of Tim-Tams at afternoon tea, rather than a person we respected and a performer whose work we cherished. There was no love there, no heart, and not much respect. After the shock had diminished, I returned to the Stage Door (wondering what to do with my letter). A new friend I’d met via the Facebook group joined me. We were able to speak to Samantha Colley as she exited and she offered to take it for us. I clearly remember seeing Jack standing there in the parking spot, looking perfectly comfortable to spend time amongst the fans, as no-one was being a nuisance.
I spoke to him again then, and I think he might have remembered me, because he asked how many times I’d seen it. He also asked if I thought that night was the best, and listened while I explained that I couldn’t tell, because sitting in such vastly different seats (up in the gods compared to the second row) makes it seem almost a different production. He said that he found that interesting, and seemed genuinely complimented when I expressed how much I’ve enjoyed watching his scenes, and how much he terrifies me. He even smiled when I asked gingerly if I could touch his jacket (it was black velvet, and I’m a total sensualist), and he agreed that he likes velvet too. He even answered thoughtfully and honestly when I asked if he knew whether another of the bodyguards was there, who I had a card for. That night he stood in that parking spot amidst fans for probably ten minutes or more, happily conversing with anyone who wanted to speak to him.
Richard’s level of fame now means that he will be used to this, I expect, and knows that this behaviour will now accompany all his appearances. No doubt his fame will also increasingly provide him with the freedom to have more choice in the roles he accepts, whereas lesser-known actors sometimes take roles more for exposure than artistic merit. And of course, he’s one of the lucky ones to achieve financial security, not forced to search for work because of the necessity of paying bills. But what he’s lost is the ability to connect with genuine fans and well-wishers in the way he once would have been able to. How many eyes did he really notice light up at his appearance in that dim street? Did he truly feel our love and respect, or did making an appearance simply become a task that his good nature continued to repeat? We’ll probably never know.
He has spoken of some very memorable and moving letters received from people around the world during this production, which he’s sure to remember for a long time, and he very generously provides autographs for his management to respond to fan mail. He has also spoken of his awareness of audience reactions during the play; the holding of breath, the laughter, the silences (sudden grief was audible, too; a whisper of a pained groan that would suddenly clutch our insides). But it seems to me that people with that level of fame, and more, lose the chance to interact personally with their supporters. It seems that their own safety necessitates keeping their distance most of the time, not allowing them to look with focus into the faces of people they’ve inspired and moved. We know that John Proctor stayed with Richard after each show, and that he didn’t really want to shake him off completely. Many photos of him outside the Stage Door seem to show an expression of tiredness and sometimes vagueness. I’ve seen that, too. He can look a little removed from the situation, as if on autopilot. And the stark contrast between this and the broad grins on the faces of Samantha Colley and Anna Madeley as they were able to stop and interact with audience members in safety and relative calm.
There are a few times in my life that I’ve been a bit of a ‘celebrity’ in a situation. As the Musical Director of several high school productions, each year a few students in the cast would ask me to autograph their programmes, present me with gifts and bring their parents to speak to me. I once performed a clarinet solo at one of my singing teacher’s house concerts. I chose a much-loved piece over something showy (the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto) and did my absolute best (thankfully, my performance just about reached my hopes for it, which thrilled me). On another occasion I performed a flute concerto with a local community orchestra. After these latter two events, I was greeted by audience members praising my performance. Managing to set aside my ever-present self-criticism and accept the praise they were offering made me extremely happy, and filled with warmth. I saw in their faces the glow of appreciation and enjoyment at what I had given them, and I couldn’t help but feel honoured.
Cast members of The Crucible who were able to interact properly with fans would no doubt have felt this. Performers who spend years learning their art, and learning to be critical of themselves, will always be pleased to know that they got something right in the eyes of their audience. Their hard work has earned them the reward of seeing the glow of admiration on the faces of their audience.
Is one of the accoutrements of fame the necessity of translating anonymous crowds into those individual smiling faces? Needing to hold on to those moments of genuine interaction with a supporter in times of madness and chaos, and shoving and security guards, and autograph-hunters trying to make money who mutter curses at said security who only want to keep everyone safe. Every cast member other than Richard had just enough fame to be recognised outside the theatre, and were excellent enough to receive attention from audience members. But not so famous that they feared for their safety or anyone else’s, or risked creating chaos by their very presence.
Richard undertook the Ice Bucket Challenge on his birthday, at the Stage Door after the play. Another cast member, Michael Thomas, did the challenge a few days later, after a matinee. This was publicised so fans could be present to watch and make donations collected by other cast members. Richard wasn’t present for this. I assume, because of the fact his presence would have taken the attention away from Michael and created unnecessary drama.
Many people easily criticise the rich and famous, and believe that invasions of privacy and fan mania are somehow deserved, and a perfectly acceptable part of their life – that they do indeed become public property, and have chosen to do so. I don’t agree with this. I believe that anyone who tries hard to do their job well, and gives the impression of being a decent, honourable person, earns and deserves respect from all quarters. (If you’re an arrogant s.o.b., however, who has become famous without much actual talent, you don’t.) I think that’s why I felt so upset at the sense of anticlimax that night. So many people were left disappointed (including me) because it was just such a difficult situation. It was nearly 11.30pm, after 7 hours’ intense performance for the day. He gave what he could to his fans, and was swept back inside the theatre for his own safety. Returning to the Stage Door, there were other cast members appearing to calm yet happy fans, many of whom were somewhat nervous about asking for autographs and photos, but with the time to speak words of gratitude and admiration, and make a genuine, albeit momentary, connection.
~ ~ ~
If anyone made it this far, I thank you. I’m not sure that I organised my thoughts very well, but I did warn you that it would be a ramble.
~ L.Q. ~