Dancing Bare

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 5

Ignorance is Bliss - Sometimes

Conceit, ignorance, and optimism are the main ingredients of youth. Without a fair dollop of all three I'd never have dared turn up in the largest city on earth, the centre of the English-speaking theatrical world, expecting to land a job as an actor. I was nervous, of course, but that added spice. An existence devoid of unease would be pretty dull. Even hunger triggers exhilaration.

Ignorance – some would say stupidity – sometimes propelled me into situations that later, in the light of calm reason, brought blushes and self-recrimination at my crassness. I can only blame the opiate of anonymity. Failure I can cope with – but not if there's a witness! No one I cared about was around to witness any rebuff, so I dared.

London commerce had shaken off the vicissitudes of war with a vengeance. Shops overflowing with goodies, food plentiful and varied, restaurants of every persuasion opening their doors to an increasingly adventurous public; theatres full, film studios on a roll, television had taken off, and best of all, war had exposed religious dogma to rational scrutiny. A god that allowed such a bloodbath was not a god to be worshipped. The blinkers of faith-based lies were dumped along with their burden of guilt regarding the pleasures of the flesh.

European civilization had teetered on the brink of annihilation. Memories of destruction, death, and grievous bodily and mental harm were burned into the brains of all who had lived through it, and Europeans embraced democratic egalitarian social welfare, free thought, humanism, and a fairly harmless hedonism.

Cinemas were showing nudist movies. Strip and sex shows were opening everywhere. The Windmill Theatre that boasted it had never closed its doors, now allowed its naked girls to move.

In even the most traditional theatres, plays were presented in which men took down their trousers and indulged in sexual innuendo previously reserved for pubs. In movies, heavy petting and kissing and simulated sex titillated the masses. Magazines brimming with sexually explicit photos were liberated from under-the-counter closets to flap proudly in the winds of change alongside their more august counterparts at roadside kiosks.

While New Zealanders had to go to the barbers or wait till the male assistant was not busy at the chemist shop to make a furtive request for condoms, in London, large signs enjoined everyone to use Durex! Assuring us they were lubricated, for smoother satisfaction, leading many innocent young Australians to wonder why the English lubricated their toilet paper.

The contraceptive pill was the greatest liberator. No longer reliant on men to take precautions, women were demanding the right to fuck with the same reckless abandon as men, and to be treated equally in all other respects. The right to fuck they got, but they're still waiting for the rest.

Their new sexual freedom, however, created problems in an unexpected quarter. Along with thousands of other unwilling young men I was dragged, mentally kicking and screaming, into too many female beds before I learned to read the warning signs and retreat on time.

A dirty yellow sun shed pale light on ancient monuments as I strode forth, secure in the knowledge that Fortune favours the fearless. I was heading for Shaftsbury Avenue and a theatre – any theatre. The main doors to the Lyric were locked, so I searched around and found an alley that led to an unattended stage door, which led to stairs and… 'The Boards!' I was on a London stage! The fire curtain was down concealing the auditorium, which tempered the thrill a little, but couldn't dilute the glorious mystery.

Backstage was huge, dim, freezing, draughty. Scenery and ropes disappeared up into the flies from which drifted down masculine curses and the tap tapping of a hammer. The only illumination a couple of working floods.

A harried fellow carrying a clipboard emerged from the gloom to demand my provenance. I asked to see the director. Why? I was an actor. He stared at me in confusion before trotting briskly away to be replaced a minute later by a tall, willowy frowner wrapped in a heavy duffle coat and scarves – it really was cold!

I asked if they had any vacancies for actors. His jaw dropped and for a brief instant I thought he was going to open his arms and declare that I had just saved his show, because the junior lead had fallen from the stage and broken his neck. His laugh was a bark of hysteria. I smiled nervously and explained my predicament. He shook his head, and started wandering around the stage, waving his arms and shouting disconnected words: "Lights, rehearsal, scenery run-through, props disaster, script changes…"

Eventually he turned a hoarse voice on me and hissed, "This is a West End production not some provincial Rep! Why must I be plagued by madmen?"

I retreated from his onslaught into the arms of a couple of stagehands who hoisted an arm up my back until I yelled, which prompted the director to bellow for the doorkeeper, who came racing on stage doing up his flies. While the director was threatening the poor bloke with garrotting for leaving the place wide open as an invitation for the IRA to plant bombs, I was bundled down and out into the street, scuffing the toes of my beautiful new shoes on the stairs.

Self-assurance somewhat undermined, I retreated to Piccadilly Circus where I bought a copy of the ABC London Street Guide and, as the pockets of tight trousers were unusable, a woven Greek peasant shoulder bag to carry it in; fashionable with London youth, although no Greek I'd seen in Greece had carried one.

I'd been told that if you walked eight hours a day for your entire life, you could never walk down every street in London, and I was beginning to believe it. All those narrow lanes, service streets, cul de sacs, Squares and Places.

I also bought a newspaper – not for the news, I'd never been interested in that, but to check the addresses of theatres and what was on. Near the entrance to Piccadilly Circus underground, the Criterion was presenting Iris Murdoch's A Severed Head. When I eventually discovered the stage door, confidence deserted me.

I think I imagined West End theatres would be like amateur dramatic societies back home. You'd meet the director and he'd say, "We're putting on such and such a play next week, and there's a part that would suit you. Come along to the auditions next Wednesday evening at Mary's place…" something like that.

I decided I'd be a little more circumspect this time and sound out the doorkeeper first. When he heard what I wanted he guffawed, patted me on the shoulder and reckoned that was the funniest thing he'd heard in years. Instead of convincing him I was serious, further protestations merely convinced him I was several shillings short of a quid. "Go and buy an Equity mag," he said patting me on the head, mussing up my hair.

"Equity mag?" I parroted.

"Actors newspaper," he said gently, as if I was mentally challenged. Then with another pat on the shoulder, sent me on my way.

Back to the newsagent. It was already darkening. Neon signs and vehicle lights were turning the place into a noisy, fume-filled fairyland. I'd wasted an afternoon. After consulting my ABC, I set out for home. Along Piccadilly, across Green Park – losing myself when the gate to The Mall wasn't where it was supposed to be – around Victoria's statue in front of the floodlit Palace, then up Buckingham Palace Road to Sutherland Street. About six kilometres and one of the most entrancing walks of my life.

From then on, I decided, I'd walk everywhere. There were loads of people, plenty of traffic, the streets were well lit; London felt ancient, mysterious, and safe, and I loved every stone – despite stupid theatre directors.

An evening reading Equity magazine from cover to cover disclosed plenty of vacancies – mostly house-cleaning jobs for 'resting' actors. Actresses were needed in Aberdeen, Carlisle, Bath. A vacancy for an ASM in Wolverhampton, whatever an ASM was. Lighting mechanics, 'Demonstrators' in department stores. Olympia Exhibition Hall needed barkers, organisers, specialists in displays for the upcoming Better Homes Exhibition. Middlesex Council wanted a drama teacher for an infant school. Advertisements for drama workshops, modelling academies, artistic development courses, self-actualisation dance.

The back page listed theatrical agents, most managing to suggest they were only interested in already famous actors. I was becoming intimidated. One advertisement stood out: Wanted… actors and actresses for a variety of employment opportunities – not housework. Probably nursing grandfather, or temporary butler, but still worth a look. After all my walking, I slept like a log.

Saturday dawned gray and cold. My agent – I already thought of him as mine – had an office in a short lane between Soho Square and Charing Cross Road. Greek Street's tawdry signs announced Sexy Girl Shows, Total Nudity, Sex Club… in garish letters over brashly painted doors shut against the healthy light of day. No Sexy Men Shows, I noticed. In between sprouted a grocer, a pub, a few restaurants, a clothing boutique, and a hardware shop. In the Square, restaurants of the Italian, Greek, Armenian, Chinese, and Indian varieties; film company offices, an insurance agent, and Club Strip, an upmarket version of those down the street. A few bare trees permitted the watery March sun to trace their shadows on the damp grass.

The street door to Feeney's Theatrical Agency was open, so I crossed my fingers and mounted a clunky old wooden staircase to a second floor office door that brandished the name in sparkling gold letters, plus the hours of business – I was too early. Much too early. But a dose of Dad's innocent charm might achieve results?

Inside, all was old wood - clean and polished. On the walls a few theatre posters. To the left of the door a vase of plastic chrysanthemums occupied a small table surrounded by a dozen empty chairs. Opposite, at an ancient desk, sat a magnificent bouffant wig and a dozen petticoats containing a no-longer-young woman in thick suntan-coloured pancake makeup that stopped at her ears. She didn't dare smile. I asked to see Mr. Feeney.

"You are too early," she snapped looking up irritably from her crossword.

My face fell as if my whole world had collapsed. "I'm so sorry! I didn't realise. How stupid of me – I didn't think to check your hours. Can I sit and wait?" I gazed around pathetically.

She stared at me in slightly diminished annoyance. "You have to make an appointment. There's nothing until tomorrow."

"I... I've just arrived from New Zealand, so I'm totally ignorant about how to go about things."

"About what things? Why are you here?'

"I'm an actor looking for work."

She held out a hand heavy with sparkling rings and sighed, "Equity card and portfolio."

"What are they?"

As if speaking to a mentally challenged five year old she explained that all professional actors needed to belong to Equity, the actors' union, and carry their membership card at all times, adding that a portfolio contained studio photographs and a list of the productions the applicant had been in, references, graduation certificate from RADA or other drama school, and anything else that might convince the agent the would-be actor was worth promoting, and persuade a director to employ him.

I nodded sagely and thanked her profoundly, obviously astounded at her depth of knowledge and wisdom.

"Acting's a business, dearie," she continued, clearly mollified by my humble acceptance of her superior status. "There's huge competition. You have to sell yourself… it's a buyer's market."

I wasn't sure I wanted to be thought of as a commodity, but kept such reservations to myself while explaining that I wanted to act in a London theatre. The information briefly stunned her, but she recovered enough to congratulate me on my lack of a colonial accent and ask about my experience. Three plays and a musical for amateur dramatic societies, a year studying acting with Heath Joyce, and modelling for amateur artists brought on a frown instead of a smile of delight.

The only photo I had, was of me as Cupid, which I was using as a bookmark in my street guide. Somehow, I didn't think she would appreciate it.

An inner door that had stood ajar throughout this exchange, opened quietly, emitting a large, pale, ovoid fellow of indeterminate age in a tweed suit and long, unnaturally black and very straight hair. He waved me into his office, sat behind his desk, and motioned me to a chair.

"I couldn't help overhearing – you have good projection," he said sharply, as if I'd been talking too loudly. "My secretary is correct in saying you need a portfolio when applying for acting positions."

He made a steeple of his hands. "Acting is a difficult profession to enter, and even more difficult at which to make a living," he intoned with ominous gravity. "You are entering the theatrical jungle. First you need experience as an ASM in a regional Repertory Theatre."

I shrugged incomprehension.

"Assistant Stage Manager. General dogsbody. The lowest of the low – not to be confused with Stage Manager, who is Emperor of Back Stage. The ASM is responsible for everything no one else is prepared to do: checking props, curtain, backstage effects, running errands for the actors, making tea, accepting blame for all minor mishaps and, if lucky, taking walk-on parts. After a while, roles with words will arrive and, if there is talent, progression to supporting actor, to junior lead, to… as other actors move on."

Mr. Feeney fixed me with a sceptical eye. "Success in the profession requires sacrifice, dedication, and patience."

Apparently satisfied he had sufficiently demoralised this colonial upstart, he told me to forget London theatres; they were mainly investments for faceless men with spare capital who demanded a popular play and one or two famous actors supported by cheap hacks. All plays in London had first been tried in large provincial theatres and only moved up to London if they'd proved profitable.

My silence as I digested this information was taken for defeat. As if throwing me a lifeline, he then asked if I was interested in film or TV, because young talent could sometimes leap straight into those media and he had a few opportunities on his books. I wasn't interested. I wanted the stage… a live audience. What fun can there be in acting to a camera and crew?

We talked about my two years learning stagecraft from Heath Joyce, of whom he had heard but didn't appear impressed – tossing away some remark about fleeing to the colonies. I mentioned the roles I'd played, and as he seemed more sympathetic than his wife, showed him my Cupid photo, which he was polite enough to admire, and then I mentioned my dance lessons and experience as artists' model.



That perked him up. "Are you interested in jobs other than acting? Just to fill in, of course, until you get yourself organised?"

He was careful not to make it seem like a cop-out. As my finances were dwindling even faster than my self-confidence, I agreed to consider the idea so he pulled out a manila folder.

"I think this will be right up your alley. An advertising agency is promoting a new line of Danish jewellery. They need a fit young man. You would be ideal. Shall I arrange an interview?"

He took my name, address, and contact details and warned me not to sign anything he hadn't perused. I signed a contract giving him a percentage of all earnings I made through his agency; he made a phone call, and I stared at the address written in cramped script on his business card. Peter Street! My middle name is Peter, so if that wasn't an omen, what was it? It was just across the square and I was there in two minutes flat, certain my life was about to change. I wasn't wrong.

The agency was chrome and glass on the ground floor; linoleum, steel drafting tables and useful work spaces occupied by harassed young men and women trying to get their drawings and 'concepts' finished yesterday on the second, and small functional offices on the third, in one of which I was interviewed by the thinnest man I had ever seen. About thirty-five, dressed in black. Black leather trousers, black shirt and tie, black leather bomber jacket. The sepulchral effect was relieved only by a gold ring in the left earlobe of a painfully narrow face. He introduced himself as Sam and extended a limp hand, which I waggled. He placed six photographs on the desk.

"One of my clients has branched into mail-order jewellery aimed at modern, free-thinking young men and women like you. These photos are of the Danish launch during the pornography Expo in Odense that stirred such a furore. You'll be modelling what this guy's wearing." He passed across a stack of colour photos.

A heavy, blond fellow too thick of waist and too pugnacious of jaw for my taste, prowled along a catwalk, wearing white harem trousers and a series of heavy gold chains, medallions, earrings, bracelets, anklets, and headbands.

"It's just cheap gold plate," Sam explained, "The whole collection's junk, but proved popular in Denmark, and they reckon now's the time to corner the market here. They're not selling from shops, only mail order. My job is to make our target group aware of the range and desperate to buy. We've had ads in the sexy pictorial magazines, and a photo shoot next Monday will give us posters of you and the girls wearing the stuff. They'll advertise the mannequin parades the following week. If I can get the pink press to those, we'll have a bit of free advertising and, if we sell enough, my client's considering taking the show to Amsterdam. Interested?"

"How much are they paying?" I had no idea how much I ought to receive, but thought I should sound as if I knew what I was doing.

He named a figure that made my eyes pop.

"Yes!" I whispered, not daring to believe what I'd heard.

He placed another half dozen photos on the table. "These shots were taken during the second half of the program."

The same model was now naked, apart from more chains and bracelets as well as ball and cock rings. He looked even less attractive. My heartbeat increased and in a voice that had become suddenly hoarse, I whispered, "I have to be naked, like him, walking along a catwalk?"

"Yep, that's the deal. Any problems?"

I attempted a nonchalant shrug, but had to clear my throat. "No. No problems."

"Good. We're running a bit late. Feeney's first hopefuls were useless. Last one had a great body, but steroids had shrunk his cods so he wouldn't have been able to find them to wear this stuff. Another was covered in scars – boils or cigarette burns it looked like." He shuddered elegantly. "Right, off with your clobber so I can check the goods."

I stripped and he squatted – conducting a slightly more intimate examination than I expected. But I didn't want to jeopardise things.

"Great tan. Healthy. Excellent."

While I dressed, he showed me the contract. Publicity photos would be taken the following Monday. I was to report to him at 9.00a.m. as the venue wasn't decided. Unable to avoid it, I waggled his moist, limp hand again to seal the deal, picked up my copy of the contract and had just turned towards the door when he stopped me with a question.

"Why are you doing this?"


"This!" he indicated the photos. "You're not the usual type for this game."

"What type… what game?"

"Homeless, ignorant kid from Liverpool slums… rent boy offering his arse for cash for drugs… that sort of thing. Do you also…?" His smile became a leer.

I told him I certainly did not! I was in the process of becoming an actor, but needed cash urgently.

He grinned as if he'd heard it all before.

A disconcerting tingling in the tailbone trailed me out into the smog of Soho, across the square and into Feeney's office to sign the contract.

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