Dancing Bare

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 18

On Tour

The curtain rose on fiery gloom in which Edgar, Alwyn and Agnes in fluttering rags capered and cawed, "When shall we three meet again…?" As the stage lightened, Terry strode heroically on with me in his wake. After that, all I remember is I fluffed most of my lines. Shakespeare is difficult to learn and Macbeth the hardest – the harbinger of doom if quoted off stage.

Terry was a hard, introspective Macbeth, and like the others an unflappable actor. After saying his lines, if I dried he'd turn his back to the audience and hiss mine, completing the speech if I stumbled, as if the lines were his own… I was sweating and dry-mouthed within seconds.

When Alwyn, having sloughed off his witch's weeds appeared as Duncan, he took over as ventriloquist to my dummy. Fortunately, Banquo is murdered relatively early on, reappearing briefly as a ghost. After that a beard, hood, or wig transformed me into Ross/soldier/messenger… requiring a panicked memorising of lines by the light of a torch just before going on. By curtain call I was a nervous wreck.

Alwyn had edited the plays, conflating bit parts and merely referring to scenes such as the English Court and the murder of Lady MacDuff and her children. An army became two soldiers on stage with the others in a tape recorder. The plays maintained their tension, were less complicated, and the action never flagged. Schools preferred these shortened versions as long as we included all the quotes and soliloquies their students had to learn.

Under Alwyn's direction we spoke our lines naturally, like ordinary speech. The first time I heard Terry's rendering of Macbeth's misery, cynicism and poignant insight into the folly of life "…and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty deaths…life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more; it's a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing!" I was moved to tears.

Shakespeare is one of the greatest English philosophers. His dramas with their perceptive insights, wit, and moral lessons illustrate humanity's basic flaw – the inability to be satisfied, and the destruction wrought by lust and greed, whether it be for love, power, wealth or revenge.

Alwyn researched and designed unfussy costumes that captured the period while occupying the least amount of space. For Macbeth our 'kilts' were simple wraparounds of rough fabric held in place by a leather belt containing a scabbard and dagger. A square of heavy cloth secured across the shoulders by a brass pin served as a cloak over a rough linen blouse. 'Boots' of hessian painted to look like leather were cross-lashed to above the calf, and a 'broadsword' completed the outfit.

My predecessor had been considerably smaller than me and as there hadn't been time to alter anything, my 'kilt', instead of hanging chastely below the knee, exposed a good four inches of thigh, and the cloak when thrown back off the shoulders exposed a shirtless torso.

When the teacher in charge came backstage to hand over the cash, he remarked on my interesting interpretation of Banquo as a hesitant, sensitive soul. It was the joke of the week – my 'sensitive' interpretation. Twenty years later I still suffered the occasional nightmare that I was ready to go on stage but couldn't find the script and had no idea what the play was!

In the Sixties, parents were given a chit for their child's education that they could submit to the school of their choice. Co-ed private schools specialising in art, drama, and music, and single-sex private schools were our main clients. The schools were small; two or three hundred pupils, often housed in pseudo-gothic Victorian mansions in which the Ballroom had been converted to a theatre, complete with elegant proscenium, adequate stage lighting and cramped dressing rooms. The pupils were polite; their parents worldly, educated, middle class. Parents and 'friends' of the school were expected to fill and pay for empty seats, as all money received above our fee went into school coffers.

We also played to adult audiences three evenings a week in 'Little Theatres' that had been taken over by Amateur Dramatic Societies when professional companies collapsed. In return for more or less free advertising through their members, we paid a reasonable rent that plugged holes in their maintenance budgets. The first 'adult' play that season was a knockabout farce Alwyn had rewritten, based on 'Sweeny Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.'

Sweeny's shop is next to Mrs. Bardell's bakery. When sailors came in for a shave they were quizzed. If a sailor had no near relatives Sweeny hit him on the head and pulled a lever tipping the chair backwards through a hole in the wall into Mrs. Bardell's, where the hapless fellow was hung on meat-hooks before being slaughtered and butchered to become the filling of 'Bardell's Famous Meat Pies'.

There is a pretty girl anxiously in love with a poor sailor, an inheritance, and complicated comings and goings that eventually culminate in the discovery of a 'human button' in a pie. The sailor is rescued just before he is butchered, collects his inheritance, claims the girl, and lives happily ever after.

Our 'territory' from September until Christmas was the Midlands from north of Birmingham to Stoke on Trent; the environs of Bristol from mid-January to Easter; and Essex until summer. After an exhausting but exhilarating first fortnight in which we presented Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice as well as Macbeth and Sweeney, Alwyn discovered that a new company offering the same plays as ours had poached so many of our usual schools we were in danger of going out of business. I don't think I have ever felt so deflated.

To suss out the competition we became 'spies' at the school that two days previously had cancelled our presentation of Julius Caesar, and watched our enemies present the same play! It was a company of older, experienced actors. Antony, my character, was played by a fellow twice my age and instead of a set they acted in front of the school's grey stage curtains. Costumes were white sheets with hairy white legs and modern sandals dangling beneath.

Back at the digs Agnes ranted, "They're dreadful! No set, no costumes, and they're old!"

We muttered angry agreement.

"Old fashioned," said Terry

"They acted well, though," Alwyn said softly.

"So do we!" snapped Agnes, adding unnecessarily, "Except for Rigby. But who did the teacher comment favourably on in Macbeth? Rigby! Our weakest actor! Why? Because his kilt was short, he was bare-chested, and looked sexy! If we want to regain our clients, we must modernise."

It was somewhat discouraging that no one disputed her assessment of my abilities, however they all agreed we could do with a spruce up.

Our portable staging had been designed and built by Edgar, and remains the finest I've ever encountered. The 'skeleton' was three, 3' x 6' wooden rectangles that supported four horizontal wooden rods and two hinged flats. When decorated with flimsy pelmets, back-cloth and curtains, it became a stage ten yards wide and one deep, with two separate curtained 'stages' and two curtained entrances. The whole thing took four men four minutes to erect, and the same time to dismount and store away. It took up only a small portion of the van, leaving plenty of space for the costume baskets and four passengers in the rear.

Alwyn and Edgar owned the company and controlled all finances, mail, and telephone bookings. However, apart from appearing on stage, they left most physical contact with schools to Agnes. As soon as the van and costumes had been unloaded I drove her to the school we had spied on. In her faded blue gabardine raincoat, brown lace-up shoes, and knitted beret, a less attractive ambassador would be difficult to imagine. To me it seemed senseless to send a frump to persuade people we were a modern and classy company.

"You're coming in with me," she snapped.


"Because," she sneered, "despite your vulgar skin-tight trousers, you ooze respectability."

From her, respectability was an insult. "And that impresses these sorts of people." She had as little esteem for 'those sorts of people' as she had for me. "That's why you'll never be a real actor!" she added dismissively.

I'd noticed that the other actors didn't bother about 'respectability' or looking or being either fashionable or socially acceptable. Acting was all they wanted in life. It made them seem slightly two dimensional and a bit strange – sort of empty, only appearing 'normal' when viewed from beyond the footlights wearing make-up and reciting someone else's words.

It was funny that she considered my homosexuality to be perfectly acceptable, but my good manners and ordinariness offensive. Fortunately, the others just accepted me as I was. I knew I'd never be a 'star' because I lacked the blinkered drive. And I dreaded becoming another miserable 'resting' actor. Being on stage with an appreciative audience was what gave me a thrill.

To my shame, I realised I derived nearly as much pleasure from prancing around the May's drawing room and stripping for Hazel's 'girls' as from performing in Shakespeare. Although I did love the Bard for his philosophic insight and the fact that he conferred the 'respectability' Agnes so despised. People were impressed to learn I was a Shakespearian actor, not so excited when told I was a stripper. Agnes had been spoiling for a fight since I joined the company, and she grasped the opportunity to let me have a piece of her mind like a drowning woman grabs at the nearest swimmer, prepared to drown him as long as she survives.

"You always act as if butter wouldn't melt in your mouth, and yet you were a whore in London," she sneered.

Alwyn must have told her. Perversely, I felt proud of the fact… no one would pay for the use of her body! The thought made me smile.

"And you are irritatingly complacent which is why you are a mediocre actor," she snapped, determined to wound.

I could feel nothing but pity for this ugly, down-at-heel woman whose life's work was making bookings and acting minor parts in a tiny touring company on the point of collapse. She was nervous, and it was better that she vented her spleen on me than on the school's representative we were hoping to impress.

The Head of English was approaching forty. Ordinary face improved by a broken nose, short hair, solid torso in a white shirt and reefer jacket, massive thighs squeezed into grey flannels; black shoes. He greeted us politely, crushed my hand in a massive paw, then indicated we should sit facing each other on leather armchairs. Those thighs forced his legs apart to reveal a substantial bulge.

Agnes, burdened beyond bearing by the injustices of the world, chose confrontation over diplomacy. How dare he cancel our booking at such short notice, replacing us with an inferior company? Had he no respect for…. I interrupted, and gently suggested she make our offer.

She blushed angrily but calmed sufficiently to inform him we would perform Julius Caesar for no charge because it would be beneficial for the students to compare two different renditions of the same play, and Macbeth, also for free. Zero cost to the school on condition that if he thought we were better than the opposition he would contact the schools that had cancelled our performances and recommend they change their bookings back to us.

If they did, then we would return at his convenience with another free performance of whatever play he chose. It was a generous offer and not an unreasonable request. Most of the private schools belonged to the same 'club' and were in regular contact with each other. She sat back in breathless triumph. "Well?"

He hesitated too long. Agnes leaped to her feet screaming that he and his type were leeches on the body of humanity ready to sacrifice quality for profit…

"Shut up, woman!"

She blinked and shut up.

"Please, wait outside. I'll discuss this with your colleague."

Agnes slunk away.

He returned to his seat. "As I was about to say," he said, absentmindedly rubbing his crotch, "I was unimpressed with the other company and had already decided to return to The Westminster Shakespearian Company."

"Unfortunately, so many schools have switched that we are about to fold," I said.

"That bad? Hang on." Instead of going behind his desk, he reached over me to pick up the phone, enveloping me in an effluvium of testosterone, soap, and fresh sweat. After speaking briefly with the Headmaster he replaced the handset and, remaining directly in front of me with our knees touching, said "It's all sorted. Bring your troupers tomorrow at 12.30 sharp, and give us Macbeth; we'll take it from there."

I made as if to stand but he didn't move; legs apart, crotch at eye-level.

"Is it true all actors are queer?"


"Are you?"

"Do I look it?" I was becoming nervous. Was he setting me up so he had an excuse to make my nose look like his?

"No, but those trousers display your genitals rather well." He stepped away, frowning. "What's the matter? You've been looking at my crotch ever since you arrived and didn't move away when I leaned over you. You are camp, aren't you?" A frown of doubt flickered.

"Are you looking for an excuse to thump me?"

"Christ! No! No! Quite the opposite!"

"You mean…?


"Then you should tone down the butch act."

"I used to be a champion boxer."

As an excuse it was no excuse, but I let him show me several pretentious silver cups and feigned interest while he stroked my neck. At the door he turned sheepishly. "Can I apologise by buying you a meal tonight?"

He was passably handsome, and we desperately needed his assistance, but my father had always cautioned against paying in advance. First, he had to see our plays and be impressed, then telephone the other schools. "Let's leave it till tomorrow night after our show and you've rung the other schools."

That made him laugh. "You're that confident?"

"I saw them – they're bloody terrible."

"And you'll be my reward – if I'm successful?"

"Something like that."

"Cheeky monkey. Tomorrow it is."

Agnes was slumped in the van, morose, accepting without dissent or visible pleasure my assertion that our success was due entirely to her strong stand.

The following day in breechclouts, short kilts, and cloaks flung back off the shoulders to expose well-oiled chests and legs stained golden-brown – Edgar, Terry, Hal, and I strode the boards as Macbeth, Banquo, and assorted other thanes and warriors. Margaret was a sexy Lady Macbeth in an almost but not quite see-through nightdress as she bewailed her inability to wash off the blood. Alwyn kept to his leggings and full regalia, to add gravitas. With the new costumes and spruced up set, it was like acting in a new play – plus we were galvanised by fear of losing our jobs. The kids seemed impressed.

For Julius Caesar, Terry as Brutus, and I, as Antony, wore magnificent metallic-painted shin guards over sandals, and breechclouts under short tunics that exposed a shoulder, a nipple and, if we turned too abruptly, a fleeting glimpse of buttock. I always dreaded "Friends, Romans, countrymen…" after Marlon Brando's performance in the black and white film. Thanks to Alwyn I realised those three words were merely exhortations to the crowd to shut up and listen – an irritated plea for their attention, so if you yell, 'countrymen lend me your ears!' in one loud rush, it sounds perfectly natural.

Edgar didn't let me down with the tape recorder, blaring jeers and applause from the off-stage 'crowd,' and no one in the real audience sniggered. They certainly applauded more for us than our opponents.

When the English Master came backstage, we avoided eye contact. Alwyn gave him the list of schools that had cancelled, and said he'd ring later to check progress.

Today, with mobile phones, fax machines, emails, and internet, it is difficult to imagine what it was like only a few decades ago when our only link with the world was a single pay phone in the boarding-house hallway shared with all the other guests.

While we were loading the van, several girls asked for my autograph - my first taste of 'fame'. A couple of the girls reckoned we'd looked "tough and sexy." Margaret was jealous that no boys asked for hers. Terry didn't notice. Agnes was furious that the worst actor should once again get the recognition, and Hal jealously reckoned it was because as Cassius his toga concealed his body. I knew it was only sex and to me it seemed of no significance. Of course, had there been boys brave enough to ask for autographs I might have thought differently.

That evening my 'date' arrived at the restaurant with an elderly woman in a turquoise evening dress and craggy face framed by grey hair scraped back into a tight bun. Rustling taffeta accompanied the chomping of tough steak for the next twenty minutes, followed by a tasteless dessert. When two prying acquaintances stopped to enquire after our health, the mother bared yellow teeth and introduced me as a distant relative from the colonies. We repaired to their house for coffee. Although it was only nine o'clock, the mother excused herself and tottered up to bed.

As we undressed, the English Master explained that his widowed mother, terrified some woman would carry off her son, encouraged his dalliances with 'suitable' men. He was passive, for a prizefighter, with tender touch and taking ways – taking all I had the energy to offer after a strenuous week.

In return, I learned that all except one of our cancelled bookings were willing to change back to us. I let Alwyn discover this for himself the following day, and soon our programme was full once more.

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