A COLLECTION OF STORIES BY LUKE TAGG
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SMOKE: The Greatest Shame

Originally published: 10 August 2004

What many people don't realise is that actors - for the most part - do not lead a very glamorous existence.

Most start out with bright hopes and big dreams and almost all of them realise smart quick that the percentage of actors who can make a living from being in good shows with good roles is absolutely minute, and for the rest - they have to get by as best they can.

Actors have no security like medical aids, pensions, bonuses or anything else, and as such they need to be in a helluva lot of shows to make sure they've got enough to cover themselves when they retire.

There aren't anywhere near enough shows or money for anyone to survive off theatre alone, and not even television is a guarantee of lasting wages.

Almost all acting work is temporary, which means actors are constantly looking out for new opportunities while busy with whatever they are currently doing. The uncertainty of never knowing where your next work will come from or when makes for a very stressful lifestyle indeed.

Actors usually have to resort to standing in casting queues for television commercials or for walk-on bit roles in B-grade movies, but unless you're "flavour of the month" with casting agents your chances are always slim and completely based on chance (I got one commercial simply because the director liked the orange shirt I was wearing).

The best sort of work (other than for good character roles, a television series or commercials) is corporate events. A company having a big year-end motivational meeting, for example, will hire out the Lord Charles Somerset Hotel banquet hall and get a bunch of performers in as part of the evening fare.

Although the work is always atrociously boring and cheesy the pay is always excellent and it's always a one-off or very short affair. The problem is that everyone wants that sort of work and there simply isn't enough to go round.

What it all boils down to is that most actors - in South Africa, at any rate - can't exactly get choosy about the kind of work they do, and most will take whatever they get.

I was no different. I created my own shows, I had some good roles (particularly in musicals), I stood in casting queues, I appeared in commercials, I toured schools, I did corporate work, I busked on the side of the road, I did kiddies shows at shopping centres and I even babysat the severely mentally disabled child of a well-known director, for extra cash.

I did what I could to survive, but I wasn't happy since it wasn't how I had envisaged my career. I loved (and still do) acting and performing, but when I looked at the few washed-out, dried-up and spat-out actors who had been grinding it out for 40 years and were still no closer to having a retirement scheme than when they were 18 - I knew I couldn't do it forever.

Since I had no other skills (or so I thought) I had to plug away, and it took two incidents to shake me out of my wishful thinking and draw the curtain on my acting career.

The first was an audition for Jesus Christ Superstar, which was on at the Nico Malan theatre in Cape Town.

I had just been in the most expensive musical ever produced in South Africa, called Return To The Forbidden Planet, which had played at the Baxter Concert Hall in Rondebosch.

The show was a mixture of Shakespeare and rock and roll and was a rip-off of the sci-fi B-grade movie of the 50's which had the same name and starred Leslie Nielsen (of Naked Gun Fame).

The show was all rock and roll - a genre to which I am more than suited - and it was by far the biggest thing going in Cape Town at the time.

Just after the run I heard of the audition for Jesus Christ Superstar, and naturally I went along. I'd been told to prepare a song and since I never sing anything other than my own songs I took my guitar along with me. Everyone else had sheet music and crap songs from shows like Cats, which is the norm at musical auditions.

At the time the Nico Malan theatre was run by the Cape Performing Arts Board (CAPAB) and the whole organisation was a direct competitor of theatres like the Baxter and Pieter Toerien's Theatre On The Bay.

I knew most of the people on the board of auditioners and was friendly with some (including the director), so I thought I was in with a fair shot. Which is all you ask for as an actor.

But I didn't get it. Trying hard to control their mirth the board asked what the guitar was for, and when I explained that I was singing one of my own songs there was a ripple of disapproval.

They indicated that I should start and I had only sung one line when someone shouted "Alright, alright - that's enough. We've heard enough."

Then one of the auditioners asked if I wasn't that bloke from Forbidden Planet. When I replied in the affirmative the same person asked if I was thus a rock and roll star. I said no, I didn't believe I was a rock and roll star - I was merely in a show with rock and roll - and then I was asked to impress them with some rock and roll.

I told them I hadn't prepared any rock and roll and they told me to improvise, so I started playing another song and had strummed but a few chords before they shouted "Thank you".

I stopped, looked at their smug faces fat with their own bullshit, shook my head and laughed, and walked out the door. Needless to say I didn't get the part and while I couldn't care less whether I got the part or not I had no stomach for that kind of pettiness.

I was almost done with acting - but not quite. There was still The Greatest Shame to come.


Since the Jesus Christ Superstar part wasn't available I had to look elsewhere, and a cabaret came up which was being performed as a dinner act at the Three Arts Theatre in Plumstead.

It was called Howl At The Blue Moon Saloon, featuring The Animal Instinct Dancers - and I was one of those animal instinct dancers.

A couple of my mates did it with me, and it was the straw that broke this camel's back.

We were nothing but glorified waiters, and - dressed in skimpy Fred Flintstone outfits - we had to wait tables during the show, and try and get people to dance to the various songs that were being performed.

The whole thing was incredibly badly prepared and we were loosely told to "just dance madly and be a little crazy", but with no choreography or direction.

I'm no dancer at the best of times, and dressed in a stupid animal print thong and flailing crazily while some pig on stage sang - to the tune of Achy Breaky Heart - "Don't touch my twat, my itchy twitchy twat", well - let's just say it was humiliating in the extreme.

The nail in the coffin was being called over to a table only to find myself staring into the face of a girl I had quite fancied at school, who I hadn't seen for five years. She recognised me, told her male pals that she knew me, and while they sniggered away she ordered drinks.

When I came back to the table they told me the order was wrong, then asked me to do a dance in my nice little outfit for them. I left before the show had finished and never went back.

The contempt and ridicule in the eyes of those people almost drove me mad, and I knew that I could never allow myself to be humiliated in that way again.

So I feel great sadness for any actor I see at a shopping centre, or any Father Christmas who's getting his 10 bucks an hour to be dressed up like a fat fool.

Been there. Many times.

[Exit upstage left. Fade to black.]

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

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Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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