Actor Tony Bell plays Margaret in Richard III and Pinch in The Comedy of Errors, the two plays Propeller will perform in repertory when they visit the Huntington in the spring. Below, Tony writes about his experience working with Propeller again after time away.
I’ve got a confession to make. After I left Propeller in 2007 following the Twelfth Night/The Taming of the Shrew Tour, I fell out of love with acting — which is weird coming from Mr. Method himself. I was obsessed for the first ten years of working with the company. I didn’t get round to doing the things normal people do when they grow up, like having a wife, or a husband, or a partner, maybe a kid or two, a car, a pension, a life. I just forgot about everything else when I was in a production, going to ludicrous lengths to get into character. When I played Bottom [in A Midsummer Night’s Dream], I broke into Mark Rylance’s office at the Globe to pilfer his custom-made donkey teeth, so my dentist could make a set for me. I appropriated an afghan rug from a Brick Lane skip after a photo of Brian Jones of the Stones in a mink had triggered an idea for Autolyclus [in The Winter’s Tale]. I shaved my hair off across the top of my head, giving myself a Care in the Community haircut for Feste [in Twelfth Night] (it took a year to grow normal again, during which time I never went without a seat on the bus). During rehearsals for “The Dream” I left a detailed answer-phone message for Michael, the designer, about how I thought we could make my donkey penis rise to attention using a pulley system, only I dialed another Michael, my football team captain, and left the message on his machine by mistake. His wife got to it first and never forgave her husband for not telling her about his secret love life. I copped the blame for their divorce six months later.
To quote the great Bill Shankly, theatre wasn’t a matter of life and death for me, it was more important than that, but when I left Propeller to go “legit,” as my agent called it, that passion died. Actually my mum had just died, during Twelfth Night, adding extra poignancy to Feste’s “Come away, death” ballad for Orsino and Viola, but I don’t think that’s the only reason I lost my mojo. I was getting to work with new people, in new plays, I had a swanky new agent, this was supposed to be the steady midlife rise to fame and fortune. But it didn’t happen that way.
I think I couldn’t get used to being in the dressing room during the show. With Propeller once you go onstage ten minutes before the start, to freak out the audience who thought they had time to argue about where to board the twins next year and to look at the program, you’re there for the duration. When you’re not in character dressed as a half-man, half-woman, half-fairy, you’re moving the set, or banging something over a soliliquoy to upstage the lead. So you never get to the dressing room. In normal theatre, even with a juicy part, you put your cossie on, do your stuff, go back to the dressing room and ignore the rest of the play while you moan about the other actors, or how the director ruined your performance, or how the crap ones always get the reviews, pop on again for the curtain call, go to Groucho’s to spot Stephen Fry, then home to a Stieg Larsson and a cup of cocoa. It’s less of an adrenalin rush. With Propeller you live, breathe, and fart the whole play for “two hours traffic of the stage”. And I guess I missed the sense of family you get from working with the same guys for ten years, you know, the man-on-man hugs, the locker room banter, the naked jogging. For whatever reason, my passion for acting withered like the Duke of Gloucester’s arm, manifesting itself in late entrances, sacking of agents, and an unhealthy obsession with bed linen (the duvet and pillow online warehouse is best value for money btw).
So when I arrived back for Richard III this time I was off the pace. I missed a day to do a radio play, but I was confident I could wing it. In those early years I used to be book down on day one, songs learnt by week two, costume in rehearsal by week three. Now everyone was book down on day one, including Richard Clothier who had three thousand more lines than me, and I couldn’t put one word in front of another without an interminable pause. I was doing the definitive Queen Margaret with Alzheimer’s. The new guys thought I must be one of those older actors who struggles with lines. I knew the truth. They still had their passion, their commitment, their professionalism. I had become lazy.
I hadn’t learnt lines for a year, I’d been on the BBC radio rep, where you don’t learn the lines, you do read-throughs sight unseen, record holding the script, then dump it in the recycle bin. Acting was a job now, not a passion. My new passion was sofas, Ikea rugs, and Guardian Soulmates. I wanted to settle down, find a wife, work to live, not live to work. But you don’t join Propeller to pay the mortgage, you have to be good at your job, and if you’re not, you’re letting the team down. And it’s that sense of letting your mates down that finally pushed me to face my demons and find that professionalism again. On the opening night in Coventry I got the lines right, but the stage business wrong. On the second night I got the stage business right, but paraphrased iambic gobbledygook to Chris Myles’ Buckingham. On the third night I actually started to listen to the other actors, trusting that the lines would be there, rather than having that “rabbit in the headlights” fear of drying. I still haven’t got all the harmonies down for the songs, and to think I used to write them.
The good news is, I absolutely loved being part of the production on it’s opening week, and having that pride in knowing the show you are in is really, really good. I can feel it, I can feel the audience’s concentration. After the Saturday matinee a middle-aged couple sat next to me in the coffee bar and said thank you. I said “Have you seen our company before,” thinking they’d probably seen the lot. “No, we’ve only been to the theatre twice in our lives actually, but we’re definitely coming again, it was brilliant.” I think that was the moment I got my Mojo back. I struggled to justify what I spent my life doing after mum died, but now I knew what I did. I worked for Propeller, who put on stories written by a man from Stratford four hundred years ago, for people to live them, be moved by them, share them with their loved ones, right now.
I’m back in my bed linen now, looking at my new sofa, and I’m at peace. I like my job again. And tomorrow I’m going to look at my lines, actually not just my lines but what people say to me, and why I respond, so I can listen, be in the moment, and act for everyone else a bit more. And I’m going to learn the harmonies too. “Long live King Richard!”