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The One That Actors Love

Actor Theatre Book

What's My Motivation?- Michael Simkins , Ebury Press , September 26, 2019
Actor Theatre Book by What's My Motivation?- Michael Simkins The year of clearing out the critical cupboard cannot pass by “What's My Motivation?” without a re-read. If this is the last review of a book by an actor, so it is also one that matters. It was first published in 2003 and republished regularly. Many actors have read Simon Callow, below July 2014. “Being an Actor” has a durability to it, but Michael Simkins' book is the one to cherish.

At the top of the Amazon feedback an actor is there to testify: “I am in that business that we call show and absolutely love this book. I found his account of 'living the dream' gorgeously nostalgic and wonderfully warm, honest and witty. I think that it would be very insightful for a layman to read as well as those of us who are already hardened and softened by the realities of being an actor.”

The narrative arc of “What's My Motivation?” follows thirty years of autobiography, told sharply and colloquially but shot through with a tone of self-deprecation. It is far remote from any roll-call of triumphs and celebrity encounters. Simkins pinpoints the lures of infidelity while on tour. In his time, to get car insurance for an actor was an appalling hurdle. That may have altered but much else is unchanged. Pantomime is crucial for paying a large slug of venues' fixed costs. Actors are ripe for pummelling by managements. The hazards of the acting life are as numerous as they are varied. Simkins must be the last word on the terrible fate of the poor players who encounter the Director with the Concept. And all the time, for the reader, it is squirmingly comic.

As a tale it ends well, on a high, acting alongside Malkovich in “Burn This”. If Simkins is finally there for a sell-out at the Hampstead Theatre, the route has been via Hornchurch, Harrogate, Billingham-on-Tees, Poole. He describes a journey from Potters Bar to Middlesbrough. A fellow cast member owns a VW Beetle to share the cost. But its floor has a hole in it and the mats rise on an inch of water. In a life of uncertainty the pursuit of love too is uncertain. But the Simkins romantic life also ends happily.

“What's My Motivation?” does not flinch at the reality of the profession of actor. “The same 10% of actors”, says Simkins, “tend to work all the time, the rest spending their entire lives working in bookshops, driving delivery vans or waiting tables.” But he also makes the clear observation. “Talent has nothing to do with it- apparently strategy and luck are what you need.” In the pub Simkins sees “middle aged blokes in balding corduroys and Dr Who scarves, who daren't risk having to buy a round of drinks, and talking about the big break that is just around the corner.”

It would be a spoiler to reveal too much of what unfurls in the chapter called “Bear”. Simkins starts with: “there are two types of director. Blockers an w***ers”. (They are not in the habit of winking.) The actor has a nice job, a Shakespeare tour, and meets his director. “Simon is an unusual hybrid in that he's both a blocker and a w***er. That takes some doing. He's spent two weeks sitting round a table pontificating on the various allegorical allusions and classical references, and then has lost his nerve in the final few days pushing us around the stage hysterically.”

Not in the pub Simkins meets Rob. Rob “earns between eighty and a hundred grand a year, a house in Leeds, a flat in Crouch End, a Spanish timeshare, a vintage sports car and a Harley Davidson.” And with no mortgage he is set to retire at age 30. The sources have included Campbell's Soup, Domestos, the RAC, Carling Black Label, a clinic specialising in the treatment of leg ulcers. “Rob”, says Simkins, “finds my interest in theatre rather quaint.”

The book is a universe away from the world of scholars and critics. When the actor gets Tony Wendice in “Dial M for Murder” for a long run it is great. There are lots of lines, high exposure,and it's a good plot.

It is the strangest of life-choices. To head for work, if it is there, when most of us are piling out of our own work-places makes for separation. Towards the end, with a settled domestic life, a social event is recounted. Neighbours come in, a young couple from Camden social services. They speak with passion about their own jobs. But the host, an actor, has old editions of “Spotlight” on her shelves. The actors pile in to see their images of old. As for the non-actors “we'd forgotten them in all our excitement. They were looking forlornly across from the opposite settee.”

The public-minded spirits who flock to the Boards and Councils may regard actors as a sub-strand augmenting other areas of public activity. Wrong. They are not there as part of the education, health or social services. They have chosen their lives to give us delight and to give us meaning. This is triumphantly and truthfully their book.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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