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Wednesday, January 19

A pause
Not applause. A pause. I've been hearing a bit of applause recently, but that's been faked for the purposes of practicing the bows at the end of Guys and Dolls. Many apologies for the lack of update. It has been a busy time and some of what has constituted the busy-ness may well have made for an interesting read had I rendered it in the form of a diary at the time. It may still make for an interesting read if I get beyond this first paragraph and start writing about it. The point is that my activities have been so exhausting that I've not managed to get to writing about them... and I've discovered internet scrabble... and that I'm not really very good at it. In fact today's post will have a definite theme, and that theme is mediocrity. I realise that this theme is sometimes the subject of words by a certain Richard Herring, whose website I read regularly. However, just because he's got issues with his mediocrity, it doesn't mean that I'm any less mediocre or in need of sharing my thoughts on my life. I've said it before (whether on here or not I can't remember) and I'll say it again. Were I to write an autobiography, it would be entitled "Living With Mediocrity". It doesn't sound very good. Equally, it doesn't sound too bad. It just sounds mediocre. D'oh! I don't think I'll write it (yet). I had toyed with the idea of writing a book about our experiences (essentially MY experiences) with The Musical! - I would have called that "Writing 'The Musical!'". Maybe one day I will. It's a story of a dream come true. Talking of which, we're staging the show again in March - Newcastle, Glasgow and maybe Manchester. Check out

Anyways. Back to the last week or so's activities.


It's been a big bag of rehearsals (or as one of my correspondents puts it - rehearsles). At the moment it's 6 days a week. Sunday - Friday. Given that I did something else related to Guys and Dolls this Saturday just gone and will be rehearsing uninterrupted until Friday, that will make 13 consecutive days that I've been doing something related to this show. For some reason, this connects in my mind with the predicament of a couple of the guys in the office where I work. For reasons best known to themselves, three of my work colleagues appear to have chosen pretty much the same weekend to knock their other halves up so that they are "with child". All these three couples have been expecting a baby at the same time. One of the wee little blighters is out. The other two ladies are getting larger with no current sign of birthing. I think I feel the same way as these doting fathers to be feel about their offspring. I've been living with the increasing burden of the show for months and it feels like it's long overdue to get it out there. In fairness, I have been rehearsing since September, so it's been a long gestation period. With 19 rehearsals of the show this month (in total, not done that many so far), we'll be long prepared if not well prepared when the first night comes.

Rehearsals have been varied. Some have been purely tap-dance based. Others have been the scenes with dialogue in. We've done rehearsals of just the big production numbers. Tonight we managed to do nearly every scene that my character appears in. It seems that it's not all that many. I know that it's not quantity, but quality that counts, and I'm enjoying breathing life into the ridiculous character that is Big Jule, but I've almost reduced my role in the show by going for a principal character. I'm not in a couple of the big chorus numbers, so I only sing in a couple of songs... but hopefully I'll get a chance to make a few good laughs on the night. I can get a laugh or two (from the onlookers in the rehearsal room) from some of the lines. My favourite line is "I'm really sorry" - if I can make that into a laugh then I've cracked it. So far so good. It reminds me of one of the things I used to do when I first brought the guitar into my act. I used to make laughter out of a song that wasn't in the least bit funny. It taught me how to "be funny", rather than to think of funny things to say.

Talking of "being funny". I've become aware that my antics are being observed during our full-cast tap routine for the end of the show. Last night's rehearsal put me in a more exposed position (our line was at the front - normally, we're 5th back of the 6). I decided to distract the onlookers from the mess going on below the level of my neck by adopted a cheesy grin. As I've explained to my colleagues in Durham's Musical Theatre Company. Dancing - it's all in the eyes. If you look confident and happy then it's working... even if it ain't. On the up side, I have mastered tapping the ground with my foot as I hop along it or whatever. I'm surely nearly there?

Friday's rehearsal was for the production number - "Sit Down You're Rockin' The Boat". This number is sung by Nicely Nicely Johnson - a part I auditioned for. The guy playing Nicely wasn't present. We did the dialogue before the song without him and then the pianist starting playing the tune that he would have sung. The director realised that the crowd weren't going to react to words they couldn't hear. I watched him go through his options as a second or two ticked by. He started mouthing the words, I almost thought I saw him about to speak them or sing them out loud. This is not a man who I would ever expect to perform in public. He's excellent at working a crowd, giving a speech or teaching/training/disciplining, but I don't think he's an eye on being the centre of attention. He decided that he didn't want to show off his singing voice to the group and so quickly prompted me to step in. It was a bit like the scene in Phantom of the Opera when the soprano bows out and they need someone to sing the song - a voice pipes up (it's Madame Giry's daughter, played well in the movie by Jennifer Ellison) - "Christine can sing it". So, the voice popped up on Friday night - "Ashley can sing the part" and I was quickly drafted. Like every good Hollywood movie where the chorus girl is promoted to leading lady, I got the hang of it pretty quickly. I had learned the song for the audition, but read the words from the script, having forgotten many of them in the intervening months.

At the end of the song, there's a very long note and it's quite high for a Bass/Baritone to sing. It's not the highest note in the song, but it's high and long. I didn't need to sing it, given that I was only acting as a session singer to keep time and it's the last note, so the chorus were reacting to the accompaniment, not the note... but I gave it my all every time. As I said when I didn't get the part at audition. For the short performance during the audition, I had the role I wanted. Likewise in that rehearsal, understudying someone who is much more experienced and fits the role very well, I had the part. I made the most of it. But it's only acting... it doesn't count for much.

People came up to me afterwards to commend me on filling in capably. I stopped short of thanking them, pointing out that - "my performance may have been whatever you said it was, but it wasn't good enough to get the role" - though I said that without rancour and in good humour. I'm not good at taking compliments and I'm ever keen to put my achievements, or lack of, into some sort of perspective. For every person telling me that I'm great, there's something reminding me that I'm not. It's depressing. Some people would choose not to notice. Some people would not be able to notice. I know how to keep optimistic - it's what I do - but I dare not lose what perspective I have. This is where we come back to my mediocrity.

Living with Mediocrity
Oh dear. We're onto this subject again. I have a bit of a problem with my lot in life. I think I was brought up, through a combination of schooling, parenting and my own fantasies, to believe that I was in some way special. Outstanding. Remarkable. The best. I'm certainly not the best. That's fair enough, though someone has to be the best and it always seems a goal worth achieving, but it's not something I can even slightly lay a claim to. It's frustrating. I look at the myriad things that I do, and I would love to be truly declared a polymath, in that I take a great interest in such a variety of things, from writing to music, to performing (singing, acting, comedY) to computers, electrical things, mechanical things, physical, abstract... I consider myself a bit of an all-rounder... and I'm certainly all round (that particular weight-problem gag was first used by me at a student conference in 1995 - I thank you). Yet, for every thing that I try to do, before I've even gone a few steps, I can see a massive bundle of people in front of me, whom I'll never equal, let alone beat in a competition for being the best. Not that one should only do something to be the best, but I want to believe that I could be inately smashing at something.

I'm not saying that I think I'm rubbish. I do a great deal of things I really enjoy and I think I do a few of them reasonably capably, or at least competent enough to stop at the border where I would show my inability if I crossed it. I played piano on stage several times during the Edinburgh Festival and nobody clocked that I was playing a remarkably simplistic arrangement - if you look good at what little you can do, people want to believe you could do everything else. There are people who are very nice to me and tell me things I want to believe about myself. "Oh, you were good at this." - "Oh, I liked that." - "You're a lovely guy." etc etc... except, I don't just want to believe that I'm ok, I want to believe I'm outstanding. I want to think that I'm the funniest, the best, the loveliest, the best lover (despite my singing songs to suggest the opposite), in short, a must-have man... I guess I just want to be loved. Put as plainly as that it reads pretty pathetically. "Oh but you are loved..." might be the first reaction of some, or "don't be such a pansy" may say others. I know that there are people out there who actually hate me. For one reason or another, I can inspire utter bile in some specific people - you only have to look in the right places on the internet (try the comedy forums) to see that. There are also people who are very nice to me and see me as I try to portray myself - a likeable self-deprecating good guy. I suppose these people balance each other out. For everyone who comes up to me unprompted in a bar and tells me that "I just want to tell you that you're lovely." - it happened (albeit only once and I was so gobsmacked, that I didn't know what to do, so thanked the person graciously and got the hell out of there) - there's someone looking for a way to put me down. I think I'm big enough and bad enough to let both reactions slide off me like liquid off a ducks behind. Either way, it's not important. My biggest fear is of accepting my mediocrity and living up to it. I have to push myself, or I will become useless.

Yet I can't see myself rising above the line of mediocrity. In some ways, I think that life and art mirror each other well. I'm the guy who took the musical of writing a musical, in fact the exact musical that was being written about itself, to Edinburgh having written and rehearsed it in the room in which it was set and which was lovingly recreated on a set in that very room for rehearsals. It just got weird after that. So, yeah. Life and art mirror each other. Let's say that my life is a musical. I can't really audition for the role of the romantic lead. He's good looking, graceful and elegant - I'm just not hideous and a disgraceful elephant. I can't audition for the role of the fast talking wheeler-dealer - I don't work hard enough and I'm not especially streetwise. I can't go for the comic lead - there's someone else ahead of me to take that role instead. I'm a bit part player. A bit of this and a bit of that. For everyone complimenting me on the performance I give in my bit part role, there's a memory that I failed the audition for something more challenging. If the expectation is lower then you appear to be better. That's why I can get away with playing guitar on the stand-up stage, where I might be laughed out of an acoustic night. My basic playing in the lower echelons is good enough to jump over people's expectations.

This general sense of dissatisfaction is not getting me down a great deal at the moment, though I suppose it's keeping me from being on a massive high. I like what I'm up to at the moment. I'm very busy and I'm getting on with things more. The year is going well so far. I suppose that I'm still dissatisfied with the solitude I have to live with, and I can't see myself having the opportunity to find a special someone to break that solitude in the near future. Having once been engaged and then seen that relationship end over someone else, I realise that I'm seeing myself as something of a failure in the romance department - I went for the romantic lead and failed the audition. Plus I'm quite uncompromising when it comes to romance. The leading lady has got to be really special. It would be a pretty weird cast, though, where the leading lady was stupendous and the leading man was mediocre... grrr... I may not be going through a depression at the moment, but I've been a little more optimistic about things before now.

There are some words of comfort. Something an old friend of mine said to me a while ago. He said I needn't necessarily be the best at any of the individual disciplines I do, but how many people could do that mix of different things? In other words, I'm the best at being me. Given that we're all individuals and unique, perhaps the competitive instinct to be the best is misleading. We are charged with being the best we can be at being ourselves. I want to be the best version of Ashley I can be. So, okay. I have had my failures in the past, but who I am now is possibly the pinnacle of Ashley-ness that there has ever been. I'm driven to fulfil the character that I naturally have (these theatrical metaphors are starting to get out of hand) and I shall continue to turn my thoughts into reality to achieve that. Hopefully, there'll be fun doing it. If the company I work for does well (with my help) there may even be a cash reward. If the performances I give go well, then there will be applause or laughter - an indication of people made happy with my help. That's not a bad aim and if I can do that from my position between "the pits" and "the best" then I should be thankful I've had the opportunity.

There is one thing I'm really good at. Putting on weight. I put on tons after Edinburgh in only a short space of time. If ever there was an occasion where Britain's survival depended on the most rapidly weight-gaining people, like some sort of fat olympics, then I would step forward with the words - "Pamela, hand me my dessert spoon - this one's for Britain!" (I don't know who Pamela is, except that she controls my dessert spoon in this weird fantasy).

Anyway, enough naval gazing. The weight's come off a bit (not enough) and there are other things to write about.

As well as going for a costume fitting in Leeds on Saturday (and to be perfectly honest I was disgusted at my measurements!), I also went along to the newly bought house of a friend of mine. We spent the day wallpaper stripping. In truth, this got pretty extreme. We realised that a wall with the paper on it, was hollow, so decided to bust through it to see what was behind. This involved lots of grappling and rubble. It got hairy. We did manage to reclaim at least an extra inch's width in the room.

In addition, after a discussion about extending the kitchen into the utility room, we arbitrarily decided to rip down the brick wall dividing the two rooms. By hand. Well, we had a chisel and a hammer and masks... and a crow bar. The last section of the wall was pushed over by a pair of us. It was also videoed. It was very funny to watch... that and the wrecking of the plasterboard wall upstairs.

Other wallpaper was also stripped. I think I worked for about 11 hours of the 12 hour period we were in the house. Maybe some of that working was discussion. Then we went for a curry, having already taken a smashing lunch, mid-afternoon. The masks didn't prevent "the black snot", which took a couple of days to stop after the event. The entirety of the day was punctuated by silly songs and attempts at comedy from me (working with friends is a great way to get ideas for material and there's one thing I'm keen to try out on stage from the stuff I came out with), and also a huge amount of Yiddish vocabulary from one of the other guys. He's recently discovered that his maternal line is a Jewish one and that some phrases he never quite understood from his grandmother were in fact Yiddish. This has led him to seek out a Yiddish glossary online and he's now throwing Yiddish words and phrases into the conversation and insisting that his friends learn words too... just "for the lads" as it were. The video of us pushing over a brick wall in a kitchen and then standing on its remains, job done, is completed by him grabbing my hand, shaking it and declaring - "Rachmanos" - respect. It's funny.

If being a builder's mate and a tap-dancer isn't enough (I can now do the tap-step, tap-step, tap-spring-tap-spring-tap-spring-tap-spring-tap-spring toe-hop) I'm also using the bike still. I think I've racked up 230ish miles since I got a bike, which is virtually Edinburgh and back. I've not been to Edinburgh and back on it. I have, however, been cycling to work. The bike is now due its one month service and it looks like it needs it. Rust developed on the chain. Oiling it has brought that under control, but it's not a happy gearing system and I really haven't the time to play with it. Not that I want to play with it. I like tinkering with mechanical and electrical things, but not if I don't have to. If I have an expert to just do it, then they should.

The big achievement of the last couple of days is that I tackled Westgate Hill - a hill I once laughed at the prospect of tackling (long before I set eyes on Highgate Hill) - without dropping to my lowest gear. I was on my second lowest gear. That's still some sort of achievement. Maybe when the bike has been sorted there will be less friction from the chain and gears and I may be able to do it in 3rd!

Gig of the month
I'm looking forward to my only stand-up gig of this month. I'm playing Rothes Halls in Glenrothes. I enjoyed this gig the last time I played it - it was superb and I MCed it. I have also played this gig on its opening night (albeit to 6 people). I'm going to regale them with some of the newer (some of it so new it hasn't ever been performed) stuff and see how they take to it. I'm tempted to bust into a tap-dance... it might have comic potential. How many other comedians wear tap-shoes (other than FO)?

Why does it have to be so complex?
A final thought before I put this overblown post to bed. I went to help my next-door-neighbour with his new video. This is the next-door neighbour who sorts out my alarm when I'm away and it goes off. These folks also pay the window cleaner for me (though I try to pay them a payment in advance, I usually end up a couple in arrears) and don't chase me for the money. These are the folks whom I've not really said two words to in the last 6 months or so since I've been so self-absorbed and busy. They're good people and even though the lady of the house saw fit to update me on the news from my now non-communicative ex-fiancee (we said we'd remain friends, but I guess we got to the stage beyond that - people who don't communicate at all because they can't see any reason to - though attendance of my show in Edinburgh would have been nice...) yes, even though I got an update on the person who shall remain nameless, which rather played on my mind for no good reason, I was still very keen to help out with the setup of the video. I think the fact that I had a couple of hours of potato baking to do on Sunday evening after my rehearsal and before bedtime, gave me a window of time in which the video player and being neighbourly in return for services received became the highest priority.

The video was in fact a DVD recorder. The problem was that this machine was quite tricky to use if you're not accustomed to playing with computer interfaces. In addition, it didn't seem to be playing on the usual video channel (or indeed any channel I could tune the TV into). It was, however, working lovely if you watched it through the scart lead. I had to explain to the householder how to turn the TV onto AV channel 2, which is where the video was outputting its signal. All the other aspects of the machine he'd be able to master if he followed the potted instructions he had written down about how to navigate through the on screen user interface. So, getting the video onto the screen was his only concern. He simply wanted to press channel 8 on his TV remote control. But he couldn't. This made no sense to him and I started to see why. Why should there be a different way of choosing your channel if the device you want to watch is plugged into a different wire? What difference should it make. Surely the numbers for the channels are just convenient symbols to help you choose between them. If I want my TV to come onto channel 1 when it's off, I just press 1. If I want it to come on to channel 2, I press 2. However, I end up having to go through a whole series of buttons to get my channels. This is partly because I watch all TV through the cable box, but also complicated by the fact that my DVD player and cable box are both plugged in through scart. So, I have to turn the TV on by pressing a number (albeit for a channel I know I don't want to watch) then press the TV/AV button to go to the scart circuits, then press either red or green for DVD or Cable. Then on the cable box I have to choose the channel I want. This is a faff on. At least the TV makers should allow the AV channels to drop behind the regular channel buttons. That might simplify things a bit.

The neighbour summed up the problem, as I was doing my best to find the solution, with the words - "Why does have it have to be so complicated?". He's right. The answer is because we're creating solutions to problems that are, in some way, a product of the complexities of the problem, rather than encapsulating those complexities and hiding them from the user. There's no reason why a TV watcher (rather than the person who sets your TV up) needs to care how something is connected. They just need to know which channel they should choose. Equally, computer software users don't really care about how many options there are to make something work, they just want it to work out of the box. I should learn this lesson well... I've got some software to fix tomorrow and it needs to just make sense when I'm done!

That's me for now.


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