Clean and Obscene: A Big Test

Well, there we go. I’ve done it. I’ve managed to do something that, twelve months ago, I could never have even contemplated. I performed on stage, in front of an audience, stone-cold sober. It’s the first time I’ve done something on stage without being chemically-altered in one way or another. And not just one night…for three nights in a row. I don’t pat myself on the back very much, so if you’ll just indulge me in this paragraph, then I can get on with the rest of my life.

I’m not saying it was easy, it wasn’t. It was incredibly tough. Even being in a theatre and seeing the bar lined up with booze was a test. I don’t know what it is about theatres, they just make me feel drinky. And, let me tell you, stood backstage in the darkness on that first night, listening to the audience file in and take their seats, I’d never wanted a drink more in my life. My heart was pounding, I was frantic. From behind the stage, I could hear the muffled opening lines of the play, and my anxiety ramped up tenfold. We were all nervous, the entire cast. We’d been working on this new piece of writing since December, locked away in the basement of a bar in the Northern Quarter of Manchester, and we knew that we found it funny, but then again we’d been confined to a room with it for the last three months. No-one apart from the cast had seen it, and so, we had no idea how the general public were going to react to it.

We all stood together, on that first night, backstage in complete silence, our ears straining for sounds of laughter. And sweet Jesus I wished I was drunk. Anything to take the edge of these nerves I was feeling, just please, some medicine to blunt the edge of the knife slicing into my brain. But it was too late now, even if I’d wanted to. Every titter from the audience made us look at each other and exchange relieved smiles. Maybe the play was good. Maybe it was all going to be OK. There were certainly more people here than I was expecting, I’d been having nightmares over the last few weeks of getting out on stage and being greeted by three people and a dog eating crisps off the floor.

All too soon it was my turn to take the stage. Jesus Christ, what a time to be sober. I’d been drunk when I auditioned for the part, actually. I’d nipped to a bar before my audition slot to “have a quick one” and calm the old nerves. I ended up having six double whiskeys and stumbling into the room. God alone knows why they cast me, but they did, and now here I was. Hidden at the side of the stage, wishing I was anywhere else, holding my breath for fear of mishearing my cue. Suddenly, it was time to go out there. I don’t remember too much about actually being on stage (I never do, it’s something to do with the adrenaline and how quickly everything moves) but people laughed in the right places and I felt right on top of my game. I came off after my first scene elated. This could actually be manageable. The months of rehearsal, hard work, line-learning, stress and sobriety have paid off. I knew where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be saying and what bit was coming next and I’ve been doing this job for ten years and in all honesty, I’ve never felt this confident on stage. I owe it all to my clear head.

After an hour and a half, the first night was over. I walked out with the rest of the cast and bowed, greeted by applause and cheers. I was absolutely over the moon. It had gone better than I could ever have expected, and, when I left the theatre that night, I’d never felt less like having a drink in my life.

The second night passed much the same as the first, and, at the end of the night, I was happy to go home and be asleep by 11pm, instead of going out to clubs and pubs with the rest of the cast. It sounded hellish to be honest, I mean, I’ve just spent 90 minutes prancing about on a boiling hot stage, do I then want to go and sip orange juice surrounded by the waste of Manchester’s social scene? I used to be paralysed by a fear of missing out. My thinking always used to be along the lines of “Well, if I go out now, who knows who I could meet or what will happen? It’s going to be brilliant!” These days, it’s more “You couldn’t pay me to freeze my arse off, waiting to get into a crowded club with shit music and an hour long wait for the bar.” My bed had never felt so good.

Then came the final night. The tension backstage was palpable. We had one more chance to get out there and give it to them. We’d had great numbers for the last two nights, we’d had a killer review posted online, and the play was looking like it was going to be a successful run. I was thrilled. The first act went supremely well. I was more nervous than I had been the previous night, this was the night my family were in. My mum, my father (despite me having done this for most of my adolescence and adulthood, this is only the third play he’s seen me in) my partner and her friend, and my best mate of twenty years had travelled up with his mum and step-dad to come and see it, and R from University (remember that dude?) So, the pressure was on, really. Like I said, the first act went incredibly well. Better than it ever has done, the laughs were so easy to get, the lines popped into my head as if I had written them, and every so often I could hear my mate’s laughter booming towards me from the darkness. Then came the interval.

I was outside the back of the theatre, having a cigarette with the leading man, when all of a sudden he announced he was nipping to the shop “for a bottle of wine”. I don’t have an issue with people drinking around me, especially not on a great night like this, and I was happy for him to go and get a celebratory drink to have a cheeky mouthful of in between his scenes. He raced off into the darkness, returning five minutes later with a medium-sized bottle of vodka.
“That’s not wine.” I said, dumbly.
“Well spotted” he said, as he unscrewed the red cap in one swift motion and up-ended the bottle into his mouth. “Ah well” I thought. “A cheeky shot of vodka isn’t going to kill anyone.” I left him to finish his cigarette, and walked back up to the dressing room. I finished putting on my costume, went for a piss, and by the time I’d come back out I was greeted by a frantic female member of the cast.
“He’s drunk half a bottle of vodka.” She told me, eyes wide in fear.
“Oh shiii-“ I began. Too late. The lights in the theatre had dimmed and it was time for Act 2. I watched on the monitors backstage as the leading man crashed onto the set as if fired from a cannon. I don’t know how much the audience picked up on, but I’ve seen him do that scene maybe fifty times, and I could tell he was hammered. He was dropping props (ironically, wine bottles) onto the floor, kicking them when they fell. He was stammering, tripping over his words the way my father used to do after a well spent afternoon in the pub. The scene was dragging on as he forgot where he was up to, didn’t take his cues, and generally made a pig’s ear of everything. Happily, the audience were lapping it up (like I’ve said in a previous post, the only job in the world where you can be obviously pissed off your face and be publicly lauded for it.)

I was stood watching the monitors with the stage manager and the writer. We couldn’t let the stage manager know he’d been drinking (something to do with insurance for the actors), but me and the writer just looked at each other. With each new fuck-up the leading man manufactured, we’d stare into the middle distance with fear. The writer looked at me, one eyebrow raised and simply said:
“He is?”
“Yeah.” I replied through gritted teeth. “He is.”

The leading man soon crashed his way backstage, and, spotting me, grabbed both my shoulders, pulled me towards him, and exhaled harshly into my face. My liver nearly shut down as I registered the fumes on his breath.
“You fucking stink of booze!” I told him, in no uncertain terms. Normally, I’m quite a happy go-lucky kind of a fella, but I was in no mood for this Richard Burton bullshit. He gave me, what I suppose, was meant to be a winning cheeky wink, before he grappled his way to the other end of the dressing room. I sat down and sighed with relief that this production would be done forever in about ten minutes. The writer shuffled past me nervously.
“I’ve never wanted to drink so much in my fucking life” I told him.
“Yeah” he replied calmly. “Me too.”

After the play had finished, I greeted my family. They had enjoyed it, and assured me they had no idea about the incident. Well, that was something. More importantly, I’ve achieved something this week I thought I’d never be able to do. Not only did I perform sober, I probably did the best performances I’ve ever done in my life over those three nights. Looking at my performance, and then looking at the drunken movements of this professional actor who I greatly admired, I am left in no doubt that alcohol does not make you a better actor, it merely makes you think you are. I am so grateful for my sobriety, and the opportunities it has presented. This is the way forward, and life is starting to deliver everything it had promised.
Until the next time,
Still Clean and Obscene,
J xxxxxxxxx

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