[I apologize for the length of this. I am considering renaming my blog “Attention-Hog Central”.]
Attending the stage door is an emotionally charged experience. So much so that my little “review” from yesterday may have come across as slightly cynical, or maybe even dismissive. A couple of comments have hinted at that (no accusation, ladies), and those who know me, probably realised that the form my post took was a feeble attempt at distancing myself from my own participation in “that kind of thing”. And so I have decided to write another, first person singular account of that memorable experience. I will be honest, but I will try and leave the irony outside. And just to make it clear from the beginning: I think it cannot be credited enough that Mr A goes out to meet his fans night after night after night, mentally and physically exhausted from what must be a harrowing journey in the head of Proctor, eight times a week. I know that that kind of fan-friendly behaviour is not a matter of course, or an attitude of duty and gratitude that all performers of his popularity display, but an attempt by RA to acknowledge the support his well-wishers are bestowing upon him. There may be a few words of criticism contained in my account, but please note that I do not criticize anyone specifically and individually or that I might not condone certain behaviour. I only want to describe honestly and truthfully what I saw, what I felt and how I reacted. And please also realize that I do not want to spoil anyone’s future or past fan experience with my account. This is not judgmental or prescriptive, it is only my very own and private reflections on an extraordinary event I was part of. Phew. Ok. Now.
I attended the performance of The Crucible on Friday, the 1st of August 2014. I was accompanied by my good friend D___ (who had also braved the Berlin Premiere of THDOS with me in December 2013 and who is also a well-wisher of Mr A’s, but not an active fan and not nearly as deep in this as I am). The suggestion to go and wait by the stage door was mine,not D___’s, but good sport that she is, she agreed to come along. I was quite timid about the whole thing myself. Yes, I wanted to see Mr A in the flesh (as opposed to John Proctor), and this seemed the only opportunity to do so, but I was yet quite ambivalent about queuing at the stage door. You see, when you go to the stage door, you are essentially outing yourself as a fan. Not just to yourself, your companions and other innocent passers-by on that road by the Old Vic, but also to the star in question. I quite like the idea of the fourth wall – of being openly “fan”, but without acknowledgment by the person you “fan” for. It keeps things easy and liberated that way, without the need for self-censoring thoughts or posts. Having said that, I also believe that it is important to show appreciation openly whenever we have experienced something in our lives that merits comment. I give positive feedback freely, whether it is to the person in the call-center who was able to answer my query or the lecturer at the local Georgian Society who spent an hour explaining about the power of symmetry. The stage door, so I convinced myself, was a way of showing my appreciation for Mr A’s talent in general and his performance that night in particular. And yes, I will admit that I was also quite interested in seeing the man a little bit closer up.
Before it came to that, I deliberately stalled a little bit, smoking a quick fag outside the theatre, basically dragging my feet at the idea of moving to the stage door and outing myself. So by the time we peeped around the corner, the queue was already half way between the stage door and the front of the theatre building. We joined. And cringed. “Embarrassing” was the word of the moment. Just for myself, not for anyone else. Being there, a grown woman, for a man I do not know. Part of a herd. Yes, I thought it was slightly surreal. If I had let D___, she would have left, I think. But now that I was there, I was going to wait and see. And she was caught with me.
I hadn’t really come to the stage door with any expectation at all. Attendance at the red carpet in Berlin had taught me that encounters like that are not conducive to any personal interaction. So I just wanted to observe, and this time without the filter of a lens between me and RA. I wasn’t even nervous. I was just curious. If I had had any plan for that kind of situation it was only that I wanted to congratulate RA on his performance. “Thank you for your performance – you had me in goosebumps and tears.” I did not want a picture with Mr A and I did not want an autograph, either. Instead of demanding something from him, I wanted to give something back – my honest thanks. That was why I was prepared to out myself and stand in that queue.
However, as soon as we were aware of his appearance outside, it became clear very quickly that he had quite a task in front of him. It’s hard to tell how many people were there – maybe 50 or 70? Predominantly women, of course, but of all ages. We were about half way down the line, and as he got closer, his dark head hovering over the crowd, turning here and there, the occasional camera flash going off, it became clear that he had to move quickly in order to meet all his fans, and that he would only stop if you had one of those requests that I had actually wanted to avoid i.e. if you had something for him to sign or requested a photograph. So I said to D___ that we’d have to get him to sign Pop Thorin if we didn’t want to be passed by. Since I felt too timid to talk, she offered to ask him.
And that’s what happened. He finally came near our spot, and D___ asked him “Can you sign this, please?” He did the tiniest of double-takes and asked for confirmation “You want me to sign this?” D___ said yes and also offered him a silver gel pen that I had in my bag (only the most precious for the King under the Mountain…). He took the pen and scribbled his trademark “RA” on Thorin’s head, simultaneously thanking us for coming. It happened all very quickly, and either totally dumbstruck or simply too lame to speak, I didn’t get my compliments in. At least I was able to reply to his thanks with an emphasised “Thank you *very* much!” To say more, and hogging his attention seemed impolite to the next fan in line. I made no such attempt. And on to the next well-wisher in line he went.
It was fascinating to watch his interaction with his fans: He would step sideways along the line, his head inclined to spot the posters and cards he was supposed to sign, also bending down slightly to his fans who, being women, tend to be shorter than him. It was almost as if he was making himself smaller, deflecting attention and *re*flecting attention back. But every time there was a photo request, he would draw himself up, straight spine, shoulders back, and smile nicely at the camera. (And by the way – he didn’t appear as tall in RL as he does in photos, on film or on stage. His fellow actors must all be really small. For reference – I am not that tall myself, 5’6″/1.68m.) As for his attire that night – much like in Berlin the moment was again such an onslaught that I could not even remember much. I thought he wore a red and white stripy shirt. D___ thought he wore a blue jacket. (It was a red and white checked shirt under a blue jacket!)
There is no photographic evidence of RA signing Pop Thorin, or of our short interaction with him. I had deliberately left Marky Mark at home, and I had decided not to live an encounter remotely through the screen of my iPhone or from behind the shield of my camera again. I was also slightly put off by a scene I had witnessed earlier on where a scrum of people surrounded him while he was working the line, taking pictures of him. This may sound hypocritical coming from me, a photographer, who takes pictures all the time, but it just made me feel uncomfortable. (Please do not take this personally as an attack on you, if you are someone who takes pictures at such an event. I acknowledge that my attitude is positively schizophrenic – I feel the situation is plain weird, the “zoo” as I described it in Berlin, with the rare animal on one side, and the public on the other, snapping away. And yet I like looking at those fan pics from stage door and red carpet myself, and I am glad that someone took them and shares them with us. I am not sure what is up with my attitude. It may have to do with my own inherent discomfort at being photographed.)
We did not hang around after that, to see RA meeting each and every last fan in the line, but hurried to the tube station to make it back before the trains stopped. It was about a quarter to midnight at that point. We had left the theatre at 11.10, joined the queue at 11.15 and RA appeared at about 11.30. So he must have spent a good half hour meeting his fans.
Was I disappointed by the experience? Emphatically no. I got what I wanted – a chance to observe RA in RL. And an autograph on Pop Thorin’s head. Did it feel like a performance? No, not really. I had the distinct impression that RA was there of his own volition. He was courteous, smiling, and complied with all the requests. He thanked everybody for being there and he seemed determined to meet as many requests as he could. I would not say that he actively avoided any conversations, either. But he appeared very humble and modest, something that very much endeared him to me. Would I do it again? Not on my own, no. I have seen it/him once, and I now know what the stage door is like. Plus, much of the fun of the event was sharing it with my friend. We were laughing about the absurdity of us, two adult women, queuing to see a fellow human being. But I was definitely impressed by the sense of genuine gratitude that RA exuded, his courteous manners, his dutiful demeanor, the sheer stamina of the man. And I was also very taken with the respectful and sweet behaviour of the crowd who were so happy to see him, who showed their appreciation of him openly and freely, and who did not make any unreasonable demands.
The longer I think about it, the more heart-warming I find it all. So if anyone asks, and as long as I don’t have to be there on my own, I’d confront my inner shyness again and give it another go. Even if only to vote with my feet and express through my mere presence that I appreciate RA’s talent. And his exciting taste in men’s trousers, of course.