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Actor-musos get jobs

My favourite young audience pieces are always those featuring actor musicians. Increasingly I am seeing actor-musos in theatre for grown ups too. At present their skills are fashionable within the industry and they’re much in demand.

So how do you get to be an actor muso? Most of them are people who’ve learned instruments – perhaps to a high standard – but who knew they fell short of virtuoso quality or perhaps simply didn’t want to follow a music conservatoire route into a music career. Instead they want to cast the performance net more widely. As one young actor I interviewed told me “I did clarinet, saxophone and piano at school but I knew I’d never be good enough to work as a music pro. On the other hand, doing it this way, I get plenty of opportunity to play and sing as an actor.”

Two points about actor musicians. They’re versatile. If you’re a modestly competent pianist you will probably, with a bit of practice, be able to use an accordion or hit out a tune on a glockenspiel or xylophone if the director wants some particular effect. Brass players, whichever instrument they’ve learned can usually get notes out of other brass instruments. And the same applies to strings. I especially like it when I see a small cast moving round a piece of work as it progresses and by the end they’ve almost all played the onstage piano, guitar or double bass as well as percussion instruments. It’s also glorious when the cast forms a band, usually in a folky style, and I’ve sometimes heard a sound so good I’ve wondered if they go off gigging or busking together after the show. But it isn’t remotely like playing in, for example, a symphony orchestra because you have to act, really act, as well. Fancy being able to be a monkey – as cast members did in last year’s The Jungle Book (Children’s Touring Partnership, led by Fiery Angel and Chichester Festival Theatre) and play the cello at the same time!

Second, they’re very employable. And anything which makes jobs less difficult to nail has got to be worth pursuing. So an actor who ever played anything at whatever basic level would be well advised to blow the dust off it and start practising like mad.

Given all this it is hardly surprising that the number of full-time vocational courses for actor musos is growing. There’s a new one for 2020 at Leeds College of Music, for example. GSA’s course is just about to start work with its fifth cohort. Rose Bruford College whose course is very well established, has an excellent record for getting actor musicianship graduating students signed to agents, Mountview suggests that applicants need to play at least one instrument at around Grade 5 although more (both more instruments and higher grades) is welcome and they appreciate that not everyone has taken formal exams. In practice, it’s what happens in the audition which counts and potential actor musos have to do the usual monologues as well as play a piece on the chosen instrument.

And of course there are plenty of people working as actor-musos who simply trained as actors and who use their musical skills as and when required. Lucy Rivers stands very clearly in my memory. She  took the lead role as a violin playing young Maia in Unicorn Theatre’s Journey to the River Sea (adapted by Carl Miller and directed by Rosamund Hutt) in 2006. She was simply bringing her music and acting together in her own way – although, obviously, it was the ability to do both as well as she does which got her the job. Since then she has since co-founded the multi award-winning company Gabblebabble. I also loved Blackeyed Theatre’s actor muso take on The Sign of Four, which has just finished touring. The music and the instruments simply drove the story.

All actors, therefore, would do well do try and cultivate it whether they trained – or are training – in “straight” acting or actor musicianship. Even if you didn’t learn an instrument in childhood it’s never too late to master the basics, at least. And some instruments such as the rudiments of guitar or ukelele for strumming chords or recorders and whistles for simple melodies can be picked up quite quickly. Even in opera the effect can be magical as in a production of Don Giovanni, I saw a few years back in which Duncan Rock in the title role, clearly a competent guitarist, accompanied himself in one of the seduction arias.

As in so much in this industry, if you can offer something extra, you are more likely to be in work than someone who can’t.

Photograph: GSA’s production of Betty Blue Eyes


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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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