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James Lark

A Day in the Life of an Actor-Musician

26 January 2014 Natasha Sutton-Williams

“Not everyone enjoys theatre or acting, but music is the international language. It’s universal.”

Joey Hickman came straight out of drama school into a West End show - Dreamboats and Petticoats. Since then he’s toured as an actor-musician on shows like The Snow Spider produced by Ovalhouse, I Was A Rat! for Birmingham Rep and Our House for New Wolsey Theatre.

London Calling: What does an actor-musician do?

Joey Hickman: I’m an actor, I’m a musician, and I’m an actor-musician. I combine the two as well as doing them separately. I play piano, accordion, trombone and sing. Actor-musicianship is quite complex because you go between playing different characters, playing an instrument in character, stepping out of the narrative, looking at the scene taking place and playing your instrument as a member of the chorus. For example, there might be a bar scene where everyone in the bar is playing an instrument, or there might be an intimate duet between two characters while a chorus of actor-musicians vocally backs them. There are many ways to use actor-musicians on stage.

LC: What are the differences and similarities between music and acting?

JH: To be a good musician you have to be technically able at your instrument: whether you’ve jumped through the hoops in terms of grades, or you’ve taught yourself or gone to lessons you go through a process of becoming technically able. When it comes to acting you need to have the technical skills in order to use your voice, body and mind in the right way, but it’s so subjective. One person might think an actor is absolutely sublime, while another person might think he’s hammy and just a bit crap. There isn’t a measuring system for good acting. It isn’t as technically tangible as music.

Music and acting work so well together because both are telling a story. Music is a journey: if you listen to any song it tells a story, there’s a beginning, middle and end. Acting is storytelling. That’s why people go to the theatre. People love stories and music tells stories well. I don’t think there’s anyone on this earth who doesn’t listen to music or have a musical element in their life. Not everyone enjoys theatre or acting, but music is the international language. It’s universal. That automatically plays into theatre in a big way.

LC: Does an actor-musician have to play many instruments?

JH: You don’t have to play more than one instrument, you just have to be accomplished on the one you do play. You have to know it, play freely and feel comfortable so that when someone throws something at you, you can say, ‘Yeah, let’s play around with this idea’. It’s having the freedom to explore your instrument, that’s the most important thing. If you’re able to act well and play your instrument well, you’re an actor-musician.

LC: Do you devise the music or is it all scored beforehand?

JH: I’ve done shows where it’s all original music but I’ve also been in musicals where the music has been prewritten, usually for an orchestra, so in an actor-musician production they take the original score and rearrange it, because it may have been written for a thirty piece pit orchestra while in an actor-musician musical you rarely have thirty performers on stage. There’s a lot of rejigging and rethinking of the score to tailor it to the actor-musician cast. It’s challenging because you have to play this music, learn it off by heart, sing and perform all your characters and your chorus parts.

LC: How do you incorporate actors that aren’t actor-musicians into the music?

JH: You might get an actor who is not an actor-musician but they play something like a recorder, and you can use that. It’s charming and it works as long as you keep it really simple and make it truthful to the piece. It can be beautiful even if it’s very simple. As long as you have someone leading musically who understands what the director wants, they can tailor the music to fit the piece.

LC: How many jobs are out there for performers like you?

JH: More and more. With the current climate, producers are hiring actor-musicians because its cheaper: you’re employing people to do two or three things when previously you’d employ two or three people to dance, sing, act, and play an instrument. There are more actor-musician productions being produced, even in the West End.

LC: What are you doing next?

JH: I’m rehearsing The Threepenny Opera with Graeae theatre company for a nationwide tour. It’s a twenty strong cast including disabled actor-musicians.

LC: Do you think actor-musicians listen more than other actors?

JH: You’re underscoring the show with music so you have to be generous the whole time. Actors have to be generous too, they have to listen to each other; a good actor will be listening as much as a good musician. It’s all about listening.

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