While North West-based actor David Crellin was appearing as Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights at Manchester’s Royal Exchange back in March, Coronavirus was taking hold, not only on the theatrical world but the entire world.
People were unsure whether it was safe to go to the theatre, and rumours were rife.
As we now know, the cast of the following Royal Exchange show, West Side Story – in which David was to have played Doc and Officer Krupke – gathered for day one of rehearsal... and that’s pretty much as far as they got.
“We were all trying to be positive as our director (outgoing REx artistic director Sarah Frankcom, reviving her 2019 production by popular demand) sent us home to research our roles,” said David.
But while they worked it was announced the theatre, in common with all others, would have to close. “I was receiving texts and messages,” says the 58-year-old Yorkshireman. “About 100 people were told the news and some were in tears.”
It wasn’t just the cast of WSS: closure night should also have been the press night for the Exchange’s production of Rockets and Blue Lights. Saddened members of the West Side Story cast watched it with other theatre insiders from the balconies, before it too was cancelled.
Since then, like most of us, David has been restricted in what he could do. He and his wife grow vegetables, take dog Geoffrey for walks and he has done some volunteer work, keeping in touch with the theatre world through social media.
Lots of actors have similar stories, and this isn’t anything new to the profession. Most have had periods when work has dried up: “Some project always turns up,” says David, “whether it is acting or something else.”
The difference this time is that there is work, but he and his colleagues aren’t allowed to do it. Not yet, anyway: the Royal Exchange has promised West Side Story will return in time, but at the moment no one knows when. Theatres keep extending their lockdown dates and it looks like many, if not most, rep theatres, will abandon the spring and summer and come back “clean” with a new autumn season.
Which leaves David and his colleagues keen to expand their skills or brush up on old-learned techniques. David is well known throughout the region for his work in television and theatre, from Emmerdale, Coronation Street, The Cops, and Moving On, to many stage productions around the country, Wuthering Heights being just the most recent.
When he is at work, moving between the two genres is a technical and emotional challenge he relishes: “When it’s a stage production I can get weeks to try the part and develop it and expand ideas with the director and cast,” he explains.
“In television sometimes we get only 45 minutes with another actor to record a scene, so you need to quickly establish a rapport and trust each other immediately.
“Trust is very important in everything, I think. Trust in writers, producers, directors, stage managers, dressers and so on.”
Much of that trust must be between actor and director, and for someone less experienced than David, moving between genres can bring tough challenges. But even experienced performers can be elevated by the right persuasion.
“In some ways no and in others yes,” he says. “You have to do as you are told, of course, and usually the way the director wants it works better than the way I might have thought about it beforehand.
“In Wuthering Heights, for instance, there was one point at which I had to look at my son and say: ‘I just look at you and see nothing worth liking’. Initially I delivered this quite aggressively, but then the director (Bryony Shanahan) asked me to deliver it as a flat statement – and it was much more powerful.
“In theatre you have to be aware of what the whole room is seeing and hearing. At the Exchange you even have to act through your back, since it’s in the round.”
Television, in which David is also vastly experienced, can be as much a technical challenge as one of pure performance: “In TV you have to be very aware of what the camera is seeing. For instance, if you are waving your arms about in one shot and the next scene has you in close-up, it might look rather odd. So you have to work not only to the shot you are in, but the following one too. And on camera you can be very intimate, use a very soft voice or small expressions. There aren’t many theatres where that works.”
Theatre and TV are both mixtures of performance and artifice, of course, and it’s the combination of actor, lighting, set, props and make-up that comes together to thrill an audience Sometimes even small changes can have a big effect: “In one TV production I played a rogue and was asked just to lower the peak of my cap. I was a bit concerned my eyes wouldn’t show and I wouldn’t be able to show emotion, but I actually came across as much more sinister. That simple change made a big difference.”
The one thing actors love about theatre, of course, is the live audience – something TV appears to lack. Or does it?
“The crew and the rest of the team are the audience! It isn’t the same – it’s a bit like comparing beer and wine – but it still works,” he says.
“Interestingly, when you are in something like a long-running TV series and the cast has been working together for a long time, you feel a bit more ‘in’; you create a world for yourselves as much as for the people watching.”
Though actors go where the work is, they are still flesh and blood people. Working away for long periods can take its toll. Not all actors are natural travellers or explorers.
“I’ve worked away from home both with theatre and television, but I prefer to be able to come home every night,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to be the sort of actor who doesn’t see his wife and children for months at a time.”
“Having said that, working away does give you the chance to see places you wouldn’t otherwise have seen. I have had great experiences in Oxford, Edinburgh, Belfast, Nottingham and others.”
The trick, he says, is to get the best out of each stopping-off place: “I tend to get up early and spend the morning going to see things, then sleep in the afternoon before doing the evening show,” he explains.
The combination of working with like-minded, energetic and often emotionally-driven people can offer quite a high, he admits: “I find the intensity exhilarating. I enjoy it most when I can work, yet be home each night. I tend to play small men in a big world – and that’s me, really!”
But for each “up” there is the other side of the coin: the tiring that promotes deep lows.
“With both theatre and TV, the worst thing is getting over-tired,” he admits. “I would struggle doing a very long theatre run these days: that’s hard work!”
Television has its ups and downs too: “You sometimes have to do a night shoot followed by a morning one – that can be tiring. And in Emmerdale once I had to do 54 scenes in a fortnight.
“On the other hand I was once in Malta for 21 days and was needed only for 11 of them. I was so bored!”