This is the true story behind why I decided (reluctantly at the time) to ditch my “OK” career as a theatre actor and embark on a road of cleanliness (punt intended).
I admit that “OK” might be a generous way to describe my career at that stage of my life. I was appearing in a couple of low-key parts in independent plays, still chasing the big breakthrough. Shooting shampoo and medicine commercials was paying the bills, but I knew it was not a long-term option. I had given myself another six months before quitting and finding “a real job”, as my parents insisted.
And then my breakthrough came. Or at least I thought so. A young director inspired by Ralph Fiennes’ version of Coriolanus wanted to put the play on stage with a modern twist. Hackney’s Yard Theatre was sponsoring the project, which gave me the opening I needed – I knew they usually supported local actors and artists, and I’ve lived in Hackney all my life. I quickly learned that the lead was already cast, but one of the most important supporting parts – the Volscian general Tullus Aufidius – was up for grabs.
In my mind, I had all the advantages on my side – I loved the play and knew the text well; I had studied it in my acting classes and watched our professor do a beautiful breakdown of the leading characters. So when I walked into the audition, I was full of ill-founded confidence.
I knew I had bungled it by the time the audition was over. The casting director did not even bother to pretend I had a chance, but the director followed me after I went off stage. “I really don’t mean to pile on you, lad, but you should seriously consider a career change. Don’t get me wrong – you are very bright and have a strong presence on stage. But something pulls you back. Maybe you are too technical – you know what the part should be and try too hard to get there. Instead, you should let the emotions lead you, immerse in the character, feel the words – do not study them.”
I had heard it all before – I was overthinking on stage instead of feeling it. But that failure was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. I had an audition for a chocolate bar ad the next day, but I could not force myself to do it. But then, what was I supposed to do? I was in my mid-twenties, close to broke and with no real career prospects. How was I going to pay the bills?
As so often happens in life, fate intervened. A high-school friend was just setting up his tenancy cleaning business in Hackney and wrote a post on Facebook saying he was looking for workers. I knew nothing about professional cleaning, but I figured I had nothing to lose, so I decided to call him. “90% of the people who enter the industry for the first time know nothing about professional cleaning (he said). But if you are not afraid of learning and hard work, you can advance pretty quickly.”
To my utter surprise, three weeks into my training, I was beginning to realise that I liked my new work. Moreover, I was quickly getting better at it. What had at first looked like a jump in the dark, a short-term detour, was proving to be one of the major choices in my life. But what happened next is a topic for another post…