I’m a little bit obsessive-compulsive. It’s not debilitating – I haven’t washed my hands once since starting this sentence - but it definitely plays a part in my everyday life.
Incidentally, OCD would scan a lot better alphabetically.
Part of it probably comes with being an actor. It’s quite common to go through a series of little rituals before a performance; partly out of superstition, partly out of the necessity to warm up. I definitely do this - though sometimes it’s hard to tell whether my little pre-show routines fall more into the former or the latter category.
Sometimes it’s just about clearing your mind. When you’re onstage in a play, it’s very easy for your personal thoughts to intrude; the last thing you want when you’re trying to concentrate on what your character should be thinking. This is particularly common if you’ve been doing the same show night after night; I remember Hugh Laurie once describing this in an interview as being akin to an out-of-body experience: after standing in exactly the same place saying exactly the same thing day after day, week after week, you can start to step outside of yourself – and cease to have an accurate opinion of what you’re doing.
Having a personal routine can help focus your mind and prevent this from happening.
Glyn, Cal and I had a strange little ritual before every performance of our 2008 Edinburgh show ‘The Balloon Debate’. I don’t know how it started, but every night, just before they opened the house, we’d sing the line “You’ll have a gay old time” from Flinstones Theme, in three-part harmony.
We kept doing it out of habit - but if we'd forgotten to do it one night it would have played on my mind, and probably affected my performance.
Could somebody phone a medic? Thanks.
Occasionally, these routines are less to do with compulsion and more about staving off boredom. I once toured with the show ‘The Roy Orbison Story’, doing eight shows a week for about five months – and every so often, subtle little games would start creeping into the performance.
The show opened with a funeral scene (always a crowd-pleaser), with the cast standing solemnly, as if around a casket. Occasionally someone would decide on a theme for the congregation, and we’d all follow suit. Once we did it in the style of George W Bush, all adopting a suitably arms-outstretched, legs-wide-apart stance. On another occasion the mourners were all standing on one foot.
We were backlit at the time, and upstage from the main action, so it’s unlikely that anyone would have noticed. I’d still like to apologise for being so unprofessional; I was led astray by a cast of older, naughtier actors.
On one occasion the cast even played a game of tag; subtly tapping each other on the shoulder from scene to scene, passing the lurgy around the stage. I’m pretty sure that no-one in the audience would have clocked it, but I seem to remember Roy and his manager being more tactile that night than in any subsequent performance.
I've veered a little off-topic; I'll try and drag myself back to the original subject.
I don’t just apply these strange rituals to my work.
My first job on leaving drama school was another actor-musician show called ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven’, in which I was a lead guitarist. Once onstage I didn’t exit until the interval, so I always had to make sure I had plenty of plectrums in my pocket. This sounds reasonable enough – but ever since I've always had at least three plectrums about my person, and losing them can start a mild panic.
At least I'm always prepared for a jam.
The number three actually plays a big part in my neuroses: I always carry three folded tissues in my pockets – one in the front left, two in the back right – and there are a number of obscure little mantras involving the number three that I've been known run through when no-one's looking.
I won’t share all of them with you, for fear that someone will come to lock me up.
As the years have gone by, I’ve managed to phase out some of these little quirks. You soon realise that missing one occasionally doesn’t lead to disaster. I'm sure that most people have their own equivalent - or at least I keep telling myself that to act as a reassurance.
You don’t want to know how many times I check I’ve locked a door or closed a window, though.