I don’t remember what I was dreaming about before we stopped for gas in the middle of the night somewhere between Strasbourg and Grenoble, France. I do remember how my dream ended. We were surrounded by zombies who kept repeating the name “Angelaaaaa, Angelaaaaa, Angelaaaaa” in the same gravelly, slurred tone they normally use moaning for braaaaaaains.
When I awoke I realized that, though the zombies were an invention of my unconscious mind, the voices calling for Angelaaaaa were not. Our incredibly drunk French road manager Luc had stumbled from the crew bus onto ours, looking for Angela, a British former Lido dancer whose job on our tour I’m still at a loss to define. The crew was having a party on their bus—as they did on every overnight drive—and they wanted us to join them.
The producers had arranged for us to travel in large touring buses, with bunks on the upper level and living room-style seating on the bottom level. Two out of three nights we stayed in hotels. But many nights we had to drive from one end of France to the other to make it in time for the show the next day. We criss-crossed the country so many times it was like who ever built the show itinerary just threw darts at a map of France blindfolded.
The crew loved the overnight drives. Every time the buses would make a pit stop, they would stagger, drunk and singing, out of their bus, great clouds of cigarette smoke billowing out after them. They needed no excuse to drink, and did so constantly. When we first met up with the crew in Montpellier, they were offended that we wouldn’t drink wine with our lunch – despite the fact that we had to do three shows immediately afterward. Work obligations didn’t stop them from partaking, why should it stop us?
Hours later that same night, following another stop, I was awoken by the sound of the most extreme snoring I’ve ever heard. One of the French crewmen, who had hooked up with one of the female members of the cast, had drunkenly stumbled into her bunk and joined her there. At first I was relieved that he’d just fallen asleep, but I eventually realized that the sound of copulation would have been much preferable to the ungodly noises coming out of his sinuses.
It was like there was a lumber mill operating inside his face, and there was nothing I could do to make it stop. At one point, I threw a copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare at him. But the collected force of some fifteen hundred pages of English’s greatest author was powerless to stop the common French snore. Maybe it’s because of the nasal placement with which French people talk (as compared to the more guttural Quebecois French with which I’m more familiar) that made him such an effective snorer. Maybe he had a horrible sinus infection. Maybe he took special lessons. I don’t know. All I know is that I did not sleep any more that night.
Upon arriving at our theatre in Grenoble, the crew, in conditions ranging from hungover to still drunk, were already setting up the temporary stage and thousands of pounds audio gear and lighting rigging—a not so comforting thought given that failure to properly secure a lighting truss could result in a lot of dead people in animal costumes.
But that was just an average night for the crew. They were more used to working drunk and hungover than clear-headed. Finish the show, pack up the set, get blackout drunk on the bus, sleep for three hours, then set up the next show. Finish the show, pack up the set, get blackout drunk, etc, etc… Contrast that with the cast. Finish the show, have a glass of wine on the bus followed by an OFFICIALLY MANDATED PROHIBITION ON NOISE STRICTLY ENFORCED AT ELEVEN PM. Those cast members who enjoyed partying did so on the crew bus, and even then, only sparingly.
For a while, I was amazed at our French crew’s ability to maintain that kind of gruelling schedule over the long haul. Most of them were drunk for the entire tour—as soon as they started sobering up it was lunchtime, and in France one does not eat lunch without a glass (or three) of wine. It wasn’t until one of my castmates walked by the production office and found a bunch of them snorting some magical nose dust that we learned how they managed to get through the day.
The crew thought we were pretty lame, which I can understand. As my French is embarrassingly poor, I didn’t spend a lot of time talking to the crew. But from what I heard, they were used to touring with French rock acts—who were more amenable to the party life than children’s entertainers. We had a few crew/cast parties along the way, but even the tamest among the crew would get drunker and stay later than any of us. I think a younger cast would have tried harder to keep up. But everyone in the cast was between their late twenties and early thirties—the time you start realizing you can’t pull all-nighters and function the next day like you did in college. Staying up that way leaves me feeling foggy for at least two days now.
The ironic thing is that our much harder-living crew skewed older—most in their mid 30’s to 40’s. Some were single, but many had girlfriends or wives. Some even had kids. But for all of them working as road crew wasn’t just a fun thing to do for a while. It wasn’t a neat break from the cycle of auditioning and working your way through regional theatres the way it was for us. It was their career. It was their identity. Where the cast was a bunch of actors drawn from across Canada, doing a single contract before moving on to the next gig, the crew identified as a band of brothers. The crew coped with the costs of a permanently itinerant life by drinking themselves stupid every night. If I knew I wouldn’t be seeing my child in months, I might do the same.
The drinking and smoking were the biggest culture shocks for the cast. Some people have a perception of actors as alcohol-fueled train wrecks, but my experience has shown that simply isn’t the case. Especially with Canadian actors. People tend to be much more concerned about protecting their voices and staying in good health until the end of the run. We’re too used to working with no understudies. You don’t get to take a show off unless you’re dead, and even then the assistant stage manager might prop your corpse up on a dolly and roll you around the stage, reading your lines from a script.
Nobody wants to have to do a show sick, particularly a show in those big animal costumes. Doing a show hung over in a massive, furry, sweat drenched bear costume, where the only thing you can smell are your own farts, breath, and body odour would be a special kind of hell.