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By Frankie Goodway
They’re ruthlessly stereotyped as insular, self-involved and just a little bit arty, and most of them apparently look like posters, but there remains something fascinating about the Oxford thespians that makes them easily one of the most attractive and identifiable groups of the Oxford scene. Night after night they put bums on seats, and they do it with such style that you barely realise that you’ve forked out a fiver to sit in a glorified lecture hall when the Oxford Playhouse gives out tickets to students for FREE. They attract an audience, and then they attract the audience.
Perusing this very paper’s Attenborough’s Oxford I found this insight into the sex appeal of thesps: “thespianus makes itself appear baffled about its sexuality, often imitating the mating calls and dances of other species which can draw quite a crowd of confused creatures.” What I have deduced from this is that Attenborough recognises what we at the drama section have long known – actors are inherently sexy. Knowing that awkward pull from Park End had a walk on part in last term’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (yes, I know there wasn’t one, this example is hypothetical) makes it all a little bit more impressive. One interviewee only loosely connected to the thespian scene (a producer and occasional writer) could express only moderate surprise when one man’s acting prowess led her to say “I want to sit at his feet and watch him stroke his own thighs.” Quite.
In fact, it’s not just actors. Directors and producers, with their intellectual vision of a play and deep understanding of Shakespeare, carry off that charming intellectualism that far too much Brideshead and Wilde has led us to believe is the pinnacle of Oxford eligibility. Indeed, one close friend of mine found her thespy boyfriend charmed the bright pink lacy pants off her, before leaving them on the Keble O’Reilly stage when the caretaker approached. However, since I myself once directed a production for Cuppers making vast generalisations about the sexual appeal of crew members isn’t quite as easy as I’d like it to be.
Part of it has to be conflating characters, and the words they speak, with the people that play them. It was really William Shakespeare who made Viola into such a catch. However, watching a production it is easy to start thinking an actor or actress really is just better than you are. They can be two different people, and you’re stuck with just you! One actor of my acquaintance, when asked if actors were inherently sexier, reluctantly confided that “I would say that they definitely think they are, but as to whether they actually are? Hmm…” before asking me if I could “throw in just how immensely sexy I am.” He is, but he’s also anonymous.
However, moving beyond the idea of some kind of combined theatrical/sexy gene, perhaps part of the appeal is pecuniary. When tasked with leaving with either a blue, a first or a spouse, the theatregoer might jump to the idea of snaring the next Felicity Jones (Wadham, 2006) or Hugh Grant (New, considerably earlier) than actually working, or working out. Unfortunately, the onstage talent seldom hand out their numbers to members of the audience, or to the reviewers who work so tirelessly to promote them. Why no one seems to realise that being described as ‘charming’ is about as subtle as signing a preview with XOXO is beyond me, though I am told of one interesting exception. Apparently, one actor demanded everyone in a certain production refer to him as ‘Sexy Hector’ after a reviewer gave him the epithet. He has graciously decided to forgo anonymity, so if anyone fancies reviving the nickname, look no further than Alex Mills, whose play Out Through The In Door will oh so coincidentally be on in eighth week.
Dear Mr Mills, in making the gracious transition from actor to writer, presents a classic example of what we at the Drama desk call incest, though strictly it’s multitasking. Thesps are different things to different productions, one moment an actor, the next a director, possibly even descending to the level of reviewer. They get around. However, another type of incest emerged when I delved deep into the murky waters of cast parties. These, one source confided, “are just an excuse for the crew to get with the various members of acting team they fancied.”
More controversial, however, was the subject of cast-on-cast relations. Suddenly prominent thesp-sources fled from me, fearing reprisals from the Dramafia, and my last-minute Facebook chat enquiries were met with apologies and closed windows. One brave soul raised their anonymous head above the parapet to reveal the truth. “Every time there is an onstage kiss – things happen. Most onstage couples appear to be quite frisky in real life too.” No doubt many an audience member has suspected such, but hearing an idle thought confirmed was somewhat alarming. In fact, my passive-aggressive, frivolously cold heart was moved to pity as she confided about the thespians suffering for their art: “In some ways a lot of the emotional problems that appear for thesps seem to be echoed in the plots of their respective plays… I suppose you could say something about the sort of people who want to parade their emotional powers in front others tend to be quite volatile in romance. The dramatic are bound to be dramatic in all aspects of life.”