Acting adventures in TV, theatre and the Edinburgh Fringe with actor and comedian Dan March
Dan March is an actor, comedian, writer and director who has appeared in TV shows Miranda, Eastenders, Casualty and Doctors, performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for 10 years, featured in commercials for McDonald's, Weetabix and Direct Line Insurance and is in the upcoming Johnny English 3 starring Rowan Atkinson. Described as "brilliantly witty" by The Daily Telegraph, Dan is an actor who has done it all. Here he tells Mandy News about his acting journey and what he's learned from his 20 years in the game.
Dan, tell us where you’re from, when you decided to go in to acting and writing and how you went about it.
I went to Bishop Wordsworth’s School in Salisbury and had a very encouraging English teacher called Mr. Cox, who pushed me to be in school plays. Normally it was just for the sixth form but in the fifth year he asked me to be in the full uncut version of Hamlet - yes, over four hours! I played the English ambassador who comes on right at the end and says “Oh look everyone’s dead and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead as well!” My mum sat through four hours to see me do that. Funnily enough, that kind of made me realise that I wanted to be an actor.
Then I joined the local amateur dramatics society as well as doing school plays in the sixth form where I was fortunate to play lead roles.I thought about going to drama school and then I got a place at Oxford. Mum and school were very positive about that so I went, read French there, did plays each term and went up to Edinburgh and did the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time back in 1993 - when I was... erm... two. Ahem.
After university, I applied to drama school. Being from a single parent family I was lucky to have a full grant and all my fees paid at university. I was in that last group to get that and I really do sympathise with those who are having to make that choice at university now, on whether they want to be saddled with huge amounts of debt. There was no way that I could get a second grant for drama school, so I applied for The Poor School which had a great ethic. (It recently closed sadly - although I understand former teachers Trudi and Marcelle have set up ‘The School’ (http://theschoollondon.co.uk)) . You worked during the day to pay the fees and trained evenings and weekends. The fees were heavily subsidised compared to other drama schools so it was a viable option for me.
After drama school I did a one-man show around old peoples’ homes to get an Equity card, joined the Actors Centre (https:// www.actorscentre.co.uk) and got an agent from a showcase there.
That takes me up to 1998, so I’ve been a professional actor now for 20 years. That was a circuitous route: school, am-dram, university, drama school, useful courses at the Actors Centre –there! How about that?”
How was it going in to professional acting? How did you get work and become audition-ready in the earlier years?
20 years ago, obviously, the internet wasn’t really a thing. One way we found jobs was through a newsletter called PCR which was broken down into fringe theatre, professional theatre, low budget films and TV and feature films. It was printed on this red paper so you couldn’t photocopy it. You’d have a massive stack of headshots, all your CVs and you’d staple those together and write a covering letter. You’d probably send off about 15-20 letters a week.
When I started, I did quite a bit of fringe theatre, made a lot of contacts and did loads of student and short films to build up a showreel.
I did NewsRevue, which was hugely useful to me, seeing as I’ve branched more and more into comedy over the last 10-12 years.
Twenty years ago, I had my first agent. There are levels of agents and my first agent was nowhere near as good as my current agent, Cheryl Hayes (http://cherylhayes.co.uk). It’s finding someone that you click with, who works hard for you and who has contacts in the right area that you’re working in - and Cheryl ticks those boxes.
There are, of course, good and bad years when you start out. In 2000 I had a great year and thought I’d made it! I did a couple of adverts, EastEnders, I was auditioning for lots of good TV roles and did a job with Johnny Ball - where I was being paid a lot of money to do very little at the Millennium Dome – and I thought “Here we go, I’m off and running. This is it!” And then the next year I didn’t work at all and I thought “Oh, I thought I had a career then for a second.”
Those are the hardest times - and I have two bits of advice for when you’re not working.
The first is, if you’re an actor, then write. Actors naturally understand dialogue and story so be a writer in between. Write stuff yourself - put it on or film it! Make stuff!
And the second is this: a very good friend of mine called Toby Longworth talks about “money engines”. Whether that be murder mysteries, good promo work (e.g. http:// www.ministryoffun.net) , hosting pub quizzes, doing corporate roleplay – whatever. Find your money engines that pay the bills but, crucially, still give you flexibility to prepare for auditions and read scripts.
Tell us about what you’ve done over the years and the things you’re most proud of and any challenges you’ve faced.
I feel lucky to still be going after 20 years. I am also very fortunate that the last time I had to do some temping was about 12 years ago.
My first TV job was EastEnders, which was an amazing experience. I was in several episodes, I sold the Queen Vic for Peggy Mitchell so I was working with Barbara Windsor. It was just great to work with all these people and I have fond memories of relaxing in the green room with Wendy Richard and Michael Elphick.
The Real MacGuffins is a sketch group I’m in with Jim Millard and Matt Sheahan, and it has been a real joy to do over the last ten years. I met Jim, who is currently in King Lear with Sir Ian McKellen, in 1999 at a course at the Actors Centre.
The Edinburgh Fringe is a fantastic experience. I did a couple of solo shows at the Gilded Balloon and improv at the Pleasance. I’ve done it 10 times and it’s a great learning curve. In 1999, I did a play called Lovepuke which was nominated for Best Ensemble award by The Stage and that got me a new and better agent.
With the MacGuffins, we did Edinburgh four times. We’ve been on Radio 4 and we were commissioned to write for Mitchell and Webb so we’ve had a pretty successful time. A couple of years ago we were approached by the director John Walton – a protégée of the incredible Cal McCrystal, both of whom directed us in Edinburgh – to create our current show. John’s got great creative vision and he discovered this book called Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain which was given to US servicemen in 1942 to teach them how to fit in to British society.
We got the rights to adapt it, then developed and wrote the play at Chipping Norton Theatre who were a great to help us and we were fortunate enough to get Arts Council Funding too. We toured the country for six months and took it to the wonderful Jermyn Street Theatre last July.
The show’s fun,silly,funny and not too deep. It laughs at the Brits, it laughs at the Americans and revels in our shared stupidity and eccentricities. Jermyn Street loved it and said they’d only ever taken one show to New York with Michael Gambon and that they’d love to help us.
So we’re taking it to New York next April! We open on April 15 at 59E59 theatre just off Broadway and we can’t wait!
And you’ve done some adverts and voiceover work too? Tell us about those.
I’m in an advert at the moment for Purple Bricks wearing only a towel. I apologise if anyone’s seen that and it’s put them off their dinner! And a Peugeot ad that’ll be out later this year.
Adverts are a great thing to do. You feel like a superstar for the day because you’re the lead role. They pay very well and it doesn’t require a huge amount of your time to do it. They facilitate and allow you to then pursue other work, so you might be able to do a play for a bit less money. I’ve done a few dozen adverts over the years and they help keep you going.
Also, for voiceover, I have a wonderful agent Ben at Vocal Point (http://www.vocalpoint.net). Voiceover has been good for me this year. I’m the voice of MBNA online and for dog heart monitors - yes, I’m even saving dogs.
Edinburgh’s on, what is your advice for someone who is going for the first time and how to do it right?
Edinburgh is a tricky beast but the constant for me is how you sell your show when you’re there. That first week of generating word-of-mouth is vital. Flyering is an evil but it’s a necessary evil. There are right and wrong ways to flyer.
Who is the perfect audience for your show? Is it couples? Is it families with kids? Is it older people? What would be the perfect demographic for your audience? Approach those people and tell them what the show’s about and what kind of humour or drama it is. Engage them in a conversation that they will hopefully remember, rather than just shoving a flyer in their hand. People being flyered are people too!
Do your preparation beforehand. Make sure your show is ready - that’s one of the huge things. A lot of people go up and go “Oh, I’ll bed it in for a few days.” No! Reviewers can come on your first preview!
Try to start previewing your show in November, December, January. If you can develop buzz six months beforehand, then the press start talking about you in April, May or June. Actually this is really advice for those who want to go next year!!
If it’s your first year, have a good time and enjoy! See other shows while you’re up there, meet, network and go out drinking! Each time I’ve gone it’s always been a wonderful riot of three and a half weeks. I’ve done it in many forms: stand-up, theatre, improvisation, sketch comedy and one-man storytelling. One year I did five different shows a day and that was insane.
There will be down points as well and it’s how you come through those.There’s a black Wednesday, the second Wednesday, when hardly anyone goes to see shows. You think “I’m performing to one person and their pet chicken. How am I going to get through this?” Bear in mind, there are other people going through the same stuff. I remember sitting in a KFC once - not eating that pet chicken - with a couple of other stand-ups after we’d had a miserable day. The rain was pouring down outside and we shared that pain. So don’t be or feel all alone - if you are having a bad day, share it because you will have great days too. It will be packed out on a Saturday, the sun will be shining and the audience will give you a standing ovation and you’ll think “yes, this is why I do what I’m doing!”
How important do you think networking is to acting?
I do think networking is more and more important because it’s harder to get into the room these days. Especially for standard TV castings, casting directors are probably getting CVs from 200 agents. They’re going to whittle that list down and only see five actors for that part. So if you’ve already got a slight in, or if you’ve already met someone in a social situation then you’re ahead of the game.
What is that social situation? If you love theatre then go to opening or closing nights because it’s more likely that industry people will be floating around, or at least people involved with the show. If you’ve loved the play and the director’s there, go up to the director and say, “I thought that was amazing, I loved it”. Chat to the cast, as well, because they will know people and, if you get on well with them, they’ll tell you about other productions that are going on.
One of my very first tours was after an actor friend, who had been offered the part and couldn’t do it, suggested me. In fact I’ve just had two great theatre auditions and both came through recommendations from actors I had worked with - it does happen.
If you watch TV shows that you love, who is the casting director? Who is the producer? Who is the director? Note down their names, see what else they’ve done and write to them. There’s nothing wrong with sending a letter and saying “I absolutely loved this show. I’m an actor just starting out.” It’s great when you’re starting out because no-one knows who you are. Ask them what they’re doing next and if you can meet for a coffee and pick their brains about the industry and talk. I’ve been quite brazen with that and it has paid off. What have you got to lose? The worst they can say is no but at least you’ve asked.
I remember I once emailed a US producer when I was in LA for a year. He was an Oscar-Winning producer and I just sent him an email because I’d read a book that had mentioned him. I said I read this book and understood he was one of the nicest guys in Hollywood and he wrote back “I’m not sure about that but yeah, ok, pick my brains!” I met him, his wife and his kids, sat by his pool and he watched my showreel and it was a really positive meeting.
I do think networking is hugely important. Don’t be scared to go up to people, we’re all human beings. What’s wrong with saying hello? Be normal, don’t be weird, don’t be pushy, don’t be desperate. Do be fun and engaging. If you’ve got lots of interests in life then develop those interests. I play cricket as part of a team that involves some people who play from the industry and I’ve got work from that. Just by having a shared interest or hobby - that can also really help!
What’s your advice regarding showreels?
Your showreel has to sell you and, I think, ideally you as you. If it’s film of you using prosthetics or doing weird stuff, it doesn’t sell you to a casting director. The casting director wants to see you.
Also, the shorter the better now. It used to be four or five minutes for a reel but now it’s a minute and a half or two minutes that people are looking for. And that first shot should be you. As soon as they’re watching the reel, that first actor has to be you, even if you’ve just worked with someone famous. It’s your reel. If there’s someone famous that you’ve acted with, do have them in there, definitely – just don’t start with them.
Obviously, if there are two types you typically play then try to show that. Show an emotional range in there. Something that shows you can act and that you’ve been in a couple of good things that are well shot, where the sound is good and it looks good.
Cut montages. No-one wants a montage anymore. About 20 years ago, it had to have a montage - now not so much. They want to see you straight away and in two or three scenes so they can really get to see you doing something rather than choppy, choppy, choppy. That’s the best advice I can give.
Anything else you’ve got coming up?
I’ve had a really good year, I’m in the next Johnny English movie. It’s a small part but a great, fun role to film opposite Rowan Atkinson. That’s out in cinemas on October 12.
I’ve just filmed an episode of Doctors as a sex pest [laughs] – hopefully not typecast! That’s on in November this year.
And I’m about to start rehearsals in the comedy A Night in Provence at the Mill at Sonning, which I’m hugely excited about. It’s an incredible theatre - we open on September 27th. And then there’s New York, next April!
I’m always available for work before New York of course [laughs]. Follow me on Twitter @TheDanMarch - that’s THE Dan March...no ego there! I’ll say hi and, if I like you, I’ll follow you back.
Just enjoy this career, it’s a wonderful joyous journey. Keep going for it and have fun!
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