Words by Nik Taylor

Eight years old. That was my age the last time I appeared on stage, tucked away in the chorus line for a primary school performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.

I shuffled my feet and mangled the tune for Any Dream Will Do, but I don't recall making much of an impression.

Today is different. Today, to my infinite surprise, I'm reviving my stillborn stage career by heading to London’s West End to appear in Spamalot.

It's a proper show - Eric Idle wrote it. It's got proper actors - Stephen Tompkinson is playing the lead role. It's in a proper theatre - the Playhouse in London, no less. And now it's got me in it. Alright, only for about three seconds or so. But still. I'm in it. I even get to do a joke.

Right now, I'm hanging around in the wings, trying my best not to get in the way of the actors and crew around me who are, themselves, politely doing their best to pretend I'm not in their way.

I've been to wardrobe, been fitted up with a smart knight's outfit and had a 'tache and goatee delicately applied to my face (that's me on the left in the picture below). I've been walked through my part and done a couple of quick rehearsals. And now, 20 minutes into the Saturday matinee performance, I'm ready to go.

On stage, the narrator is announcing the names of the main knights in the show: "...the homicidally brave Sir Lancelot, Sir Robin The-Not-Quite-So-Brave-As-Sir-Lancelot and the aptly named Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Show..."

That's my cue! I march out on stage behind Sir Robin, grinning at the audience like a loon, and exchange glances with the assembled knights – all of whom are glaring back at me for turning up in the wrong play. I look out at the audience once more and with a loud "SORRY!" march straight back off.

The whole thing's over in a heartbeat, but I’m lifted by the audience’s laughter as I return to the wings. It's enormous fun. If they’d let me make a career out of one-word cameos, I’d sign up tomorrow.

A few hours later, I’m still buzzing from the experience. But what about the people who do this job for a living? What's it like being an actor and how on earth do you get started? In between performances, I had the chance to sit down with the show's stars Stephen Tompkinson and Anna-Jane Casey to get their thoughts on the world of acting.

Showing determination

Stephen spent three years learning his trade at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, so how important does he think formal training is for anyone planning on a career in acting?

"It's not a necessity, by any stretch of the imagination," he says. "But I think it still matters to some casting directors that you've put in a few years.

"It shows determination. Also, the training will put you in touch with a lot of different periods, a lot of different styles of acting and different writers from down the years.

"Now Equity isn't the closed shop it used to be, drama training certainly isn't essential. But it does give you a good grounding."

Anna-Jane agrees. "I've done not any training - I'm faking it," she laughs. “I went to dance school as a kid and that's about it."

Her big break came from impressing in an audition. "I was dancing as a child and there was an advert for Cats in The Stage. I asked my mum if I could audition, we came down to London after my history GCSE and I got the part."

Even so, Anna-Jane can see the value in formal training. "If I could go back, I'd definitely do a two- or three-year course," she adds.

"If you’re determined on a purely vocational acting career, there’s the National Council for Drama Training," advises Stephen. "It accredits a certain number of drama schools every year, so find out which ones are being accredited.

"Otherwise, there are degrees you can do at university and you can take one- or two-year courses at drama school as well."

"But the best advice I'd give to anyone would be to read as much as possible. Read as many different styles of plays as you can and watch as much as you can: DVD, TV, anything."

"And nick other people's stuff," chips in Anna-Jane.

"Too right," agrees Stephen. "And don't be afraid to. They've always nicked it from somebody else in the first place."

Always learning

Both Stephen and Anna-Jane have been acting for more than 20 years. Does the buzz remain?

"Oh yeah - it never stops," says Stephen with genuine enthusiasm. "Especially doing something different. I'm determined not to be pigeonholed and I'm up for anything new.

"You learn all the time - I've never done a musical before. It's all new to me and it's been fantastic. The opportunities are limitless: stick a new feather in your cap and give it a go."

So what’s it been like acting in Spamalot?

"I've absolutely loved it," says Stephen. "You forget how quintessentially British and how respected the Python team are and how good their writing is. The Holy Grail came out in '75 and it's still working."

And both agree that the industry’s competitive edge keeps them on their toes.

"As an actor you (hopefully) audition quite often," says Anna-Jane. "Out of the 400 you might go for you're only going to get a couple, so the rejection level is always higher than the positivity.

"You can ask any actor, from Kevin Spacey down to somebody in the ensemble of a tiny show who's only just started and they’ll agree.

"Most of the time you won’t get the role, but that's what drives you to do it and makes it exciting."

That’s a lot of rejection! "You get used to the fact that it isn't personal," says Stephen. "Sometimes a person walks through the door who just ticks their boxes – they might just match with someone they've already cast.

"There are so many elements that are out of your hands, don't take it too seriously and don’t take it too personally. Once you get over that you leave yourself open to whatever comes your way: grab it and enjoy it."

Want to see Spamalot? Tickets are available through to 2 November