Acting the Alcoholic

With multiple shows celebrating first and last nights every night, alcohol plays a big part in creating the fun, celebratory atmosphere of the Fringe. Ahead of his autobiographical show Thirst, Callum Hughes shares his very personal view why, for many performers, alcohol is anything but fun.

An actor's saliva contains enough adrenalin to kill the average person on the street

Ever since I started working in theatre, people would ask me:

“What are you? A writer? A musician? An actor?”

It’s a question I’ve always struggled to answer.

I started writing at the age of six, phonetically typing out the first of many short sagas featuring Snowy the Bunnerrabbitt. I was also playing any instrument I could get my hands on. I would raid the kitchen for pots and pans, until I progressed to the guitar and piano. Later, I discovered West Oxfordshire’s ‘Open Mic’ nights and, from 16 to 18, performed at least twice a week, learning the hard way how to tell a story with a song, while holding a room and handling my beer.

At 18, I packed my bags for London to begin a three-year adventure at the prestigious Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance. Upon graduating, I was flung into the world of actor-musicianship, performing in scores of productions, from Shakespeare plays to jukebox musicals. I was grateful. But after the curtain fell, I always went back to writing.

I’d long since left Snowy the Bunnerrabbitt behind and had moved on to writing plays, which were now being produced on London’s fringe. Meanwhile I was a seasoned actor-muso, treading the boards of the country’s largest theatres.

Still the question would come back to me:

“What are you?”

I was in my mid-20s, and I still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. The pressure to specialise was rising but I just felt like a clueless, but lucky, theatre-nerd who played a bit of music. I was waiting to be found out.

Not knowing who you are is a common affliction in performers. It’s hardly surprising given the job requires you to literally pretend to be someone else all the time. This imposter syndrome may be self-inflicted, but it isn’t easy to ignore, and it requires regular management: something they fail to mention at drama school.

Handily, my training as a pub singer had introduced me to the perfect anxiety antidote. Beer. And wine. And whisky. Really, anything alcoholic would do the trick. Cue images of the hell-raiser actors of yesteryear, drinking themselves into ridicule. Sorry to disappoint but that wasn’t me. I was a professional drinker. However, to borrow a phrase from Bessel van der Kolk, the body keeps the score.

During a Broadway study on mental health and performance, scientists took samples of saliva from actors during shows. They found these samples contained enough adrenalin to kill the average person on the street, if it were injected into them. Producing such levels of adrenalin, while working in an industry that is unstable, highly pressured, and judgmental, is it any wonder the world’s entertainers often hit the bar after a show?

For me, this self-medication turned into self-harm. It wasn’t until 2018, following a (very) near-death experience, that I managed to kick the habit.

I became more productive, more focussed, and I started making better decisions. I wrote more, and my experience as a storyteller became useful to others. People approached me for guidance on structure and narrative. I felt useful and my imposter syndrome started to fade a bit, making it easier for me to remain sober.

For years I was asked when I was going to make my own solo show, but this show was going to challenge my own storytelling abilities more than ever. Not only was it going to tackle addiction, show business, and my love of pub culture, but it was going to take on the structure of recovery.

Most audiences expect linear storytelling: all is well, inciting incident, problem-solving and conclusion. But recovery isn’t linear. It works in tandem with trauma, memory, and emotion. And if I was to tell my story with integrity, then it had to buck the trend of neat little packages, tied up with a string of jokes. It had to be real.

My co-directors Roann Hassani McCloskey and David Shopland also recognised this need to be real. As a result, we’ve made something that bypasses expectations of the ‘one-man-and-a-mic’ show, incorporating live underscore and original songs throughout.

After 33 years on the planet, and 15 in the industry, I still get asked:

“What are you? A writer? A musician? An actor?”

I realise now the answer is, of course, I am all these things. And I am none of these things. I am a storyteller: messy and complex, but then, isn’t that true of all the best stories?

Since you’re here…

… we have a small favour to ask. We don't want your money to support a hack's bar bill at Abattoir, but if you have a pound or two spare, we really encourage you to support a good cause. If this article has either helped you discover a gem or avoid a turkey, consider doing some good that will really make a difference.

You can donate to the charity of your choice, but if you're looking for inspiration, there are three charities we really like.

Mama Biashara
Kate Copstick’s charity, Mama Biashara, works with the poorest and most marginalised people in Kenya. They give grants to set up small, sustainable businesses that bring financial independence and security. That five quid you spend on a large glass of House White? They can save someone’s life with that. And the money for a pair of Air Jordans? Will take four women and their fifteen children away from a man who is raping them and into a new life with a moneymaking business for Mum and happiness for the kids.
Donate to Mama Biashara now

Theatre MAD
The Make A Difference Trust fights HIV & AIDS one stage at a time. Their UK and International grant-making strategy is based on five criteria that raise awareness, educate, and provide care and support for the most vulnerable in society. A host of fundraising events, including Bucket Collections, Late Night Cabarets, West End Eurovision, West End Bares and A West End Christmas continue to raise funds for projects both in the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Donate to Theatre MAD now

Acting For Others
Acting for Others provides financial and emotional support to all theatre workers in times of need through the 14 member charities. During the COVID-19 crisis Acting for Others have raised over £1.7m to support theatre workers affected by the pandemic.
Donate to Acting For Others now