Being an extra in a Shakespeare play gave Billy Mann an easy solution to an artistic dilemma
I don’t even remember if Casca was actually the murderous conspirator who stuck the knife into Caesar’s sweaty neck. Like many of the titles I give to my pictures, they arrive in a state of panic, desperate for attention.
It happens almost straight after completion of the work as I rush to post my creation on Instagram and enlighten the four people worldwide kind enough to pay attention to my account.
As Instagram’s ominous blank box pops at the start the posting process demanding titles, tags, location, etc, I feel obligated to name the image in some way and write the first vaguely relevant thought that comes into my head. I then put single quotation marks around it to hopefully mask its nakedness.
The title ‘My Mate Casca’, once I had written it, didn’t sound too embarrassing, so I let it stick. I now think it sounds quite enigmatic.
The real ‘Casca’, the picture you see above, was what I came up with when confronted with another blank space.
Our studio, Submit to Love at Headway East London, was offered an exhibition slot at London’s Southbank Centre during its Summer season. In a display called ‘Making Faces’ tall pillars of cardboard boxes would stand like the ruins of an ancient Greek monument. Visitors would weave through them and gaze up at the “self portraits” our artist members had painted onto the sides of the boxes.
The idea of painting my own face was not one I’d ever feel comfortable with. But studio director Michelle insisted I fill the space.
I actually think the project was almost complete when she noticed one blank box-side and went in search of a quick fix. I took the order.
Instead of a picture of my full face, I tried to find some vaguely interesting or attractive things about myself that could be spun into an idea.
I get a lot of remarks about my blue eyes and since my brain injury they have been framed by glasses. Visually, that was easy, so in it went
And I actually did appear – as an ‘extra’ – in the 1995 RSC production of Julius Caesar at the Barbican directed by Sir Peter Hall and starring Christopher Benjamin, John Nettles, Julian Glover as Cassius and Hugh Quarshie, with whom I had the interesting moment outlined in the micro story ‘He Tried to Act’. So that was easy to include, too.
I finished the job in about 10 minutes, and moved on quickly to escape any further embarrassment.
So this cod theatre poster is my attempt to be myself for Southbank visitors. I can’t say with confidence that my strategy worked, but it was a fond memory brought to life in a fun moment in the studio. It tells a small part of my truth.
I could have mined other memories instead. I did my volunteer stage work with my friend Gerald. We appeared together in ‘Measure for Measure’, ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Richard III’. In ‘Caesar’ Gerald spent most of his time scurrying around the huge Barbican main stage in peasant clothing trying not to laugh. My mission was to make sure he failed in that ambition and I got quite good at it over around 20 successive performances.
But on that day in the studio, when Michelle asked me to leave my mark on the side of a white cardboard box, I was on a deadline and I needed a quick solution. So maybe that would be a better title for the picture. It would certainly have been more accurate.
● See more pictures by Billy Mann