Vaulting the Pond
The pull and prestige of appearing in British Theatre is very strong: advice on moving from the US to the UK for work
By Brian Ng
British theatre holds a special spot in theatre actors’ hearts, especially for our fellow English-speakers across the Atlantic Ocean. Even though they have Broadway and their various prestigious regional centres, Americans dream of performing in the West End. Yet, travelling 4000 or so miles for a job requires a lot more organisation and thought than a national tour: How will you deal with paying double rents? What about the jobs you miss out on back home? Who’ll water your plants?
We chatted to Andy Mientus, who just made his UK theatre debut, finishing up his run on The View from Upstairs at the Soho theatre, and Dominik Tiefenthaler, who flits between New York and London, and who is starring in The Lehman Trilogy at the Piccadilly Theatre, about their experiences of being Americans in London.
Mientus has done the Broadway thing, playing Marius in Les Misérables and Hänschen in Spring Awakening, and worked on TV — The Flash and cult-favourite Smash — but London had a pull as “one of the great theatre cities in the world”. His role as Patrick in The View from Upstairs came about from knowing the producers socially — he doesn’t have a UK agent, and the role was offered to him directly, after he told the producers he’d love to hear if there were any options of coming to work here.
Tiefenthaler, who’s lived in the UK for a few years now, came over without a concrete offer beforehand. His agent, James Beresford at Shepherd Management, was introduced to him through his New York manager — they met via Skype first before meeting in person. As a result of having more actual projects in London, Tiefenthaler decided to move.
As with all moves, whether temporary or permanent, they can be expensive: visas, accommodation, plus travel and day-to-day expenses all add up.
For Mientus, he was getting paid a “modest wage” (compared to Broadway) so his producers tried to find ways to make the financial burden more bearable, such as putting on a pop-up solo show at Lola’s Underground Casino. He was given an accommodation stipend too.
Both Mientus and Tiefenthaler used Airbnb to look for places to stay for when they first arrived. Mientus also asked around his show business connections and friends too, which is how he ended up staying at a friend’s place, as the friend was away for the duration of the show.
Tiefenthaler, on the other hand, used Airbnb for the first month of being in the city, during which he found an actual flat. He needed a short-term furnished flat, and with no credit history in this country, he needed to pay six months’ rent in advance. Tiefenthaler keeps his New York rental though — he has a friend a who waters the plants when he’s out of the country — as he’s still working on both sides of the pond, made easier by the ability to self-tape and have meetings over Skype.
Not so different
Tiefenthaler is European by origin — he was born in Switzerland to Austrian and German parents — and has lived in the UK for years: “When I was younger, there were still very distinct cultural and ‘way of life’ differences between different countries, different continents. When I look at it now, being in a big city like New York is not much different than being in a big city like London.”
And while there aren’t really any large cultural shocks that transatlantic actors face when they come over to work, there are some adjustments or preparations to be made.
For instance, with eating, as Mientus puts it, “After a show, an actor is usually ravenous for a drink and a meal”. He prefers not to eat before a show, so that he doesn’t have something sitting in his belly while singing, but options are limited (compared to New York) for post-show noms — if you’re not eating at Balans or have a Soho House membership, then you’re left with fast food options.
In preparation for coming over, he also brought a bunch of medications with him, “a large cache” of 3-month supplies of his usual daily medications: if you’re dealing with jet lag and rehearsals, you probably don’t want to be running around looking for a Boots and having to chat to pharmacists. Mientus was also close to coming down with something near the end of his run — he went on a week’s vocal rest because of it — and managed to kick it because of what he’d brought over.
At least for him, he already had a bunch of British friends, through travelling here for years and his husband’s UK friends became his friends too. This contrasts to Tiefenthaler, who came over with his wife and his kids, but whose entire social circle lived in New York. “It was hard in the beginning, and it still is, but like everything in life, it takes time,” he acknowledges. “And we all find more and more UK friends the longer we are here.”
Still, being based here makes getting work in the UK a lot easier.
It’s worth it
“[Working here] is a personal milestone, another debut to make, a measure of success that not many people get to do because it’s such a challenge for producers to bring Americans over,” Mientus notes. He came initially because The View from Upstairs producers basically thought there was no other choice but to cast him — they had to sort out his visa, pay to get him to fly over, and find ways to not make it a financial wash for him to do the play. Hopefully, by breaking the seal, as Mientus says, and having people in the industry see him perform, there’ll be interest in bringing him over again.
But it’s entirely worth the hassle for Americans to come over — it’s British theatre.
Mientus comments: “On the whole, there’s a whole community here that I’ve been a fan of…but haven’t had the chance to interface with.” Plus, British theatre is more flexible with their breaks: here there’s the occasional 15-minute tea break, compared to the US’s five or ten minutes, as defined by the American Actors’ Equity Union. As much as actors internationally may dream of Broadway, UK theatre holds that cachet that can’t be found elsewhere, even for those who’ve “made it”.
Brian Ng is a writer, originally from New Zealand, based in London.