As a repertory actor with Arrows and Traps, he has achieved much critical acclaim for his roles with them, including the sold out smash hit, THE WHITE ROSE in August. His past roles have included playing Romeo in a national tour of ROMEO & JULIET, Bosola in THE DUCHESS OF MALFI and performing in KING LEAR at the Almeida Theatre with Jonathan Pryce in the title role.
It is great that the pub theatre circuit has theatre royalty of its own, with actors of Tester’s calibre. Yet this is not his main source of income. Tester works from home in his own recording studio as a voiceover. This is his full-time job.
It has not been a straight line to success for Tester. He explains that he worked on “the wrong side of the box office, and front of house at Almeida,” but he also got the opportunity to perform onstage there. It was while he was leading this double life that he decided he really needed to change things. “The voice over work is flexible” he says. “I can perform on stage in the evening, and record during the day”. He taught himself all the editing and technical skills he needed thanks to “the wonders of Youtube and on-line tutorials and that kind of stuff”. He picks up what he needs to learn according to the job. “The higher-end clients, just want the raw recording and they’ll adjust it for their project, compress it, equalize, speed it up or slow it down”. Tester’s worked with Legal and General, Warner Brothers, as well as being the voice of BMW in India. “They couldn’t afford Benedict Cumberbatch … they have a much smaller budget” says Tester with an ironic smile dancing around his lips.
Laughing and smiling a lot are not Tester’s style. He has a bell clear voice with a, take me seriously, edge to it. He’s quite intense and this is something that comes across well in his roles. His voice overs are his business and contacting potential clients to market himself has been very successful. Being an actor is more difficult, as Tester explains, “you can’t keep writing to directors and casting directors without a reason - developing that relationship pivots on whether they come to see your work”. Of course, you can change your agent and your headshot, but Tester’s problem has been that despite having very hard-working agents, he was not getting the auditions. “You can easily pass responsibly onto agents to get the opportunities for you, and I think there’s a necessary cost to your mental health as a result of that” says Tester. “There’s a lot of talk about actor’s not getting a yes or no after auditions too. They may learn 12 sides, 6 different scenes with 24 hours-notice. They stop life to do that, and then they don’t hear yes or no. My problem was more not getting an opportunity to be rejected in the first place - re-jected from rejection.” So, he’s not “waiting for the phone to ring” but creating his own work or collaborating on projects with theatre makers.
Tester’s collaboration with Arrows and Traps began when he auditioned for their Shakespeare in rep a couple of years ago. The director Ross McGregor did not cast him in that but told him that the next project was CRIME AND PUNISHMENT and he definitely wanted to see him for that. “Thankfully I got it” says Tester. “It introduced me to this kind of rep system. Actors who perform with them once are automatically under consideration for subsequent plays.” Tester has been with them for four plays, all performed at Brockley Jack Studio.
Tester explains the value of the system. “There’s a core company but the casting will depend on where people are artistically and logistically. We have a shorthand, so Ross knows how we work and what we respond to and what our processes are. Some actors come to the first rehearsal off book and pretty much knowing what they’re going to do, others discover it late in rehearsals. It’s about putting together the people who will fit the particular demands of the project.”
Tester gets cast in lots of intense roles. It’s clear to see he has this natural intensity that he brings to the stage. He played the title role in Ross McGregor’s adaptation of the novel FRANKENSTEIN (2017). It was nominated for two Off-West End Awards. Prior to that he played the lead role of Rodion Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky's CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (2017). He was nominated for BEST MALE PERFORMANCE by OFF WEST END AWARDS. Some of his knockout reviews included one from The Stage stating that “the evening belongs to Tester’s charismatic performance”. Timeout went with "Christopher Tester is chokingly plausible" and London Pub Theatres said, “his guilt and doubt and introspection are all perfectly pitched”.
When asked about his favourite role, Tester responds with a glint in his eye. “Obviously, Dracula.” It is his current role, but he admits Crime and Punishment was “a personal challenge, just because it was 90 mins straight through and I never left the stage … with that level of intensity.”
Tester (36) is one of the more experienced members of the rep company. “I think there’s a certain responsibility to set a tone in the rehearsal room. If everybody is from the same college and knows each other, it can revert to being quite laughy and jokey - that’s welcome, but you need to balance it, and set the bar for learning lines and trying different things. The rules of the space. That’s also Ross’ job but its collaborative. We’re learning from each other.” Three or four of the actors trained at Fourth Monkey which is very movement based. They bring something that Tester does not have, he says: “being trained at drama school, there’s a lot of movement, but it’s not the same vocabulary.”
Tester’s a self-proclaimed workaholic which comes across in the interview. He has a notebook with him which is stuffed with lines and extra pieces of paper. His nose was buried in it and he seemed surprised to find his interviewer had arrived but switched tasks immediately. He explains that if he’s not doing something it makes him “feel anxious”. So, it’s good to hear about the gentler, slightly switched off, side to him. He likes cats.
He owned a Tonkinese cat called Zara. He admits that the cat helps him to feel calmer. “Especially when working from home, it’s a good dynamic” says Tester and then gets a little teary when he has to explain that the cat died. He and his partner were devastated. “We’re having a period of mourn-ing then getting another cat. I can’t really operate at an optimum level without a cat.”
Tester has other means of relaxing, “going on holiday” and the fact that his fiancé is in “no way related to the industry... she’s an accessories designer, so she’s also creative but in a different way.” Being completely self-employed, Tester says that exercise is vital to structuring his day working from home. He runs and lifts weights which he finds great because there’s a “sense of progression, doing more weights and more reps”. He’s constantly building to a goal. He believes that the “principles of weight lifting can be applied to voice over stuff”. He’s just finished the run of Arrows and Traps THE WHITE ROSE. The show sold out its run, was nominated for Off West End Awards BEST PRODUCTION and received fantastic reviews.
Rehearsals have already started for DRACULA. “I‘m really interested in different actor processes, things like emotional preparation”, says Tester. “I’m a huge fan of a technique by an American actor teacher called Nicki Flacks. She calls it ‘flacksing’. Rather than engaging consciously with an emotion – for example thinking of something sad - she talks about emotions being locked in different places in the body. By releasing, unlocking them from the body, these emotions can come to the surface. Different parts of the body relate to different emotions. She has a very sequential way of going through it - with feelings of anxiety based in the stomach, vulnerability in the upper chest, laughter at the back of neck. It’s not specifically goal oriented, but it makes you more sensitive and aware of yourself.” Tester believes that “day to day we have a certain level of armour that helps us operate in civilised society - it’s necessary, but that’s not what people come to the theatre to see.”
“If you go to the theatre, you don’t want to see someone being self-indulgent”, he continues. “You don’t want to see someone cry on stage, you want to see someone fighting not to cry. But the actor needs to have an impulse to cry in the first place, something to fight against, otherwise they’re just pulling faces. I found her (Nicki Flacks) work more relevant to me as an actor, than about a year’s worth of drama school training. So even with the character I played in THE WHITE ROSE who was often clinical, there’s still got to be an emotion under that. An inner tension to fight against. That’s what makes it alive and interesting.”
Tester has worked with many other pub theatres including Finborough, Old Red Lion, Theatre 503, White Bear Theatre and Rosemary Branch. “I loved the first pub theatre Rosemary Branch. Ces and Cleo were lovely and supportive. There’s something about feeling the support of a venue and their personal touch. Kate and Karl (Brockley Jack Studio) are the closest to Ces and Cleo, supportive but not bullshitting you. By the same token there’s a lovely intimacy to both theatres, especially the Brockley Jack, that level of intimacy with the audience, an ability to show lots of detail.” Both theatres have a very loyal local audience and Brockley Jack’s growing reputation has got them a lot of attention from further afield.
Whilst Tester is mainly a classical actor, he has also had con-temporary roles. The reason he got into acting classical texts was his “pilgrimage” to Stratford to see Toby Stephens in Coriolanus in 1994. “What planted the seed was the beauty inherent in the language, and the opportunity of expression” says Tester. Other notable roles in new works have included his diverse portrayals of Andre Raffalovich in THE PICTURE OF JOHN GRAY (ORLT) and Lance Armstrong in PEDAL PUSHER, (Theatre Delicatessen) which was a dissection of the doping culture in professional cycling. He also starred in a new adaptation of THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY and JOAN OF ARC for London's critically acclaimed rep company The Faction.
Tester points out the necessity of making a classical text seem “relevant, not being a museum piece. Otherwise an audience cannot relate to it, they’re just admiring it and forgetting it”. This is something Ross McGregor does in his adaptations. In both Frankenstein and Dracula there are some expectations which have to be fulfilled. “There has to be a monster, scares, shocking scenes, violence in some ways, otherwise you’re denying what that text contains” says Tester. “But it’s much more interesting and engaging if an audience can empathise with the characters in some way. Otherwise they are better off finding something on Netflix. So, we have to offer something more.”
“Dracula is going to be very exciting because it’s a roller coaster ride”, he says. “It’s going to be quick, fast, sexy, violent and dangerous - but the story is placed in a different light. I’m a monster who feeds on peoples’ blood … how can I sympathise with him? What fascinates me is his loneliness, and isolation”.
Christopher Tester plays the title role of the Count in Dracula
Arrows and Traps present
DRACULA by Bram Stoker
Adapted for the stage by Ross McGreggor
Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, SE4
9 – 27 October 2018
or 0333 666 3366 (£1.50 fee for phone bookings only)
@October 2018 All Rights Reserved
London Pub Theatres Magazine Limited