A Veteran at 21: Chatting With Actor and Silent Film Musician Seamas Carey
- When is a piano not a piano? When it belongs to accomplished actor, musician and playwright, Seamas Carey!
- Taking it from the top: this multi-talented young man fills us in on his life and career to date
BF: Hello Seamas, tell us a little about your background. Although still quite young, apparently you’re already quite the seasoned performer?
Hello. Well I suppose I grew up in a musical and theatrical household, but at the time it seemed like any other household to me. Only later, when I was in my teens, did I realize that other people didn’t have bands practicing in their kitchens every week, or spend hours waiting for their parents in recording studios after school. And I suppose my parents were – and still are – pretty liberal. I was the fifth and last child to come along, so all the battles had been fought by the time I arrived. I grew up in the safe, secure and idyllic seaside town of Falmouth in Cornwall. Five minutes in one direction is the sea, five minutes in the other is a forest; so most of my childhood was spent climbing, swimming, running, camping and generally scampering about.
My mother is a teacher and my father was for many years predominantly a theatrical composer and musician, though he’s now pretty much a full time painter. He moved to Cornwall in the mid-1980s when Kneehigh Theatre had just begun and he’s been a member of the company ever since. Some folk (ok, mainly Cornish people) say that the 1990s were Kneehigh’s heyday. They still toured to rural areas, creating outdoor theatre shows in unique venues, like quarries or harbours. As you can imagine, having a father who toured so much meant I saw a lot of shows. I watched some plays so many times that I memorised the entire score and would happily sing them a cappella in the back of the car on the way to our annual family camping holiday. These shows were breathtaking to a child: they were loud, colorful, hilarious, naughty, the set would move, things would catch on fire and they always, always featured live music.
These images and experiences had a huge effect on me as a wee lad, as I’m sure they did for many other contemporary Cornish (and not Cornish) theatre makers. I used to act out these plays to myself. And I guess, in a way I still do.
By the time I hit my teens I’d picked up the accordion we had lying about the house and began playing gypsy-ish music with local lads from my street. We formed a group known as The Busketeers. I was 15 by this time. As the name suggests we did busk an awful lot, but as soon as we were old enough we were gigging in pubs regularly. Soon I was gigging up five nights a week and by the time I was 17 and failing at A Levels I knew one thing for sure: college wasn’t for me, so I ‘dropped out’.
After that I skulked around for a bit. I wrote some songs and made a CD. I played background accordion in a tapas bar every weekend. Subsequently this is when I got really into film, especially foreign and silent film. Surely if I was technically unemployed, the least I could do is sit around and watch important, must-see films, right?
A few months later I got my first touring theatre job, at the age of 18, and I’ve been working flat out ever since. Some people do look a little surprised about my age when I turn up for a gig, but in a way I’m lucky – I got my foot in the door much earlier than my peers. As most of them are just leaving uni, scratching their heads wondering what to do; I know exactly what I do and hopefully how to do it.
I already get paid to do what I love: play music, watch films, watch and act in shows and have a laugh. And I feel very, very lucky.
BF: What led you to performing for silent films?
Shortly after leaving college I began to dabble with the piano. I’ve never had a formal music lesson, but did gain some theory knowledge before I left school. I suppose the accordion leads easily to the piano as it’s the same keyboard, but I had to learn a whole new technique for my left hand. This I did by listening to Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson on a loop. I would listen to them whilst asleep, as people often do when learning a language. Slowly I picked up a home-brewed stride piano technique.
I was aware of silent film from a fairly young age. I started buying Chaplin DVDs at around the age of 12 and at that time Paul Merton appeared on TV with his Silent Clowns (2006) series. I remember gasping as I watched extracts of Keaton films, with my parents knowing who they were, but me thinking, “How come I’ve never heard of these guys?”
So by the time I was messing about with the piano, I had a big stack of silent films I could play along to. It’s so simple! Play a film on your laptop, put the soundtrack on mute and play along. There were seemingly no rules and with no one to tell me how to do it, I just practised a lot and quickly enough worked out what felt right. There are certain tunes that lend themselves to silent film music so well that they are almost impossible to avoid; in fact that’s one of the major jobs of a good film pianist: steer away from the clichés!
I had been playing along to DVDs for a few months when serendipitously the Bash Street Theatre advertised a job online: “Silent Film Pianist Needed for Touring Theatre Show”. Uncanny, eh? This was my dream job; I applied successfully and worked with the company for two years. I performed in three of their productions and toured throughout the UK and mainland Europe. Highlights included doing the outdoor street theatre show The Strongman outside the National Theatre, at the London Olympics in 2012 and all around Romania and Bulgaria. As a theatre performer I’ve now worked all over the UK, Europe and even Dubai. I’m on the move a lot.
I played a keyboard (disguised as an upright piano – more about that later) throughout the show, plus 15 minutes of pre-show music in order to warm up the crowd. Bash Street specialise in silent film-homage theatre shows, taking much inspiration from Keaton and Chaplin. The sets and costumes are monochrome; the pianist holds up title boards which act as intertitles and they recreate stunts such as Keaton’s falling house from Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), an impressive sight to see in real life. In a way this was my real training; I played piano every day for months and really worked on my keyboard chops. I recommend it for anyone who wants to get paid for learning the piano! By the end of my first tour with Bash Street I realised I had gained much more confidence as a pianist.
What I longed to see – silent film screened with live music – was just not happening in Cornwall, so I decided to make it happen. The Poly, Falmouth’s local arts centre, is a great venue. Not long before this period The Poly had ceased trading. Due to a number of reasons it had to close its doors as it just wasn’t making ends meet. Thankfully there was a huge public outcry via social media and the doors were opened once again, largely due to the efforts of a hard working chap called Ciaran Clarke. It was at this stage, as it rose from the ashes, that I approached Ciaran about putting on a silent film gig. It was booked and that was that – an evening of silent film with Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel and Hardy.
There was just one small snag: they didn’t have a piano. Luckily, having grown up in Falmouth, most of my friends are fairly practical people: sailors, boat builders, carpenters, etc. I commissioned my pal Nick to make me a hollow, light, fold-up wooden piano case to sit perfectly around my Yamaha keyboard, masking it beautifully and making everyone believe it was a real piano. And it worked! Nobody noticed it was a fake, and I still use to this day. Although as it flat-packs nicely into the garden shed, it does tend to get a bit damp during the winter months, so I have to straighten it out and give it a lick of paint before it’s in full working order for the new seasons’ performances.
That first gig at The Poly was a huge success. It sold out, and it was instantly obvious that Falmouth, and Cornwall generally, wanted silent film. This may perhaps have been helped by the fact this was the same year The Artist (2012) was released. I’ve returned to The Poly many times now, and I’m so glad that I just went and did that first gig. Sometimes you’ve really just got to go for it.
BF: Where have you played so far?
I will always return to The Poly of course as it’s in my hometown, but silent film suits that venue so well: it’s a 180-seat cinema/theatre yet still feels very intimate. I’ve performed to many films there on my own, but also with a trio and a five-piece ensemble .
I’ve also performed silent film gigs in Colchester, Bristol and London, as well as an outdoor screening at Lafrowda, St Just’s annual arts festival. That one was great – literally overlooking Lands End!
BF: Who are your faves to play to; what would you like to play to?
Keaton is an idol, as is Chaplin. I find it hard to go anywhere without bumping into them. I’m only just (embarrassingly) discovering Harold Lloyd and would love to do some stuff for his films soon.
Not to mention the early horrors; Caligari (1920) is a joy to score for, as is Nosferatu (1922). However, I’d love to delve into the world of realism. I haven’t thus far accompanied any favourites such as Louise Brooks’ Pandora’s Box (1929) and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) or any British silent films. I’m also a huge fan of Ozu, and would love to score some of his silents – a dream!
What’s your goal; where would you like to be in five years’ time?
At the moment theatre is my main occupation, my ‘day’ job. There is no denying that I really love it, I will never escape it. However I would really like to delve into film in a bigger way. Playing live for films is the perfect position for me, I get to appreciate a classic film with others whilst playing music, and have the privilege of feeling like I’m a playing a part in the filmmakers’ creative process.
If I could continue to play regularly to films, encompassing new challenges and genres, I would be happy. A commission is always a welcome thing; it gives an incentive, a deadline, instead of thinking about that film you’ve always wanted to score but never getting around to. Oh, and to screen more films to new people! These gems are far from being relics and cannot go unwatched. They are important, they are our history and – in the case of the comedies, at least – they are damn funny.
Well I think so anyway!
Several of the photos in this article are from The Strongman, an outdoor theatre show inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus (1928). See here for more great pics and info.