Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Me, You and Tea for Two

I love a bit of show swag. Merchandise, show ephemera, whatever you call it – I LOVE it! I have vacuum packed bags of show t-shirts in my parents’ loft. I turned up to my first dance rehearsal for Chitty in a Chicago top (not realising that as a pro it wasn't really de rigeur to wear swag from a show you hadn't actually done!). My fridge is peppered with musical magnets, and framed posters adorn the walls of my house next to my partner's signed drum skins - oh yes, I LOVE a bit of show swag.

But my proudest collection, as it were, is my show mugs. If you fancy a brew in our house then it's a veritable walk through my CV. Purchased in pairs (in case one breaks), they are often faded, sometimes chipped but all lovingly used. I even have a naughty stolen mug from an Abbey Road recording session I did for the Love Story album. - we had no official swag. Originally provided as a coffee break cuppa, it was later sneakily rinsed and squirrelled away with some kind of crockery-induced kleptomania. Although I later felt so guilty that I sent them £20 in the post to cover it.

I've recently added to my collection and I think it's the one I'm most proud of. Not technically merchandise but swag nevertheless, my new white and orange addition boldly bears the logo 'The Theatrical Guild'. I am now officially an executive committee member for this wonderful charity, joining in their 125th year of service.

A small selection of the collection, 
surrounding my new addition!

The Theatrical Guild or TTG began life as The Theatrical Ladies Guild in 1891 to ‘give relief or assistance to members of the theatrical profession in financial distress’. As a charity they help non-actors working in theatre whenever hard times might hit, whether front of house, backstage, under-stage… if you're in need and TTG can help then we will. We're a small Theatrical charity compared to many of the larger, better known entities, but the work we do is just as vital and incredibly personal. If we can't help for some reason, but know another charity that can, then we'll put you in touch and try to ensure that no-one slips through the net in our increasingly impersonal world.

I became involved with the charity thanks to the wonderful Jane How, who plays Lady Punnet in Half A Sixpence. We discussed my potential involvement over the summer and I admit I was initially hesitant. Not because of the charity, whom I knew did excellent work, but because of worries of my own ability. I get asked to do a lot of charity work, particularly concerts, and have even been known to run a marathon or two for various charities, but having a direct attachment was something I was interested in but also a little afraid of. I shouldn't have feared. TTG is made up of a brilliant mix of incredible theatricals of various backgrounds, all of whom are ready to lend a hand guiding us newbies. As one of the younger, newer members there's a great sense of pride in seeing the work of the more established team, and hoping to continue the brilliant work of TTG for another 125 years.

I’ll be keeping you up to date on more of the exciting TTG events you can be involved in over the coming weeks but for now, I'll just stick the kettle on. Pick a mug, won’t you?

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Half A Sixpence - Press Go!

On Tuesday night we finally pressed our beautiful new rendition of Half A Sixpence for the discerning Chichester public and the national and local press contingencies. After eight wonderful weeks of rehearsing, teching, re-rehearsing and previewing, the show was finally frozen and launched to the public who seem to have taken it to their hearts with as much joy as we have.

Press Nights are funny beasts. They can make or break a show and as such can be absolutely terrifying. They’re often also the first time many of our friends and family get to see the show, as it’s common amongst performers to make their friends wait until no more changes will take place before allowing them in to critique! That and the fact that all theatre people love a press night party and a free glass of wine!

Our press night began very early in the morning with the press photo-shoot. This is when we perform small segments of the show so that press photographers can get some great photos outside of the production shots we already have. They’re often stop start affairs with several set-ups and some staged images too to make sure the angles and lighting are all exactly right. Fortunately for me, my character Helen wasn’t in any of the sections being done and so I managed to spend my morning distributing my press night gifts instead.

The press night card and gift is a long-standing tradition in theatre, particularly in musicals I’ve found. It’s a ritual I utterly adore and one I try and take a lot of time and care over, yet it almost always goes vaguely awry for me! My cards this year were relatively simple, bearing the name of the show and the relevant dates and then a cheeky limerick and banjo image on the reverse side, I’d share the poem with you but it would give away one of the show’s surprises and we don’t want that now then, do we?

Growing up I was one of those awkward little girls who bounced between being uncomfortably shy and over-sharing to the point of annoyance. Frankly I’m just a bigger version of that geeky child now, but as such, I really don’t like missing anyone out, even inadvertently, and so I write approximately 70 cards per production to make sure I cover all departments. But my handwriting is so dreadful that I then spend several hours going back over each card adding my name very neatly in block capitals, followed by my character name in brackets… just in case anyone is still trying to decipher my illegible lettering!

Gifts are a whole other demon though. I like my press night gifts to be representative of the show we’re in, but at the same time I’m terrible for overcomplicating things and leaving it until far too late to organise them. Despite knowing the opening night date for well over two months, it took me until 12 days before to order my gifts as my first idea fell through due to time constraints! In the end they were beautifully iced shortbread biscuits in the shape of a house, to represent one of the songs in the show with the lyric “I only want to have a little house”. Simple enough it seemed, until you try bagging up 120 individual cookies and tying them with customised ribbon after a long day of rehearsals and then a preview, and find you’re still fighting with the scissors at 2 in the morning! Next time everyone gets a handshake!

Biscuits ago-go! From the wonderful 
Sarah at

Post-press call we gather as a company to have a gentle rehearsal. We sing some bits from the show to make friends again with the space and make sure everyone has had a chance on the stage before the evening show. Rachel Kavanaugh, our amazing director, finishes the afternoon with an inspirational talk and a funny (and slightly naughty) poem, written by her mother. We round off the session with co-producer Cameron Mackintosh making a lovely speech which sends us off to the backstage area with a spring in our step and a smile on our faces.

For the next few hours the Festival Theatre is buzzing. We sing and dance and smile and cry, there is rapturous applause – particularly for our outstanding leading man Charlie Stemp – and several standing ovations too! The atmosphere is electric and excitedly the entire company bundle their way back to the dressing rooms, into their first night frocks and off to the party which is being held in marquees on the lawns outside the theatre. Thankfully the weather is warm and dry so it’s a joy to be outside, even if the bumpy grass did make me forgo my four-inch heels for some far comfier, and safer, flats within half an hour.

Stunning flowers from my agents Cole Kitchenn!

The day after press night brings a different energy entirely. There are a few hangovers to be tempered and with our first non-rehearsal day ahead of us many of us decide to spend it…. in the theatre, listening to our book-writer Julian Fellowes in conversation with Kate Mosse. It’s a wonderful talk and one of several events that the theatre has lined up during our time here. The audience is packed and a show of hands demonstrates how many have seen, or booked to see, our show. With a plethora of good reviews appearing in the press hopefully it won’t be long before every show is at the very least limited availability.

For now though, we wave goodbye to the creative teams and relax into the show itself. They’ll all be back in due course to see how we’ve settled down, and to make sure we haven’t added anything superfluous to the production. It’s very easy to get carried away when mum and dad leave you alone to get on with a production! This is the final blog in the CFT series, but be sure to visit the show and say hi afterwards! And send any topics you'd like for future blogging my way! xx

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Half A Sixpence - Strike Up The Band!

For the twelve of you following my blog with any regularity, you’ll know that last week we left off mid-way through tech-week of Half A Sixpence at, for me, the most exciting part of any new musical process…. Sitzprobe!

Sitzprobe literally translates as ‘seated rehearsal’ and is the name given to the first time orchestra and cast perform the score together. Up until this point we’ve only been singing the songs with a piano, and Charlie Stemp (Arthur Kipps) occasionally on the banjo, so to finally hear Bill Brohn’s lush orchestrations bringing the score to life is a REAL treat. Bill Brohn is one of the true legends of musical theatre and you are certain to know many of his incredibly famous orchestrations, probably without even realising it.

For Half A Sixpence we have an orchestra of 12, lead by the inimitable Graham Hurman, our musical director, conducting. Stepping into the Roddick rehearsal room at Chichester on a blisteringly hot day, the sense of excitement is palpable. There are chairs laid out for the cast on one side of the room, whilst the other is filled with our myriad of creatives and producers. And then, in the middle, sit the dozen musicians ready to join our merry company. They’ve been rehearsing in this room for the past week and we’ve only been able to hear snippets on the breeze as we walk past on our way in to the main building. As they strike up the Overture to start the sitzprobe, a hush descends upon the room and we are transported to early 1900’s Folkestone.

It. Is. Glorious. Utterly glorious. Rich, and intricate, and beautifully delicate to listen to, yet mesmerising to watch. Most of our musicians are playing more than one instrument, swapping and changing, sometimes after only a few bars at a time, making the score far more exciting and expansive than it might be otherwise. It’s amazing to see such talented musicians making effortless work of a score they’ve only been playing for a few days and for the few members of company who’ve never done a musical before, the look of pure delight on their faces is worth the ticket price alone!

For the next few hours we sing through the score, exploring newfound intricacies and going back over other sections to make sure we’re working in synchronicity. It’s a brilliant way to finish a long and tiring week and sends everyone into the weekend with a spring in their step, and an earworm raging through their brain!

The Half A Sixpence orchestra take their places for the Sitzprobe!

The second week of tech begins with aplomb and once we’ve finished teching the last few bits of the show we start again at the top with the orchestra joining us too. It’s almost as if the production steps up yet another notch. Tech is run in three chunks per day known as sessions. Each of these sessions will be about 4 hours long, making for a very long day if you’re called for all of them. Fortunately our creative team have mainly been dry teching in the morning sessions which allows the cast extra rest time, and the chance to start shifting our body clocks to a show schedule. Dry teching is when the show is teched with every department but the performers, and it’s a way of perfecting the fundamentals of scene changes before we get in there, thereby saving time. However, with no-one to say the lines which Deputy Stage Manager, Lou Bann’s cue calls are meticulously timed to, Associate Director Jean-Pierre Van Der Spuy, aka JP, has to step up to the plate and perform his sensational one-man version of Half A Sixpence. (I hear the Edinburgh Fringe are very interested…!) It’s somewhat disconcerting to hear someone imitate everyone in the cast quite so well but it gets the job done and allows the tech to progress as efficiently as possible, although quite clearly JP knows the script better than any of us!

We dress rehearse the show twice before allowing an audience in, aside from the wonderful Commissioning Circle who get to sit in on one dress rehearsal, giving us a hint of what we have to look forward to with a full audience, and them a sneak preview of what their generous support is helping to create. It’s brilliant to see such active support for theatre from the local community and it’s part of what makes Chichester such a special place to work.

During the second dress rehearsal our production photographers Michael Le Poer Trench and Manuel Harlan zoom around the auditorium taking photographs. They’ve had a chance to watch once and get a feel for the show, staging and lighting but this is the only oppportunity they’ll actually get to capture the images they want. It’s quite strange hearing shutters clicking away in the dark and, in a culture of selfie-takers, you have to fight hard not to look for the camera or even adjust your facial features to be more flattering! Staying in the moment is absolute paramount if your character is to be reflected truthfully in the pictures.

And then suddenly we’re taking our final dress rehearsal bows and rushing around to get ready for the first preview. There’s a frisson of nervous energy in the building. Wardrobe are busily stitching up anything we might have torn in the rehearsal, the wig department are redressing the multitude of wigs and facial furniture the company sport so they look fresh and inviting for our first proper audience, and the cast are sampling the delights of the ‘company menu’ over in the theatre restaurant, in a vain attempt to quell the nerves. A few short hours later it’s all over, the lines were all said (mostly in the right order) and no-one bumped into the furniture. A fairly successful first preview, all things considered, which can only mean one thing – it’s time to start tweaking so it’s perfect for Press Night!

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Half A Sixpence - Technically Speaking...

Tech week. Tech. Week. Not just a few days of shuffling through the show but a whole week (or two) of making sure that each and every tiny detail whether it be lighting, sound, spacing, costume changes… every single element must be perfect. It’s equal parts enthralling, exhausting and infuriating!

At the start of this week the entire company made their way to Chichester to set up home in their digs for the next two and a bit months. Digs can be as simple as someone’s spare room so it’s very important that they feel like a home away from home, and it’s a particular talent to be a great digs host. But there’s no time to sit around nesting, hours after arrival we are in the venue for our very first tech session in the Festival Theatre.

We start with orientation – a walk around the stage and backstage areas to familiarise ourselves with the layout. Those who know the auditorium of the Festival Theatre will be aware of the vomitoriums, sloped access to and from the stage through the audience. They’re a brilliant use of space particularly on a thrust stage that comes heavily into the audience, as it opens up the playing area and makes for more dynamic entrance options.  What most people won’t realise is that the run round from these vomitoriums back to the side of stage in full Edwardian frockage can take a minimum of 27.29 seconds through the rabbit warren of pristine white corridors. Believe me, we timed it!

The inspirational corridors of the Festival Theatre, 
featuring amazing performers from past productions.

After we’ve all got our bearings we begin the process of getting into character for the first time as tech happens in full costume, make up and wig. It’s the first time I’ve seen my wig for my character Helen Walsingham and so she hasn’t been dressed (styled) on my face before. Helen is interesting as although she’s relatively posh and needs to conform to social standards in that respect, she’s also somewhat rebelliously artistic. Helen Keane (Wig Supervisor) is determined to find something that reflects this style-wise and yet also suits my face shape. It’s a delicate process and one that takes us a few days to perfect, with Helen Keane constantly checking everyone’s wigs onstage under the correct lighting states to make sure they read the way she, Campbell Young (Wig Designer) and Paul Brown (Designer) want them to.

It’s very exciting to see everyone in character finally as you get a sense of how the whole show will look. Many of the cast play multiple roles and this doesn’t just mean various wigs for the girls but also facial hair for the boys! Post-transformation some of the cast are barely recognisable from their everyday selves. Jennifer Louise Jones, naturally a stunning redhead, makes an astonishingly beautiful brunette and Tim Hodges sporting fabulous sideburns looks so of the period that it’s almost as if he stepped straight from the pages of H.G. Wells’ novel.

The Facial Hair List

My own costume process is a nicely tricky one. Many of my costumes are slim fitting and so my corset has to be laced to a particular measurement before anything will fit. I’m wearing a long-line S-bend corset, which highlights the curve of the body, although makes me instantly regret eating a big lunch. Running from sternum to hipbone it also prohibits any kind of rapidity when it comes to bathroom breaks and means my microphone packs, often worn around the waist have to be carried on my inner thighs in some very fetching Spanx!

Devon-Elise Johnson (Ann), Bethany Huckle (Flo) and I share a dressing room and dresser in the fabulous Chloe, who is always on hand to get us ready, which is especially fortunate as costumes of this era weren’t designed to be got into solo. She’s become a dab hand over the past few days at cinching us in despite our jovial protestations, and her speed with a hook and eye fastening on a quick change is amazing. One of my dresses has 28 of these fiddly fastenings alone, plus 20 poppers and a sash tie!

It’s great fun sharing a dressing room, as there’s an automatic support network around you. Devon and Beth are brilliantly talented and a lot of fun to be around and I think we’ve already managed to find a nice balance, which is good as we’ll be working in close proximity for several weeks! The dressing rooms at the Festival, whilst not enormous, are perfectly proportioned with ample mirror, seating and hanging space plus an ensuite bathroom! It’s so great to be working in a theatre that is as well designed backstage as it is onstage.

Dressing room views don't get better than this!

Tech begins with aplomb and we slowly commence putting all the elements of the show together. It’s a laborious, complex dance of sorts. Every so often a shout of ‘STOP’ will go up over the God mic (as it’s known) in the darkened auditorium and the process onstage will halt so that lighting can be tested and adjusted for example or some choreography can be respaced. Once ready to commence again Tinks, our fantastic Stage Manager, will take the reins with a call of ‘ACTION’ and away we go again.

It’s not just the onstage action that has to be taken into account either. There are some incredibly large pieces of set to be shifted about by the wonderful local Chichester crew and all at incredible speed to facilitate the scene changes. Whilst the wing space of the Festival Theatre is large compared to many other theatres, moving around such big, heavy items needs to be choreographed within an inch of its life to make sure everything can be rearranged smoothly and silently without anyone getting hurt in the process. And if things don’t work the first time, we simply go back and keep trying it until it can’t go wrong.

By the end of the week we’re almost there. The show is starting to come together and there’s only one more element to add, the Orchestra. But that’s a whole other story…