Sunday, 20 October 2013

Stage Fright

In my twenties I had the good fortune to work for an events company that was run by somewhat of an eccentric, who let me develop my wild and whacky ideas ready for pitching to mainly unsuspecting clients and with a good degree of success.  It was a small company, and entailed my having a finger in most pies – from original concept, to pitch, to development – and hence I would find myself in the strangest of situations, in the strangest of lands, at the strangest of times, and I would have had it no other way. 

But by far and away the most common thing that I encountered was that all the presenters – whether they were corporate guest speakers paid by the thousands, or the Marketing Director of a small firm – had to cope with their stage fright.  Some of them (a news presenter, a Sports celebrity and a sky sports presenter) would ask constant questions and seek reassurances, others (a Singer, a Radio DJ and a Business Troubleshooter) would sit quietly and make notes, and others, like me, would have to have five minutes before going on to that stage and becoming the public persona that made them money. 

Another of my jobs was to limit the pre-stage nerves for those clients unaccustomed to public speaking, and to teach them coping methods, reading the autocue, breathing, imagining people naked etc.  Of course, because I too suffered from stage fright, my crew became accustomed to my Taking Five in a corner backstage before a show, and once someone came and joined me, her hands shaking in companionable silence.  She’s recently appeared as a Loose Woman, with no show of nerves at all in front of the camera.

My two eldest sons are very successful in their chosen sports – but before any sports competition Eldest Son asks a litany of questions which sound nonsensical to someone who does not realise that it is his way of channeling his nervous energy.  Middle Son prefers to take himself off and Take Five – and sports teachers and coaches have learned to leave him to it. 

But up until this weekend Little Man was to a certain extent an unknown. Of course we knew that he is ultra confident on the school stage and in life in general – but this was the first time that he had been on an unknown stage, and in an unknown medium, a tap solo.  He had practiced and practiced and practiced, and was a veritable Happy Feet in the supermarket, at home, even in his sleep.  But our one worry was whether he would be like those unfortunate x factor auditionees and freeze once on stage, facing an unknown audience and a panel of judges. 

Being the only boy contestant in his group, he was in a changing room on his own with me, and began pacing up and down, asking me constant questions.  His dance teacher came to join us and she ran through a couple of things.  ‘Don’t forget to Smile’ she said, ‘they like you to Smile’.

The time came, Little Man walked on to the stage with a taut toothy smile etched on his face.  ‘What is he doing?’ hissed Middle Son, who had come along with my husband to support.  I felt sick, and began to shake as the familiar music started up.  ‘Oh God’, moaned G at my side.  I looked at him, he had his eyes shut, unwilling to watch.  Little Man tip tapped away, his smile unfading, and then loosened up a bit and threw in a few wide mouthed Oohs and Aahs shapes.  Eventually he finished, bowing with a smile and coming back on stage with a smile as the contestants stood for a few minutes whilst the judges made their decisions. He didn’t get the coveted first prize, but came away with a silver medal, and only I could tell that he was a tiny bit upset as he stood on stage, smiling as if his life depended on it as he congratulated the pretty and confident Pink Panther who won. And never was I more proud of him.

It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do, or what situation you are in, but when the nerves get the better of you the trick is to utilize those nerves, harness them and turn them to your advantage.  Stage fight that stage fright, and things will always turn out ok in the end.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Oooh Matron!

One of the things that you get asked at your child’s audition is if you are willing to act as a Chaperone or Matron during some of the performances. This is essentially the woman or man who looks after the little performers during the actual show, helping out when necessary with costume changes, ensuring that they are quiet backstage, occupied, helping in emergencies (‘I need the toilet’), and making sure that the kids are genuinely enjoying the experience of being part of the show. All of us volunteered – we’ve all helped out at school and passed the relevant CRB’s – how much more complicated could it be than that? We were allocated a basic rota which was subject to change once the show run unfolded and extra bodies would be called in if necessary.

So far, so good. But what I hadn’t realised was that although the pantomime was to be run in Hampshire, the training depended on where you as a chaperone lived.  So the mummies were then divided into the various counties from whence they came.  You had a training session one evening  if you lived in Hampshire or Berkshire, but if, like me, you are a resident over the border in Surrey, it becomes a whole different kettle of fish.

Caz, our Head Chaperone, and proud owner already of a shiny red licence , called me up to tell me that I would not only have to fill in a medical form, pass the CRB and submit two character references, but I would have to attend two 2 hour evening courses and pay £30 to do so.   The good news was that she was sending her husband along to do the course too, and so it would not just be muggins sitting on my own in a council office in Woking.

I spoke to a very efficient woman from Surrey County Council who sent me the requisite paperwork and in a blind panic I filled in my character references, as she needed the forms back asap.  It was only as the email pinged through to her that it occurred to me that I perhaps should have asked my referees if they minded being thrust into this role.  I sent a quick email to the headmaster of Little Man’s school – he prides himself on his open door policy (after the fashion of ‘Call me Dave’) – which basically said ‘If a lady from the Council calls to ask about my suitability about looking after children, please don’t panic, and assure her that my kids are all in working order, if a little mad…’ The other was to my neighbour L, who phoned two days later to tell me that she had had a character request from the council, and she had forgotten how long she had known me…

The first evening came. P turned into my drive, and I could see that he was just as excited as I was at the prospect of sitting in a room with loads of people that we didn’t know and listening to stuff that as parents we surely did know.  We turned up early and presented our documentation and payment to an efficient woman who processed us and directed us to some extremely thick coffee designed to ensure that none of us fell asleep.  As we took our seats, the trainer asked us if we all had pens. P glumly took out a freebie British Red Cross biro, as I smiled and uncapped my posh rollerball pen.  I looked around with interest – the majority of the attendees were like us, mums and dads whose kids were in shows, but there were several ladies who worked in school environments, an actress from outer London, and a couple of odd ones who looked as if they were just there because it was a night out.

The first thing we had to do was fill in a Fact and Myth questionnaire.  At that point my rollerball pen exploded all over my hands and P began to giggle hysterically, his shoulders shaking.  To make matters worse, he was covering up his answers, and I knew I was getting it all hopelessly wrong.  The trainer told us all about our roles as observers, as child protectors, and how to deal with situations in which one suspected abuse.  Then we were divided into groups for role play – involving one case of abuse, one of neglect and one sexual .  Our group was made up of various characters – one of whom insisted that she would call the line manager in every scenario, some of whom made assumptions, others who seemed genuinely scared to make any decisions at all.  It was only then I think that it dawned on us all the responsibility that we were facing as chaperones.

We all walked out in silence, considerably more thoughtful, genuinely looking forward to the next session, and, in my case, determined to bring a working pen…  

Monday, 14 October 2013

Pushy Mum?

One of the first things that happens to me when it comes to the subject of Little Man in pantomime is that people, who up until then appear to be perfectly normal, start rolling their eyes theatrically.  The second thing is that they always say in a voice of sympathy something along the lines of “Oooh, I bet you see some right Pushy Mums there…”

Having, in the main, been a ‘soccer/rugby/athletics’ type of mum, I’m not sure what the difference is between the woman screaming at her son to run faster, kick harder and ‘Tackle!’ (when I know for a fact that she has never done any of those things herself) and the mum who dresses identically to her daughter who is sullenly chewing gum, in the audition queue.  What makes one mum qualify to be more ‘pushy’ than another?  Is it when the aims of the parent in question supersede the desires of the child, or is it when the desires of the parent to further the child’s progression get out of control?  Either way, in this country it is seen to be a negative thing.

The very act of writing this blog may be seen to be pushy.  For example, I focus on my son.  This is due to a number of reasons – he is the closest resource to me, I don’t know the other kids, he is the raison d’etre behind the blog in the first place, and it allows a sense of continuity to the reader who is following his and my progress throughout the panto season.  But it could be seen, for example by other mums, to be pushy.

On the other hand, perhaps as panto mums we are only there because we are pushy.  Little tricks to get our kids noticed at audition- hairstyles, bright t shirts, big smiles (mine was rather cunning – I brought a boy…), volunteering to chaperone, help out with promotions, setting up school assemblies with members of the cast.  All of these display a certain amount of pushiness.  But is it any different from the mum who drops hints to the football coach that her son is being head hunted by another team?  Or the mum who drives 200 miles to get her daughter to a photo shoot? Or the mum who makes an appointment with the teacher to discuss how to get her child’s grades up so that she can get into the next school? And everyone remembers the obvious distress of Andy Murray’s mum when she was accused of being a pushy mum in the press – until, of course, he won Wimbledon.

Obviously we have the extremes – look at the American mums with the kids beauty pageants, or watch any of the American ‘Housewives of’series, or indeed just look at America full stop – where pushiness becomes a virtue, a necessity even.

But I’m not entirely sure when the genuine desire to get the best for, and out of your child, ends, and pushiness begins…

 One thing I do know – I was at a dinner dance function at the weekend, and happened to be sitting next to the type of man I abhor – you know, the one who stuffs food in his mouth and then sprays it over you as he loudly voices his opinion, interrupts his wife and generally makes a tit of himself. His wife was asking me about the panto. He banged his chubby fist on the table in emphasis.

“Full of pushy mums these things, can’t abide them…”

I turned to him confidentially, and lowered my voice.  “I could tell you something about pushy mums…”
He leaned in excitedly…

I smiled sweetly, “They may be pushy, they may be irritating…but at least they are not Crashing Bores…”

And I got up to dance, as his wife closed his open mouth with a grin on her face.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Far from the Madding Crowd

Little Man was just 7 when he opened the envelope. Inside was a crisp £20 note from his Auntie S and it was a birthday present.  This was more money than he had seen before in his life, and his eyes opened wide. ‘What would you like to buy with it?’ I asked, and without hesitation, he replied instantly ‘A pair of Tap Shoes’.

To this day, we have never known where he got the idea from.  He may have watched something on the telly.  He may have been subconsciously influenced by Grandma, who would regularly tune into Strictly when babysitting. He may have just been waiting for the right time, and the right opportunity, to ask us. So we made enquiries, found a dance shop, and he handed over his money for a pair of canvas tap shoes. This was not the end.  We then had to find a dance school, and on recommendation I spoke to the principal.  He was very welcome, she said, but he would be the only boy in his class, and indeed, there was only one other boy in the school, and he was 15.

I’ve never been one to run with the crowd.  I have tried, and failed miserably, a lot of times.  I just thought it would be easier, to dress the same, to eat the same, to think the same.  Believe me, it’s hard.  (I’ve watched the film Stepford Wives in a whole new light).  This is not an uncommon phenomena.  Many people I know are strong in their convictions and beliefs. One of our best friends decided he didn’t want to be an engineer any more and retrained to become a nurse.  People still assume that he is a doctor.  I worked for a decade in a male dominated industry, and in meetings run by me, people would turn and ask my second in command for his opinion, and I know a very tall, glamorous blonde who works as one of the few female pilots for BA...

But to have your 7 year old son enter into a world, in which, in his innocence, he would stand out by virtue of his gender, was a real consideration.  We discussed it with him gently, and to our surprise, his elder brothers stood by him.  Middle Son said ‘If he wants to do it, then let him – you let me do football’. Eldest Son, who was perhaps more sensitive to the situation said ‘He can always leave’.  And so it was that Little Man trotted in to the class, and met all the girls.

Fast forward a year down the line, and Little Man is a firm fixture in the school with a lovely dance teacher who understands him.  Everybody knows him by virtue of the fact that he is the only one clattering around in the sea of graceful limbs and pink leotards.   We have had to forge a path of different clothes, different dances for exams, different jargon, music and timings.  Overall, the ‘pink’ mummies have welcomed the ‘blue’ mummy into their midst, helping me through the new language of dance shows.  We’re more of a novelty than a threat.

And out of all the kids that come in and out of our house, only one older boy has ever said to Little Man that what he was doing was a bit Gay. But there is no doubt that in standing out from the crowd, Little Man has opened himself up to a world which may not be as cushioned as I would like it to be.  In a recent dance show, he came back crying after the opening night, with five more shows to go.  Child Protection Laws had dictated that he had to stay behind a screen in a separate part of the room whilst off stage as his female juvenile friends got changed.  He had spent his time on his own between a screen and a piano, and had missed his call once as the chaperones had forgotten about him.  Despite the matching outfits, the uniformity of the dance routines, the camaraderie, this was the first time, at 8 years old, in which he realised that he was different from the others.  He was mortified.  But he carried on with the show, night after night, sitting by himself behind his piano with a colouring book, ready to sparkle when he got on stage.

And it’s this attitude, and his dedication and passion to his dancing, acting and singing, that has endeared him to so many. Even the gruff games teacher asked if he would do his tap dance routine one day for the school.  His little friends have been nothing but supportive, and of course we are enormously proud of him. His voyage into pantomime is just the beginning of a new and exciting chapter, as is his drama and his impending tap solo for a dance festival.  It is an unfamiliar world for us all, into which he leads us, jumping and skipping down the path.

And if he gave it all up tomorrow, we would not bat an eyelid, knowing that the next adventure is not far away.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Iambic Panto-Meter

Peter Pan, Cinderella
Snow White and her 7 fellas
Don’t look back
Here comes Jack
Chased by Mother Goose.
Aladdin charges in
Lost Boys on the loose.
Puss in Boots, wears sharp suits
Wendy is his moll
Panto dames with bad girl names
Beauty’s ‘Such a doll’.
In comes Dick
Needs a chick
Hits on Tinkerbell
Hook and Smee in harmony
Singing to Adele.
Panto horse, gone off course
Head goes for a fag
Butt on phone, has a moan
Hates to be the nag.
Tommy Cat in a hat
Sitting on the floor
Buttons weeps, Beauty sleeps
Breaks into a snore.
Babe all woody, wearing hoody
Steals Whittingtons stick
Nana growls, Alice howls
Croc begins to tick.
Panto mania, all insania
Action soon to come
Book it now, for price of cow
A Giant amount of fun!

© Ruth Morrison 2013

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Press Launch

The day dawned for the Press launch and there was silence in our household.  For once we had all overslept, probably due to the fact that we had forgotten to set any alarms.  I showered and dressed in haste and the boys awoke to much excitement.  We had been invited to the event, and even the older boys were enthusiastic about seeing some real live Hollywood glamour (well, as good as…) in Fleet. Little Man emerged from the bathroom with a dab of gel slicked through his hair and Eldest Son looked at him suspiciously.  ‘Are you wearing my aftershave?’ he demanded, as his youngest brother grinned at him. 

‘Leave him alone,’ I laughed, as I packed Little Man into the car – he was needed early morning for a rehearsal before the actual showcase event.

A woman looked me up and down as we entered the Harlington.  ‘Pantomime?’ she enquired cheerfully as we looked around and did a double take.  It was like walking into a cross between a Turkish boudoir and Austin Powers’ apartment.  You couldn’t see the ceiling for the swathes of purple satin. I fully expected to see Laurence Llewelyn Bowen jump out from behind a curtain, or a belly dancer shimmying her way through the coffee shop, but instead, as I stubbed my toe on a fake rock milestone (marked This Way to London), I saw a tall lithe feline, helping himself to a bottle of water. 

‘That’s LaytonWilliams!’ squeaked Little Man in excitement.  I looked in curiosity at the cat.  He smiled, and padded over to Amanda, who was back in her lilac Fairy Bow Bells outfit, a professional grin etched on her face as she talked to what I can only assume were various members of the Press. Little Man seemed a tad disappointed that The Press weren’t dressed in dirty camel raincoats, brown trilbies with cameras around their necks, but he waved as we made our way into the theatre, where the rest of the troupe were hard at rehearsals. I left to the strains of ‘Have You heard the News’ and the rustle of many newspapers – the only props requested for the day.

One of the many jobs that fall to the parents of the kids in panto, is that of unofficial show promoter. Whether it is distributing flyers, putting up posters, telling the kids schools, or publicizing it amongst your friends, it can become overwhelming in its ferocity, especially when the pantomime is in a first time venue, and is competing against well established local theatres.  So every sale is valuable. When I discovered a couple of nights before the launch that there was a problem with the online ticketing service, I called the Harlington immediately and spoke to a very nice man, who assured me that he would speak to the right person and get my order sorted. As I hadn’t heard anything, I doubled back to the ticket office and stood behind the counter.

‘May I help you?’ a young man asked brightly as he looked me up and down.  As I identified myself he  looked a bit crestfallen and I assumed that he had hoped that I was a reporter.  Anyway he assured me that it was all in hand.

‘Can I call you tomorrow?’ he asked, ‘We’re a bit inundated with Press at the moment.’
‘So I see…’ I agreed solemnly, looking around the empty office, expecting the purple tumbleweed to roll by…

That afternoon, hundreds of people took their seats expectantly in the Harlington Centre.  The Panto Mums promotions had gone well, and as well as the Press, family and friends came to cheer on the stars in their showcase.  Eldest Son, Middle Son and I sat in the front row, trying to make ourselves as small as possible when the Pantomime Dame emerged – sallying forth with rouged cheeks and a flouncy skirt, with a song about all the people who came to Fleet for the nightlife.  She looked Eldest Son straight in the eye and announced ‘I’m looking for a Man’. Eldest Son went a strange shade of lilac, whilst Middle Son stuffed his wrist in his mouth trying to stifle his giggles and turning a complementary puce.  Then came the fire eaters – throwing balls of fire from one hand to another, whirling fire on chains and juggling fire.  It was only when they left the stage did the audience breathe out collectively.

Layton sprang on to stage, fur flying everywhere, back flipping and cartwheeling, singing all the while.  ‘Wow’, said Middle Son.  That was his sole contribution to the whole event.  Greg Airey (Dick Whittington), and Victoria (who plays his love interest Alice) sang a duet.  Fairy Bow Bells talked a bit about the storyline. Jeremy Edwards wandered on stage looking like Mr Darcy in white ruffles and tight fitting trousers.  There was a rapturous sigh from all the mummies in the audience as they smiled up at him. 

And then the whole troupe of juveniles dressed in their purple and gold t- shirts sprang into action, running through the theatre, waving newspapers, jumping around in song.  A very rousing end to the Press Launch.

As we all left, the stars were lined up outside and chatting to members of the audience.  Purple flyers, scattered around the room, were stuffed into purple press packs and distributed to anyone who wanted them.  Jeremy Edwards disappeared under a flurry of female hands auspiciously waving pieces of paper for him to sign as Layton and Greg fielded questions from one persistent reporter.

We staggered out of the purple haze of the Harlington Centre, Little Man clutching a purple balloon.

‘Oh look’, said Middle Son to his younger brother, ‘There’s Barney’.  I glanced up wearily, half expecting to see a big purple dinosaur walking towards us, and relieved to see a small boy with his mum.

As I loaded the kids into the car, a man passed me and gave me the thumbs up.

 ‘Been to the Pantomime ‘ave we love?’ he said cheerfully.

I nodded in surprise, and then followed his eye line. It was only then that it dawned on me – in my hurry to get dressed in the morning, I hadn’t really thought about what I had put on.

I was wearing purple jeans…