Friday, 20 December 2013

The Show Must Go On

So we got to D Day, and team Shoreditch had a hard act to follow after an outstanding Opening Night in which the Dream Team (comprising those juveniles from all three teams who could cope with the pressures of Opening Night ) had wowed local dignitaries and a packed audience to rave reviews.  

This was a great feeling to come in on, but also an added pressure.  The kids were not legally allowed in the theatre until 10 am, and we kicked off at 10.15 am.  They were shown a slightly adapted dance routine for the walkdown (finale) by their Dance Captain, and she also explained the presence of a new prop – a curtain, which was to cover the scene change when a ballet sequence took place, and told them how to deal with this.  The children were excited and nervous, adrenalin coursing through their veins as we chaperones hurriedly caught up with any last minute changes ourselves.  Caz had called me in the morning to ask if I would be happy to act as Lead Chaperone – essentially the one to make the final decisions on the day.  I agreed, not really realizing the implications as such, and to be honest, although not an experienced chaperone, I had worked as a show caller/Stage Manager, depending on which arena you are in, so figured that it would be pretty much the same…

…Big mistake…  The kids were fine, the chaperones were bundles of nerves by the end of the first act.  There were several quick changes which entailed buttons and bows, we had lost and found socks, masks and noses (don’t ask). Sue the Wardrobe Mistress (we christened her Sewing Sue) worked miracles, her needle flashing in and out at speed. We had been running from one side of the stage to the other, passing kids through scenery doors, under the stage, props got caught on the stairs, we nearly missed 2 cues and at one point had to literally shove the kids on to the stage.  By the interval, the shock of it had set in, and I (whilst trying to keep a calm exterior) was dreading the second act because this contained the aforesaid walkdown, which  was new because it is only traditionally set at the Dress Rehearsal as it is considered to be bad luck beforehand.  

During the interval, the producer, choreographer and dance captain came in to speak to the kids.  I explained that any mistakes were actually chaperone errors. Generally though, the producer explained, every show opening was expected to have wobbles, and we were all doing really well. 

The second half actually went mainly to cue, some of the principal cast cueing us in from the wings – it was literally a case of everyone pulling together.  Someone who was watching the show came back and said excitedly ‘It was Brilliant!’ 

We had got away with it!

We had a three hour break in between shows and so Little Man and I took one of his friends home to play.  They chattered animatedly in the back of the car, excited about the next show. 

It was then that I began to shake...

What a difference the afternoon made – it was a second run through, our heads were in the right places, it was a fantastic show backstage, the kids were more confident, we were more confident, and the comforting presence of Caz who knew the storyline inside out was a godsend.  And to top it all, the next day the critics reviews for the show came out and we had got the full 5 stars. 

Things in life are sent to test you, with the understanding that it will all come good in the end.  Things may be bad, they may even sometimes be sad – but ultimately, the Show Does Go On.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Tech Day- The Impossible Dream?

So we are hurtling towards the Opening Night of Dick Whittington in Fleet with one day to go.  Things have been, to put it politely, hectic.  Having worked for many years in corporate entertainment- in the main, shows, conferences, exhibitions and entertainment – I was very used to burning the midnight oil towards the beginning of a function, and it appears that the same applies to the theatre.  This is the part when all those months of rehearsing and training comes to fruition.  It is also the time when little things like the costumes, lighting, sound and stage set become a reality – and oh boy, does that make an enormous impact…

First time show, first time venue – dear reader, how many times have I said this?  But all because it also has a real bearing on the general approach to, and reaction to, the show.  The venue has very little in the way of stuff or staff needed for a professional show (bear in mind it was rescued from closure by the council only three years ago) and so everything has had to be brought in – from the crew to the lighting, to the sound, even to the tiered seating that the audience is sitting on. This is literally a leap into the unknown, a labour of love from all the cast and crew, and all of whom are hoping fervently that they will have an audience to play to.  In this respect, there are a number of shows that are sold out, and indeed (thank God) there are no days in which the venue are struggling – such is the leap of faith of all the local people (and the generous exposure in the papers).

One of the attractions about this show from the very start was the passion and conviction of the producer/scriptwriter/star Amanda Goldthorpe-Hall, who allowed the children from the local areas a break – despite their relative inexperience in pantomime, she saw a spark in each individual she picked, and the rest is history.  The kids have worked tirelessly, without complaint, and lapping up praise.  When their attention wanders, she has a Stare, focusing in on the offending children and lowers her voice so that the kids crane to hear what she is saying (Note to Self: must try this at home as shrieking at Teenager is giving me a sore throat and not working).  She also seems to be an adept Jack of all Trades -she’s been in the business so long that she instinctively knows how to do the Marketing, Directing and when a production note is off.  More importantly, she is adaptable – if something doesn’t work, she doesn’t make it work, she tries an alternative.  But she’s not infallible.  And she needs the back up of a good team.  She has recruited well – we have Sergeant Major Caz, the Head Chaperone, and her Deputy Rachel, we have  a professional cast who are a delight to work with and are very kid friendly, and she has appointed a technical team who are single minded in their dedication to the job in hand.  On the exterior, The Harlington staff are doing their best to maintain ticket sales and accommodate the demands of a show of which they have never seen the likes of before.

And then you have us, the Mummies who have got chaperone licences and are not sure what this means… Until this weekend, and the Tech Days… 

Anyone who has been in the theatre will know what the Tech Days entail – hours of setting lights, sound, and sorting out the realities of the scenes, i.e. has Jimmy really got time to run under the stage and appear as a Ferocious Beast in two minutes?  Caz was ill and Rachel stepped up admirably to the plate on Day 1 in charge of three of us (plus some shadowers).  We had a crib sheet, we could see the costumes of all 12 kids (interchangeable between each team), and all their accessories were laid out in clearly labelled areas of the tables in a very small dressing room.  The character Fred (the only juvenile boy) had a small screened off area in which to change, which also contained the dressing room fridge.  All seemed to be very straightforward… until the tech rehearsal started…  Half way through the day, as Fred (not mine) was struggling to get out of his fully buttoned waistcoat and two of us were ripping it off before he raced under the stage to appear as a sea monster, only to miss his cue because the sea monster kit was missing, I turned to my fellow chaperone and said ‘This really isn’t working’.  Amanda took one look at the situation and solved it in one fell swoop. Up in the dressing room we had a faulty sound system and thus could not hear the cues from off stage, and so a mum sat out in the auditorium with a full script and ran in to tell us when to go.  There were two quick change scenes when we had two panicking girls with knotted ballet pumps ribbons, and we had one child with a panic attack and one who needed an asthma inhaler.  Because we were trying it out team by team, we had props in the wrong place, kids in the wrong place, and for someone who is hard pushed to tell Left from Right, introducing Stage Left and Stage Right into the equation was tantamount to disaster. This was not the Herding Sheep vision that I had had of Chaperoning, this was full on show responsibility.  But we got through it, with a lot of stopping and starting, and I was delighted to hear at the end of the day (only because it stopped me feeling inept), that it had been simplified a bit.

One of the mums who had been watching, ready to step in as chaperone on Tech Day 2, came in to the rather sweaty dressing room at the end of the day, her eyes shining.  ‘That was absolutely BRILLIANT!’ she exclaimed.  I was ecstatic.  I’ve not really been a part of this process, only by virtue of being Little Man’s mum have I got involved – but once you are, you really are, and it was like someone had said that my baby was beautiful… and I beamed.

I looked round for Little Man. He was nowhere to be seen.  I found him at the entrance to his dressing room.  He was allowing the giggling girls in, three at a time, on an inspection tour of the room and the fridge. 

He’s got ShowBiz sussed that boy…

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Revues, Reviews and a Slice of Cake

My husband G is very fond of the old Laurel and Hardy skits.  The boys and I sit in silence with blank stares as he roars with laughter at the black and white footage, often with tears rolling down his face.  We on the other hand, have the same reaction when watching An Idiot Abroad, or Miranda, or Come Fly With Me, whereas he sits there with a slightly baffled smile.  We have all agreed to disagree on things like this – and we vary who we side with -  indeed, I am in the minority when the men of the household are glued to Man vs Food, Ice Road Truckers, and that strangest of phenomena Lizard Lick Towing.

But there is no doubt that there is a type of comedy that is more slapstick than others, and the joy in the humour is that of predictability and anticipation.  Often the gag’s ending is predictable from the start, but it is the joy in how it reaches that ending, and the anticipation of that ending.  It is the stuff from which all comedy was born, it filled the theatre revues pre-, during, and post- war, it fathered the black and white movies, and it became the basis from which every working stand up comedian studied their craft.  It is, also, of course, the foundation of every pantomime.

So it was with interest this week that I attended some of the rehearsals – mainly in my capacity as fully licensed chaperone (oh yes!), but also because I wanted to see how it was all progressing.  The principal stars of the show work in the main from 9.30 in the morning to about 3.30, breaking a couple of times and then they are joined by the juveniles at 4.00, who then warm up for about ten minutes before the second lot of rehearsals begin.  Amanda appears to be living mainly on coffee, but the other actors wander around with fruit, sandwiches and copious amounts of water in a practice room which gets hotter and hotter as the night progresses. This rehearsal time is the time in which the stars scripts merge with the juveniles script and suddenly the whole picture becomes clearer.  As in any good comedy there are a number of points at which the action becomes fast paced and almost chaotic, and there are several groaners of lines, but it is fascinating as an observer to see how 3 teams of kids slot into their duplicate scenes seamlessly around the main unchangeable cast, each character having the same moves or lines as his or her predecessor. 

In terms of the performance therefore, it is very promising, and the local Press have been incredibly generous with their coverage of the forthcoming production, more so because they also have to feature the rival more established pantomimes who have paid adverts appearing in the media.  The latest billboard, this time featuring the juveniles, appeared last week to great reviews, both from fond families and in the press.  Features on the main characters are being run every few days or so in the local online Mums In The Know group, and generally everyone has a genuine desire to help this pantomime succeed. The staff at the Harlington Centre, used to running and advertising one and two day events, have had to adapt an entirely new long term form of marketing in terms of social media and press relations – and last weekend for the first time ever (@fleetpanto) took part in a 24 hour Tweetathon along with hundreds of other pantomimes nationwide for Panto Day 2013. Exhausting but exhilarating, the efforts reached thousands of pantoland fans, connected with several, and was retweeted by many before bidding a fond farewell for another year. I really hope that those at The Harlington continue to build on this success, keeping up the momentum and ensuring that the work put in by others is not wasted.

There is nothing like a little politeness or acknowledgement to make the world go round. It was Little Man’s birthday today, and I lumbered in to rehearsals carrying an enormous cake, because, he said, he wanted everyone to have a slice.  Not only did the whole cast sing Happy Birthday to him twice – once at the beginning, and once again at the end for cake – but every single child came up to him and thanked him for their slice, and wished him a happy birthday.

He left beaming.  The camaraderie amongst the kids and even amongst the parents is amazing.Perhaps it is because of the predictability of the situation (we are all in this together, come hell or high water). Or perhaps it is the joy of the anticipation… 

Either way, we’re having a right old laugh…

Saturday, 7 December 2013

It's Behind You

One of the problems of running a first time pantomime in a first time venue for the first time is that there are teething problems right from the start. Not only are you competing with the established heavyweight pantomimes in the area, but you have to get the word out that you are there, and running, and that you are a bona fide contender for the Public’s money.  The other pantomimes generally have well seasoned and reasoned modes of marketing and financing and attract big stars and sponsors with success.  

As a first timer, you literally have to prove yourself every step of the way.  And thus it is that the cast and crew of Dick Whittington have had to work extra hard to ensure that not only the people of Fleet, but also the surrounding areas, are fully aware that there is another Panto in town. And because all those in the Panto Know, Panto Show groups are keeping a close eye on everything the New Kid on the Block does, the rehearsal schedule at Fleet has ramped up a bit and everyone has to be that super bit better and slicker than anyone else.

Little Man and his juvenile cast have, for the past week and a half, been involved in evening rehearsals after school.  These generally run for 3 hours, and on top of a school day and all that that entails at this time of year, it has been quite a feat.  But they seem to thrive on it.  The mummies on the other hand are getting more Stressed Looking each evening as they battle through the Christmas traffic, try and find a car parking space, pay for a car parking ticket (I swear the wardens wait outside The Harlington just to catch those dropping their kids off) and rush their kids in to rehearsals, whilst simultaneously divesting their little divas of school bags, blazers, ties – in short, anything that would get lost and cause chaos on the school run the next morning.   The lady at Reception at Little Man’s school has become adept at grabbing him from class.  I have become adept at whipping up sandwiches in Ready Steady Cook style from leftovers in the fridge (yesterday he had a cold croissant with cream cheese and salami – I told him it was a French-Italian dish called a Fromali) and my other boys have become adept at Eggy Bread until I get in and make a Hot Fromali, or some such other tempting dish…  And it is not only the kids, but the stars who have put in the hours.  Working long days, they come in the main from London, arriving early in the morning and staying until the end of rehearsals in the evening.  In between hours of plotting moves (‘blocking’) and trying out lines, they manage to fit in personal appearances at functions as diverse as an under-teen disco to an NCT meeting with young mums and babies, and Amanda, as Fairy BowBells has become as ubiquitous as the Tooth Fairy.

But that has not been enough.  Without the backing of the people of Fleet, the Pantomime would have struggled.  But Fleet seems to like the purple bill board grinning down at them.  They seem to like the fact that the stars nip down to the local sandwich shop during lunch breaks, and they are positively warm to the fact that many of their youngsters are featuring (often for the first time) so heavily in the show.  The local traders of Fleet have given out flyers, put up posters and joined in with gusto in the latest campaign run on social media by a very savvy marketing department featuring Jeremy Edwards in a series of ‘Where’s Jeremy?’  poses in town. They are fully behind the panto – knowing that with it, the business will pick up in town and unlike the out- of- town shows, the restaurants and bars will flourish with theatre goers. Even the privately owned shopping mall in Fleet, which traditionally advertises another pantomime in Aldershot, is hedging its bets on the success of our pantomime and displaying Fleets banner as well – so rather strangely on coming in you will be urged to see one show, and going out you will see the other!

The set is being built, and the costumes have nearly all been made –at the end of one rehearsal I came in early and saw a production line of rats noses, yards and yards of blue velveteen and one mum (who is not known for her crafting talents) proudly displayed a box full of pairs of little gold bells that she had put together.  I enquired what they were and she answered cheerfully ‘No idea…but do you like them?’   The songs have been sung and the scripts have been learned and now it’s putting actions to words.

Little Man came back last night and said that he had done a scene with Jeremy Edwards. 

‘What did you have to do?’ I asked, trying to stop sounding impressed.
‘I had to fight him for a chicken’ he answered nonchalantly, tucking into a hot Fromali sans cheese or salami (ok, a croissant then…)

‘It’s a secret’
‘Oh No its Not’ I said, ‘I’m your mum’
‘Oh Yes It Is!’ he replied with a wink and skipped out of the room.

And we haven’t even started the show yet…

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Drones, Phones and Chaperones

It was with some amusement that I read all about the R&D department at Amazon and their development of a delivery drone.  For those of you who have not had time to catch up on the latest, the idea is that these little flying or travelling robots will deliver small packages with more efficiency than their human counterparts.  I have become quite attached to my Amazon delivery driver – after all, I see him most days leading up to Christmas – and am not sure that I would have the same rapport with a robot (and where would they keep that ridiculous electronic Etcha-Sketch that you attempt to sign with a flourish)? 

However, I can see the opportunities, and in the future can imagine these drones being put to a lot of use – for example, you could have the Home Drone, who picks up the socks off the sofa and deposits them in the washing machine.  The Moan Drone would neatly package up the kids in the morning and drop them off in the school playground without a murmur.  The Bone Drone would of course walk the dog.  And my favourite, the Foam Drone, would run a bath and scrub your back whilst serving up a crisp, cold, glass of Chablis.   However, it seems that there is an awful lot more R &D to do on this and legislation to get over, and frankly I am expecting to see a flying pig before an airborne Amazon Drone.

No flying pigs, but cute little Vietnamese pot bellied pigs and a baby donkey were on show at the school Christmas Fayre this year, courtesy of Millers Ark.  The school had really pulled out all the stops, and on top of the ever popular tombola, where you could win bags of sweets and chocolates, there were some real Grown Up stalls where you could grab Grandma a homemade something, indulge in some wine tasting, buy some tasty cheeses or even an oil painting. The halls were packed, with people trying on vintage clothing, having their nails done, decorating biscuits, drinking mulled wine, or generally mooching about whilst their kids ran up constantly asking for more cash.  

Fairy Bowbells opened proceedings (with Little Man hanging back a little shyly in front of all of his friends who were giggling and pointing), and after a hasty exit into the disabled toilets, re-emerged as Amanda in order to go home without being mobbed by excited little girls.  Glamorous work when you can get it, and was her final appearance in just over 20 school visits – but essential when you are promoting a first time pantomime in a first time venue.  Little Man took off his sparkly Christmas Dick Whittington hat and was soon lost in the crowds, as I chatted to various Mummies on my way round the stalls.  ‘Ooh’, said one, ‘I saw you at the Lights last night’.  This kind of threw me a bit, as it has been so frenetic recently, that one forgets what one has been to, but indeed we had been at a Lights Switch on the night before, which was fairly low key, and at which I had been the Chaperone.  

Highlights of that night had been no means of playing the backing CD (solved by getting a local mum to race back home for her laptop), sitting in a pub round a pool table with 10 kids to warm up before their appearance (and not having a drink…) and the loss of Fairy Bowbells' very important sparkly fairy mobile phone (which she normally tucked into her bra strap).  After flying around in panic for a couple of minutes, she then discovered that it was a costume malfunction rather than a loss of phone, and that it had got lodged in her bodice… all in a day’s work, and I am delighted to say that all kids were accounted for both in and out of the event and so I gave myself a little pat on the back for being such an excellent Chaperone!

The Chaperones meeting took place during rehearsals, where Caz, the Head Chaperone, told us all about our roles on this production, what we would need to wear and where to be.  On some of the shows, the kids have a matter of an hour or so before preparing for the next show, and as they are not allowed to eat in their costumes, they were advised to bring onesies or big t shirts to cover up.   We were told to wear black, and ‘cheap black’ – stuff that could be thrown away at the end of the season as it would be covered in make up, hairspray, maybe even sick.  (You never know with kids…) Little Man and the other Freds (bearing in mind they are the only juvenile boy each show) would have their own changing ‘cupboard’ – and yes, I’m afraid I did make the crack about him coming out of the closet – but would be able to join the girls once they had changed, and would have their own Chaperone. 

And then we sorted out who would cover what technical rehearsals and performances, just as the call came through to collect the kids from rehearsals.   Little Man wandered out – his hair slicked back with gel.  This, I was assured, was how his hair had to be on each performance.  I looked at the girls hair – each child, depending on what role they had (bearing in mind that there is three of each character) had a hairstyle unique to that role.  There was a lot of plaits, and Kirby grips and hairspray going on.  I raised my eyes to heaven and thanked God yet again that mine was a male.

I got a text from G on the way home.
<How did rehearsal go?>  
<Great, on way home> 
<Good stuff.  Cat has eaten frozen chicken.  Assume that was lunch?>

Dear Amazon R&D department, forget the delivery drone, what I need is a Clone Drone… 

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Tinsel, Tantrums and a Missing Fairy Wand

‘The secret is to be useless at school and then get lucky’ – that was the statement made recently by Simon Cowell on a US show.  It was a tongue in cheek remark which was however, taken up by the Education Secretary Michael Gove and disputed at length in the Press.  As a mum who has recently entered the arena of the theatrical arts with her 8 year old son, but has friends in both sectors, it was interesting to read about – whilst all the time shaking her head.  The fact of the matter is, that from a Parent’s perspective, both of them are Right, and Wrong. Mr Cowell is wrong in perpetuating the myth that Svenghali-like he will change the fortunes of those who cross his path, regardless of qualifications.  Gove is wrong because there are a lot of unemployed graduates out there (I know, I’ve read their CVs).  However, what was amusing about this tiff was that actually, bravado aside, they were both saying the same thing – hard work pays off.  But for the artist to have an education gives him or her that additional crutch, should they fall on hard times in their chosen career (or get rejected at the X Factor audition stage). 

And of course, school is about so much more than education.  It’s about sociability, it’s about activity, it’s about respect, discipline and mobility.  Rather like the arts.  So Mr Cowell and Mr Gove, stop the tantrums, agree to disagree, and get on with saving the world in your own unique ways…

It was with a drawn breath however, that I looked at the final rehearsal schedule for the pantomime.  As I write, we have exactly 16 days until Opening Night.  This is a big deal, and comes with a timetable which necessitates Little Man leaving school early most nights, which means my leaving work early most nights, which means that everything gets slightly more crammed into an already packed day, and somehow we then have to fit in homework, and the blessed concerts that come up as par for the course at this time of year.   On talking to other first time panto mums, we all had the same reaction – it was going to be very hard work indeed.  There was a lot of talk of getting the wine in, Dominos on speed dial, burnt sausage casseroles and so on.  The kids have been absolutely fine – possibly because they are used to the discipline at school, it was just the adults who were having the wobbles.

So far we have managed to cover 4 Christmas Light Switch ons, with one more to go.  As a little troupe we have smiled and sung our way through Fleet, Odiham, Farnham and Yateley, and will be appearing at Hartley Wintney shortly.  We’ve coped with freezing cold weather, dodgy sound systems, various quality of staging and the disappearance of Fairy Bow Bells wand (luckily she had a spare). The kids have handed out fliers, smiled for the Press calls,  shimmered in tinsel and remained entirely upbeat throughout perishing conditions in which the parents are huddled, muttering about mulled wine and hot mince pies and Bah Humbug… 

And this is only the beginning.   Mr Cowell, Mr Gove – you are both right.  With a lot of hard work, you can get lucky, you can achieve. 

And a big coat and a flask of tea also helps.