What’s it like being a part time, useless, amateur actor then?
Are we all sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
It all kicks off at around 3am. You wake up to banish the Dad’s Army nightmares and the ghost of Denis Norden and then the seismometer needle gives a definite shake and tremble. So, at five past three, you start revising your lines. The trouble is that about half way through you fall asleep only to wake up with a jolt to start the whole process again. At around 4 o’clock you fall back asleep again, exhausted, but content in the knowledge that you’ve remembered your lines at the tenth attempt, only to be woken again at 7 o’clock by your dear wife requiring her morning cuppa and demanding to know what you were thrashing around in bed about half the night. Not that you can remember because you’re brain dead at this point and simply on tea-making autopilot.
During the day though, strangely enough, everything goes pretty much to plan although your lines are still whizzing around your brain at regular intervals. Every now and then you dive for your hard copy which is always somewhere at hand in case of emergencies. At least once a day you banish yourself to the garage so that you can recite your lines aloud and for The Long Christmas Dinner in the most excruciating false American accent you’ve ever heard (you’re incapable of anything better).
After dinner and a hard day in the garden (all of 15 minutes in reality) you feel like a nice bath. Ah - relax. But no, the dreaded lines make another appearance.
Eventually you crawl into bed for another recital and sleep soundly until 3am when it all kicks off again.
Am I alone, the only useless amateur actor with this problem? At rehearsals everybody seems to do everything so easily - except me. Or is this just an illusion?
Oh - the joy!
Anon y Mouse
It seems like a long time - a month. But that’s only 3 rehearsals away until we’re all thrown in at the deep end. Vague tremors of panic start to set in. The seismometer needle has just started to quiver and we cannot ignore it. The earthquake of performance day is just around the corner. The tsunami is building. My well rehearsed lines have escaped me to be replaced by well known quotes from “Dad’s Army” - Corporal Jones’s “Don’t panic, don’t panic” or worse, Private Frazer’s “We’re doomed! We’re all doomed”. Then Denis Norden makes an appearance with the reassuring words “It’ll be alright on the night”. And all this is at the unearthly hour of 3am. The light of dawn banishes all these negative thoughts - almost.
Anon Y Mouse
Life backstage really starts with no stage at all, just a few thin wooden battens taped to the floor of our rehearsal hall. We’re told that these represent the margins of the stage and the set. The gaps between the battens represent the entrances and exits. The batten along the front is supposed to be the edge of the stage and we mustn’t cross it. Hilarity strikes when we inevitably do just that, or inadvertently walk through an imaginary wall. It’s all a bit Harry Potterish in the initial stages of our rehearsals but we quickly get used to it.
One day, back in the long distant past, before roll-on deodorants or hovercraft were invented and before Hemingway had written “The Old Man and the Sea”, I had the misfortune to be born in Bonny Soggy Scotland. That was the start of a life-changing series of adventures and misadventures that eventually led me to the South of France where, inevitably, I had to wear the kilt at special functions and to sing the odd Scottish song at Burns Nights organised by other British ex-pats. So far, so good.
But then, calamity! At one such informal gathering, my terrible singing was overheard by a lovely wee blond lady called Nancy. She really is quite tone deaf, poor lass, but I must have impressed her in some way because one day back in 2019 I received a telephone call from her:
“The ETC is looking for a man to sing a Scottish song in our next production - Ben’s War. I know you’ve a lovely singing voice so would you be willing to wear your kilt and sing Keep the Home Fires Burning for us?” Nancy being ever so persuasive and me being ever so gullible, I replied with a tentative “yes”.
That was the start of my exploration into the life of theatre productions. To me it had the great advantage of being my only opportunity for me to speak English - or at least my version of it. I very quickly learnt that my Scottish accent was virtually incomprehensible to the majority of ETC cast and crew. So back to basics - slow down, get rid of the Scottish words and phrases, ditch the accent and speak Guide Book Touristese.
But, back to Ben’s War. My French friends found it distinctly odd to be hillwalking in the Pyrenees with a singing Scotsman and his border collie (whit Heilanman disnaehae a collie dug undriskilt?). It was the only place I could practice my song without being led to the guillotine.
Despite Covid and my destruction of various peoples eardrums I ended up being a small part actor in various productions leading up to the current rehearsals of The Long Christmas Dinner. Although I only have a few lines I’ve begun to appreciate just how much time, effort and expense it takes to put on just a very small production.
The English Theatre Company is a real team of teams. Not one of us can manage without the support of many others. The actors are unable to perform without the back-stage team, the catering and bar teams, the technical, lighting and sound teams. None of these can manage without the input of the actors, who would be totally at sea without their director, the secretary, the box-office and the committee. So many people, all beavering away in small groups or often alone to bring the whole event to fruition.
At weekly rehearsals over a three month period prior to any performance each and every actor relies totally upon the presence of all the others. Not only de we have to learn our own lines but also the lines of all the other actors and, in particular, the actor speaking just before you. Woe betide you if you miss your cue or spout the wrong line at the wrong time. I never thought it would be so difficult.
But, on to the present, The Long Christmas Dinner is going to be a bit strange for all of us because there are no props, no Christmas Dinner despite the title. Imaginary turkey, imaginary wine. I ask you? If it wasn’t for the chocolate biscuits ant our rehearsal coffee breaks……. And now - we’re being told that we have to speak with an American Mid-West accent. That’ll be a laugh!
Being new to this acting lark and still riding high on the joy of participating in Calendar Girls, I am disposed to like anything that comes my way.‘What is next, after the undoubted triumph of ‘Allo ‘Allo?’ my friends and I asked, excitement dancing in our eyes.
‘No, too dancey.’
‘0ooh, how about Hamilton?’
The new play is...ahem...The Long Christmas Dinner by Thornton Wilder!
Imagine this dropping in to a room full of chatter and then silence, preceded by that record scratching noise.
What? Who? Why?
Well, a quick glance on Wikipedia reveals Wilder to be a ‘pivotal figure in the literary history of the twentieth century’. That is a heck of an accolade; if you also throw in composer, actor, teacher, essayist, then you get a vibe of a deep thinker.
I watched the TV adaptation, the one with David Soul and, plunk, fell head over heels for this play. Its so darn clever, with repetitive themes weaving in and out, creepy nurses, dark portals, invisible dining...what's not to like?
As I write, the play is being painstakingly crafted, movement by movement, inflection by inflection. In this play, its less what we say, and more the observing of the flow, the cyclical motion of the play. Somehow we have to convincingly move through time, age in front of people's eyes, depict birth, death, marriage in the blink of an eye.
I always imagined I was a dramatic actor. You know the type? Hand on brow, hand wringing at the drop of a hat, Oh woe is me? Turns out I am a bit of a Lucille Ball wannabee and I have found a couple of teeny moments that are hilarious and, I will hopefully be able to add my own comedic flourishes to my character.
And, one thing I haven't mentioned is that the play is set in America and we are all going to be speaking our lines in a selection box of American accents. Mid West is what we are aiming for and our language coach (thanks Kim!) has spent time with us gently ironing out Bronx or deep South inflections. We have this perception that everyone in America sounds like they are from Gone with the Wind and its been hard to shake this. You be the judge. How did we do?
Its strange writing this in the here and now and knowing it will be read in the future. So, take my thoughts as a snapshot in time, a brief peek into a process. This quote seems very apt:
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Perhaps this is what Ermengarde is thinking as she exits the stage at the last, leaving...nothing.
‘Quick, quick, out of the way, I have a fast change.’ I barraged my way through a group of my fellow actors backstage, already half out of my Edith dress as I spoke. Wriggling into my cabaret dress, I raced back to make my entrance just as the intro music began to play. No time to panic. Just follow the Director’s instructions and sing ‘more awful.’ That was the easy bit!
We were performing ‘Allo ‘Allo for the first time. After ten weeks of rehearsals we were ready. Or so we hoped. We had become a family, cast and crew alike. We had shared the challenges of this difficult production. The hard work and self doubt. Would we remember our lines? Cues? Movements? But we knew we were there for each other every step of the way. And above all we were having such fun. Laughing until we cried. Corpsing at our mistakes as we gave life to the written words on the pages of our scripts.
Sitting backstage on the evening of our first performance, nerves jangling, the Director’s final advice was simple. ‘Go out there and enjoy yourselves,’ he told us. ‘The audience will sense your enjoyment and love it all the more.’ He was right. The laughter and applause from the word go was exhilarating and lifted us to join with the audience in having the best time.
For a few days after the run of ‘Allo ‘Allo ended, many of us felt bereft and flat as if there was something missing from our lives. As indeed there was. Maybe we needed the thought of another theatrical production in late autumn?
Us ‘theatre newbies’ are quite an exclusive club. We have, at various times over the run up to the play, got together in corners and quizzed each other: “How did you get involved in this?” — said in a wondering, quavery voice. I came along to the auditions because I was flattered to be asked to take part. I had no acting experience and therefore had little or no expectation of getting any part, particularly not the behemoth part I ended up with!!! What you are most kindly reading, is my take on the whole experience, a behind the scenes exposé, if you will, of life as a newbie with The English Theatre Company.
The first thing that sprang to my attention, way back in late summer, was… the biscuits!!! Mostly chocolate, a vast amount piled high in the kitchen was the biggest clue that I had thrown my lot in with a group of hedonists, a group of life enhancers who live life on the edge, whilst holding a cup of tea in one hand and a biscuit in the other. I felt like I had finally found my tribe!
The next thing I was struck by was the professionalism that was evident from day one; this was no rag tag and bob tail collection of wanna-be-thesps. This was the real deal - people that knew their craft and how to achieve slick results. I have a big collection of new skills now as a result of being part of the Calendar Girls cast. I can listen to instructions and, most importantly, remember them. Somehow I have managed to memorise my lines, recognise cues, and can help rescue friends if they have a blank moment. Apparently I can now project my voice, which I always thought was such a reedy little thing. In the words of my character, 'Ruth', “I can do it! I can do it!”.
The key to the success of this process is teamwork. Forgive me for sounding like a US business manager, but it's true! I have felt supported all the way, been praised when it mattered, gently guided to do better and I can tell you from the heart that the warmth and camaraderie that you see on stage is real. Real to the point that when I’m not with the girls, for instance when Ruth has made her decision not to take part (sorry if this is a spoiler), I am sitting back stage, feeling very dejected, peeking out between the wings wishing I was out there under the burning sun-like glare of the lights, really wanting to be out there with my girls! We have literally bared all and created real bonds of friendship.
Time definitely speeds up when you are, ahem… a bit older. This is the only explanation I can come up with for how we appear to have suddenly leapt from rehearsing twice a week in hot, stuffy Salles des Fêtes, to thrice a week feeling the pressure and assembling your props, to suddenly only having one more performance to go! How did that happen?? I guess the answer is that the English Theatre Company is good at what they do and is a well-oiled machine that knows exactly how to achieve results.
From providing a backstage dresser (thank you Nicky and Jo), to stage managers and prop masters, everything is thought of and nothing is left to chance, creating the seamless front-of-house experience the audience sees. We newbies were quickly coached on acting etiquette — never go “Coo-ee” and wave when you see your besties on the front row. Never appear in the bar afterwards in your costume and never show your back to the audience. We were initiated into actory terms such as ‘dress’ for dress rehearsal, and ‘strike’ for dismantling the stage (I think). We learnt you always need coat hangers for your costumes, Fishermen’s Friends for throat closages due to nerves and, finally, bags that don’t crinkle when you are diving in them to find safety pins and whatnot whilst you are sitting right behind the scenery.
Above all, we’ve learnt the magic that happens when a group of people have worked really hard at becoming their characters and know their lines inside out. The maxim ‘It’ll be alright on the night’ is actually true. Yes, there might be moments when the play opens with a blast of James Bond theme music instead of Jerusalem. Yes, I might have shot out early on stage, dressed as a rabbit, potentially ruining a crucial and serious scene in the play. Yes, I might have kept saying ‘underpants’ instead of ‘knickers’ in rehearsals and yes, I might have snorted with unexpected laughter as my onstage badminton partner suddenly fired a shot at me from through her legs, but somehow… it all worked out just fine!
It's been a wonderful and life-changing experience for all of us newbies. We have become confident creatures, able to look at our worst fears such as paralysing shyness and terror of public speaking and overcome them. Being part of Calendar Girls has been a brilliant experience and I, for one, am totally hooked on the unexpected joy of audience laughter. Just don’t get me started on how great it feels to be clapped! I am sure I was unbearable to live with for a few days after the shows! Thank you for reading this and, if you came along to see us in action, thank you for that too. A play without an audience would be the saddest thing on God’s earth (to borrow one of Jessie’s lines). I’ll bow now and take my leave, but know that I loved every second!
For the past 3 years, The English Theatre Company has promoted the work of Cancer Support France by including publicity for the association in our programmes. This continued through the pandemic as ETC sought to bring live theatre to the public by staging events outdoors when rules allowed; audiences were invited to bring their own chairs and picnics and were seated according to socially-distanced guidelines.
Ever innovative in its approach to theatre experiences ETC has, in its 6-year existence, put on radio plays around winter Sunday lunches, performed staged readings and revues as well as major plays. The latest of these was Calendar Girls and, as with the real story, the English Theatre Company decided to not just challenge itself by attempting this difficult play but to also produce a calendar featuring, in various states of undress, the 10 'girls' who were part of the cast - all done in the best possible taste naturally!
The aim was to donate any profits to Cancer Support France. The Company was thrilled at the support from audiences where the calendars were offered for sale, so much so that ETC was able to present a cheque for 1000€ to Jayne Ray, President of CSF Gascony in December.
As a change to The English Theatre Company's regular summer get-together for members, affectionately known as "Party Pieces", this year's event was billed as "A Bit of a Do" when family and friends were also invited to attend. The venue? The large Salle des Fêtes in Ste Dode. When? Saturday 16 July. The format? An informal show when any ETC members who wished would be able to perform a 'party piece' with everyone sharing a 'bring your own picnic' on completion. All sounds very straightforward doesn't it? But wait....all was not as straightforward as it seemed!!
Unbeknown to most, the event was to take on more of the appearance of a full production thanks to Nick's organisation and imagination. With the help of Sean, Paul & Phil there was sound, there was lighting and there was a fabulous set in the form of 6 recently acquired flats of Dickensian figures. All seemed totally in-hand until the 'canicule' threatened to scupper the proceedings but, thanks to a supply of fans and jugs of cold water to keep everyone as refreshed as possible, the show was able to go on with an audience of some 55 guests.
Sean acted as warm-up man and MC, introducing some 13 acts ranging from monologues and poems - some by well-known authors, others written by the performers themselves - to songs and sketches. Special mention here must be made of Dinner for One performed by Phil and Jacqueline. If you don't know this piece then you don't know what you're missing! Do go on YouTube to watch the original which has become cult viewing in Germany every New Year - it's hysterical! The amount of work that went into both the set and the performance was simply outstanding.
And, as they say "That's all folks" - or rather, it should have been. What very few people knew was that there was a secret finale, arranged by Nick with the help primarily of Gary, Jane and Sue. And the reason? My '0' birthday, the following day. In an unguarded moment some years ago, I had told Nick that, as a child, I'd always adored The King and I and my greatest wish was to wear a ballgown like Anna and to dance around a ballroom. And that's exactly what I did!! I had no idea of what was to happen but was brought on stage where I had been watching from the audience and then, having been dressed in a beautiful ballgown, I was whirled around the floor to "Shall we Dance?" with Gary as 'The King'. It's not often that I'm lost for words but I was totally overwhelmed by the occasion, by the love and thought that had gone into making it happen. It was a truly memorable moment and one that I hope was enjoyed by the others there too. ETC, and those that make up the company, has a very special place in my heart - along with Yul Brynner!!!!