A Love Letter To Theatre

Dear Theatre…

We do hope you read that title in a Welsh accent so that it rhymes…a la Emily in Paris in a French accent. The next post in our love letter series, inspired by Valentine’s Day, is L’s love letter to theatre. We hope you enjoy reading it.

The last time L stepped into a theatre, almost a year ago

Dear Theatre,

Where do I begin? What a year we’ve had. I suppose, rather than dwell on the present too much, I’ll think of fonder times. It began, as most of my best stories do, at my Nan’s house.

Growing up, I’d spend endless summers and half terms at my grandparent’s home in Wales. My favourite pastime was to watch Disney films in the conservatory while I doodled drawings and did my colouring-in. Once I’d grown out of princesses and talking animals (as if I ever have), Nanny Val pointed me in the direction of the great movie musicals. I devoured The Wizard of Oz, Calamity Jane and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, but then came the real lightbulb moment: Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. The version we had was taped from the telly by my lovely and much-missed grandfather, known to his grandchildren as Lloydie, which resulted in a lack of crispness in quality, wonky alignment in the credit sequences and the entire film having a slightly brown hue, but I didn’t mind in the slightest. Once I had the bug, that was it.

One of the more unusual venues I’ve worked in; a converted chapel in Merthyr Tydfil. My Land’s Shore, Theatr Soar, 2018

I became obsessed with cast recordings, thanks mainly to the musical, Annie. It was a childhood favourite and we played the cassette of the original Broadway cast recording every morning, literally every morning of Year 4, on the hour’s journey from home to my school in South London. It was around this time that I also started the heavy lobbying of my parents to send me to a performing arts boarding school. I also have a vague memory of announcing to my mother that I wanted to “become an orphan” (well, Annie, Anastasia and Harry Potter were, so why couldn’t I be?). The response from E? “Lily, do you know what an orphan is?” I remember replying along the lines that of course I did: orphans were children who lived in a house with all their friends and got to sing and dance and have adventures all day long.

E relented and off to a part-time stage school I went. This progressed to full-time performing arts education from the age of 14, and although I never wangled the boarding school bit, it was heaven. At the end of each term we got to perform in a theatre; my entire reason for being at this point. I remember walking through the rows of seats in the dark auditorium. Theatres were dangerous, our teachers warned, things could go wrong. For me though, theatres were exciting, terrifying, huge and beautiful. We were always chaperoned backstage, but once you were out in the warmth of the footlights, that was it – you were on your own. That sense of independence and control was palpable, and exhilarating, and wonderful!

The Opal Theatre, on board The Oasis of the Seas, where L performed in Cats 2017

Oh, my theatre. How I love your traditions. The opening night cards and flowers lining the corridor to the dressing rooms. The hunt for the “best spot” in the dressing room. Ideally this is at the end of the row, near the window, next to the coffee machine and as far away as humanly possibly from the door and showers. I love: the hushed whispers backstage when an understudy gets to step into the spotlight; the onstage physical and vocal warm-up, everyone bare-faced and wig-capped like an alien army; signing in and out at the stage door; getting post (and Amazon Prime) deliveries to the theatre because it is quite honestly our second home and where you’ll always find us; the rush to get on the road and home on the final night in a regional venue; the tiredness-induced delirium of a panto three-show Boxing day schedule; Facetime calls with other theatrical friends who are working as you prepare for “the half”; grabbing a “medicinal” wine – just the one – after the show; travelling home on the Tube with a full face of stage make-up; the bows and panto’s celebratory “walk down”; and the overture – oh how I love the overture!

Cats – can you spot Lily?

My love of the theatre doesn’t just exist as an actor, I am a passionate audience member too. Settling into those plush seats or having to lean forward in the Gods as the lights go dark. There is nothing like that feeling. Grabbing a drink at the interval and swapping thoughts, being moved to tears in Act 2 and trying to stifle a whimper (thank you Hamilton; as impressive on the small screen at home as it was on stage). I enjoy the moments of leaving the theatre after final curtain, having stayed to listen to the outro in full and having applauded the orchestra, obviously, and rejoining the real world in the frosty London air. The memorable moments of quickly orientating myself to whichever street the theatre exit has landed me on and from there finding my way to stage door to wait for the departure of the cast, crew and musicians, to cheer them and thank them for their work. A late evening train snack, while reading the production programme from cover to cover is a critical part of the routine, as is thinking and talking about the production over the following days and, ultimately, falling more in love with the show as you re-listen to and compare and contrast a variety of cast recordings. More magical than all of this though, is getting to share that experience with someone for the first time, whether it’s a little one’s first pantomime or seeing my Dad’s reaction to Billy Elliott; there is nothing quite like it.

The phenomenal Phantom of the Opera, at the Leicester Curve. Photography by Pamela Raith.

I’ve always known that this world is fragile. As an actor, your career is precarious. Growing older changes the roles you’re suitable to play and one injury, including vocal injuries for those of us who sing, can prematurely end that once-in-a-lifetime role. Jobs are lost, shows are closed and reviews can sting. I knew this age-old truth when I entered this industry. What I – what none of us – could have anticipated is what has happened in the last 12 months, and exactly how devastating it would feel.

The cast getting to meet their boss, Lord Lloyd Webber

In June of 2019, I booked a job in the new Cameron Mackintosh UK tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. It was a job I had dreamed of doing since I was a little girl. I had been auditioning for it since I graduated drama school in 2012. Finally, finally, I had done it! On 16 March 2020, the day my Nan had travelled to Leicester to watch the show, we were called on stage about an hour before curtain-up for the evening’s performance and advised to go home for the rest of the day. The pandemic was progressing at such a rate that the theatre and production company had no option but to suspend the show until further guidance could be obtained from the Government. That was it: despite exhaustive and, I’ve no doubt, exhausting work by the production company to try and save our show, we didn’t manage to reopen. The pandemic has been devastating for many thousands of people and this is no “woe is me” story, but the day our beloved show closed and the weeks following, I shared that sense of devastation. Actors are nothing if not resilient and in the year since Phantom had to close in Leicester, I’ve appeared in online concerts. I’ve also felt the security and excitement of having booked three more acting jobs – a commercial, an international tour and a pantomime – only to have all three delayed or cancelled entirely as Covid 19 has continued its rampage. But I’m not giving up and I have hope and optimism: I know theatre will return eventually and I promise to be there as an actor and, more importantly, as an member of the audience when it does. How could I not? It is at my very core and simply my favourite way to spend an evening.

Theatre, I’ve not forgotten you. I miss you. I can’t wait to see you soon. You have my heart ~L.

L in her most recent role: Sybil the Enchantress, in Godalming’s Pantomime, December 2020. Photography courtesy of The Guildford Fringe Theatrical Company.

Please, please do return to theatres once it is safe to do so; it will be curtains without you. In the meantime, here are some helpful ways you can support the arts industry:

Self-tape Stories

Once upon a time there was an actress…and then the global pandemic hit.

Once upon a time there was an actress. She spent her days popping in and out of the city, attending auditions and meeting other actors and creatives. Sometimes, she would even book those meetings she attended and wouldn’t have to audition for months on end. Life wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty close. Then the year 2020 happened…

What no one knows is that I have a huge spot on the other side of my chin and pyjama bottoms on below my “nice” top

Oh, it’s been a funny one, hasn’t it? What I am grateful for is all the new skills I’ve gained thanks to this pandemic which now include sound engineer, director of photography, editor, creative director, camera operator, broadcast producer and lighting technician. This is all thanks to the rise of the dreaded “self-tape”, my least favourite “s” word.

A “self-tape”, for any readers who aren’t familiar with the term, is essentially a filmed audition that we actors create and then submit to a creative team for their consideration. Now there are plenty of benefits to this style of audition. Firstly, we don’t have to commute into town which saves everyone money and helps us not catch Corona – or something worse – on the Tube. We can also do as many “takes” or attempts to get the performance we want. In my case, this is absolutely a blessing and a curse. Being able to watch an audition back means I obsess over the smallest detail, a hair out of place, a distorted shadow in the background, one note that was held longer in the previous seven takes. Therein lies the danger: my inner perfectionist takes over and I lose all sense of authenticity with infinite takes of the same material. It also sucks the life out of both my phone memory and battery.

Since March, nearly all the auditions I’ve been submitted for have transitioned to self-tapes and let me tell you, it’s been a journey. There was an excellent occasion when I had less than 24 hours to get a tape filmed, edited and successfully dispatched via “We Transfer” and all on the hottest day of the year. When filming, it’s important that no extraneous noise is picked up by the microphone and, obviously, to achieve this I normally close all the windows and doors. This is very much less than ideal in the middle of a heatwave. Estimate how quickly the prickle of SULA (sweaty upper lip alert) began in this airless room once I’d added a ring light, a face full of make-up and a healthy shot of audition adrenalin to the mix. I grabbed a towel to dab my shiny face between takes, but completely forgot about my neck. It wasn’t until later, when I was editing the footage, that I realised that my neck and entire décolletage were slick with shiny perspiration. To quote the old adage, I was simply glowing!

I also noticed on the re-watch that my hair gradually got bigger and bigger, just like Monica’s in The One In Barbados episode of Friends

Another fun memory was the day that my tripod broke during the middle of shooting. I was already in a terrible mood as the brief I’d been given was really complicated and involved lots of scenes where I had to mime the action, which is always tricky to make look convincing. I’d banished poor Vince to working from home in our bedroom so I could have full access to our lounge and all was going well until I heard the crash of my tripod hitting the floor. Miraculously my phone was intact, it was actually still filming but the tripod had completely shattered, meaning I had no way of stabilising my camera. In a wave of panic, I phoned E, seeing if she had anything that could work as a replacement. Although she wasn’t able to lend me anything, she did manage to calm me down sufficiently to allow me to get my thinking cap on and I created a Jenga-like tower of coffee tables, piano stools and cook books. I balanced one of my Stan Smith’s at the top of the makeshift mountain, like an angel atop a Christmas tree, and nestled my phone into its new bed. All this Blue-Petering was worth it as I booked the job.

I wish I could say things were less comical once I moved and had a whole house to use as a studio. Sadly this is not the case. Just this week I had to film several scenes for a big commercial campaign but they were all set outside. I grabbed my phone as I only had a few hours before the sun set and rushed out to film. I can now add location scout to my list of skills! All was going well until my new neighbours caught me filming one scene in my car where I had to cry on cue. They rapped on my passenger window to see if I was ok…”no, no, I’m fine – I’m just filming something”; “yes, I’m an actress”; “oh, no, I haven’t got the job yet, this is the audition”; “yes, it will be on TV…if I get it”; “yep-I have been on TV before”; “I don’t know if I’ve been in anything you’ve seen”. I really do hope I get this job now, if only to validate my explanation!

I’ll leave you with a sneaky snippet of this day. I was hunting for a background which was pretty and scenic, but far enough away from any road so I avoided vehicle noises in the background. I stumbled across this field and began filming, just before a local farmer and his dogs arrived to hasten my departure. Oh, the glamorous life! ~L.

The farmer didn’t mind once I’d explained, just in case you’re wondering!

For more theatrical insights and horror stories, connect with me on Instagram!

My Secret Theatre

L spills the tea at work.

Those of you that know me and my Mum know that we love to write a list. We also love a glass of prosecco or three and chatting until the early hours, swapping stories and laughing until our cheeks ache. Put these components together and the result is E challenging me to write a list about theatre secrets. I’ve been an actress for the last eight years, working in film, television and on stage, and feeling incredibly lucky to do what I do, so I felt well placed to accept the challenge.

From the middle of this often misunderstood business of mine, here are some secrets about a life in the theatre…

  • Most actors/directors/stage managers are pretty superstitious. Maybe it’s the nature of what we do, using our overactive imaginations every day or the fact that we tend to work at night, or in the dark, but either way, most people who work in the theatrical industry support some form of superstition. Whether it’s a backstage ritual of passing the same actor each evening or getting your post show drink from the same bar each night, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who isn’t! I for one certainly never whistle in a theatre or speak the name of the “Scottish play”. I also get jittery if I don’t complete certain tasks by a set time, like getting my pin curls done before the warm up or finishing my dinner before certain members of the cast arrive at the theatre
  • We all get nervous. Every so often, I’ll get chatting to someone who’ll congratulate me on my career, claiming: “oh I’d be too scared to go on stage each night.” Here’s the thing, we are scared. Not all the time but certainly if I’m feeling under-prepared or I haven’t had a good warm up backstage I am riddled with nerves – there’s that superstitious side of me again! Auditions are a big part of your life as an actor and they are like attending a super intense job interview after downing a cold brew coffee on an empty stomach. A job interview you have to attend numerous times a week, for a position that will only last a few months until you have to start the process again. Oh, the glamourous life!
  • Getting to “stage kiss” a colleague is really not steamy in the slightest. Well, I suppose it could be if you’re both single and you fancy each other but nine times out of ten, this just isn’t the case. The art of choreographing a love scene is so technical, it stripes the smooch of any actual romance and after the thirteenth or fourteenth run through, the whole thing will feel as routine as a handshake. It is much the same on a film or television set except instead of sharing that intimate moment with an audience of 150, you get to share it with an entire crew instead. Mmm, sexy, right?
  • We can see you! Yep, I myself have settled into my plush seat as an audience member and relaxed into that state of anonymity that a dark auditorium can bring, but I promise you, if you can see us, chances are that we on-stage folk can see you too, especially if you are seated in the front few rows. I’ve seen some bizarre behaviour in the audience over the years, my favourites being: drunk people who attempt to interact with the on-stage performers mid-scene; people falling asleep (although even I have done this on one occasion); and one memorable moment when a patron decided to order and then eat an entire pizza mid-show. Seriously, at least offer me a slice if I’m working so hard for you
  • So many of the magical transformations you see on stage are done the old fashioned way. Quick changes in and out of costume are exactly that, a quick change. There is one change I had to make in Act One of the Phantom of the Opera for which I had 55 seconds. Six members of our hair and wardrobe department would silently gather in the wings, just off-stage, and use their many, super-talented hands to strip me of one set of costumes and wig and fasten me into another, while I tried to take quick sips of water before I was back onstage. All of this in near silence, in the darkness and with military precision. Everyone had an objective and would focus solely on completeing it. When I was appearing in the musical Cats, I was fortunate to play the role of Grizabella a number of times. Poor Griz had to effect a wig, costume and make up change all within the first thirty minutes of the show. This involved me slinking off stage (well, Grizabella is the glamour cat), then, once out of sight of the audience, running from the wings to my dressing room, taking parts of my costume off as I went. Once my wig was off, in a flurry of baby wipes, I had to clean my face and then reapply the character’s iconic bedraggled look. So long as I remained a cool cat, I always managed it.

God, I miss my job. Due to the pandemic it’s unlikely that my industry will be able to return to anything approaching normality before the New Year and even then, forgive the pun, I wonder about state of play. So many freelancers have been out of work for almost six months; our landscape has completely transformed. What I do know is that once we return, those first few weeks of performances are going to be a once in a lifetime experience. Keep your ghost lights burning and I
promise I will see you back in a theatre just as soon as we are permitted. ~L