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

Ask Me Another

Round two of our interviews. This time Lily is in the hot seat.

Regulars will remember that a couple of weeks ago we published Lily’s interview of Emma and promised that we’d turn the tables in a future post. That day has arrived, and in what follows you have Emma interviewing Lily, covering some of the same questions, but with a few new ones thrown in for variety. Having spent the best part of 30 years together, it shouldn’t surprise us that we have so much in common and share similar tastes in many areas; what’s most intriguing is where our preferences and opinion differ…

E: Your turn in the hot seat, Lily! What did you want to be growing up and why?

L: Originally, I wanted to be a dentist but only because I watched the film “Toothless”, starring Kirstie Alley, who [spoiler alert] plays a dentist who gets hit by a car, dies, goes to Limbo and has to earn her way into Heaven by becoming the tooth fairy. Next, I wanted to be an Egyptologist because I watched the film “The Mummy”, starring Rachel Weisz. I thought that being an archaeologist would involve riding through the desert on a camel with Brendan Fraser, wearing beautiful 1930s clothing, fighting mummies who’d come back from the dead. I think it was you, Mum, who explained to me what being an archaeologist actually involves. Then I thought that perhaps the running theme was that I like films, and I like pretending, so maybe I should just be an actress. That way I can be a dentist one week and an egyptologist the next.

E: Characterful female leads in both those films. And sorry for inadvertently crushing your archaeology dreams! List five things that make you happy and cause you to smile.

L: True crime trivia…

E: That can’t possibly make you smile! What sort of freakish person are you?

Tyler curled up on the grass.

L: Alright, things that make me smile… Cats: I love cats and have a magical familiar called Tyler. There are three cats who live on my road, and they jump through a hole in the fence to see me when I pass. I’ve named them all.

Music makes me happy and having grown up in a household where music was always playing, I enjoy all genres. My Dad is obsessed with music and has his own man-cave – though truly it’s more like a palace – dedicated to his vinyl, cassette and CD collections. Cooking also makes me smile. I learned from you that there are few things more relaxing than pottering around in the kitchen.

Being organised makes me happy: lists, getting all of my thoughts out on to paper and logged, being prepared for the day. And finally, travelling makes me happy. I like the preparation for travel, getting my passport and documents ready and deciding what I’m going to pack. My Nanny Val likes to do a “practice pack” and so do I. I get happiness from planning my outfits, making Pinterest boards of the sights I want to see, collages of photographs I’d like to capture when I get there. It’s all part of adventure. Anything can happen when you step outside your front door.

E: Given the choice, which time period – past, present or future – would you like to live in, and why?

L: I’m trying hard to be more present but, if I had a choice, I don’t think 2020 would be top of my list. I think the time period I’d most like to experience, because of the music I love to listen to and the excitement of being somewhere that felt like the centre of the universe, is London in the 1960s.

E: List three films that have had a profound impact on you and explain why.

L: I love horror films – they are a guilty pleasure, like junk food! I always know I’m going to be entertained and enjoy them. The best of these, for me, is “The Shining” because it is such an unnerving watch and I come back to it again and again. I have to select an animated film as that’s what led me into singing; I’d put one on and I’d sing along and learn all the words. My favourite was “Anastasia”. I recently re-watched “Fairytale”, about the case of the Cottingley Fairies, and was struck by how beautifully it is shot and how well it stood up to being watched as an adult. I first watched “Fairytale” shortly after we moved house from the outskirts of South East London to a village in the Surrey countryside. The film helped me settle into my new, rural lifestyle and showed me the magic of gardens and playing outside.

E: It is a wonderful film and a story that intrigues people all these years later. Next one? Where in the world do you long to travel, and why?

L: The answer to this one changes all the time. I have a list on my phone and I’m always updating it, swapping out places I have visited. India is a prime destination: I have never been and I’m desperate to go for the colours, the cuisine, the hustle and bustle, the downward-facing dogs, the spirituality, the heat. Closer to home, a visit to Berlin and a driving tour of Italy are high on my list. For 2020 though, it’ll be a week in Cornwall.

E: How about this one: assuming your life is a story and you are the author, what does your happy ending look like?

L: It would be the ending of the film “Titanic”: I’d be an old lady…

E: …on your own?

L: An old lady, with a big diamond necklace, who dies in her sleep! Like her, I would have lived a full life, having achieved everything I wanted to. And when she died her soul went back to the Titanic to be with Jack, her true love. That sounds like a good ending to me.

E: Well, when you put it like that, it does sound rather appealing. And it is also the perfect happy ending for this little interview. You’ve got me thinking about the Cottingley Fairies and I’m off to find the book about the two cousins; it’s on the bookshelves somewhere. You did so love the story about having fairies at the bottom of the garden when you were young. You’ve conjured up for me some delightful memories of little you – thank you. ~E.

All I Ask Of You

Lily and Emma play a de-la-Haye Girls version of Mr and Mrs

In the early 1970s, my grandparents appeared on the television show “Mr and Mrs”, and they won. I don’t recall watching the broadcast of the show but have no doubt that most of the (by today’s standards modest) cash prize would have been spent on treats for me and my cousins. The other prize they won was a silver candelabra which, many years later, found its way to me and is one of my most treasured knick-knacks.

Mr and Mrs, featuring our Nanna Chris and Gank

The format of “Mr and Mrs” was that the husband was locked in a sound-proof booth while the wife was asked questions about his likes, dislikes, habits, etc. Then the couple switched around and the exercise was repeated. The more answers the couple agreed on the bigger the prize. The show’s popularity hinged on two aspects: amusement at the couples who evidently knew very little about each other’s preferences and applause for those, like my grandparents, who seemingly knew everything about each other.

Reminiscing about this got me and Lily pondering whether we would give accurate answers for each other, and how surprised we might be by the answers we each gave to a set of questions. Lily had played this with some of cast on a recent theatrical job – to much hilarity. One thing led to another and we ended up interviewing each other around a set of questions; some of the questions we asked each other were the same, others a variation on a theme, a handful cover very different subjects. It gave us a giggle and we hope you enjoy!

L: Alright, here we go. First question: what’s one family tradition you’d like to carry on in the future?

E: Our family get-together at Christmas. I really enjoy these, even though they can be loud with everyone talking over each other, and occasionally stressful with 10 people all trying to help with the same thing at once. I love them and want to carry on these occasions of the close family getting together. They also carry lots of memories as I can remember celebrating this way with my grandparents.

L: I enjoy these days too. Ready for the next one? What’s one skill you’ve always wanted to pick up and why?

E: I’m torn on this question as I have two answers and I can’t decide between them.

L: You can say both.

E: OK. The one is to be able to play the piano…

L: Yeah, same here. Why would you like this skill?

E: It looks such an incredible thing to be able to do and is so far beyond my comprehension and experience – I don’t even read music – and I would love to be able to do it. The second is a more recent and growing desire: I was born and grew up in Wales at a time when, in the area where I lived, I received no teaching in the Welsh language and I would like to be able to speak Welsh. It is interesting to me – and it is a thing they say about the Welsh – that you feel more Welsh when you live outside of Wales than you did when you lived there!

L: Isn’t that funny – these are the two things I’ve tried to teach myself during lockdown.

E: How are you getting on?

L: Welsh is really hard! I can say: “actores di-waith dw i”, which means “I am an unemployed actress”.

E: Oh right. Excellent…

L: “Actores Cymraeg di-waith dw i.”

L&E: “I am an unemployed Welsh-speaking actress!”

L: Anyway, onwards. What qualities do you admire in yourself?

E: Energy; people I work with tell me they like my energy and I like this about myself. In my first ever proper job, after I had been there a day or two, I remember a lovely colleague, Val, saying to me: “you are like a breath of fresh air, Emma”, and I’ve always held on to that. I think I bring an energy and outlook to work that people enjoy. I admire my sense of humour. I think I am witty. I have a very British sense of humour – heavy on the self-deprecation and lots of gentle sarcasm. And I think I am quite nice to people; I try to be kind.

L: You are very kind. I’d also say that you’re trustworthy.

E: Do you think that? That’s lovely, thank you.

L: Yes, I do. I think I could murder someone, tell you where I hid the body and I don’t think you’d ever crack. You are the person I’d get to bury a body with me, definitely. OK, OK! Next one – list three things that make you smile.

Bluebells

E: There are hundreds, not just three, but top of today’s list: . a beautiful cottage garden, and in the same vein, beautiful period properties, stately homes. I love the innate beauty of these sorts of things.

My second is seeing my children, my family and my beautiful Tyler-cat, looking cute. And thirdly, turning off the beaten track and driving or better still walking down the road I’ve never been down before; turning off the path and exploring a new route, just to see what’s down there, to see where it leads. Gentle exploration.

L: I like that too. Next one: list three books that have made a profound impact on you and why?

E: “Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh.

L: You love that!

E: I do love it, because of the sense of period and the sense of Oxford that comes through the early part of the book. Sticking with Oxford, Lyra’s Oxford, I’m going to cheat and choose a trilogy as my second book, Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials”. It is extraordinary writing and the characters throughout are imaginatively and, to my mind, perfectly drawn.

L: Ah, I love it too. I reread it, blasting through it in my dressing room between shows in Japan.

E: My third book choice is “Birdsong” by Sebastian Faulks, a book I started three or four times and couldn’t get past the early chapters of Stephen’s summer in Amiens with the Azaire family; I just didn’t like it. Once I pushed through these and got into it, I loved the book and it became profounding affecting and resparked my interest in the human stories of the First World War and led, in part, to you, me and Nanny Val, visiting Thiepval a couple of years ago on that amazing trip. My choices are all strongly character driven.

L: They are and they are all set in very specific time periods, they are of a time. I’m interested in what you say about sticking “Birdsong”. I always think you should give a book one hundred pages; you should give any book this long to unfold itself. I couldn’t get into “Harry Potter” the first three or four times. I just didn’t like those early chapters set at the Dursley’s. It was only when Harry got to Hogwarts that I was hooked. OK, great. Next one: describe one thing you are grateful you learned from your parent or grandparents.

E: So linked to my Christmas gathering answer earlier, I’d say I’m grateful to have learned that I am loved unconditionally by my family. That sense that if you are a de-la-Haye you are never alone, you are never going to have to face things alone; there’s a whole tribe supporting, nurturing and rooting for you, no matter what muddle you’ve got yourself into. That’s been huge for me and I hope is a sense that I have passed on.

L: Very good; good answer. On to the next one. What do you appreciate about your life right now and why?

E: My answer to this one is easy: I travel a huge amount for work – over a third of 2019 I spent away from home – so I’m enjoying being at home. I’m grateful for sleeping in my own bed, having the privilege of being able to do my work from my little broadcast studio here in the cottage and being able to enjoy my garden more, which was particularly lovely in the gorgeous weather we had this spring.

L: Time for your last question: what’s your earliest memory?

E: I have a memory, from when I was about two years old, of walking along the pavement opposite the hospital, my little hand in my dad’s, waving up at my mum who was somewhere behind one of the many windows of the hospital wing. I don’t remember seeing her, or her waving back and I have no other memories from that time. That’s it; that’s my earliest memory.

L: I love that. I’ve got such a bad memory. Well, I remember my friend Selina from up the road and dancing to The Spice Girls in her lounge but I must have been about five years old then. That’s not very young for a first memory. And I remember being sick in Auntie Christine’s lap on the way to Grandma and Grandad’s house.

E: OK, so that’s a bit earlier. You would have been four, I think.

L: What a nice memory to have – vomiting over my godmother.

E: Well it’s often the trauma we remember!

We loved doing this together and my questions to Lily will be posted in a couple of weeks. That evening, as I often do, the lighted candelabra was on the table as we ate dinner and I smiled thinking of Billy and Chris, my beloved grandparents, who inspired our fun. ~ E.