One year's contract! 365 days of doing what you've trained to do and 365 days of rent money! After all the stress of auditioning and staring at your phone you are finally given a job offer and your life is mapped out until way past your next birthday! It is a wonderful feeling and you ride through rehearsals and opening nights on adrenalin, anticipation and excitement.
However, you can under-estimate the stamina and mental focus required to sustain a performance for 8 shows a week, every week and I think it takes a few months for the reality to set in, especially if you are new to the profession it does come as quite a shock! I am fortunate enough to be half way through a year-long contract at Les Miserables and as the current poster says I do “Dream the Dream Nightly”! Every night I am part of the world's longest running musical and it certainly satisfies the 8 year old girl inside me who only ever wanted to be in Les Mis!
So how do you keep a show fresh day after day, week after week? I am often asked – what is it like to be in a long-running show? Does it get boring? Your dream has become a reality so does it feel like a 9-5 job? But the wonderful thing about live theatre is that it is impossible to do the same thing every night and enough things happen in just one 8 show week that no night is ever the same. There is never a dull moment…
The wonderful girls in my dressing room have invented a cocktail of Berocca and Lemsip if they're peaky or feel a cold coming which apparently tastes “like a dream” and soon has them bouncing off the barricades! So there are many aides to keeping your energy up!
A standard Monday has the mandatory “What weekend? I feel like I've never been away” or “I'm still slightly wasted from Sunday” chat in our warm up whilst humming and sirening to wake up our voices. Most shows have a compulsory warm-up which I feel is invaluable not just to get our voices and bodies ready for the show but it also allows us to reconvene as a company and get notes. A show isn't just rehearsed then put on for a year – we don't just turn up and churn another one out. A huge amount of work is put in to maintaining standards and re-working things so we regularly have note sessions with our Resident Director and Musical Director to try new ideas and tighten sections up.
Tiredness can often prevail especially on a matinee day. Wednesday afternoon is known to be the hardest show of the week, people drag themselves in bleary-eyed with multiple cardboard coffee cups or energy drinks despite it being 1pm – Les Miserables may as well be sponsored by Starbucks! The wonderful girls in my dressing room have invented a cocktail of Berocca and Lemsip if they're peaky or feel a cold coming which apparently tastes “like a dream” and soon has them bouncing off the barricades! So there are many aides to keeping your energy up!
Many incidents can brighten up an otherwise normal week. On any given day we have a list at stage door detailing who is off sick or on holiday and who is covering what parts in the show.
Understudies and Swings can be thrown on at a moment's notice. Fifteen minutes after curtain up our Jean Valjean broke his finger during a fight scene recently. So we had to stop the show whilst the understudy got wigged up to replace him, the audience sat waiting patiently as did the dressed up prostitutes and sailors backstage and Valjean reappeared 20 minutes later looking about 10 years younger but competently continuing with the show! Swings are cast members who cover all the ensemble tracks and therefore have about 9 tracks running through their heads at once. They are immensely talented people who can seamlessly replace someone who's back injury has become too much or the poor victim of a stage punch that results in the mopping up of a bloody nose whilst lying next to a water cooler in the wings!
I understudy two parts, one of which is the 10 year old boy Gavroche. I can hear your guffaws across the country! Why is a 28 year old woman understudying a part normally played by young male actors from places like Sylvia Young etc? Well it's something to do with being 5ft and not being as physically blessed as Jordan but anyway it is an “emergency cover” so I agreed because I never thought it could actually happen – But then swine flu hit!
One of our lovely boys sadly had suspected swine flu (damn those pigs!) so there was a day last August when Gibb stepped up to the mark! It was terrifying, hilarious and exciting all at once! With filled in eyebrows and not a scrap of make-up on I tried to convince an audience of my youthful boyishness and it hopefully worked if they didn't make use of those binoculars! However, during a jubilant high-five moment in the finale my hat fell off to reveal long brown hair cascading out! Ah foiled again!!
Talking of losing hats I have to share a mortifying wig mishap. Our show is heavily wigged, especially so for our leading man Valjean. As we ran on one day to chase the fleeing felon we were greeted by a bald man with a pair of tights on his head careering towards us, belting out a high note and his wig flowing behind him attached by one pin! It was the funniest thing we'd seen in ages but it quickly became terror as we realised this poor man couldn't get off stage and had to complete a highly emotional solo in a few moments time!
Someone tried to help by placing it back on his head as we ran but it ended up looking like a sideways mullet of piled up fuzz. The actor took it so well and sang the soliloquy with pride and was making jokes about keeping his hair on by the interval! What a trouper!
Jokes and funny incidents aside there is a serious focus and technique required to sustain 8 shows a week at performance level.
Funny moments do help you get through a show as do wonderful opportunities such as our recent filming of the promotional EPK or The Susan Boyle Story where we get to work in recording and television studios. They inject you and your daily work with passion and energy as you are inspired by a live orchestra or recording some vocals as a group with amazing conductors. It truly bonds you as a cast and makes you so grateful to be part of the show.
Whilst I've been writing this piece we happened to be given an apt speech from our Resident Director during a notes session – he felt it was time to remind us of the passion and drive required from us as actors, in order to make Les Miserables work. And sadly we weren't doing the show justice with our commitment and focus. Of course it is natural that 6 months into a contract our bodies have become used to our tracks in the show, it perhaps sits more comfortably within us than it did at first therefore requiring less energy but we cannot become robotic or complacent in our work. Les Miserables is an epic show full of epic music and emotions and it demands epic commitment from a performer. I often joke that I die every night, sometimes twice a day, but that is a fairly major thing to undertake!
I felt this talk was justified as we all sometimes need a gentle reminder s of how bloomin' lucky we are and how we cannot at any cost allow ourselves to think we have a regular 9-5 job. It may be only 3 hours work a night in whatever show you are fortunate enough to do and by Saturday night you may feel like you are climbing uphill in treacle with dead bodies attached to your legs, but it still requires your ultimate commitment. The people paying £60 are worth that, your fellow cast members are worth it, but mainly (and without sounding too much like a L'Oreal advert….) your passion and your integrity as an actor are worth it!
So 365 days may seem like a long time, but it's your duty to make each day different and full of appreciation. Make each day your best days work because let me tell you, 365 days don't half go quick!
This article is published in Issue 5 of The Drama Student Magazine – subscribe now