When I left drama school, like many, I had not got an agent out of my final term showcase. Things are slightly different now, but back in the late 90’s most paid work for TV, Film and Theatre was advertised in places only agents could see. So those of us who were unrepresented were left to find our own work through publications like the Stage, PCR or through our own resourcefulness. Such jobs were usually unpaid student films, profitshare fringe theatre (no profits made), cruise ship work and other work abroad that sounded dubious to say the least. But for my first year out of drama school I decided to learn as much as possible by saying ‘yes’ to as much work as possible. And so it came to pass that my first (and second) job out of drama school was a tour of old peoples’ homes.
There are many companies who take shows into care homes, it is a big business. And also a great one, because there are many people too ill to travel to the theatre and for whom a 2 hour panto is just too long. We took a 40 minute show into their home – large Bupa homes with adequate staging and other smaller homes where we performed in a room as big as, or rather as small as, my lounge. We were a team of three, and there were other teams also doing the same show with the same set, elsewhere in the country. Though we had been the first team, so we called ourselves the A-team.
The panto was Jack and the Beanstalk, I played Jack, my good friend David played the dame, the giant and the cow(!), my new friend Suiki played the princess, a witch and various other parts. We drove around the midlands doing 3-4 shows a day, 6 days a week putting up a little set ourselves, singing along to a cd player, and trying not to get lost out in the Midlands by looking out for the road signs – old people in a red triangle.
It was exhausting, not just the driving but putting up the set, then doing up to four shows a day in over heated, odd smelling places. But I learned so much from these varied spaces and audiences and the three of us generally had a laugh. Everywhere we went it was their Christmas day and we were offered sherry and mince pies. One day we got a £10 tip which we spent on fish and chips back at our base, a B&B in Birmingham where the landlady seemed to be enjoying having David to stay a little too much.
On the tour we met people delighted to be getting a show, and then guests who seemed annoyed that the TV was being moved to make way for us, just as they’d settled down for Countdown. There were kind people who praised us and suggested we too could become professional actors! There was the old lady who took a shining to the golden egg, a rugby ball covered in shiny paper, who came towards me mid-show to take it. And there was the man who cried out “that’s not a boy” as I made my first entrance as Jack. But the funniest to us, was a lady who sat determined to be grumpy and hate the show, first she took offence to a joke about the royal family in David’s opening poem, and then stated loudly after Suiki and I sang our duet “no applause”.
Well, one you’ve faced your harshest critics, the only way is up!
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