As actors, people always tell you that in periods of unemployment you still have to get up, get out and work on yourself. This (normally) means working on your skills set by attending class, upping your fitness and generally keeping in good nick so you’re on ‘standby’ mode for when the right job comes along. This year, unintentionally, I’ve worked on myself in a completely different way. Through the jobs I’ve done in my funemployment stages, I’ve worked on being a better individual within the industry. I’ve been working on my empathy through taking a walk in other people’s shoes.

“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” – Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

You’d assume that actors are within the group of people that excel at empathizing with others. After all, we try to take on another persons mindset – their hopes, their fears – and capture how it affects their every move for a living. However, aside from character development, we live in a very self-centered world. More often than not, people are so focused on their own pursuit of happiness that they don’t consider that of others. If you think I’m bold in saying that, genuinely question if it’s applicable to you, then reconsider. It was certainly the case with me – I live in a little goal orientated bubble. My experience this year has shown me just how many other people work tirelessly behind the scenes (not just backstage) to make a piece of theatre happen. I’ve barely scratched the surface and it’s opened my eyes (dramatically, of course).

Over summer I worked for the National Youth Music Theatre who produce a season of 3 musicals (in different cities) whilst housing and feeding everyone involved (80% of whom are aged 11-23). It’s no mean feat, I can tell you! I’m forever in awe of Jeremy Walker – the man who makes it all happen. Whilst working for the company I took on many a role: pastoral care (eg. keeping everyone alive aka supplying creatives with constant caffeine), public relations, programme editor (all 10,000 words of it), chaperone (the most unnecessarily hated people in theatre), wardrobe and, basically, wonderwoman. It was exhausting and exhilarating. I loved every second. I learnt so much about the varying teams that come together to make the magic happen. Plus, I had a first-hand experience at tackling some of the workload. It’s mammoth. I thought I at least had a grasp on how much work went into producing theatre but, as it transpires, I knew very little. I thought NYMT would be the biggest eye-opener in that regard. That was until I started working on Mary Poppins…

I’m currently* dressing on the opening month of the Mary Poppins UK tour whilst it’s at Curve (I know, I can’t stay away).

*Almost literally. I’m sat in, what is deemed, Wardrobe Village in the stage left wing. Everyone’s currently teching ‘Step in Time’ so I’ve got a hot minute to gather my thoughts.

As it’s the first venue, every department is still figuring out how it’s all going to work. It’s very much a GINORMOUS puzzle that we’re collaboratively trying to put together. This show is huge. Curve couldn’t do a conventional meet and greet (y’know, where you stand in a circle and announce your name to a room of people who will instantly forget it) because of the sheer number of people involved. Wardrobe, sets and wigs are spilling out of every room they’re attempting to fit in. It’s miraculous how all the necessary bits actually slot backstage (although a lot does hang above your head – you just have to avoid looking up if you’re of a nervous disposition). Being here through this process – which I know is unlike many I shall ever see – has astounded me. As an actor, during tech you’re (quite rightly) concentrating on your track, looking on from the wings and thinking about your next move, not staring at the 4 people behind you moving a set of chimneys onto a truck. I’ve spent this time observing and learning, with growing adoration for the people surrounding me dressed head to toe in black. Plus, my drama school wardrobe is finally being put to use again. Huzzah!

What has shocked me the most about this job is how much I’ve loved being on this side of things. Mary Poppins is one of my favourite shows so, naturally, a lot of people thought I’d find it hard working on it – not in it. The reality is quite the opposite, I can assure you. The kick I’ve been getting from making a quick change happen is bizarre. Well, actually, it’s not bizarre…it’s so satisfying! I’m loving the feeling I get from being part of the team that makes the magic happen – and with a show like this, the magic is real. Ahhhh Disney (and Cameron Macintosh, of course). There’s also a cherry on top of this situation. Half the joy of not being in a show you love is that you get to see it. I always have a silver lining me. I’m so looking forward to going to another venue to see this beautiful show in all its glory. The only challenge will be stopping my heart from racing/hands fidgeting during quick change moments. I’ll probably loudly exclaim “YES!” every time someone makes it on.  Otherwise I’ll be a great theatre companion, I swear.

Following this experience, I would highly recommend taking a backstage job to any actor who is floating around between contracts. Or, even, whilst looking for acting work. Never again will I automatically dismiss a “+ assistant stage manager” job. It’s brilliant for keeping involved, keeping inspired and making you a more aware & appreciative actor. The superheroes in black won’t blend into the background for anymore – they’ll shine like the stars they are (I know I’m cheesy, you don’t need to tell me). Not forgetting, of course, the people sat in back offices doing all the administrative work. After all, they get the bums on seats to fund your pay check and actually write it too. There are so many unsung heroes in theatre. It’s a shame that so many are afraid of the limelight, otherwise I’d suggest a technical team curtain call*.

*On that note, I don’t think I’ve ever stood for a standing ovation with such gusto as when the acrobats/technical team legends came out during bows for The Light Princess. How did they not get a collective ‘Best Suppporting Artist’ nomination!? They are the definition of that for me. Incredible.

So if you’re currently in a show, take a bit of extra time today to notice every person working around you. What are they doing to make you look good? Do you know everyone’s name? I wish I could make a £1 bet with every actor that they don’t – I reckon I’d be rich by tomorrow. If you’re not in a show, take a bit of extra time today to look for jobs you could be doing behind the scenes temporarily*. You’ll learn a lot and come out a changed person – I can vouch for that.

*It’s always worth getting in touch with a theatres wardrobe department (in a city near you) to see if they need additional dressers for big tours. That’s why I’m here.

This year I’ve walked in, what has felt like, a lot of other people’s shoes. I’ve tried things that I’d never have envisaged myself attempting and I’ve loved it. They were totally my (steel-toed) shoes. Trust me, I still want to be an actor – my priorities haven’t changed. I just know that when I approach my next job I’ll be more grounded, more observant, more thankful and less of a bumbling fool around my dresser.

Happy appreciating all of #TeamTheatre.

Back at Curve, different department.

“And I know things now, many valuable things, that I hadn’t known before…”
– Rebecca Ridout

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