So retirement is approaching fast and you’re planning to do all the things you never had time to. You’ll learn to decorate cakes or take up hiking. Read all the books currently piled up on the bedside table.
Or you think it might be nice to take to the stage. Now is the time to shed your inhibitions and take up amateur dramatics. Or join a choir. Or perhaps it would be fun to join a panto.
You can see yourself now, resplendent in a glamorous bespoke costume, gliding across the stage. Or nestling among your peers in that slightly severe little black number, joining your voice to the rest of the choir, serene and joyful.
And you might just do that. Possibly. Probably. No, really, you might.
But just to be on the safe side here are a few words of caution so you have an idea of what may, in fact, come to pass.
The oldest rule
Pantos. The place where the first rule is most often ignored. Take my advice please. Do not join a panto unless you’ve the constitution of an ox, a high tolerance for teenage romance and the guarantee of segregated dressing rooms. In other words, follow the rule and never work with animals or children.
I’ve done a couple of church pantos. Thoroughly enjoyed the rehearsals. Great fun to be had. And six nights plus a matinee is a breeze the first time. The adrenaline gets you through it. But nobody warned me that the performance was to be held in a school. With classrooms used as dressings rooms. All the adults were squeezed into the one large room. All of us. You can’t be shy at this game. But that wasn’t the issue. Oh no. The issue was the lack of dressing room space for the only two teenage boys involved.
They came in with us. Picture the scene. Sniggers from the boys when they see us older ones struggling in and out of costume. Mortification on my part. But that’s not the issue either.
When you work with children – best case the little darlings will steal the limelight that’s rightfully yours. Worst case, one of the little dears will “borrow” your makeup sponge. You do not want to discover the joys of late onset acne. Be warned. It happens. Guard your makeup bag as if it’s filled with diamonds.
Anyway – if you absolutely must share the stage with children – you have been warned. Okay?
But panto is fun, isn’t it?
Well. Never join one unless you are tough as old boots. I managed two and a bit church in my 30s. 20 years later I still have the scars to prove it!
Amateur pantos have some of the smallest budgets paired with the highest need for “glamorous” costumes. No hiring from a theatre costumier for them. Nope. They have a wardrobe mistress with no time, no help and forty odd costumes to sew. So the costume may not be quite what you imagine.
Speaking of costumes. Be warned. Something will go wrong. Not always, but often enough. My first foray into panto involved me being the “Egg Fairy” (don’t ask) and we had to supply our own shoes.
No-one told me that sandals were a bad idea. I’d never heard of character shoes. They wanted sparkly so I had a pair of gold/rhinestone sandals given to me by my mother who thought they looked lovely. First night on stage the left sole fell off ten minutes before curtain up. Out came the hot glue gun. As it did every night until the last night when we ran out of glue.
I went on stage with half a roll of Sellotape wrapped round my foot to keep that blasted sandal on. This led to a misstep offstage when my foot caught on the mat and I bent my big toe backwards just before going on to sing the Egg Fairy’s duet with the Wicked Queen.
My opposite number was laughing so hard that she couldn’t stop and then botched her lines. I spent the next ten minutes prancing about stage in a giant yellow ball gown and periwig while trying not to cry with the pain. Ah well, the shoe, erm show, must go on!
So now you know. Panto is not for the faint of heart. Be aware … buy sturdy shoes. And a hot glue gun of your own.
Which brings me to Am-dram
Or amateur dramatics to give it its full title. With emphasis on the “amateur”. There are some wonderful amateur groups around. I’ve never been in one of them. You may remember the excitement of school drama club? Well it’s nothing like that.
Before you throw yourself into this, be warned. Be ready for the kind of in-fighting and politics unseen since “Dynasty” and “Dallas” were around.
My first foray into am-dram as an adult was in my 20’s. It was a local drama, penned by an enthusiastic, if not talented, local man. Let’s call him David. I’ll come back to him. It was set between the 50s and the present time (1984 funnily enough.) I was playing the adult version of one of the child actors and thus had to age up for the part. We were lucky enough to have makeup volunteers. They did a great job. Grey hair and many, many wrinkles. Later on when I asked my mother how I was, said “if you look like that in your 50s, be grateful.” A woman of few words …
David, as well as being the writer was also the director and the leading man. He played my husband and dashed in each night about 2 minutes before the curtain went up. Curtain, singular. They couldn’t afford a pair. He ran a little talc through his hair and threw on the costume. Let’s just say that I didn’t look good in comparison. And then I got laryngitis on the last night. They miked me up and that was the only night I got a round of applause because no-one could hear a thing up till that point!
But that’s the exception to the rule yes? No.
I once watched an amateur production of an Agatha Christie play in which the ingenue was played by a rather busty young woman, wearing a 30s style strappy dress. She was about to make an impassioned speech when there was an audible twang and one of the straps flew off it’s moorings. She spent the next few minutes clutching her bosom for practical rather than emotional reasons.
So remember – if it can go wrong, it will. Curtains, and costumes, will fall down onstage. Doors won’t open. Or close. People will forget their lines or make them up. And sometime will stand in front of you during your only line of dialogue.
So you still want to unleash your inner drama queen? Read on …
Panto not for you? Perhaps a nice, sedate choir instead? Maybe. But be prepared.
Your first hurdle will be your voice. Shocker eh? But what I mean is whether you’re a first or second soprano or an alto. Just because you think you’re a soprano your choir master may disagree. You need good lungs and a good “ear” to sing soprano. This thing is that you’ll get to sing the melody usually. The nice straightforward tune. The altos will, once they know you, make remarks about sopranos having it easy. And we do (yes, I’m being smug now) BUT. The nice straightforward melody is what the audience listens to. I’ll repeat that. They may actually listen to you. If one of you hits a bum note then the blame will fall squarely on your shoulders. Man up girls – it’s not easy either way.
But when all’s said and done …
You will love it. It’s called drama for a reason. Things will go wrong. We once had such a good time joking in the dressing room that six of us forgot to go onstage. We then had to “subtly” sidle on in pairs. Was it high art? Well. no. But it was great fun and something we all can remember fondly. The drama is part of the fun.
And that’s the thing. You’re allowed to be a drama queen. Join in. Sing your heart out. Watch the kids upstage you every time. And you will love every minute – even if it’s in retrospect!
The best advice ever for amateur actors is in Michael Green’s book “The Art of Coarse Acting, or how to wreck an Amateur Dramatic Society”. It’s insightful and very funny. It’s hard to find so is unfortunately expensive. I’ve included a link here so you can have a quick look and perhaps persuade your local library to buy a copy!
Please share your stage stories with us. Did you forget the one line you’d been given? Did you start giggling and couldn’t stop? Tell us more …