Archive for the ‘ Theatre ’ Category

Midnight Strikes again


WMS 2013 flyer

Lightning may or may not strike twice, but midnight most certainly can. During the last two weeks of August, I revisited a show I first performed in during 2010, When Midnight Strikes. Although this production of the show was with the same company as the first (Lights Up Productions), there were many differences – only a few cast members were the same, it was performed in a different venue, and we put it together over an intensive nine days of rehearsals. For me, though, a key difference was that I was playing a different character. Quite a challenge, and quite a fascinating experience seeing the show from a different perspective.

Last time I did the show, I was worried about letting others and myself down because the role was so different to the sorts of things I usually do. This time, I was worried because the role was quite similar to my usual casting – a character who exists almost entirely for comic purposes, a function much needed in what is quite an emotional show. What worried me was knowing that the comedy needed to be funny, but my character, Edward, needed to remain real. It would be detrimental to the style of the show if he came across as a broad caricature, and given that I have played several parts recently where hamming it up was strongly encouraged, I didn’t want to give in to that temptation.

Edward is one of the outsiders at the party which the show follows. Although he was invited (unlike some of the eventual ‘guests’), he does not fit in, to the extent that even the host and hostess don’t really want to talk to him. He falls in love at first sight with another character, but is far too nervous to actually talk to her, and makes a number of social mistakes throughout the course of the evening. For me, to make him real, I had to live inside his world for the whole show and think whatever he was thinking, even if I was sitting on a chair at the back of the set. Whether he was trying to join a conversation, working out how to talk to his intended love, or wondering whether a shocking announcement was true, he was always thinking something. And although he sometimes put on a cheerful front (particularly once the alcohol had been flowing for a while), there was a profound sadness to him. He desperately wanted to fit in, but knew that he didn’t. Even when things began to go his way, in his/my mind, he couldn’t quite believe it was really happening. Most of these thoughts and feelings would have gone completely unnoticed by the audience, but they helped me a great deal.

Nine days of rehearsal was a tight schedule, but still allowed for plenty of character work alongside the technical necessities of working out who goes where and when everyone’s head should move in the ensemble numbers. We would often stop to work out what each character’s reaction to a particular moment was, and we were strongly encouraged to develop our own storylines when we weren’t directly involved with the action. As the show is set at a party, we were all on stage for much of it – what were we doing, thinking, feeling during those times when we weren’t talking or even when we weren’t aware of what was being said by other characters? The ensemble nature of the show meant that the 12 different personalities interacted in numerous (sometimes quite complex) ways, and exploring these was fascinating.

Our director and musical director were both very keen on details. There were times when we all had to breathe in a song, regardless of whether we needed to take in air. There were head movements that had to happen at exactly the same time. Certain props needed to move from one place to another at exactly the right moment. Good enough was not good enough – we were aiming higher than that. All of this (in addition to the individual details) helped bring the ensemble together as a true ensemble. By the time we arrived in the theatre, the whole team (actors, musicians, stage management etc) was a team. We were all doing this together and it was worth doing.

We know it was worth doing from the reaction we’ve had since. People really enjoyed the show, and fed back positively about everyone involved. There really wasn’t a weak link in the cast (if we’re honest, we all know that there usually is, and we always know who it was) and it is a privilege to have been involved with the production. We coped with some major challenges, both emotional and technical and put on a great piece of theatre. Personally, I know I made a far better Edward than Christopher (the role I played last time). There are still things I’d like to have done better, but this was definitely a productive use of two weeks of my annual leave. There aren’t many shows I feel the need to revisit, but I would happily have midnight strike a third time in my life.

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Related posts (about When Midnight Strikes, the first time around):

Recording – Apparition Smith and the B Musical.


Although I have performed in everything from seventeenth-century opera to recent shows which began life on Broadway or the West End, it is particularly exciting to get to sing something which nobody else has sung before.  New works I’ve performed in include the Christmas oratorio Prepare the Way by Phil Hornsey and the musical Behind Closed Doors by Stephen Clee.

Last year, I was contacted by Ethan Lewis Maltby, who I know from performing in the ensemble of his musical Courtenay. He was recording material from 3 of his shows, and asked me to participate in two of them.  Firstly, B Musical, a science-fiction piece about the alien invasion of a small town.  And secondly, Apparition Smith, a 19th-century tale about a group who put on fake séances. The material from B Musical had been recorded before, though the show has yet to be performed, and the pieces from Apparition Smith were as yet unheard.

This was exciting – it was great (and rather flattering) to be asked to take part and exciting to sing something new.  I therefore spent some time learning the music and a few evenings recording it.  Recording is an unusual experience – there is no audience to play to and the environment is a strange one. Unlike in live performance, there is nothing you can do to hide, but you can go back and fix even the slightest error, and do it as many times as is necessary to get it just right. Of course, this didn’t mean that I didn’t get annoyed with myself when things didn’t go right – quite the reverse! There were bits of the section I sang in B Musical which made me more and more cross with myself as I struggled to get them right. Ethan and Jenna (the lyricist for Apparition Smith, who also did the sound engineering – a skill I am in awe of) were very patient, but I dread to think how many attempts we must have made.

A little while later, the results of everyone’s work were released, and sound great!  They have been made available on-line, and I really hope that they lead to the shows being picked up for production – I would be happy to see any one of them on the stage.  Each has its own website:

  • Apparition Smith. The tale of Nathanial Smith, a charismatic conman who travels 19th-century Britain setting up fake séances. I can be heard on the tracks ‘The Legend of Apparition Smith’ as a Legend-Teller and ‘Setting Up For a Séance’ as Ed.
  • B-Musical.  A comedy about a typical American family who have to deal with the somewhat unexpected arrival of aliens in their community. I play the part of Pa, and can be heard on the tracks ‘Strangeness About’ and ‘Tantrum’
  • Courtenay. The true story of the remarkable Sir William Courtenay and of the last battle fought on mainland English soil.  I don’t sing on this one, but you won’t regret checking it out!

If you’re curious about what singing librarians sound like, have a listen. If you like checking out new writing in musical theatre, have a listen. If you… well, just have a listen. Ethan and his lyricists are talented people, and their work deserves to be heard and seen.  The three shows have very different sounds and styles and offer proof (if proof were needed) that there is great work in British musical theatre going unheard.

If you are particularly pressed for time, I am most pleased with ‘The Legend of Apparition Smith’. Most unusually, I can listen to that track without feeling embarrassed about hearing my own voice. You could possibly even say that I’m proud of my work there – an astonishing feat worthy of Apparition Smith himself!

The Singing Librarian – being both


singinglibrarianI’m a librarian. I’m a performer. And being both makes me better.

Librarians have a key body of professional knowledge and a set of professional skills. If we didn’t, there really wouldn’t be much point to us.  Performers, too (whether professional or amateur) draw upon a set of skills and a body of knowledge.

In the case of librarians, the perception may be that we rely largely on knowledge rather than skills.  This is not really the case.  In terms of finding information on-line, for example, we don’t learn the ins and outs of every search engine, digital library, repository or on-line archive. We draw upon skills that we have learned (formally or otherwise) and then honed through experience to help us when we encounter new resources. Similarly, the ability to work out exactly what it is that someone is actually looking for is a skill.  On the other hand, performers do not (or should not) rely entirely on skill. There is a body of knowledge to draw on in terms of creating a character, using voice and so on. Perhaps more importantly, theatre has a language, etiquette and culture that have to be learned – sometimes, knowledge of this can avoid injury, so it’s rather important.

But how do the knowledge and skills from each side of my life relate to each other? In many ways, but in order to keep things relatively short, there are five main areas where I see my performing activities and my library work intersecting: memory, adaptability, use of voice, confidence and organisation.

Firstly, memory. It is a common misconception that librarians know everything – our job (or at least my job) is to help other people access information, not to know the answers for them. However, I find it is useful to have a lot of information ready to retrieve from the mental filing cabinet – whether that is the status of particular book orders, the location of books on the Spanish civil war or the best database to use for locating information on CTG. In my other activities, memory is just as vital. Lines, harmonies, dance steps, location of clothing for quick changes… the list of things to remember during a show is worryingly long. Thankfully, I am usually a quick learner, and I think this may be partly due to my work-life combination.  Each side of me exercises my memory storage and retrieval capacity, though in different ways, and so each side of my life enhances the other.

Secondly, adaptability. Sometimes, in theatre, things just don’t go the way they should. Someone forgets to enter for a particular scene, a prop shatters as you pick it up, words get jumbled or a follow spot operator has a bad day. As a performer or member of the technical crew, you just have to cope and carry on, preferably without most of the audience realising that anything went wrong at all. This is relevant in library life surprisingly often. I have to demonstrate various websites, software packages etc. to many different people, sometimes one-to-one, sometimes in lecture theatres. And, of course, things go wrong. A site goes down for maintenance, the internet connection decides on a go-slow or the network cuts out entirely. In these instances, I don’t pretend that nothing is wrong, but I either have to keep the audience entertained (as it were) or come up with an alternative plan. Improvisation is an important skill!

Thirdly, use of voice. As I don’t tend to engage in mimed performances, the use of my voice is rather key to the performing part of my life (most obviously when singing). I therefore know how to project my voice, and have strategies I can fall back on to keep my voice going when it’s tired.   I do so many lectures and workshops on campus that this is extremely important to me in the work environment as well. We have two training rooms in our library, and one of these has a microphone that can be used. I always book the other one to leave the mic. available for colleagues. I’m not a naturally loud person, but I know how to make myself heard. And when there are times of year when you go from workshop to lecture to tour with barely any breaks, being able to take care of your voice is important.  The techniques I’ve learned as a performer have thus been invaluable as an academic librarian.

Fourthly, confidence. I am not confident when meeting people I don’t know, or when being myself in front of people. On the other hand, I am (in some ways) confident when I get up and perform as a character. That may say all sorts of things about me psychologically, but the strange “I’m terrified, but nobody can tell” confidence I have on stage can translate into work situations, such as large lectures. To a small extent, I take on a character. His name is David and he’s a librarian. Yes, he’s me, but being able to perform in some way helps make the whole thing less disturbing. I also tend to leaven my presentations with a light sprinkling of humour, as any public speaker probably should.

Lastly, organisation. Unlike many of my colleagues, I’m not one of the world’s tidiest people, but as a librarian, I do have a certain professional appreciation for order, for the proper arrangement of information, for categorisation and sequencing. This can help me as a performer, particularly if a show has a myriad of costumes or other items to keep track of – everything has its place and all is well. It’s even more useful in other aspects of theatre. As a director or a stage manager, I am super-organised. I have lists and spreadsheets and diagrams and more lists.  Yes, there’s certainly plenty of room for creativity and spontaneity (lists can always be re-written), but the librarian approach to life definitely makes me more efficient and effective in the theatre. Managing and organising information is not a pointless skill beyond the walls of the library, it reaps bounteous artistic rewards!

Of course, none of these things are unique to librarianship or to performing, but it’s interesting how they interact and how different parts of my life feeds back into others. I firmly believe that as the Singing Librarian, I am stronger – librarianship helps make me a better performer, and performing helps make me a better librarian.

Beyond the dilemma of the work-life balance, how do your leisure activities impact on your work? Or vice versa? I’d be fascinated to know – leave a comment!

Mountains and molehills


I have various talents in life, and one of them is an amazing ability to make a huge mountain out of the smallest of molehills.  This is most evident on stage – a case in point being Guys and Dolls.

I performed in Guys and Dolls last month, playing Nicely Nicely Johnson (otherwise known as “you know, the one who sings ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat'”).  Things went really rather well, if the audience’s reaction is anything to go by, but there was one particular night which allowed me to demonstrate my mountain-making talents in addition to performing.

Things began well with the ‘Fugue for Tinhorns’, but in the dialogue after that, something very unusual happened.  I dropped a line.  I was so busy reacting to what the character Nathan had just said, that I momentarily forgot that I was supposed to say something.  Luckily, he covered for me by  adding a reaction comment of his own, which allowed me time to recover and come back in with the line.  Hardly earth-shattering, but as I have a reputation for knowing not only my lines, but everyone else’s as well, certainly noticeable to cast and crew, and cause for much self-annoyance.  Already cross with myself for this momentary lapse of concentration, I then managed to annoy myself further in the number ‘Guys and Dolls’, which has a dance break half way through.  At one point in this break, I managed to get a beat or so out of time, so that it looked as though myself and my duet partner were in canon with each other rather than in synch.  I doubt the audience would have noticed (when there are only two of you dancing, moments like that can be got away with to an extent), and I soon got back in to it, but I was still mightily annoyed with myself afterwards.

The Singing Librarian as Nicely Nicely Johnson, surrounded by the gamblers.

These little things, and a couple of others (also things which the audience would not have noticed and most people would just shrug off), began to mount up during the evening until we got to ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat’.  This is surely the best song in the show, and was great fun to perform, but on that night it wasn’t quite so enjoyable.  At the start of the third verse, I had to leap up on to some benches.  As I did so, my subconscious decided this would be a good time to inform my conscious mind of something – that my costume for the finale of the show was in my dressing room.  Not a problem, you might think.  However, it wasn’t supposed to be there.  It was supposed to be in a quick change room by the stage to ensure that I had time to change costume, put on my tap shoes and strap on a bass drum.  The thought of having to dash down to the dressing room, which would involve going through about 5 doors and down the stairs, was not a fun one.  For a moment, it distracted me and I stumbled over the first line of the verse.  By the fourth word (laughed, if you need to know such things) I had recovered, and carried on as before.  However, I was exceptionally annoyed with myself, and it did worry some other people as well.  One of the ladies in the chorus said she thought I might not sing the verse at all, the musical director was rather concerned, and one of my fellow gamblers reported that I suddenly went deathly pale at that moment, which must have been quite alarming for him.

With the song and the scene over, I was fuming at myself, annoyed about all the small mistakes I’d made, annoyed that I had forgotten to take my costume up to the quick change room, and particularly annoyed that I had let this distract me on stage, even for a moment.  As soon as we were able to move, I dashed off towards the dressing room.  I managed to collide with two other gamblers on the way, then fall over on my way down the stairs.  I managed to get back in time for the drum, but by that point was extremely frustrated with myself and just wanted the evening to be over and done with.  As I checked, in a very flustered way, that all the buttons on my costume were done up, I accidentally worried another of the guys in the cast, who thought I was on the brink of a heart attack, and knew that a bass drum strapped to me would not make dealing with this very easy.

After the show, I was simply mortified.  Small mistakes which with hindsight I can see hardly anyone would have noticed, had assumed monstrous size in my mind, and I felt that I had let everyone down due to not living up to my reputation.  The mistakes probably amounted to five seconds of stage time in total, if that, but to me that was more than enough to make the performance a disaster.  I have since been assured that it really wasn’t, and I did soon realise that a little perspective was rather necessary.  Mountains and molehills.

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Related posts :

Back to Titanic


On Thursday, this being the centenary week of the sinking of RMS Titanic, I travelled up to Bromley after work to watch West Wickham Operatic Society’s great production of Titanic the musical.

Titanic the Musical.  Sounds crass, doesn’t it?  Those three words conjure images of flying icebergs, substandard cover versions of Celine Dion and the horrifying possibility of a tap dance to the strains of Wallace Hartley’s band.

Thankfully, none of these things form part of this show, and strangely it is not just a show I enjoyed watching, it’s one of the shows I’m proudest of having appeared in.  First performed on Broadway in 1997, Titanic has music by Maury Yeston and a script by Peter Stone.  It features dozens of named characters – all bar one of them actually sailed  on the great ship’s fateful voyage.  The ‘star’ is the entire company, and nobody’s heart goes on.  At least, not in so many words.

I had the great fortune to perform in Titanic during November 2008, playing the character of Harold Bride, one of the telegraph operators on the ship.  I was one of a privileged few members of the cast who only played one character (some, even with well over 50 people on stage, were obliged to take on 3 or more roles), and he was a character I came to love.  We were encouraged to research the people we were playing, which made the rehearsal process more educational than for your standard show!  We all knew where the authors had deviated from a totally accurate portrayal of events in service of dramatic effectiveness, and as we truly appreciated the reality of the people we were portraying, more than a few tears were shed in rehearsal.

The scale of the show is huge, following characters from all three classes on the ship as well as a number of crewmen from captain to stoker, chief steward to bellboy.  Each has their hopes and dreams, each has their own way of speaking.  Despite the parade of characters, the audience is somehow never lost and the wide focus makes it clear that this show is not about one or two passengers, but about the ship and all who sailed on her.  Although much of the dialogue is laden with irony due to the audience knowing what’s coming, it never descends into spoof and instead of being crass it serves as a memorial to the great ship and all who sailed on her.  Their hopes and dreams, their strengths and weaknesses, their failures, their heroism and above all their humanity.

The voyage of RMS Titanic is a legend.  This year, there will be many productions of the musical around the world.  Don’t be put off.  Go.  The music is majestic, the ensemble singing is amazing and the show pays homage to those who were lost without being over-sentimental.  There simply is no better dramatisation of these events.

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My posts from the time of the show :

Time to train


Sometimes people ask me why I’ve never tried to take up performing arts as a career.  There are many reasons for this: I already have a career as a librarian; I’m scared; I don’t know that I’m good enough; even if I am good enough, I know that being good enough doesn’t guarantee success…  I could go on.  Generally the reason that I give is that I know very well that I need training, and I can’t afford it.   It is still true that I simply cannot afford full-time training, but I have finally managed to make myself take a first step and join a part-time training course.

So tomorrow morning, I will start a course at the London School of Musical Theatre (a.k.a. LSMT).  One term’s worth of Saturdays which will involve acting, singing and the ever-scary dancing.  I am both very excited and rather scared (but then, I am scared of pretty much everything, so that’s hardly news).  I want to do this course, because I want to get better at performing, particularly the dance aspect of musical theatre.  Whether it leads to more or different opportunities is essentially irrelevant – I want to improve.  My involvement in musical theatre is much more than a hobby, and I take doing well on stage as seriously as I take doing well at work – that is, very seriously indeed.  But regular readers already know this.

This course is important to me.  I will have to get an earlier train every Saturday than I do during the week to get to work, and a day on the course is the same length as a work day (and probably more tiring).  But those things don’t put me off.  I’ve re-arranged much of the rest of life to make the space and time to do this.  It’s too good an opportunity to squander – training at a highly respected institution, a chance to improve my skills and my confidence, to meet new people (also scary) and to get better at something I love.  I have no illusions – this is going to be hard work.  If it’s to have any value, I will have to push and challenge myself (or be pushed and challenged), and I will probably experience more than  a few moments of frustration when I struggle to pick things up.  I am probably going to have to unlearn bad habits I’ve picked up along the way.  My dictaphone may well wear itself out from overuse.  But I know it will be more than worth it.

Tomorrow morning at 9.30, my stomach will be tied in knots.  But while it’s true that I’m scared, I’m very excited.  This term is going to be exhausting, but it’s going to be absolutely fantastic!

A show in a week?


Sometimes, it’s fun to scare yourself a little.  Roller-coasters.  New culinary sensations.  Whatever gets the adrenaline pumping.  So why not put on a show with one week of rehearsals?  That’s pretty much what Lights Up Productions have been up to.  It’s extraordinarily scary, but very exciting as well.

The show is I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, a comic exploration of dating, romance, marriage and every aspect of love.  The cast of eight portray dozens of characters as we move from first dates to meeting the parents, marriage, kids and beyond.  The main ingredient in the rehearsal room has been laughter, as we have dissolved into fits of giggles (and the occasional snort) on many occasions.  There are some serious bits as well, with some of the songs and sketches showing extraordinary honesty, particularly those which look at long-term relationships and at people coping with the loss of their loved ones.

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