Day 14 in the Big Harrogate Theatre

By Tim Stedman

A very bitty day.  Notes and cuts from the director plus tightening sections of Act 1.  Lots of dance and fight practising – for which all clothing remained intact.

And costume fittings.  My fetching little number designed by the talented Philip Whitcombe provides me with the instant, unsubtle, friendly impact I need but led me to return to the rehearsal room and change my first entrance.

First impressions are important for all; for the idiot, comic (I guess ‘silly billy’ sums it up best) I essentially serve the interests of the children.  If they don’t like me from the start it’s so much harder to retain their interest and enthusiasm.  At 3 and 4 years old visuals and vocal tone are hugely important.

Lara (Aladdin), Liz (So Shy), Gordon (Widow Twankey) and I went to assist the switching on of the Harrogate lights extravaganza by singing a couple of songs.  Having done 9 pantos here before a few children recognised me and came up to say hello.  Not one of them called me Wishee, or Buttons (my character from last year) or Pickles, Muddles etc.  Every child called me Silly Billy.

So I guess Silly Billy does sum it up best.


Day 13 in the big Harrogate Theatre

We’ve done it! In front of a packed table we started at the beginning and fell to the end of the play.  Our freefall was no subtle, graceful or focused.  But we got to the final page.

I was especially pleased with myself for not needing the text.  Sure, there was the odd prompt or 12 but the relief walking home afterwards!

Tom and I have been working on our fight scene.  Though my role in the “fisticuffs” is limited, I ripped one pair of cargo trousers on Monday and a pair of boxers on Tuesday.  I was a little nervous about Wednesday.

Our dancing is improving.  The rehearsal room is quite tight so when all 8 of us are in a chorus line only 7 of use can be seen as a protruding wall juts out in front of the 8th cast member – me.  So I dance with my face 2 inches from an artexed wall.  This may only appear marginally more funny than my dancing, but my wall is becoming something of a partner and I shall miss her uncritical eye and her abrasive touch…

Day 12 in the Big Harrogate Theatre

As we continue to stumble through Act 2 fighting for word, move and motivation, it’s easy to forget the world is not revolving around me and my inability to master a dance step.

As I write this in the Green Room at 8am I can hear gentle Chinese music floating through the walls of the theatre.  Nick Lacy, our Musical Director, (GENIUS) sits creating amongst keyboards, cables and microphones like Doc out of Back to the Future.  Upstairs in wardrobe I can hear the footsteps of Nicola and her team furtively busying away at costumes like the borrowers surrounded by oversized frocks and hats.

Sonja and Lisa have been in since 7.30am cleaning up after audience and actor.  They chirpily hoover around me asking “how’s it going then?”

Our Deputy Stage Manager Katie arrives laden with biscuits, milk and good sense.  You can judge most things in rehearsals by the face of the DSM.  This facial barometer sits next to the director at the front throughout rehearsals clutching at the master script recording every word and move.  The communication hub – this lady knows if I said my line right, if I’m stood in the right place, if I got a laugh when I last said the line.  If Katie laughs it’s a good sign, if Katie smiles we actors are happy and if you can’t see her face… look a little lower and you’ll find it resting sobbing in the script.

DSMs like cuts in the script, don’t like props, enjoy pace to a scene and hates the actor who milks his pause… Like a demi god she controls time; disciplines my tea break.  To all she is the boss. I should know, I married one.

Day 11 in the Big Harrogate Theatre

By Tim Stedman

Gordon (Widow Twankey) and I spent this morning doing interviews and ran lines from various scenes before we all continued with Act 2 rehearsals.

The full adult company of 8 is involved in most of the final half of the show so we limp more slowly through these scenes as each actor raises their questions and suggestions re: character, plot, lines and in my case even sentence constructions.

Our poor director of course faces this barrage from all 8 highly opinionated cast members.  Having known Phil for some years now I’m acutely aware of his stress moments and when to choose ones battles.  So ignoring such maturity I launched into the fray for which I had no ownership rights or solution.  Long ago a director once told me “don’t criticize that for which you have no solution.”  I think the theory goes that criticism is only positive if you’re armed to help put things right.  Now I was an actor barely eloquent enough to say his own name, my usual comments of “it doesn’t feel right” or “but I don’t like that” or even the one we’ve all hidden behind “I don’t think my character would do that” is neither positive nor arming to put things right.

But in our happy company somebody more eloquent agreed and gave it a reason; someone else provided a peer solution; myself, thought of an exceedingly bad idea, which another took on and improved; before out of nowhere another actor had the idea that we all agreed was best!

So criticism is fine and I don’t think you personally need the solution – but as a company you need to find one.

Day 10 in the Big Harrogate Theatre

By Tim Stedman

The evolution of pantomimes not content with asking us to sing, dance, act in costumes designed to wow rather than wear also requires us to fight.  If it’s good versus evil settle it with swords.

We all sat quietly enjoying Tom (our baddie) and Lara (our goodie) learning the fight.  Except me.  I tried to behave.  To just watch and learn why one swing of the sword is better than another; why this stance is stronger than that.  But within five minutes I had knee and elbow pads on and a stunt jacket and was sat straddling my chair the wrong way round – “Make my day”.

Though I fidgeted from the testosterone and nervous energy, all my colleagues ignored the wacky racer auditioning on his chair.  I love stage combat.  After football, I “play” fought most of my childhood with my brother and sister.  I can do ‘slow mo’ fight, the down-and-dirty-using-household-items fight, and a death scene Oscar winners would give their careers for.

I had to leave the room till Katie (our DSM) called me: “You’re up.”  I strode into that rehearsal like John Wayne, like Batman…. Like Arnie.  Andy (our fight instructor) was weighing me up – “Yes the force is strong in this one.” He took two swords swirled them round his ears like interconnecting Catherine wheels.  “Now you,” he said.  I smiled I find things like this quite easy.

25 minutes later everybody had left.  My one moment and I can’t… just can’t get them to do that.  “It’s the swords… must be too heavy…” I joked.

“They’re plastic, Tim.”

Day 9 in the Big Harrogate Theatre House

By Tim Stedman

Dancing.  A word that strikes fear into the heart of every male middle aged actor I know.  It may sound sexist but in 10 years of panto at Harrogate the worst, two left-footed, never-danced-in-her-life actress is a positive Nureyev compared to the men.

Today proved no different.  The girls are dressed fashionably in clothing I have neither seen before or understand its function.  Toeless socks, ankle warmers, lycra, jumpers that can only stay on one shoulder.  Not to be outdone we boys went for themes such as “I’m here to pick fruit”, “That’s your car fixed love”, “These are somebody else’s clothes”, “These are my clothes but I last wore them when I was 14”.

The girls, feeling suitably intimidated, rushed to the front for a good view of our choreographers, Emma and Jimmy.  We males fight for the back row: a) not to be seen, b) this may mean I’m choreographed to dance here, c) not to be seen.

I am sorry to say I remember nothing of the day.  I know we laughed, sweated and waved limbs like a distressed shipwrecked cruiser.  But I don’t remember a single step.  Gordon (Widow Twankey) said you have to do a dance step 27 times before you know it.  I’ve calculated if we practice each routine once a day I’ll get it all right on the 15th December: the 3rd week of the run.

Day 7 in the Big Harrogate Theatre

by Tim Stedman

Moving through Act 2 today.  The second half of panto often contains more of the drama both in story and design.  But vast changes in sets between scenes invariably mean front cloth scenes to hide the stage management and crews ferocious battle with getting the set changed and dressed before that front cloth flies out.

So today’s challenge was the front cloth scene.  A narrow strip of stage available and 7 actors crammed on it.  Chorus line acting can be very dull to the audience, because with little space nobody can move and the directors problem is a washing line of static thesps.

Panto is, however, one of the few styles where this apparent challenge can be a joy.  Synchronised hands, mass shuffles across the stage, even breaking the fourth wall convention and asking fellow actors for room to deliver that killer line to the face of the actor at the other end.  As a director from my past once said “…don’t apologise for a deficiency, relish its use.”

Today we played and failed and played.