Sunday, 4 May 2014

Annie Get Your Gun - Let's Get Physical!

This week has broken me. Emotionally, physically and literally!

Any show is going to provide some kind of a workout. You're basically on your feet for 2 and half hours, running around backstage, dancing about onstage and completing record-breaking quick changes with the adrenalin fuelled speed of a cheetah on heat. It's full on. That's the only phrase for it. Full on.

Annie Oakley is possibly the most physical role I've played. Not only is she a constant hive of energy and excitement but she also lugs around a gun of some kind for
vast chunks of the show. We're currently working with rehearsal Winchester rifles which weigh a few kilograms and hefting that weight was certainly a shock to the system after rehearsing 'Can't Get a Man with a Gun'  for the first time with just a stick!

After the muscle ache of the first week I have upped my training in preparation for the show. Being physically fit enough to play this role is of paramount importance if I'm to maintain 8 shows a week without injury for five months. I'm now running about 30 miles a week and doing additional work on my arms and abs. Whilst the results so far aren't vastly visible yet there's certainly been an improvement in my strength and stamina. Onwards and upwards as they say.

And upwards it most certainly is. There's a lovely moment in Act 1 where Annie demonstrates her special gun act which, much to Frank's surprise, is not shooting an egg off a poodle's head but is instead performed on a trapeze. Now the script is fairly nondescript about what the trick actually is but it does say something along the lines of 'Annie or a double appears on a trapeze'. First things first, there are no doubles in our production. There aren't enough of us to have doubles and to be honest, where's the fun in that?! Ian had mentioned the possibility of doing a trapeze trick to me in my audition and, game as I am, I told him that I'd be very much up for that.

What I failed to mention was that I have a fear of heights. An insane fear of heights. Which is ironic given that I made my theatrical debut in a show about a flying car! But as this is what I'm calling The Year of Yes, I wasn't going to let a little thing like a phobia stop me, so one week before rehearsals began I took myself off to Gorilla Circus in South East London to see if I could conquer my fear. Or at least get the screaming and crying out of the way before anyone in the company saw!

Gorilla Circus do an open class in flying trapeze which, whilst very different to the show's requirements, is performed at a nice high height. You have a brief lesson in turning upside down and 'hupping' (stepping off the platform) and then you're strapped into a harness belt and away you go. Untethered to anything (eek!) you climb a long, thin, wobbly ladder to the 35 foot high platform, get clipped into the harness guide ropes and reach for the bar. Your support instructor holds you by the belt as you lean your body weight out over the netted void to put your second hand on the surprisingly weighty bar and then, quick as a flash you hear "Ready. Hup".

'Ready' is not a question, it's a warning - bend your knees and get ready to jump as soon as you hear 'Hup'. The timings have to be specific as flying trapeze often involves working with another artist and if your swings aren't synced perfectly there's no way you'll make a catch. I ready, I hup, and suddenly swing out over the drop with incredible speed, feeling my weight and the g-force pull at me. There isn't time to contemplate the height as the instructors are calling out directions to us, again in accordance to the necessary timings and the physics of momentum. There's no point trying to lift those legs up on a backwards swing as a beginner, the momentum simply won't let you.

My first two jumps are exceedingly smooth sailing but by the third the adrenalin has been replaced by 'The Fear' and I'm starting to realise quite how high I am. Jump number three is less than smooth. No matter how much I will it to release the safety rail, I simply cannot unclench my left fist and reach it out to join the right hand on the waiting bar. It takes a good minute but it feels like an hour and as my weight finally drives me into the depth of the swing it's clear my hands are not quite positioned wide enough. With all my might I crunch my legs upwards, failing at the last minute to get even a toehold on the bar. The force drags me back and my hands slip on the bar, grating against the grip tape.

But I'm still on, just. With the second swing I try once more but again swing sadly backwards, still hanging from my fingertips. The last jolt of force lurches me from the bar and I fall awkwardly into the waiting net. I'm unhurt - only a couple of rope burns and some bruised pride - but shaken. Determinedly I spend the rest of the two hour session trying to perfect my grip and consolidate my feelings about heights, leaving exhilarated, exhausted and a little more ok with high places than I was when I arrived, which is all I needed. The following day... I can barely move. I ache in places I didn't know I had muscles.

On the first day of rehearsals I showed Ian and Lizzi the video of me attempting flying trapeze and reiterated that I was up for a challenge. Obviously there are restrictions to what is feasible in terms of safety and technical requirements. Annie Get Your Gun is a touring show and hitting different venues every single week. Each of those theatres will have slightly different restrictions whether they be because of audience sightlines, height of the lighting rig or even stage depth. Somehow we need to come up with something that will be malleable for each venue and yet provide the impressive spectacle it so richly deserves.

On the second week of rehearsals Kristi Warwick, our incredible Company Manager (and I mean incredible) sends myself, and my two gorgeous covers Natalie Day and Sarah Galbraith across to the National Centre for Circus Arts for a trapeze lesson with the incredible patient and thoroughly reassuring Amy. We are joined by Lizzi and Ian, as well as Alyssa, Daniel and Dave from the Stage Management team. Doing this trick requires a lot more than just the person on the trapeze, it's a collective feat and everyone needs to work together for it to be perfect.

The three Annies begin by having a quick stretch and then Amy shows us how to get on to a static trapeze. We're using a low bar with a large crash mat so that we can play around with some ideas and see what's even vaguely feasible at this stage. Whilst we all have varying degrees of circus experience, we're much of a muchness on the bar itself. Amy shows us some ideas for positions and tricks and then guides each of us through them step by step. Together a general idea of the trick begins to form but we're well aware that there are many constraints yet to be put upon us. Heading back to rehearsal with raw hands and already bruising bodies (apparently they're to be our badge of honour as aerialists!) I have a new found respect for anyone who can do trapeze and make it look effortless. It's hard. REALLY hard!

Look Mom! I'm standing on a trapeze!

My training continues until our next lesson the following week. Sadly there's no way for us to rig up a safe bar in the rehearsal studios and it's certainly not an option at home, so all I can do is try and build my strength and visualise the routine. Armed with packed lunches (thank you Kristi) as we're partially missing a meal break for class, Sarah, Natalie and I return to Amy for a second bar workout. This time we are also accompanied by costume supervisor Karen. Before we get too comfortable with the routine in our lovely flexible running tights, t-shirts and sports bras it's worth remembering that in reality we'll be in full costume!

After a quick go each on the low bar as a refresher of the moves, Karen begins lacing us into our corsets. Now I like a corset. I've done several productions in them. I enjoy the shaping, the firm hug that supports your diaphragm and gives you something to push against. But trapeze in a corset? Trapeze? In a corset? Sheesh. I do not have the words for the manner of hell that unleashed upon me. Trying to get from one trick position to the next I am literally incapacitated. I cannot feel my body, I cannot gauge what my muscles are doing and though my mind is sending instructions it seems the rest of me is ignoring it. Sarah and Natalie watch, slightly in horror, as I literally drop off the trapeze onto the crash mat. I haven't even made it properly onto the bar.

Add into this mix the restriction of a gun holster and some boots, plus a wig and I'm feeling freshly unnerved. Gritting my teeth I approach the bar and attempt to remount. I hang underneath, kick my feet up towards my head and manage to get a toe hold. Hauling myself up the ropes with all my strength I finally manage to get the corset to bend enough to let me push my backside onto the bar. I am up! Triumphantly I smile and raise a fist, almost falling off again in the process. Now for the actual routine.

Corset time! Ta-da!

We play around again with ideas given the new restrictions and Amy teaches us several things to look out for on each other to help with our training once we're on the road; where to point and flex, where to put our hands, that kind of thing. As the routine is underscored and Steve will need to look at this musically, Lizzi and I attempt to finalise the routine. We may add to this as my strength increases over the tour but we also bear in mind aware the need for contingency versions in case of injury or safety concerns. I will be wearing a form of safety harness as I'll be far higher in the end, and there won't be a crash mat unless we're practicing. The nice thing though about getting into the Manchester Opera House, where we open, is that the trapeze will be permanently hooked up and we'll be able to rehearse on it every day if we want to.

Back in the rehearsal room I check on one of my toes which has been aching since I caught it on the bar. It appears I may have broken it if the blackening bruising is anything to go by. I've broken most of my toes before so I'm kind of au fait with what this means and whilst I know it will heal and won't hinder me much, I'm kicking myself ever so slightly. This means, however, that I won't be doing any running for the foreseeable. Picking myself off the floor I join Natalie and Sarah in stretching out our battered bodies for the remainder of the lunch break, proud to be working with the pair of them. They're both amazing and knowing that Annie is in safe hands, should the worst happen and I ever have to go off, is such a relief. They're so lovely and supportive, I almost feel guilty for pushing the trapeze routine to the extremes. Now, where did I put that arnica?

Mistress of Trapeze, Amy with the three Annies - Sarah, myself and Natalie, 
and the ridiculously amazing Lizzi in splits!


  1. ace to learn new skills! keep it up!

  2. Wow. So brave and so determined. It sounds as though you are putting so much effort in. I'm sure the end result will be astounding. Keep up the good work but I don't envy you. I don't think people realise how much hard work goes into the show they watch on stage sometimes. Your blog is entertaining, great reading and a real insight. Thank you. x

  3. Amazing the lengths you guys are going to for the show. Love reading the blog!