Sunday, 6 July 2014

Annie Get Your Gun - Illness, Injury and the Unavoidable!

I've mentioned before about the need for any person working on a show to remain healthy. This goes for not only the actors onstage but also everyone behind the prosarch too. Whilst health is something we often take for granted in our daily lives, if for some reason you aren't well enough to do your job on a theatrical production there simply has to be someone to step in and fill your shoes.

This is where swings and understudies come in, both on the stage and behind the scenes. Hannah and Ste are our onstage performing Swings, running both their own tracks and covering numerous other tracks of the cast. In the wings though we have Jordan, our Swing Technician. Jordan covers the stage management roles behind the scenes as
each of the other stage management members covers the next person up the chain. For example, Lisa is ASM (Assistant Stage Manager) and Book Cover so if Leonie, who calls the show as DSM (Deputy Stage Manager) is away then Lisa will call it. Theoretically this means that if any team member has to miss a show for any reason, then there is someone to fill in and another person to cover for them and so forth. Confused yet?

So, whilst we have the necessary talent to fill any gaps, illness and injury are to be avoided at all costs. You have to learn to take care of yourself, meaning no casual skydives or random cage fights. Late nights are kept to a minimum, vitamins are taken and bodies listened to. If your body is demanding more sleep, you simply have to take every opportunity to give it that. If your voice is tired and it's only a Wednesday then the first step is vocal rest whenever you're offstage. This means total and complete vocal silence, difficult for anyone who spends their days singing and shouting at the top of their lungs. It may sound melodramatic, but touring productions are hard work and can take serious toll on your body without you even realising. There are long days, lots of travelling and no holiday time due to the nature of shorter contracts so looking after yourself is simply a necessity and responsibility of the job

Of course there are various things we collectively do to avoid injury. Before every first show of the day we warm-up together, first with a physical and then a vocal. An hour and a half before the show, Dance Captain Jonny leads the company in a physical warm-up of cardio and stretching. We slowly work our way through all the muscle groups, preparing them for the strain of the exertion that this show brings. If there is enough time then we'll even indulge in a sit-up and press up routine or two, to help keep our muscles strong.

After physical we have our vocal warm up with Steve, the musical director or sometimes Bob, his assistant. Again we slowly warm the muscles of the voice. This means that we'll begin with breath exercises, moving on to warming up the lips, cheeks and tongue for example and then into the actual voice. As the voice becomes warmer the range is extended through scales, sirens and arpeggios, so that everyone is warm enough to cope with the highest and lowest notes of the score. We'll even do tongue-twisting exercises that get our brains in gear! It's equally important to be mentally sharp as you cannot do a show justice if you don't stay focussed.

After the vocal warm-up there are 15 minutes where we'll run over any notes or check any awkward corners we've been having such as lifts that didn't feel quite right, or sections of choreography and music that need tightening. As shows become familiar it can be all too easy to relax too much into them and that means the sharpness of the collective group can soften and blur. Having Jonny and Steve on hand to note us means that we can stay on top of these areas. This is also the time to go over anything because we have an understudy or swing on, that we haven't already had a chance to do earlier.

Aside from this, most people will also have their own personal warm up routines as appropriate for their own show or process. This may mean extra stretching, a longer vocal or even running lines -it all depends on what you personally need for preparation. For my own part I have several ritualistic things that I like to do to make sure I'm in top form. I use a Dr Nelson's steam inhaler most days, sing fairly extensively pre-show (generally gently harmonising along to whatever music I'm playing in my dressing room) and also have Berocca on hand should I need an extra hit of vitamins. I'll also take echinacea when I feel it necessary, wear a scarf throughout the year, avoid alcohol completely when in a production and even spend vast periods of time not talking unless onstage - and believe you me, that is a HARD one for me!

I suppose the thing is, we're fortunate to love our jobs and as such we want to do everything possible to make sure that we can responsibly do them. Although illness is not always avoidable, by trying your best to be in the peak of health, you have a far more likely chance of staying fit and well. Injury is an unfortunate evil that happens from time to time, be it as an unexpected accident or the more usual wear-and-tear. Bodies have limits and when we push them constantly, sometimes things take their toll. Hopefully though with the right care and attention, the effects will be short-lived and the injured party will be back on their feet in no time.

The week of Oxford we had our first serious moments of injury which forced two of our company off the stage for a few shows. Katie, who plays Nellie, was suffering from a back complaint which caused her to miss three shows and then later in the week Yiftach (or Iffy as we know him) who plays Tommy had to also take three shows off to deal with a separate, unrelated back issue. In both instances our understudies and swings stepped up to the breach with remarkable calm and carried out their new roles with aplomb, a pretty impressive feat given that our understudies weren't even fully rehearsed in yet. Hannah made a wonderful Nellie, Matt was a brilliant Tommy (knife-throwing included!) and Ste proved a lovely (and painfully funny) 'man on boat with news' (as I affectionately term him).

Having covers on of any kind makes the show feel very different and the adrenalin buzz of that is thoroughly exciting. However, when someone becomes ill mid-show, it's a whole other ball game, as I found out to my sorrow that week. On the Wednesday evening I was feeling a little nauseated before the show but thought it was collectively down to eating a bit later than usual, putting on a tight corset and the remarkable heat of the Oxford New Theatre. It was only once I was standing in the wings as the overture struck up that I realised something might be slightly more amiss.

My temperature began raging and the corset, which had been surprisingly difficult to get on for that second show, began to feel like it was suffocating me. Company manager Kristi spotted my peakiness, shall we say, and a swift decision was made to get me out of my corset to try and limit the number of layers I was wearing, thinking this was just to do with the fact I don't deal with heat very well. Corset-less the show and I continued, but by halfway through Act 1 I was pretty much on my hands and knees whenever offstage. Stage management and the wig and wardrobe teams were amazing - ice-packing me whenever possible and keeping my fluids up in an attempt to bring down my temperature, but I honestly thought at that point I would have to call out at the interval, and let my understudy go on for Act 2, something I have never done in 13 years of stage work.

Running on for the trapeze sequence near the end of Act 1 I realised I'd blearily forgotten the gun in my heat-adled state. Quick as a flash, Ste ran off and grabbed it for me (as I was attached to the trapeze), I performed the full trick and zoomed back offstage, adrenalin now coursing through me. The interval came and went in the usual blur, but the adrenalin surge helped me push into Act 2 with renewed vigour, feeling a little more myself. However by the company bows I was feeling teary and drained, exhausted from the dance routines, literally dripping with sweat and unsteady on my feet. I peeled off my costume and wig in the dressing room after and quickly cold-showered, desperate to get into the air and home, but promptly began throwing up before I could do so.

Several hours of sickness later it became clear I had a mild case of food poisoning from my attempts to be super-healthy and have pre-show sushi. The first time I'd had any in months. The irony is that only the week before I'd spent a long time extolling the delicious virtues of raw fish to Dermot, who plays Foster Wilson, insisting that he try some the next time I had some. Thank heavens he wasn't swayed by my argument and thus sushi has now joined the list of 'things i will not have again until this tour is over' - like alcohol and curry (following a mini-allergy debacle in Stoke!). The likelihood that something like that could happen again so soon is slim to middling I know, but I simply won't risk it. If something is going to stop me from playing my beloved Annie Oakley for even a night, then it's going to have to be a damn sight more scary than laryngitis and broken toes (rehearsals), inch long splinters and torn shoulders (Edinburgh) or naughty pieces of salmon.

P.S. Dear Universe, that's NOT a challenge. Thank you x


  1. Thank you for writing this. It's a real insight to another world. It's amazing what you do and sounds like enjoyable but hard work.

  2. Thank you Emma for a wonderful show at Malvern this afternoon. The rapturous applause was so well deserved - Peter Clifton

  3. You were superb in Malvern this afternoon. How did you hold that note for so long.

  4. You stole the show in Woking - a breathtaking performance - you were unbelievably good. Hope you get an award for it - because you certainly deserve it after putting in a performance like that.

  5. Have been to The Theatre Royal Glasgow a few times recently with Singin’ in the Rain and Wicked the most recent. Last year three big West End shows in London Wicked, Le Miserable and Mamma Mia.
    My daughter who is set on musical theatre as her preferred study next year has been dragging me along as I was never a Theatre visitor in the past but now hooked!
    The talent in the shows I’ve seen is extraordinary and a leaf from your book will serve her well!
    The lead performance by yourself as Annie last night was stunning. Considering the limited although apt staging and lack of special effects and pyrotechnics. You stood out by a country mile from many I have seen and enjoyed recently.
    Fill your Boots Up Sister!
    The ever professional Jason Donovan was brilliant as Frank Butler. Norman Pace, Super Smiley Lorna Want, Hilarious Kara Lane and the rest of the cast were all superb.
    They should all be commended as the show was well on par with all of the fantastic performances I have seen this year.
    I will certainly watch out for any of your future work as you are an extremely talented artist and believe I only witnessed the tip of the iceberg last night.
    So thank you very much for a fabulously entertaining and value for money Wednesday night which is normally spent on the couch watching tele.