Back in their bottle

Jack defeats the giant, Snow White lives happily ever after and Aladdin finds the lamp – but what happens to pantomime performers when the curtain closes for the last time?

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The post-panto blues are hitting performers even harder this January as they reluctantly put their tap shoes and stage mics BEHIND THEM once again.

Figures from the Audience Agency show that, although there are signs of improvement from winter 2020, attendance at theatres is still almost half where it was pre-pandemic. Without stages to perform on and gigs to play at, many performers have had to diversify, taking non- performance jobs, working online and becoming jacks of all trades.

Chloe Barlow, a bubbly 25-year-old musical theatre actor who boasts an array of acting credits from cruise ships, tours and even a show at infamous Peppa Pig world, took to the stage as Spirit of the Ring in Telford Theatre’s production of Aladdin in December.

“It was amazing being back in a rehearsal room and to use my brain in the way it actually works well. I like entertaining people and like making people happy. It’s the only thing I can really see myself doing all the time. Nothing beats the round of applause at the end of a job and there’s no other job that you really get that – except maybe a pilot.

“Back in 2020 I was set to perform on a Fred Olsen cruise ship which got cancelled and suddenly I was unemployed, on Universal Credit and had nothing to do. At first they kept saying ‘Oh no it is happening, it will happen’, but of course, work had to get cancelled and I definitely wasn’t the only one. It happened to the whole industry and it really was heartbreaking. So I had to use the skills that I had and thought okay, what can I do now?

“I managed to get a job working from home in telesales, as I am quite good at talking, if nothing else, which I am still doing now in between jobs. It pays the bills but it’s not what I want to be doing or what I trained for. I have no passion for it and I don’t wake up in the morning and look forward to it as it can get quite monotonous and no one gives you a round of applause at the end of it, whereas when I am in a rehearsal or a show I still have that excitement everyday.

“I’ve gone from being a contracted performer jumping from long contract to long contract to now being savvy. I’ve had to expand on what I do. I was mainly doing musical theatre performance jobs whereas now I’ve had to go back to children’s parties, just singing jobs, singing in a band and using every single string of my bow. I’ve had to spend a bit of my own money too on microphones and speakers’ costumes, which are now paying themselves back off. So overall I’ve become more of a businesswoman in the pandemic, which I think is a good thing.

“I know a lot of performers that are just not going back to performing because they are earning decent money in what’s considered a ‘normal job.'”

“The self-employment grant was great, but you could only get that under certain rules and some people didn’t qualify, so I think that was a real shame for people who has just graduated and suddenly couldn’t get any help.

“I know a lot of performers that are just not going back to performing because they are earning decent money in what’s considered a ‘normal job’ and they can’t consider anything worse than going back to performing and being paid peanuts. A lot of people want the stability, which you don’t really have as a performer and that has been heightened during the pandemic.

“Hopefully all being well I’ll finally be going and doing the 2020 cruise ship contract in March this year. I’m giving up a very stable job to go on a ship that might get shut down at any point but it’s a risk that you take as a performer.

“January is going to involve a lot of getting fit and ready for full time performing again so when, not if, when I go back on the cruise ships I’ll be ready.”

The beauty of pantomime is that it brings together the old with the new, the nostalgic fables with the spine-tingling chords of an electric guitar, and the acting newcomers alongside legendary experienced actors. The latter is true of Phylip Harries, the celebrated performer who continued his longstanding role as the dame in Theatre Clwyd’s production of Beauty and the Beast. Harries has worked alongside many other renowned actors throughout his career, from Pauline Quirke and Ian McShane to Tom Jones.

“Over the years I have been involved in theatrical productions, TV, film, radio, voiceovers and basically anything that keeps the art of entertaining and acting alive,” he says. “So many in this business have not been as lucky and have had to give it up but I have struggled on for 40-odd years and I’m still enjoying myself and still getting work thankfully. And, of course pantomimes as well, which give you the freedom of being able to get rid of the fourth wall and converse with the audience directly – feel almost part of the audience and make them feel a part of the pantomime as well.

Phylip Harries in Theatr Clwyd’s Beauty and the Beast. Main photo: Chloe Barlow (right) in Telford Theatre’s production of Aladdin. Photos: Kirsten McTernan, Shone Productions

“This was one of the best pantos we have done this year. The warmth and appreciation that we could share from the audience – they were thankful of being there and they were thankful to us for bringing them there, so it was a twofold experience.

“Unfortunately, we had to finish early, so on 24 December we had our last two shows, still having a run of three weeks left. But we had to consider the safety of everyone. It was the right thing to do, we had no choice, but we were lucky to get at least a month of a run in.

“I was very lucky during the lockdown. A theatre company called Theatre Na Nóg decided they would be proactive right from the word go and decided to do work online and employ as many actors, musicians, designers, technicians and writers as they could, to come up with a number of projects which included all aspects of the industry.

“Of course, it was all new to start with. No one had a clue what Zoom was. Now we know every inch of it, and we had to just reinvent ourselves and learn how to film the best way with the cameras and record our audio with the microphones we had.

“We were able to work with young people who have just graduated from drama school but have not had the chance to actually perform.”

“It has been easier for us because we are performing but you know it has been hard for the technical and the production and arts side of it. Theatre Na Nóg have tried to really encompass everybody.

“We were able to work with young people who have just graduated from drama school but have not had the chance to actually perform and give them the chance to talk to us oldies and veterans about what we have gone through and what hopefully they will have coming to them.

“I keep advising them to just keep going if that is your vocation in life and always aim for the stars as there’s plenty of years out there for you. In this industry you just have to keep reinventing yourself and make sure that if there is no work there for you then create the work for yourself in whatever way – technically on Zoom and hopefully live off Zoom. Don’t give up yet – there’s plenty of years ahead of you.”

The long-awaited pantomime season provided many theatre graduates with their first professional role. One is Phoebe Reynolds, a talented actor from North Wales who recently completed 94 shows in the alternating roles of Chef and Elf aboard the Polar Express immersive train ride experience.

“The pandemic has hugely affected my career, not to sugarcoat it,” she says. “I started at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in 2019 for a one-year master’s course. In March of 2020 we had begun rehearsing for our final showcase when lockdown was announced, so everything we had been rehearsing for went down the drain. We didn’t get to meet any acting agents in person, and it all went online. This makes it so much harder to get noticed and for an agent to get to know you as a person as well as a performer.

“We were lucky because we did get to go back through October 2020, which I know a lot of drama schools didn’t allow with their students. But the exposure we missed out on through not having an in-person showcase is tremendous. I think I’m an idealist and I always thought when I finished drama school I was going to be snapped up straight away and going to make it. Now I’ve had to face the harsh reality that this is not always the case

Phoebe Reynolds: “I always thought when I finished drama school I was going to be snapped up straight away.” Photo: Patrick Baldwin

“In the pandemic I had to take lots of non performance-related jobs. I worked for my mum’s café in North Wales, worked two pub jobs, and then during November 2020 I started a job in a special education needs school which remained open during the lockdowns. They were really my saviour and I worked at that school for a year as well as picking up small performance gigs wherever I could. I’ve had to do a lot of jobs outside of the arts to carry me through and just to stay afloat.

“It felt incredible to work on the Polar Express, as it was a long time coming. It’s such magical show and it was great to get to interact with so many wonderful people. During the rehearsals and shows I was also living with the people I was performing with, so it was nice to be surrounded by performers again.

“As far as 2022 goes, January was looking great as I was cast in a children’s musical of Little Red Riding Hood at a theatre called the Brookside in Romford. However, it’s now been postponed to May so January at the minute is a looking very bleak as I thought I would have a show to start the year with but because of Covid this isn’t happening.”

Those who were lucky enough to catch Dick Wittington at Stockport Plaza, which closed on 9 December, would have seen successful Liverpudlian actor, producer and director Bradley Thompson, who starred as Idle Jack. Thompson began his pantomime career nine years ago performing in venues across the North.

“I think pantomimes are about family time and watching a show together that everyone can enjoy,” he says. “It’s more important than ever this year because of Covid and what’s happening. Last year we couldn’t do this show so to go back on this year and to manage to stay open as a production has been really special.”

As well as acting professionally Bradley is the co-artistic director of Kitchen Sink, a northern-based not-for-profit theatre and film company that aims to improve young people’s mental health through art and culture.

Bradley Thompson: “If I had got a normal job in Tesco then Kitchen Sink wouldn’t have survived the year.”

“We create original theatre, film and music with young people to produce work that represents the voices of today,” he says. “Instead of doing Shakespeare and regurgitating other productions we ask them to create their own story that they want to tell. This provides these young people with ownership of the show and characters they’ve created, and it really allows them to create freely and passionately with what they want to talk about in their lives today.

“Unfortunately, since the pandemic hit, we lost a couple of our youth theatres, so we had to move online and partner up with other companies. We have been creating animations around mental health and how to stay clean during the pandemic, amongst other things.

“A lot of people told me to go and get a job in Tesco and to get a normal job but if I had got a normal job in Tesco then Kitchen Sink wouldn’t have survived the year and we’d have had to shut down the company. So we had to make the decision – do we carry on in these tough times and find our way out of it or shall we get a normal job? We decided to carry on. Lucky enough we got through the first and second year of it.

Now in 2022, hopefully we’ll be getting our youth theatres back up and running as young people really need support with their mental health especially through all this. I want to start a young actors company. Not only young people from 13-18 – I want to work with people 18-25 because this a market where people miss out a lot. They often fall through the gaps in the creative industry, and I’d love to pay those young actors to create their own shows and take them on tour.

“It’s a very difficult moment to get into the theatre industry but it’s also a very exciting one. With being more online, a lot of people are looking for more diversity within a cast, which is amazing. The future is really exciting. The pandemic is not helping but we need to keep a good mental attitude and all get through it together.”

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