Whispers from the Wings

The Roaring Girl press night

June 4, 2014

Harvey Virdi and Lizzie Hopley backstage In The Arena

For any of you that might think a theatre press night is about flowers and hobnobbing in the bar, here's a picture.

There's a wondrous quote from 26th US President, Theodore Roosevelt, about critics and gladiators which I'll quote in a bit. We hactors are not quite gladiators - there's no sand, the blood is (mostly) syrup, the sweat is real and mine is currently running down my legs into my shoes from my hair.

My Roaring Girl costume is two layers of tartan wool over a corset, bustle and underskirt. The corset was axed for press night as it was decided I was carrying the weight of a teenager round my waist. I was sweating pints and literally thought I'd started an early menopause. Now I know why Victorian women had the vapours and carried smelling salts and never bent down for anything.

God knows what you did with a crying child - there's no way you could pick it up. Even nursemaids wore corsets - there must have been dropped toddlers, lining every street. I spend any backstage time with my skirts up round my waist and a wet chamois leather on my neck and I have learnt a new trick: Spinning the Chamois.

Spinning the Chamois

The RSC Wig department have many tricks up their sleeve. They've already taken a precise measurement of my head by making a cling film and Sellotape mould. They've transformed the women of the cast into men  and they can do anything, anything, with pins.

The spinning chamois involves soaking a wet chamois leather with water and cologne, then spinning it between finger and thumb before applying to any bare flesh your enormous costume has missed. Spinning makes the alcohol in the cologne evaporate, which cools the chamois before it hits. Genius.

My super-fast, super-experienced dresser, Linda (believe me, you need help getting into a costume like this - it has more fastenings than a straightjacket) has designed a programme of 'heat management' based on any time I have off-stage and how many layers we can remove.

She declares she gets a facial from the sheer heat which comes off me at the end of Act 3. Wardrobe have been incredible - removing lining from the woollen skirts and boning my bodice to replace the corset overnight. This was only April - the thought of what would be left of me after a hot July has provoked a intervention.

Welcome to the actor's favourite hormone (yes, even more than testosterone). Adrenaline. Produced by the kidneys during 'high stress or exciting situations', the production of adrenaline is part of our stress response system - our 'fight or flight.' It works by stimulating the heart rate, contracting blood vessels, and dilating air passages to increase blood flow to the muscles and oxygen to the lungs.

You can actually feel it invading your body from the moment it's produced. If you've ever had a general anaesthetic and can remember following the cold creeping up the veins from your arm to your brain - it's very similar. Although passing out is the last thing you're likely to do. Adrenaline can enable a mother to lift a car off her child, it can be used to restart a heart and, despite feeling like you've swallowed worms and acid, it can also get you through an RSC press night.

Actually, to be honest, I was more nervous on our first preview. You never quite know how an audience is going to react to all the work you've done. They are the final component of the play, the point we're all here in big frocks being poisoned by our kidneys and if they're quiet on your first comic line, you want to jump off a bridge.

The Nice Stuff

Mistress Tiltyard's self-designed shop cardThe best thing about Press Night are the cards and flowers. My dressing room is a crash of Interflora and Moonpig delivery vans. It never fails to amaze me what trouble people go to. Liz Crowther (playing Mistress Tiltyard, owner of a feather shop) has designed her own unique shop card.

Lisa Dillon drawing of a guitarYou'd think Lisa Dillon, our Roaring Girl, would have enough to do between carrying the show and learning instruments to paint us each and amazing electric guitar .

I have a total of FIVE bouquets - more flowers than I've ever had in my life (I've trained my family well). I can no longer see myself in the mirror and just aim lipstick at my face. We all have a named Thorntons Easter egg from our producer and a Roaring Girls mug from a cherished member of the board - I'm beginning to feel overwhelmed with love and support and the dreaded adrenaline starts pumping at 1pm for a 7pm show - a whole 6 hours of poison. If anyone needs a car lifting - I'm in the end dressing room, 3rd floor…

Lizzie Hopley's dressing room

Pappa's Got a Head Like a Pingpong Ball

A few nights into a play and you begin to find a routine that will serve you for the rest of the run. Us hactors like routine - it helps the nerves, provides security, you learn it on your body til it becomes second nature and basically, you don't have to use your brain.

My itinerary:
Physical warm up/fight or dance call - 6pm
1st Wig call - 6.15
Cup of tea - 6.35
Make-up - 6.40
Vocal warm up - 6.45 (cue tongue twisters such as: 'Pappa's Got a Head Like a Ping Pong Ball, my personal favourite.)
2nd Wig call - 7.05
Into costume - 7.15
Double gin & tonic - 7.25
That last one is made up. Honest.

Everyone has their own routine and on the first few previews and press night when panic levels are gale force ten, time vanishes and you realise you've not scheduled in time to wee or eat and come close to fainting and wetting yourself at 'beginners'.

That First Laugh…

Whoever, however, whenever - the first titter from the darkness and there is a collective sigh backstage. Of course, if you're in 'Macbeth', it's probably not a good thing but in a big ye olde comedy, it's a worry. The language and the jokes are being severely tested.

roaring-girl-production-photo-300x450.jpg'How can you tickle an audience with T, had been a good phrase for a cook's wife sir'? A line which I'm sure was pant-wettingly funny in the 16th Century. Some never age however - usually the bawdy ones but it is in the hands of the audience now - will they like the play? The production? Us? My little moments, my little story, little sweat-soaked heart-thumping, adrenaline-poisoned me?

I have to hold a letter in one scene - it's a solo speech to the audience holding PAPER. If I shake, it shakes and they'll know, they'll know what a nervous wretch I am and they'll point and laugh like they've found me on the loo.

'This is a Career That Should be Nipped in the Bud.' Actual quote from a friend of a friend's theatre review. (NOT mine.)

School parties are harsher than any critic - beyond prejudice and brutally honest in their ability to fidget or leave in the middle of your best speech to have a smoke. So why do we care what the papers say? Of course I care deeply when they say nice things. It's like horoscopes - when they're not what you want to hear, they're written by assholes, worth nothing and replace your toilet paper. When they're nice, they're GOSPEL and you want to Facebook the planet.

I am actually so proud of us as a cast on Roaring Girl press night. No melt-downs, no freak-outs and no-one vomits - at least not publicly. The audience is buoyant, the atmosphere onstage buzzes. I am sweating buckets in every scene I'm literally depositing salt on the inside of my costume but the letter doesn't shake in my hand and we actually manage to enjoy it. Not every critic will of course and in the pub afterwards, someone reminds us of Roosevelt's speech:

'It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. – Theodore Roosevelt.'

Which, of course, if they're nice to me, I'll retract.

That night, we swap the best reviews we know of, the ones that have passed into hacktor history:

'Silvia Simms has a stab at the part and kills it.' Anonymous - thankfully coz she's ace.
'Katherine Hepburn runs the gamut of emotion from A to B.' Dorothy Parker.

And this glorious one from Noel Coward about a young Bonnie Langford sat atop a horse which pooed onstage during an adaptation of 'Gone With the Wind':

'If the child had been stuffed up the horse's arse, both major catastrophes would have been averted.'

Bring it on!

Image 1 caption: Harvey Virdi and Lizzie Hipley backstage
Image 2 caption: Mistress Tiltyard's self-designed shop card
Image 3 caption: Lisa Dillon's guitar card
Image 4 caption: Lizzie Hopley's dressing room
Image 5 caption: Lizzie Hopley as Mrs Gallipot and Kier Charles as Laxton

by Lizzie Hopley  |  3 comments

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Jun 5, 11:07pm
Alison Saint

Great read - thanks! Enjoyed the show!

Jun 27, 6:02pm
Janet Ange

I have thoroughly enjoyed all Lizzie's blogs, what a great insight into the work all the 'hactors' do to provide us with our entertainment! I loved the image of the oatmeal stuffed socks, and this -very honest- description of the sweating made me cry with laughter, being a menopausal old hag who seems to sweat for a living!
I saw The Roaring Girl a few weeks ago, thought it was brilliant, hopefully laughed in lots of the right places. We are coming to Arden of Faversham next week, and greatly looking forward to that too! We do go to the "big stuff' in the RST too, but I do love the Swan and Lizzie has given me a taste of the hactor's pain and euphoria! Break a leg!

Jul 16, 5:56pm
Sue Partridge

My partner and I attended The Roaring Girl on 19.4.14 ,and thoroughly enjoyed it . We had the insight that the actors do not, which is to hear the upbeat positive comments from fellow audience members , then I saw the reviews . Some of them must have been to a different show . I have been to an RSC press night in the past and seen members of the press not even stay for the second half them write a comment on it .
We enjoyed it so much booked again for 5.7.2014.
The performance had improved as all the actors appeared to settle into their roles . Theatre should not always be joy , at times it needs to be the opposite but on this occasion it is a joy and makes us smile and feel good so we have now booked for th last night .
Remember those who can , do , those who can't
become critics !

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