View from Behind the Scenes of Calendar Girls by Rebecca Shields aka ‘Miss November”


Us ‘theatre newbies’ are quite an exclusive club. We have, at various times over the run up to the play, got together in corners and quizzed each other: “How did you get involved in this?” — said in a wondering, quavery voice. I came along to the auditions because I was flattered to be asked to take part. I had no acting experience and therefore had little or no expectation of getting any part, particularly not the behemoth part I ended up with!!! What you are most kindly reading, is my take on the whole experience, a behind the scenes exposé, if you will, of life as a newbie with The English Theatre Company.

The first thing that sprang to my attention, way back in late summer, was… the biscuits!!! Mostly chocolate, a vast amount piled high in the kitchen was the biggest clue that I had thrown my lot in with a group of hedonists, a group of life enhancers who live life on the edge, whilst holding a cup of tea in one hand and a biscuit in the other. I felt like I had finally found my tribe!
The next thing I was struck by was the professionalism that was evident from day one; this was no rag tag and bob tail collection of wanna-be-thesps. This was the real deal – people that knew their craft and how to achieve slick results. I have a big collection of new skills now as a result of being part of the Calendar Girls cast. I can listen to instructions and, most importantly, remember them. Somehow I have managed to memorise my lines, recognise cues, and can help rescue friends if they have a blank moment. Apparently I can now project my voice, which I always thought was such a reedy little thing. In the words of my character, ‘Ruth’, “I can do it! I can do it!”.

The key to the success of this process is teamwork. Forgive me for sounding like a US business manager, but it’s true! I have felt supported all the way, been praised when it mattered, gently guided to do better and I can tell you from the heart that the warmth and camaraderie that you see on stage is real. Real to the point that when I’m not with the girls, for instance when Ruth has made her decision not to take part (sorry if this is a spoiler), I am sitting back stage, feeling very dejected, peeking out between the wings wishing I was out there under the burning sun-like glare of the lights, really wanting to be out there with my girls! We have literally bared all and created real bonds of friendship.

Time definitely speeds up when you are, ahem… a bit older. This is the only explanation I can come up with for how we appear to have suddenly leapt from rehearsing twice a week in hot, stuffy Salles des Fêtes, to thrice a week feeling the pressure and assembling your props, to suddenly only having one more performance to go! How did that happen?? I guess the answer is that the English Theatre Company is good at what they do and is a well-oiled machine that knows exactly how to achieve results.
From providing a backstage dresser (thank you Nicky and Jo), to stage managers and prop masters, everything is thought of and nothing is left to chance, creating the seamless front-of-house experience the audience sees. We newbies were quickly coached on acting etiquette — never go “Coo-ee” and wave when you see your besties on the front row. Never appear in the bar afterwards in your costume and never show your back to the audience. We were initiated into actory terms such as ‘dress’ for dress rehearsal, and ‘strike’ for dismantling the stage (I think). We learnt you always need coat hangers for your costumes, Fishermen’s Friends for throat closages due to nerves and, finally, bags that don’t crinkle when you are diving in them to find safety pins and whatnot whilst you are sitting right behind the scenery.

Above all, we’ve learnt the magic that happens when a group of people have worked really hard at becoming their characters and know their lines inside out. The maxim ‘It’ll be alright on the night’ is actually true. Yes, there might be moments when the play opens with a blast of James Bond theme music instead of Jerusalem. Yes, I might have shot out early on stage, dressed as a rabbit, potentially ruining a crucial and serious scene in the play. Yes, I might have kept saying ‘underpants’ instead of ‘knickers’ in rehearsals and yes, I might have snorted with unexpected laughter as my onstage badminton partner suddenly fired a shot at me from through her legs, but somehow… it all worked out just fine!

It’s been a wonderful and life-changing experience for all of us newbies. We have become confident creatures, able to look at our worst fears such as paralysing shyness and terror of public speaking and overcome them. Being part of Calendar Girls has been a brilliant experience and I, for one, am totally hooked on the unexpected joy of audience laughter. Just don’t get me started on how great it feels to be clapped! I am sure I was unbearable to live with for a few days after the shows! Thank you for reading this and, if you came along to see us in action, thank you for that too. A play without an audience would be the saddest thing on God’s earth (to borrow one of Jessie’s lines). I’ll bow now and take my leave, but know that I loved every second!