What gigs are made of...
“Ooh, that looks angry. Is it a birthmark?” A little old lady stares at the bumpy red rash on my cheeks.
“It’s probably the ‘change’,” volunteers her equally wrinkled, bouffant white-haired friend. I’m on a Saga cruise ship with three hundred older ladies who all have an opinion about my rash. The ‘change’? Bloody cheek! Everyone can see that I’m only in my late, ahem, thirties. The angry red bumps on my nose and cheeks are due to knocking back a latte despite having a stupid dairy allergy. I take refuge in my cabin but as we sail through the Bay of Biscay in November, heaving waves and stomach turn my ruddy complexion green. After another hasty trip to the bathroom, I decide I am done with cruising. Done. As soon as I reach dry land, I call my agent and tell him so.
So in the land of an empty diary, when my phone rings and a nice voice asks if I would like to do a weekend of stage shows in a beautiful part of Wales for an educated and sophisticated audience, I don’t even ask how much. How The Light Gets In Festival, is a innovative gathering of questing philosophical souls, interested in good music, new ideas and intelligent company.
I am very pleased with this booking. Just the thing. Exactly my kind of educated BBC audience. Wait until I hit them with all that alliteration in my script. No more drunk corporate crowds for me. No more blue rinse busybodies with opinions on rashes either.
“We pay £350.” Damn. Diesel alone is going to cost £100. When I tell her that I usually charge more, much more, they agree to double but it’s still not good I must put a manager on my list of things to manifest. However the festival is in the quaint, stone built town of Hay-on-Wye, nestling in the Welsh hills and it looks a beautiful place to visit.
The night before the off, I’m packed and ready for an early morning start. My chap, Walkabout, pipes up. “Sounds as if you’re playing an open-air stage.” Eh? Open-air stage? I quickly check the forecast. Blustery winds and heavy rain. For the whole weekend. I suddenly have a mental picture of an enormous sodden open-air rock ’n roll stage and an even more sodden me in droopy feathers. Oh pigging hell.
Too late to do anything now, I go to bed. The moment I wake, I remember. Open air stage! But a good night’s sleep works wonders to restore courage. I put myself in ‘adventure mode’ and set off in my Divamobile VW camper van for the green hills of Wales.
The journey takes a good five hours, the final hour driving through dappled evening sunshine down country lanes overlooking fields of golden wheat and bright yellow rape. As I approach Hay-on-Wye I can see the festival, circus lights on the big top glittering against the blue night sky, spiral bright bulbs on the red and white striped helter-skelter shine against dark green hills. I’ve almost forgotten about the scary open-air stage.
How strange imagination is and how powerful. I had no reason to believe my stage was outside other than a day and night of terrified imagining. I park up and walk into the festival arena to find out. There it is, in a burnt orange Moroccan tent glittering with tiny mirrors, the stage at one end. Indoors. It is much smaller than I was expecting. So is the festival, although beautiful in every detail, from the hand sewn bunting to the food stands with flowers and funny signs.
My show is at 10pm tomorrow but the tent will be occupied all day so I unload now before it gets busy. The night is quiet and it’s easy to park by the nearest access. I make several trips pushing through the late night drinkers and give the sound guy my cues. I’ve learnt to get as much done as early as possible.
“Where’s backstage?” I ask the stage manager. “Backstage?” He looks at me blankly. There is nothing behind the tent except a few portable toilets. I have five birdcages and three magic tables to load plus balloons, real egg, fake egg, two silks, three ropes, four coins and two bunches of feathers. Not forgetting feather to cane in hat. In my rider, I always ask for a large table, chair, full length mirror and water. I swear I’m not a diva despite the stage name but I do need a surface to load from and a mirror to check that everything is in place.
Behind the portable loos I find a gypsy caravan. A genuine gypsy caravan. “What’s in there?” I ask. “Nothing, boxes and stuff.” On the basis of ‘Better to ask forgiveness after than permission before.’ I quietly clear out the empty boxes and move my props in. It’s dark now but my eyes adjust to the gloom and soon my whole 45 min show is set inside.
The next day, two hours before my show, I feel prepared and relaxed. It’s a small stage, a small audience and we’ve already done the sound check. I set two benches outside behind the tent and lay out my feathers, silks, cages and jumbo cards. I’ve found a bathroom I can change in nearby. My costume is in one heap, clothes in another and I’m in my birthday suit when I hear a terrific bang. Thunder! I throw something on and faster than Hussain Bolt sprint back to my props. Heavy raindrops are splashing fat and wet on my cards, silks, feathers. Quick as the lightening that is poised to strike any minute, I lift both benches into the tent. That was frighteningly close. If I’d been further away all my props would have been completely ruined. The skies are black now except for bright flashes of lightning and the rain is pouring down heavily. The audience literally run into the tent to shelter from the storm and soon it is bursting to capacity.
There is nothing else to do but to load as unobtrusively as I can at the back of the audience. No-one seems to notice. The storm helps create a lovely intimate show, if a little steamy, everybody quiet and listening. I even get a nice standing ovation at the end, although I think it was more because they were damp and stiff and wanted to get home quick. The billionaire organiser of the whole festival runs up to me after the show and says nice things. Phew.
The show the next night was in a different venue in a different part of town. Which meant packing everything up. At midnight with the rain still falling, my show re-packed in the Divamobile, I cooked up a late night snack on my camper van stove and wondered about tomorrow. I was more than a little worried. In the programme my act was scheduled for 8pm but a special dinner in the same venue was set to start at 7.30pm. This dinner was advertised as a chance to talk to your favourite authors. I couldn’t imagine how a networking event dinner was going to work at the same time as my act. Early the next morning I went to take a look.
With the dining tables set back from the stage my ticket buying audience was between me and the the diners. Plus the bars on each side gave me two separate bar crowds to compete with. As magicians, we’re not just doing magic, we’re coping with different environments each time which may be - and usually are - totally unsuitable.
I ask the catering manager if he can move the dining tables nearer the stage. He can’t. Fifteen minutes before the start of my show I am in costume with props on the stage ready. But there are no chairs in front of the stage. People have paid £15 a ticket to see my show and they expect a seat for their money. I rush out to the stage manager who has obviously been helping himself to the green room beer. “Where are the chairs?”
“We’re not having chairs. This is a music venue.”
“I’m a theatre act, this is a 45 minute theatre show.”
I run outside to the beer tent and in full costume drag tables and chairs to the front. He joins me and soon we’ve got a good lot of chairs set out. But the diners at the back of the tent are deep in loud conversation. The beer drinkers on each side are also having a lovely time and it’s almost impossible to keep the energy engaged between me and my audience who are squinting at me because they can’t hear properly. We’ve sold a lot more tickets than anyone thought and the floor between the chairs is full of people looking uncomfortable as their bums go slowly numb.
It’s one of those shows where you want to give up and go home a quarter of the way through but you can’t and you keep on despite feeling amateur and rubbish. I get everything right technically but my comedy lines fall flat because the acoustics are so bad. Typically it’s the one night that my jacket escape routine is dull, the volunteer knocks my candlestick stand over as he leaves and the now broken candle won’t light because the wind has picked up and is sweeping through the tent.
Props packed away, I sit in my van. It’s midnight again. I’ve made some hot cocoa with an extra spoonful of honey. That was difficult. I wasn’t sea-sick, the airline hadn’t lost my props but showbiz on dry land is not without peril either. As I stare out at the hills over my mug of steaming cocoa I think to myself that at least it’s not dull. And there’s always room for improvement.
So next year, if Hay or anyone else want to hire me, I’m ready come rain or shine with a rider as long as my arm.
Published in Vanish Magazine Jan '17