In every job there is inevitably a learning curve where you develop skills on the job to help you along the way. However when in a moment of contemplaction the other day, I asked myself ‘what things have I learnt from my career?’, it was an unusual list of skills which I doubt anyone outside my industry would have guessed, so I thought I’d share!
So here goes. Seven things I have learnt from being a variety performer in London:
1) How to enjoy silence
I mean REALLY revel in complete, absolute solitary silence. This sounds weird. I get it. But in my career there is constant noise, constant bright lights, and (usually) lots of people. From the moment I start to travel to a gig I’m on a packed tube (normal for most I assume!), but then I arrive at a venue and to begin with you don’t notice it, but after a while it’s hard to ignore. There’s someone rehearsing onstage and their music is belting out the speakers (don’t get me wrong I’m not complaining-we all have to tech!), and there’s the necessary shouting of cues across the room. There’s the sound of tables being dragged across the floor into position for that evening’s cabaret and constant instructions to the waiters being called out. Then you go backstage, where often in some venues you’re near the kitchens, so you have all the kitchen noise of pots and pans, and the oven, and the ‘YES CHEF’ being repeatedly shouted out in response to commands from within. Most conversations backstage have to be shouted to be heard over the noise of the show music, and often there is someone’s phone playing a different track over the one on the loud speakers as they mark through their acts behind the scenes (we’ve all done it!), and then the singer(s) will be warming up their voices too. And this is before the show has even started!! My point is, is that in my job, there is a lot of noise. Most of it is AWESOME, please don’t get me wrong. But it’s just a fact. So a pastime of mine I love doing is going and having dinner, or a slice of cake and hot chocolate, out just by myself. Only an hour or so, but just being completely alone, with nothing but the quiet tinkering of the background music is absolute bliss and can really put me in a great mood for a show in the evening.
2) How to blank out stares in the street
I appreciate that I walk about town with about 50 hula hoops hung on my shoulder like a giant tractor tyre, and I understand that with that some unwanted attention will undoubtedly come my way(the above picture was ‘papped’ by a chap I didn’t know, called Fred Bonatto, who ran up to me on the underground, stole a picture, and ran off again-I had to run after him with my business card as I wanted to see his picture! To my surprise he actually sent it to me a few months later!). To begin with I hated all the gawking on the tube and the endless comments of ‘That’s a big tyre!’ or ‘that girl’s got a funny looking instrument!’ and even had to try my hardest when rudely stopped and demanded to know ‘what you got in your bag?’, to not reply asking what they had in their rucksack and to point out the glaring ill-mannered way in which they have just stopped and questioned me. But nowadays I have become completely and utterly oblivious to it all. It’s great! The only time that I notice how weird all the staring from strangers is, is when I’ve got a non-performer with me and they point it out. This was an incredibly useful skill to learn and has saved me much annoyance!
3) How to navigate your way around impossibly complicated fire escapes
I should honestly earn the title of Mazemaster 2014. This is an ability that has taken a little while to fully develop, but now it’s here I can NEVER lose my way backstage. It should be noted that in the majority of high-end large venues, despite the audience side being incredibly simple and straightforward, behind the scenes it’s a very different story! The phase ‘rabbit warren’ has been bandied about to describe a few venues, even by the event organisers themselves. A general rule of thumb is that the bigger and more upmarket the venue is, the more complicated it is to navigate backstage. Some venues I’ve performed in, it could be a full 10 minute walk from the dressing room to the stage, navigating through a multiple number of different doors, narrow corridors, fire escapes, past the kitchens, up one set of stairs to get down the next set, past that service lift you swear you’ve seen four times now since leaving the greenroom, through endless passageways that all look the same and then finally, breathless, and stressed that you’re definitely in the wrong place, you get to the performance area. There was a time where I’d take pictures along the way while being shown to the dressing room, so that on my return journey to the stage I could look at the pictures in reverse to make sure I wouldn’t get lost (the picture above is actually from one of many backstage corridors in a venue I performed at). Nowadays, however? Not a problem. Queen of the labyrinth, me!! Show me once and I’ll remember in 12 months’ time when I do the event again for you next year.
4) How to get changed in tiny spaces
In some venues the dressing room is like the movies would lead you to believe. Complete with light bulb lined mirrors and plenty of chairs and space for all. Most of the time however, I perform in venues that unfortunately just don’t have the space for all that, or weren’t purpose built with a large room for changing. So step one in my performing journey consisted of learning and dealing with the fact that everyone has to get naked in front of each other, often while the persons bum is pressed up against you as you try to shimmy into your dance tights in the least undignified way possible, all while trying not to fall over onto the aerialist stretching on the floor next to you. Since being in the business for quite a while now, I simply don’t notice that all the other performers are going through stages of nudity around me, and I’ve got pretty adept at getting in and out of my costumes in even the smallest of cramped fire escapes, or even in the back of a taxi with 50 hula hoops on top of me while rushing between gigs.
5) Depth perception to the nth degree
As with all performers, I want to maximise the amount of work I can accept, and part of this was learning how to compact my hula hooping acts down into the smallest spaces possible so that I could accept jobs in places that other hula hoopers wouldn’t accept due to size. (The picture above is of the tiny stage I performed on at the top of the Shard on New Years Eve last year. Originally it was pushed against the wall and without the ropes round, but that REALLY was too little space, so we adapted!) This has meant that my depth perception has become incredibly accurate. I mean, it HAS to when the hoop spinning on your foot behind you has only 1.5cm breathing space on either side before it hits the wall or someone’s chair etc. I’ve learnt the EXACT space needed for every single trick that I do in my acts to the mm, so that when performing in weird and unusual shaped spaces I can adjust my position for each trick so that not only does everyone in the audience get a great view of it, but also so that my hoops don’t hit anything or anyone in the process. I have however hit a chandelier once. I didn’t sleep at all that night!! Although thankfully I found out that it was very cheap and I didn’t cause any real damage and have since been booked back there multiple times! Phew!
6) The tube map by memory
Every gig I perform at is in a different part of London, so in the four years I’ve been living here, through just general use I’ve pretty much learnt the entire tube map off by heart, and could tell you how long it takes to get from one stop to another. This has proved invaluable in my career!
7) Everyone’s names
Last but most certainly not least, I realised on my musings the other day that I know a ridiculous number of people and their names. Everyone is always saying, ‘the performing world is so small!’, but I think what they really mean by that is that ‘everyone knows everyone’, which is most definitely true! Being a self-employed variety performer, I work for LOADS of different venues and events in and around London and the UK. And in each place I work with a completely different set of people. And I’ve come to realise that I’ve developed this skill of learning literally everyone’s names that I meet at work. From the agencies to the event bookers, door staff, lighting technician, sound guys, stage managers, stage kittens, bar staff, spotlight guys, cleaners, chefs, and not to mention all the hundreds of us wonderful self-employed performers out there that pass like ships in the night. So many people, so many names. Yet weirdly we could all recite the hundreds and hundreds of each others’ names without a problem.
What I’m trying to say is that, ignoring the many years of training it has taken for me to learn my trade, my trade of being a full-time professional hula hoop performer has taught me many fun and interesting skills in return along the way!
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