Monday, 22 September 2014


I'm not scared of ghosts.

Not in the slightest.

I don't think I really believe in them and when I lie alone in my bed in the darkest and stormiest nights, it is my tax bill and the Tories which make my heart quicken and my blood run cold, not restless spirits of the undead. In my wildest imaginations I don't see mutilated corpses or bloodied twin girls. Just a massacred NHS or wild and violent cuts to arts funding. For all I know there is a whole plethora of demonic ghouls and wandering souls lurking under my bed. I'm just too preoccupied with fretting about how my unborn child's innocence will be stolen by social media to notice.

As much as scary films and ghost stories thrill and fascinate me in equal measure, I just find it hard to really buy all that stuff and, if ever I have found myself in a situation where I have felt any type of fear it is mostly because of my own imagination more than any type of apparition. You only need to watch an episode of 'Most Haunted' to see that Yvette Fielding basically just whips her guests up into such a hysterical frenzy of hypertension that they start claiming to 'feel' all kinds of crap. But it isn't the undead which is freaking them out, just their own state of terror which they have simply created themselves. 

I'm actually pretty sure that after spending twenty minutes with Yvette in the fruit and veg aisle of M & S I would still be shrieking 'OH MY GOD SOMETHING ACTUALLY JUST TOUCHED MY SHOULDER!' 

People who have claimed to have witnessed apparitions and spirits always talk about the same kind of feeling. The hairs on the back of their neck stand on end, their blood goes cold, their heart rate quickens etc etc blah blah blah. 

And I always thought that was bullshit.

Until I had to deal with my own ghost.

I have currently been working on a production of 'Hamlet', and last Tuesday was our Press Night. The director and creative team decided that the ghost would initially be represented by lights and sound as opposed to an actor. Dozens of filament lightbulbs hung above the stage and were programmed in such a way that they worked with the fizzing and crackling sound effects. When the ghost 'appeared' various bulbs would glow and shimmer and the main source of light would move amongst them, seamlessly synchronised with the ominous noises which drifted from speaker to speaker. The actors were choreographed in such a way that they would also follow the 'ghost' and it would 'react' to their words and movements.

When the actor who was playing the ghost finally entered and spoke, the canopy of bulbs would descend into the space, again moving with the sound and light before flying out at the end. 

We did a lot of work on 'fear' during the rehearsal process and the result was incredible. During the first preview our theatrical 'ghost' made it's first 'entrance' and the actors did an unbelievable job of being completely and truly terrified as they stared up at the flickering and unearthly illuminations and they convincingly portrayed the very emotions of people experiencing a supernatural trauma.

However, had they looked up a bit further, they would probably have witnessed the far more petrifying vision of a pallid, colourless face sporting a pinched and haggard expression whilst murmuring frantically into a headset.   

That apparition, obviously, was me.

This particular theatre is in the round and the DSM is always placed in the second gallery with audience on either side. Instead of watching the show from a grainy monitor in a prompt corner or the safety of a control box at the back of the stalls, you are very much there and feeling every single atmosphere change and the general energy of the audience. At the top of the first preview I sat in my swivelly chair, peering at the audience and also the creative team who were all dotted about the  auditorium but completely in my eyeline. For the first time in all my years of doing this I felt physically quite ill and very vulnerable. The scene changes and many door entrances (14 actors, 8 doors, a million ways of me fucking it up) were one thing. But it was the ghost which was terrifying me most of all. There were so many elements of it which could go wrong and, if it swooshed in the wrong way or vaporised too quickly or too slowly, it would throw my cast. Too many words and too much blocking were based on the ghost and what it did. For a few brief and important moments, the lights and sound were another character on stage. An electrical puppet. With me pulling and yanking at it's strings. 

Whilst trying not to be sick.

Most first previews are like a badly knitted jumper. You can see the shape of it but you are also aware of the gaping holes, fraying edges and loose ends which need tidying up or cutting altogether. The ghost happened and the knot in my stomach loosened slightly. But not entirely. Because despite every preview and every time we rehearsed it I just knew that, until Press Night had happened, I would be unable to make my peace with this 'perturbed spirit'.

The ghost didn't even just stay in the theatre and would noiselessly follow me home, a constant and  nagging fuzziness in my thoughts. I had fretful and disjointed dreams about broken lightbulbs and screaming speakers. Once awake I would lie in my twisted sheets fretfully murmuring the sequences of cues, trying to commit the numbers to memory. 

On Press Night itself I, once again, peered down at the 750 faces waiting expectantly, and concentrated on keeping my breath steady. My stopwatch was gripped in my hand as I waited for clearance, knowing that once I clicked on it and called the first cue, that would be it. The rollercoaster would start, swiftly turning into a Ghost Train, and there was nothing anyone would be able to do about it. We were all on this white-knuckle ride together and what ever happened would happen. 

The first ten minutes of the show are definitely my busiest. A swift opening sequence, quickly going into the first ghost entrance before a busy scene change and then more dead father business. The auditorium was warm and I felt uncomfortably hot for the first few minutes, but once the ghost entered that all changed. I felt as if I had been swimming in a bath-water warm sea and then hit an ice cold pocket of water. Every single cliche happened. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, my throat went dry and my heart started to thump and thud in my chest. I muttered the cues in the places they should go and watched as the spirit swirled and chased the cast about the stage. 

And then, just as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone.

I swallowed and continued to cue the rest of the performance, feeling my heart slow to it's usual rate. The cold chill which had gripped my entire body like an over familiar hug slunk away and I physically shrugged off the tension and rolled back my shoulders.

After the performance I hung about by the peanuts with my sister, watching everyone else chat with agents and family and friends. Press Nights are never about me and that's more than fine. I sipped my red wine and analysed the performance with my sister and gradually realised that I had practically been holding my breath for about a week. The anxiety and the fear was replaced with elation and the smile on my face was no longer just a mask I had plastered on. It was genuine.

My ghost had been exorcised.

Unfortunately, I am fully aware that there will be more ghosts which haunt me, but these ghosts will always be of my own creation. Our demons and fears are almost always born out of our own terror and imagination. 

We haunt ourselves.

But just as we theatricals may find that we have been possessed by the metaphysical shape of our own design, we just also need to realise that we are the only thing that can cast it out. And if that means standing up to your ghost and confronting it head on, then so be it. It might take a rehearsal process, a tech week, a preview or the terrifyingly formidable Press Night. But you get there in the end.

We have had a few shows since that Press Night now and I positively relish the appearance of my formidable spectre. I realise how much of an advantage I have over it, you see. I know exactly when it is going to appear and what form it shall take. There is no element of surprise, no terrifying suspense or giant marshmallow man to battle with. Just these flashing innocuous lightbulbs with their fuzzy, crackly sounds.

Should an actor skip a line or a cue be called too early or too late, I know I can take a deep breath and get it back under my control, giving it an order which it shall indeed obey. The other night I dared to watch it for slightly longer than usual and kept my eyes off the script for a few moments more, allowing myself to feel slightly exhilarated at what was happening on the stage before me. The audience were watching the drama unfold before them, as they should. But had they looked up at the gallery, they would have seen my beaming face, glowing in the lightbulbs and grinning with the euphoria of not just being a spectator of this haunting. 

So now I have finally realised why I can't be scared of this ghost.

The audience can be scared of it. And the characters on stage can be scared of it.

But not me.

Because I'm part of it.

And that's the least scary and most comforting feeling in the world.

Thanks so much for reading this. If you want to share it you can click on the top left hand part of the blog. If you want to tweet it the tinyurl is

You can also follow me on Twitter at @agirlinthedark or 'like' my page on Facebook which is 'Girl I. The Dark'

Friday, 25 July 2014

88 Miles Per Hour

I love ‘Back To The Future.’
I do.

We had it recorded off the telly onto a VHS (complete with 80’s adverts) and I just watched it all the time. 
All the time.

I don’t think I was really even that clear on the storyline (I certainly didn’t fully comprehend what happened in the second one till I was at least fifteen) and the whole dodgy incest bit went way over my head, but I loved it.

I was madly besotted with Michael J. Fox and proved my adoration by joining his fanclub via an advert in my ‘Judy’ magazine. The final prom scene was wound and rewound whilst I hurled myself around the living room to ‘Jonny B Good’, longing for the day I could eventually wear a prom dress.
A day which never came.

Because I left my British school in the nineties and we had a ‘Leaver’s Disco’ which was a rather solemn event where you wore ripped jeans and a cropped top and defaced each other’s school shirts with a glittery marker whilst furtively sipping out of spiked bottles of Panda Cola.
So when I saw that Secret Cinema were putting on a ‘Back To The Future’ event, I squealed with excitement and immediately alerted a friend. On the day the tickets were released I had to work on a matinee so he was instructed to sit online with his credit card and refresh the site until he obtained tickets for one of our desired dates.

And he did.
‘I GOT TICKETS! I GOT TICKETS!’ I screeched at everyone onstage after the performance, and immediately went to trawl the net for possible outfits. As luck would have it I was working on a 1950’s play and instantly questioned if I could keep the vintage red leather handbag which was used by the female lead. This request was granted to me and then more shopping ensued until I found a blue and white flowered  fifties dress with swirly, waist-accentuating petticoats and dainty little pointed prom shoes to match. I had a large orchid accessory for my hair and thick, stage quality eye lashes. I put the whole outfit together one night and hurled myself around my bedroom like the nine year old bespectacled version of myself.

I couldn’t bloody wait.
We had tickets booked for a Friday night, the second night of the whole (extended run), and had followed the website instructions. I had my stopwatch and my family photograph ready and had registered to discover my new identity. The many e mails told me that I was to find an accessory or prop which represented my imaginary line of work and bring it with me along with a cushion. The job I was given was ‘estate agent’ and after scouting round the shops I couldn’t find anything estate agent appropriate, so decided I would just turn up with a Shitty Attitude and General Demeanour of Dubious Intent.

That’ll do.
The day before our allocated date, at around 3.30pm, I saw the tweet which stated that the evening’s performance was cancelled. Gosh, I thought. That’s a bit shit. I am pretty lucky as I live about twenty minutes from the site and am currently between jobs so had not needed to take time off work. But it did cross my mind that other people would need to travel a fair distance and a lot of expensive arrangements would need to be made.

A look on the Facebook page and twitter comments showed that, indeed, there was a large amount of angry and upset people who had come a long way for the event. Some people had, as instructed, left mobile phones at home so had actually turned up to the site, only to be told that the event was not happening and that they had to go home.
People were so angry. Very angry. And I could totally understand why. However, I was pretty surprised at the sheer level of venom which was occurring online and couldn’t help but question the height of people’s fury. My love for that film and my excitement for the event in question is as pure and fierce as the next superfan, but why such outrage? What had whipped everyone up so much?

Well, the answer is pretty obvious.
Secret Cinema, of course.

The constant emails from them have contained many hints and instructions which built up an overwhelming level of anticipation and intrigue. So, as adults, we all got very swept up in the magic and the undiluted joy of the event. It was starting to feel a bit like a childhood December in the run up to the 25th.
Except screw Santa Claus, we were going backwards in fucking time.

For those first night ticketholders I can only compare receiving that sad little tweet to having several hours of toe clenching, bum-grabbing, uninhibited foreplay, before the object of your affection rolls onto his side and mumbles something about ‘work in the morning’. Secret Cinema teased and tantalised and got everyone to a point of screw-eyed orgasm before, quite literally, pulling out.
So naturally, emotions were running high.

As I work in the entertainments industry I tried to work out what would cause a company to cancel an event of that magnitude so last minute.  I have cancelled several shows and the reason is usually illness, technical difficulty or a health and safety issue.
Illness seemed unlikely as, from the casting websites, they appear to have a little army of Marty McFly’s and a school of Doc Brown’s. I thought that a tech issue was also doubtful  for that late in the day and could only conclude that it was health and safety.

I contacted various sources who worked on-set and , very loyally, nobody wanted to volunteer info on the exact details of why it wasn’t happening. So I shrugged it off and assumed that the issues would be resolved and eagerly awaited the 11am announcement the next day.
Which never came.

At about 11.24 we got told that they were working to resolve the issues onsite and that they would soon send a statement.
I took that as a positive note. They weren’t cancelling so the organisers must feel that there is an issue they can resolve. I pulled my dress from the wardrobe and ignored the naysayers, of which there were many. The Facebook and Twitter comments were getting more and more vitriolic and the bad feeling which had built up in homes around the country was crashing onto the internet like a vintage tsunami teaming with prom dresses, red lips and home made hover boards.

It was a mess.
Many years ago I worked on ‘We Will Rock You’ as an usher when it very first opened. The first couple of previews were cancelled and a lot of people were disappointed. Myself and the other ushers dished out the news to disappointed punters whilst the box office staff worked tirelessly to contact ticket holders. People were sad and a bit angry but generally quite understanding as me and my colleagues went on the front line and protected Brian May and Ben Elton as they worked tirelessly to get the show to the best it could be. We were a face for people to talk to and get immediate answers about re booking and refunds and as a result, people left with their shoulders lightly lower but with their heads comforted with knowledge of some sort.

And again, this is the issue with Secret Cinema.
It’s too bloody secret.

Nobody is having human contact with anyone as they don’t have a box office or a ticket base. From the photos I saw the people who greeted ticket holders in Hackney were folk in high-vis who did not have the means to do instant refunds or ticket transfers, so everyone has to gather themselves into a ramshackle online queue and await to be dealt with by, what I am guessing, is a fairly small staff.
Without that human face of sympathy, people are allowed to just get worked up into a heightened state of frustration which can never be appeased if no one from the company can say ‘There, there. We will make it better.’

By the time it got to about 2pm and the time I should have been getting ready, I started to feel less confident about the event. Again, I am pretty lucky as I could leave quite late and still arrive for the event, but there were a lot of people who had left their homes in the North, and still unsure if the event would be happening. Before I started to curl my hair I tried to imagine what possible conversations would be happening to allow the decision to still not have been made at this stage.
And here is where I get a tiny bit defensive of Secret Cinema.

In my experience, the director or producer of a show is never the person responsible for a cancellation and always the person who will argue for it to continue. I have no doubt whatsoever that the big wigs of Secret Cinema will have not been taking these decisions lightly and insisting that events proceed.
I am also guessing that they have no frame of reference for putting on such a huge show. Nobody is in a positon to say ‘Yeah but remember the last time we recreated an entirely immersive, 1950’s village in the middle of Stratford? Remember what we did then?’

Eventually I got bored of sitting in my dressing gown feeling like a wallflower whose prom date had cancelled, and started to badger my sources more urgently and they told me what we now know.  That the council had simply said no and that it did not meet technical requirements.  As someone who has battled local authorities in order to have an actor smoke a fag in a room of eighty people I’m really not surprised.
And actually I felt a tad relieved as I had started to question if I really wanted to go. I had begun the day looking forward to a rather wonderful festival for people who shared a love for a film but now it felt slightly tainted. I was concerned that I would be a wary pleasure seeker boarding a fairground ride the day after it derailed.

Fabian has issued a statement saying how sorry he was and I believe him. Someone does not work that hard and put on productions so ambitious without caring. Finance aside, Secret Cinema will have taken a massive hit as far as reputation goes and, should they stage an event again, I will not be booking for tickets early in the run. Some people are unlikely to ever book with them again. I can only imagine that if the council are putting a halt to it they are doing it for good reason. I would rather claim a refund or get a ticket for another night rather than go up in flames or something. And let’s face it, with that amount of hairspray and nylon we would all go up before you could say ‘Great Scot.’
Fabian has also stated that he hopes to learn from this and that’s fair enough. Secret Cinema has great ideas but is obviously just not ready to execute them quite yet. I am genuinely sympathetic with the cancellation issue as shit just happens which is beyond your control and no elements of expertise or planning can resolve it. I just think that decisions needed to be made earlier and people contacted quicker. We now have Facebook and Twitter to send out instant messages so maybe utilise that more to your advantage if you don’t have a bank of manned phones.

Also, the fancy website with its ‘voice messages’ and other bells and whistles is all very well and good but personally, I don’t need it. For an event like that I would prefer it if people put their energies into the event itself, like a cinema screen or something, not just the build up.
I have already bought the ticket so you can stop marketing it to me now.

My pal and I will go the pub and discuss our plans. Maybe we reschedule or maybe not. Either way my family haven’t just been shot out of the sky by a missile and I am not the victim of FGM.

So you know, life ain’t all bad.


Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed it you can click on the link at the top left hand of the page. You can also follow me on Twitter on @agirlinthedark or 'Like' my Facebook page 'Girl In The Dark'.


Saturday, 19 July 2014

Three Little Holes

'Close your eyes, Jessica. Be a good girl and close your eyes. Just count to ten and close your eyes.'

I closed my eyes obediently. I was very obedient in the hospital. More obedient than I ever was at home. All of the nurses and the doctors on the children's ward were kind yet firm and they just naturally commanded that we be obedient. Being obedient meant that we were praised and called 'brave' and 'good' and given ice cream and badges. When they told us what to do, we tended to do it.

So I was a good girl and I closed my eyes and I counted.


one, two, three....

I reached five before I slipped under.

I think.

I don't know.

My dad knows.

I had selected him as the parent to hold my hand whilst the anaesthetist injected me with whatever it was that would make me plummet into the darkest and deepest of inky black sleeps. Over the next seven hours I had to be unconscious enough to be fully unaware of the crushed ice which was to be shovelled around my body.

And I had to be totally oblivious to the scalpel which would tear through my skin, creating a long cut and then three little holes.

Three little holes.

And then, most importantly, I had to be utterly and completely ignorant of my ribcage being forcefully cracked apart and then deftly winched open in order to reveal my internal organs. Only once my tiny, six year old body was fully splayed open, bloody and raw with ripped, weeping skin and torn muscles, would the surgeon delve into my heart and locate the tiny defect. The defect which despite its small size, had caused me to get out of breath within minutes of running around with the other kids. Prevented me from keeping up during sports day races and woken me in the middle of the night, sweating and gasping.

Funny really. 

When you think about it.

In order to fix my flawed and fragile body, these surgeons had to almost completely obliterate it first. 

When I look back at childhood photos, I see myself as an infant, chubby and grinning. But when you look closely you can see the slight sheen of sweat over my face. I wasn't overweight or unhealthy, but just normal everyday exercise could cause my breath to get shallow and my forehead to bead. It was the little things like this which prompted the maternal instinct within my mother to constantly prod and poke at her until several tests and hospital visits proved her right.

I was ever so slightly defective.  

Obviously I was aware I was visiting the hospital and the doctor a lot but I didn't think anything of it. I just thought it was normal, something all kids did. Friendly and smiley doctors listened to my heart and took x-rays. They tested my blood and took my temperature and everyone behaved as this was a daily and regular occurrence. Nobody ever gave me a reason to be scared or afraid. 

And even when I was eventually told about the hole in my heart, I wasn't frightened or nervous. Just curious. And kind of excited.

My mum had sat in a doctor's office and been educated about atrial septal defects. She had been lectured about the hemodynamic significance of my particular atrial septal defect. She had been shown diagrams of the pulmonary circulatory system. They explained to her that a surgical closure of the atrial septal defect was necessary and strongly recommended as no additional drug therapy would be needed and it would prevent a paradoxical embolism.

And then she took all of this information home and attempted to explain it to a six year old.

And that was how the whole thing started for me.

My mum sat me at the dining table one night with a sheet of blank paper and drew a picture of a love heart in it. A symbol I understood and recognised. She then drew a large black dot in the middle of it and told me how that was my heart. She explained that the hole was bad and that it needed to be fixed. She then drew another little love heart on the same bit of paper with a sticking plaster on it. She said that the nice doctors at a hospital were going to fix my hole and make it all better.

She sensibly chose not to go into detail about the cracked ribcage, general anaesthetic, weeks of bed rest, permanent scarring and three little holes.

And instead gave me a new nightie.

It was mostly white with red and yellow balloons all over it. 

I thought it was brilliant. 

Time off school and a new nightie to boot. Needing heart surgery was the best.

I had been brought up on literature about kids disappearing into the backs of cupboards or flying off to secret lands to discover little boys who never grew up. And my life in a quiet road in a small town had always rather paled in comparison. Here was my opportunity for adventure and excitement.

The children's ward of a Liverpool hospital became my Narnia. My Neverland.

There were about eight of us on that children's ward which was right in the centre of a large Victorian building in Liverpool. Because it was at the heart of the hospital there were no windows and no sign of the outside world, just vast pale green walls covered in metal pipes, and a black and white tiled floor. My bed was right next to the door to the ward so I was always immediately aware of visitors and people entering and leaving. Right opposite me was the nurse's station which stayed lit and bustling 24 hours a day. I must have slept at some point during my few weeks there but I don't remember. The constant movement and light seemed to keep me forever awake and aware, staring at the pale green ceiling and the frayed Disney posters.

Myself and the other kids on my ward weren't dying. Or fighting cancer. Or recovering from horrific car accidents. We were just in there for maintenance. As whole human beings we worked okay but all of us had some organ which just wasn't ticking over as well as the rest of us. So our parents had returned us to the hospital, like faulty iPad owners marching back to the Apple Store, where we were left for several weeks to have our internal malfunctions corrected, before being sent off home again. 

Kids deal with that kind of thing okay and all eight of us, having initially looked over at our neighbouring bedfellows warily, began to play together and talk and socialise over our staple lunches of fish fingers, baked beans and chicken nuggets. This diet was hugely thrilling to me as I was not allowed this kind of stuff at home. Our lunches were served to us on a low round table in the playroom which was directly adjacent to our ward. If I had to visit another part of the hospital for yet another test or examination, I always peered into the adult wards and felt sorry for the older patients who ate their dinners at their own beds in quiet solitude. I thought they must be lonely.

When adults are in hospital on a full ward, they tend to discuss their ailments and issues with other patients. But in my windowless Neverland, myself and the other Lost Boys/Girls never mentioned anything of the sort. Discussing our reasons for being there was dull and boring and we didn't care. Plus we probably didn't really know. Some of us were sicker than others and had operations which were more severe, but we didn't compare or even empathise. If we were playing in a group, one of us would be pulled out briefly but when they returned we didn't ask them where they had been or what for. We just played our games in our brand new night dresses and pyjamas, (I don't remember any of us ever wearing proper clothes) until it was time for dinner or bedtime or a group activity that one of the nurses had organised like finger painting or a video. 

Obviously it wasn't all plain sailing. There was occasionally pain or discomfort or fear. Emotions that we struggled to deal with. Adults can recognise these feelings and react appropriately but maybe with some dignity. They might sob loudly then apologise for making a fuss afterwards. Or explain politely where it hurts or complain about something in a passive aggressive e mail. Grown ups have years of practise of how to deal with stressful situations.

But we were kids.

So we just shat our pants.

Those badly paid, over worked nurses spent less time administering medication and far more hours cleaning up whatever bodily fluid we had forcibly emitted. They did it without chastising and they never complained. Just got out the J cloths and disinfectant and wiped up the piss, poo or putrid vomit which a distressed five year old had tearfully ejected, before changing us into yet more fresh pyjamas. 

Often they would talk to us and reassure us about whatever surgery one of us was about to experience. I quite often discussed my surgery with the nurses and felt pretty confident and reassured about the operation itself. I had no reason to be scared and was endlessly trusting of the medical professionals around me.

Had I known about the three little holes I may have felt slightly different.

Sometimes I would find myself bereft of playmates for one reason or another, and would have to occupy my time alone. Fortunately I had two creative parents on hand to entertain also. They took it in turns to juggle their jobs, my two other sisters and bedside time and ensured that I had a parent present at all times. My thirty six year old father was a schoolteacher and often turned up at the hospital with items he had taken from his secondary school, such as pens, school books and other random bits of stationery.

'Playing School' was actually a favourite game of mine and I loved using my bed as a 'school desk' whilst my father gave me various instructions. One time he brought me an empty exercise book and said that I should write a story.

'What about?'

He gave me three things that I had to include in the story, like a bear, a magic slipper and a fairy, and I had to integrate these things in and give it a storyline. I delved into the challenge whilst concentrating on the tale and trying my best to write something that would entertain my daddy whilst he read the paper.

The next day it was my mother's turn to sit attentively next to my bed and I showed her the story I had written the previous day. She read it approvingly and suggested I write another.

'What should I write about this time?'

She shrugged.

'You can write about anything, darling. Anything you want.'

write about anything

And I think that's how it started.

Those exercise books got filled with stories about magical witches and wizards and also about events at the hospital. I often wrote about Santa Claus. It was Christmas time so, being on the children's wards, we were bombarded with visits from various Santa Clauses, some of them a better quality than others.

More often than not, myself and the other kids would be sat in a circle in the middle of the ward, engrossed in colouring or cutting and the ward nurse would announce 'Santa is here!' We would look up at the door, apprehensive and wearily annoyed that our activity had been interrupted by a musty-smelling old man in a dubiously knackered Santa suit who would hand out plastic bits of crap which we naturally had to display gratitude for. 

For the three weeks that I was on the ward I must have been visited by half a dozen Santa's and I don't remember getting a half decent gift off any of them. Plus we knew it was just an elderly bloke volunteering for some charity or another.

We were sick but we weren't stupid. 

The Santa's that featured in my endless scribblings were very often evil 'fakers' who had kidnapped the real Santa. I didn't realise this until I read some of my stories back the other day. My six year old self was clearly so aware that they were impostors and had incorporated that into my writing.

Eventually the day of the operation came. I was prepped and kissed and cuddled and told how brave I was before being wheeled into the anaesthetist's room where I stared at my dad's face and counted myself into oblivion.

one, two, three.....

And in the unknowing hours that followed, my heart stopped beating so that my malfunction could be corrected. 

The days that followed were spent in intensive care before being moved back to my bed where I drifted in and out of sleep, vaguely aware of people and nurses and staring at the world through the heavy metal bars which were put up on either side of the bed.

Everyone told me and my parents that I was 'doing fine'. Everything was as it should be. They just talked about recovery time and resting. 

I had a vertical surgery wound, still held together by tiny white stitches, which ran almost the entire length of my torso. And underneath it was a horizontal row of open wounds which still had coloured tubes entering and exiting my body and either side of each one were two loose ends of white surgical thread.

Three little holes.

I was fascinated by the new tapestry of my skin and would often lift the sheets to peer at and stroke the strangely pretty puncture wounds. Again, if this kind of thing happened to adults, they would no doubt struggle to come to terms with how surgery had changed the aesthetics of their body. But we children found the additions to our body gorily intriguing.

The three chest tubes were there to drain air, blood and infection and ran to my pleural space, the space around my lungs. A few days after my operation, the doctors examined me and declared that the chest tubes were no longer needed and could be removed from the three little holes in which they so snugly sat.

This was gently explained to me one morning by the Matron of the Children's Ward and I nodded, trustingly. My parents were both there and looked slightly more anxious than usual. I was placed into a wheelchair which was a painful exercise anyway as my tiny ribcage was still not fused back together and even minor movement caused me great discomfort. I was wheeled, topless but for a blanket which was placed over me, through the myriad of the many hospital corridors and parked up outside a room. We waited for a while before a man came through a door and said they were ready for me. I was wheeled into the room and looked over my shoulder at my parents. A nurse who I did not recognise read my anxious thought and said that mummy and daddy could not come in with me. Not this time. 


This immediately set an alarm bell ringing. I had been allowed one parent with me for every single part of my journey through the green-painted Neverland and could not comprehend why I now had to face something alone. It has since been explained to me that my parents were advised not to be present for this part as it would just be too distressing.

The only thing I really remember about the room was the stainless steel table in the middle of it with a fluorescent light directly above. The nurse wheeled me in and I was greeted by two more female nurses and one male nurse.  The male nurse was blonde and stocky and lifted me from the chair onto the table where I was placed gently on my back, wincing as my fissured ribcage felt as if it was splintering in two all over again. I watched the blanket drop to the floor.


One of the nurses started to gently stroke my face.

'Ssssssshhhhh.' She said over and over.


But I wasn't making any noise.


Whilst this nurse continued her routine attempt of calming and comforting me, another female nurse began arranging my limbs so that I was splayed out. This was uncomfortable and, as a reflex, I automatically went to move my right leg and arm back in to my body.

But I couldn't.

I looked down and realised that one of the female nurses was now gripping my ankle and wrist and even the slightest repositioning was impossible. Another female nurse was now practically resting her weight on the appendages on my left hand side.

I wriggled slightly, testing my range of movement.

Their grips tightened. Anxiously smiling as they did it.


I can't move

The male doctor came and stood at my right hand side and the 'shushing' female came away from my head and stood at my left. The four faces looked down at me but the fluorescent light above them meant I could just see the outline of their head, not their facial expressions.    

'Okay, Jessica. I need you to take a deep breath and hold it in for me. After three....'



The male nurse rested his large, warm right hand against the lower part of my belly and spread his feet to steady himself.


He gripped his left fist tightly around the chest tube protruding from one of the three little holes and rested a little of his weight on my torso.


I breathed in. And at that same moment I saw that tight, tensed fist yank upwards towards the light, taking the tube with it. 

And then I screamed.


I kept on screaming as I watched that fist travelling forever upwards. The tube kept slithering through its hole, scraping against the lacerated and raw skin until the bloodied end finally appeared, flicking out of the wound. The rough edges of my unhealed ribcage grated against each other with the violent and sudden movement causing a grinding pain to emit from under my skin.



I had no breath left to scream so, panicked, I gulped in air and continued to try and lift my head to look down and see what atrocity was happening near the realms of my belly button. The only nurse not forcefully restraining me was tending to the open, seeping wound. She took the two loose ends of surgical thread and tied them in a knot so that the bloody bullethole of a wound was tightened up, the flesh mushing together. The spotlessly white yarn swiftly became stained with red as did her fingers.


The wetness on my face told me that I was crying and I let my head fall back down to the table, staring up at the painted ceiling and the painfully bright light.

Three little holes.


And only one down.

still two left 

I didn't even scream when the reality of the situation dawned on me.

They were going to do this again.

And again.

Three little holes.


''Ready?' she said.

I looked up at the 'shushing' nurse but she wasn't looking at me. She was looking at the male nurse who had briefly removed his hands from my torso.


He repositioned himself and focused his attention on the tube which was protruding from the second hole.

'Big deep breath Jessica. One...'

I was told later that my parents sat outside that door and listened to my screams, still and unmoving. Unable to comprehend that their tiny, weak child could make that kind of guttural noise and trying not to think about the scene which was happening in that room.

Some people say that modern medicine is unnatural. But what's unnatural is two loving parents simply sitting on one side of an unlocked door whilst a group of adults cause pain to their daughter on the other.

The second and the third holes were just as unbearable as the first. For the final one I don't think anyone even asked me to take a deep breath. I was too hysterical and all of my breath was taken up with making that high pitched, unrelenting noise. My ribs felt as if they were being cracked and bent beyond repair and the taut, punctured skin around my tummy had been pulled beyond its usual range of movement. 


Even when the final tube had been wrenched out and the final hole deftly and efficiently pulled together, I carried on making a noise. As I was placed back in the wheelchair with the blanket arranged carefully over the leaking, fleshy bumps, I cried and shouted and made a racket. Ragingly furious at the deceit and injustice which had taken place at the hands of those adults.


Back at my bed I sobbed myself into a fitful and disorientated sleep and when I woke up only an hour or so later, I was uncomfortably hot and sweaty under the ward lights which were still on full as it was only mid afternoon.

My fury and anger had not yet been sated but I knew that I needed to do something. Something which would calm me and distract me and take my mind off the hospital and the pain. And the fact that soon I would leave this Neverland and have to readjust to life back home where I would have to rest and not join in on PE or run around at play times.

I looked over at my bedside table and saw one of those navy blue exercise books and a pencil.

write about anything

I lifted up the pencil.


I opened up the book.

write about anything

I tried to think of three things to write about. Like my dad had taught me.

ow it still hurts

And eventually chose three magical, happy things.

write about anything, darling

write about anything 

I forgot about the three little holes.


And I wrote about anything. 

Yeah I know. Pretty different to the theatre ramblings. Sorry for the interruption. Normal service will resume soon. I just wanted to try something new out. 

Thursday, 26 June 2014


'Right here is where you start paying. In sweat.'

I love the movie 'Fame'. I really do. However, I sometimes wish they showed more of the stage management department. You know, some harassed looking techies clutching adjustable spanners in amongst the neon leotards. Or a DSM scribbling on some post-it's in a tension fuelled ballet class.

Actually, who am I kidding? There clearly isn't a stage management department. If there was, they would have risk assessed that whole dancing in the street business and organised some street cones, sharpish. Or called a swift halt to it altogether. New York traffic and musical theatre wannabes? 

Health and Safety nightmare

Anyway, although I did learn a lot at my drama school, (paid in sweat etc etc) I learnt even more once I got out into the big wide world. And I continue to learn. Every job and tour educates me in ways that surprise me. And this tour has been no different.

My current tour is about to end and, once again, I have been in a position where I have had to learn something new and learn it fast. The challenges you face as a stage manager vary from job to job. It might be how to make a prop or how to deal with a certain type of personality. Maybe learn a new bit of technology or call a very complex sequence.

But on this tour, I took on one of my toughest ever challenges.

Learning how to pack 10 tonnes of set, sound, lights, costume and props onto a 45 foot wagon.

When I was first approached to do this I was a little bit reluctant. Maybe very reluctant.

Okay, I may have had a bit of a strop and said I didn't want to do it.

Ever the willing professional.

It was nothing to do with being lazy or snobby or wanting to catch the last train back to London on a Saturday night where my Real Life was. It was simply because I was scared. Scared that I was going to make a fool of myself. Scared that I would simply be unable to carry out the task. Scared that I was going to be mocked for being weak/crap at packing vans/looking like a twat in a high vis jacket.

Of course none of those things happened. 

Except the looking like a twat in high vis bit.

After down-right refusing and darkly muttering about contracts and stuff, the slightly bloody-minded and curious part of me thought long and hard and then decided that, yes. I should do this. I needed to stop being afraid of the unknown and push myself that little bit harder. Okay I have spent a large amount of time just calling/propping shows. Maybe it was time to try something new.

Now I know that some of you reading this may scoff at this. You may consider packing a wagon, several wagons, to be a simple and achievable task and some of you have no doubt been doing that for years and it is second nature. But this is the sort of stage management that I have never tackled. I'm usually the stage manager with the pretty stationary and the perfect manicure who sits in prompt corners cueing shows or sits in rehearsal rooms writing down blocking all day. 

Maybe not all day. Till about 4.30pm anyway. After that you've lost me.

But yeah, sitting. Lots of sitting. 

A Saturday night 'get out' for me is usually powering down the sound and maybe packing a few props. It's been a long time since I have done physical, manual labour and the last time I held a podger was in college.

And even then it was to pass it to someone else.

But I'm never one to refuse a challenge. So I dug out my weight lifting gloves and took to the internet to order new steelies. I have to order them specially as they don't usually make them in a size three.

So I shadowed the first get out and listened carefully to my (incredibly patient) CSM and technical manager as they gave instructions and advice.

And before I knew it I was by myself on the wagon. Staring at the vast and empty amount of space and wondering how I was going to make our show go into it and genuinely wondering what the consequences would be if we just left the set where it was. 

Quite big, apparently.

My CSM, sensing my nerves, did two great things for me. She knitted me the most beautiful little hat for the long cold nights and gave me the best piece of advice.

'Make friends with your driver.'

So I did and have continued to do so on every single of my seventeen get outs since then. Our get out means there can be quite a lot of waiting around while our crew take down the large ceiling and I'm pretty happy to have a chat and a gossip about what the drivers have been up to. When it comes to get outs they really have seen it all and I found their tales pretty hilarious. Plus I enjoyed their company. Being out in a town centre surrounded by drunken revellers on a cold night can be pretty lonely, so their chat about life, love and everything in between was welcomed. 

I can't lie. At the beginning I found packing hard. Really hard. I sometimes panicked and got flustered. The crew would stand and look on whilst I took a minute to think or rearrange upon realising I had fucked it up. Sometimes I nipped inside to ask my technical manager for a bit of help. Which he did and never once did he mock or moan about my learning process. Something I will be forever grateful for. 

I would forget what had worked in previous weeks and stare forlornly at an overly tight pack whilst considering a career-move into casting.

Casting sounds good. There's no carrying in casting.

But gradually I got my head around it. How it fitted and where the ties went. The importance of getting the driver on side, having a bag of Fruit Pastilles to hand and keeping a smile on your face in the constant and unrelenting Manchester rain.

During the very first couple of packs I realised that I needed to be strong. Certainly stronger than I was. I was going home with aching arms and, whilst on the truck, I was having to ask for help with lifting flight cases more often than I would have liked. I had stepped up my fitness by running most days but it wasn't enough so, driven by my fear of looking weak and girly, I enrolled in a week long bootcamp on our only holiday week off. For six days I exercised from 6am to 5pm doing circuits that made me want to vomit and assault courses which made my cry. At the beginning, myself and fifteen other women had to explain why we were there. Most people said 'weight loss' or 'toning' but when it came to me I simply blurted out,

'Heavy things. I need to lift and carry really heavy things.'

The ex military trainers were bemused but with their help I got to a stage where I could lift and carry 'really heavy' things. When I returned to work and did the first get-out since bootcamp, I couldn't help but grin widely when I lifted a piece of steeldeck singlehandedly and slid it into place unaided. Had this been a movie, it almost certainly would have been the final shot of a montage set to rousing music (maybe a 'Destiny's Child' track) which charted my progress from girly deputy stage manager to.... erm... slightly less girly deputy stage manager.

Let's not go nuts. Yeah, I lost weight and toned up but I didn't exactly become Jessica Ennis.

Obviously there were things that made me grumpy but that happens in every job. Like the time when we went to Scotland and the entire company (including myself) put their own big suitcases on the truck, throwing my well-organised pack well and truly out. The result being that I just started forcibly kicking suitcases and guitars (actors and their fucking guitars) in amongst the furniture.

Sometimes brute force and ignorance is the only way. 

Listen, I said you could put your suitcase on the truck but I'm not bloody UPS. It will get there but whether it all gets there in one piece is another story.

After a while I realised that I was starting to actually look forward to the get out on a Saturday night. I wasn't jealous of the fact that the rest of my stage management team were going to go home or to the pub. I was kind of happy to be left behind with 'the boys'.

Yes there were sometimes girls but, in my experience, a theatre's crew are pretty much entirely made up of men with the occasional girl. I didn't mind this and quite enjoyed being able to keep up with them or sometimes occasionally being able to lift more.

The only time I got irritated was with the (very rare) sexism which I encountered. When issuing instructions on how I needed the steeldeck to be brought on (wood to my right, lugs on the top) I sometimes heard the words "Bossy, isn't she?'

It never failed to make me cringe slightly as I just found it rather patronising. If it had been a bloke telling the crew how to stack the steeldeck I doubt they would have called him 'bossy' and I didn't understand why they used that term to describe me. I thought it strange that men still sometimes found the need to comment on a woman who was in charge of a situation. 

But I soon came to the conclusion that it was them who were struggling with being told what to do by a woman and it was not my problem, nor my concern, if they were unsure of their own masculinity.

It's funny, as this whole packing lark has made me realise some stuff about myself. A few years ago I positively relished male attention of all varieties. My own insecurities probably. If men made lascivious or flirtatious comments I welcomed it, encouraged it even. 

But on the back of the wagon I just had no time for it. It annoyed me. I didn't want to be treated as 'a bit of skirt' on the get out and I felt strongly about that. I wanted to be treated as an equal. In my twenties I would have used my femininity to get men to do my bidding. Get them to lift the things that I couldn't or even the things I could. But now, at the age of 32 and with a whole new set of feminist views, I just wanted to be treated the same. 

Another time during a get out I got told (as a compliment) that I lifted 'like a cute little lesbian'. 


Okay I might be 5ft 3" but I'm a little baffled at how my ability to push a flight case up a ramp can be linked to my sexual preferences.

Which is straight.

Just in case any of you ever had any doubt.

The sexism I encountered on the truck was very rare and mostly the male crews were just friendly and fun. They taught me a lot and their patience whilst I learnt was endless. The majority of them were up for a laugh and a bit of banter whilst we got the job done.

But anyway, I have also learnt a lot about bits of theatre equipment  which I never previously had any knowledge about. On one Tuesday get-in, I was recounting the tale of how I got the monster bruise on my leg to David, our relighter. Whilst clambering about on top of a layer of flight cases, clutching a boom bar, I had slipped, lost my footing, and fell down between two TW1 flight cases.

David listened politely to the story but then told me he was more impressed with the fact I could distinguish what type of flight case it was rather than with the bruise itself.

At the end of my first 'good' pack, the sense of achievement was overwhelming. I skipped home in the early hours of a Saturday night cheerfully dodging the rowing couples, swaying drunks and pools of blue WKD vomit, feeling like I was no longer just 'that kind' of stage manager. I could do something else. Something other than just cue a show. Something I had previously been scared of and said 'I can't do that' when it was suggested.

I may never have donned neon leg warmers or danced on a yellow cab, but I definitely feel like I have learnt something on this tour. And paid for it in sweat. 

Packing a truck is nothing to a lot of people. I know that. But to me it was an intimidating task to take on and one which was way out of my comfort zone. Having now achieved it is the best glow in the world. 

I guess maybe those lyrics in 'Fame' are true. In all aspects of theatre, not just performing, you can sometimes feel as if you've learnt how to fly.

Even in steelies. 

Thank you for reading this. If you enjoyed it you can share on your Facebook or Twitter by clicking on the top left. You can also follow me on Twitter at @agirlinthedark or 'Like' my Facebook page 'Girl In The Dark'

The tinyurl for it is if you want to cut, paste and tweet.