“There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”
Dance, Act, Sing, repeat for three years. Blood sweat and tears and a lot of money put into a former hobby but now is a dream with no guarantee of existence. If lucky you land a gig and if your really lucky you land a West End Gig. I was so lucky to get my first job six months after graduation, playing the role of Roger in Grease at The Piccadilly Theatre. For many of larger colleges the expectation of landing a West End gig may be a given or even presumed. For me having trained at a smaller college it was always a dream and a long shot, we didn’t receive the same opportunities that others did at larger institutions. We trained hard and crossed our fingers that someone would take a chance. Getting into the room felt like a job offer so you can imagine what we were like when or if we received a job offer.
So I’m in the show, we’ve opened, having a lovely time. Wow it’s now a job, this is how I pay my bills. So my hobby is now my livelihood, what do I do next. Spare time. Oh I never thought of that. I was part of my dream show playing a role I’d always wanted to play and don’t get me wrong I loved it and still do but I was never a person that just sit in what I was doing. What were people doing before work, what did people do with their spare time?
Community was something I never thought about when I started training and probably didn’t really at the start of my first job. My eyes began to open to this side of the business that I just didn’t know existed. Everyone knew everyone and if you didn’t know them you knew of them. It was lovely and felt so nice. I never felt not included. I was in owe of my peers who had been in the business for so long and I loved asking questions about their former jobs and other shows. I couldn’t believe my luck that I was working with these people and If I wasn’t working with them we were working in the same industry. Pinching myself was a daily occurrence.
Every year the Piccadilly Theatre would host a Community event called West End Eurovision. It was a community event that seen different West End Shows compete in a night of unadulterated Eurovision euphoria. As Grease was the show at the Host theatre we did the opening number. I will never forget the atmosphere in the theatre that night. It was absolutely electric, yes it was filled with theatre fans but it was packed with cast and crew from shows participating and not. Everyone was on form and the encouragement was really incredible. I remember doing the opening number and hearing people scream out their friends names that were on the stage. “Go on Amy”, “We love you Quish”. It was amazing, here we were a community working together in an evening of entertainment and in aid of a charity supporting and helping people with AIDS The Make A Difference Trust. Sometimes we get lost in the moment and forget why we are doing it but I was reassured and taught exactly what this night was about.
My next experience of a community event like this was during my time at The Book Of Mormon when one of my best friends, who happened to be a former teacher (another example of how wonderful this business is, you never know who you’ll end up working with) asked well actually told me I was doing his West End Bares number. West End Bares was also in aid of The Make A Difference Trust. Slightly different format featuring performers all doing numbers choreographed by other performers and choreographers. The competition element wasn’t there which aided in the sense of community and backstage the atmosphere was wonderful. I felt supported and encouraged and it was another step in realising what an incredibly hardworking and giving community the West End Theatre can be. I was lucky enough to do West End Bares for a second year this time in the wonderful Darren Carnall’s numbers, Darren was also the dream team behind West End Bares. I admire him so much he’s been part of this community for a long time and his passion for the event, for the charity and for the community spirit was beyond glorious.
Like most things in life, change is inevitable. Personally and professionally I was in a different space than when I first started working. I was in a Standby Position at The Book Of Mormon and this allowed me a lot more time to reflect. I wanted to use my spare time to help people. How could I use my skills in order to do something for charity but also build upon that wonderful community spirit I was educated in and part of. Being an active member of the West End community puts us in a privileged position where people and companies offer help and support to charitable causes, sometimes purely because we perform on stage. I discussed the idea with two of my cast mates (at the time) and friends from The Book Of Mormon David McMullan and Sean Parkins. I trusted both of them implicably and felt that together we could create something really strong but also something that would raise money for an amazing cause. We spoke, debated, threw ideas around and before we knew it the first ever A MAD Drag Night was in the diary. Jane Garfield a dear friend to all of us, pushed this event and sorted a venue and basically became our backbone and rock. One thing the four of us discussed and were passionate on was the community vibe and element had to be there. It was important for us to have members from various different shows but also various different eras and ages.
I wanted graduates and new performers to have the opportunity to look up be inspired. I also wanted some of the older performers to have an opportunity to meet a newer generation of performer. It sounds clinical and weird but it was really important for us to have a good wholesome community atmosphere, then the fun and enjoyment would aid in putting on a shit hot show. I knew putting on a yearly show would be stressful but I hoped the creative fulfilment and artistry that came with it would trump any stress.
The first year happened, then the second, then the third and we recently did our fourth year. The event has grown slowly over its four year run and any decision to make it bigger or move things on always comes back to what impact it will have on our primarily theatre community audience. We keep tickets affordable so that people have a choice of ticket but also still raise enough money for our chosen charity.
Why Drag? Good question. Drag has always had such a strong presence in musical theatre and rightfully so within the West End. The stories from La Cage or Priscilla Queen of The Desert where always a joy to hear. So it’s always been in the DNA of the West End. Drag at this time had taken on a whole new audience. With the introduction of RuPaul’s Drag Race an incredible art form that had been around hundreds of years had suddenly found itself in peoples front living rooms. People had opinions and favourites and it was a real topic of conversation. It was obvious that there was a gap in our community for a fresh charity event and why not do it in heels and a lash. It felt different and It was up to us to find what indeed worked and what did not. I am not saying we get it right all the time but what we do is put on a charity event that provides an evening of great entertainment whilst raising money and much awareness for our selected charity.
Keeping a grasp on it is so important Sean, David Mc and I. We treat the show and its longevity as a marathon rather than a race. We want the audience to grow with the event and for the event to retain its intentions and roots. If it runs before it can walk it has the possibility of become too commercial and industrial and this really is something we want to avoid.
I think the hardest part of putting on a charity community event is the expectations that we put on the entire team. MAD Drag receives a very small budget that leaves virtually no money after the venue, tech equipment and tables are hired. This leaves us in a position where all of our Performers volunteering are expected to source wigs and costumes as well as giving their time and energy. It is a huge ask and one we are very aware of when we ask anyone to take part, we of course help wherever we can. It is just a huge testament to the performers and indeed the community when they take part in the show. We have an incredible team of technical volunteers aswell. Graham Hookham recruits the most wonderful stage managing team and crew who also give an enormous amount of time and energy. They source materials, staging and equipment that will make the event look and sound incredible but also keep costs low. A team of glorious volunteers become the needed glue that holds the event and particularly show day together. Community for us means community, so it goes beyond the performers. We some times forget about the incredible team backstage who are working equally as hard. I salute every single person who volunteers for anything in any capacity for charity. It is something that sadly becomes lost amongst a hold host of things and I encourage everyone to open conversations about charity work and why we do it and how as performers we are in such a privileged position to be able to make serious change.
No one is perfect and everything evolves and developes. Going into its fifth year, my hopes for A MAD Drag Night is that it continues to maintain its representation of our community, that we provide an incredible night of entertainment and that we raise as much money possible for desevering charities.