Tour Guiding Again

I did some tour-guiding three summers ago when I was pregnant with Léonie in my belly. It was in a coach, along the perillous, twisty-turny road that follows the twisty-turny Ardèche river and its famous and gorgeous gorges. You can read about that here. I was covering for another guide who had asked me to step in when she was busy guiding elsewhere. I wasn’t sure about it to begin with but she was convinced I’d be fine, and even good at it. So I tried, it worked out well for me and I really enjoyed the whole experience. Even the twisty-turny roads, as they were beautiful and every now and then I’d spot a wild goat with crazy horns munching on a bush.

Last year I began tour-guiding for Viviers tourist office. They phoned me up out of the blue and asked me if I would be interested in playing a ghost. I said no. Not on your nelly. The idea of dressing up as a phantom and “scaring” tourists felt like the equivalent of playing Santa in Tesco’s, or one of Mickey’s nephews at Disneyland. The tourist office persuaded me to at least go and see the actor already doing the job, so one freezing December evening I bundled myself up in a duvet and went along to watch him doing his ghosty stuff in very tight tights (him, not me). He was funny and he made the job look like a laugh, so I told the tourist office I’d give it a go. I got free reign to create my own mad, medieval ghost, mistress to a certain notorious Noel Albert who had lived (and loved) in Viviers the 16th century. My audience was made up of groups of Australian tourists whose luxury cruise boat was moored at Viviers port. It was fun performing the scenes, but there was a lot of hanging about in cold courtyards, waiting for the groups to arrive, and running through the cobbled streets in a medieval dress at 11 p.m. trying to avoid Viviers’ teenagers. One sweltering August evening I had to clean up cat poo and sick before the tourists arrived in that particular courtyard. And the whole thing was a bit cheesy. I felt like a character in ‘Allo ‘Allo, mostly because I was speaking English with a heavy French accent, but partly because my text could well have been written by the same screenwriters (ahem… I wrote my text). But the tourists laughed loudly and I got good feedback. However, the whole solo thing was getting me down (the actor playing Noel Albert and I never performed on the same evening, so our two characters never met), so I was relieved when the tourist office announced that I wouldn’t be ghosting this year as that particular boat has changed its itinerary, or something like that. I celebrated the end of my ghost career with champagne that evening.

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Marguerite de Lévis. A character worthy of ‘Allo ‘Allo.

The other thing the tourist office asked me to do last year was actual tour guiding. Once again, I said no. I had no interest in medieval or Renaissance history, or architecture, or religion, and the walking tour through Viviers is basically all of those things. But once again, they persuaded me to have a go, so I spent 6 weeks reading up about Viviers as if I was studying for my finals, swotting and cramming and wandering about the town on my own, talking to myself and imagining what I would say to 30 Americans. As I worked I realised I had actually become interested and even passionate about the history and architecture of Viviers. When you can link the past to a building or a feature or a tree for example, it becomes real all of a sudden. I also followed a few different guides to get an idea of what to do, but in fact I learned more about what not to do. For example, panting heavily into your microphone whilst climbing the steep slope to the cathedral is not a good idea; your headphone-equipped tourists get your heavy breathing right in their ears and after five minutes of this they will be ready to kill you. The same goes for chewing gum noisily whilst wearing your microphone headset. I also didn’t like those who talked about “The French” as if the French were an inferior species. But I did follow a couple of really good guides too, that made me start to look forward to my first walking tour.

It went well. Really well. And it kept going really well. I enjoyed the job, I felt good about myself because I knew I was doing a good job, I was using my English and my skills as an actress and storyteller, and as an added bonus, I was pocketing fantastic tips which paid for all our shopping throughout the spring and summer. I hit it off with the tourists and was invited to visit a few of them in New York, Toronto and Edinburgh, and I became good friends with a lot of the other tour guides. But… there were a few of the tour guides who were very unwelcoming and hostile towards me from Day 1, and this only got worse throughout the season. I even received a couple of angry emails, one of which ended with “Good Riddance.”

Except, I’m not gone. I’m still here. Ha ha. And I begin this season’s tour-guiding on Saturday. I’ve been swotting up and I’m looking forward to starting again. On Saturday I’m with a bunch of friendly guides, which always makes the whole experience just lovely, as there are no killer looks or backs turned on me or curses muttered or clay effigies of me spiked with rusty pins and trampled underfoot. The downside is, it’s going to rain.  A walking tour of a medieval town in the rain with umbrellas up and blocking all the Renaissance buildings and gothic spires and view across the valley is always a bit frustrating. But given the choice between a rainy day with friendly colleagues and a sunny day with a group of griping, frustrated battle-axes, and I know which configuration I’d choose every time.

Some readers may have guessed that my blog has already been found and read by the aforementioned begrudging harpies. Or maybe you yourself are one of them, reading this with eyes wide open and feeling (hopefully) slightly sick as your stomach turns. If that is the case, just remember that I invited all of you to sit down with a cup of coffee and discuss what went wrong last season. No-one took me up on my offer. There was either total silence, a refusal to meet or a jolly “good riddance”. I did all I could to open up a dialogue and try to understand each other better, but nobody was interested. So here we go, for another season of pointless dark looks and hostility. I shall be countering this by totally ignoring it all and getting on with my job. And actually, I can’t wait to start.

Roll on tourists, I’ll be waiting for you on the quayside. I’m the one grinning and imitating all of your accents.

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Rue Chèvrerie, Viviers, Ardèche.

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No, this isn’t me guest-appearing with France’s latest boys band, it’s the only photo I’ve got of me guiding, except this lot aren’t off the luxury cruise boats…

2014

Here we go, tip-toeing into another brand new, shiny year full of promises. Mostly promises of keeping the promises that we made last year but then broke. Mine are : to stretch every single day of this year (I have 20 mins before midnight), to pick up an instrument on a regular basis and blow down it/strum it/press its keys, to write daily, and to be more patient with the children. Ha ha ha, I can hear most of my readers laugh to themselves (most of them being family and close friends and/or hostages in my own home), as you all know in 20 minutes I will have broken at least one of my resolutions. But the 1st of January doesn’t count as most of us are recovering from last night’s party.

I would just like to say Happy New Year to those of you who do actually read my blog once or twice a year or even more. HAPPY NEW YEAR. I hope 2014 brings good things you were hoping for and other good things that you didn’t imagine in your wildest dreams. Good things galore to all of you. To everyone!

I barely wrote last year (that’s 2013), my blog slipped down to Very Low Priority status while I went back to work, a new sort of work, and started to earn my living again. This year is already filling up with quite a few projects, either lucrative or artistic (rarely both at the same time) and all very enjoyable, which means I don’t have to put in as much time re-training or finding work, I just have to do the work, which somehow is easier then looking for it. So… I’m hoping to write more often.

No promises, mind. Just a Happy New Year to y’all.

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Frightened of the Frog

Every evening, when it gets dark, Léonie (2) points to the window, shivers and says “Mummy, me frightened of the frog.” Tommy (5) and I always chip in to check we understand what she means, “do you mean frightened of the dark?”. She nods and replies, “Yes. Me frightened of the frog.” So we just assume she is mis-pronouncing the word dark.

But maybe we are wrong.

Maybe there is a gigantic, drooling frog out there in the garden, one who creeps up from the valley every night and waits for me to feed the cats outside or get the laundry in, ready to leap on me and suffocate me in his frog slime, or simply blight me with his dreaded frog curse: “You will never EVER return to the stage again, NEVER! You will forever be wiping bottoms and carrying potties in your handbag and will never EVER get to sit down to eat a meal without getting up every 90 seconds to get a spoon/the ketchup/more kitchen paper. Your eyes will forever look tired and your eardrums will suffer permanent damage from toddler screams. Your friends in the theatre and film world will drift away, referring to you as ‘The Lost One’, you will end up filming yourself in character and putting the videos on YouTube in a sad attempt to continue acting, but NEVER EVER AGAIN will you reboot your career. HA HA HA HA HAAAAAAAAA!!!”

Blimey. Now I’m frightened of the frog.

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Back in the saddle again.

Quite sheepishly, here I am again. Having announced in a typically actressy dramatic fashion that THAT WAS IT, it was all over, finished, done with, through, I would no longer be writing my blog, may you all weep and mourn me for weeks and months to come… here I am, a mere ten days later.

I can’t seem to stick at anything, not even being depressed. I tried my hardest, I lay on the sofa crying, I hated myself with a vengeance, I concentrated my hardest on thinking gloomy thoughts, but then our first load of summer visitors arrived and having a house full of people jolted me sharpishly out of feeling sorry for myself. You just can’t be depressed with a ton of friends around, smiling and pouring you a glass of wine and saying how they love your house and how adorable your kids are and isn’t your man handsome and funny and how gorgeous the weather is and aren’t you lucky. I started to feel quite selfish and even a little stupid about feeling so down.

And then there was a circus festival down the road where I saw a ton of shows, seething with jealousy at the performers on stage and willing one of them to break their ankle so that I could leap up and cry “Have no fear! I can replace him/her/it! I’m a multi-talented actress/dancer/accordion player/juggler/trapeze artist/bareback horse rider/acrobatic horse!” (the last five are lies but I was ready to try). I also really enjoyed the shows and swore to steal as many ideas as possible and make my own one woman show, with which I am planning to tour the world, be knighted for cheering whole continents up and conquer the universe. All that by next year. So I was already feeling a lot more cheery and was considering maybe writing a post or two, and then my sister (Sister 2) went and created her own blog for her homemade kids’ clothes line, Heavens-to-Betsy. Well, not only did it look a lot better than my blog, which I hadn’t updated visuals-wise since 1977, but by her 4th day she already had 94 readers. My utter maximum in a day is 144. There is nothing better than sibling rivalry to give you a wake-up call in the form of a slap round the face. Which is why I am sitting on our sofa right now, ignoring the glorious sunshine outside (no, I don’t live in the UK) and making my blog at least look a bit better, even if the content is still waffly and largely incoherent.

The other thing that stopped my down-in-the-dumpsiness in its tracks was having to rush Tommy to emergency ward on Sunday afternoon. His right leg just stopped working. He couldn’t walk, stand up or even move it without screaming with pain. I drove him to the hospital where they did x-rays, scans and blood tests and slept overnight with him on a camp bed. L’Homme took over yesterday and I came home to look after Léonie. This morning they operated on Tommy. They extracted the fluid that was in his hip and sent it off to be tested. We’ll know more about what he’s got in a couple of days when we get the results. It’s either a benign “rhume de hanche” (“hip cold” which I had never heard of) or it’s something more serious, maybe treatable with antibiotics, maybe not. I drove Léonie and I to the hospital this morning to be there when he woke up from his anaesthetic. His leg was in a traction thing with a weight on the end to try and straighten it out. He has a small incision on his left hip. He was all grumpy and upset and worried that he would always have a weight attached to his ankle. “It’s there forever Mummy? Oh no Mummy!” I reassured him that he would be up and about in a couple of days but the doctors reckon they’re keeping him in at least another 3 or 4 days. They need to be sure it’s not anything serious and they need the blood tests to show the infection marker going down, rather than up, which is what it has been doing until now.

Just a few days ago I remarked out loud how lovely it is in the summer because the kids are never ill.

All this makes me wonder whether I should put off going back to acting and performing for another year or so. The kids are still so little and still so prone to dodgy illnesses which land them in hospital. With L’Homme on the road 8 months out of every 12 I’m usually the only one here to look after them, although this time we are lucky it has happened while L’Homme is home.

Ironic really. We had put this week aside to “spend time together” – ie. put the kids to bed early and stay up late sipping wine in the sunset. Instead we’ll be seeing each other fleetingly at the hospital as the other one takes over, swapping car keys and nappy bag and Léonie. But at least all this has put life into perspective and hoisted me back into the saddle again (even if I do have a bit of chafing saddle sore).

I’m just crossing my fingers and praying to Zeus (or whatever god will listen to me), that Tommy’s leg problem is nothing serious and that he’ll be back on his bike soon.

On My Own

I am in a train. I am on my own. Well, there are other passengers in the train but what I mean is, I am travelling unaccompanied. No Léonie. No Tommy. No nappy bag sippy cup biscuits banana apples crayons dinosaurs pirates playmobil figures spare babygro wipes tissues cuddly toys dog or donkey. Just me, a tiny suitcase on wheels and a nearly empty handbag. This is a new experience. Not brand new, but one I haven’t had for a year and a half, when Léonie was born. I was really looking forward to it but now I’m here, in a comfortable train on my own with loads of time to read, doze, listen to music, phone friends, I’m not doing any of those things and instead am feeling a little lost.

Hum ho.

And this is just the beginning. I’ll be On My Own until Thursday evening when I get home. Blimey, I’m already thinking about getting home. This is ridiculous. Hopefully I’ll get used to this feeling of lightness and freedom fast. My yearning to be back with Léonie and Tommy should fade when I get to Paris and see friends. Tomorrow I’ll be working in a recording studio all day (sounds very glamourous but it isn’t really, I promise) so that should keep me occupied, and in the evening I’m going to the theatre. Thursday I’ll be busy doing more recording work, having a drink at Gare de Lyon with @Rosbif and then jumping on the evening train home. If I stay busy maybe I won’t miss the kids too much. Just one hitch. The Milk Thing.

Léonie is still breastfeeding. Quite a lot. She is going to have to make do without me and my milk for a couple of days, which she might not like but it won’t harm her. However, it might harm me. Or anyone sitting within spurting distance around about this time tomorrow which is when I reckon things are going to get out of hand, and out of nipple. I could take someone’s eye out if I’m not careful. By Thursday morning I could probably hit the top of the Eiffel Tower if I aim well. And by the evening when I get the train home I may well flood the Gare de Lyon. Parisians, beware. Colleagues in the recording studio, do not be surprised if you get milky coffee from the expresso machine. Just me expressing myself. If you see what I mean.

Hum ho. Still here. In the train. On my own. Oh for goodness sake, I should make the most of this and sit back for a snooze. Or daydream as I watch the countryside roll by. Off I go.

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Poop.

I just got the phone call. It was a very heartfelt phone call. They chose 3 actors out of the 8 who auditioned. I was the 4th. The other three were hardcore clowns with years of clownishness in their trousers, whereas let’s face it, I kind of invented Teapot for the audition. But they loved me, my musicality, my energy, my inventiveness – they just couldn’t quite seize my clown character, which is very fair criticism as not only was I busking it, I was also holding myself back for fear of going too far and dancing naked on a hospital table/singing rude songs to under 5 year olds/squirting passers-by with milk. Oh well, I’m on the waiting list – apparently I’ll be the next one in, the day one of their clowns leaves. Which will probably be in three years or so, unless one of the newcomers turns out to be a neo-Nazi or I persuade them to move to Mexico. Well, that gives me time to do a clown workshop or a cabaret as Teapot and whip her into shape. But for now it’s back to the drawing board. Back to being a stay-at-home mummy, picking squashed peas off the floor, pushing a tricycle to the post office/farm/cheese lady, counting pennies and using nappy cream as moisturiser. Poop indeed.

Fortunately it is absolutely gorgeous weather and for the moment I’m quite happy to spend the springtime at home with my two pea-squashers. I have a garden to re-haul, pirate costumes to repair and a table to sand down.

PS: Anyone looking for an actress?

The Audition !

I had my audition on Monday morning, in La Timone children’s hospital, Marseille. For those of you not tuned in to my every breath and burp, here’s what I’m on about (Hopi-clowns), and for those who are, IT WENT WELL. It went really well. I arrived well on time via the Marseille metro, losing about a kilo at every stop from sheer nervousness, or should I say shit-scared stagefright. Not that there was to be any sort of stage in sight; I was to be clowning in the hospital corridors, bedrooms, entrance hall, lifts, everywhere and anywhere, but not on a stage. As I drank coffee with Caroline Simonds (the lovely Big Boss) and her soft-hearted assistant J-L in the hospital café, I could feel myself breaking into a cold sweat as the minutes ticked by and the moment to get up and get auditioning approached. One huge comfort was that I knew the two clowns accompanying me, Alfredo and Molette, although Alfredo walked in and said “Wow! You’re all skinny now! With short hair! I hardly recognise you!” Molette reminded him that the last time we met it had been during a crazed pasta cabaret when we were playing an Italian family, getting the entire audience (100 people) to make tagliatelle with 5 pasta machines, and I was 8 months pregnant, running about in fishnet tights, heeled boots and a pink dress that made me look like a blancmange. I even did the splits, repeatedly, which may be why Léonie was born 2 weeks early. Once Alfredo had been acquainted with the after-effects of giving birth (losing the huge belly, hair falling out forcing you to hack it all off) I realised he was talking to my tits when he adressed me, which wasn’t surprising, as it had been over 18 hours since I had fed Léonie. I had driven down to Marseille and slept over at a friend’s house, thinking “oh, Léonie is 15 months old now, she’s feeding less, my breasts will be fine without her for a day.” Alas, I was wrong. I had woken up that morning with huge tits, firm and full of milk. If only they could look like that all the time. But I am side-tracking … back to the hospital cafeteria and me with the physical problem of very possibly squirting a doctor in the eye with milk or at least having a “special effect” costume which ends up soaking wet from the waist up. As I got changed in the little Rire Médecin dressing room I discovered I couldn’t even do my dress up. I was going to have to put this problem to the back of my mind and concentrate on being a crazy little clown, rather than a lactating Mummy.

While we were changing and putting our make-up on we messed about and the boys told me to keep things simple, to take their lead in the beginning, and bit by bit they would let me take more initiative and start up games and songs. “Ready?” “Erm … yes … I mean no, I mean yes, okay, let’s go.” We opened the door to the dressing room and tumbled out into the corridor, and that was it, we were off, non-stop for two hours of clowning in the children’s oncology ward (cancer ward), the day hospital and all the lifts and corridors linking the two. It went by in a flash. We began by singing La Llega Crescera in harmony with Alfredo on the ukelele, which was great because it filled me with confidence and got us messing about until we knew who was the boss (Molette) and who were the total idiots. I can’t remember what order things happened in but I do know we went from playing musical red-nose puppets in a doorway for a one year old with Down’s Syndrome to me blasting out an improvised rap in French for a teenaged lad with a broken arm. We tried to steal a little girl’s crisps, we rocked out with a four year old who had his own little guitar, we managed to persuade a moody 17 year old cancer patient to let us in his room and mess about until he got his phone out and started filming us, Alfredo tried to start a fight with a bloke eight times his size, Molette kept us singing and dancing and moving on to the next room (and washing our hands every five minutes), a little girl ran up to me to tell me I looked like Little Red Riding Hood which was BRILLIANT because I had a Red Riding Hood puppet in my basket which changed into granny and the wolf, we blew bubbles and sang ‘Pirouette Cacahuète’ for another little baby, leaving his mummy wearing a foam red nose, we sang “When the Saints come Marching in” in 12 different languages, we bounced up and down past the rooms with high windows … we kept going, full of energy, and all of a sudden we were back at the Rire Médecin dressing room door and it was all over. We piled in, along with Caroline and J-L, thirsty and laughing. I felt very happy.

As we got changed back into our everyday clothes they gave me a ton of feedback. Apparently it had gone really well for me and they were very pleased with what I had done. But there were 7 more people to audition over the next four days, and they were all great candidates for the job. Today is Thursday – the last of the hopefuls finished their audition this afternoon. Tomorrow all the clowns who accompanied we “learners” will sit down around a table with Caroline and J-L and choose two of us to join the company. Apparently there was another girl the day after me who was also great and another bloke auditioning today who has already done a year of Rire Médecin school … so I’m feeling less sure of myself now. I wake up in the middle of the night sweating from dreams where I am chosen/not chosen/fly out of the window wearing nothing but a red nose. I think about the outcome every 4 seconds (that’s more then a teenaged boy thinks about sex). I CANNOT WAIT to find out but I am going to have to wait … until tomorrow evening.

Oh readers, please pray to the Clown Gods for me and cross your fingers and everything crossable (toes, legs, eyes, bra straps) that they choose me. I so want to do this job, I know I would be really good at it, I would be so motivated and so happy to join the crazy band of generous hopi-clowns that makes up Le Rire Médecin. KEEP IT ALL CROSSED. GET DOWN ON YOUR KNEES AND OFFER UP OFFERINGS – chocolate, beetles, goats – whatever makes those gods feel like consenting to my wishes. At least until tomorrow, when I will let you know if your efforts have reaped ripe rosy-nosed fruits.

This is a photo of me, as Teapot, in our shower. It’s the only place in our home where you can take flattering photos. Pardon. Did I say flattering?

(As for the milk-laden booby bother, I found an unexpected solution whilst visiting friends at lunchtime. To be continued …)

Interview, tick… next step: The Audition.

The title of this post rather gives away my latest news. Which means this will be another short post – yippee for me and my new decision to be in bed by half past nine every evening until Léonie starts bloody well sleeping through the night.

I dropped Tommy off at school at half past eight Wednesday morning just in time for him to bundle himself into a coach with his suitcase and wave goodbye to me through a steamed-up window; one of 40 little noses pressed up against the coach windows. It was his first school trip, his first time away from home for two nights without being able to phone Mummy or Daddy, and he was perfectly happy about it all. I had spent the night before writing T.O.M.M.Y. on his clothes/shoes/toothbrush/Dog & Donkey and tagging up his various bags with mini postcards of his grinning face. It took absolutely ages – precious time I should have been using to a/ prepare myself for the interview, and b/ sleep. But it meant Tommy left equipped to the hilt, and I didn’t get any of those stomach-lurching jolts when you realise, “oh damn, I forgot to pack him any pants.” I had been planning to drive down to Marseille later that morning, but having slept just 5 hours in bits the night before with a poorly-yet-wriggly baby in my bed, I went home and straight back to bed as Léonie crashed out in my arms. We ended up driving to Marseille late in the afternoon with me wondering how my exhausted brain was going to react in an interview the next day. Slowly, probably. Stupidly, no doubt.

I slept at a friend’s house. With Léonie in my bed again. And thus, another five hours of broken sleep, a 6:30 am start, and a double shot of paracetamol with 3 expressos. The interview was at 3 o’clock. I dropped Léonie off with another friend who was meant to be painting her workshop but was quite happy to have an excuse to take a break and push a baby around Marseille in the sunshine. I got the tram to the children’s hospital and was amazed at how huge it was. It is gigantic. I found my way in through the A&E entrance and got into one of four big lifts. I looked at the buttons. 16 floors. I pressed 9 and got out on the orthopaedics floor. I wandered out, looking for the meeting room and ended up doing a circuit of the ward. Again, enormous. I am used to small town hospitals with cosy little children’s wards. This was all long, long corridors and neon strip lighting. It was too hot. Or maybe that was just me sweating in anticipation of the looming interview. I found the salle de réunion and just then the door opened and a very smart, tall, bald man in a white suit and a pink shirt came out, grinning. Another candidate for the job. He looked like a very professional actor with perfect qualities for playing a clown. Damn. And he was grinning. His interview had gone well. Double damn. But then Caroline Simonds came out and gave me a wide, welcoming smile. “Ah, you must be the very lovely, very British ‘Teapot’!”

“Erm, yes.”I stammered.

“My, did you put those big blue eyes on to match your t-shirt?” she asked. I was so nervous my sense of wit failed me , and I just blurted out, “erm, no, I mean, yes, I mean …” but she saved me, by explaining they needed a few minutes to make notes about the last bloke, so did I mind waiting? “Don’t get lost!” she called. So I didn’t go far. I just went a bit further along the corridor so I couldn’t hear them talking. I listened to the noises in the ward : various footsteps, a bleeping machine, a child crying out “Maman, Maaaamaaaaan” over and over again, two nurses exchanging notes, a small family chattering as they walked down to a room at the end of the corridor. I looked out through one of the bedrooms which was empty, and gazed at the view – Marseille rooves and behind them, rocky hills topped with blue sky. I smiled at a couple of nurses and visitors who came past. It was hot. I wondered if I wanted to work here.

Then the door to the meeting room opened again and Jean-Louis welcomed me in. I sat down with my bag on my lap as protection but didn’t actually need any protection, as the two of them immediately made me feel very comfortable. It didn’t feel like an interview, it felt like chatting with a couple of people who you happen to find yourself traveling with. We talked about all sorts of things, not just work and CV’s. It felt like they wanted to know who I am, not what I have done. The conversation was natural and fun and funny. “You’re wearing the same t-shirt as in your CV photo” Caroline said. “Oh no! Am, I?” She whipped the photo out – one I had taken a couple of months ago, very unprofessionally – standing in front of the stone wall on our terrace. “Oh no, now you’ll remember me as the girl with only one t-shirt in her wardrobe … I did actually have a purple one on this morning, but my baby girl wiped snot all over the shoulder, so I put on a black one and it got the same treatment. I’m down to my last t-shirt. Honest.” By the end of the interview we said goodbye as if we were friends. And quite sincerely, if I don’t get to work with her this time round, I hope we get to be friends. This woman has a huge heart. And a wicked sense of humour. And the biggest eyes I have ever seen. She thought I had the bluest eyes she had ever seen.  I think it was the t-shirt that did it.

As I left she said, “we’ll be in touch, Butterfly”. I assume this was to do with my current haircut which sticks out on either side of my ears a bit like wings. It was quite nice to go for an interview and to know that looking a bit odd was probably a plus, seeing as they are hiring clowns.

On my drive home the next afternoon, Jean-Louis phoned me to tell me they want me to audition. HOORAH! But now I’m nervous. The auditions take place IN the hospital, WITH the children patients. I’ll be with two experienced Rire Médecin clowns, but still. I just need to stay calm, stay alert, improvise with my partners, be as Teapot as Teapot can be, and focus on each child. It’s going to be quite a day.

It is half past ten. Whoops. And this is not a short post. I am wrong about nearly everything these days. I’ll take that as a good sign.

Chicken in a Bag

Papa Le Bike has complained (again) that my blog posts are “too long”. So here is a short one. This is a fine excuse to write very little and go to bed. I leave you with a poetic image of utmost interest. It’s me playing a chicken in  a version of Animal Farm by George Orwell. In this scene I had been pecking at some groceries and got my head stuck in the bag. I was a fantastic chicken. I can still do it now, and regularly do, much to my children’s delight and everyone else’s embarrassment. At school I was nicknamed Chicken Legs – and that was years before I played this role. But I think everyone could see I had it in me. The chicken that is.

Hopi-Clowns

I have applied for a job. Yes, a job. And beyond all expectations, I have been granted an interview. AN INTERVIEW. I haven’t had an interview for over 15 years. Mainly because instead of interviews I do auditions which are even more nerve-wracking, but at least you get to hide behind a character or an attitude or song or a piece of choreography or a voice. You play someone else, not yourself. But an interview means just you, being you, or a sweaty version of you, sitting on a chair and trying your hardest not to blurt out “I’M OFTEN LATE, I NEED AN HOURLY COFFEE BREAK AND I WILL PROBABLY HAVE SEX WITH A COLLEAGUE THUS WREAKING HAVOC IN THE COMPANY!” while answering questions politely and trying to dislodge that bit of salad from your front teeth without them noticing.

I am also very out of practice when it comes to selling myself, be it auditions or interviews. I have now spent a good 5 years at home being pregnant and peeling small children off my legs, with just a few performing/recording projects scattered sparsely thoughout that time. And before that I spent 4 years touring with a fab company which meant I didn’t need to look for work elsewhere. So the idea of being sat in the hotspot with people asking me questions and peering at me over spectacles, taking notes and tutting (I sort of imagine it will be like sitting in my old headmaster’s office, having being caught clad in denim and leather, snogging 6th form stud Mark Chadwick at the front gates, just when the school inspector was arriving) … well, it rather gives me the willies. Although in that context, the phrase is probably a little too accurate.

And what is this job for which I will be interviewed in just 2 weeks time? We live in the middle of nowhere. There are more sheep and goats than people in our little pocket of countryside. Who is going to employ an English actress around here? No-one, that’s who. Which is why I have extended my possible commuting distance to 200km and have applied for a job in Marseille. Which sounds ridiculous, I know, but a) it’s a company I have wanted to join for years now, and b) you only work one or two days a week. This is very unusual. Most performing companies have a good long rehearsal period lasting weeks or months, and then performance dates up and down the country. If you want an audience you have to move around, from theatre to theatre, from festival to festival. But this company rarely has an audience of more that 4 or 5 people – often just one person – a small one – who might even be half-asleep. And the performers stay in the same small number of buildings all year round. In hospitals.

The company is based in Paris and was founded 20 years ago by a determined, dynamic American woman, Caroline Simonds. She spent 3 and a half years working in childrens’ wards in New York with “Big Apple Circus – Clown Care Unit” and came to France in 1991 to create her own company which she named Le Rire Médecin. Twenty years down the line and the company has 86 actor-clowns working in numerous hospitals across France; Paris, Marseille, Nantes, Orléans-Tours and Nancy. They work mainly in wards treating children for cancer. Doctors and nurses who were once reticent at the idea of a load of clowns running around their hospital, have been won over. They have seen the uplifting effect the clowns have on the children in their wards – on the parents and the medical team too – and now clowns, doctors and nurses work together with mutual respect for each other. In 1997 The Lancet printed an article on the company, explaining the role of the clowns in hospitals and affirming that they are a huge benefit to all those concerned. The article won the company recognition in the medical world.

I discovered their existence a few years ago through friends who were working for them. I was fascinated. I thought it was a brilliant idea and the fact that it is actually happening is even more brilliant. I have never spent more than a week in hospital with either of my kids, but even just a week is a long time when you’re in one room for most of the day. And my kids didn’t have anything too serious; wheezy bronchiolitis when Tommy was 9 months old, a urinary tract infection when Léonie was 3 weeks old, a bad case of gastroentiritis for both of them, but nothing that really threatened their life and nothing that couldn’t be treated easily, with the surefire outcome that we would be home in a few days and get back to our everyday life. Most of the little patients Le Rire Médecin work with are children with cancer, in hospital for weeks and months on end, coping with the awful side-effects of chemotherapy. Some might relapse and some just don’t get better. I cannot imagine what it must be like, or how their parents must feel. I recently read the book Caroline Simonds wrote in 2001 on her experience in a childrens’ ward in Paris. It is an eye-opener. It is touching and funny and also very sad. I called a friend of mine who is an actor-clown in the company. “What if I’m too sensitive to cope with this kind of work?” I asked him. “You have to be sensitive to do this kind of work” he replied.

The company have also made a documentary about their work. Here’s a clip. Even the clip makes me well up. Maybe I am too sensitive for this job.

The word “clown” in England conjours up images of scary-looking men in huge, garish trousers, giant shoes and far too much make-up, being loud and annoying and generally very unfunny in a big-top or at a childrens’ party. This is not the case over here in France (erm – there are exceptions). In the 60’s Jacques Lecoq changed the idea of clowns and clowning. Teaching different styles of theatre in his school, he decided to teach clowning. He dropped the excessive make-up and over-the-top costume, leaving just a simple red nose, and taught his pupils to be as neutral, as honest, as ‘themselves’ as possible; a sort of basic comic state. Lecoq opened up a new chapter in the history of clowning and in France nowadays ‘clown’ basically means a comic character. Not even necessarily with a red nose.

Ah, that red nose. It is the one thing that frightens me where being onstage is concerned. Comic acting is something I feel at home with, thanks to a childhood of Monty Python, Fry & Laurie, French & Saunders, Victoria Wood, Blackadder … give me a silly character or a ridiculous situation to play, a chef’s hat or a fat bushy moustache to wear and I’m away. But put a red nose on my face and I freeze up completely. A red nose? What? I have to “be funny”? Like circus clowns? Bloody nightmare. The problem is exactly that : the circus clown thing. Because in general, clowns in traditional circuses are NOT very funny. Well, I don’t think they’re funny. Too much bad mime stuff  and going through the motions and sadistic grinning at the audience as if to say “Laugh! LAUGH!” Which is why I have to remind myself each time I put a red nose on my face that I am just a silly character who happens to have a red blob on the end of my nose. The nose helps serve as a code for the audience – and I think this must be especially useful in hospitals. When the patients, families and medical team see a red-nose on your face, they can immediately situate you.

So despite my aversion to red noses, I am currently embracing them, as I really do want to be part of this company. I have dug out my old egg-box full of red noses and chosen the roundest one. My clown is called “Teapot”, she speaks bad French with a Sheffield accent, is a karate pink-belt, rides a motorbike, believes she is a star in Fame and can imitate every animal in the universe. If I get through the Rire Médecin interview on the 8th of March and they choose to audition me, I will then not sleep for 2 weeks. Oh, nothing unusual there, then.