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Weekend: 'If the crowd's hushed and reverent I know I'll have to work harder': Prayer or drinking vodka, doing laundry, or writing all night... Performers tell Laura Barnett their pre- and post-gig rituals. Photographs by Kate Peters

June 21, 2014

Laura Barnett



On stage and in his dressing room at the Duke of York's theatre, London WC2, before and after a performance of Jeeves & Wooster: Perfect Nonsense. The show won best comedy at this year's Olivier awards, and is now playing with a new cast.

You can tell exactly what kind of an audience you're going to get by listening as they come in. For this show, I come out on stage a few minutes before the start, and stand behind the curtains - that's where I am in the "before" picture. If I can hear a lot of shrieky laughter, I know I'm in for a boisterous crowd. But if they're hushed and reverent, I know I might have to work harder.

It's both nerve-racking and thrilling to know that any minute the curtain's going to go up, and all those people are suddenly going to go quiet and stare at you. But after six months of doing the same show eight times a week, the bigger challenge is getting yourself into exactly the same mental state every night. You come to the theatre with whatever anxieties or triumphs the day has brought, and there are times when you really don't want to be there. But the fact that 700 people are waiting to see what you've got is a great motivating factor.

Preparing for a performance is a bit like putting a child to bed: you follow the same routine every night. For an evening show, I get to the theatre at about 6.30pm and say hello to the rest of the cast. Then I plaster my hair down into Bertie Wooster's savage side parting: it's a bit of a wrestling match. I listen to Spotify in my dressing room - bouncy, high-energy music to get me into the character's Tiggerish state of mind. The last track I put on is the theme from the Muppets - Bertie is kind of a muppet, after all.

By the end of the show, I'm usually in a pretty grim state. I'm drenched in sweat - I've spent two hours running around, leaping over beds and windows, in a three-piece suit and overcoat. It's a great workout - I've lost a stone and a half - but it's exhausting. With tragedy, you come off feeling exhilarated. But with comedy, you have to throw out a huge amount of energy. You work your arse off, basically - and if it's a matinee, you have to do it all again in a few hours' time.



Before and after her show at Brixton Academy, London SW2.

Usually before a gig I have a sleep in my dressing room under a blanket I take everywhere with me. I eat some berries or some dried nori (which I get all over my face) in place of dinner, because a couple of hours before the performance, my stomach starts heaving and I feel like I'm going to throw up - even when I'm not that nervous. It's the weirdest thing.

Then it's time to don the suit, which I usually wear when I perform. There's something about putting it on that feels like a ritual, entering into a kind of pact with the stage. Once I've got my suit on, I can do anything.

Next, my keyboardist, drummer and I meet in their dressing room and listen to music with a groove to get in the zone. I do lots of stretching, because when I perform my limbs fly all over the place. The boys laugh at me lunging across the room. I've played enough shows with added complications such as injuries, food poisoning and technical difficulties, so now I know that it's generally going to be OK. Waiting in the wings before I go on, I still feel like I am going to throw up, but as soon as I walk on stage, the nausea disappears.

These shots were taken at my Brixton show. There were 5,000 people there and they were definitely in a dancing mood. I like dancing moods. I'm in one most of the time. This was only my third UK show. I've been waiting to play to English crowds for a bloody long time, and they definitely delivered.

The most difficult part of performing is all those eyes on me. And having to fill the stage on my own. I'm a very physical performer, I fill space with the movement of my hands, my arms, my head, my stance, and that all helps communicate what I'm talking about.

I was happy after this show. I think it went well. I was a little emotionally drained. I don't really do anything specific to unwind except lie on the couch, drink water, wipe off the sweat and the lipstick. That's about it.



Backstage at the Proact Stadium, Chesterfield, headlining the Party at the Proact festival.

I prepare for a gig in the same way an athlete gets ready for a big event. About an hour before stage time, I do a lot of stretching - I have a strength and conditioning coach who taught me all the moves - and sometimes I'll have a massage.

I usually get to the venue three hours before the gig, to leave room for promo time, or meet-and-greets with fans. In the second hour, I'll eat - eating too close to the show is not a good idea - and in the third I'll do my warm-ups, then have a vodka and cranberry with the lads. We don't have a huge rider: alcohol, popcorn, scented candles and baby wipes.

I don't get nervous before a regular show. The feeling of being on stage - especially in a stadium - is indescribable. When the crowd is fully engaging with you, it feels like you're with 10,000, 20,000 or even 50,000 of your best friends.

Afterwards, I like to be quiet for about half an hour. I like to reflect, to think about what we could have done better. I'll cool down, have a shower. I'm exhausted, but the adrenaline's still coursing. There's no way I could sleep. I have to unwind, relax and slowly come down from the high.



Duchess theatre, London WC2, for a Saturday matinee performance of the one-woman Beckett trilogy Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby. The show tours the UK in September.

The first photo is at the half [half an hour before a performance], when I do a lighting test. I'm dressed as two people at once: I'm half May, my character in Footfalls, and half the black-painted mouth of Not I, a monologue in which the only thing the audience can see is my mouth. The lighting is tricky, so we always give it a test-run.

Before a performance, I try to clear my mind. I'll get to the theatre a couple of hours early, rehearse, eat and meditate. I've been using a tape of Indian meditation since 2009. It's hilarious, but somehow gets me to focus. Beckett plays demand particular concentration. If you slip off that tightrope, no one can help you; no one can give you a line. It's like doing trapeze without a safety net.

When you're in front of an audience, you can feel everything. You can smell the expectation. Every follicle is on end. And afterwards, I'm dazed. I feel like I've been hit by a truck and survived. But then I'm known for the harrowing roles: in the last one, I killed two children. That wasn't exactly easy.



Before and after a gig at the Jazz Cafe, London NW1.

I like to give something special to people: that's why I tour. I go because the people believe in God, and there is no other God coming but me. I'm not working because of the money; I'm working because the people believe that God is going to come to save them. I give them a sweeter soul and take away the bitter souls. Save them from pain and save them from cocaine.

I am never nervous before a gig. I am the people's servant: how can I get nervous? I am as brave as a doctor. They are the patients. I must be very fit, very pure, very sure and 100% positive. I don't feel no pain, I don't feel no strain, I don't feel no weakness. I feel like Superman.

When I'm on stage, I'm in heaven. I am like Inspector Gadget, with two long legs and two extended arms. I am the God robot. I stand up in the club and I stand up in heaven.

After a gig, I drink water, and sometimes a sip of champagne. But no drugs. God won't allow me to take cocaine: that's for selfish people. Then I go home and write. I am writing books about my life - about everything. Sometimes I write until it's almost light.


In her dressing room at the Royal Opera House, London WC2, before and after dancing the lead role of Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. She will be performing in the Royal Ballet's Manon in October and in Alice's Adventures In Wonderland in December, both at the Royal Opera House.

This was a huge night for the company. We'd had a tough half-season - everyone had been really pushing themselves - and this was the final show before our mid-season holiday. I was a bit broken, to be honest. I'd struggled with my legs for a few days; I just couldn't feel them activating like I needed them to. But by the day of this performance, I was starting to feel better. What I'm feeling just before the performance is relief. I just want to get out there and dance.

I usually eat at about 4pm before an evening show, then have nothing but a few bits of chocolate and energy drinks. You can't dance on a full stomach. There are always Maltesers around backstage - yes, we really do eat them - and there's a guy called Rob who is in charge of the armoury, and is a real feeder. You'll walk down the corridor and he'll be there, handing out bars of chocolate or sweets.

After the performance, the atmosphere backstage was incredible: everyone was clapping and screaming. I'd left some champagne and chocolates for the corps de ballet and the soloist, so after having the second photograph taken, I went up to join them. I had some guests side-stage, so I talked to them about how it went, and to my coach, Jonathan Cope. I'd had a slight misstep in act three, but I'd come through it. Sleeping Beauty is a tricky ballet: it's very obvious when something is right or wrong.

For me, the exhaustion doesn't kick in until the next day. Straight after a performance, my mind is incredibly active, but my body feels numb. It's usually a good few hours before I start to feel the pain.



Backstage at the Young Vic, London SE1, before and after playing Winnie in Samuel Beckett'sHappy Days.

Being on stage can be the most amazing feeling in the world. You're in a space where nobody can ring you, tell you what to do, ask for anything. You're free in a way that you seldom are in life. That's how it feels when a show is going well, anyway.

This performance was a good one - not in any objective sense, but I felt very present. The rhythms felt right. It's a weird thing, acting: it's like playing tennis, or the piano. One day you can't get a note right, and the next the piece just seems to play itself. The audience won't necessarily know the difference, but I do.

The "before" picture was taken at the half [see Lisa Dwan]. By then I've done both a physical warm-up and a vocal one. I like to sing: it gets you thinking about audibility, and finding the right volume to reach the back of the gods.

I get quite high before this show, and I start prattling away. It's not a conscious decision - with another show, I might sit quietly - but this seems to be the right dynamic for Winnie. She's a woman who talks without necessarily knowing what she's going to say next. She talks because silence is her greatest terror.

Afterwards, I don't usually feel exhausted. I might meet friends for a drink, then drive home and rattle around: do laundry, answer emails. In those times, I feel I could do anything: I'm full of energy. Even if I get to bed at 2am, it's still difficult to get to sleep. Adrenaline is a strong drug.



In her dressing room before and after a charity gig at the Hammersmith Apollo, London W6.

Backstage at the Apollo isn't a fun place to be. It's a bit like a prison: small rooms filled with warm Diet Coke. I always get nervous before a gig, so I look over my writing, trying not to fantasise about all the things that could go horribly wrong. I tell myself positive things instead, like, "Who cares? Even if you're the worst comedian in the world, you've got your boyfriend who you love, and you've got your niece who's amazing."

This wasn't a great gig. Sometimes, it just feels like work. You go on, and it isn't that no one laughs, but they don't laugh so much that you can think: "I'm a genius." The Apollo seats 3,600 people: I could hear them making a huge noise for Milton Jones and Lee Mack. If the audience doesn't make the same amount of noise for you, you feel like you've failed.

A beer is an important part of the post-show comedown. I used to drink before a show, too: it was a ritual. But I've made a conscious effort to stop drinking. If I'm going to do this for ever, I don't want to turn round and go, "Oh, I've been drinking heavily for 20 years."



Backstage before and after a concert at Metropolis Studios, London W4.

I always pray before a gig. I think that takes a lot of the pressure off. I was a little anxious before this concert. It was the first time I'd played the whole album [Food, her latest record]. There'd been so much buildup, I just wanted to get out there and get it done.

Being on stage is the strangest feeling. It's a kind of subconscious alertness. I'm extremely present in the moment. I'm looking out at the audience, aware of the sound levels, but at the same time I'm thinking about something else entirely. It could be anything. Someone might catch my eye, and I'll think, "Oh, that looks like someone I know." Or, "I shouldn't have eaten that earlier, because now I feel like a slug."

I must look exhausted in the "after" photograph. Having your picture taken when you come off stage is the last thing you feel like doing. I'm not the type to obsess about what went well and what didn't. I'm notorious for forgetting my words, and I definitely forgot a few that night. But I don't beat myself up too much. I'm like: "Whatever - I'm human. I did my best."



At her chambers in the Inner Temple, London EC4, before and after presenting a case to the High Court at the Royal Courts of Justice.

Going to court is terrifying for a junior barrister. Even now, I feel a certain amount of adrenaline, but it's good stuff: the kind that makes you feel extra-alert, not terrified. I only get tense just before I've written my submission (the speech we give in court). I prefer to write it on the day I'm presenting the case. I'll get to my chambers as early as 4.45am. But once I've knocked it into shape, I'm calm. I know it's all there on the paper, ordered and numbered: a route map for where I'm going to take the court. All I've got to do is get up and deliver it.

The clothing we have to wear to court is pretty awful - especially the wig and gown. There's something very odd about wearing 18th-century men's headgear. In summer, they get hot - and give you terrible "wig hair".

Today was OK. Afterwards, I was keen to have a drink, go home, see my kids and watch Breaking Bad. But a bad day in court can be terribly dispiriting. One of the good things about chambers, though, is there's always a sympathetic ear and somebody who's prepared to go to the pub.



In his dressing room before and after a gig at Koko, London NW1.

To stand on stage and sing is a blessing given by the grace of God. When I'm out there, I try to give everybody a little taste of my soul. I look out at people's faces, and I see traces in them that I see in myself: a lot of hurt and pain. I try to give them joy: that's my main motivation. It's not really about being on stage - it's about reaching to people and giving them the truth about who I am.

Before every show, I try to relax my voice as much as I possibly can. When I'm out on tour, I might be doing 38 or 39 shows in a row, some of them back to back. It takes its toll: in 2012, I lost my voice for a while, and I had to cancel a couple of shows. So now I make time to rest. I meditate and I pray. As soon as I wake up, I get out of my bed and thank God for another day. Then I sit and meditate about the things I've got to do.

I always get nervous. Just hearing the audience call my name makes my heart go boom-boom-boom. But they say that's a good thing: that's how you know that you're human. And when I come off stage, all I want to do is go in my room, take a shower, and rest my voice. I don't talk to nobody - I just go straight to my room.

The best concert I played was in a rainstorm at a festival in Virginia. Everybody was going crazy. I said, "You're standing out there in the rain - I'm going to get wet with you." So I jumped off the stage and we all wallowed in the mud. I was wearing a white suit, and it got covered. The energy was amazing. I'll never forget it *

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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