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Careers Clinic: How can I make my festive show shine?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I started off as an all-singing, all-dancing stage school kid. At drama school, my interests developed in a somewhat different direction: towards physical and experimental theatre. That’s been the theme of all my work since graduation – shows designed to make the audience feel challenged rather than comfortable.

Now I have my own challenge: my nan does voluntary work at a local care home. They do a fundraising Christmas concert every year, but due to various cuts this year don’t have the money to get the show off the ground at all. I was ranting about this in a pub in Edinburgh in August. Partly because we thought it would be fun, but mainly because of the amount of drink inside us, another cast member and I phoned her there and then and said we would do the show for her. We then forgot about it – but she didn’t.

We have managed to get a local school hall and now have less than two weeks to pull together a show that is the exact opposite of anything we have experience in. I doubt this gig will ever appear on my casting profile, but I love my nan and it’s a good cause. How can we do it properly?

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE Santa is presumably busy with pre-tour preparation so instead I’m going to turn for advice to Wayne Devlin, a Manchester-based actor who, when not playing gritty police and prison officers in such TV shows as Happy Valley and Peaky Blinders, has a decidedly smoother side as a crooner.

As well as receiving awards for his year-round work with many local charities, his Croon Into Christmas show regularly sells out (and will be televised for the first time this year).

“My first tip is to give the audience what they want,” Devlin says. “We decorate our venue as Christmassy as we can and even provide free cakes and mince pies. At Christmas shows, my audiences don’t want to be educated with new or intricate material: they want crowd-pleasers they know and love. So learn the familiar Christmas standards, but just because they are familiar, don’t skimp on preparation.

“It sounds obvious, but if you make the effort to know your material inside out, it makes the world of difference to your performance. If you’re relaxed and comfortable, your audience will be too.

“Know your venue inside out. Own your stage as if it were your own living room, know where everything is, and know the layout of the audience too. I like to know who is in attendance so I can acknowledge any special guests.

“It really helps with your confidence to know everything off-stage and on. Christmas is about family and friends, having fun and enjoying yourself, but it’s also about giving.

“My last top tip is to give everything you have in your performance to your audience. If your aim is to give your audience the Christmas spirit, the best way to do that is to have that spirit yourself. You’re giving your audience permission to enjoy, relax and get into the spirit of the season. It is quite an honour to have that power.

“The beauty of giving in this spirit is that the audience actually wants it, or they wouldn’t be there in the first place. This should remove a lot of the pressure. Give the audience every-thing you’ve got, and they’ll give it right back to you.”

In agreeing with everything our guest expert says, I think you will find his tip about good show preparation particularly useful. Knowing your audience and your venue as well as you possibly can works not only for traditional Christmas shows, but also for the most cutting-edge productions the rest of year.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

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