Christopher Round is an up-and-coming young actor who received enthusiastic reviews for his intensely physical performance in one of this year’s grittiest Edinburgh Festival Fringe plays, Chapel Street. He is also a stage combat teacher and is training to become a fight director. However, for this Christmas season he is playing a very different role: touring care homes around the country as an Ugly Sister in Tickled Pink’s production of Cinderella.
“This probably isn’t the most glamorous job in the world,” he says. “It’s hard work and, depending on your schedule, long driving hours. However, the return is far greater than just money. This is the most appreciative an audience could get.”
Much like pantomime, performing in care homes has often been used as lazy tabloid shorthand for ‘career on the skids’. But, also much like pantomime, the reality is very different. Not only is this kind of work a viable source of regular income and experience for new and seasoned performers alike, but, like Round, all involved maintain that the rewards far outweigh the challenges.
“During my time at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, my class was asked to perform at a care home in Golders Green,” says actor and singer Ben Eagle. “There was a couple on the front row. He was visiting his wife, a resident in the home, who had severe Alzheimer’s. During If I Loved You from Carousel, she straightened up in her chair and looked into her husband’s eyes. They both started crying. Later, he sent a letter thanking us for bringing his wife back, even for a short time. Needless to say, we struggled to get through the song ourselves. It was at this moment I decided to set up Eagle Eye Theatre – to help the residents, as well as giving us performers a chance to keep our singing muscles active and earn some cash in-between acting jobs. Everyone wins.”
North of England-based song and dance duo Gina McKendrick and Sarah Rhodes formed Bluebird Entertainment for similar reasons. With the addition of soloist Ami Evans, its growing repertoire includes a wartime show, a musical show and a 1950s show, as well as seasonal shows for Valentine’s Day, Easter and Christmas.
“Having spent much of our careers away from home on various dance contracts, we jumped at the chance to perform in care homes because we knew it would give us the opportunity to be based wherever we wanted. We can share our passion for 1940s/50s music with people we know will truly enjoy and appreciate that era. We would recommend this kind of work to any performer, it can fit in with other commitments due to most performances being in the day. You can try new material, build your confidence and improve your repertoire.”
Vintage singer Jayne Darling also finds this type of work fits in well with other responsibilities. “I had not performed for a few years as I had been a stay-at-home mum with twins. The sort of music I sing lends itself well to a care home setting, so it’s a great match. I also have a passion for history and love chatting to and working with the elderly.”
Now one of the most popular singers on the circuit, Darling points out that the work is not always easy. “You need a whole range of skills. It’s not just about your voice, it’s about entertaining and being personable. I’ve been shouted at and sworn at – it’s not their fault and you have to deal with this in a kind and empathetic way. I have learnt that they may be elderly, but they were young once, so don’t patronise them.”
Wayne Devlin, a Manchester-based actor who has appeared in Emmerdale, Coronation Street, Shameless and Peaky Blinders, supplements his acting work with a very successful singing career, and agrees that the care home circuit offers a unique opportunity for performers not only to entertain while earning but also to polish their professional skills both on and off stage.
“Staff are very busy and don’t always have time to see to the entertainers. You have to get on with it without any fuss. No room for prima donnas. Some residents may not want to have to sit and listen to entertainment – others can’t wait for it to begin. You have to get thick-skinned. What you do isn’t always everyone’s cup of tea. It’s often too loud for some, even when you’re at your lowest volume. You often get interrupted mid-performance, but this is a great learning experience to handle hecklers at other venues. I have learned quickly that showing respect and good manners to everyone from the staff to the residents goes a long way. I treat everyone from the janitor to the managing director with the same respect. This certainly opens doors and wins over everyone and I take this lesson with me in all walks of life.”
Blake Curtis-Woodcock, a successful actor who runs Red Gate Productions, whose shows include themes from panto to the life of Judy Garland, reinforces the point that care home work and other performing walks of life are not as different as many think: “Personally I have worked on many feature films and, frankly, I am not sure they could be described as glamorous, either. As a trained performer, it is far better to be paid for a job you have been trained for rather than standing in the cold handing out leaflets. Additionally, you are developing your skills as a performer. This can only improve your chances of being noticed in the future.”