FRINGE BENEFITS with North East actor & writer Wayne Miller

Really when I was young I wanted to be a stuntman. I was a huge fan of Jackie Chan. I watched every martial arts film, Bruce Lee, the lot. I thought acting would help me to be a stuntman because a lot of Asian stars are actors and martial artists.

So at school I got into acting on stage, but when I got further into it, it just felt right, natural really, it was never hard work. Playing guitar was harder work but acting definitely came easier and it helps a lot playing someone else and forgetting my day to day worries.

GUNNER MILLER

I first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1998 on a three week run with a show called The Machine Gunners. That was at the end of our year in drama with South Tyneside College. While we were up there we saw a few shows some were in venues the size of a cupboard.

It’s like Russian roulette you might get one gem from five shows. Some have gone on to be professionally produced like Jerry Springer the Opera, I saw Six the musical which transferred to the West End, it’s on a UK tour this year.

It’s a testing ground for shows, some people think they’re going to make money, but you’re a fool if you think you can – if you do it’s a bonus. The best thing is test your work out, get some reviews, draw up some interest, and if you have a tour planned use it as a springboard. You might be lucky if a promoter spots it and comes onboard to produce it.

CALL TIME

You aren’t going to please everyone. If you’ve sold tickets and people come back you’ve done a good job. One critic can give you a good review, the next doesn’t. That’s just the nature of the business.

It’s the hardest slog doing the entire month of August because you are competing against thousands of shows, it’s a big competition fighting to get people in. You get in 5-10 minutes before showtime, get all your props in place, costumes on… then bang, on the button, perform, take yer bows. At the end you’ve got 5 minutes to get out the building. Some companies have three shows on so they have to scoot over the other side of Edinburgh to do a show.

Just knowing you have done that slog is a proud thing and to have it on your posters and sometimes share a stage with well-known companies. After Edinburgh we brought The Machine Gunners back to South Shields and sold out The Customs House theatre for a few nights.

A few days after that show I went down south for a year to Maidenhead drama school, it didn’t do a lot for me if I’m honest. I wanted to improve my voice and movement but the majority was learning and reciting monologues. It wasn’t really working for me and while down there I was receiving offers of work, one being Wearside Jack for ITV.

WEARSIDE JACK

Someone at Tyne Tees saw me in a play and passed on my contact to Sheila Matheson, I think it was. At first I thought it was a wind up (laughs). I mean Wearside Jack I thought he was a lot older than me and really everyone didn’t know that much about him.

It wasn’t until we met that I got to know more about what the production team thought he was like. They said he might have been someone working away on the lorries with Sutcliffe. I grew a beard to look a bit older and he did have a Wearside accent. There was so many possibilities, one of the theories was that there was two people involved. We had various storylines for him.

We filmed a few scenes in Sunderland, then over in North Shields Fish Quay because there was witnesses that said they had seen Sutcliffe there. One woman in a café near the quay said she had seen Sutcliffe talking to a guy with a North East accent. We also filmed a version where he was a loner, where he just wanted to attach himself to something, make him feel like a somebody.

We put it out later at night after the 10.30pm Tyne Tees news, and they broadcast an ITV Real Crimes version. We done the same on a programme about a murderer called Billy Dunlop and that focused on the double jeopardy law which was looking to get changed at the time.

This guy had killed his girlfriend, got arrested, went to trial and he was found not guilty. Later he confessed to it but couldn’t be tried again for the same crime, that was the double jeopardy law. Living those roles was hard, I got to meet the family in the Dunlop case during filming, I was worried about that. To get to know that story and everything around it was hard.

Yeh for a few years I was the go to man to be North East killers. I was getting dodgy looks on the bus from old ladies – they looked over but couldn’t place me, they knew they had seen my face but not sure where, they’d nudge their mate or shuffle away. I thought not to get typecast I’ll have to go to panto land and make people laugh.

BOILIN’ STOTTS

Then it was the North East plays by Boyle Yer Stotts, me and the lads had this theatre company and we were putting our own shows on – Beer Monsters, Pray for Rain, a few others. But it was hard surviving then, paying the bills. I was also playing rhythm guitar in a few bands – Shake Yer Tailfeather, MG’s and Cookin’ On Gas. The music thing was great at first but at the end it got a bit pressurised.

Really at first it was a bunch of mates getting together playing music and I didn’t want to get in the situation of having to gig a certain amount of times a week. A friend, Michael McNally was running a Government programme called New Deal for Musicians which helped in between gigs and I done a few pantos so that sort of kept me going. (interview with Michael McNally August 2018)

Cookin On Gas played the workingmen clubs, the whole circuit. Sometimes we’d strip back the numbers because in Shake Yer Tailfeather there was eleven in the band so we hardly played pubs, we done more one off clubs, theatre venues, private shows and corporates.

That lasted until the mid-2000’s when it started to get thin so I began writing and directing stuff at The Customs House. I knew panto inside out so I wrote some of that and added in some stuff for a children’s show that sort of came easy to me.

SCHOOLS OUT

I proposed some school holiday shows to The Customs House, they welcomed the idea so I wrote and directed shows for kids. Parents will always put their hand in their pocket for their kids to do something or go places rather than for themselves. It was steady at first then eventually I was getting a full diary of work.

I prefer writing now because I feel less pressure, I write in my own time where if I’m acting I have to learn a script by a certain time, act at a certain time – I’m up against the clock and if I’m producing a show I have to oversee every part.

CARRY ON COVID

We set up Walton-Gunn productions last year to produce pantos and do some new writing where we can take a risk with shows that might not make any money but are balanced out with panto profit. Last March we played our first show and at midnight everything was locked down for Covid, so we only did one show in the run, but now we’ve just announced we have a panto season starting.

We have our adult panto Dickless Whittington – bringing back the filth. In the show is Kylie Ann Ford, Jen Normandale,  Steven Stobbs and Megan Robson. I’m a huge Carry On fan, absolutely love them. I was a huge Sid James fan when I was a kid, yeah Carry On films were panto, the bawdy humour and jokes (laughs).

Then it’s Sleeping Beauty in August and Wendy the Witch in October. These things like everybody else will be in jeopardy if we are back in lockdown so we’ll see how it goes.

GANGSTER STYLE

In October my play The Big Time is on in North Shields Exchange and then in London where it’s playing in a fringe pub with a pub downstairs and the gig upstairs with the seating and small stage. The Big Time was originally put on in Edinburgh Fringe 2018 where it sold well and got good reviews. I wrote it back in 2013 so it’s good it still has life in it. You always look for that in a play.

The Big Time is about two wannabee gangsters who want to get into a criminal organisation so they agree to kidnap someone but end up taking the wrong girl. They take her to a hut in the middle of nowhere and the gangsters turn up and see it’s the wrong girl. It’s a criminal farce all set in one place and the story is how are they going to get out of it.

Being set in one hut in real time it isn’t restricted about when or where its shown. At it’s core it is so basic you aren’t restricted by any scene changes, it’s just pure dialogue. The plan is to put it on with its sequel – The Big Goodbye– as a double header.

The goal and sign of achievement for a show is for it to last and be brought back time and time again and this one has done really well in that sense.

Adult Panto Dickless Whittington – 8.30pm 11-13 June 2021 at Armstrongs Bar, South Shields

Tickets £12 from ticketsource.co.uk/walton gunn

The Big Time – 8pm 2 October 2021 at Exchange Building, North Shields.

Tickets £10 from the venue. Tel: 0191 258 4111

Interview by Gary Alikivi  June 2021

DREAM CATCHER #2 in conversation with Alison Stanley from Newcastle based theatre company, Life of Riley.

In the last post Alison talked about her latest play Sex is Hard Work. Here she talks about her singing career and writing a play last year The Life of Riley.

My thing when I was young was Musical Theatre then I went onto work in pubs and workingmen’s clubs – which are grand places to cut your teeth. Yes it’s ‘Don’t you dare put your speakers where the bingo machine goes’ (laughs).

Still play them now as an ABBA tribute which works out great cos the punters know what they are going to get. An AC/DC fan isn’t gonna rock up to the club and say ‘these are crap they want paid off’.

DON’T MENTION THE WAR

But I also used to go into the care homes and entertain. Now they are really hard audiences, that’s where I got material for a play I wrote Bedsocks & Secrets which tackled dementia, it went really well and got to Edinburgh. But there was some really funny and sad moments in the care home. I remember a woman came up to me as I was singing, she lifted her dress and shouted ‘Pet did I put my drawers on today’. Well no, she didn’t as I tried to keep on singing.

I would vary the show and do music hall stuff, 60’s & 70’s and a wartime show with a uniform on, a union jack behind us and its Vera Lynn ‘We’ll Meet Again’. One time the head carer came up to me and said ‘Do you mind not singing anything that references the Germans or the war cos we’ve got a new resident who is German’ (laughs).

KNOCK ‘EM DEAD KID

Years ago I used to work as a celebrant for a funeral company, I would give the eulogy at a funeral. When lockdown hit all of our theatre in education work, gigs, plays went out the window, that whole income stream was cut just like that. But in a way it was a very creative time for me not having to rehearse or deliver Theatre in Education in schools. So I went back to doing the eulogies because it got me work. It also combines two of my loves, writing and performance.

I go to the family first get all of the information, I’m genuinely interested in people so that helps. Then write it to deliver it like a performance on the day. I find it fascinating and it plays to my strengths entirely, you have to be respectful and professional.

Alison lwith Cameron Frazer in ‘Life of Riley’ at Northern Stage 2020.

LIFE OF RILEY

The first play I wrote was The Birthday Party which only played a few small fringe theatres in London. Next year is a national tour of Life of Riley and it’s the third play I’ve wrote. Predominantly, it’s about autism, but it’s a mainstream play and accessible to everyone. It’s family drama entertainment and educational. The feedback and revues from people who’ve been entertained by it are now more aware of autism.

When I wrote it, it was a cathartic process because my youngest son is autistic. Jay is 20 and high functioning autistic so a lot of themes in there is our lives when he was younger and when he was diagnosed. The title is tongue in cheek because this family have anything but the life of riley.

It’s about a man who is looking back over his life and experiences as an autistic child, and how the dynamics of the family changed with his diagnosis. It’s funny and can be moving in parts, I also add the shock factor, which I like writing – like the Granny who thinks he just needs a smacked backside. There is the scenes with the mam and dad’s relationship breakdown because of it, and she nearly goes off with someone else.

There is also a scene where he is a teenager and he is beaten up and says to his mother ‘Mam what’s a spacka ?’ You can feel the audience drawing in breath, it’s the shock factor of a rarely used word now. The audience are torn hearing the term, but unfortunately it still happens.

SELL OUT

The play has had some good reviews and in 2019 we took it to Edinburgh Fringe where it sold out. I was surprised to get a standing ovation where the audiences can be quite hit or miss about it because the number of plays that they see during the week.

We played shows on a Northern tour of the Exchange in North Shields, Blyth, Stockton and just before lockdown last year at Newcastle’s Northern Stage 500 seater who sold it out and we got a standing ovation.

Through the Riley play we offer a Theatre in Education where we deliver an autism awareness and acceptance play in primary schools.  That has opened up to more people asking when is the main play being staged again, we will be working on that this Autumn towards putting on a full national tour next year.

NORTHERN FILM

A spin off from the play is we made a short film clip of it with Chrissy Rock (Benidorm, Ladybird Ladybird) and Charlie Price (The Great). Now with BFI funding we are looking to make a feature film with Try Hard Films and Opus Films – all very exciting. The play and film are very northern, it will be a look of The Full Monty crossed with Shameless, that type of real gritty humour.

They have taken my stage script and Debbie Owen who writes for BBC programme Casualty has rewritten it into a screen play. I’ll be a sort of consultant when they are making the film, I will be there somewhere, because I’m not just a writer, theatre maker, I’m also a jobbing actress.

DANCE IN THE DARK

For the future I’m hoping we can have a creative hub with a 60-100 seat black box theatre – just a bare stage with black curtains, no red velvets or plush surroundings. We could hire it out to other companies to help sustain it and encourage new writing, experimental stuff. Plus we can have a small cinema screening room, rehearsal and meeting space with a café or bar, it would create jobs and work experience – that’s not too much to ask.

We just need someone to come and say you can have this building because I know you will make a cracking job of it. If I want to try something new I just go for it, I’ve never been frightened of failure I’m just frightened of regret. I don’t want to get to a point in life where I say if I had done that or tried that.

Alison’s latest play ‘Sex is Hard Work’ plays six nights at Newcastle’s Cluny from 28 June 2021.

Advance tickets £10. Doors open 6pm.

The Cluny, 36 Lime St, Ouseburn, Newcastle, NE1 2PQ.  (0191 230 44 74)

Interview by Gary Alikivi  May 2021.                    

DREAM CATCHER – in conversation with writer & performer Alison Stanley from Newcastle based theatre company, Life of Riley.

I’ve always loved singing, acting, performing – just something I’ve always done. I’ve been doing this since I was 4.

Nobody in my family sings or entertains, so you know bit of a freak really, the family think I’m a total exhibitionist – I just liked showing off (laughs).

SMELLS LIKE GYPSY SPIRIT

If I go further back my ancestry is German and Romany and in our family my Great Grandfather was the last of the travelling gypsies, he settled into a house and family when he met my Great Grandmother. A family name was the German, Fischer, they weren’t popular due to the war so the name spelling was changed by dropping the ‘c’. Maybe there was a German Gypsy treading the boards (laughs).

The whole process of theatre making for me is exciting, I don’t want to lie, it is challenging at times and some days I think is this the day I’m gonna throw the towel in. I’ve definitely got a bit of a strong spirit in me to keep going because hearing the word ‘no’ is not what I want to hear. If there is an obstacle in the way I’ll find a way round it.

NEVER LOST FOR WORDS

When an idea comes it niggles in the back of my head, then I sleep on it, it works its way to the front of my brain so in the morning it reveals itself and I think about how to develop the idea. Some writers say it’s a lonely time but when I’m writing I’m with all of the characters, I’ve worked out who they are and then they talk to me. Fictional characters just exist in my head where they are acting out their daily lives.

The whole rehearsal period can be frustrating but it’s good to hear your words brought to life. In rehearsals it’s mainly all there on script but sometimes I come in with a killer line. I add in a line if I’ve heard someone say it during the day or how some words sound – I’ll remember that and use it. On the first night in front of an audience it’s good feeling to see the initial idea from conception being brought to fruition.

BACK ON BOARD

I’m really keen on theatre being accessible to everybody so we can put a show on anywhere. Northern Stage have been supportive of my writing so I’ve had nights there, the Phoenix, The Arc in Stockton, Queens Hall in Hexham, I like mainstream theatres but I also like to take it to intimate audiences.

I’ve had three of my plays in Edinburgh, but beforehand I like to try them out to smaller audiences before they are unleashed on the scathing critics of Edinburgh Fringe. Getting any support is good because its hard getting your shows in any theatre because of the Covid backlog, so The Newcastle Cluny are preparing to show Sex is Hard Work from 28th June.

SEX IS HARD WORK

The show is based on a prostitute from South Shields who started work on the sex phone lines then ended up as an escort. When I first started rehearsing and writing the play I though I was a woman of the world, now I know I’m next to Mother Theresa (laughs). The play isn’t just titillation or a biography of her life it’s mainstream entertainment. I’ve took the character and added more depth. There is the part of life as a sex worker paired with being a carer for her father who’s had a stroke.

You know a lot of women are in the sex industry because of varying circumstances like debt, drugs and being coerced into it, or like the woman I spoke to just not fancying a 9 to 5 job and wanting to make lots of money. It may not be everybody’s career choice – but that’s hers. I like to challenge the audiences pre-conceived notions about a subject, and after the play they have taken a battering.

Sex is Hard Work plays six nights in The Cluny, Newcastle with the last night being a Thank You to NHS with some of their staff coming. We’ll see how the show is received then hopefully next year tour it and take it to Edinburgh Fringe.

‘Sex is Hard Work’ plays six nights from 28 June 2021. Advance tickets £10. Doors open 6pm.

The Cluny, 36 Lime St, Ouseburn, Newcastle, NE1 2PQ.  (0191 230 44 74)

Interview by Gary Alikivi  May 2021.