Sitting on a panel alongside a member of the Casting Directors Guild, a famous actor/comedian, and a freelance director, is not a bad way to start your Saturday.
I had been looking forward to the morning for months. Being asked to a join the panel was a privilege but when I realised who I was going to be next to, I must admit panicked me slightly:
Jack Northeast is a freelance director, practitioner and musician who I had previously had the joy of working with on Greg Mosse's play, Self Help, just a month before. He is 21 and has already toured Italy with a show, directed several plays and visited some incredible places with his band, JOELPETER.
Jonny Boutwood (24) is a casting assistant and has recently been accepted as a member of the Casting Directors Guild. He has helped in the casting of many brilliant shows (Ripper Street, The Outcast, The Missing)and has also just finished casting for a short film.
And finally, there was the inimitable Sir Lenny Henry. Known for his comedy and more recently, his acting, he is also one of the founders of Comic Relief. He is currently starring as Frank in Educating Rita, but his personal story is closer to that of Rita's.
Heading our discussion panel was Kate Mosse, author of The Labyrinth and other successful novels.
And so I found myself, on Saturday 11th July, as part of this reputable lineup. Thanks to the efforts of the Youth Theatre (with special mention to Fred Davis), we had a good crowd of people in the Minerva, questions at the ready.
I arrived at 10:30 for a brief run-through with the rest of the panel. For ten minutes, I was sat alone with Lenny; too nervous to even be starstruck. I had already met him once when in rehearsals for Self Help, as the cast of Educating Rita had been rehearsing across the corridor. That was a short conversation over a water cooler because we had run out of cups – nothing special, but he had seemed talkative and friendly enough. This time, he was much quieter. Perhaps it was an early morning after a late night, or nerves, but he seemed a lot more subdued. Kate and the rest of the panel arrived shortly, and we began our preparations.
Twenty minutes later, we were walking through to take our seats on the stage. As an audience member and self-professed theatre geek, I have been to many of these panels and always thought how cool it was when actors casually strolled in with their takeaway coffee cups, taking a seat next to their peers and giggling away to each other as the audience filed in. Now, I know their giggles are generally a result of how nervous they feel, and conversation is along the lines of 'I've just seen my mum in the audience' or 'I need a wee but it's too late now!
Sat between Jack and Jonny, I started to feel a little more comfortable. I found people in the audience I could look at if I started to panic and I had my notebook in front of me for reference.
For the first few minutes, we took it in turns to talk about how we had got to 'where we are today'. My account ended with an almost-proposal from Lenny (definitely my favourite part of the day!)
Me: "…and ultimately, my plan is to marry a famous actor…"
Lenny: "And how's that going for you?"
Me: "Well, I am currently still looking for one…"(Something possessed me to then wink awkwardly at Lenny)
Lenny: (going to tip Jonny out of his chair in a hurry) "…Swap with me, swap with me!"
Still, it got a good laugh out of the audience. The rest of the panel went smoothly; we touched on the importance of having good mentors, doing plenty of networking, working hard and having the determination to succeed.
Young people (and parents) of all ages asked us a variety of questions – about how to make your CV look better, different jobs in the arts, apprenticeships, dealing with knockbacks, and much more. After an hour and a half, it was time for the discussion to end. People still had questions for us, so we hung around a while, chatting. I managed a quick selfie with Lenny before he ran off for Educating Rita and the rest of us ended the morning with a coffee in the theatre café.
Two days later, Jack and I were running a Youth Theatre session and had an interesting conversation. We both realised that some of the questions we had been asked by the audience were things we hadn't really asked ourselvesbefore – and we'd learnt a lot from answering them for other people.
One of our regular session-goers came over to us as we chatted and said, "You know what, I learnt so much about you both on Saturday, and I'm really inspired to see what I can do too now!"
If we have only inspired one person from that morning, knowing that he now feels motivated to make his own way in the arts, is such a significant achievement.
To see the Youth Get In! Panel discussion click here