A day in the life of a 'West End in Schools' performer

Abi Finley, one of our regular West End in Schools performers, tells us about a typical day in her life…and a few more things besides!

How did you become an actress?

I trained in London at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. 

I was in the middle of my Dissertation in 2006 when I heard about auditions for the TV show How do you solve a Problem like Maria? Andrew Lloyd Webber was searching for someone to play Maria Von Trapp in his stage production of The Sound of Music.

I didn’t expect to win but I thought it was a fun way to get some exposure and potentially meet one or two really influential people in the theatre world. And that’s what happened!  I made it to the semi final and subsequently Tim Rice offered me the lead female role of Fiona in his revival of the musical Blondel!

How do you juggle your work in schools with your roles in the West End?

The workshops, shows and pantomimes in schools are always in the daytime, so I can also do an evening show in the West End. For example, last year I was in Leader of the Pack at Waterloo East Theatre and also going into schools to perform Craig Christie’s literacy musicals.

Abi on stage in Leader of the Pack

Abi on stage in Leader of the Pack

The brilliant thing about West End in Schools is that the work fits in around my shows in the West End. Not only that but when a show contract comes to an end, which they always do, I am still doing the things I love, singing and acting! Plus I love being so up-close and involved with the audience…that doesn’t happen in the same way in theatres.

Tell us about a typical West End in Schools day!

Today I got up at 6.30am. I washed my hair and put on my ‘base costume,’ which is black leggings and a t-shirt. The costumes then layer over this during the show. Last but not least, I made myself a healthy smoothie!

I drove from where I live in East Finchley, to Dylan’s home in Turnpike Lane to pick him up. Between us, Dylan and I play all of the parts in the show so there are character and costume changes throughout. We have the costumes and props in the car with us. The magic of West End in Schools is that we don’t need huge sets and lighting rigs etc. Our aim is to deliver top quality performances and tell engaging stories with the help of a few simple, but well thought out props and the amazing imaginations of the children.

On the way to Cambridge (where today’s schools are) we shift into character and run a few lines. Partly this is for our own amusement and partly because we don’t perform with the same people everyday, so it’s good to be prepared for a different accent or a cheeky ad-lib and click into the acting partnership during our journey. 

One of the Cambridgeshire schools that Dylan and I visited today was for children with Special Educational Needs. We had quite a vivid picture of the school before we arrived because Sarah, our workshop coordinator, had a conversation at the time of booking to discuss any adaptations that would help the children get the most out of the experience.

Whenever I arrive at a school it’s lovely to gain a quick insight into the personality and values of the people there. I look at things like the artwork on the walls and of course whether we’re offered a cuppa! Sometimes the Head Teacher or Literacy Coordinator will come to greet us and show us to the performance space and it’s always nice to meet them.

Before the show starts we introduce ourselves to the children and let them know how they can join-in and engage with the show - like booing at the baddie or coming up on stage to help us out! We demonstrate our ‘cut’ signal so they know when to be quiet and we ensue they know to keep sitting behind the stage markers on the floor for their safety because we move around quite a bit.

Then the show begins! The children really sit up and engage when we start singing. I guess it’s the first time that they really realise this is something unique happening in their school hall.

The Q&A session at the end is one of my favourite parts of the show. This is when we can see how the show has affected the children - did the moral of the story hit home? Were they able to come on the journey with us? What did they learn? It’s almost a live critique! Our show Jump to It encourages children to turn off the Xbox, get out and live life, appreciate their friends and of course…read books! It’s lovely when, like today, we can tell that we’ve given the children such a positive experience and they’ve taken the show’s lessons on board.

In return, we had some questions from the children about our work and career paths (exactly the questions I’d have asked in their shoes – I was that kid!) – or in some cases it’s “Are you two married?” We aren’t!

After we pack away the props and get back to the car I check my phone for any messages from my agent.  I need to know if I have auditions lined up for the following week or if any recent auditions have resulted in a job offer. A message today meant I needed to learn two songs and some script for an audition tomorrow! 

My bedtime varies. It depends on what is happening the next day and what time my last performance was. I find it impossible to sleep for at least three hours after I leave a stage!  If I have done an afternoon show some way from London, I might not get back home until 7 or 8pm. Tonight I have scripts to learn for tomorrow! Luckily, actors tend to be night-time people and I’m one of those!

What’s the best feedback you’ve had?

I love performing in schools because the children are the most honest audience you can have!  Allowing your audience to drift off or get bored is not an option! 

Sometimes the children in Year 5 and 6 have reached the “too cool for school” age and look slightly doubtful when they first walk in the hall. There is great satisfaction in seeing them turn around once we start performing. They join in, forgetting themselves. They get lost in the story world we create and that’s brilliant feedback in itself.

That ‘turn around’ happens quite often with older children in schools, and sometimes the younger children send us thank you letters and drawings after a show – I love that too.

But recently I received a unique and amazing piece of feedback, totally unexpectedly…

Like lots of West End actors I quite often pop into the West End in Schools office near Leicester Square to see the team there or even to help out. I’m very happy to speak to schools myself to help plan a visit and to figure out what will work best for them.  I happened to pick up the phone to a lady from Yorkshire who wanted to speak to us about doing something for their school Book Week. 

I told her about our literacy musicals - how they work, the quality of the actors, the featured books etc.  The lady said; “`Yes, I know about the quality of your performers - I looked on the website and saw the girl from the BBC’s How do you solve a Problem like Maria!” She went on, “My family watched that programme every week and it kick started a love of musicals in my daughter and myself. Since then we have become regular theatre goers and my daughter, who is now 18, wants to train to be a costume designer!”

 I was utterly thrilled!

This lovely lady has booked Jump to It! for her Book Week and I know the team in the office are trying to arrange the logistics alongside my diary so that I can perform there!

What alternative career might have attracted you?

I think I might have been a teacher if I hadn’t taken the acting path. I used to run lots of after school drama clubs and summer schools and love sharing my passion and enthusiasm for the performing arts. Either that or secret agent...well…it’s another way to put the acting skills to good use!