Interview with Peter F. Gardiner

In a first of a series of inspirational interviews with stars actors of stage and screen, we this week we had the pleasure of speaking with professional actor and former Dramacube Teacher, Peter F. Gardiner who is currently appearing in the hugely successful West End production of The Railway Children.

Q1) Being offered a part in a hugely successful West End show must be a dream job for any actor. Can you tell us about the audition process and what it was like when you were offered the part?

The audition process was a fairly normal and regular experience, my agent rang me and then emailed me the script, explaining what roles I’d be auditioning for. The audition was really close to where I live, it was at the Jacksons Lane Centre in Highgate, (I live in Crouch End just down the road) so that made my life really easy (these little factors really help relax you – especially as I’ve flown up to Edinburgh for an audition before, so when it’s just down the road, it makes life really easy.) I had about five days to prepare so it was great to have that large amount of time to work out how I wanted to make the three different characters look and sound different. One was heightened RP (Received Pronunciation) for the Old Gentleman role, then Yorkshire for the Doctor (as well as putting on a pair of glasses) and finally as clear a Russian accent as I could muster for the role of Mr Schepansky. When I went into the audition room I felt very much at ease as the three people behind the desk interviewing me were very welcoming and I thought to myself “I can get this job, I can do this! I’d just played a large range of roles in the Chester outdoor season (summer 2014), so I felt very ready and ‘match-fit’ to do a good job and play three different roles for them. There was a moment in the latter part of the audition after I’d read for the roles where I spoke in quite an open and confident way and explained that I would be very comfortable being an understudy and being in the ensemble. Being in the ensemble involves having a few lines, playing a Policeman, a villager, a train driver and a railway worker and waiting to potentially go on at a minutes notice to cover one of the actors. What I said was that I had recently been an understudy at the National Theatre (in 2013) and I knew what it entailed, I was not going to be bored, or horrified to find out that I wasn’t centre-stage every night, and also in my personal life my partner and I had just had a baby and we were pregnant with another. I was making it clear that I knew what the job entailed. The panel really liked that. Also one of the producers knew the director that I had just worked with in Chester. After the audition she was able to call him and double-check that everything I had said was true and that I was a ‘team-player’ which is a really, really important factor in joining a company. I auditioned well, and I spoke to the panel in a friendly and open way, and then my credentials were confirmed by another director – so all in all a very successful audition. When I got the call from my agent offering me the job I was over the moon (as was my partner, we had a wee girl but we were also pregnant with our wee boy who was due in December 2014). I started rehearsing The Railway Children in November 2014, my boy was born on December 27th 2014 (so I had to take a rare day off for his birth) and now nearly 2 years down the line my boy’s almost 2yrs old and the show’s nearing the end of it’s run in January 2017 after 2yrs and 2months. Both lovely events happened almost simultaneously!

Q2) When did you first meet your fellow cast members and what were they like?
I met my fellow cast members at the first evening of rehearsals (which was a full read-through of the play) at a rehearsal venue called the Three Mills Studios in Bromley-By-Bow in East London. I had met one of the actors before (Connie) when we both filmed an episode of Waterloo Road up in Greenock near Glasgow in Scotland. The acting industry has about 50,000 performers in the business, but as there’s only about 8% being employed at any one time (and it tends to be the same 8% getting all the work), it’s fairly common that you come across the same actors that you’ve met and worked with before.

Q3) We often remind our young actors at Dramacube how important it is to learn their lines and lyrics thoroughly. What techniques did you use to learn your lines and lyrics in The Railway Children?

Knowing your lines and lyrics really well is of vital importance to your success as a performer. In the early stages of rehearsal I would sit on the Tube going to and from rehearsals and just try and learn some of the words, especially the lines from the scene we’d been working on that day. Once we had opened the show, every performance I would sit in the dressing room and go over the lines for one of the three actors I was covering. Through repetition I learned the lines. There is also something in the professional theatre called a ‘show-watch’ which (exactly as the name suggests) gets you the opportunity to watch the show (and have your small roles covered by the other actors) this provides you with an opportunity to watch a performance and make notes so that you can emulate the moves and words of your fellow actors. So that also helped me to know the blocking and lines of my fellow performers. In general in order to learn my lines I just read and re-read the script. Very occasionally I use my iPhone to record the cues and then leave a gap for me to speak the lines out loud. The lines should become second nature so you can say them really naturally. With a well written script the speeches and conversations should flow and make sense, this should also help with learning them. I sometimes draw pictures of the things I’m saying, for instance as the Doctor I had to speak a list and so I drew the images in my script, (grapes, beef essence – Bovril basically, soda water and milk) little visual aids can be useful especially in the early days of learning words. In addition to all of the above the understudies were given their own rehearsals during the initial rehearsal period and also onstage after we had opened the show. These rehearsals really helped me to learn my lines and blocking.

Q4) Most of our shows at Dramacube are rehearsed once a week. How long was the rehearsal period and what was the process?

The rehearsal process was about three and a half weeks long. This is a slightly shorter rehearsal period than other professional shows – but the lead actors had been sent the script weeks before the rehearsal period started. This meant that lots of them could start learning the lines way before day one of the rehearsal period.  After three days of rehearsals we had blocked the whole play and we did a full run. The lead actress playing the role of Bobby was already completely off-book & did the run almost without a single prompt. She had clearly done her homework way before the start of rehearsals!

Q5) Were you nervous when you first started the show and how did you overcome any first night nerves?

I was a little bit nervous on the first night, but I knew that as I only had about seven lines and a group song to sing that I really didn’t have much to be nervous about. However, on the first occasion that I had to understudy one of the three actors I covered and I had to actually go on stage for them was TERRIFYING! I think that was about four months into the run and I got a phone call in the morning from the Company Stage Manager telling me that one of the actors was off sick and I was going on in place of them. That was scary as you’ve never ever rehearsed the scenes with the actual principal actors, so it all feels very unrehearsed & new, VERY NEW!

Q6) Have there been any moments during the show when something has gone wrong and how did you and the other actors deal with it?

Just today a lady in the audience had what seemed to be a stroke. Her family were very calm about it and laid her down on the floor (it was as if she had suffered from strokes before) the ushers gathered around her and were offering assistance and then eventually the CSM (Company Stage Manager) had to announce over the tannoy in the auditorium that we would be halting the show. At the same time some other stage managers came on stage and guided the actors offstage. An ambulance was called and the lady and her family all left together in the ambulance. She seemed to be okay and not too unwell. When the show restarted after at least a 10 minute pause, there was a lovely warm round of applause – “The show must go on” must have been in the thoughts of many of the audience and the company too.

With a competent and experienced cast and crew whenever anything goes wrong you see their experience and professionalism shining through. We’ve had the train not moving due to various issues and the last four minutes of the whole show not being performed due to a major electrical fault. So yes over two years in a huge temporary site (like the Kings Cross Theatre) there are all sorts of interesting and challenging moments. We went through a phase of shoes and boots going missing, or them turning up all chewed and torn. We worked out that foxes were getting into the dressing rooms at night and dragging away bits of costume! You do have to be prepared for anything and everything to happen.

We’ve had David Cameron (then the Prime Minister) in the audience as well as pop stars like Paul McCartney and Brian May. When you see people like that it can often cause quite a lot of excitement amongst the cast and audience which is lovely!

Q7) The Railway Children has been running for a long time. How has your role in the show changed during that time?

I’ve gone from being in the Ensemble – you get paid less, you’re in crowd scenes and have very little to do in each performance, but you’re standing-by to go on as an understudy. I’ve gone from doing that for nearly a year to being in the company where you get paid more and you have more responsibility. So now I am the Butler and Doctor at every performance and I get to do a lot more acting.

Q8) What do you enjoyed most about being part of the company?

I’ve loved being in a team of supportive and creative people. We have loads of fun together and there’s always loads of laughter backstage and in the wings. Artistically I’ve relished the roles that I’ve played and there’s been loads of them from a Detective to an Old Gent to a Father, a Butler, a Doctor, a Russian refugee, train driver, policeman etc….

Q9) The set design for The Railway Children is really clever. What is it like working in such an exciting space?

I have never grown bored or tired of walking into work and passing the train track, seating for 1,000 people and then the 80 ton steam engine. The amazing set adds so much to the show, especially in the moments when the actual steam engine is used, also there’s some very inventive use of the trucks for staging different scenes such as the London home or the three chimneys cottage in Yorkshire and also the gauze which is used to create a tunnel effect. However as visually stunning as all of that is, it would all be for nothing if the acting wasn’t heartfelt and natural and the script and storyline were not as good as they are. I was in a cast of four actors that performed in a different production of The Railway Children in a small pub theatre in Islington (called The Kings Head) back in 2007 and it was very moving and theatrical and enjoyable for the audience but probably cost about 1% of the Kings Cross show which is a multi-million pound project. So money, size and spectacle are not everything!

Q10) Looking ahead, what is next in the pipe-line or what would be your next dream job?

I have nothing in the pipeline. That’s the short answer. We know the show will finish on January 8th 2017 and at the moment I know that I’ll go on to be unemployed. But over the next three months my agent will be submitting me for projects from theatre to TV to films and I would hope to not be out of work for too long! I recently shot a film called Mad To Be Normal. The film is set in the 1960’s and stars David Tennant. In flashbacks (to when David Tennant’s character was a little boy in the 1920’s and 1930’s) I play his father. I’m only in two scenes but I loved the experience of shooting a film. So I would love to do a lot more acting on the screen, whether TV or film I don’t mind but I’d really like to build up my experience and CV for screen acting.

We’d like to thank Peter for his time and wish him the very best of luck with the remaining run of The Railway Children and with all future projects.