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Interview with Simon Gross and Aaron Johns

A couple of days ago my first interview with actors in the adult pantomime Snow White And The Seven Poofs was published. Today I talk to the multi-talented Simon Gross who co-authored, directs and acts in the show and the lovely Aaron Johns who, as his drag alter ego Vicki Vivacious stars as Snow White. As always, I started by asking the two thespians to tell me something about themselves.

Simon Gross
Simon Gross
SG: I brought up on a farm in Oxfordshire, but farming was not really my type of thing as I always wanted to be on stage. I used to do productions at home with my sisters. On the whole, I hated school but got some relief in putting on shows and assemblies. After school, I did a performing arts course in Burton-on-Trent then went to the Guildford School of Acting. After college, I went into light entertainment as a Redcoat at the Grand Hotel in Scarborough which was the best training you could ever get. It really added to my theatrical training by giving me an all-round knowledge in the technical aspects of entertainment. After that, there was a mixed bag of everything really – including pantomime – in the West End, nationally and around the world. After that, I decided to move into producing and set up my own production company – The Entertainment Providers. Part of what we do is to take theatre into care homes and day centres. I really feel that the elderly often miss out on quality entertainment and this is a great way of providing it.

AR/VV: I’m a 34-year-old drag performer. I moved to London when I was 17 from Cornwall and studied at the Urdang Academy which was based in Covent Garden then. I came out of drama school and worked professionally for a few years. I was working with Priscilla for about three years which was where I fell in love with drag and that’s what I’ve been doing full time for the past 13 years. I find it’s a really fun way of performing, where you can be so creative and escape the drab boring routine of life and step into something a bit glitzier and someone completely different. And with drag, you definitely do become a different person. I love the fact that as soon as the wig goes on, I feel completely different, but as I am so familiar with Vicki now, I can easily come in and out of here. I do act differently (as Vicki) but I don’t act so differently I don’t know what I’m doing if that makes sense.

TE: How about Vicki, how would you describe her?

Vicki Vivacious
Vicki Vivacious

AJ/VV: For Vicki, I pull a lot of inspiration from two sides. Pop stars like Kylie and Katy Perry and then the other half is the old Hollywood era movies, mix them up and there’s Vicki. She’s outgoing, camp, and vibrant. She is what it says on the tin. She’s vivacious, she’s a man-eater, and attention seeker (and Aaron does have some of these qualities, but I’m not saying which ones). Vicki’s a bit of a chatterbox. She’s a party girl and when I get into Vicki, I very rarely want to get out of her again. As Vicki, I love to go around and entertain. FI there was a greatest hits CD for Vicki, then there would be songs like ‘Believe’ by Cher, ‘I’m Every Woman by Whitney, ‘Man I Feel like a Woman’ by Shania Twain.

TE: How did you get involved in producing adult pantomimes?

SG: Panto has always been a big part of life (around 50 pantos), and I introduced adult panto to London in the original Above the Stag Theatre in Victoria. The production was Sinderfella in 2008 and the following year, I took the same show to the Leicester Square Theatre. Snow White co-written with Roger Kitter came into being in 2010. The original production starred Bette Rinse and the show has really stood the test of time. Ten years later, I am using the original script and it still works. I think there has always been a big need to have adult pantomime. It was actually Jim Davidson that inspired me with his pantomime “Sinderella”. I played an ugly sister in a touring version of the show which went to working men’s clubs around the country, and I got a real taste for the idea of adult panto then. There’s a real freedom in being able to get close to an audience, saying and doing what you want, at heart, everyone is a big kid who likes nothing more than to close the door and hiss and boo at the baddy.

TE: I really loved last year’s pantomime, how was it for you?

SG: It was an amazing run. I would happily have had all the cast back as we were like a family. Everyone was wonderful and supportive in rehearsals and we really worked as a team. The whole experience was great, and I had a ball which is what it was all about.

TE: Why do you think pantomime has endured for so long?

AJ/VV: I think the good thing about panto is it’s such a British tradition. Its always been there as long as I can remember, and it will be there until the day I die. I think it’s something that’s ingrained in British people. It’s a place where people will go and watch things like drag but don’t really necessarily realise that that is what they are watching. If you ask them would they go and see a drag show they would say no but then they go to see a panto. It’s so universal, there’s something for the children and something for adults. There’s so much innuendo that children don’t get but the adults do. So, the adults take the children, but I think secretly the adults enjoy it more. It’s almost like a secret show that the children don’t understand, and the parents are in a special club as they get all these innuendo jokes. And adult panto pushes this to an extreme. Everything is an innuendo, in part of this show I get into a situation with three bears. Not exactly something you would see in a normal panto at the Palladium.

TE: This year’s offering is Snow White and the Seven Poofs, what can you tell me about it?

SG: It’s a cult show, with a brilliant script. Lots of singing and dancing with about 12 musical numbers including ‘Get the Party Started’, ‘This Is Me’, ‘YMCA’, ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Like A Virgin’. Songs that are really perfect to get you in the mood for Christmas. This year we have teamed up with the Sanctum to make a real evening of it, so there is a meal and drink along with the show itself. Of course, we must be aware of the rules around social distancing so groups will be kept together in social bubbles. I’m really looking forward to working with everyone. There is a cast of seven including Vicki, who is a lovely and incredibly talented person

TE: Vicki is playing Snow White; how did you get involved?

VV: I’ve known Simon for a long time, and we have often both worked at the same Pride events. Before he was on Big Brother, I knew of him because he was always doing shows and I was in The Supreme Fabulettes, on a UK tour and we were sometimes in London at the same time. I had heard about Snow White and in 2017, Simon approached me to see if I fancied playing Snow White which I said yes to and was really glad I did as it worked brilliantly for me. I could do the panto then dash off to gigs afterwards. It added more to my workload, but it was fun, and who doesn’t like an adult panto.

TE: Given that panto is a very interactive thing, how do you think the new space and social distancing rules will affect the dynamic of the performance?

SG: It’s going to be difficult for me. I’m a very interactive performer and like to get out there. Obviously, that can’t happen, so we need to find ways to get the show out and bring the audience into it. Things like finding out people’s names and referring to them in the show. It’s also going to be more of a spectacle with much bigger production numbers and more spacing to make it feel more like an arena production.

TE: How are the preparations going?

EG: Obviously, I’ve done the show before so know what we are doing. This year, I’ve brought in Wilmot Mulley as choreographer and working with me on the staging. The blocking and script are all worked out in my mind. Being in the restaurant, we are limited to set but there will be a backdrop across the front of the kitchen area and with the bigger space, and enhanced lighting, it’s going to be a really magical place to perform and see the show.

AJ/VV: I have the script, and I’m quite familiar with it. But given the current restrictions, I’m very intrigued about how things will be done this year. I probably won’t be too happy snogging the Prince on the stage without knowing if he’s been tested. When we perform with weeks of rehearsals, I’m sure Simon will have that all in hand. I do think that Simon’s pretty brave putting this on, but that’s typical Simon, a real fighter. I’m looking forward to going in almost like a veteran. Simon and I are the only two from the cast when I last performed it so literally, I will be working with all new people which is exciting. Since Vicki is a performer in her own right, who plays Snow White?

AJ/VV: It’s definitely Vicki. I get into Vicki and then Vicki is playing the role. I struggle a bit in rehearsals as I struggle to perform as a drag queen when I’m Aaron. It doesn’t come naturally to me. For example, I’ve got to be absolutely hammered to do karaoke but as Vicki, I’ll parade around on the tube in thigh-high boots. So, in rehearsals, when I’m Aaron not in drag it is a bit difficult. But it is Vicki playing Snow White, there’s no sign of Aaron at all.

TE: Given the way things have been this year, do you think the audience will be different compared to last year?

SG: I think people will be charging out the door to be there. They will be hungry for some fun in their lives. Let’s get together, make a night out of it. People will really be wanting to get back to normal again and having fun. And that’s what is great about the show, it’s about having fun.

AJ/VV: I think being in a space where its open it genuinely won’t make a difference. It’s a new experience with the dining and food. I think people will be so excited to be out and watch something live, they will jump into the show. I’d rather have it this way and all social distanced so that it can be done. I think the people are going to be with us the whole way, and I’m going to be so excited to be performing to an actual live audience I’ll be performing 110%.

TE: What’s Simon like to work for?

SG: I’m very old school, and I like things right. I think I’m fair and supportive and want things done in a professional way. I like people to arrive on time and have their scripts learnt. I’m a fighter and a trier and I like people to be like that. It’s not always about talent, it’s about the discipline as well. I’m very passionate and caring. I expect a 10 out of 10 job, and I will work as hard as I can with the performers to get that.

AJ/VV: I get on well with Simon because I know him. He is a really big personality and a bit eccentric. If something isn’t done how he wants it, and other people can’t quite imagine how he’s trying to describe it the mood can get a bit frosty. But he’s not rude or inappropriate and he’s always very fair and understanding. I find him hilarious and I could watch him for hours. In fact, if he had a camera crew following him around for a year, you could come up with some really good TV. I think we get on well as we are similar in our standards and levels of commitment. He does always try to get the best out of people.

TE: As actors, how do you keep the intensity level up so that the last show is as good as the first?

AJ/VV: I think it’s because every show is different, the show is never the same twice. Even more so with panto which makes everything more spontaneous. It’s that atmosphere, it’s the interaction and the audience participation it really helps you go through. I’ve been on stage before feeling so ill, but it’s like Dr Theatre, you put your wig on and as soon as you get on stage, you forget about feeling sick until you come off again. I give myself a little reminder before every show that this is may be my 20th performance but it’s the first time for the audience.

TE: Pantomime has always pushed boundaries but with adult pantomime, those boundaries are much wider. Do you think there is a limit to what can be said or done during and adult pantomime?

SG: I think it’s not a free-for-all. It’s not a question of being on the stage and just going for it. I try to give full value in my productions. It’s a cleverly produced production that allows for ad-libbing, but the core story will always be there, so we always get back to the script. The performers know how to deliver – when to stop and how to handle an audience so that we always keep the magic of the story. This is really true of Vicki and she and I work really well together and are very supportive of each other.

AJ/VV: I do, as much as its an adult panto and it’s over 18 and you know full well there will be swear words there are definitely things that are off-limits. For example, I’ve never been a fan of a drag queen that is really horrible to people just to get laughs. I really hate humour that isn’t clever humour. You should judge a room and a person individually before jumping in. You also have to be very careful with what you say. The discussion about the BBC partially banning certain words in the song ‘Fairytale of New York’ is a great example. Everything comes round to context. But having said that, there’s room for improvisation and ad-libbing in the show, and I am comfortable going off script or off song, say something to somebody in the audience then pick up where I was. I’ve got a few parts where I speak solo or with Simon and, as we’re so comfortable with each other, that’s a time where we can both go off script but then come to where we need to be to move the story on. A little tip, even if I know the script backwards, I will always have it sellotaped to the wall backstage in case I need to refer to it.

TE: For the last few minutes can we talk about the effect COVID has had on you.

SG: I am a fighter, and I don’t give up. With this year, in particular, you can’t give in to it. You must have the fight in you. I create opportunities and things to happen. I’ve taken shows into gardens and made adjustments in order to present performances. Thinking outside the box and coming up with an option than taking the risk. We don’t know what is going to happen so move slowly and carefully then go for it. Basically, my motto is ‘I Will Survive’, which is also a song in the show.

AJ/VV: The curfew has caused so many problems for bars. Most of the money gets spent later at night as people are more relaxed. Venues are also getting hit as they have to put on more staff. So, they can provide table service etc, but for a smaller number of people so can’t really warrant the money to add cabaret to the evening. The future is very unknown at the moment. This vaccine will be a good thing for opening things back up again. I have been doing live shows on a Friday night on Facebook. I find it helps and gives me a purpose every week, and I get to interact with people. Working online is Ok but it’s not the same. However, there are things to look forward to. I’ve been asked to go to Ku Bar on the 8th December for their 25th birthday and I’m so excited about getting
into drag and having that drag interaction with people.

TE: Rumour has it your having a shot at the Xmas No1.

SG: yes, I’ve just released a brand new “corny, catchy” Christmas charity single called ‘Showbiz Christmas’ to raise money for Age UK. It harks back to the old Christmas classics which were always as cheesy as they were catchy and for some reason have managed to worm their way into the nation’s heart. It’s for Age UK who are really important to me and I had a weekend job in a local care home as a teenager and the song is available through all the normal download/streaming apps.

TE: If you were to sum up Snow White and the Seven Poofs in one sentence, what would it be?

SG: Epic, it puts the pizazz into Poundland!

You can catch Snow White And The Seven Poofs 2020 comes to the Karma Sanctum Soho Hotel at the Karam Sanctum Hotel in Soho. The run goes from the 15th – 23rd December and 27th December – January 7th all at 7.30pm and there will also be two matinees on the 17th December and 7th January at 4pm.
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