Jo Skilton is a treasure of the Hamilton community theatre scene. A British ex–pat who settled in Hamilton in 1975, Skilton has spent nearly forty years working as a social worker by day, and acting her heart out in the evenings. Now, in retirement, she’s taking another swing a professional theatre in Aquarius’ production of Agatha Christie’s quintessential murder mystery, The Mousetrap, which opens next week.
To those who follow local am–drams she is Brecht’s Mother Courage, Helene Hanff of 84 Charing Cross Road, and Kate Mundy of Ballybeg dancing at Lughnasa. Her Toby Belch is fondly remembered as well, but mostly she is known for her portrayals of strong female characters, and the Mousetrap role is no exception.
“Her name is Mrs Boyle,” Skilton informed me. “She is very unlikable. Not only a strong woman, she’s really unpleasant. Obviously the Mousetrap is British, so the accent’s not a problem, I can use my own sound just larger, but I have noticed my voice is becoming much stronger when I’m talking to people lately because Mrs Boyle really is this in–your–face woman.”
“I think one has to get past, and find a way to justify, this woman’s unpleasantness. She is a woman who complains all the time, but in a way, what she’s saying is right. It’s how she says it, how she alienates by her behaviour.”
Skilton was likely spotted by Aquarius when she was part of local playwright Peter Gruner’s Fringe Hit, Minced, when it played as part of the Studio Series. I was curious to know how she felt about entering the professional scene after so many years of amateur work.
“Well, it’s interesting,” she recounted. “I had a chance to work with John Neville at the Neptune when I was living in Halifax, many many years ago now, but I had been offered a social work job at McMaster, and they wouldn’t delay my start for me. I should have told Mac to stuff it, I suppose. It’s like I’ve come full circle.”
It was a nice connection to Aquarius Artistic Director Ron Ulrich, who was the Artistic Director of the Neptune for many years, but being the newest kid on the block and retiree might be a little nerve–wracking, not to say exhausting, and I wanted to know her observations about the difference between community and professional theatre.
“Everybody’s been lovely to me, just absolutely lovely,” was her assertion. “Obviously, each company, professional or otherwise, is putting on a play, but the first difference I noticed is the intensity of the rehearsal period.”
“We’ve got three weeks of rehearsal, though it was two for my last professional gig, and you are rehearsing ostensibly eight hours a day, six days a week. The first week I was really anxious, really uptight. I’ve been retired for two years, and then to go and do eight hours a day... but Ron Ulrich is fantastic about letting people go when they’re not needed.”
“And there is the skill set of everybody at Aquarius: From the director, the costumes, the wig maker, the set design, the carpentry, and promotional team. The Stage Manager has much more authority. She is God, basically, and God help you if you don’t check it with the SM before you do things. We’ve got a lady called Beth Bruck. She’s lovely, but incredibly efficient – I don’t want to cross Beth! Though like everyone else she’s been lovely to me.”
“And of course, the whole objective is to make money. The focus is make sure this works, because this is your livelihood. Then of course there are the actors themselves. It’s so wonderful working with professional actors.”
“That’s not to say I haven’t had wonderful experiences with community actors, many of whom could, absolutely, move right over to professional, but nonetheless, when you walk into the room and there’s Trish Lindstrom who’s had lead roles a Stratford – she was Christopher Plummer’s Miranda, and Sally Bowles in Cabaret! She’s an absolute darling. There’s Simon Phillips, just come over from England, who has worked with Trevor Nunn, and Kevin Spacey at the old Vic. Some are right out of theatre school, but they’re all really trained, really experienced people. They all arrived mostly off book. The director has the time to go into every little detail of motivation.”
“All of these people have been fully professionally trained and are triple, quadruple threats; they sing, they dance, they act, they play piano. They’re just incredible! And working from day one, from a place of focussed intent. So the number of things I have either forgotten or have to unlearn is enormous.”
“In community theatre we can be incredibly lazy! However hard we work, we’re still incredibly lazy in comparison to the professionals. I learn something every day at rehearsal. And I love it. I absolutely love it. I love being able to talk about what I’m doing with the other actors, because, you know, with community theatre it’s a hobby, people don’t always want to put in that amount of thought. People tell me to lighten up in community theatre all the time because I’m really intense about what I do – I always have been, but it doesn’t always fit in community groups.”
To see if the intensity pays off, order tickets now. Theatre Aquarius unveils the longest running theatre mystery of all time, starting September 25th! V
Sept. 25–29, Oct. 1–6, 8–12
@ Theatre Aquarius.
190 King William St., Hamilton.