how to be an extra

Sydney Gilman turns around in his stall seat in the Palace Theatre, Manchester, and looks blank for a moment. "What do you mean by extras?" he asks. "We're Cavalcaders."

Joining the King's Head touring production of Noel Coward's Cavalcade, the first thing to remember is not to get on the wrong side of its hundreds of unpaid stars. You can upset them quite easily by bracketing them with the sort of people who make a quick fiver by walking up and down high streets, clutching shopping in police TV series.

The process which distills crude recruits into refined Cavalcaders may only take a week of evening rehearsals, but it is a hard one. Hard by the standards of the am-dram societies where anything less than six months' preparation is considered positively breakneck. Hard because Coward intended the piece to be an epic chronicle for the nation. There are 22 scenes running from the turn of the century to 1930, most requiring large crowds, ensemble singing and costume changes with attitude.

After being split into groups and pummelled into shape by two assistant directors, we are now at dress rehearsal stage. Time for a soothing chat from the director, Dan Crawford: "You are all essential," he says. "Without your being absolutely on the mark, this whole event will be off the mark." Naturally, a few nerves are set jangling. "We're standing here like this," an elderly man whispers, "but how do we know that this is how they would have stood in those days?".

As a rule, it is best to avoid the detail-mongers and find those with a broad grasp. "You go on. There's a song. You go off," a Mancunian lad called Dave informs me. For reasons of morale, it is wise not to participate in the camp badinage that burbles, fountain-like, in the background: "Could you sit down properly in the front, or I'm afraid we'll have to cut your head off," for example, or "hang about, Queenie's going to make a speech...".

For the same reason, block your ears to backstage moaning. Three women in Victorian, ankle-length skirts mutter darkly among themselves. "We've bought two tickets for tomorrow," one says. "And now my friend can't come, so that's pounds 7 down the drain." "There should be four prompt-letters," chimes in another, "but there are only two. You have to make them yourself - it's pathetic." "Anyone can go on that stage - anyone," despairs a third.

Ignore them. Calm absorption is all, and calm absorption is what we get on the first night. Men and women, young and old, quietly slide in and out of period costumes in the changing area behind the stage and, un- cued, troop on and off: a dockside fight, the Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria, it all goes tickety-boo.

Before I know it, I'm on "the beach of a popular seaside resort", in 1910, in summer blazer and boater singing "Oh I do Like to be Beside the Seaside". I have to wave at fellow holidaymakers, mime small talk and look astonished at a plane flying overhead. React, react, then off. Simple. Hardly feels like acting. Scarcely time to register the historical tapestry woven by "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" and "Roses of Picardy" before I find myself in Lithuanian Army uniform celebrating the end of the First World War in Trafalgar Square, opposite Worsley Opera Society's Lil Eckersley and her daughter, Louise.

The feeling at the end is euphoric, the sense of community prompted by the programme credits, palpable. For Bill Owen, Granada Studio Tour's funny man, it's a 40-year-old dream come true. Sharon Brody, a sales rep, has just one quibble: that the leads are a bit "stuck-up". "I worked with Julie Walters as an extra and she was ever so sweet, came over and talked and everything. This lot... I mean, I know we wouldn't be there without them, but at the same time, they wouldn't be there without us, would they?" She says this firmly, as though to add anything else would be simply extraneous.

'Cavalcade' to 2 Sep, Sadler's Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1 (0171-278 8916). Details on being an extra: 0171-226 8561

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?

An enlightening finale for Don Draper

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Serious player: Aussie Guy Sebastian rehearses for the big show in Vienna

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
    Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

    The end of an era across the continent

    It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
    Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

    'Focus on killing American people'

    Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
    Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

    Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

    The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
    Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

    Same-sex marriage

    As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
    The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

    The Mafia is going freelance

    Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable