Off to work they go: The panto season is in full swing, but the only jobs for small actors tend to come in groups of seven. Robert Butler meets one set who are spending another year as stage Dwarfs

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The Independent Culture
OUT IN the foyer, posters advertise SNOW WHITE in large letters, and then, in a scroll underneath, like a subtitle, AND THE SEVEN DWARFS. The posters carry cut-out photos of the television stars - Marti Caine, Derek Griffiths and Emily Symons - as well as a group shot of the Seven Dwarfs. The letters in Marti Caine's name are bigger than the complete photo of the Dwarfs. And if you study the shot of the Dwarfs you will see that two of the actors no longer appear in the show. The photograph is three years old.

'The adults want to see the stars,' one of the Seven, Little Pete, told me, 'but the young kids want to see the little fellas.' But however much the actors characterise their roles, the producers and public will always see these little fellas as a bunch: one where the faces, if they change from year to year, don't particularly matter. It's here that fantasy and real life blur uneasily. One member of this cast was in a production of Snow White that advertised 'real live dwarfs'. At the stage- door children asking for autographs at the stage will sometimes enquire if the Seven all live together. Unlike the other actors, each actor playing a Dwarf, receives the same wage (about double the Equity minimum), regardless of talent or experience. 'The irony is that a dancer will come off stage, take off their costume, and no one will bug them,' said Little Pete, 'With us, we take off our costumes, and everyone still knows who we are.'

THE children in the matinee audience at the New Theatre, Cardiff, are all dressed up for the panto: girls with silver Alice bands and boys with multi-coloured bow-ties climb over seats next to grandparents with walking sticks and hearing aids. A droll voice comes on the Tannoy to announce that the eating of chocolate is strictly encouraged.

The house lights dim, the music starts up, and on strides the narrator, Derek Griffiths. Meanwhile, in a dressing-room backstage, three of the actors playing Dwarfs sit around in T-shirts and jeans. They haven't begun to get ready. 'Some of us leave it to the first bars of the cottage coming on,' says Anthony Georghiou, who plays Weezy. That's not for a long while. They may be half the title, but with only three entrances they are considerably less than half the action. The Red Queen has to question the mirror, Snow White has to run into the forest, meet the gypsies (for a song) and the wild animals (for a dance), and only then does she come across the crooked little half-timbered cottage which is their home.

When you are doing two shows a day for four weeks (with two days off for Christmas), the dressing-room becomes the professional home. This one is brightly decorated with Christmas cards and posters, and there's a portable phone, a toaster, bottles of Piat d'Or (Christmas presents from Derek Griffiths) and red towels with their Christian names on (Christmas presents from Marti Caine). But their employment prospects are not so bright.

As we watch the castle scenes progress on the television monitor, the three actors ex-plain how the fantasy boom of the 1980s gave much work to 'small' actors as it did to 'normal-statured' ones. There was Flash Gordon (1980), Time Bandits (1981), Return to Oz (1985), Legend (1985), Labyrinth (1986), The Princess Bride (1987) and Willow (1988). 'That kept us all in business,' says Georghiou, 'We did two a year maybe.' While there is still work in videos and commercials (some dwarfs flash past in the current Lloyd's Bank ad), films with large 'small' casts have dried up.

'We were getting calls for 250 small people for some films,' says Kevin Hudson, 'Willow had 250. They were getting in people from Spain and Germany.' Nowadays thrifty film companies employ fewer actors but more tricks to suggest a large cast. 'They superimpose the shots,' says Hudson. This Christmas, then, after a quiet year, Snow White is more important than ever. Last week's issue of the Stage listed 15 professional productions around the country. Multiply that by seven and you get 105. It's easy to see why 'It's Christmas. Suddenly from having no work, everyone's in work.'

No one bothers any more with jokes about Snow White and the Seven Vertically Challenged Individuals. 'A title is a title,' says Georghiou, a little wearily. But problems do arise when the line is blurred between the actors and the characters they play. If the assistant stage manager puts out a call saying 'Mr So-and-So, Mr So- and-So, and the Seven Dwarfs,' then Georghiou takes 'high offence'. They are actors first, and 'small' people second. 'Nothing is worse,' he says, 'than seven short little men going on stage as seven short little men just because they are seven short little men.'

Little Pete, who plays Jolly, has been listening to all of this, and pulls a face of blank incomprehension. This kind of thing doesn't bother him. He's just decided to change his name to Little Pete (in the programme it is given as Peter Bonner). The reason, he says, is that whenever he rings people up and says who he is, they say, 'Who?' and he says, 'You know, little Pete,' and then they know straightaway who he is. So why not save time and all himself Little Pete to start off with? 'New year, new name,' he says, cheerfully.' Georghiou disagrees: 'You shouldn't have to change your name.'

The third member of the dressing-room, Kevin Hudson, is taller than the other two, which turns out, in one respect, to have been a disadvantage. 'I couldn't get into Snow White before because I was a few inches too tall. Now that they're running out, they're taking people who are five foot.' He's four foot ten, and mostly does costume-work for Disney, playing Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. This year he was cast as one of the Seven without being told which. He turned up on the first day of rehearsals having looked at all the parts - just in case. Only then was he told he was playing Surley.

I went to the first day's rehearsals in Fulham. The principals were rehearsing in the main room, so the others rehearsed the first Dwarf scene in a small, adjoining room. There was no furniture except for four plastic chairs that might have come out of a Wendy House. It's an odd experience, for someone who's five foot nine, to tower over everyone else in the room. My first instinct was to sit on the floor.

Since Snow White was rehearsing next door, I read her lines. The Dwarfs approached from one side of the room, walked round the front and entered the cottage from the other side. Then they did the Shush gag, where each actor turns to the next one and says 'shush' and the last one turns to the door and hits his face. (It gets a laugh, really.) Then they mimed going upstairs to confront the strange intruder. Snow White wakes, and that was my cue. No one else seemed embarrassed as I read out the following lines: 'Are you the children? No, you're not little children at all. You're little men. And very good-looking men too.'

BACK IN the Cardiff dressing-room, I ask if they're not perpetuating stereotypes. 'You have to draw your own boundaries,' says Georghiou. 'This is a harmless story. It's good against evil.' Other cases, he thinks, are pretty borderline. 'They have this thing, dwarf- throwing, which is really obscene. People do it as a game in pubs. I've been offered it, but I've turned it down. How can you use another human being like that?'

David Harington, who plays Pops, the father figure of the Seven, comes in from the dressing-room next door. He's 23, the youngest of the group (most are in their 30s, the oldest is in his 40s). Unlike the others, he's had a busy year in the theatre: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Paddington Bear and Bertie, where he played the music-hall star, Little Tich. He has plans too for his own theatre company SPAT (Small Persons Alternative Theatre - a grant-winner, if there ever was one), and an idea for a new play. In it, everyone is small except for one guy, the odd one out. He's tall, wishes he was small, and wants to have his legs shortened. The play shows the tall guy trying 'to sort things out'. What sort of things? 'Toilets, phones, kids taking the mickey.'

On stage, Snow White is now in the forest. Harington leaves the dressing-room and heads downstairs, explaining, as he goes, his plans for a small-actors production of Shakespeare. 'With no one being the funny guy.' It's a typical dilemma for a minority group: getting beyond the point where they turn up in plays only as fools, jesters and clowns. Harington pushes through firedoors marked 'Silence' and, as we stand in the wings, we hear the oom-pah-pahs of the Spanish gypsies. In whispers now, Harington tells me about his ideas for The Tempest. He takes a pickaxe from the prop table as children in animal costumes, with antlers, big ears and striped faces, run past. Marti Caine flows by, swathed in red, and unsuperstitiously ducks under a ladder and waits for the Red Queen's entrance. In one area backstage, the dancers, stripped to their bras and knickers, group round a microphone. They're providing vocal backing while doing a quick-change.

One by one the other small actors arrive - in tunics, belts, boots and hats - and collect their props. 'Take me pick,' says Danny Blackner, who plays Snoozy. As they gather in the wings, the actors begin to lose themselves in the collective identity of the Seven. Only once, in recent years, have they gone on as Six instead of Seven. That was in Bath, two years ago. 'I was taken short,' says Little Pete, 'I had the trotters.' No one has missed an entrance this season, which is lucky, as there isn't an understudy. Little Pete has a bottle of Salbutamol on his dressing-table. 'Most of us have been going on with really bad flu.'

The band changes tune and long ropes pull the cottage into view. 'Is anyone at home?' asks Snow White. The Dwarfs sit and stand on the wooden stairs behind the flats, as if ready for a team photograph. 'All the kids are waiting for us,' says Blackner. There's a definite team spirit: the actors are close friends for one month a year, sharing dressing-rooms and drinking together after the show. For the rest of the year they meet only at auditions. When 'resting' their other jobs include handyman, telephone salesman, welder and painter.

On stage Snow White inspects the breakfast bowls, while backstage Blackner cheerfully swings his pick at someone's backside. Then the backing singers start up with the low 'heigh' followed by the high 'ho' and the Dwarfs clamber up the stairs. 'You can hear them say, Ooh, they're coming, they're coming,' says Blackner. 'That always gives you a boost.' The first Dwarf appears round the side of the cottage long before the seventh. There's a big warm round of applause. 'It's the build- up,' says Georghiou, 'We're part of the title.' The audience claps in time with the music.

They do look very lovable: Humpty Dumpty figures singing heigh-hos with a comic innocence. In these costumes, the smaller they are, the funnier they look. But the funniest thing is they way they act as a group: bumping into

one another, running round in fear, linking arms, and jumping with joy. 'You've got to exaggerate,' says John Ghavam, who plays Dozey. 'I'm the eldest one. I just plod along.' Julian Skelton, who plays Blusher, shows me how he turns his toes in, hangs his head down, and fidgets with his fingers. They each have different characteristics, different gestures, and, of course, different names. This is something each actor takes pride in. But these differences, like the different-coloured costumes, bowls and duvets, only reinforce their similarities.

Perhaps this is right. In The Uses of Enchantment the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim criticises the Disney Snow White for giving the Dwarfs separate names and distinctive personalities. He argues that it seriously interferes with the unconscious understanding that the Dwarfs symbolise an 'immature pre-individual form of existence'. One which Snow White must transcend. The point, surely, is to acknowledge - in the wages, on the poster, over the Tannoy, and in the programme, the press, and elsewhere - the individuality of the actors rather than the individuality of the characters.

But that isn't easy. The actors get to be a

bit like their characters. 'They do blend it a bit, yeah, ' says Blackner. He plays Snoozy, and off-stage, he says, 'I'm always late, I'm always last.' Little Pete, who plays Jolly, just can't stop himself corpsing (bursting into giggles) when he is on stage.

Could they ever change characters then? 'No,' says Ghavam. 'The costumes have been made to measure. And the boots.'

'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs': New Theatre, Cardiff (0222 394844) to 29 Jan.