Janice Fryett describes herself as ” a wife, mother, a grandmother and an actor that can sing. ” She came to acting later in life and only recently, having enjoyed a varied career in teaching and as a vocal animateur . Originally from Yorkshire, she moved to Chester nearly 40 years ago and taught in secondary schools and the University of Chester as well as doing vocal workshops in primary schools.
“Acting was something I’d wanted to do for a long time but didn’t think it was for the likes of me. I thought that people were born naturally gifted. It wasn’t done in my school, it didn’t feature as a possible career option. I focused more on singing. By the time she had her fourth child she had completed a Diploma in Musical Theatre, and was singing professionally including in hospitals putting on concerts for therapeutic situations, as well as a stint as an RE and music teacher at Upton High where she revived the school choir after an 18 year absence. Her varied career led up to her pursuing her “ultimate passion” for acting.
The 2013 Mystery Plays were a pivotal time for Janice with her role as Mrs Herod. It was only her second non singing role, with her first being Mrs Noah in the 1997 Mysteries. (“I got a mention in the Times for that !” she says.) Everyone that auditioned had to perform the scene where the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was pregnant.”If you were a young woman, you did a line by the Virgin Mary. I did it and I thought “what experience have I ever had of being an Angel ? What experience can I bring to this speech? I decided that in life , lots of peoples are angels in different ways, so I did it like a Northern Matriarch in a soap opera.
” It was done like Herod was an 80s banker and she was his wife, Dynasty style with shoulder pads and a Chanel bag. It was all about her showing power and image. ” Of performing in the historic Cathedral space, she says: ” It was awesome because of the scale of the building and the way the light came through the windows, adding to the atmosphere. Its not an easy acoustic but its easier than an outside acoustic. Having done an MA in voice, I became a bit of an informal voice coach for the plays and did some of the warm ups”
The press response to the Plays was hugely positive. “We got 4 stars in the Guardian…regardless of whether it was professional or not . The actors weren’t paid even though there were actors in there that were professional , such as Francis Tucker who played Lucifer, he just wanted to do it. There were other people who became actors after doing it , or who were about to go to drama school. You had a big mixture of abilities and backgrounds.”
Her experience building the character of Mrs Herod and having only a limited singing role, made her realise how much she enjoyed being immersed in a character. ” The acting element was the bit I really liked and my voice was a tool that could be used either way, whatever you’re doing with your voice, it has to be truthful. ” Janice was inspired to successfully audition for When we were Married (Tip Top Productions, 2014 ) a play which strongly evoked her Yorkshire roots. She also starred in The Full Monty at Theatre Clywd in the same year, before going on to play the lead role in Entertaining Angels at Chester Little Theatre for which she won a best actress award from the Cheshire Theatre Guild.
“I was mining the text for all the information on the character. I was off the book very early so I could play with it and react to it.” This then led Janice to a 2 year professional training course at ICAT in Manchester. The Independent Centre for Actor Training was set up in 2007, growing from its roots as a West End rehearsal and acting classes programme. Janice was taught by industry professionals including RSC actors Simon Trinder and Adjoa Andoh (ex Doctor Who star) . Janice completed the course in July of this year.
In 2014 Janice starred in Theatre in the Quarter’s Over by Christmas a moving commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One performed at railway stations across Cheshire. ” I hadn’t intended to do it because it seemed like a massive commitment. There were more than 200 chorus members operating on a rota” There were 50 performances during the September launch with up to 4 performances a day. She played a character based on music hall singer and male impersonator Vesta Tilley- known for her rallying war songs designed to drive recruitment to the front.
” It was one of the best things I’ve ever been involved with. The whole thing was so moving. I found out I had a link because my great grandmother had gone off and done nursing in the war and then worked in pubs in the East End. Music hall started off and she apparently knew music hall stars of the day, and she spoke to my mother about her memories and meeting people like Vesta Tilley.
“Every time we did the Last Post, there was some information read out about the people who went to war from that particular place, a roll call or statistics. There were people in the audience who were related to those people and it was a very teary moment. The best time was in Handforth where we performed it there to the descendants prisoners of war there. They were detained there because they were Germans living in England. The descendants came over from Germany, you can’t beat that as a piece of art to be involved in…”
I asked Janice how easy it was for Cestrians to get involved in acting, professional or otherwise.
“Chester in some ways, is a bit of a backwater. It’s gone through what some people call a cultural desert, with there not being a professional theatre all this time” (Until now with the triumphant arrival of Storyhouse.)
“As we know, there’s been Tip Top , who have acted like a rep company, putting on about 10 shows a year, drawing on professional actors, as well as having open auditions. From my short time involved there , I saw people who had agents, people who had trained, but wanted to sleep in their own bed at night rather than being on tour.. or because there isn’t enough work. They’d rather be on stage than not so they’re doing it , but yes you’re not paid so you have to do another job.” Janice’s agent is based in Leeds, and she says she doesn’t know of any theatrical agents based in Chester. So do people have to leave Chester to find success ?
“There’s two arguments… There is a migration to London, although Manchester is becoming more of a hub. People tend to migrate.. the auditions are there. ” Despite Chester’s current cultural boom we agreed that Chester was not the centre of the universe. “Not yet!” laughed Janice. “Lets take auditions for example, mostly you have to go to London, its expensive and time consuming. I know actors who’d rather live in Chester and take the hit on the train fare because of the better quality of life here. It’s financially better to do that. Manchester has a massive fringe theatre culture and also Media City and Liverpool is culturally vibrant, so living in Chester is a good AND there is Storyhouse now…
“But what annoys me , and its something that Equity (Actors’ union) has policies on as well , is that provincial theatres get funding eg Arts Council money for the North West and then they audition and cast people from London. I haven’t tried to get a professional role in Chester yet, but I know other trained and experienced actors around Chester who have not got to the audition stage . Maybe it sounds more exotic to say actors have come from afar instead of from Newton ? Maybe there is a stigma to being ‘local’? You have to get the best people for the job, but at least give professional actors living locally a chance. But I wouldn’t go as far as suggesting quotas. When Storyhouse was called “Chester Performs” I felt it was anything but and rehearsals started in London before coming up to rehearse in the park. That is different now we have the theatre building. But this seems to happen in provincial theatres, hence why it has come up in Equity
She praised Tip Tip Productions and others for keeping culture alive during the so called cultural desert. “I never thought it was a desert. They just weren’t necessarily doing popular culture, Tip Top do some , and Theatre in the Quarter mainly create new shows in unusual spaces. Tip Top have been great for the city since taking the Gateway building over and have put on a variety of productions, as well as touring shows. They have a strong talent base with a good youth element. I thought their version of Avenue Q was as good as the professional tour.” Janice’s moving performance as the tragic Peggy in Alan Bennett’s “Talking Heads” in 2016 was another star turn that drew on her background. “The Yorkshire turn of phrase was engrained in my DNA” she says. This, and the monologue structure helped Janice to learn the lines. “It’s a story, so you have the thread, without being interrupted by other actors. There’s intentions behind every word you say, and you can physicalize it to make it easier to learn. It goes into your cell memory…
“I feel like Tip Top haven’t been marketed as well as they could , because theres so many people that say theres nothing here . But if they only have to fill a theatre with 140 people they dont need to market it that much to get full houses. They deserve more recognition for holding the cultural fort. Their panto will probably sell out. I think they do an ace job!”
Janice’s first professional jobs after ICAT were the narrator in a dance theatre piece The Mirror of Love at St Mary’s Centre and a Christmas advert for Morrisons, where two days of filming, complete with fake snow, came down to seconds on the screen. Her ambition is to appear in Coronation Street. “I want to be in Corrie. What I’d like to do is a featured role. I could come in as Sean’s mum or aunty… I’ve watched it all my life… but, take the one line in Corrie roles- 300 people that go for it ,and they only audition 4, so its hard.”
“I’d love to do radio drama, painting pictures with my voice, plus you don’t have to look right for the part, so there’s possibly more scope. She says her agency is putting her forward for roles all the time. “I’ve got some exciting offers for next year and I’ve had some good feedback from casting directors so far. ”
Ending the interview I asked Janice about some current topical issues in the city. Does she think there are too many hotels? ” I have never had to use one.” She laughed.” They don’t bother me lets say! Students- I am mystified by the student situation. I did work for the University of Chester.. I think the university has mushroomed so much, that its outgrown the systems that run it, they might have caught up by now. It amuses me when you see buildings taken over by the university .. they bring in a lot of revenue, which is probably how they can expand. But they bring in so much footfall into the city so you cant really argue with that. Craft beer reminds me of Blue Peter, I dont get it! I dont care!”
For the future, Janice and some other Chester based actors are seeking to build up a professional theatre fringe, create productions as well as offer training, “It’s embryonic at the moment. You have to create your own work. to generate more opportunities and keep doing what you love”