A Day in the Life: Don Gruel and Noel Holland of Atlantic Coast Theatre

by Don Gruel and Noel Holland as told to Jennifer Hoesing

A Day in the Life will focus on careers and jobs in arts and culture. Our first post in this series features Don Gruel and Noel Holland of Atlantic Coast Theatre for Youth (ACT). Don and Noel tour with Atlantic Coast Theatre and are part of the Division of Cultural Affairs’ Florida Arts on Tour roster.

Don and Noel, a husband and wife team, founded ACT in 1999.  Since its inception, ACT has served more than half a million audience members with 1,800 performances in 17 states. ACT is a professional theatre company, and Don and Noel earn their living performing.

ACT recently performed new show, SHERLOCK HOLMES & THE OPERA MYSTERY for students in the Destin/Ft. Walton area, presented by the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation. Here’s “A Day in the Life” with ACT during their trip.

Every good tour day starts with a good cup of coffee – the stronger, the betterI Noel and our “tour manager” Dijon take in the morning air at Henderson Beach State Park.

We make the drive to Destin Elementary, our first school for the day.  We’ve been here many times before, so we know which spot we can squeeze the RV into so it is out of the way of the busses.  The SHERLOCK HOLMES show has a lot of stuff to it.  Backdrop set pieces, set furniture, sound equipment, props, costumes and a violin.

No tour day is complete without having to fix something.  Today it happens to be the tire on our folding cart.

Consistently we make it our goal to design a one-cart show.  It doesn’t always work out, but we seem to have gotten lucky with this one.  Don will likely change “the pack” repeatedly over the run of the show to try to get the best possible use of space!

Every performance space is different.  We are lucky to have a great stage here at Destin Elementary with full curtains and lights.

Here’s the front view of the set at Destin Elementary.  This background shows large pages of the Sherlock Holmes books.  We’ve heard many kids commenting about how big the books are and how much they like it while we wait backstage to begin.

Here’s Noel getting into makeup in preparation for her two roles in the show.  First, he beautiful American opera singer, Irene Adler:

…and the charming Mr. Hinkleton who is arrested by Sherlock Holmes in our “James Bond” opening.

Our dressing room and makeup mirror are a bit different from a standard theatre.  Every day is different and we adapt to our space.  The folded chorus risers make great prop tables.

Noel has time to snap a picture backstage during the show after her costume change.  On the other side of the set, Don is investigating the mystery in front of around 400 students.  Sherlock Holmes always has his partner, Watson, with him.  Watson is picked from the audience every day. It’s so much fun for the kids to see their classmate onstage in a bowler hat!

After a great first show, Don deals with business end of things.   We take calls and emails throughout every tour day.  It can sometimes be a challenge to wear all the hats: we are actors, playwrights, accountants, composers, business managers, costume designers, mechanics and truck drivers all in one.

We grab lunch on the road and head for our second show at Bluewater Elementary School.  It’s a long way to the cafetorium from the parking lot, but the kids are always fantastic at this school.

Our sets are flexible to just about any performance space.  We can make things larger or smaller depending on our needs.  The stage at Bluewater is pretty wide, so Noel is making adjustments.

The set is up on the Bluewater stage.  We are now waiting for 400 third, fourth and fifth graders to file in and watch the mystery unfold.

After 18 years of working in touring theatre, Don has acquired the ability to sleep on any backstage surface – wood, tile, concrete, you name it. Here he is grabbing a little bit of rest before the show.

This show was terrific. We had great feedback afterwards from the audience during our question & answer. Students always want to know if Noel is really singing of The Habanera from Carmen. It is!

Well, you can’t control the weather. Remember how it was a really long way back to the RV in the parking lot? Seems even further in a torrential downpour!

We have covered up the set and sound gear.  We are rarely at campground long enough to use the awning, but it comes in handy for rainy load-outs more than once.

The gear stayed mostly dry while the actor did not.  Don got soaked.

Here’s perhaps the greater invention ever for our theatre company – GPS.  Sometimes you have outsmart it, but it still is quite helpful. This time the GPS did say “recalculating, recalculating, please drive to highlighted route” five times in a row on this drive.

Lovely thing about Florida weather: it is dry and sunny again a few minutes after we arrive back at Henderson Beach State Park, which makes us and the “tour manager” very happy. We’ll rest up tonight and do it all again tomorrow, ending with a drive to New Orleans for shows on Monday.

Life on the road can be challenging, but it is also incredibly rewarding. We are extremely fortunate to be able to make a living doing what we love together and bringing the arts to children in Florida and beyond!

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