I Chatted to Play School. Yes I Did!

Monday, November 25, 2013

I have been blogging for just over a year now and it has been a quiet, no-fuss affair with a small but very lovely group of followers. Nothing big, nothing fancy - just a bit of sewing here, a bit of crafting there and tapping out some blog posts when I get a spare breath.  So, I'm sure you can imagine my surprise when the Publicity Co-ordinator at Roadshow Entertainment contacted me asking if I would be interested in having a "chat" with the two new presenters of Play School, Michelle Lim Davidson and Zindzi Okenyo.  Ummm, pardon? Me? Play School? Was he serious? Had he made a mistake? I was, of course, very interested.  Ridiculously interested.  So before he had a chance to tell me he'd emailed the wrong blogger, I sent back a reply in about two seconds flat. Yes. Yes. Yes.  I was absolutely interested! 

So, it was arranged.  He asked me to send off "a few" questions to both Michelle & Zindzi and then they would send me back their replies.  How wonderfully fabulous is that?  How wonderfully fabulous is Play School?  I am a BIG fan (really big, I always preferred it to Sesame Street) and have been watching it since the early '70's during the days of Benita and Lorraine, and I'm still watching it today with my kids.  It is my daughter's favourite show as is "Little Ted's Big Adventure".  It, without doubt, has a winning formula, there is no other show like it and I am so happy to see it has remained mostly unchanged over the past forty years that I have been watching. It is legendary and I honestly have a lot of love for it.

Before I get on with the questions, let me introduce you to the two newest (and lovely) cast members of Play School and share with you their bio's:
Play School was without a doubt my favourite television show as a kid! My sister and I would dance and sing around the lounge room and try and recreate the craft activities at home. I loved listening to the stories and particularly enjoyed watching the cooking segments. I feel very honoured to be given the opportunity to be a part of such a special and unique program.

I went to dancing and singing classes as a child. I never intended becoming an actor but as a teenager I enrolled in acting classes and the rest is history. I studied a Certificate IV in Music Theatre then moved to Perth and continued my training in the full time acting course at WAAPA.

At my audition to be a presenter I was extremely nervous but that quickly turned into excitement! It was like I had stepped into my television and suddenly I was revisiting my childhood again. Meeting such experienced industry professionals as Humpty Dumpty and Jemima for the first time was slightly overwhelming but they were both of course incredibly welcoming and generous and made me feel right at ease.

It is a privilege to be part of the Play School team. It is a wonderful and rewarding experience to work on a program that encourages children to explore their imagination, make new discoveries and unleash their creativity. I look forward to going on many more adventures with the Play School family, whether it be building a space station with Fergus or going on a musical train ride with Little Ted, I'm sure it will continue to be a very fun and exciting journey.
As many other little Australians do, I grew up watching Play School. I remember the lovely faces of Benita, George, Noni and Trish helping me make things out of cardboard rolls and teaching me songs. It was so exciting to get the job as a presenter on the show and the excitement hasn't quite stopped!

I love working with Jemima especially (don't tell the other toys), making tricky little crafty things and of course singing is always a delight. On Play School there is always something special made out of a simple idea and it's admirable the show has kept its integrity over 45 years.

I am a NIDA trained actor and I've worked all over Australia in theatre but this is my first television job. I'm also a singer/songwriter. It's an honour being a part of this show because I know how much children enjoy it and how much they can learn from the fun we all have together.
Ok, now for the fun part of the post ...

I watched Play School back in the '70's, and still watch it today with my kids (love, love, love it!), and was just wondering what ever happened to my favourite doll, Hambel? I like/liked Jemima but there was always something special about that little Hambel!
Michelle: Well, firstly thank you so much for watching Play School! It's always wonderful to hear such positive feedback on the show and we really appreciate it. Oh my goodness, I have to be completely honest with you and admit I have not met Hambel and I'm unsure what happened to her.
How do you manage to stay in control and not drop to the floor in fits of laughter or embarrassment?  What's your technique for keeping it together?
Michelle: Oh, that's a great question.  Well we try and get all the laughs out in rehearsals.  We don't have much time to when we are recording the episodes so we try not to lose focus.  Strangely enough I've never felt embarrassed even when I was wriggling around on the ground in a sleeping bag pretending to be a worm. Hahaha! I wonder what that says about me?
Zindzi: It's actually a very technical show to shoot and we shoot pretty fast and don't do many takes so for me I just make sure I know exactly what I'm doing so I don't freak when something goes wrong. And it does happen!
Have you ever made any mistakes during filming? Forgotten a song, had your cookies fall apart, glue an ear where an eye should go? How have you covered it up?
Michelle: Oh yes, sometimes things don't go to plan.  We always try and keep going and work our way through any problems that might pop up while we are in the middle of recording a segment. Like for example, Diddle the Cat was sitting on a "space station" Alex and I had made out of cardboard boxes and all of a sudden, mid-song, Diddle fell off!  We quickly picked up Diddle and improvised a line or two to get Diddle back on the boxes but often those moments are left in the episode because when kids are playing at home things are never perfect.  Plus I think those moments add to Play School's charm.  What people often don't realise when we are doing things, such as painting a picture, is that we are doing it upside down for the camera and if you are doing something like drawing a face, we are not only doing it upside down but drawing from right to left so when you see it on your television at home you get the mirror image.  It can get very confusing while you're also trying to sing a song at the same time! (Nikki: Oh my goodness, talk about uber-talented!)
Zindzi: It's so fun and funny when that happens because the cameras don't stop rolling unless it's a huge mistake so you just have to problem-solve your way out of it.  I watched an episode the other day where I forgot a line and Teo covered for me and I could just see the two of us trying not to crack up.  It's heaps of fun.
Do the cameramen ever play pranks on you or try to make you "lose it"?
Michelle: Hahaha! The cameramen and women have never played any pranks on me yet!  Touch wood!
Zindzi: No, never, it's really professional.  We have fun in rehearsals though, when a presenter asks a question to the camera/child watching at home, sometimes the camera operator will make the camera nod or shake 'no'.
I have heard that Play School is one of the best acting gigs around.  Would you agree?
Michelle: Yes!  It's a highly sort after job in the acting world - it's so much fun!  When other actors/actresses find out I'm on Play School they are always really keen to know everything about it.  There are not many jobs around where the most important part of your day is trying to figure out how to best dress up as a horse with a mop head or how to make a sandwich look like a rocket!  It's so great and the cast and crew are some of the loveliest people you will ever meet so it's a pleasure to go to work every day.
Zindzi: It's definitely a great job and it feels a great privilege to be a part of it.
Have you sought Play School wisdom from old stalwarts like Noni Hazlehurst or more recently, Justin Clarke?
Michelle: I have met Noni but it was on a different job before I started Play School so unfortunately I didn't get to ask her any specific questions about Play School. However, the other more experienced presenters are very helpful and are more than happy to give you advice and show you the ropes.  There is a very specific way of filming each segment so once you learn the technique for each section it's much easier.
Zindzi: I work with a lot of the great guys on the show and they've been very supportive and generous with me as I get the hang of it all.  It's always a guy/girl scenario so unfortunately I haven't met many of the female presenters.  Justine is amazing though, my nieces and nephew love her.
How many shows do you record in a day, or a week?
Michelle: Normally we record 45 new episodes a year so the recording of the show is broken up into blocks throughout the year.  We record one series at a time; a series consists of five episodes.  We rehearse for 4 hours for each episode then we come back the week after and record the episodes, which is also in a completed 4 hour block.
Zindzi: It depends on availability but once booked in for an episode it is one four hour rehearsal per episode and then a week later a four hour shoot.  Sometimes I shoot two episodes in a day.
Are there any plans for more of the Play School characters to go on "adventures" like Little Ted and Jemima? My daughter loves these shows but I think they should be longer (it's my quiet time while she's watching it so a bit longer would be helpful to me!). :)
Michelle: To be completely honest I'm not sure what the ABC has planned for these series. They are great and very popular.  It's good to hear such a positive response from Play School fans.  Hopefully there will be more of these series to come.
Zindzi: Not sure, but they look like a lot of fun!
You need to be so alert, energized, animated and b-b-b-b-bright & b-b-b-b-bubbly at all times on Play School (like when you're stomping around the pre-historic swamp, or dancing around clanging and banging during "I like Noise") - how do you make sure you're on top of your game and what do you do to stay this way during filming?
Michelle: The early morning starts can be a bit tricky but nothing that can't be helped along with a strong cup of coffee! (Nikki: a girl after my own heart!) I know I have said it before but it is so much fun. Banging saucepan lids and dressing up as dinosaurs hardly feels like work so I don't really find I get too tired during filming.  I find during the live concerts it can be a bit harder to manage your energy levels.  On the QLD tour, I did 31 shows in 12 days - I drank a lot of coffee!  However, when you have 500 excited kids out in the audience you feed off their energy.  I also like to think it's a special outing for them, it's not something they would do every day, and so I tried to make sure every concert I did was just as energetic as the last one.  We want every kid in the audience to feel special and know that we are talking and singing to them individually whether it is a TV episode or a live concert.
Zindzi: It's really bad if you try to 'be happy' because kids know straight away when someone is being disingenuous. So the more us presenters relax and care less about if we look silly, the better.  Then it actually becomes fun to just be loose and dance around like a chicken!
Do you ever get nervous before a show?
Michelle: When I first started I was very nervous mainly because I didn't know how everything worked.  Play School has a specific formula and once you learn how everything works you don't get nervous because you know you are confident in what you're doing.  I was very nervous during the Play School audition process, I also found myself getting quite giggly and excited when I got to meet Humpty and Little Ted for the first time.  I was a big kid again!  It was a surreal experience.
Zindzi: I was in the beginning but am way more relaxed now I know what to expect.  It's a fast and fun shoot working with a lovely crew, no complaints!
Wow, drawing back to front and upside down while trying to sing a song, improvising while the world is watching, 31 live shows in 12 days ... these guys are absolutely AMAZING at their job and it is a credit to their acting ability the way they make it appear effortless, easy, colourful and hilarious.  I didn't think it was possible but I love Play School even more now. 
Michelle & Zindzi, it was so lovely to "chat" with you, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions and I look forward to watching you for a few more years yet ... slip-ups and all (not that we would ever notice!).  Best of everything for your Play School adventure and hugs and kisses to Little Ted, Diddle and the team! xxx 
And thank you so much, Roadshow Entertainment, for this wonderful, surprising opportunity.  It has been a lot of fun gaining an insight into the magical world of Play School and has been a really nice "story to tell".  Thank you.


  1. AWESOME. Way to go Nikki. I often wondered what happened to Hamble too..

  2. Oh, we are such huge Play School fans here too, what a great interview!