This month in the latest of our Crew Files interviews, we're delighted to give centre-stage to our very own actor, writer and Cabin Crew member, Ash Ashton.
Ash has been with Virgin Atlantic for almost three years after a long and illustrious career in the dramatic arts, a passion which took root at the tender age of seven, writing and performing his own plays at school. We speak to Ash about his early life in Hong Kong, his background in the performing arts, and his shift from acting to flying.
And as our resident thespian, we made sure to quiz him on the very best ways to snap up a ticket for all the best shows in our destinations too...
Ash, as someone who grew up in Hong Kong do you have any insider tips or recommendations that visitors would appreciate?
My big tip is to seek out Dim Sum (those various dumplings and small dishes) away from the main tourist areas. Try taking the MTR (Mass Transit Railway) out to the New Territories, somewhere like Sha Tin or further out like Ma On Shan - it looks far on the map but it really doesn’t take that long.
At Ma On Shan, cross over the bridge from the station complex and there's a great restaurant for afternoon Yum Cha (“drinking tea”). It’s staggeringly inexpensive and a bit of an adventure. While not speaking the language might make it a bit tricky, it's also a lot of fun and the Chinese staff are very friendly and helpful with the menu and Western palette and you can usually find someone who speaks English. The atmosphere when these local Dim Sum restaurants are busy is second to none.
Tell us a little bit about your acting and writing career?
Well, my first part was as an all-singing, all-dancing nuclear bomb in a lesbian musical but things did get better after that. I think Edinburgh and the fringe really helped form my career the most. In fact, at one point I could trace almost 90% of my paid work back to something I did for free in Edinburgh. I remember playing a drag queen in a show and someone saw me and put me forward as a panto dame. So for twelve years after that I was everything from Widow Twankey to Mother Goose.
The writing really started to kick off in 1998. I had written the book and lyrics for a fifteen minute musical about an air stewardess called The Jolly Folly of Polly The Scottish Trolley Dolly. It was a massive success and saw me in the national press and getting signed with a top London literary agent. Ten years later to the day I was getting my Wings with Virgin and one of the actresses who played Polly was there to see my life imitating art.
Other highlights included performing in Madam Butterfly at the Royal Albert Hall which led to me writing a one man show called Madam Butterfly’s Child that later became a radio play for BBC Radio 4, but I suppose my proudest moments were seeing my version of The Tempest (The Little Tempest, written for 7 to 10 year olds) produced at the National Theatre and also the privilege of working with Dame Judi Dench on a charity gala at Drury Lane.
What made you decide to become a cabin crew member with Virgin Atlantic?
One day, I was looking online for Virgin Atlantic flights to Hong Kong to visit my dad, and noticed a link to Virgin careers. I had this sort of epiphany and just decided to fill the application in. Before I knew it I had an interview and within a few days I was telling my acting agent that I couldn’t accept the panto gig this year because I was going to be cabin crew for Virgin. I think it was my love of travel and people that got me the job.
For a long time I kept referring to the training as 'rehearsals' and when I first went to the Uniforms department, I told them I was there for my costume fitting. The whole thing just felt so surreal to me but before I knew it I was, as Polly says in my show, “flying across the Atlantic!”
Tell us about your first day on the job - where did you fly to and how did you feel?
My first day was an amazing and hectic one. It was a full flight to Las Vegas and I was responsible for boarding and duty free. I was so nervous and didn’t eat anything the whole flight but the crew were lovely. Ben Ward, the Flight Service Manager on my flight, took over my Duty Free cart at one point so I could look out at some beautiful arctic landscapes, and another crew member came to my rescue when I missed out a row while clearing the tables. I felt really looked after.
I felt really proud walking through the airport at Vegas. I was cabin crew, a flight attendant, a hostie, a trolley dolly: for the first time in my life I was doing something I hadn’t ever planned to do.
On that first night the crew took me to New York, New York and the Duelling Pianos Bar. I had also booked tickets for Cirque Du Soleil’s “O” so I saw that incredible show on my second night before working home the next day. Taking off out of Vegas and flying home above the Nevada desert, I knew I had found a career where I really belonged.
What has most surprised you about being a member of Cabin Crew?
The biggest surprise for me was how people perceive us. I just sort of fell into the job, but now I’m doing it I realise it’s something people really admire. I thought my actor friends would see my giving up acting as a bit of a failure but it’s the complete reverse; they’re all incredibly envious of the life I now live.
I think the training was a bit of a shock too; a very high pass rate required on all exams, yearly refresher exams, constantly having to think about safety. It soon became very apparent that beyond all the smiles and service and interacting with the passengers, the job is an incredibly serious one and I like that feeling of responsibility.
The best thing about the job though, is landing in a new country. I still get the hugest buzz to think I’m arriving somewhere foreign and I’m being paid for the privilege. I still love handing my passport over in Japan or New York or Dubai.
And I love seeing the passengers’ excitement when they’re arriving somewhere they’ve never been. Children on their first trip to Orlando are just the best for putting you in a good mood, and I'll always remember a South African woman coming into London when we had a spell of bad snow. She started to cry because she had never seen snow before, which was really moving.
Which are your favourite destinations and why?
Well, I’m not a sun worshipper but I do love St Lucia. It’s such a beautiful island, and I fully recommend taking a tour to the drive-through volcano and the botanical gardens. And the beach between the two Piton Mountains at the Jalousie Plantation is everything paradise should be.
My other favourite destination is Las Vegas, just because it’s something from another world. Spend some money on the one cent slot machines, take a bus ($7 for a 24hour pass) to the Vegas sign and old Vegas at Fremont Street, get some cheap tickets for a show at Tix 4 Tonight, and definitely try the breakfast buffet at The Bellagio or The Wynn on your last morning. It’ll set you up for day and it’s very reasonable.
I’d recommend staying just a few nights in Vegas and then heading off to LA or San Francisco for the rest of your trip. If you’re up for it, the drive is spectacular, but if not then Virgin America have some reasonable flights too.
Do you have any insider tips for theatre fans?
In Las Vegas, the Tix 4 Tonight stalls are dotted up and down the strip. Shows are posted at 9.30am and go on sale at 10am. You'll get a voucher which you then have to exchange at the actual theatre box office so do that as soon as you can, as the earlier you exchange it, the better your seats will be.
In New York it’s the TKTS booth in Times Square. They also post the individual discounts for the shows so you can see what’s there before you line up. There is a separate (much shorter) line for plays and if you want to see a big name like Laura Linney, Susan Sarandon, Geoffrey Rush etc., they're much more likely to be in a play than a musical.
However, my top tip is to just buy a cheap ticket direct at the theatre box office, especially for plays, and especially mid week. Rather than line up at TKTS for an hour to get 30% off a $120 ticket, you can line up for five minutes at the theatre and buy a $55 seat (musical) or $35 seat (play). The seat may not be quite as good, but you still get a great night out and you’ve saved both money and valuable vacation time.
In London the TKTS is at Leicester Square opposite the smaller of the two Odeon cinemas. It’s also worth asking at the theatres direct if they do any discounts. Sometimes students, pensioners, and unemployed can get really cheap deals on the day or an hour before curtain up.
Away from the West End and Broadway, it’s also worth trying a fringe show (off West End or Off Broadway) as you might just see something or someone before they get famous - Time Out usually has full details. As for our other destinations, Chicago has a thriving theatre scene: it’s practically the home of improvised comedy as well as the famous Steppenwolf theatre which launched the careers of academy award nominees Gary Sinise, John Malkovich and Joan Allen. And if you love musicals, try the ACT in Akasaka Tokyo. They produce musicals in Japanese, but if you’ve seen it in English it might be something really different to do.
I’ve managed to see 20 shows abroad in my three years at Virgin and am looking forward to many more. But my dream is to get on a flight abroad, serve a few hundred passengers, and then later see something I’ve written!
For the very best fares on flights to Hong Kong, Las Vegas, New York, St Lucia or any other of our exciting destinations, log on to www.virgin-atlantic.com Interested in becoming a member of Virgin Atlantic Cabin Crew? Here's all you need to know.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.