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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Working in 'Rep.'

I worked in stage management with a number of theatre companies during the 1970’s. I was a D.S.M. at Century Theatre in Keswick, which is in the centre of the Lake District. Century was a touring company, but not just a touring company in the sense of touring shows to venues around the country, but the entire theatre, including sets, costumes, props and actors, toured, rather in the manner of a circus. This remained their manner of presenting plays during the 1950’s up until the ‘70’s, when the theatre settled in the Lake District, doing several summer seasons in Keswick. It was a rather unique set-up in that respect, and really remarkable in that it was constructed from a collection of Leyland trucks, bolted together to form the stage and auditorium, and the actors lived in caravans. There were also a couple of trailers for wardrobe, dressing rooms etc. We did four shows, running in repetoire, and changing every two days. All the sets and furniture for each show were stored in a large furniture lorry. 
 It had been on a different site prior to my time with the company, near the lake in Keswick, but when I was there in 1973 the theatre was on a carpark near the bus station in the centre of the town. At one time during that summer a funfare arrived and shared part of the carpark, so you can imagine the problems that caused, mostly caused by sound coming from the fareground and this caused real problems when we were performing our plays. 
I had responded to an advert in “The Stage” for a stage management job, and didn’t actually go for an interview, surprisingly. I just turned up in Keswick at the theatre at the beginning of the season, and we started rehearsals for the first play, and had never met any of the actors, the director, stage manager or anyone at all. Looking back this seems quite incredible, that I just went off without asking any questions about where I was to live when I was there, and even more so that the company took me on without any sort of reference, or without even going for an interview. 
We did four plays, as I’ve mentioned. The first one we rehearsed was “How The Other Half Loves” by Alan Ayckbourn. This had about three-four weeks rehearsal and then it opened, and then the second play was rehearsed.  I seem to remember it was a play by Hugh Leonard called “The Patrick Pearce Motel.” Then that was opened and joined the first play in repertoire. This was eventually joined by the third play, “The Man With A Load Of Mischief" by Ashley Dukes. The fourth, and final play was “Romeo and Jeanette” By Jean Anouilh.
We had fun with this last play. The director, John Ridley, had a rather mad idea, which he announced during the first day of rehearsal. When the curtain went up at the beginning of the play he wanted the stage empty, all except a cockerel. Now, not a stuffed one, or one in a cage, but a real, live one, sitting on the table in the centre of the stage. Well, you can imagine what members of stage management had to say about this daft idea. How can you expect a cockerel to just sit or stand on the table and not move, and not merely fly out into the audience and cause chaos, or even fly off into the wings of the stage (sorry, no pun intended.) First and foremost we had to find a cockerel, and then ‘train’ it to sit on the table and not move. And, unbelievable at it may seem, this cockerel (called Leon) did precisely as it was told and every single performance it stood on the table when the curtain went up and didn’t budge and inch!
At one point during this play the cockerel is taken off stage and is slaughtered and then returns on stage, dead, with it’s head removed, readly to be plucked and then, finally cooked and eaten! Well, obviously, we couldn’t do this with a real bird every performance, so we had to make a ‘prop’ bird, as near as possible identical to the live Leon the Cockrel. The wardrobe lady made a sort of stuffed toy version of Leon out of fur fabric which had been died to resemble as near as possible the same colour as the real bird, but minus it’s head! It had wings and a tail added and looked quite convincing. We then needed some tail feathers and a few feather on it’s wings. Unfortunately the real Leon was reluctant to give us any of his feathers for his duplicate, so we had to wait until some of his feather fell out, which really didn’t happen, so we had to pull a hand-full out of his rear end and then sew them into the prop version. 
We did do a fifth play, I seem to remember. It was "Time and Time Again", yet another Acckbourn play. It wasn't performed in Keswick, but taken to Carlisle and presented at a hall there, not a proper theatre. I cannot see what the idea of this was, as we played to non-existant audiences. This was after the run of the four plays in the Century came to an end (or it may have been mid-way through the season, my memory is somewhat hazy on that issue.) We also did some lunchtime theatre, a very short one-act play, toured around village halls and small venues around Cumbria, which was done during the day, once all the four plays in the season were up and running.
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