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Saturday, July 06, 2013

Working in Theatre- Part 3

I have talked about my first foray into stage management, starting at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham in February 1969 in an earlier post. I am working from memory, so excuse my lapses because what I am recounting took place a good 40-or more years ago. While  it's fairly fresh in my mind I have decided that I want to write something about my time in this before it all fades completely. Writing the last post, about summer holidays at Frinton-OnSea, has set my memory going as I used to drive from Colchester home to Bedfordshire  at weekends along the same road, the A120,  as we used to use on our way to Frinton  (Frinton is a relatively short drive from Colchester.)
 I finished in Cheltenham in the December and almost immediately got a new job working at the Rep in Colchester. I had Christmas at home and then went off in early January to begin work. The company was in the middle of a run of the annual pantomime, 'Aladdin.' I was able to see this from the audience, as I wasn't immediately called on to work on this show, which gave me a week or two to 'find my feet' as it were. Having been a 'Student A.S.M.' at the Everyman in Cheltenham, I was now officially a fully-fledged A.S.M. (Assistant Stage Manager) and now part of a team which consisted of several other A.S.Ms, D.S.M., Stage Manager and Production Manager. Michael Ashton, who had been Artistic Director at Cheltenham had also been Artistic Director of the Colchester Repertory Company. I like to think, but I'm not sure whether this is true, that it was because of this connection that I got the job.
Colchester Rep in those days was based in a very cramped building, converted from an art gallery in the 1930's.  This was located in Colchester High Street. It has since been replaced by the Mercury Theatre, built in the early 1970's. I remember it had it's foundation stone laid by Eric Porter, or else he 'cut the first turf' or whatever they call the first stage of  work on a building. He was in the highly successful 1960's  B.B.C. costume drama series "The Forstyte Saga" playing Jolyon Forsyte. The stage was very small. There was very little wing space and the back wall, which was curved, was as far as the stage went. If you had to cross from stage left to right, or vice versa, you had to go UNDER the stage. There was no stage door. If you wanted to get in to the theatre from F.O.H (front of house) you had to go through the men's toilets (!) There was a door which linked from front of house to back-stage through the toilets. When I was first shown the way, I thought it was very odd to be taken through the toilets, as you can imagine! You had to climb through a window in what was the 'props' room in order to get out of the theatre from the rear and go through a graveyard to get out to the street.There was no room above the stage for 'flying', that is, there was no grid on which bars could be suspended on hemp ropes so that scenery could be hauled up and hidden from the audience view. It was, of course, possible to suspend lighting and a certain amount of 'masking' as in other theatres, but if you were doing a show which required cloths, as in a pantomime, they had to be 'rolled' rather in the fashion of a window blind, but on a far larger scale. This was how most of the scene changes were done in 'Aladdin.'
The show which followed 'Aladdin' was 'Beyond The Fringe' which had been hugely successful in the early 1960's and launched the careers of Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennet, Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore. I got involved with the rehearsals for this, which included 'propping', going out and finding items which would be used during the show's rehearsal period, as well as setting, striking and generally stage managing the actual performances of the show.
"Beyond The Fringe" has some very famous sketches within it, including "Take A Pew", "One Leg To Few" and a really brilliantly funny pastiche of  Shakespeare. Of course we didn't have the original cast in our production. As with most 'rep' productions, which are, in effect, re-stagings of shows which have run in the West End, but have actors who have to be very versatile and play a range of different roles over a number of productions. I believe Giles Block was in the company when I was at Colchester, but I'm not sure whether he was in "Beyond The Fringe."
One of the productions in the season was "Billy Liar" by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall.  This was an adaptaion of a book by Keith Waterhouse, and has since been made into a film, starring Tom Courtney, as well as a musical, "Billy" which starred Michael Crawford and was quite successful when it ran in the West End in the mid 1970's. It was also the basis for a situation comedy starring Jeoff Rawle. This was the first time I was responsible for 'The Book" for a show. This is the duty of stage management and whoever is responsible for this is not only in charge of prompting during rehearsals and the actual performance, but also for the general running of the show from the prompt corner, giving cues for lighting and sound, but also making sure the actors are on stage in time for their entrances. You are responsible for the prompt copy which has all the moves the actors make which are given during the blocking stage of rehearsals, which usually take place in a space away from the theatre, such as a church hall, although most modern and well-equipped theatres have their own purpose-built rehearsal spaces within their main buildings or can be some way away from the theatre. You are responsible for making sure the actors get their 'calls' for rehearsal, costume fittings and other things connected with the production. Another member of the stage management is responsible for sitting in during rehearsals and taking note of where props are used as well as where they are set, and then, later on in rehearsal, producing these props, from whichever source, hiring, begging or borrowing from local businesses around the town and taking care they are not broken or even stolen and then set in the correct place during rehearsals and then when the play is running in the theatre.  During the run of the play you have to 'call' the actors via Tannoy, giving the actors time to get to the stage where they may be waiting to go on, in their dressing room or the Green Room, the actors waiting room or common room if you like. I still don't know why this is referred to  as a Green Room, but it is a tradition of theatre for it to be called that. It isn't generally because of the colour as most of the Green Rooms I've been in over the years have never been painted or at least decorated the colour  green. It may be that green is a peaceful colour, but I'm not sure.
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