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Monday, July 08, 2013

Working In Theatre- Part 4

It makes me laugh, looking back, but at the time I was offered my first job, back in 1968, when I was at Mander College in Bedford (now plain old Bedford College. Don't ask me why they changed the name.) and I was failing my A Levels miserably, there was a story going  around the place, when I said I was  going to work in 'rep', that I'd actually got a job AS A REP!  I can't think why I would go off and be a 'rep' supposedly going from door-to-door selling something such as brushes, insurance or encyclopedias, or from company to company selling something else. Why would I do that? I have no selling skill and I can't imagine myself doing such a thing. But, thinking about it, if you didn't realise that 'rep' was short for 'repertory' I suppose you could confuse it for the selling-type of rep. It just goes to show, looking back all those years, the sort of way people can have an ignorance about something, how you are more or less expected to follow a certain path in your life, and that, if you veer from that path, you are, in some way, thought of being a bit odd. I really do hope things are different now, where children at school who want a career that is slightly different from 'The Norm'  can do so without being made to feel they're odd in some way. Perhaps that was what it was like in the late '60's. I wasn't exactly given much help with my career-path with teachers at school. I think anything to do with 'The Arts' and 'Theatre' was thought of as 'not being a career', that it was 'insecure' and that it would be better if you found something else to do with your life. Perhaps it wasn't actually verbalized, but, looking back, it seems as if that was what was going through people's minds when I had said that I wanted to do something 'artistic' as a profession.

I recall several of the plays that were produced during my time at Colchester. One being "Loot" a somewhat controversial play by Joe Orton. This is an extremely black comedy, to say the least. It may not be considered to be so controversial by today's standards, but when it was first staged, I imagine in the mid-1960's, one has to bear in mind that in Britain there was still censorship in theatre, so a great deal of what was portrayed would have had to be vetted before it could be staged. I think Orton's intention was to shock, and this play could definitely be said to shock. I'm not sure what sort of reaction it had on the Colchester audience in the early 1970's, but I would imagine that they would be fairly conservative in their tastes. The post of Lord Chamberlain had been abolished under the 1968 Theatres Act, the government official who had power to censor plays and licenced theatre premises.   So one can imagine that theatre managers at the time would  have been keen to put on plays that formerly would have come under the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain's Office. The play is about a couple of  young men who are planning a bank robbery. What was so controversial was the fact that they used their  deceased mother's coffin to hide the money that they had stolen. Stage management had to create all the bank notes, coffins and even a corpse, which is within a shroud. Also, we had to find a glass eye, which was supposed to roll across the floor at one point in the play, but this was actually artistic licence, as an actual glass eye isn't like a glass marble and won't roll at all.
We had to have two coffins as well as two 'mini-coffins' or caskets. One of each had to be so constructed that the side could fall out on a hinge and had to be made to look as if it had been in a fire, with  the effects of scalding and fire on it.  Off stage, before it went on stage, we used a smoke gun to add smoke, which added to the whole effect. This smoke came out of the coffin when it appeared on stage. The hinged section had to fall open on cue to reveal the hidden cash inside and that also had to look as if it was burned. We had to create bundles of £5 notes, which had been created by myself and then Roneoed (this was before the more modern photo-copying we have today, which would have made the whole process so much easier.) and then we cut up bundles of newspaper the size of the £5 notes and glued together with the tops and bottoms glued on and then painted as near as possible the colour blue of genuine £5 notes. In all there were supposed to be a few thousand pounds-worth of notes, so you can imagine how much work went into producing all these mock Fivers!  These bundles of notes did look quite convincing from the audience, but not so real on closer inspection. No, certainly not forgeries of real fivers! Also, they weighed a good deal more than real fivers. The story in the play is that the two men go off to their mother's funeral having removed the corpse from the coffin, which has been on stage from the beginning of the play, then they conceal the money inside the coffin and then there is a traffic accident on the way to the funeral which is why the coffin is burnt and they bring the second coffin back with the burnt-out effects and the hinged side which, as I say, has to be revealed on cue to show the audience and not a police inspector who comes in at the vital moment.
The corpse was actually a mannequin with hinged joints, very realistic with movements when moved about, but then is concealed inside a shroud, so when it is picked up it moves in a very realistic fashion. Quite eerie if you didn't realise it wasn't real!
During the  final week of rehearsals the actors got to use the 'prop' coffins and other items which had been constructed in the theatre workshops, which were elsewhere in Colchester and one Sunday we had to bring them over to the theatre and carried them through the town streets. It must have looked very odd to members of the public who saw all this! I don't suppose they would have realised that the coffin was not real! All these items were later hired out to other theatres for their own productions of "Loot", but I think our work and efforts producing these props were extremely good. It was one area of my stage management duties which I  really enjoyed.


Yet another production staged at Colchester Rep when I was there was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I had been involved in several other Shakespeares over the years, beginning with “A Winter’s Tale” and “Romeo and Juliet” at Cheltenham, “King Lear” at Ipswich Theatre and “Hamlet”, which was the first production I was involved in at Liverpool Playhouse.

The production  of “Dream” was something of a cut-price affair, as regards the casting. As with most Shakespeare productions, most of the parts are ‘doubled up, ’ one actor playing one or more parts. This means, for example, that the actor who plays Hamlet’s Ghost in “Hamlet” will probably also play Claudius, and in “Dream” it is  traditional for the actor playing  Theseus to also play Oberon, King of the Fairies.

At Colchester, the fairies were done in a different way from the usual. I don’t know whether it worked, but I was involved. A couple of us stage management had to operate torches with coloured gels in them, standing on ladders ‘off stage’ and shining these lights over the top of the set, and unseen by the audience. Actors spoke the lines through microphones and we had to move the ‘spots’ of light produced by the torches in synchronisation with the lines spoken by the actors. I’m not sure it worked, but at least it was different. I don't know, actually, now I come to think of it, whether the lines hadn't been pre-recorded, and we worked the lights to the recorded voices, but I'm not sure on reflection.

 We also had to be ‘walk-ons’ during the ‘Play-Within-A-Play’ scene, handing out sweets to the on-stage audience. I remember having to appear in the production of “Winter’s Tale” at Cheltenham, as well as “Romeo and Juliet.” I think it was all part of being a member of stage management in those days. I do recall, though, that one of my cousins saw me in “Dream” as she had come to see the production when she was at school, and, not knowing I was working at the theatre, was somewhat surprised to see me on stage! Also, I had these two school girls who saw me when I was having a meal in a café near the theatre, and recognised me from my ‘walk-on’ scene in the production and thought I was a proper actor and kept following me and I suppose it was quite nice while it lasted, but I wasn’t going to go on to become an actor so I didn’t think any more of it. I did say that they should be looking at the central characters and not minor ‘walk-ons’!




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