Thursday, October 24, 2013

Working In Theatre-Part 8

From working at Greenwich Theatre I next went to work at Liverpool Playhouse. Something of a culture-shock, I suppose because it was a greater  distance from home and Greenwich was within the London area. Looking back from the vantage point of some 40 years I think I should have stayed in Greenwich, but when you are offered a job elsewhere it seemed a good move, but to be honest the move to Liverpool wasn't the best decision I've made.
I arrived in Liverpool at the weekend preceeding the opening of a production of 'Hamlet.' I have to admit to be something of a 'Hamlet' obsessive, built up over the years, but in 1971 at the age of a mere 20 years, it was something of an enigma (as I expect it would be to most people.) The previous show's set  was being 'struck' or dismantled and the new show (Hamlet) was being bought in and there would be a technical rehearsal over the following week and then several dress rehearsals and then the play would have opened on the Tuesday. 
The set was fairly straightforward, with most of it being a large coffin-shaped raked floor which came out over the orchestra pit and with most of the scenes created with 'flying' pieces, I seem to remember them being something like flags or curtains. The fly system at the time at Liverpool Playhouse was a counterweight system, as opposed to any flying being done manually, sheer brute force being involved with stage-hands pulling on ropes or 'hemps' suspended over the stage through a grid and then cleated-off on the fly floor, which is usually above the wing space in most theatres. It was one of my jobs on this production to operate the counterweight-flying for these curtain pieces during some of the scene changes, but nobody had thought to train me on the best way to operate this. During the technical rehearsal it is the stage management crew who has to be able to learn to do any scene changes that are required, along with the lighting cues, sound effects  setting of props and to make sure the actors enter on time and get used to working on the set, which up until that point they would not have seen. 
The scene changes were done in pitch black, for example, the lighting would fade on one scene and the scene change would be done in the dark and then the lights would come up on the next scene, the actors would either walk on as the lights faded up or would be discovered on stage. I was supposed to bring in one of these pieces of curtain and it was supposed to be set exactly in place, without it moving or hitting the floor and not curled up. But, unfortunately, I pulled the rope the wrong way and when the lights came up the confounded thing was there, on the stage, for all to see, in a crumpled mess on the floor. You can imagine the embarrassment for me, I just wanted the floor to open up and swallow me.
This production had John Castle playing Hamlet and Joanna David playing the part of Ophelia. She is currently to be seen on I.T.V. playing the part of the Duchess of Yeovil in the series 'Downton Abbey.'
One of the problems with the counterweight system was that the ropes that operated it had to go down into the theatre basement which often got flooded and as a result of being in water these 'hemps' or ropes tended to shrink slightly, so when you came to pull on them, because they had shrunk slightly, it was very difficult to get a purchase on them, making the operation of them  very difficult and therefore smooth flying up, or down, quite difficult. 
Another job was to go up into the grid to put weights into the cradles which made the system function, the actual 'counter-weights.' This was one of my least-favourite jobs (I doubt, with modern-day health and safety regulations it would be allowed) as I suffer from vertigo and having to climb up some 50-60 feet to the grid and looking down onto the stage was not my favourite job, as well as it being very dusty up there and very hot and very unpleasant. Also, having to handle the weights and putting them in the cradles so that the scenery was balanced correctly was not very pleasant. I think at that age I was not particularly used to saying 'please don't send me up there!' but I just got on with it. I think today if I was asked to do something similar I would refuse and not feel in the least embarrassed to tell the ther person why.
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