Heart attack

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Friday, November 08, 2013

Working In Theatre- Part 10

I'm skipping forward slightly. I have mentioned in an earlier post a production of a play called 'Hadrian VII' which I was involved in whilst working as a D.S.M. at Ipswich Theatre. I also worked on several other productions, several of which I was responsible for The Book. As I've already mentioned in earlier posts, the job of working on The Book is important to the  smooth-running of any production as you are more or less totally responsible for such things as cueing lighting, sound, spot effects (door slams, glass crashes and other live off-stage sound effects.) as well as making sure the actors are given 'calls' via tannoy for their next entrance (as they are usually in either their own dressing-room when not on-stage or the actors' waiting or 'common room' (called 'Green Room' for some unaccountable reason, although if I did a Google I expect I could find some explanation as to why 'Green Room' in particular.) At Ipswich there were three lights that you had to use on the prompt desk in order to warn either the sound or lighting operator that a cue was coming up. Generally you have a red and green light, with red as a warning and some 30 seconds to a minute later you give the green when the cue comes, usually taken from a line in the script or a movement that an actor makes on stage. At Ipswich there was a third light, I think it was blue. You gave the red light and the operator would flash the blue to show that he/she was ready. On this particular show I was working on I gave the lighting guy a red light and was expecting a blue light to show he was standing by. After around 20 seconds I hadn't got anything back via the blue light and was panicking slightly. There were seconds to go before the lighting cue was due and still nothing. I got up off my prompt-corner stool and shot up the metal ladder which lead to the lighting box (actually on a sort of deck over the prompt corner.) to discover that the lighting guy was sound asleep! I had to make the fade up, or down, myself, using the ancient lighting board, while the guy was snoring soundly! I then had to return to my prompt corner, but it was a hare's breath in my timing and climbing the metal ladder otherwise the cue wouldn't have happened! Such are, or were, the joys of working in repertory theatre!

I worked The Book on several plays at Ipswich, 'Plaza Suite' by Neal Simon, 'Time and Time Again' by Alan Ayckbourne and 'The Matchmaker' by Thornton Wilder (which is the basis for the musical Hello Dolly!')
Now in this particular play there are several points in the action when some of the characters come 'out front' and 'break the fourth wall' as they say and speak directly to the audience. Usually they are alone on stage and no other characters appear until they've made, in some cases, some quite long speeches, some of several pages. When you are responsible for The Book, you will have been in all the rehearsals from day one, and carried through all the requirements of being responsible for the actors as regards prompting them. Most of the actors would have learnt their lines thoroughly and be virtually word perfect by the second weeks of rehearsals (depending on what length of time the rehearsal period is.) I kept a strict eye on the actors getting their lines right and as a result would prompt them where necessary. 
During this particular performance (I think it may well have been a mid-week matinee, but I can't remember exactly as it's some 40 years ago) all went well enough. Now the actor who played the central male character of Vandergelder (I'm not giving his name here as I don't want to cause embarrassment, but I think it's only polite to not to do so, as you will understand.) was somewhat renowned for his drinking habits. I'm talking alcohol and not tea or coffee, obviously. I had experience of this when working on other shows he was in. On  this occasion, when The Half was called (the period in which the actors are expected to be in the theatre and getting ready for the performance. It is actually 35 minutes before 'curtain up', which gives five minutes before the show starts and 'Beginners' are in place before the curtain rises on the show.) I would go round and check that everyone was in their dressing room or in the Green Room, but this particular gentleman would usually be found in the threatre bar downing a pint or two and generally 'propping up the bar' and certainly not preparing for the play's performance as I would have hoped. At around five minutes to curtain up he was STILL in the bar and not ready, but as he didn't go on until half-way through the first act it didn't really matter. Anyway, I wasn't happy about the situation but there wasn't a lot I could do about it.
As I've mentioned, there were several fairly long speeches which a couple of the characters had which were spoken directly at the audience. It was quite important to the plot that Vandergelder and Dolly Levi don't meet immediately. She has a long speech and goes off and then Vandergelder comes on and he gives several pages of dialogue. Most performances all goes smoothly until this particular afternoon the actor playing Vandergelder had had more than enough alcohol to sink a ship. He starts his long speech, and seems to be slurring his lines somewhat, and fluffs slightly, to such an extent that I have to give him a prompt. Something which anyone on the book dreads, as it's never always certain if they can hear you, or whether the audience is aware that you've given a prompt. I was taught that you only give a couple of words and the actor, if he/she is capable, soon gets back to the script and carries on. This actor didn't seem to take the prompt, so  I was forced to give it again, but still he didn't pick up and carry on with the line. He just seemed to go round and round, repeating great chunks of his long speech. It was very stressful and difficult for me. The actress playing Dolly was waiting off-stage for her entrance, and it's important as I mention that they don't meet at this point in the play, so she can't go on and 'assist' with the actors lines (ie, improvising or something to get the actor back 'on-script.') Anyway,  she was stamping her feet  and coughing to try and get him to continue his speech, but by now he had gone round and round with the same bit of script.  I think by now it wasn't just that one actress who was trying to get his attention, but several other member of the cast as well as stage management. I don't remember exactly how the situation was  eventually resolved, but I think he may just have got to the end of this confounded speech and gone off -stage so that Dolly could enter and the play continue. But it was quite a difficult situation. I'm not sure what the audience would have made of it, but if it had been a matinee there may have been very few people in the audience and they may not have noticed.
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