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Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Working In Theatre- Part 11

In the Spring of 1973 I answered an advertisement for a stage management job in  "The Stage" newspaper, the entertainment industry journal  where most acting, stage management  and other theatre-related jobs were advertised. It was to work at Century Theatre in Keswick, Cumbria. It now seems quite incredible, in hindsight, from the distance in time of some 40 years, that I was not asked to go for an interview. Today you have to give all sorts of forms of identity before you can apply for even the most menial of jobs, such as several utility bills, bank statements, C.R.B. checks and so on.  I couldn't believe that a few weeks after I applied that I got a letter back in response to mine, informing me that I had got the job of D.S.M. with the company and that I would start that Easter.  It does seem incredible that I could have been any one on earth when I eventually turned up for work, what with so many stories now  coming to light such as child abuse  etc etc (just think of the Jimmy Saville Scandal).  I imagine they must have followed up with references for other places I'd worked, or at least I would hoped they did. So I packed up some of my things and put it into my little Triumph car and drove off up the M1 and M6 towards the Lake District. I recall that the driver's side door of the car caused a big problem as it wouldn't close properly so I had to tie a bit of string to the inside door handle and then the other to the steering wheel column. Before I had tied it up in this fashion, the door had swung open when I'd gone round a roundabout. Thinking about it, it seems really quite precarious and dangerous, but there seemed absolutely no other way of dealing with the problem. I could have easily fallen out of the car, but it actually didn't seem to bother me. It did cause problems when I came to stop at a service area on the M6 as I had to undo the bit of string to get out of the car and then re-tie it back on when I got back in to resume the journey! On the way I spent a night with friends in Liverpool and then continued on towards Keswick.

I had a vague idea what to expect with Century. It had a reputation for being quite innovative, in that it was a mobile theatre and had been set up after the Second World War with the intention of taking professional theatre to towns and cities across the North of England which at the time didn't have their own, permanent theatres. It was quite an amazing construction, being made up of a series of large pantechnicons or I suppose H.G.Vs or in modern terms container trucks, which could be transported in convoy and then assembled to form the theatre with the stage being formed out of one such trailer and the auditorium from another, which had all the seats in it and another which housed the front-of-house with a bar and box-office as well as the lighting control box. There were a couple of other trailers which served as dressing rooms and another for wardrobe as well as a furniture van which contained all the scenery, props and other equipment. When it had originally been set up in the late 1940's all the actors, stage management  and auxiliary staff had toured and lived in caravans, and everyone mucked in and helped construct the theatre as well as set up and strike the theatre whenever it moved around from town to town and everyone lived in these caravans. During the summer of 1973 several of the actors in the company did live in caravans on the Keswick site, which was a car park, but also several company members, including myself,  lived in flats and houses around Keswick. I do not have very good experiences of caravans, mostly due to the fact that I'm over 6 foot tall and having to  live in accommodation which is cramped and usually has headroom of less than six feet high doesn't suit me, so I found a room nearby in  a house in the centre of the town.

The season consisted of four plays, which were "The Patrick Pearce Motel" by Hugh Leonard, "How The Other Half Loves" by Alan Ayckbourn, "The Man With A Load of Mischief" by Ashley Dukes  and "Romeo and Jeannette" by Jean Anouilh. Each play ran in repertoire for the season, from April to October and each would run for two days at a time and  then we would change over to another play in the repertoire, the idea being that most people who visited the area came for a week so in any week they would be able to see at least two plays in the season. The first play to be rehearsed was the Hugh Leonard and once that was running, the next was rehearsed during the day whilst the evening show was running, then that was opened and then the next was rehearsed and then brought into the repertoire until all the plays were running and then cycled round every two days. Extremely hard works as you can imagine. We had to set up and strike after each play's two-day run which meant working late into the night and as the show would finish at gone 10 p.m. we might not complete the strike and then set-up for the next show until well into the early hours of the following day. We had to re-light the new play once the set was in as well as put in all the necessary props and furniture.

As I've already mentioned, there was a furniture van on the site which was parked near the get-in doors of the theatre where all the scenery was stored. Bear in mind that this was chocker-block full of flats for up to four shows, although at any one time there would be three stored in this van. It was no easy task to drag out each flat and lift it into the theatre through the doors, and then, once the sets had been dismantled, to then lift them into the furniture van. It was quite a task to stack the flats carefully so as to not damage them but to make sure they were stacked in such a way as to take up as little space as possible. Also, after several months of this, setting and striking, the scenery began to show signs of real wear and tear.

If you know the Lake District well you will be aware of the weather in that part of England. It can change very rapidly. In one day you can have fog and mist and the next minute the fog will clear and it will be bright and sunny and the next minute it will be pouring with rain. I mention this because the theatre was, as I've said already, constructed of several large container or H.G.V. lorries and they were made of metal. When it was sunny it could get quite hot inside the theatre, as the metal of their construction retained heat. When it rained when a show was on the sound could be quite loud and the actors had to raise their voices to be heard. Another problem was that where two of the lorries met, just over the centre of the stage (I think, looking back, the roof of the stage was made of a side section of a lorry which was hinged up and it joined another similar section from the other up-stage section to make the rest of the roof.) Where they met it used to be not particularly water-proof and as a result there could be drips falling on the stage whenever it rained (which was quite frequently.)  The actors learnt quite early on in the season where any drips would fall and managed to find ways of avoiding these drips, which was quite amusing, watching them from the wings, trying to judge where the next drip was going to fall, and stepping carefully out of the way! As a way of solving this dripping it was decided to fix a sort of gutter along the  ceiling. But, unfortunately, it meant that as a result, the sets were some four or five inches too high. I must tell you that the entire height of the ceiling from the stage floor can have been no more than about nine or ten feet, in fact the height of a standard Leyland lorry (which was what the whole theatre was constructed from.) As a result of having this gutter fitted all the flats for all four plays had to be cut down so that they would fit under the gutter! So you can imagine the amount of work and effort this caused!

I seem to remember that there was a complaint from somebody who lived near the theatre. It seemed that we made far too much noise during the get-in/get-out nights. I think it may have had something to do with the floor of the stage. As with most stages, or at least those I had worked on, the floor was covered by what is called a stage cloth. It is in simple terms a large piece of canvas that fits the floor of the stage exactly and is stretched and held taut with staples tacks or nails. It can then be painted to suit the set design obviously depending on what play is being staged. After time this cloth becomes very wrinkled due to the number of feet walking on it and scenery being moved around over it. So, in order to remove any wrinkles and irregularities it had to be re-tacked. We used to 'tread' it so as to get rid of these wrinkles. This was always done as soon as the stage was completely empty. As a result of this 'treading' with everyone involved, it produced quite a lot of noise. I think it was this that caused the complaints from the neighbouring houses. As a result we had to keep any noise to an absolute minimum and we had to finish any work in the theatre at midnight or even earlier.

This stage cloth comes into the next bit I'm about to relate. During the scene changes for one of the plays, "The Patrick Pearce Motel" stage management would stand in the wings ready to go on stage immediately this particular scene ended and did the scene change, which if I recall was quite complicated. There was quite a draught which blew across the stage under  the afore-mentioned get-in doors. This caused the stage cloth to ride up somewhat. One of the stage crew had to remove stage weights off a lighting stand ready to move it away for whatever reason, perhaps to allow flats to be moved on or off. As a result the stage cloth under the lighting stand on this particular day was toppled over and the light and stand fell on my head. I was not seriously injured but I could have been. This was long before the claims culture of today when everyone and anyone seems to demand compensation for work-related injuries, but I just carried on as if nothing had happened. But, thinking about it now it was just another accident and one of the things you come to take in your stride in that particular sort of working environment.
Something else which is worth mentioning is connected to another of the plays in the repetoire, "Romeo and Jeannette" by Jean Anouilh. This is set in France and the director, John Ridley, came up with an idea for it that took stage management by surprise, not to say, shock. During the action of the play a chicken is killed and appears carried by one of the characters, having been killed off-stage, head chopped off complete with the rest of it's feathers, tail and so on. Easy enough to make a stuffed prop, which is what we did, but he wanted a real chicken to be on stage when the curtain went up, but not only on stage but sitting on the table in the middle of the stage. We all thought he was having a joke, no way on earth was a real, live cockerel going to stay sitting or at least, perching, on the table and remain there when the curtain went up as the play opened.  There was a real danger that the stupid bird would take fright and either fly into the audience or at least fly into the wings and perch on a lighting bar or something. But he was proved completely right. The real chicken we managed to acquire from goodness knows where, behaved perfectly during every single performance of the play and sat still on the table as the curtain went up on each  and every performance.  Remarkable. He lived in a cage somewhere on the theatre site, and was named Leon (I'm not sure whether it was the name in the play's script.) We had to make the 'dead' prop version of Leon and managed to retrieve some of his spare feathers (no doubt plucked from his wings and tail!) and we made the body rather in the manner of a stuffed toy, complete with wings, but minus a head, and used the feathers to complete the prop! It did look very convincing, but I'm not entirely sure what the real Leon thought of it! I don't know what happened to him once the season finished and all the company dispersed to various parts of the country. No doubt someone gave him a good home. He should have joined Equity and made appearances in things like 'Emmerdale' and make commercials for eggs or something. I never did know.
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