Singing Librarian flashback: Preparation Fugue

My second flashback is cheating in some ways, as it’s to an aspect of my most recent show, and I have already discussed it, as it was happening, on an h2g2 discussion thread.  But I think it might be an interesting insight into the joys and woes that go into making the near-impossible seem effortless.

Spring 2006.  The Marlowe Theatre.  Me and My Girl. I played the Hon. Gerald Bolingbroke, an upper-class twit and one of the principal roles.  This involved a number of marvellous costumes and a couple of essential props – a monocle, and an engagement ring.  The poor fool spends most of the show trying to persuade a perfectly awful woman to marry him, so the ring made several appearances, and the monocle had to be worn with all of the costumes, being secreted away in a range of waistcoat or shirt pockets.  Learning how to use a monocle was an entertaining struggle in itself, but I mention it as an aside because it’s vaguely relevant to the scene in question.

The scene is the last one in the first act, the preparation for a grand party (which will soon be interrupted by the famous Lambeth Walk), and the beginning of the scene made us all break out in a cold sweat every time it approached.  The Preparation Fugue.  A musical fugue is a section of music where one voice or instrument states a theme, and is then followed by all the others in quick succession with the same theme or variations thereon, leading to a very loud climax and (in choral pieces) a hyperventilating chorus desperately trying to check that they haven’t overtaken anyone due to getting carried away.  But this was a spoken fugue, as five groups of characters all get ready for the party and express their various worries.  Eighteen individual characters have lines of dialogue, and the chorus joins in as a body from time to time.  The words flow rhythmically from group to group, and the orchestra has an underscore which adds to the edgy, frantic feel of the scene.  During this, three characters complete their costume changes on stage, several make exits and entrances and Gerald gets his bally ring out for the third time.

In rehearsals, the piece was approached like clockwork, and we would stop and go back to the beginning if a single word went wrong, as the whole thing had to be timed to within a couple of seconds to achieve the desired final effect.  The people with lines were (in order of speaking) Bill, Sir John, Gerald, Barman 1, Footman, Maid 1, Maid 2, Lady Battersby, Lord Battersby, Barman 2, Lady Brighton, Parchester, Sir Jasper, Charles, The Duchess, Jackie, Lord Damming and Lord French.  For some of those people, this was the only time they spoke in the entire show, and I think they found it harder than those of us with meatier parts in a way, as they seemed to be mostly filling in the gaps between our bits.  I dread to think how long was spent with those eighteen people standing by the piano and reciting gibberish which only made sense once we were on stage and moving about.

For me, the lines weren’t that much of a problem, as they all fitted nicely into the progressing rhythm and had some sort of logical sense to them, which wasn’t true for people such as the Footman.  It did also make me chuckle that one of my character’s contributions was ‘This is going to be hell’, as I thought this was probably prophetic, and I was right.

As we progressed from learning the lines to blocking the scene (blocking means working out where and when everyone moves) it became apparent that some of us had a little bit of extra fun, needing to exit from the front half of the playing area, and enter again at the back.  Fine.  In rehearsal, we sauntered quite happily around the edge of the room, getting into position for our entrances with plenty of time to spare before our next lines.  I even found it a doddle to insert my monocle on the way round – the 15-20 seconds or so of dialogue between exit and entrance seemed like an eternity.  A simple matter, right?  Wrong.

Once we got into the theatre, it became apparent that my task was to conquer an obstacle course in pitch blackness.  Before I explain this obstacle course, I should note for the uninitiated that stage right/stage left refers to the perspective of the actor, not the audience.  And a cyclorama is the big white cloth thingummy at the back of the stage, which often has a passageway behind it.  So, from position A (and the line ‘Don’t leave me!’) to position B (and the line ‘He’s coming,  He’s ready’), the route was:

  • Exit stage right after Jackie (my beloved)
  • Turn right and run through the crowd of stage hands
  • Dodge round part of the kitchen set
  • Turn right and run all the way behind the cyclorama (being careful not to touch it)
  • Turn 180 degrees sharply right and run half way down in front of of the cyclorama, squeezing past part of the pub set on the way
  • Up three steps
  • Turn left and enter through door, looking calm and composed and with the monocle now in place

It’s a big stage.  Backstage it is very dark.  I am short-sighted and had no glasses or contact lenses.  And I had very little time.  Thus, each attempt at this had a different outcome.

Attempt 1 – the technical rehearsal.  A complete and utter disaster.  I had to shout my line from behind the cyclorama.  I had a mic. pack on, so would have been heard from the audience, but the nature of the scene meant that I had to be heard on stage as well or things would unravel.

Attempt 2 – the dress rehearsal.  Another disaster, though I did make it to the end of the cyclorama this time, meaning that I didn’t have to shout quite so loudly.  ‘Jackie’ and I did realise that one potential reason for this was that her dress slowed her down, so we agreed that (since she has no further lines in the fugue after our exit) she would duck out of the way as soon as she got offstage, allowing me to overtake and thus hopefully gaining me a precious second or two.

Attempt 3 – the opening night.  Oh, so close, but so far.  Leaving Jackie behind did indeed gain me a second or so, but this time I ended up colliding with half of the chorus, dressed as cockneys and ready to come on for the Lambeth Walk a couple of minutes later.  Once again, my line was shouted as I attempted to negotiate my way through them.  After the performance, I asked one of the older members of the group to make sure the chorus were all further back next time.  Curses!

Attempt 4 – the second night.  Oh dear.  This time, I overshot on the sharp right turn and found myself about to come in through an entrance that my character couldn’t possibly arrive through.  Once again, the line was shouted, and Jackie arrived back on stage before I did and wondered where I’d gone.  Luckily, her character was supposed to be ignoring me at that point, so my absence made this easier for her.

Attempt 5 – the third night.  Perfection.  Of a sort.  My entrance was timed to perfection, and I spoke my line literally as I walked through the door.  Unfortunately, the rest of the fugue had completely unravelled, as one of the servant characters had not materialised on the stage, having lost track of where we were in the show.  The rest of us had to mentally keep his lines in mind, leave an appropriate gap of a second or two, and carry on with our own, but the rest of the servants found this impossible, as they had to respond to his words.  Thankfully, the missing person had no lines during my mad dash, otherwise I would have been late again.

Plan B – the final three performances.  I wasn’t the only one with a nightmarish moment in the fugue, and after the disaster of the third night performance, we had to rethink the scene.  Almost all exits and entrances were cut (including my own), with no regard to how much sense this made (the dialogue went so quickly, that you’d have to be paying very close attention to know who was supposed to go off and come back on).  The servants were regrouped.  And everyone breathed a sigh of relief, and hoped that it would all work smoothly, which (of course) it did and that nobody in the audience would smell a rat, which (of course) they didn’t.

I discovered that people who had seen the show on the first three nights had no idea that anything had gone wrong at any point of the Fugue, which made all of my frantic tearing around seem rather pointless.  I was so glad that I made it in time during one performance (coincidentally the performance that most of my colleagues attended) before the mad dash was cut.  And the experience certainly taught me that if you look like you know what you’re doing, the audience will generally assume that you do.

So there you have it. Hours of rehearsal, buckets of sweat and tears, and all for two or three minutes of dialogue set to music which most of the audience probably paid little attention to.  It’s a strange thing, this acting lark.

  1. I just realised I hadn’t commented on the Fugue yet. Possibly because my ‘comment’ consists of me starign at you in a slightly awe-struck sort of way.

  2. *blushes* No need for awe – it is more complicated to write down than to do, I think. One thing I’ve found with theatre is that big ‘wow’ moments are normally pretty easy to achieve, but the little things take many hours of rehearsal to get right. You spend forever working on a section that the audience will barely notice, but the bits that get the most applause or the biggest laugh often took a couple of minutes. It’s not always so, but it’s true often enough to be frustrating!

    • floatykatja
    • August 28th, 2006

    I started to write a comment, but it got far too long, so I’ve actually posted it as a story on my own blog. It’s so true that if you do things with confidence on stage the audience will rarely notice a mishap. Great post, SL.

  3. “Turn right and run through the crowd of stage hands”

    I was one of them sorry for being in your way. Also that was a nasty show to work on, the air conditioning broke down AGAIN! and I was getting drunk every night, other than that, pretty good production.

    With Regards.

  4. I do remember thinking that you probably all thought I was completely and utterly mad at that point! Normally, as well, I get to know the stage crew, but I was such a mess of panic and insecurity that week that I didn’t really speak to many people, even those I already knew.

    That was a completelty nightmarish set, wasn’t it? The revolving house looked like a great trial to me. Urgh.

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