Behind the scenes on opening night

Canterbury Operatic Society’s production of My Fair Lady opened last night, to a very appreciative audience.  I thought I would offer my readers a (long!) glimpse behind the scenes – what was the day like for me, playing Freddy Eynsford-Hill?

The day involved: a bit of running around the High Street searching for those last minute items I so desperately needed (facial wipes for the destruction of make-up, micropore for the fixing of microphone wires to the neck, and a wide white ribbon to transform into an unravelled bow tie); making my ‘have a good show’ cards, which used quotes from my character with relevant pictures; phoning home to arrange my parents’ visit at the weekend; and a last flurry of panic before leaving for the theatre.  Have I got the right colour socks on?  Have I put everything I need in my bag?  Is my voice working properly?  Should I eat something?  Can I eat something?  Have I remembered to shave?  Where is my glasses case?  Have I done cards for everyone I wanted to do cards for?  Am I breathing?  And so on.

Finally, it is time to head out to the theatre.  I arrive a little before 6.30pm, and wander the corridors handing out my cards, crossing back and forth with a number of others carrying out the same mission.  The musical director gives out bookmarks to her soloists, the director hand makes cards, one of the maids distributes special boxes of sweets to the different dressing rooms.  Soon, though, the flurry of activity is over, and everyone drifts back to their own dressing rooms, or starts gathering bits and pieces from wardrobe or props.

The first item on my agenda is my hair – Brylcreemed within an inch of its life, at the request of both wardrobe and sound.  Wardrobe like Brylcreem because it stays shiny, and sound like it because it doesn’t become solid and do unpleasant things to the microphones secreted on our heads.  After that, the microphone pouch, which lives on a cord around my waist, goes on.  I try to take things slowly, bearing in mind that we’ve been told we’re needed on stage at 7 o’clock to discuss one of the scenes.  The basics of my opening costume go on – black dress trousers and a white dress shirt.  The mic. pack slides its chilly way down my back and into its little pouch, followed more slowly by what seems like several miles of cable.  At this point I’m glad that my two main costumes involve tailcoats, so even if the cable escapes slightly, it still won’t be seen. 

Then I check my props.  Binoculars, shilling, champagne bottle, flowers…  Betting slip!  A quick trip up to the props table in the stage left wing yields the necessary result, as they wisely have enough slips for one to go missing every performance.  In the midst of this, the sound man comes to fix my mic. head to my head, which involves some careful additional hairstyling to hide it as much as possible.  Mic. head on, it’s time for make-up, applied (for once) by my own good self.  It’s a messy business, but I do a reasonable job, enough that I shouldn’t look as pale as death on stage.

Suddenly, it’s 7 o’clock.  Grabbing my shoes, I make my way to the stage and am pleased that I’m not the last.  We need to make some changes to the ballroom scene at the end of act one, as the set change was proving practically impossible.  The lady playing the Queen of Transylvania has her movements almost completely changed, and those of us who do a spot of waltzing have to do things a little differently at the beginning, but it’s not too bad.  Dismissed by the director, and wished all the very best, we hurry back to our dressing rooms.

At 7.10pm, the tannoy crackles into life.  “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your fifteen minute call, your fifteen minute call.”  This is where my pulse accelerates, breathing picks up speed as well and I feel a totally imaginary urge to use the little boys’ room.  Bow tie on.  Waistcoat on.  Tailcoat on.  Glasses and watch definitely, definitely off.  7.15 and it’s time to stand in line to have my mic. switched on.  I am informed that the nice lady doing the on-stage bits of sound will have to blow into my mic. head every time I’m about to go on – I have been sweating too much, despite my anti-sweat stuff I put on under the make-up, and this affects the sound quality. 

Cloak on, top hat on, just in time to hear the beginner’s call, which basically means ‘we start the show in five minutes, get on stage now’.  With everyone else, I troop up to stage, and find a spot in the stage right wing.  And wait.  The few minutes before  show opens seem to last forever.  We mill around, hoping nothing is going wrong on the other side of the curtain, and then we hear it.  The orchestra plays four chords, the curtain rises and the overture begins.  Little by little, the chorus drift on to stage until only half a dozen or so of us remain in the wings.   The orchestra negotiate ‘You Did It’, ‘On the Street Where You Live’, ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ and some linking themes, and approaches the end of the overture.  I clasp the arm of the actress playing my mother and we walk on to stage discussing the opera we’ve clearly been watching in the wings.  The overture reaches its climax and – wham! – just at the right moment I collide with the leading lady and the story begins.  I deliver my opening lines and dash off in search of a taxi.  A little over 30 seconds has elapsed since I stepped on to the stage and already I am making my way back to the dressing room.

Now for a leisurely costume change.  Nice trousers are replaced by common ones, and I don a great big overcoat, gloves, a scarf and a flat cap for an even shorter appearance on the stage.  As I hear the beginning of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?’ I head up and stand in the wings ready to add my vocals to the chorus line, then I wait until the designated point in the dance break to wander on stage to clear the cast away for no apparent reason.  Then back to the dressing room.

Now comes a stretch of around 45 minutes where I have nothing to do.  With the door of the dressing room open, I can watch people dash to and fro.  Every few minutes, the poor people playing the servants dash past en masse in one direction, then back the other way in a new costume.  I head down the corridor and have a chat with the wardrobe department before picking up my Ascot scene waistcoat which has been altered for me.  I place my ballroom waistcoat, bow tie and tailcoat in the quick change room by the stage, hide a bottle of water in a safe place in the stage left wing, and get ready for Ascot.  My morning trousers go on over my dress trousers, and I fiddle with the waistcoat and cravat for an age before they look right.  As the strains of ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ begin, I head upstairs again, and wait in the wings.

The song dies down, the curtain comes in for scene six and…disaster!  The set can’t disappear, as something is in the way from the fly tower.  We watch the crew reverse the set, raise the flown item again, push the set past and bring it down  as the dialogue marches ever on.  After what seems an eternity, the Ascot tables and chairs begin to appear, but then we hear the last line of dialogue.  A chaotic scurry begins, as we race to our places for the opening tableau.  Thankfully, the curtain rises a bar or two later than usual to give us time to get on, and those who appear later in the scene bring on the missing tables and chairs before a group of us have to sit down for our dialogue.  Eliza tells us her stories, the audience laughs, I am enchanted, and she shouts at the race horse.  Blackout and time to panic. 

In to the wing, where I can’t find the man who takes my binoculars from me.  So I grab a swig or two of water while the set changes, and put my binoculars with the water bottle.  The lights go up and I’m on.  A few lines of dialogue and I’m suddenly caught by the follow spot.  Trying desperately to avoid the ‘rabbit in the headlights’ look, I begin my lovely ballad, confuse the poor housekeeper and settle down on the street where she lives.  It’s not my best performance of the song, but it will do.  The audience applauds, the lights go down and I’m off. 

Back to the wings, in to the quick change room, where my Ascot regalia is switched for ballroom finery.  A quick trot round to the other side of the stage and I miraculously have a minute or so to wait until the nightmare scene change begins.  We wait patiently, then scurry on once more, with a little more time to spare this time.  I waltz for a  while, then disappear and pick up a vital prop.  A few minutes later and I’m on again being dreadfully silly, but with encouragement from the director, so that’s OK.  It seems everyone at the ball dances with darling Eliza except me, and I exit in a sulk just before the curtain comes down on the end of act one.

It is now the interval, but the time seems to pass quickly.  My Ascot costume must be rescued and returned to my dressing room and I must dishevel myself while the microphone lady checks that all is well.  The tragic first scene unfolds, then I lurch on to stage as unwelcome as the blasted porter in Macbeth, in a pitiful attempt at comedy which may or may not actually be working.  Unfortunately for me, Eliza does not appear on cue, having had trouble with her quick change, and I am stranded on stage alone with nothing to do.  Despair begins to creep in as I try to cover the gap and the orchestra slows their underscoring down to a crawl.  Eventually she appears and all is well with the world.  The scene can begin again, I can continue my attempts to be funny and we can escape into the wings.  Then I must wait for a few minutes, before wandering on to stage to deliver the taxi line.  Doolittle is very brave and looks at me as I speak.  I dare not catch anyone’s eye.  Nobody laughs.  We’re safe, I can make my final exit and the audience can be wowed by ‘Get Me to the Church On Time.’  I stay in the wings long enough to join the chorus in their song, then retire once more to the dressing rooms until the end of the show. 

I chat to Pickering and Doolittle, then get called to the stage.  What’s going on?  It turns out it was an honest mistake.  The Deputy Stage Manager saw that the next scene took place outside Higgins’ house and assumed I would be coming up to sing ‘On the Street Where You Live’, which is what happens in the other two scenes on that set.  But no, this is not the case.  We laugh about it (quietly) and I return below until it is time for the bows.  The audience applauds long and loud as the curtain rises on us and gives each principal a cheer as we bow.  Our smiles become genuine, and there are hugs all round as the curtain falls.  It’s about 10.40pm, we’re running late.  But never mind!  Off for a drink and we’ll do it all again tomorrow.

  1. I’m hoping to be there on Saturday (bug permitting). Thanks for an insight into what really goes on 🙂

    • Bunny McLeod
    • March 7th, 2008

    Oh, it brought it all back to me! My society did ‘My Fair Lady’ last year, and I was a servant as well as general chorus, so I recognised that picture of the servants constantly running on and off stage. I found it physically more gruelling than I had expected – I must be getting old 🙂

    You have painted such a vivid picture that I have been transported back to show week. I wish I had seen your production!

  2. That was fascinating.

  3. I’m glad the post has been interesting and evocative for people.

    Audience reaction suggests the show was a success. We sold out our two Saturday performances, which is the first time I’ve been in a sold out show in such a large venue. Most exciting.

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