Posts Tagged ‘ backstage ’

A tale of two theatre keys

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the hour of doing nothing, it was the hour of activity, it was the season of competence, it was the dawn of embarrassment.

It came to pass that the Singing Librarian, unable to sing in a particular show, took on the responsibility of stage managing.  He took his duties seriously, looking out for the safety of all involved and trying to ensure that the show was as smooth as it could possibly be.  He operated the tabs (knowing very well that the general public would call them curtains), he assisted with the lighting rig and he moved props around the theatre.  At the end of the short run, there came a day with two performances, a matinée and an evening showing.  The company dispersed to various watering holes to refuel, but the Singing Librarian was the keyholder, and so after a brief walk, he returned to the theatre to ensure that any member of cast, crew or band who returned would be able to get in.

Enjoying a few moments of quiet, he ate his packed dinner and buried his nose in a good book, sitting in the theatre’s bar area, dimly aware of the sounds of a cleaner, the only other person in the building, working in the auditorium.  As she finished her work, the cleaner passed through the bar, exchanged polite greetings with the Singing Librarian and made her way out of the building through the stage door.  After resuming his reading, the Singing Librarian heard noises from the direction of the stage door.  He shrugged, dismissing them as simply the sounds of someone struggling with the pass code, which they would no doubt remember shortly.  As the moments passed, however, the sounds did not stop.  Closing his book, the Singing Librarian made his way through the dressing room area to the door.

From outside, he could hear several voices, and the tone was not a happy one.  Wondering what could have caused the whole company to forget the code, he grasped the door handle and attempted to turn.  Nothing.  It refused to budge.  Those outside noticed this escape attempt immediately – “what are you up to in there, Singing Librarian?”  “Stop playing around and let us in!”  Another attempt to open the door, and another failure.

Slightly worried now, he could see that the door had been locked, even though he had left it needing only the code for entry.  Clearly, the cleaner had been on autopilot when she left and had locked the door behind her.  This was not a problem, as he had the key – needed the key to open the theatre each day.  He withdrew his keyring from his pocket and inserted the key into the lock.  Nothing.  It would not turn to either side.  “I can’t unlock it!” he called, a claim that was greeted with a mixture of amusement, disbelief and frustration.  Apparently, some cast members needed to powder their noses urgently.  However, an idea soon formed.  If they key would not work from inside, perhaps it simply needed to be used from the outside.  “I’ll throw the key down from the green room window!”  Or he would have done, if the window actually opened.  The toilet window proved equally immovable.

Outside the door, speculation grew about what the Singing Librarian might have been doing while everyone else was out?  Was he hurriedly hiding his harem away?  Did he need time to hide evidence of a prank?  Was he simply taking revenge on them for some unnoticed slight?  Eating cheese rolls and reading a German novel was clearly not an exciting enough way for the Singing Librarian of their imaginations to have spent the break.  Feeling increasingly foolish, each side tried their entry methods again – code and key failed once more.

But inspiration struck.  Earlier in the week, the Singing Librarian had been talking to the House Manager as she opened the door for the audience at the front of the theatre.  Concentrating hard, he remembered where she had hung the front door key and dashed through the theatre.  Finding the correct key, he unbolted and unlocked the heavy front door, and called out to the waiting cast and crew that the door was open.  After they had streamed in and headed for the dressing room, he dashed round to the stage door where they had been waiting and unlocked it on his first try.  Puzzled, he retraced his steps, closed up the front again, replaced the key and did his best to assure the rest of the company that this had not been a deliberate turn of events.

As he began his pre-show rituals, changing the batteries in the microphones and checking the location of the props, he could not help but ponder – why would you have a key that only worked from one side of the door?  It was a far, far stranger keyhole than he had ever known.


Managing the stage, watching the champagne

Just as I did last year, I spent the last week of October stage managing for Herne Bay Operatic Society on another relatively small-scale compilation show.  This time around was easier than the previous year for various reasons.  Firstly, I had more of an idea of what I was supposed to be doing, which always helps with both confidence and competence.  Secondly, we had less issues concerning sound, so the constant relay of hand-held mics was avoided – two mics were in use, but infrequently and they only needed to be passed from cast member to cast member on stage once.  Thirdly, I had some help backstage, in the form of a very experienced props mistress, who has been backstage for many of the shows I’ve performed in.  She really knows her stuff and remains calm and controlled at all times.

Unlike last year, I didn’t end up providing off-stage narration, which was quite a relief, but I was required to make a cameo appearance.  I couldn’t quite work out why one of the real cast members couldn’t have done it, but I was required to appear, sweeping the stage, only to be distracted by a rendition of ‘Always True to You in My Fashion’.  I was told that my appearance and reactions to the song made me look like Vic Reeves or a young Eric Morecambe.  I think I shall take that as a positive!

In terms of furniture and props, there wasn’t too much to keep track of – two tables, three chairs and a collection of stools, mostly.  However, the two of us backstage derived much interest and amusement from watching what happened with some drinks served on stage.  Two of the sections were set up to be a Parisian cafe and a sophisticated party.  In the first, a waitress passed out glasses of red wine and champagne (aka different flavours of Schloer) and in the second, the cast came on with glasses of the same ‘champagne’.  There were enough glasses for each member of the cast, and the distribution of the glasses in the second section was important as one man collected his (brought on by someone else) from a table part way through, and any that were left would be cleared by two other cast members in a bit of comic business.  Somehow, though, things often did not quite work out.  I watched in amusement when one cast member exchanged his red wine for champagne, explaining to the waitress that he didn’t like the red Schloer, and I watched in horror on the last night when the same cast member found himself without a glass and instead of managing without (there was no essential ‘business’ with the glasses for him), proceeded to mime having a glass.  In full view of the audience, he would inspect the fluid level, take sips and so forth, all from an invisible glass.  And of course, because he was miming, his movements were larger and more noticeable than those made by people with real glasses.  In another performance, the spare glass disappeared after being taken on to the stage, and I had to creep as close to the action as possible without being spotted by the audience, and mime to another cast member that they needed to put their glass down on the table so that it would be retrievable by the one man who actually needed a champagne class for the scene.  It took a while – I will clearly never be a champion Charades player.  At other times, people somehow managed to mix their drinks, creating all sorts of interesting new colours of liquid on the stage.  I would stand in the wings with the props mistress and watch the champagne with great fascination each night, never sure what I was going to see.

I am still certainly  not experienced enough to tackle stage management on a larger scale, partly for reasons which cross over with my reluctance to move into any management-type role in my career.  I don’t have the confidence to intervene forcefully in some situations.  Although the stage manager is supposed to be in charge, I was very aware that some of the others involved are much more experienced in backstage and technical matters than I am, so being in charge seemed somehow wrong.  I also like to be in control of the things I am supposed to achieve, and with a larger backstage crew, I would be worrying about whether everyone would be ready for each scene change and so forth.  With just a few trusted people to be thinking about back stage and in the lighting/sound control room, this was not an issue.  I did feel more in charge than last year, and was able to exert my authority when it came to matters which I considered to involve the health and safety of those involved with the show, so perhaps this will come.

During the week, several people asked whether I’d ever be interested in directing a show.  This is an idea that both excites and terrifies me (it involves making so very many decisions and probably upsetting quite a few people), and it looks likely that it will happen in the relatively near future.


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The joy of techs revisited

For me, the last week in October was largely spent dressed in black, navigating with the aid of blue lights.  In other words, it was spent backstage, specifically as a stage manager for Herne Bay Operatic Society’s compilation show Thoroughly Modern Musicals, the first time I’ve performed that particular function for a show (though I have played the character of a stage manager before).  I thought this was a rather crazy move on the part of the Society’s committee, and was fearing I would manage to do something truly disastrous.  As it turned out, I  didn’t cause a calamity, but the day of the tech and the days afterwards were still remarkably scary and exhilarating.  After all, the stage manager is in charge once the show is up and running – the thought that it was all my responsibility was positively terrifying.

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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.

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At the theatre, all in black

This week, the Singing Librarian is turning up to the local theatre each day dressed in black from top to toe.  There could be so many explanations for this.  Perhaps a week-long wake is being held for a local theatrical luminary.  Perhaps he will be donning white make-up and spending a week as a mime.  Or perhaps he is working just outside the limelight, as part of a show’s stage crew.  It is, of course, the last of these which is true.  One of the local Societies is performing Annie Get Your Gun this week and had asked me to sing in the wings, on an off-stage mic, to boost the volume of chorus singing, a task that I was happy to undertake.  Along the way somewhere, this remit expanded to helping with the ‘get-in’ (when the set, props, costumes etc. are brought in to the theatre) and assisting backstage during the week.  It’s a very different sort of week when you’re shrouded in black, hiding in the wings.  Where a performer gets an instant buzz of adrenaline when the stage lights hit them, a member of the crew knows that if they’re in the limelight, something has gone horribly wrong.  The small army of non-performing members of the company should rarely be either seen or heard, hence the black dress code.

Theatre work which doesn’t involve performing is not new to me and is certainly not ‘beneath’ me as a performer, which is something I have encountered before.  I have dabbled with directing, set construction, scenery shifting and I’ve even, and I pity the poor audience at these performance, operated the sound desk for a one-act play.  Many of these activities, particularly anything which involves being present during the performances, are just as scary and just as difficult as acting or singing.  In some cases, you have the power to mess up an entire show at the press of a button or two, and other times there is the dreadful worry that you could squash, concuss or otherwise injure any number of people as you carry out your duties. I certainly believe that all performers should do some backstage work for at least one show to give them a greater appreciation for the work of the black-clad army.  Whether it is shifting the set, handling the microphone packs, operating a spotlight or managing the props, the techies have to get things just right, for they cannot improvise their way around any mistakes and are likely to suffer grumpy actors and directors if anything does go wrong.

This week, I’ll be dashing from the offstage microphone to various other positions.  I hold curtains still or move them out of the way.  I help dismantle and remantle a house, a circus ring, a boat, a ballroom and a fort.  I push a huge train on and off the stage, and tie it together to prevent the cast sliding into the wings.  I check various props.  I pull a ticket office out of the way.  I dodge a multitude of items coming in from the fly tower above the stage.  I try not to tread on anyone.  I desperately hope the three children in the cast keep out of the way.  I have to remember, in the gloom, which bits go where in the glorious jigsaw puzzle of the set.  I do everything as quietly as possible while communicating with the other seven or so people doing the set and the two ladies in charge of the props.  In short I have to keep my head while using all of the muscles developed by the great amount of lifting that library work entails.

Backstage work can be fun, but it is definitely not as much fun a being out there on the stage, and just as stressful.  But it’s worth it.  Whether acknowledged or not, the production would not happen without the people working on set, costume, light, sound, props and stage management.  Next time you flick through a theatre programme and wonder what the operators, managers and assistants under the production credits do, think some happy thoughts about them.  They run around like a hive of silent bees making the actors look even better than they actually are.

Acting like a duck

You keep paddling like the clappers,
Just keep paddling with your flappers,
While seeming to be dreaming and calm.
Just beneath the surface
You may struggle to get by.
But nothing can deter you
If you hold your head up high.

So sing a mother and son pair of ducks in Honk! as the ugly duckling learns to swim.  The image of a duck or swan gliding serenely across the water while its legs are working nineteen to the dozen beneath the surface is particularly apt for theatre.  No matter how polished a performance the audience may experience, you can guarantee that backstage is complete chaos, involving many people whose existence would surprise the paying punters in the audience.  Actors may be dashing about at breakneck speed, changing costumes and locating props.  Crew members all in black will be changing microphones, getting sets into position, acting as crowd control, clearing the stage of hazards, grappling with velcro, safety pins and gaffa tape.  There’ll be a deputy stage manager constantly whispering into his or her headpiece to communicate with cast, crew, lighting people, sound people and more.  Miles of electrical cable coil like snakes around the building, clothing rails are hidden in the strangest places, the sewing machine is very rarely turned off and at any given point, several people will be in the middle of a nervous breakdown.

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Singing Librarian flashbacks: Disasters

This week, I have given much thought to those times when theatre just goes horribly wrong.  When the set decides to cave in, the follow spot overloads the electrical system, the pyrotechnics explode three scenes too soon, or everyone forgets what they’re supposed to do.  It happens to everyone involved in theatre at any level sooner or later, as I have been reading.  In Great Operatic Disasters, one discovers terrible disasters that have overtaken performances in venues as prestigious as La Scala and Covent Garden, while the ever popular Art of Coarse Acting describes the ways in which amateurs and others essentially bring such disasters down on their own heads.  The schadenfreude-seeker in me is now anxious to get hold of a new compendium of real disasters called Stop the Show!, and of course there are many further examples to be gleaned from the biographies of our great stage stars.

Of course, over the years, I’ve encountered a few of these wonderful moments, though nothing to top the more outrageous events recounted in these books.  Continue reading

Another Op’nin’, Another Show

You know, Kiss Me, Kate really doesn’t have the most musically-advanced opening number in the world, and the lyrics are pretty simplistic, but it has a power and appropriateness which is hard to match.  As I have been rehearsing the number over the past few weeks, I’ve been struck by this again and again.  Sometimes less really is more, even in musical theatre.

The tune is simple and catchy, though the revised version of the show currently doing the rounds adds some tough harmonies to the number.  It drives  along, expressing the combination of dread and elation that performing a show brings with it.  I sincerely doubt that a musical analysis of the song would provide much insight even if I had the skills to do such a thing, so let’s look at the lyrics…

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Can someone strike the stage left flat?

Every profession and hobby has its own language, the words that make sense to those in the know, but sound like gibberish to everyone else.  Social groupings have them as well, of course, but these seem to serve a different purpose.  Professional jargon is what I’m talking about here, and specifically the jargon of the theatre.  Every production I’ve done as an adult has been in a professional theatre of some size or other, so I’m becoming a fairly fluent speaker, and every production has involved at least one first-time performer who had to get up to speed on theatre talk very quickly.

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