Sunday, 8 March 2015

A Creature of Play - "The play's the thing..."

On Twitter I've recently been reminiscing about my days as a professional theatre technician. The above pic is one of my lighting designs from an amateur production. I blame my time on 'Les Mis' for a lot of things really... not least a few creative inspirations.

During my career I invariably got sidelined by loud-mouthed numpties when it came to trying anything new but it didn't stop me from earning honorariums for sorting out their mess afterwards, mainly when they had had an accident of their own making e.g. falling down a ladder at home to squash their own cat and well, stuff like that. Both technician and cat survived and recovered, children. Something about the way both are trained to fall I think to be so fortunate.

Instead of staying in the West End, I found I was able to use my creativity, my 'people-skills' (aka 'communication' to normal folk) and my trouble-shooting abilities to much greater effect in community theatre. If I wanted to do a lighting design of my own to learn more I could more often do so by doing an amateur production to generate interest in the next generation too. Often they would inspire new ideas by asking how effects could be achieved.

I don't regret my time in the West End, but I prefer a more hands-on involvement with ordinary folk - yes I know... I'm a weirdo. I prefer smaller scale productions but producing houses are rarely well paid and contracts are usually very short-term indeed and so you end up trying everything to make ends meet (including a brief stint as a street lighting engineer apparently) until the wonderful day arrives when you find another job that suits you.

"To be happy at work, you need to know yourself really well."

The person you are today is not the person you were ten years ago nor yet the person you will be ten years from now, but you can learn what you next need or want to learn by spotting with accuracy what you are happiest doing and where you are happiest doing it too. There is no point battling with a whole company if you are the only one that doesn't like the way things are done. It's you that needs to change, not them unless they really are truly corrupt to the core which actually is very unlikely. They might be stupid, they might be short-sighted, they might be all manner of things but 'ifs' and 'buts' and 'maybes' don't change who anyone is. They might be right and you might be wrong if it comes to that. At some point, at some time we all are, myself included. (Always wise to admit to it and apologise when that happens, I find).

I digress... I learned more by returning to amateur theatre to test drive a few gizmos there than I would otherwise have ever tried by only working professionally. People have cottoned on to this now so that I seldom get a chance to play in amateur theatre either. Yup, I do sulk about this but I have other interests and these things tend to go in cycles anyway. I am still called occasionally to assist in a show no one wants to do or that no one else has the time to do.

The current and next generation deserve their opportunity of learning, do they not? They stand a better chance of learning well when experienced people (when off-duty) are there to help though, not least in ensuring that they don't fall off ladders onto live animals or anything silly like that. During my days as a professional I trained those with no knowledge at all some of whom have since toured on shows like 'Spamalot' and have earned good money for it (bastards - they owe me a drink still).

I wasn't responsible for their learning, they were and it wasn't just me they learnt from either. I cunningly passed them on to others more experienced than me when they started to ask too many awkward questions. I wasn't born an idiot - it takes me years to practice that one, some are just naturals I note.

Another of my proteges was a BBC sound engineer roped in to running sound and lights on an amateur production by his fiend, I mean friend. He was terrified of stage lighting, partly because he was a wheelchair user I think, but by the time I'd finished with him all fear had ceased. In fact he told me to sod off to let him edit everything within the space of three days. Charming fellow actually, I didn't mind at all but, I ended up having to run up and down ladders as per HIS instructions over MY lighting design, if you please. It was a stunning job too as we had no two gels that matched and zero budget for more. The result was very... 'resourceful and imaginative' because of my experience. It was also very good at hiding the flaws in the set build so that everyone gushed about the lighting as the acting and direction also required a lot of imagination, but you can't win them all.

Lack of training in all professions I've worked in has been largely due to the lack of time and budget for training paid staff. In the curious world of theatre, wonderful gadgets that you'd never seen before would  regularly arrive at your place of work in a receiving house for the technical team that came with it to play with. The most you could do was allow them access to power, watch and ask questions on how they worked. It became necessary to know as often the touring crew didn't know either, so you'd ask around to make the show and it's gadgets work. In any workplace, it pays to bide your time and to take time to learn properly.

"A hobby you might have today, could well end up being your career if you learn it well enough."

Hobbies can become careers, so it was with me as for many years I'd been interested in amateur dramatics until one day, I was the lighting operator, rigger and programmer of a production of 'Richard III'. It was an outdoor production in the summer in the UK. Which meant it rained prolifically. At the denouement of the piece is a battle scene at which point, the director trod on the lighting board cable and the end of it nearly dropped in a puddle. Electricity and H2O do mix, but not in a nice way. The speed at which I reconnected the cable and manually worked that board for the building of lighting states (also the director's fault) for the climax of the play resulted in a job offer. Recovery is everything when mistakes are made, folks.

That's my version of events... and the entire technical teams' version too. The true version is far more er... technical and involved i.e. it was a joint cock-up between director and lighting programmer. Well who ever heard of programming lighting in daylight!!! Daylight is when lighting technicians sleep - I thought everyone knew that. I still got the job offer though.

The first show I did professionally was at the Grosvenor House hotel - it was not a theatrical production at all. Over-brimming with self-esteem I rashly thought I would easily be able to do the get-in, fit-up, run a follow-spot, de-rig and go home as fresh as a daisy 28 hours later. Ooops. The get-in was at 2am and by 9.30am if breakfast hadn't arrived I think I would have needed an ambulance.

Still, at least I didn't fall asleep on the follow-spot as someone I know did during an award show. I did however forget my glasses which made it rather tricky to pick out table numbers for the pick-up to follow the award-winners to the stage and back. However, thanks to team work from the rest of the crew shouting in an increasingly exasperated state down the headset conflicting instructions of "left a bit" and "right a bit" I got there, mainly because I largely ignored their shouting. There are few things worse when you're panicking than conflicting instructions being yelled at you. Luckily someone found my glasses so things improved after that. I can only hope it was that bit that was televised really. (Top tip, always be on excellent terms with film editors!).

The salary was less than the lift got, but it was worth it for the experience as not all jobs would even cover your travel expenses to get to them I was to discover - so I refused those as that struck me as a very silly idea indeed to encourage by working on. One could end up bankrupt that way!

The hilarious tales from all theatrical people could keep you amused for decades, but don't be fooled by them - they are a living history and a testimony of how hard it is to get anything right and it does take it's toll on people. You can tell when this happens by how cranky people get and also by how bizarre the creativity gets too in some cases.

Directors, technicians and performers are always under a lot of pressure not to give audiences any cause to demand refunds and yet none are perfect; in common with all other professions, they too can be pushed to breaking point and it is never a pretty event to witness. It is not clever nor wise to do this to anyone as they tend to have friends and connections to ensure you can't do it to anyone they know again. After a while you run out of people who will work for you if you are nasty, with any luck. It is not surprising that mistakes are made, such as the actor who gave away who the murderer was in the first scene of a murder mystery on the opening night. Strangely they didn't turn up for the second night... or the rest of the run.

Then there's the director who decided to cast a deaf impaired person in a play which required them to wear a paper bag over their head. They could not hear when their fellow cast members went off the plot to be able to improvise to rescue them, which was a pity as I heard that the deaf actor was extremely good in plays that didn't starve him of his sight as well.

There was also an actress who was difficult to rescue from the top of a set because she had no underwear on and wouldn't allow anyone to foot a ladder for her to help her down. No one is quite sure why she had no knickers on as the piece didn't require it, I'm not even sure she was supposed to be at that height or who had aided her in reaching it. Mysteries of that kind do abound in a theatre.

No, it wasn't me, among my favourite calamities was the door that jammed solid to warrant a thin saw being used to release it while I was playing Gwendolin being proposed to in 'The Importance of Being Earnest.' For some reason my beau kept staring at the door behind me and the audience were wetting themselves with laughter even when no dialogue issued forth. I was completely oblivious to all this until Lady Bracknell kicked the door in to make yet another of her tediously interfering and meddlesome grandiose entrances. Why she didn't enter via the fireplace I shall never know.

There are the costume handicaps too such as the technical crew that drilled holes in a stage for smoke to emit from them via yards of hidden of ducting - we can't have trip hazards you know, not unless it's part of the set. The play was a costume drama which involved hooped skirts from the ladies. The scene was a serious and dramatically poignant funeral which only gave way to whoops of laughter whenever the ladies moved to release, (in a terrifically spectacular whoooosh), huge clouds of smoke as if they'd just relieved themselves of a century of stored up flatulence to emit something highly whiffy, noxious and possibly poisonous.

The technical crew had only been following instructions to hide all the ducting after all, no one told them how to so they used their initiative. The audience came to be entertained and... they were. Phew, no refunds required. Oh yes, if you find that stage smoke is whiffy, noxious and poisonous you should probably tell someone like a theatre manager or a doctor, as it's never supposed to be. With a bit of luck the manufacturers will have to deal with an enquiry from Trading Standards and their heads will roll in a delightful-to-witness fashion and go to jail without collecting £200 for passing 'go'.

"Those of us who work in live events do so for what goes wrong as much as for what goes according to plan." 

People think that theatre is a laugh a minute but folks, nothing is or can be unless you choose to look for what's funny. It's not very funny for highly talented and skilled people of any profession ending up being unemployed regularly through no fault of their own. In some cases people make themselves unemployed purely out of being bored rigid that everything is going well. Some do so politely and discreetly, while others cause a stink as if they've found a self-sabbotage button and decided to see what happens by hitting it - few people don't hit that button from time to time, but most, like me have a safety valve to bring us back from it. People who hit self-destruction buttons lose, is what happens. Most people can and will adapt and find something else which they might enjoy more or not. I consider myself to be someone who enjoys changes of scene, but I do rather prefer the ones of my choosing because, as I stated before, I'm a weirdo.

Some things are not funny, nor ever will be, such as accidents that lead to injury or death. Do be careful and adhere to safety and health warnings won't you? Risk-takers are responsible for every great development we have in our world, but I struggle to think of any risk taken that hasn't taken it's toll on others and indeed many a genius themselves. Risk-takers should not encourage others to be as they are when others are not built to handle, or can learn to cope with such dangers. If you do not know how to do something, you can always ask or look it up in a library. I don't recommend looking much up on the internet now as there are too many misleading articles designed to either con you into buying things you never wanted, never had any interest in and will never have the time to use regularly or simply to stir up your emotions until you become enraged because you can't have more of the same crap from them without getting into major debt! (I've never understood that behaviour).

Health and Safety would never have been such a major concern in our lives had we never been so rash or stupid as to think we know things when we blatantly don't. It takes time and practice and above all many decades of dedicated learning to understand anything. It takes patience with yourself and others too. If we don't want a nanny state that dictates what we are permitted to learn and who may or may not learn it and when we are allowed to use that knowledge, then perhaps we should learn to be more careful in all things in the first place and above all not break the rules and laws that actually keep us safe.

To learn how to learn should always be uppermost among personal goals. Take your time to learn your specialism properly, it can cost lives and livelihoods not to because; in my "everso humble" opinion, play is the thing. It's the thing we learn from most... especially when it's fun but above all made  and kept safe.

PS: If any technician can correctly identify which gels and gobos I used, as well as the luminaries I'd be most obliged - I might want to do another show like it and well, my own record keeping on my own amusing achievements doesn't seem to be as well-documented as those I do for others when paid to. I haven't quite figured out why this is as it remains puzzlement I haven't quite got round to resolving. 

* * *

Written in memorial to Beryl who played Lady Bracknell - both formidable characters alive or dead,
I was very fortunate to have known Beryl well enough to be her friend.
"The show must, you know..."

(I have very few photos of shows I've lit for the simple reason that I seldom have the time to take them or
that pictures taken have strict controls over use - quite right too, say I!)

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