edited: Thursday, April 26, 2007
By Maggie R Cobbett
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Thursday, April 26, 2007
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The parts of a production of which the audience is unaware - until they go horribly wrong.
How many people, I wonder, switch off the television or hurry out of the cinema whilst the credits are still scrolling down. The same number, I imagine, who study the cast list in their theatre programmes, but spare only a cursory glance for the unsung heroes in the production team. After all, what does it matter who rehearsed the chorus, put the props together or designed the set? If everything runs smoothly, their hard work is taken for granted. Applause is for the cast and the orchestra, not for the (usually) invisible hands backstage.
I say usually because my mother, who took part in many amateur productions, never forgot the evening ‘Props’ had to leave halfway through the show. The big number in the second act was a duet, with much emphasis placed on the splendour of the moon in June. Unknown to my mother and her singing partner, something was missing. It might not have been so bad, if it had not been found in the middle of their song. A large hand suddenly appeared through a hole in the night sky, groped around for a few seconds and then hung the moon up on its hook. The romantic pair on stage saw none of this, of course.
Completely thrown by the hoots of mirth from the audience, my mother fled into the wings in tears. The young man, not over keen to take on the role in the first place, stormed off after her and never trod the boards again.
The separate roles of the producer and the director are not always clearly understood by the public. Each involves a lot of hard work and I take my hat off to the hardy souls who undertake both. A producer’s role can be very flexible, depending on the type of show, but it is often confined to taking care of the finances and practical aspects. The most important personal quality required is the ability to remain calm in the face of crisis. If the show sells well and runs smoothly, the producer has done a good job.
The first use of the term 'director' in the theatre coincided with the introduction of electric lighting at the turn of the nineteenth century. Actors who had previously decided on their own stage movements now had to be ‘directed’, so that the lights could focus on them. Nowadays, it is the director’s role to ensure the artistic quality and completeness of the show. This means making decisions on the concept and interpretation of the text and working with other key individuals, including the writer in the case of a new play.
The calmness required of the producer is also desirable in the director and is frequently tested to the limit. On the last night of the 2006 production of Fiddler on the Roof at Harrogate Theatre, for example, the eponymous cast member was taken ill just before the performance. Feeling too sick and dizzy to perch on the roof for her opening number, she was persuaded to lean on a wall at the side of the stage, but then disappeared for the rest of the evening. It took some very hasty negotiations with the musical director, already down in the pit, to arrange for the rest of the Fiddler’s musical contributions to come from an invisible member of the orchestra. Few amateur societies have the luxury of understudies and it is not unknown for the director to have to scramble into a costume at very short notice. After all, no one else is as familiar with every role in the show.
Another very taxing job is that of the stage manager. During rehearsals, he will have been by the director’s side, recording the blocking and seeing that cast members have the necessary props. He will have noted on the script the timing of lighting, sound and set change cues and briefed the lightboard operator, sound technician and scene shifters. Once the house opens, he takes control, liaising between cast and crew and calling the cues for all transitions. In a small production, he may work alone. In a large show, a team will be employed to share the responsibility of ‘calling the show’ and supervising actors and crew backstage, not a task for the faint hearted. A young cousin of mine left a steady job in a bank to work as an assistant stage manager on a travelling ice show. He returned to the UK a few years later with a wealth of experience but far less hair.
Taking responsibility for scenery, props and wardrobe is no sinecure either. Alan Ayckbourn’s plays generally seem to involve characters splashing around in a pond at some point, making the stage wet and slippery. At a performance in the round at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, my son and I unwisely sat on the front row and were drenched by a succession of characters squelching past us on their way back to the dressing rooms. My mind flew back to a pantomime in Leeds many years ago, when the Fairy Queen skidded on a wet stage and broke not only her wand, but also her leg.
The theatre has its own superstitions, which have to be borne in mind. That surrounding ‘the Scottish play’ is perhaps the best known, but far from being the only one. A few examples that come to mind are as follows:
It is unlucky to use real flowers, real money or real jewellery.
Green should only be worn if absolutely necessary.
Blue must be countered by silver.
Knitting on stage brings bad luck.
Peacock feathers should never be allowed, even as part of the set.
Three, and only three, candles on the stage are unlucky.
The make-up team has a vital role to play. Even to appear ‘natural’ under the lights requires a heavy base and anything further calls for considerable expertise. One production of Othello I attended required the white actor taking the main role to be painted black in full view of the audience. The white robes worn for the part must have needed heavy duty laundering after each performance. A tricky job for someone!
Prompting is needed at times by even the most competent actors and requires a lot of judgement. Too little of the phrase leaves another embarrassing silence. Too much can result in a duet. Pitch and volume are also important. It is the actor who must hear, not the people at the back of the auditorium. Facilities vary from a chair in the wings to a booth filled with the latest electronic gadgetry. At its worst, the prompt may be consigned by the backstage crew to a dark corner where, kneeling and, using a torch to follow the script, he has to peer through a small hole to follow the action.
Unheard of not too long ago, the roles of Health and Safety Officer for the production and Child Protection Officer have to be filled. These days, when there is no such thing as an accident and everyone is afraid of being sued, directors are having to be much more circumspect than in the past. Complex regulations are in place to ensure the comfort and welfare of the under-sixteens.
To all the unsung heroes and heroines whom lack of space has forced me to omit, I apologise. Whether front of house or backstage, you have my admiration and gratitude. Break a leg!