There’s a great scene in Kenneth Branagh’s 2018 film, All Is True, when he, as William Shakespeare, hits back – verbally – at Sir Thomas Lucy. They loathed each other.
Sir Thomas goads Shakespeare: I can’t loll about all day thinking pretty thoughts like you poets. I must to business.
Shakespeare’s response (as in Ben Elton’s screenplay) is an exposition of the work involved in running a theatre and producing shows:
Business, Sir Thomas? Oh, I thought you meant real business, like building, owning and operating London’s largest theatre, for instance. Actors, carpenters, seamstresses. Crew to pay. Bribes to pay. Security to mount. Politics to navigate.
3000 paying customers to be fed and watered every afternoon, each promised a spectacle greater than the last… Have you ever considered the logistics of mounting the Battle of Shrewsbury in the banqueting hall at Hampton Court? Please don’t. It would make you so tired.
Sir Thomas isn’t alone in regarding the theatre as a haven for feckless dilettantes. If only these artsy-fartsy types would get a proper job.
A friend, who ran a smaller but no less demanding, nor less successful, playhouse than Shakespeare’s Globe, was asked, by his military brother, Still doing your play-acting?
Yet the reality of working life in theatre – onstage or off – is one of arduous labour.
Banish from your mind images of gadflies, lounging around in cravats, sipping gin and conjuring up witty aphorisms.
For most actors the hours are long, the conditions rough and the pay nugatory.
There’s precious little lolling about. Unless it’s the wastes of time waiting for your call or for the technical rehearsal to grind on to the next lighting cue, while you go over your lines, which you probably learned in your own time.
The longest wait of all is for the phone to ring in the first place, while friends ask you what you’re up to at the moment, with the attendant erosion of status and confidence.
Sure, there are compensations, like the sweet spurt of applause at the curtain call (though if you’re not on for ages before it, you even have to wait around for that). Then you’re out the stage door, back in the dark and cold, wondering if you can afford the fare back to your lousy digs.
That’s the performers, who have it relatively easy. The really thankless tasks are the province of the technical crew, stage managers and assistants, paid Equity minimum to ferret out untraceable props and set, strike and reset furniture so that the actors don’t bump into it.
Meanwhile, as the lights fade and everyone else goes home, front-of-house staff and cleaners mop up discarded drink cartons, crisp packets and vomit.
Perhaps hardest is the non-stop responsibility for pulling all these people – directors, actors, stage management, carpenters, electricians, wardrobe, design, marketing, box office, cleaners and front-of-house, not forgetting the audience – together. Simultaneously, consensually and smoothly.
This is probably special pleading, as that’s exactly what I tried to do for many years.
I loved it. But, to echo Donald Dewar’s words on restoring the Scottish parliament, it wasn’t a downhill skoosh.
Or, as Robert David MacDonald put it in Chinchilla:
This company is founded on the talents of every man and woman working in it, coming together to create something none of them could have conceived, let alone achieved, on his own.
Keeping the show on the stage – or on the road (touring can be even more Herculean) – is a challenge all of its own.
Can all these disparate factors – people, sets, costumes, props, lights, sounds, effects, cues, tickets, seats, toilets, heating, transport, weather etc. – possibly combine to go off, without a single hiccup?
The show must go on. 5% inspiration, 95% perspiration. Break a leg.
It’ll be all right on the night. Merde. In bocca al lupo.
They’ll never notice in the stalls. Bad dress rehearsal, great premiere. No peacock feathers.
No whistling. The Scottish play. A warm hand on your opening.
Fabulous is not the word!
As many maxims as chances of failure.
What’s more, the idea is to try and make it entertaining and enlightening enough to be, in John McGrath’s timeless phrase, a good night out.
It’s just pretend. None of it’s real.
Theatre’s urge to make itself seen, heard and enjoyed defy all logic, sense and reason. Why does anyone bother?
Well, thousands of workers, for thousands of performances, over thousands of years have, still do and probably always will.
Of course, there are lots of upsides. I’d need to devote a separate blog post to count them all. For now, suffice to say that memorable productions, great performances, the buzz of excited audiences and the relationships forged in the heat of all this intense activity – well, they are benefits that stay with you for a long time.
But Noel Coward was right. Don’t consider it as a career. Unless you relish hard work for little reward. Unless you yearn to be caught up in a pointless enterprise that remains utterly compulsive and utterly human.
Coda – mea culpa!
As well as special pleading, I also feel a twinge of guilt at my own part in the imposition of hard labour in the theatre.
I was the tyrant responsible for the schedule of panto performances at the Citizens’ Theatre. More than once, I programmed 3 consecutive 3-show-days: 9 performances at 2pm, 5pm and 8pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, just before Hogmanay.
All within 56 hours. By the time they reached the Saturday evening show, the actors and crew didn’t know if it was Christmas or Cockfosters.
I cite 2 factors in my defence. First, we made certain that the show ran for just under two hours, including interval. So, there was time for a break between sessions backstage and (just) time for front-of-house to get one audience out and a new one in.
Secondly, it wasn’t solely exploitation, but for the greater artistic good. All theatres see their Christmas show as a chance to maximise box office. Anyway, it’s how most people experience live theatre and a full house makes it even more enjoyable.
The extra money from a successful panto helps cross-subsidise the rest of the year’s repertoire, increasing employment (bigger casts, longer runs), artistic choice and output for the public.
But I hold my hands up – it was a very stringent rota. If anyone who worked all those shifts is reading this, I’m truly sorry.
by Paul Bassett, Glasgow, June 2020.
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