Love at First Sight Part 2 – reprise

Previously…

My love at first sight for the Citizens’ Theatre extended rapidly to the place that fed its thrilling, unconventional brilliance.

I fell in love with Glasgow.

And, forty years on, I still am.

When I started work at the Citizens’, the theatre was a building site.

The last – and first – time I’d seen the place, it looked like a run-down cash-and-carry.  Now its frontage and south side were covered in scaffolding.  As if on life support.

I saw this web of metal as I got off the bus, by the high-rise flats, on Gorbals Street.

I made my way round to the Stage Door.  I was greeted by a huge man with bushy sideburns.

You’ll be the new manager.  I’ll tell them you made it.  Was there some doubt? 

Giles, the director, came through the corridor and grasped my hand.  Hello! You made it! (not him as well – or was this the standard greeting?)  Welcome, welcome!

He led the way up dark stairs to the dressing rooms.  He opened a door into a narrow space, with mirrors and light bulbs along one side.  Dressing Room 4 – our office!

The Citizens’, for the third year running, was being done up.  Major works on the stage, south side and foyer.  Phase 3.

The dressing rooms were the only areas free for the few production and admin staff, who would keep the place going over the summer.

As well as the refurbishments, the company was preparing 2 shows – Chinchilla and The Good-Humoured Ladies – for Edinburgh International Festival in August, plus a full autumn season in the renovated Glasgow base.

I realised, in alarm, that I was to be the main contact with the contractors, to ensure they gave us back the building in time for our September opening.

That looked unlikely.  What a mess!  Peeled back to the stone, swathes of old plasterwork and ceilings hanging off, pipes and cables snaking everywhere, bare floors strewn with timber, tools and machinery.

Even more impossible, I felt, was my main job: keeping on top of the finances for the shows and staff.  There was a highly competent group of people setting up casting, rehearsals, set-building and costumes.  But responsibility for sticking to the budget was mine.

You’re going to be busy! said Giles, brightly, at the end of my first day.

Busy – and daunted.  I got the bus home, wracked with worry.  I was now in charge of all the Citizens’ money.  Everything and everybody from cleaners and front-of-house to directors and actors.  I’d only run a fringe co-operative in Bristol.  I didn’t even fully understand VAT!

Just another zero on the end! said Giles, still brightly, at the end of my second day.

I recall near-sleepless nights that first week.  Several times, I resolved to go in the next day and tell Giles I simply wasn’t up to the task.  I was the youngest theatre manager in the country.  Would I also be the one with the shortest tenure?

But, mercifully, I was surrounded by people who knew what they were doing and taught me a lot in a short time.

Each time I drew near the Stage Door, I had a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach.  It receded over time, but never completely went away in all the years I worked at the Citizens’.  Maybe a theatre should always make you feel a bit on edge – keeps it exciting!

Rehearsals for Edinburgh started.  Chinchilla was a sort of Citizens’ emblem about why art matters, by Robert David Macdonald.  All about Diaghilev and the Russian Ballet. 

The other piece was an Italian comedy, by Carlo Goldoni.  The Citz loved him, and so did I.  Final rehearsals for Country Life had knocked me out, on my first Glasgow trip.

Two actors, David Hayman and Gerard Murphy, greeted me with open arms.

I also took heart walking round the theatre.  It was, even in disarray, a remarkable place.

The stage was clear to the rafters, roof vents opened.  They were installing a new flying system and needed daylight.  As I craned my head skywards, countless motes of dust spun through the slatted sunlight, like tiny dancers heading for the stage.

The solid outlines of the walls, bars, grid and beams were reassuring.  The place had been up since 1878.  It would surely survive this latest disruption.

The foyer, though stripped of its red, gold and black skin, was recognisable as the welcoming hub of the building.  The entrance, box office portholes, glass doors and carpetless stairway kept the front-of-house skeleton visible. 

Progress was slow.  But, as new panels, facades, and beadings were applied, the heart began to emerge as well.  Part of me couldn’t wait until the people showed up to bring it back to life.

Amidst the sea of messy improvement sat the auditorium.  It was due no improvements.  New seats, décor and carpet would have to wait till next year, money permitting.  Phase 4.

The gilt-sprayed double doors were screened by a loose plastic veil.  I pushed the brass handle on the right-hand opening.

Inside, subdued light.  Decked with even more red and gold than the foyer would be, it was an island of calm.  The bangs and clatter of the building works were dulled by the black-and-gold safety curtain. 

Yellowed dust sheets covered the seating rows.  I lifted the hem of one, to reveal a few seats off the centre aisle.

I sat.  Soothed.

I tried to see beyond the construction, the trials of playing Edinburgh and the efforts to re-open on time.  It wasn’t too hard to imagine these seats filled with people, busy and vital.

It was a vision that, once realised at the end of that long summer, would keep me going for years to come.

The Edinburgh shows went well and we did – just – get the place open on time.  The freshly painted foyer looked splendid, though the entrance was still run-down.

That facelift would come later.  Like most old theatres, the Citz seems in constant need of an upgrade.  Now, in 2020, a fresh round of improvements is underway.  Must be about Phase 20.

When I started work at the Citizens’, the theatre was a building site.

And, forty years on, it still is.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, July 2020.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

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