Backstage Bart

This post about unseen people and elements in the theatre – stage managers, sound and light people, door-whores (a term that I find hilarious) at the front of house, the glamourous assistant directors, and all those people who help put a show together.

To put on a show you need a few essentials. Most importantly and most obviously you need a play.

Last night we completed a run of ‘Miss Julie’ by August Strindberg at the Pearse Centre in Dublin. It’s a dark play set in a Swedish country manor where one evening the lady of the house goes to the kitchen where she meets her cultured valet. Shenanigans ensue.

My involvement with this production was a surprise. At the end of June after playing a dour Ukrainian road sweep in the lottery fantasy ‘Everyone’s a winner’, I expected to have the summer off from thesping. People are on holidays, the weather might be pleasant. Theatre seems like an autumnal sport.

When we had the usual post-mortem of that show to discuss how it went and to make sure we weren’t bankrupt, a surprising proposal was made. Would the group be willing to put on another show in seven weeks – the aforementioned ‘Miss Julie’. I thought to myself ‘Wow – that’s a very short time-frame.’ But it was already cast and had a director, so all the pieces were in place.  I was off the hook.

However I was asked if I would be interested in being assistant director. I gave an inner whimper of despair. Having been stage manager for a production of ‘Cafe Noir’ in Amsterdam, I knew that backstage – while very rewarding – is a stressful place. ‘Cafe Noir’ was a great experience but never before had my fingernails been so bitten to the quick.

Backstage, everyone is scurrying about like headless chickens to make the onstage work look effortless. But assistant director wasn’t stage manager. This would be fine. Right?

Acting involves its own stresses – learning lines, blocking, emoting. Learning lines is the most difficult and time consuming. And heart stopping. No matter how much you rehearse you’re going to fluff a line, or your fellow actor will, and you’ve got to have the bottle to let it slide, and carry on with the show. But the backstage people need to keep their heads down and put the grind in. The show is the thing. And the show must go on.

After a couple of weeks of rehearsal the group realised that we needed to hold a fundraiser. Luckily that was fairly easy – we hired a quizmaster, and I made several trips to Tescos for prizes – prosecco and wine – from the ‘50% off range’. Good wines, hint of nutmeg etc. It was profitable – we earned the price of the rental for the theatre. Result.

As the show was unexpected, and as many people who would normally be involved were away, I took the executive decision to create the social media event pages. And started inviting folk. We need an audience. And I was notified on Facebook about every single attendee – as the events were created by m good self, Facebook thoughtfully sent a message every time someone commented or accepted. The daily notifications were immense in number – being a technophobe, it took me a while to discover how to turn them off. They were interrupting my much needed beauty sleep.

I was asked if I could take control of the money. Now this was deep waters. That sounded like a heavy task. So I bought a big brown envelope and put all the receipts in. It sits on my bedside locker pulsating with venom, whispering thinly veiled threats at me ‘Have you broken even? Are you overspending on costumes and props?’ – this being a nineteenth century play it needs to look right.

The costumes were sourced from the Abbey Theatre warehouse in Finglas and were really beautiful.

Rehearsals continued apace – the director and actors learning the play in ever greater detail, and I, sitting in the corner following the text with my finger, ready to respond if one of the performers said ‘Line’. That was my cue to remind them of the next sentence, in a manner that wouldn’t disrupt the flow. I know this play well by now. I gave a few quiet suggestions to the director, and some were used. The director is the captain of the ship and her word is final. She’s a very good director and had a clear vision of what she wanted.

The day before tech and dress rehearsal disaster struck. We no longer had a sound technician. Or sound files. A tantrum and a walk out had occurred. Panic stations. Thankfully we had a plan B and it was put into action.

I spent much of that evening carting chairs upstairs,  getting the Georgian room looking like a performance area. The theatre is small and it was meant to be an intimate setting. But we still needed to get as many chairs as possible, with a view of the stage into the room.

I was the doorwhore for the run. Now some people might think this is a insulting term – I’ve always loved it. It is the person who sells the tickets and guides the audience to the toilets, and makes sure the doors to the theatre are open and lights are on when the show is over.

During a show it’s best to not talk too much to the actors – they are in their own zone and it’s wiser not to break their concentration. At the drinks afterwards you can say what you like and have a great laugh, but other than the occasional ‘Onstage in 5’ it’s better to keep communication to a minimum before the play sets sail.

I enjoyed the whole experience. I’ve said it before – working backstage doesn’t give you that enormous adrenaline rush that performing does. But it’s enjoyable to see a piece of theatre to which you’ve contributed, actually happen.

Now I really ought to open that brown envelope.

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