Occasionally going "SSSHHHH!"

The last few days have been a bit of a blur as we prepared for and then put on a show of the best bits of our work over the past year. (I would have loved to invite you but space was much too limited unfortunately.) Quite aside from trying to get the pieces themselves up to scratch, the biggest challenge at this stage was creating a complete show out of about twenty separate pieces, with 34 actors, and no dedicated crew of any kind. Here’s what I remember of how our time was spent:


Before Friday

Elizabeth and I (but mostly Elizabeth) as stage managers got details of the sets, props, etc. needed by each piece, and Elizabeth created a draft plan of who would be available to change which bits of set. There was also a lot of work before this on creating a rehearsal schedule for all those pieces and actors without conflicts over two weeks.

Friday

In theory we’d have three hours of tech, during which we’d run through all the scene changes. In practice we spent half the time clearing up the space, and even though we extended the time we only got through running the changes for the first half. Then we presented all the pieces to the teachers with the scene changes. This was supposed to take another three hours or so but ended up taking around five including the feedback (during which two or three pieces were cut).

Saturday

All the hours spent in that black box get a bit hazy but going by my twitters we started the weekend with rehearsals, with people eager to change things based on the previous afternoon’s feedback. We probably then had to decide on the running order, taking into account the cuts, and then do a tech run through of all the scene changes again. We had a complete run through of the show scheduled for 4.30 but by the time we were ready it was later than this and some people weren’t keen. But we carried on and got through everything by late in the evening.

Sunday

I started the day knocking up a quick one-sheet programme (PDF), the running order having finally been set. Then there were a few last-minute rehearsals of individual pieces before our dress rehearsal in front of teachers at lunch time. I had to skip the feedback following that so I could zip home, correct a mistake on the programme, get it photocopied at Kinko’s on High Holborn, before heading back to Hackney. We then had our first performance at 6.30 which wasn’t terrible, although our initial teacher feedback was “We saw two very different halves … the first half worked and the second half didn’t.” The order and the set changes in the second half had made it very plodding, which wasn’t what we wanted given all the quick clown pieces in it.

Monday

We were back in the black box for around 1pm to work out how to fix things. We could keep the second half the same but make the transitions between pieces much slicker, or we could re-order the second half and re-work all the transitions. Deciding what to do — the latter option, meaning the programme no longer tallied with the show unfortunately — and deciding on the new order must have taken the best part of a couple of hours. And then working out how to do all the new set changes took around three hours, leaving us just enough time for a quick dinner break before the doors opened for the 7.30 show. Thankfully all that work made for a much better show.

Tuesday

The previous day some people, ever optimistic about how much we could get done in a given time, had wanted to also change the order of the first half. But there was no appetite to do this and we just turned up around 5pm for a quick review of the previous night before tidying the space again and doing the final show at 7.30pm. After this there was a hasty clear-up of our belongings, a meeting with the teachers about the rest of term and then it was all over.


I feel tired just thinking through the process. I started off pretty positive and keen to help, hence volunteering as co- (or more realistically, deputy-) stage manager. But I reached my low point on Monday afternoon during the five hour process of working out how to fix the show and re-organise it. By the end of that I no longer wanted to even be in the show, never mind help organise anything. Although we, as a group, do manage to get things done it seems such a painful process.

There are way too many people continually offering their opinions, and it’s an odd case of not enough leaders and not enough followers. It’s as if the bulk of the group is composed of middle management with all the horrors that conjures up. We’re all too equal for any one person to be completely in charge and able to have the final word. But there aren’t enough people humble enough to do nothing other than follow orders in order to get things done more easily. I’m happy to do the latter — it’s much the easiest option — but when the “orders” are an endless sequence of statements/questions from one person after another (“Why don’t we…?”, “Or, we could…?”, “How about…?”, “I have a suggestion…”, etc.) this doesn’t work. And if one or a few people are temporarily in charge it’s hard for them to make headway when there’s so much chatter among sub-groups of people continually going on. (My main role ended up being one of facilitator, ie, pointing at people in order of them putting their hands up, and occasionally going “SSSHHHH!”, as the only way we could have a discussion.)

I don’t know what the answer is, other than have someone willing to take the responsibility of official company manager/director (and the group accept that) and also have everyone willing to say a huge amount less. None of which seems likely. We’ve made progress over the past couple of years — I can’t imagine organising a show like this back then — but we have a long way to go. I love everyone dearly, but collectively the group often drives me nuts and has been the thing I’ve moaned about most to anyone who’s ever asked me about college.

All that said… I think the show was good and the performances were a lot of fun. Not everything worked brilliantly, although I’m so familiar with all the pieces now it became increasingly hard to see anything objectively, but for the most part everything worked and got laughs in the right places. The first run throughs were quite an effort, but by the third night the preparation and logistics weren’t a huge deal. We knew where to set props and how long we had for quick changes, and that side of things became much easier. It was a lot of fun to work and play with everyone and, in this situation, being part of a group working well together to put on a coherent show. Extremely satisfying.

I was fortunate enough to be in four pieces, all of which I liked and all of which seemed to go down well. Different parts of them were better or worse on different nights but nothing went horrendously wrong. The favourite seemed to be myself and Roblin as red-nose clowns dancing part of Swan Lake (me wearing a pink tutu), which was enormous fun to perform as it was so simple. Another piece involved some grotesque British commuters murdering a small but rotund foreigner intruding on their routine, which always left me scrubbing fake blood out of my white shirt late each night. The third piece had me introducing a teacher who sang a song that eventually professed just a little too much love for her child students, and the last piece had me as another red-nose clown stumbling into an extremely pretentious piece of contemporary dance.

Quite a clown bias there, which is a bit ironic given that way back when one teacher at the City Lit found out I was going to LISPA he dismissively described it as “clown school”, which annoyed me at the time. But I think this bias is because it’s what we worked on most recently, and because we generated many more pieces of work under this umbrella so there were bound to be a higher number of pieces that worked. I think the Afternoon group, whose performances begin tomorrow night have a different balance of styles, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do.

Next up for us… three weeks of working on individual projects, ten evenings of performing them and then we say goodbye to everyone and set off into the real world.

11 Jun 2008 at Twitter

  • 12:54am: Sitting on the steps of Hackney Town Hall with everyone, drinking, wearing bits of costume to keep warm. Lovely.
  • 02:21am: Waiting for the N55 over the road from remains of the crowd. Chilly but can't bring myself to wear oversize boilersuit.
  • 11:41am: Starting the day with a full breakfast at Smith's of Smithfield, hoping that was the last night of rehearsal dreams.