I KNOW, I KNOW… It’s a little behind the times, but this instalment takes us through the PREVIEWS
The technical rehearsals are a little bit of a battle sometimes; the cast easily gets restless. They are under the hot lights and often wrapped up in several layers of costumes for extended periods. It can be really uncomfortable and concentration can wander. However, Nicola, Anthony and our Stage Manager Natalie (or Arthur as she is fondly known) kept a really tight ship. They made sure the tedium of these rehearsals was made bearable by keeping the atmosphere buoyant and ensuring everyone could have a bit of fun too. It was lovely that there were no strops or arguments and definitely no visible dark clouds lingering over the theatre. Except one day — one afternoon some of our Stage Management were in their office, no doubt enjoying a nice warm large double shot decaf skinny latte mocha-choca-chino or perhaps a slutty pot noodle, when the clouds started gathering…not in the theatre, not even in this production but menacingly over the West End of London. These were serious, thick dark clouds that were saying in a loud deep booming voice “…don’t mess with me!!!”, but someone then must have as they just opened up. A torrential rainstorm ensued and, although it was an amazing sight to see, some feared flooding was inevitable. Within the structure of the backstage there is a hole in the building. It is a square recess that is perhaps four meters square and it runs from the top of the building to the bottom. It has no roof and is therefore fully exposed. Our poor old stage management team resides in a room at the very bottom, with a window looking out into the hole. Now imagine, if you can, that hole filling up as the rain is falling down. Fortunately the window was in place but they sat in their office watching the water level rise up the window and beyond. Now, do you remember that scene in the film Titanic when things go really wrong for Jack and Rose? Water gushes all over the place…well as our unsuspecting heroes sat and watched the water rising suddenly the glass gave way. In poured the water and the ship started to sink! Well not literally of course but everything got soaked – fortunately no injuries were reported. This and another flooding underneath the stage meant that the rehearsal for that day had to be postponed — something we all hated of course!
As the preview dates got closer and closer so the rehearsal got tougher and tougher. We all knew we had a show to put on but then things kept cropping up that put us behind a bit. With the first public preview looming, a professional head was what was needed and this is exactly what everyone put on. We had a few full dress runs before our first public night with everything that we had and making do without everything we didn’t have. My “didn’t haves” included my facial hair, a codpiece that fitted properly to accompany my rather dashing purple 60s jump suit, and a pair of white trousers for the Mega Mix! All in all, not all that problematic! We had a rather well organized photo call about a week before preview first night. Different costumes were required at different times throughout the afternoon and then that evening the photographer was snapping all the way through the show. Snapping sounds a bit of an insult for a professional photographer. However, when you see the finished results you can see why the expertise and experience of a professional are so important. The souvenir program contains hundreds of fantastic photographs and montages of the show and rehearsals that really show off the colours and scale of the production.
And so we headed rather quickly to our first public performance. We obviously had no idea what the reaction would be but we did know that we had sold out every ticket in the theatre! Gulp! In fact the show had pretty much sold out until October, no doubt helped by the power of TV; it’s the sort of publicity you can’t buy. We were actually quite tired; we’d been running the show for several days, generally doing two runs a day, and the first public preview day was no different. We had a run in the afternoon, and notes session, a short time off for a bite to eat…if the nerves would permit, and then we were on.
It’s a very strange feeling – you work for weeks and weeks on a show not knowing how it will be received and then all of a sudden you are put up in front of an audience paying the full price for tickets unsure if its going to work or not. Of course, that’s what the rehearsals are for but sometimes the sheer amount of ‘show’ in your brain means you can’t really take an objective view of it all and a lack of confidence can set in and then of course the nerves. Well my nerves didn’t really kick in until the, now familiar sound, of the overture starting. The build up during the day did not fuss me at all but when I heard the busy sound of the full house and then the orchestra starting, adrenalin started to flow. Adrenalin is a very good thing; not only does it focus my mind, it makes it sharper and much more alert. It’s funny for me that the only other time I manage to use adrenalin to my advantage has been in the Fire Service. But if I find myself in any kind of physical, or potentially physical, confrontation it normally gets the better of me and I start shaking vigorously – I know, a bit of Nancy, but that’s what it does to me. On stage it’s a different kettle of fish and I have no problem with it at all…in fact I really quite like it, it’s that kind of ‘being in love’ feeling…it’s wicked and I…well…love it! And what a show! The audience went absolutely mad for it… and for Lee. They laughed and cheered through the show and kindly gave us a standing ovation at the end. It was a fabulous night.
Now, if the truth were known, I was still struggling a bit with most of the dancing. Some of it was in place but none of it was second nature or secure. It’s strange to think, sitting here catching up with the blog some months later, that I ever had problems with it. I say that optimistically but no doubt someone reading this will come to see the show and think that I am still a mile behind the others but I feel pretty good about my dancing now…in the main. What I mean is – the dance routines I have to do in this show; if I was given any other new routines to do I’d be back with the Danglys, two/three left feet, sweating like a fool and down in the dumps. So although I do say to people in fun that I am now a ‘Professional Dancer’ it really is just a laugh… gut bustingly funny as I am sure you will agree through your hysterics.!! I guess I could say “I have Professionally Danced” though!! Yeah that’ll do me!
The problem early on was that if something or someone put me off I was in trouble! You see I can’t think about the choreography upfront, I think there and then. So when something goes wrong I am still thinking about that bit and not about what is coming up and when I do think about what is coming up it’s too late because that moment has then gone and so I’m then two moves behind, then three, then four and I am heading for a disaster movie! It was not good. However I felt the rest of the cast were very patient with me. Even now almost half way through the contract, I still manage to catch Verity’s feet every now and then but thing are better, much better…I think…lord knows I hope! The costume also proved to be a bit of a distraction. Long, hot, heavy and all over the flipping place. Well Brother Reuben’s gear mainly. All of the brothers wear thick canvas/cotton trousers, boots, a sweat shirt (a white cut-down t-shirt) and an over smock. However my dearest brother Issacher (Adam Pearce) and I, both Danglys, I hasten to add, managed to draw the short straws and ended up wearing ridiculous over-shawl type things on top of our smocks. They hang down a bit like superman’s cape and then there are two strips that hang down on either side at the front. They have three large poppers on each shoulder holding it in place and it’s the perfect length to tread on, slip on, trip on and I for one still regularly do both – as do some of the other brothers! I mean it’s not their fault of course, it just happens. I have taken to holding both of the front strips of the thing up in front of me in my cupped hands when I move as this alleviates most problems and I figured that it was what Reuben would do if he had an over shawl that he kept tripping up on – either that or he’d throw it away. A luxury I do not have…unfortunately.
So, Press Night was approaching fast. The preview shows were going really well. The audience absolutely loved Lee; a big cheer went up every night on his first entrance. We always knew Lee would be popular, given the massive TV coverage Any Dream Will Do had had. But for me, and others I think, it was the type of audience that was often most exciting. They were not the usual ‘theatre’ type audiences. The etiquette one would normally expect was not there and, although strange, I personally felt it was really nice performing to all these people many of whom, I suspect, had never been to the theatre before or maybe just never been to see a big show like this before. Sometimes they would cheer or shout things out. On one occasion our Musical Director’s score was covered in what can only be describe as undergarments that were destined for the stage but fell short. They were actually a rather nice leopard skin pattern, very brief and would have looked marvellous on me albeit rather snug but probably not so good on Mr Mead!!! I presume that was the intention but I found out afterwards that that’s not his thing at all! The feeling this sort of audience gave me was the sort of feeling that I get doing Pantomime. You know that for so many of the children in a Pantomime audience it is an introduction to the magic that theatre can bring into your life and so I think there is a responsibility to ensure that they enjoy it. Of course the fact that they have paid and enormous amount of money for their tickets is reason enough but somehow for me the feeling goes beyond what is expected. Does that sound a bit pretentious? I hope not because for me it’s a thrill.
Throughout the previews the show develops, changes and gets reworked. The keen eyes of the various heads of department mean that it is altered daily. This in turn is reflected in the performances on stage. It leads to the performers altering their show and in addition to this there is also a natural development for each of us. You a can feel when things work well and also when things fall a little short. We have an opportunity each and every night to try changing things, often very subtly, in order to refine what we do. It also means that you don’t get into too much of rut doing exactly the same thing; the same response at exactly the same moment every night…eight shows a week, month in, month out. The audience will never know that this is happening, nor should they, but it is really important to me to just change something every night. It’s important to be responsive to what is going on and not reactive…what does that mean I hear you say? Well…in life you have no idea how you are going to respond to what someone has said or done to you, you just respond to them naturally and automatically. Acting should be the same but the problem is you know what is coming next. When you do the same thing every night the tendency is to react in the same way to it. This can mean responding inappropriately to an event or it just becoming boring and monotonous. Think about how many ways there are to say hello to someone – it depends on your environment, are you in a thunderstorm outside or in a quiet library, are you in a good or bad mood, do you know the person you are talking to etc etc. There are many things that influence a response. It can be difficult on stage particularly when things like dancing or stage position are set but for me that is part of the fun. Finding new ways to do things or at least thinking about how you can keep it fresh and different. Not everyone does it and in my opinion it is to their detriment. The choreography, of course, has to stay pretty much the same. Strangely this is an area that changes for me all too regularly…not the dance but my interpretation of it…and still the opening night approaches! Please let me get this damn dancing in my bones. I was working at home again by this stage…in my front room ‘dance studio’ just trying to get it right. Looking back over the video that Brenda did for me and worrying …A LOT!
There was another slight problem popping up occasionally. The set automation could be a little temperamental. It was not always obvious to the audience that things were going wrong but on the odd occasion, the show had to be stopped for a minute or two. We would be told by the Stage Management what was happening and where we would be re-starting from. An announcement was made to the audience to explain exactly what was happening and then we’d be off again. These things do happen occasionally and is exactly the purpose of the previews to try an iron out the problems before we get into the actual run of the show…little did we know the writing was already on the wall and a year of previews wouldn’t have been able to Tippex it out! It always amazes me how the Stage Management deals with these situations. There is no panic, no hint of even the smallest bead of sweat on their foreheads and certainly no raised voices. The cast? Well, we just sit tight and wait to be told what to do. I actually think the audience quite likes it too; it’s exciting, it’s something unusual; it’s certainly something that doesn’t happen every night; and normally you can hear them buzzing with anticipation. One night, the front curtain/iris jammed and, hard as the Stage Management, Stage Crew and other technical masters tried, it could not be fixed. We had managed to get to the interval as this part of the set is not very often used, but it was jammed in the closed position and to continue in the normal way it had to be in the open position. The decision was made to perform a concert version of the second half with all the cast on the forestage in front of the stricken iris. I think we were more apprehensive than the audience. We would all be there, fully exposed all of the time – hoping to get the story across and above all entertain. As our fears began to slowly subside and our confidence began to grow a few improvised dance routines and ‘business’ crept in – kind of step dig, step dig on a piece of stage the size of a camel’s toe but the audience were treated none the less. I just need to clarify that I…me…John Alastair…DID NOT venture into the realms of improved dancing, not even a tip-tap-tapping of the foot. I felt very comfortable doing the odd improvised smile and an occasional ‘spur of the moment’ nod of the head but that was all. I left the dancing to the elite! What an amazing round of applause and cheer we received at the end. Really the audience deserved that from us! Fortunately we had no Mega Mix to do. So not too tired but sweaty with fear nonetheless, we had a slightly early night – which is always nice!
And the first night continued to loom very large…
Click here to go back to previous page