I’m laden with “goodies” – if you could call them that…
A small dog winds his leash around my legs. He is from the Pound and is anxious at this sudden change in his fortunes. Tucked under my arm and slung around my neck are sheets – borrowed from the local hospital:
“I don’t know about lending these to you people. When the last lot returned them they were FILTHY….”
“I’m sorry Matron, but we are a new group “Under New Management” you might say!”
She is not impressed, I attempt a reassuring smile “My mother is a nurse and she taught me early on how to help out with the washing and the ironing”
That does it (thank goodness) she gives a reluctant assent – the actors will have sheets for their stage bed.
Then, there is the bag jangling with glass tubes and hanging from my other arm – I got these from the University. Clutched in my hand (I really could do with four arms today!), is the stand part for a standard lamp and, as I have no spare arm left, the large fringed shade is perched precariously on my head…
The bus arrives. People alight. The dog barks. Seeing us there, elicits a variety of reactions – from sniffing disapproval to smiles of amusement.
The bus driver, frowning, is about to pull away before I can board.
“Oh, please, I really need to get back to the Theatre”
Ah – the theatre, she’s from the theatre. There is a general relaxation among the passengers and they begin to smile…
The dog and I board the bus. I tilt my hip towards the driver – indicating that my ticket is in my pocket.
He grins, reaches in and delicately removes the ticket and pops it in the box.
Someone shifts over, making me some space to sit. Someone else disentangles the leash now thoroughly wrapped around my legs. The poor animal is now panting furiously, I don’t think he’s ever been in a bus before.
“What’s on this week Pet?”
A conversation starts, centred on who goes to the theatre these days – and who does not.
I’m worried about the dog and make soothing noises. He responds by pressing his nose into my knees and shaking.
Fortunately, we soon arrive at the Jesmond Dean stop, where I can now unload myself of my burdens and lay them all – except of course the dog, onto the prop room floor, from whence they will eventually be taken and disposed around the set.
The time honoured job category – that of Actor/ASM has been a staple of British Theatre since who knows when. I’m wondering if, in this technological age it still exists.
The young actors (male or female) leaving their stint at Drama School – the light of ambition in their eyes, would most usually find their first engagement in this category.
It was of course, an exploitation of the naïve hopes of these young persons – as they would soon find out for themselves! The acronym ASM stands of course, for Assistant Stage Manager. The “Actor” part would usually mean merely that they would have a very minor role – often consisting of just two or three words in the entire play.
For the rest, it was a case of “Tote that barge, lift that bale” – an endless round of cleaning, property gathering, prompting the actors during rehearsal, fetching the coffee at break-time, setting out the various props needed by the actors (making sure of course, that they were set “just-so” within their reach AND that they were appropriately set Stage Right or Stage Left.) Any mistake and there would be hell to pay.
Then, when it was a question of being on tour, there would be the added work of packing up for the take down and unpacking for the set-up in the next theatre (I remember standing in horror on Crewe station, watching the orange cushions – and therefore of course, the rest of the props – pass me by on a train headed for Cardiff, while WE were headed for Glasgow…)
Altogether, the work was endless, the pay ridiculously poor – just enough to pay for one’s digs and one’s agent, rarely enough to save anything.
One would arrive back in Town (London) with just the clothes on one’s back and carrying a VERY battered suitcase.
And the reward for all this effort? Oh yes, the reward could be amazing! That moment when you might be speaking, standing alone on the stage and would realise the sudden stillness that had settled over the audience. You would realise too, that this was your own doing – just you alone and that now you were holding the emotions of the entire House in the palm of your hand.
This can often be as terrifying as it is gratifying. It is as though you were holding a great trust in your hands – and that you cannot drop this trust until the final lines are spoken and the falling curtain breaks the spell…
My first professional theatre “gig” after leaving the Royal Academy was at a Butlin’s holiday camp. I’m not certain if these places still exist, but they used to be dotted about the British Isles – usually somewhere by the sea and they catered to the families at the lower end of the economic scale – the proverbial “masses”.
My place was located in the seaside town of Clacton, Essex County. Here, there were make-shift Chalets – places where whole families, mums, dads, kids, babies and, quite often a grandparent or two, would be crammed together, all set to have a jolly good time…..
We had two theatres. One, at one end of the camp was where they did the variety shows – especially on Saturday nights in order to greet the newcomers.
Our theatre was where the “straight” plays were done. We had rehearsed for a month in London and now had six plays at the ready for our summer stint of three performances a day, five days a week for the duration of our three month season.
We had a tin roof and there was a children’s paddling pool just outside the stage door. It was hot that summer and so the door was often left open in order to catch any breeze that might happen along.
So, the ambient noise coming from the hot, excited youngsters splashing and screaming in the pool was definitely not a help to the concentration of either performers or audience!
Furthermore, our Stage Manager – a somewhat arrogant young man, had had a falling out with the driver of the miniature railway. A noisy, bright red adjunct to the general chaos of the camp grounds, it drove endlessly around and around, dinging and donging its bell almost ceaselessly – a great favourite though, with the younger crowd.
Now, in revenge for whatever slight from our SM that the driver perceived to have been delivered him, he had taken to spending a longer time than usual at his pool stop, grinning happily as he dinged and donged, donged and dinged – as near as he could get to the wide open stage door.
Adding to our troubles was the fact that whenever it rained, the clatter on the roof was tremendous – drowning us out even when we were booming out our lines as strongly as we could. As well, the theatre leaked. We would look out from the stage in consternation as the audience stoically lifted their feet away from the gushing rivulets whooshing along the floor. Some were even putting up umbrellas, annoying the people behind them no end…
These were only a few of the obstacles we had to try and overcome. There were loudspeakers at the corners of the stage area and they would regularly blare out such messages as: “Baby crying in chalet number 42” and “Attention parents, child crying in chalet number 10”. Then there were the meal time calls “Attention Campers, first sitting for supper in five minutes – please check your pass tickets that you have the right sitting”. This would be followed by announcements for the second and third sittings…
Well, it was an interesting experience in retaining focus, but I decided that I would NEVER take such a holiday for myself.
Certain theatre movements call for the actor to work from the inside only. I think that to be an excellent idea BUT I have found from time to time that a particular item of clothing can be a useful tool in helping one to fully “realise” a part.
I found one such item while tidying up in the prop room one day. I was playing the part of a Cockney cleaning lady and had the scarf for the head and the (unlit) cigarette dangling from the mouth but it wasn’t enough. Then, lurking in a corner of the floor, was IT – an ancient, scruffy and infested fur coat. Donning this, I immediately “became” the woman. Of course, it meant that I spent the entire season itching and scratching furiously as the inhabitants of the coat attacked their fresh source of protein with enthusiasm. However, there are some sacrifices that, in the interest of performance, are worth making…..
One Friday, just as I was clearing up backstage and looking forward to our usual free weekend, an urgent call came from the variety theatre. The person playing the rear end of the Pantomime horse in Saturday’s show had injured himself and the manager was asking me if I would mind filling in for “Just this one Saturday”.
Well, it turned into another gig – at least, for several weekends. There was no extra pay of course, but it was a fun thing to add to my resume – though Oh Boy, did I ever end up with a sore backside for a while!
So, to the end of the Season. Back to London and the never-ending scrabble for work. That Christmas, I got a job as usherette for the Bertram Mills Circus. Randy clowns feeling up our skirts (sigh, how do you reprimand someone who, moments later will be making you double over with laughter?). I dated the top of the Human Pyramid for a time – a really sweet guy but… the Theatre called…
My agent rang me one day; would I be interested in playing the Irish maid in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night”?
Would I EVER …So, goodbye circus, hello Cambridge, Stratford on Avon Liverpool… Still ASMing of course, but Hey…
There’s no business like show business.
– Mary Druce