Friday, 16 December 2011

The Shoe Report

I have done many daft things when I have been inebriated; agreed to run marathons, forgotten I’ve left my mobile in the ladies toilets of a pub, fallen asleep on the night bus and ended up in Essex, thrown up in my wardrobe...
But the stupidest things I do usually involve some form of technology. Like going on to E Bay after consuming the best part of a bottle of Merlot. Last year, when I was on a tour, I woke up in my digs with a fuzzy head and the vague memory of hitting ‘Commit to Buy’ on several occasions. Rolling over in bed I looked down to see that my laptop was still open and in ‘Stand by’ mode. It only took a couple of clicks for me to be informed that I had purchased some ‘Nautical wine glass charms’ and several pieces of costume jewellery with anchors on them. I had obviously been feeling rather homesick for the boat and had comforted myself by purchasing several maritime treats. According to the ‘History’ I had also viewed several rather beautiful vessels so I was fairly thankful that I hadn’t woken up to be the proud owner of a 60ft ‘project’ boat named Gemini Lady.
The other technology/alcohol related mistakes I have committed have obviously involved my Blackberry. There have been many mornings  when I have checked my Sent box with a heavy heart. Only to discover that I have texted an ex-boyfriend/someone I want to be my boyfriend/someone else’s boyfriend.
But my most recent blunder took place at the beginning of the tour that I have just completed. After a particularly boozy company meal which was then followed by more drinks in the pub and then a bottle of wine back at my Digs, I decided to write the Show Report. I was in exuberant spirits and went about the task in the way that I usually write a blog; slightly hammered and with the intention of entertaining.
The next morning I was woken by the throbbing in my head and the sunlight streaming painfully through the blinds. That distinctive heavy feeling was in my stomach and I could not shake the feeling that, once again, I had made a rather dreadful error. I checked my Blackberry but could find no trace of any indiscreet texts, only one to a cast member to say that I was home safe. It was timed at about 2am. But I knew I hadn’t gone straight to bed. I had done something else. I had.... written the Show Report. I lurched from under the covers and out into the little living room which I shared with another cast member.
On the table was my laptop. Still open and with the Stand By light flashing ominously. Standing guiltily next to it was a bottle of Merlot, devoid of any contents. A wine glass with my unmistakable pink lipgloss smeared round the rim was casually perched on the corner of the table. As I neared the scene of the crime, I shamefully noticed that my lipgloss was not only around the glass but the actual neck of the bottle. I disgust myself.
I audibly groaned and sank down into one of the chairs and hit a button on my laptop. My hotmail account flashed up before me, with the words.
‘Your message has been sent.’
Frantically, I brought up my Sent messages. At approximately 2.30am, I had sent an email to all of the creatives and the full technical team with the previous night’s Show Report attached. Although when typing I had evidently missed the ‘e’ key by a few millimetres. So it was actually entitled a ‘Shoe Report.’
I opened the attachment. As I scrolled down and read more and more of the document, I started to cringe. If I had ever managed to achieve the pretence that I was highly professional (which is admittedly very unlikely), I had probably managed to undo all of that with one single email.
The beginning of the Report started out normally enough. I said how many rounds there were, how many were in and all of the timings. But then I had ended the Report like this.
  • Matthew Kelly was in attendance. The cast were very excited about this. They had stars in their eyes.
  • There were big laughs for (insert several funny moments in the show here) Although the best laugh of the day actually came before the show when Mr Davies told us a story about the friends he is staying with. They have a young son and before his arrival, the mother told him that Mr Davies was an actor. The boy looked confused for a while but it later emerged that he thought Mr Davies was a tractor. Easy mistake.
  • After the performance, the entire company visited Kayal, Leicester’s most popular Balti House. If you are ever in Leicester I would recommend it. (Have the lamb.)

Jesus Christ.

The people who read the Show Reports just want the information. They don’t want to hear me prattle on about other things which I have privately found amusing. I dragged myself back to my bed feeling rather ashamed of my improper and disreputable behaviour.

However, a couple of hours later, I was roused from my dreams (a vivid nightmare where I had got my boobs out at a Company Meal) by my Blackberry beeping with a couple of e mails from members of the Creative team. The general feeling was that they had enjoyed my Show Report and had been amused by it’s slightly comical content.

Had they just been sent to me? No. The people who had sent it had hit ‘Reply all’. Other people on the Show Report list will have been aware that, although maybe they had found my Show Report inappropriate, other people had found it acceptable. The knot in my stomach relaxed slightly and I felt marginally better about going into work.

Once there, I was greeted by other people who had enjoyed the Show Reports.

Since then, I have felt happier to approach my Show Reports with a slightly more relaxed attitude. Of course, whenever anything serious happens, I abandon all humorous comments and observations and concentrate solely on whatever incident has occurred. But if the show has passed like a Mike Leigh film (enjoyable enough but nothing has really happened), I see no harm in putting my own mark on them.

Plus, having spoken to friends of mine, making the Show Report an enjoyable read can actually be beneficial. Many directors, sound designers and lighting designers have several shows running at the same time and so their e mail accounts can get clogged up with many Show Reports which then may just get skimmed over. But if yours is welcome in somebody’s Inbox and if it may even raise a smile when they see it pop up, it’s instantly more likely to be read properly.

Another reason why I like doing the Show Reports is that it helps me deal with my Abandonment Issues.

No, seriously.

On each show I work on, I get struck with the most unbearable Post Press Night Blues. The better the show, the more crippling it is and I know exactly why. The show I worked on before this last tour was a total gem of a production. The Creative and Technical team were adorable and even though the Tech Week was not without it’s issues, we all bonded and supported each other. The LD made everybody tea in our breaks and the Composer teased me fondly about my constant hair twiddling. The Set Designer and I started and ended every single day with a bear hug and we all laughed uncontrollably when he managed to set his own head on fire. All the Press Night cards that were exchanged between us were filled with in-jokes and complimentary words and then we all went and got hammered together in an R and B club in Notting Hill where I told my DSM at regular intervals that she was pretty and that I loved her.

The next day at work I came in, feeling undoubtedly hungover and intensely lonely. Everybody had left me and now I was by myself. No more camaraderie around the kettle or chummy banter. And if one of the cast set their head on fire I would be expected to do something about it and not just laugh and point.

When one of my actors arrived he found me slumped at my desk surrounded by empty champagne bottles and discarded false eyelash containers.

‘What’s up babe?’ he enquired.

I peered over my sunglasses and explained my mourning for the creative team and how every Press Night I was forced to deal with my Abandonment Issues.

‘Oh but this is the bit I love best!’ he exclaimed. ‘I love it when everyone leaves and then it’s just us. Just the actors. And you.’

I tried hard not to burst into tears at this terrifying prospect. And throughout the rest of the performance I nursed my feelings of loss. But once the show was over, I realised that I could still have daily contact with all of these people by using the Show Report. This actually cheered me up immensely and my sense of loneliness eased.

But back to my last tour. Once I was safe in the knowledge that my audience did not think my chirpy Show Reports  inappropriate, I started to take real pleasure from entertaining those who read it. As I was too busy to write or blog, it was a joy to have a genuine and professional reason to write daily. It should also be noted that the creatives and the producer, as well as being unbelievably talented and exceptionally professional, also had a fabulous sense of humour. Plus the production itself was jovial and the tone of my Show Reports slotted in with the show. I sometimes ventured off the topic of the performance and gave my opinion on the theatre itself and the venues that we were touring to. Sometimes I passed comment on the activities that the cast had partaken in during the day and what my digs were like.

So then I started asking other Stage Managers how they approached their Show Reports and was delighted by some of the responses I got. It turns out that the best way to write these all-important documents is to use honesty, humour and Spell-check. Apparently one Show Report mentioned a ‘full standing ovulation’ at the end of one performance. And I also got sent a Show Report which talked about how a cast member had been feeling poorly because they had been bitten by some kind of insect.

The Show Report itself stated that ‘Ms Davidson was feeling under the weather due to an incest bite.’

I got sent a Show Report written by a CSM who had simply had enough of a well-known actress who was very high maintenance. Let’s refer to her as Ms Jenkins. The Report went something like this.

·         The Stage Left truck has a downstage wheel sticking and needs attention.
·         The cuff on Mr Andrews’ right hand sleeve has started to unravel and needs attention.
·         Ms Jenkins, as a rule, just constantly needs attention.

The other fabulous thing about live theatre is that sometimes stuff happens and you don’t even need to try and make the report funny. It just is. Like when during a Shakespearean piece somebody says ‘upgrade her’ instead of ‘upbraid her’. Putting that in a Show Report is sure to make someone smirk.

The other great use that Show Reports have is that the actors actually get slightly terrified of them.

‘Am I in the Show Report?!’ they quiz you, accusingly. I find that no answer is required. Just a smile.

There is no question that I will work on some productions where doing my style of Show Reports is not acceptable (I doubt that if I worked for Nicholas Hytner he would want to hear about a jolly company surfing trip) and I will certainly sometimes demonstrate some self-censorship. But while I work for companies who embrace the fun and sheer joy of theatre as much as I do, then I will continue to write my Reports with those elements in mind.

There have been many requests for me to make my Show Reports public but actually, as I read through them now, there are many things which, out of context, don’t actually make much sense to someone not involved in the show. Plus out of respect to the company, who have been so wonderful to me, it may not be appropriate to publish private documents.

And of course I am still dreaming of the day when my semi-autobiographical novel (!) gets published and makes me my fortune. So maybe I will just save them all for that. This is the novel which of course then gets turned into a hit comedy/drama series with Sheridan Smith playing myself and Benedict Cumberbatch playing my hot actor love interest. (I can dream, can’t I?)

Last Saturday I sent my last Show Report to the team and was delighted by the responses I got. I like to think that in a few years, not only will these reports tell me the running times and audience figures, but also trigger memories of the time we spent together and the incidents that made me laugh. I am also keeping a record of all the things which have been sent to me and have relished the intriguing insights into other companies productions.

After a long, hard show when all you want to do is get home/get to the pub, it can be hard to muster up the energy and the brain-power to then compose your Report and it can be all too easy to poke at the keys and come up with standard sentences such as ‘clean show’ and ‘attentive audience.’ Believe me. I have done it.

But I love the feeling that by throwing in something vaguely funny, I may have made someone smile after a long day. I have even gone and purchased a Thesaurus so that, in future, I can chuck in some clever long words. So now, if there is an accident and one of my cast starts bleeding, I can write in the Show Report that they were suffering from haematogenesis.

Get me.

I’ll just always remember to Spell Check.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Playing Teacher to the Taliban

Like a lot of people, I’m not really a fan of the Taliban.
They do rather nasty things, don’t they? Like banning chess and kite flying and other fun things. And randomly slitting people’s throats, publicly flogging women and cutting off their fingers as a punishment for wearing nail varnish.

Plus they have a very annoying habit of losing their socks on a regular basis.
‘Jeeeeeeeeess!!’ one whined at me. ‘I’m missing my socks!’
I exhaled deeply and blew my fringe up into the air.
‘Did you put it in the laundry last night?’
He pulled at his beard ‘I.... think so.’
‘Right. Okay. Let me go check the basket and I’ll be back in a bit.’
As I hurried out of the room, I passed another one fiddling with an AK47. He looked up at me, his big brown eyes just visible beneath the swathe of his turban. ‘I think this is broken,’ he mumbled forlornly.
‘Yes,’ I snapped, grabbing it from his hand. ‘It will be because you all keep playing with them. They’re not bloody toys, you know!’
I marched onwards, now brandishing the AK47 which was definitely looking a bit shoddy. I would have to attack it with some super glue on my next break. In the laundry room I hunted high and low for the thick grey socks but to no avail. I grabbed some spares in the hope that they would fit. If not, he would just have to go and terrorise innocent Afghans sporting just his sandals. I managed to locate him with his feet up, reading the Guardian. Upon his feet were the aforementioned grey socks.
‘Where were they?!’ I demanded.
‘I found them under a hijab.’
‘Jesus...’ I mumbled under my breath.
Back in my office, I flung a bunch of poppies off my chair and slumped down heavily. My DSM looked up from her paper. ‘Alright, love?’
I sighed before uttering a sentence I never thought I’d say.
‘The Taliban are really getting on my tits today.’
At that moment a loud rumble of raucous laughter echoed in the corridor outside our room. I calculated that it could probably be heard onstage during a quiet scene so stuck my head out with a finger pressed to my lips. They all recoiled immediately but just as I was about to close the door behind me, I heard one of them casually comment,
‘Jess is so like a disapproving teacher when she does that.’
This wasn’t the first time I have heard that comparison.  And as I have done several shows since, it also hasn’t been the last.
That’s one of the occupational hazards of being a stage manager. It can sometimes feel as if you are stopping everyone from having fun. You have a group of actors being slightly giddy about the opportunity to run around, sporting very realistic false weapons. Yet you are having to explain, at regular intervals, the danger of running with bayonets and the importance of spending a good twenty minutes a day on cleaning your false beard with acetone.
Remember the moment when the final school bell would ring and you would chuck your  Zig and Zag pencil case into your United Colours of Benetton bag, eager to get home to watch an episode of ‘The Biz’ ?(just me?) Only to have the teacher stand there with their hands on the waist, loudly proclaiming,
‘Sit back down. That bell is for ME, not you!’
The equivalent for these actors, was chucking their socks and white robes  into the laundry baskets, eager to get to the pub, only to be stopped in the doorway by myself, brandishing a toothbrush and demanding to check everyone’s fake facial hair.
Many times during that show I felt like a teacher. And not like Michelle Pfeiffer in ‘Dangerous Minds’ or Jack Black in ‘School of Rock’. More like the teacher you had who was at the forefront of the anti-Marbles campaign and who confiscated your Mizz magazine, leaving you unable to read the Paul Nicholls interview or discover which member of Eternal you were most like.
Sometimes, an element of being a stage manager just means being a bit of a killjoy. Which sometimes people confuse with your actual personality. In normal life, I don’t consider myself a killjoy at all. Quite the opposite. On a night out I am generally the person encouraging everyone to stay for  ‘just one more’ and am usually held responsible for any social activities which end up with people getting the first tube home at 6am because I have dragged them to ‘Heaven’ for dancing and then Balans to indulge in 4.30am Eggs Benedict swiftly followed by vodka martinis.
But in a theatre? Forget it. I’m Miss Trunchbull with a stopwatch. Which is someone I don’t always want to be.
Of course, this kind of behaviour is usually borne out of some dreadful situation that you have had to deal with because of someone ‘breaking’ a rule.  For example, take the ‘no liquids other than water onstage’ rule. There’s nothing like having someone spill a cup of tea on a stage which you have just swept and mopped to put you in a bad mood. But then this of course means that you have to scold every single actor who ventures onstage with a cup of tea. It’s hardly the crime of the century. But with a cast who insist on bringing drinks onstage, you can become a real nag. Which can instantly make you pretty unpopular. Especially when you are dealing with a hungover actor on a matinee day when he has just made himself a coffee.
And then there are the more extreme situations. Most people think that I am being overly sensitive about actors leaving the building after the half hour call. And admittedly I used to be pretty casual about it. But that was until I had to deal with the totally unfunny and very unpleasant situation of witnessing one of my cast being arrested at the five minute call.
In full costume.
Okay, so maybe it was a little bit funny. But only about six months later when I was telling the story to a rapt audience in Joe Allen’s.
But anyway, as ‘fun’ as I am, there are times when I have to do things like Put My Foot Down. I have a different voice for it and everything. My father used to be a science teacher at a secondary school in Liverpool and would sometimes amuse my sisters and I with horror stories of when he had to tell the kids off.
‘And then....’ he would say, leaning in, ‘I used my ‘Teacher Voice.’ We would widen our eyes at the severity of the situation as we had all, at some point, experienced my dad’s ‘Teacher Voice’. My sister was on the receiving end of it when she dropped me as a baby. I got it when I set the living room carpet on fire and almost burnt down the house.
After a particularly bad day with the Taliban, during which I had used my Teacher Voice, I called up an older Stage Manager friend of mine, Deb, and relayed to her my worries about turning into some dreadful Teacher figure.
‘Of course we’re like Teacher’s,’ she casually replied. ‘Just without the teaching bit.’
‘Go on,’ I encouraged.
‘Well, we’re there to monitor punctuality. Get them back in after their fifteen minute playtime. Make sure they’re doing their homework.....’
‘Homework?’ I interrupted.
‘Learning lines,’ she explained.
I held the phone between my chin and my shoulder as I poured myself a large glass of Merlot.
‘Jesus, you’re right. It’s a pity we can’t phone up their parents when their work isn’t good enough.’
‘Well, no. So we phone up the next best thing,’
‘Whose that?’
‘Their agents.’
Even though it was funny, I struggled to laugh at Deb’s wit. ‘Oh, Deb. I don’t want to be a boring teacher. I didn’t get into this so I could constantly tell actors off.’
‘Being a teacher isn’t a bad thing,’ she consoled. ‘Didn’t you have really cool teachers at school? You know, the ones who you wanted to do really good work for. Or the ones who randomly brought in sweets for everyone. Or the really funny ones.’
‘Okay.’ I started to cheer up slightly. ‘What kind of ‘teacher’ do you think I could be?’
She paused slightly before replying.
‘The sort who gets into trouble for sleeping with her students.’
The conversation was terminated by myself not long after that comment. But the idea of being a teacher stayed with me for a while after and I found myself remembering the teachers I had experienced when growing up.
Was I like the rather overbearing Mrs Kinnear who made me weep with despair because my six year old handwriting was not up to her rather impossible standard? Or was I like the rather wet Miss..... I forget her name... who stood there with tears rolling down her cheeks as the entire class, as one, toasted the frogs that we were supposed to be dissecting on our Bunsen Burners.
For the rest of the run, this feeling nagged at my sub conscious. Right up until the final day.
In between the matinee and the evening show, I got told that I needed to go to the mens dressing room immediately. I found every single one of my Taliban, plus the rest of the company, brandishing a large envelope with my name on it. Inside was a couple of hundred pounds worth of Sanctuary vouchers which was easily enough for myself and a friend to go and spend a day in the famous Spa itself. Very few moments in my life have left me completely speechless but this was definitely one of them.  
It can be genuinely tough sometimes to enforce the ‘boring’ rules of theatre upon your actors. But like many teachers, you aren’t doing it to be dull. In fact, the more I care about a project and a company, the stricter I become as all I want is for the show and the actors to achieve their full potential.
And now, as I think about the struggles I had with Mrs Kinnear and Miss Wetwipe, I realise that it is Mrs Kinnear who actually sticks in my mind, whose name I can actually remember. And who, on the last day of the year, probably ended up with a half decent present.
I admittedly may have nagged, reprimanded, exasperated and tutted over that cast. But the memory I hold dearest about them is that moment in their dressing room and feeling like a teacher on the last day of term; proud to have worked with every single one of them.
And despite whatever had happened, slightly heartbroken to have to let them go.

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