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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