Friday, 12 July 2013

Bathroom Cabinet





So now I’m in the second week of rehearsals for my next play. During Week One, the cast, director and DSM have mostly been sat around the table ripping the play to shreds. And I’m not speaking metaphorically. Sting would be freaking out if he could see that we were racing through the equivalent of a small rainforest on a daily basis as the play is re worked and re written and turned into paper aeroplanes which are sent across the room by fatigued actors.

But while the cast, director and DSM go on a voyage of discovery within the walls of the Rehearsal Room, Production Manager and I are racing round trying to locate all of our necessary props and furniture.

A lot of Stage Managers these days will sit at their desks and flick from Ebay to Twitter to Gumtree to Facebook. But that’s just not my style. I like to visit car boot sales at nine in the morning and queue with scores of other bargain hunters for hidden treasures in the Car Parks of Stadiums. I like to go to Smithfields Market on a Thursday morning and buy a bacon sandwich and a cappuccino from the little stand in the corner. I like to talk to the people who run the stalls and I like to take their cards and haggle with them over footstools from the seventies and corroded old garden tools. I like to look at the tables, teeming with vintage costume jewellery and tarnished cigarette cases and I like the young Australian man who runs the second hand book stall.

I like him best of all.

I don’t own a car and nor do I possess the ability to drive. So I have to make do with the next best thing. A shopping trolley. Like what little old ladies have except mine isn’t tartan. It’s not an amazing trendy one either. It cost me ten quid from Shepherd’s Bush Market and is probably the best tenner I ever spent. During the day I trundle around London with my trolley, picking up props from car boot sales and markets and trying not to hit people around the ankles.

I love my trolley. Although Production Manager does not share my sentiments.

‘You look a right twat pulling that around.’

He probably has a point.

Another reason why I am more than happy to leave my desk and go out finding props is that I genuinely love the tube.

I do.

Well, in the middle of the day I love the tube, when it’s quiet and there are whole carriages which are vacant. When I first moved to London, I found it such an adventure to work out the best route to my destination and decide which little coloured lines to follow. And I still do. When I realised that so much of my job would be spent on the Underground, I checked some stuff out online and discovered some facts about the ‘hidden underground’.

When you pass between Tottenham Court Road and Holborn on the Central Line, you can peer out of the window and see an empty and disused ‘ghost station’. It’s the old British Museum tube station and hasn’t been used since 1932. But it’s still there and completely intact. All of the tiles and the signs and the doorways. And on the Piccadilly Line between Green Park and Hyde Park Corner there is a completely bricked up tube station which used to be Down Street tube station. That also hasn’t been used for nearly seventy years and I still like to look out of the window for it.

Again, Production Manager does not share my enthusiasm for these secret train stations.

‘Jesus. You really do need to get a life.’

For this show I need an old wall mounted bathroom cabinet. I have presented Designer with endless images of bathroom cabinets from E bay and whilst at car boot sales I have taken photos on my iPhone and texted them straight over. All of them have been met with a negative (sometimes slightly disgusted) response. Once I got a text which simply read ‘REALLY?’

However, after a week of searching I have found a cabinet which Designer just adores. It is cheap and second hand and I located it on Gumtree. It is pick-up only which means that my trolley and I need to make a trip to Dollis Hill in North London to visit a lady called Lesley. We have exchanged chatty e mails and texts and arranged a time on a Tuesday afternoon for me to visit her and pick up the cabinet.

I make my way to Dollis Hill on the Jubilee Line and manage to locate Lesley’s address using The Little Blue Dot on my iPhone. I used to pack a battered A to Z in my shopping trolley but now, like many other Londoners, I navigate the streets of this city with my nose practically pressed to a tiny screen, loyally following my Little Blue Dot.

She lives in a large semi-detached house about a minute’s walk from the tube and has a gravel driveway just large enough to house a brand new Micra. I ring the brass doorbell and it’s not long before the weighty blue door is pulled open. Lesley looks to be in her late fifties with short, ash-blonde hair and she is expensively dressed; head to toe in casual Whistles and Jaeger and Monsoon. She ushers me in to the hallway which smells of Jo Malone candles, Chanel Number 5 and Shake N’ Vac. Her stature is short with a petite figure but her generous bosom pulls at the material of her shirt. There is a slight sheen of sweat covering her face and she is breathless, her chest rapidly rising and falling.

‘Come in!’ she exclaims, ‘You must excuse me. I’ve been on the Wii Fit.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry to bother you. I’ll just grab the cabinet and....’

‘No, no. Come on in.’

I smile and follow her into her large kitchen which has counters full of shining and expensive appliances. It’s one of those kitchens where any white goods such as the fridge or the washing machine or the dishwasher have been hidden from view and everything just has the same solid, cupboard door.

I don’t understand why the middle classes are suddenly so ashamed to admit they own fridges. As somebody who has toured the country and stayed in a vast variety of digs, I personally hate these kitchens and despise having to open ten different doors in a desperate battle to locate the milk. Especially at three in the morning when my inebriated state means I struggle to remember which doors I have already tried and I end up going round in circles for five minutes before giving up and eating my dry Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes straight out of a bowl with my hands, softly crying and remembering my own childhood home where the fridge was not only easy to find but took pride of place in the living room.

‘Coffee?’

I realised that Lesley was looking at me expectantly. And I saw that it was not a normal coffee pot that she was gesturing towards but one of those fancy coffee machines which look like little farmyard animals. I’ve never had a coffee from one of those so I jumped up onto a Heals kitchen stool and said yes, I would love a coffee. I don’t make a habit of hanging around in middle-aged ladies houses (except my mother’s) drinking luxury coffee. But she is open and friendly and I don’t fancy the idea of clambering back onto a tube carriage straight away.

She chattered away to me while she busied herself getting chunky white cups and saucers and spoons. The cupboard doors don’t slam and the drawers all slow down just before the point of impact so that they close softly. Not only do we like to hide the existence of our fridges but we also like to pretend that wooden objects don’t slam shut.

Lesley asked me why I needed the cabinet.

‘It’s for a play.’

‘Oh! The theatre! My husband would have liked that. He loved the theatre.’ She turns round to face me. ‘He bought that bathroom cabinet when we married, thirty years ago. But he passed away last year. I had the bathroom done last month so am just getting rid of stuff.’

‘I’m sorry to hear about your husband.’ I say in a solemn voice.

‘Oh, that’s alright my love,’ she chirps, ‘He was ill for a very long time. Sugar?’

She approaches the farmyard animal coffee machine which cheerfully vomits thick, brown liquid into the cup which she is holding under its puckered 'mouth'. She then places the cup and saucer in front of me and asks me about the play. I find myself dutifully repeating the blurb on the back of our leaflets.

‘Maybe you could come and see it? See your bathroom cabinet?’ I suggest.

‘No, I won’t. I hate the theatre,’ she tells me abruptly, ‘Sitting in uncomfortable seats for hours at a time while people shout at you? Oh no. It was only my husband, my husband who loved the theatre. And my son too.’

I can’t help but laugh at her open and honest description of the industry in which I have devoted the last ten years of my life to and she laughs aswell.

‘My son might come to see it. He’s about your age. There’s a photo of him there.’ She points to a picture which hangs on the wall behind me. I admire her son who is, admittedly, very handsome. He’s leaning against a low metal railing with his hands in his pockets and grinning at the camera, obviously fond of the photographer. He has Lesley’s big brown eyes.

‘Yes, ask him to come and see it,’ I politely offer.

‘I will do. Although I don’t think you’re his type. He likes them blonde. Blonde and skinny.’

I momentarily struggle to keep the smile on my face, although Lesley doesn’t notice and carries on.

‘He’s left now though of course. Moved in with friends. I asked him if he wanted that bathroom cabinet but he said no. He said it reminded him of being a teenager, of spending hours in the bathroom trying to do something with his hair and looking at his acne.’ She giggles. ‘He was permanently locked in that bathroom. My husband would be banging on the door at all hours of the day.’

I laugh too. ‘Well, if your son likes the theatre, let me know and I can sort him out a ticket.’

‘Yes. I will do.’

Lesley smiles at me. ’But it was really Daniel, my husband, who loved the theatre. He took me to see a play when we had been together for a few months. It was dreadful. Something tragic and romantic in the West End. I felt like it lasted for hours. But in the final scene, the leading man turned round to the actress playing his lover and said ‘We love people for either a reason, a season, or a lifetime’.’

A reason, a season, or a lifetime.

Lesley’s eyes have drifted away from my face and she is staring just over my shoulder.

‘When Daniel took me to my home and we talked about the play, he talked about that line. And then the next day he proposed. Because he said he knew that he loved me for more than a reason or a season.’

She brings her eyes back to meet mine.

‘He said that he knew that he would love me for a lifetime.’

She clears her throat.

‘A few months later we got married and we bought that bathroom cabinet with some vouchers we got given as a wedding gift. It’s been in our bathroom ever since.’

She sniffs loudly and takes a gulp from her cup, obviously slightly embarrassed to have shared so much with a total stranger. I resolutely concentrate on my coffee.

‘Would you like to see the cabinet?’ she trills overly brightly.

I swallow.

‘Yes. Yes please.’

She takes me into the front room where the cabinet is stood in a corner. It’s small and cream with a round oval mirror in the door.

‘I’m glad it’s going to a good home,’ she says enthusiastically, ‘I don’t need the money but I like to see these things go to a good home. It’s fun to meet people and to use E bay and jumble sales and Gumbush.’

I don’t correct her. Instead I give her the money and thank her for the coffee and head back to the Jubilee Line where a train swiftly rushes me a hundred miles an hour away from expensive kitchens and dead, missed husbands.

On the way back, the train passes through the echoing, abandoned British Museum tube station and slows down although it doesn’t halt completely. The few people I share the carriage with are too engrossed in their Ipods and Metros’s and Dan Brown books to notice our ethereal surroundings

I look out of the window at the disused station and I think about a young man who, in the early eighties, pledged to love a girl for an entire lifetime after simply seeing a play. I look down at my shopping trolley and think about how the item contained within has spent thirty years in a family bathroom and how the oval mirror has reflected the face of a baby boy and watched him grow from acne covered teenager to striking young man. And I think about a widow who drinks luxurious coffee and spends rainy Tuesday afternoons playing on her Wii Fit, waiting for strangers to come by and give her money she doesn’t need in return for an object she no longer wants.

An everyday object which has spent a lifetime as part of somebody’s home and which will now spend several weeks being nailed to a set and admired by audience members before being casually discarded into a skip along with other bits of furniture and walls which are only painted on one side.

Eventually, the train speeds up again and we leave the British Museum station. I pull my ‘Heat’ magazine out of my handbag and read about Danni Minogue and Louis Spence for the rest of the journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Friday, 5 July 2013

Meet and Greet



I’m starting rehearsals for my new play and I am actually pretty excited about it. Even though it means that I will have to get up at the ungodly hour of 7am again, it does mean that for four weeks I can reclaim some kind of social life, meet some fresh people, work Normal Hours and pretend I have a Normal Job.
 
Like a Normal Person.
 
This play is mostly about sex so for the first time in a while, I can work on a play which has a subject matter I genuinely know something about. This is a very rare occurrence for me as usually I work on high brow pieces which tackle topics I have very little interest in; politics, the environment, religion, golf.
 
But this is what’s so great about this industry. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, the amazing thing about theatre is that I just never stop learning. For example, I did a complex production about Afghanistan a couple of years ago and until the first day of rehearsals I thought that Kabul was an energy drink.
 
So my new play. It’s about sex and it has a fairly small cast of just six, with a Director I have never worked with before. But I am familiar with the venue having just done a show there and I am also lucky enough to still have my fantastic DSM Leah by my side, providing me with Diet Coke at stressful moments and always loyally listening to my moans, bad jokes and salacious (mostly totally untrue) gossip.
 
So, as is customary, on Monday we had what is commonly known as the Meet and Greet. This is when the full company, plus people from The Office, are all in the same room for the first time. A lovely, bright and airy room in Jerwood Space which is definitely my pick of  places in the world to rehearse. Starting the day by hearing Patrick Stewart’s voice in the lift is just one of life’s little pleasures.
 
And then once we are all gathered in this room, we do just what it says on the tin; we all Meet and Greet each other. It is my favourite bit of rehearsals as it is the one point when we all pretend to be relatively sane and emotionally stable human beings.
 
It never lasts. Ever. But it’s always good for that one brief day.
 
But for some reason, I get intensely nervous about Meet and Greets. I put a lot of pressure on myself because I have it in my head that if the Meet and Greet goes smoothly, then the rest of the rehearsal process will also go without a hitch. I have no idea why I believe this as previous experiences have told me otherwise, but I still put a lot of effort into my Meet and Greet preparation and this one was no different.
 
As stage manager, it is my responsibility to arrange refreshments for the Meet and Greet which is occurring at 10am. So on my way to the Rehearsal Space, I stop off at Tescos and pick up plenty of croissants, juice, tea (of various kinds), filter coffee and milk (also of various kinds).
 
In 2003, it became apparent that a rumour seemed to be spreading throughout the thespian world that drinking normal semi-skimmed milk was very bad for you. I don’t really know who started this rumour although I have a sneaky suspicion it was some Marketing wanker from Alpro. So from that time onwards, I noticed that if you offered a cast member a cup of tea made with normal milk, they would recoil from you in horror as if you had just personally lactated into the mug.
 
‘Oh noooooo’, they would cry, ‘Is that milk? I can’t drink milk! Not dairy!’
 
I have established very quickly that providing your cast with Soya Milk goes down very well. Then the actor/actress will gladly take their dairy free cup of tea outside and drink it, proud in the knowledge that they are keeping their body free of poisonous, evil semi-skimmed milk. 
 
And they will revel in this wisdom whilst skilfully inhaling two entire Marlboro Reds during a fifteen minute tea break.
 
So for the Meet and Greet, Leah and I arrive super early to lay out my breakfast goods and other supplies. By half nine everything is done and we hang out nervously by the brioche like hosts at a party. Our ‘guests’ are expected to arrive at 10am.
 
Leah and I have been very conscientious in our preparation. A few days ago, we used The Office’s Spotlight code and downloaded the casts Spotlight photos and printed them off in one sheet with their names below. On the Tube on my way into the Meet and Greet I have been studying this sheet and memorising the pictures alongside their names.
 
Why do I do this? Well, on my very first day of primary school I remember standing in the doorway of my classroom and nervously viewing the other children within the playdo-scented room. I can easily recall feeling terribly scared about entering the room and so unsure of what I would do once I was in there. Who would I talk to? Would people talk to me? Was I even in the right place?
 
And then somebody, a teacher, appeared from nowhere. They held out their hand and they said my name in a firm yet caring way.
 
‘Jessica?’
 
And then I took that hand, stepped into the room with confidence, and felt that things were really going to be okay. So that’s why now, if I see a cast member loitering in the doorway of a rehearsal space looking confused, I always go straight over to them, say their name and hold out my hand. I then shake their hand. I don’t take their hand and lead them into the room.
 
That would be weird.
 
But to say their name confidently, you need to have studied their professional Spotlight photo so that you can recognise them. I love Spotlight photos and have spent so long studying them that I can’t help but notice the trends and the different styles that actors prefer. Considering that the photos are only ever of the face, you can choose from a whole range of expressions and poses. But there’s definitely a couple which you see on a regular basis.
 
For instance, with women, the most popular seems to be the flirty ‘Haven’t-We-Met-Before?’ expression. This consists of tilting your chin down or ever so slightly to the side and having a half smile play across your mouth, although the lips themselves stay together. The eyes are dancing (well, photo-shopped) and slightly creased at the sides.
 
In at a close second for the girls is the hugely successful ‘Slightly-Startled-Sex-Doll’. This is when the face is straight on to the camera with the eyebrows slightly raised and the lips gently parted. As if someone has suddenly and without warning placed the pointy bit of a Cornetto up their arse but they are tentatively quite enjoying it.
 
For the boys, a common choice is ‘Ooh-I’m-A-Right-Lovable-Rogue’. It’s pretty similar to the ladies’ ‘Haven’t-We-Met-Before’ and has the same head tilt but the smile isn’t as subtle. Although it’s not a full on grin. More of a smirk, accompanied by cheeky, suggestive eyes.
 
But generally for the blokes, you can’t beat a good old-fashioned ‘Moody Bastard’; looking straight into the camera, dead eyes, no smile. But you have to be careful when doing the ‘Moody Bastard’. If you aren't dashing enough or don't have a strong enough jaw-line, you can end up paying a photographer £350 to look like a ‘Bit-Of-A-Knob’.
 
In this particular company the most popular choice with the men is the ‘Moody Bastard’ whereas the women have all opted for ‘Slightly-Startled-Sex-Doll’. Although one guy has gone for a pretty rare’ I'm-Leaning-Against-A-Brick-Wall-And-I'm-Really-Very-Happy-About-That’.
 
At twenty five to ten, people from The Office are the first to arrive, closely followed by the creative team, including the Director. At about quarter to ten my cast start to arrive and Leah and I take it in turns to greet them at the doorway and then guide them into the room. We are the perfect hosts and offer juice, dairy free tea, croissants, fresh scripts and contact sheets.
 
As a rule I never eat at Meet and Greets. I learnt my lesson at the tender age of 22 when, during a Meet and Greet, I got introduced to Sir Derek Jacobi with a mouth full of pain au chocolat. And also eating involves using your hands and in my hands I am already carrying a Diary and a pen. This is because once actors have clocked I’m the CSM, they immediately get out their Diary and start telling me ‘Oh I have an audition on Thursday afternoon. So I won’t be around from three onwards. Did my agent not tell you?’ or ‘I’m doing a night shoot for ‘Spooks’ next Monday so I’ll need Tuesday morning off. Did my agent not tell you?’
 
Actors go on a lot about how much they want a job. So you give them one and then they spend the first five minutes telling you when they can’t be there. I dutifully write all this down in my diary whilst keeping an eye on the time. Director is also clock watching and glancing over at me. This is because of a previous conversation Director and I had, during which she told me that she didn’t tolerate lateness and that I had to be strict with any actors who demonstrated a lack of punctuality. At 10am on a Monday morning I don’t have the energy to do the ‘I’m Hitler with a stopwatch’ routine so I’m praying for everybody’s sake that they are all on time.
 
10.02 and I’m an actor down.
 
Fuck’s sake.
 
We have put out a circle of chairs and Leah is now getting everybody to sit like guests getting ready for a Parlour game whilst I go and hover in the corridor outside the room.
 
10.04. Where the hell is he?
 
At 10.11, my last actor arrives. I don’t recognise him from his photo but it doesn’t take me long to work out that’s because the style he has adopted is the, ‘Don’t-Tell-Anyone-But-I-Haven’t-Actually-Had-New-Headshots-Taken-For-Fifteen-Years’.
 
Late Actor saunters casually down the corridor.
 
‘Am I in the right place?’
 
‘Yes you are. I’m Jess the CSM’ (pause for handshake) ‘Can I get you anything? Tea? Coffee? A watch?’ I laugh lightly to show I’m joking. He smiles tightly because he knows I’m not really.
 
‘Won’t happen again.’
 
I usher him in to the now rather quiet Rehearsal Room and he sits obediently in one of the empty plastic chairs. Director raises eyebrows at me and I nod confidently in a way I believe conveys ‘Don’t worry I gave him a real bollocking. Cos I’m dead tough’.
 
An expectant hush falls around the room as Director stands up and addresses the circle.
‘Hi everybody and welcome to Day One of insert play name here rehearsals. Can I just start by saying how excited I am to be doing this project.’
 
She then continues her speech about the play and then Producer also stands up and does a little speech. She too is ‘very excited’ about the piece and has been looking forward to this day for a long time etc etc. At the end of her speech, Producer comes up with an ingenious suggestion. Why don’t we go round in a circle and say our names and what we do?
 
It’s a crazy idea but what the hell.
 
So then we commence the next ritual and I actually try and listen to people from The Office when they say their roles. Although I have already done one show here I am still a little shaky on what it is everybody does and until two weeks ago had been treating the Head of Marketing as if they were Work Experience. But he does dress like a French exchange student so I don’t think I’m entirely to blame.
 
Then the Read Through commences and Leah and I share a sigh of relief when Director says that she will read the stage directions. I hate being asked to read stage directions. As much as I try I always just seem to end up sounding like a newscaster on her first day; a bit shaky and with a very dull and monotonous voice. And do you read out everything in italics? It’s pretty hard to judge.
 
Once the read through has finished, Designer rocks up and I assist him in setting up his model box. This is usually my favourite bit of Meet and Greet days.
 
I mean, how bloody cool are model boxes?
 
Tiny little doll houses of sets with teeny weeny bits of unfeasibly small furniture and dinky little Borrower people. They are so ace. Sometimes when I am in a rehearsal room after everyone else has left, I make them all move about and talk to each other.
 
I spend long period times of trying to work out why I’m single. Then I write this blog and realise its just staring me in the face.
 
Anyway, I eye up this model box a little warily and glare at the back of Designer as he carefully and lovingly takes diminutive tables and chairs out of a shoe box. The set is admittedly not hugely complicated, (the space we are doing it in is very small) but Designer has put in the one thing which is certain to cause me angst and strife for several weeks. The one object which is sure to make Production Manager and I weep and wail and drink a lot of Merlot purely out of frustration.
 
A sodding door.
 
In Real Life, doors are very normal and boring objects which rarely cause much strife or upset. However, whack a door on a stage and you are setting yourself up for several weeks of pain and misery. They open when they should be shut, stay shut when they should open, warp in hot weather and then need rehanging.
 
And don’t even get me started on knobs.
 
But there is at least just the one door. The rest of the set looks fairly simple. But very, very beautiful.
 
Designer does his chat to the cast about the set and emphasises that he is also, ‘dead excited’. So now that is Producer, Director and Designer all keen to express their excitement at this piece. I mentally fast forward to Day Two of the tech when we are all sleep deprived, tetchy and the door is swinging wide open with gay abandon. Will they all be as excited then?
 
Probably not.
 
Then it is my turn to talk and I do my best to match up to the enthusiasm of the very excited Director, Producer and Designer but they are pretty tough acts to follow. Plus it is hard to muster up much ‘excitement’ when you’re just the bird in the corner with a diary and a biro who is reeling off details about preview tickets, schedules and who to call if you are going to be late. Although I do try to get quite animated when I mention the 15% discount in the pub next door.
 
At the end of the day, I stop to consider the Meet and Greet and how it has gone. Pretty well actually. Everyone had croissants and juice and fresh scripts and behaved accordingly. Now all that stands between me and Press Night is four weeks of rehearsals, one week of tech, a massive props list, A Dreaded Door and a bunch of actors I have never worked with before and am yet to get to know.
 
And you know what?
 
I’m quite excited.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Friday, 28 June 2013

Crying On The Tube



Do you ever see people crying on the tube?

I do. Lots.

And I always try and catch their eye and offer some kind of encouraging smile. Because I know how it feels.

I mean, we’ve all done it, haven’t we?

Well, I know I have. Twice.

The first time was when I was about twenty three and had just been rather unceremoniously dumped by my first proper boyfriend, Conor. He had broken the news pretty brusquely to me in his attic bedroom in Fulham Broadway. Ever the stage manager, I decided that the best option was just to try and deal with the issue as efficiently and quickly as possible. So whilst he loitered in the middle of the room, mumbling about ‘not being ready for commitment’ and ‘needing to enjoy his early twenties as a single guy’, I purposefully strode around grabbing any books I had lent him and shoving them into my bag along with my toothbrush and toiletries, whilst desperately trying to maintain my composure.

‘Do you want me to walk you to the tube?’ he rather helplessly offered.

‘No.’ I snapped. ‘I fucking don’t.’

And with that I stormed out of his house, slamming the front door behind me. My face was vibrant with shame and indignation and rage, but the tears of pain and hurt and confusion hadn’t come yet. I can only deal with several emotions at a time and my fury and unfeasibly short temper were currently holding court as I comprehended the situation.

It was late afternoon on a gloriously sunny day and we had just witnessed England win a football match in the World Cup. Or the Euro Cup.

Or something.

The people of London were all spilling out of pubs and bars. And the general atmosphere was one of jubilation. Every single one of those Londoners taking some sort of responsibility for our football team’s victory and celebrating with beer, post match debates and excitedly making plans about watching the next match.

I think we lost the next match. Yeah, we did. We lost the next match.

At that moment in time I must have been the only person in West London, who was in a Full Blown Strop mode. I marched along the pavement feeling every bang of my overnight bag as it slammed rhythmically against my bare leg. The bag which had been lightly packed by a girl ready to spend a sex-filled and cloudless weekend with her boyfriend was now over-stuffed and uncomfortably burdensome. The provocative lingerie and vibrating cock-ring was buried, forgotten, towards the bottom. And the whole lot was being being carried by a confused and emotionally bruised single girl who was starting to stress that she might have left her hairdryer there.

Yes. I had. I had left my fucking hairdryer there.

I pushed through the intoxicated crowds who were still enjoying the early evening heat and got to Fulham Broadway tube. The platform was thankfully empty so I made my way down to the end and hovered near the breezy mouth of the tunnel.

Keep it together, Jess. Just breathe. And keep it together.

I waited there for several moments. Breathing in and breathing out. Resolutely and stoically Keeping It Together.

And then, with no warning, I threw up.

To this day I’m not entirely sure why. I have never reacted to a personal event in that way before or since and I was definitely not hungover or ill.

But yeah.

I threw up. Badly. Lots. And loudly.

There was a group of middle aged women a bit further down the platform from me who did very little to suppress their utter disgust and horror. They obviously assumed that I was a football supporter who had got a little carried away with the day’s festivities and their wrongly formed opinion of me made me feel utterly dreadful. As did their lamenting tuts and condescending sighs and bloody horrid Radley handbags.

‘Oh will you piss OFF!!’ I wanted to scream, ‘I’m NOT a drunken, yobbish twat! I’ve just been dumped by my first, proper BOYFRIEND. Don’t you remember what that was LIKE??!! So go tut and moan about something else!! And why have you all got handbags with fucking DOGS ON THEM??!!’

I didn’t shout those things though. I just stared despondently at the little pool of outrageously orange spew and wondered what to do next. Luckily, the train blasted into the station and I guiltily boarded it, making sure I got a carriage away from the mutters and glares and brightly coloured leather scotty dogs. I wiped the vomit from my chin and placed my bag on the floor and slumped down in a seat near the door.

And that was when I cried.

I sat on the District Line and I cried from Fulham Broadway to Victoria.

And then I sat on the Victoria Line and cried from Victoria to Brixton.

And then I got home and cried for a week.

And then I got over it.

Because that’s what you do.

And that was the first time I cried on the tube.

The second time was a few years after that.

I was stage managing a play. A Very Serious Play. All about politics and death and Traumatic Events. The male lead was a very well respected actor in his mid fifties and generally we had a good relationship. He was fun and flirty with a little twinkle, but most importantly of all he was faultlessly professional and not at all fussy or demanding. It was one of my first gigs as CSM and I had found the experience rather nerve wracking. Nobody had put as much pressure on me as I was trowelling upon myself. But after a couple of weeks of the run I started to grow a little in confidence and feel slightly more relaxed in the role.

But one fateful night, during the play, something had happened backstage which had called me away from my usual stage right position. I can’t entirely remember what it was. A sick cast member? An argument? A missing bit of costume?

I genuinely can’t recall what it was and when writing this bit of the post I originally thought ‘I will make something up’. But actually, the fact that I can’t remember what that emergency was is relevant. Because it was the consequence of it which is much more important and which has stuck in my mind ever since.

Well-Respected Male Lead (lets call him Paul) was due to step off the stage during a lightening quick scene change in order to have a hat placed upon his head and a teapot installed into his waiting hand. It was my responsibility to do both of these things. And out of all the complicated scene changes and pre-sets it was the part of the show I worried about the least.

I mean, honestly. A hat and a teapot. How hard could it be?

As I was dealing with whatever minor emergency was happening elsewhere I heard the cue coming up over the tannoy. And I began to run. But I ran in the futile way that one runs for a bus when you can see it pulling out of the stop and back out into the road. You know it’s probably a pointless effort but you run anyway, just in case. You run with hope and faith and, if nothing else, to show willing.

I got to the stage right wing about three seconds after I should have been there. And then it took me another three seconds to locate the hat and the teapot. Then it took me another three seconds to jam the hat onto his head and place the teapot in his hand.

Nine seconds in total. Which was just nine seconds too long. If we are talking in Theatre Time it was basically about forty five minutes.

The rest of the show continued without a hitch but I braced myself for what was almost certainly about to happen next.

And it did.

The uncontrolled rage. The terrorising fury. And even worse, the disappointment.

Paul was incandescent with wrath. When he had exited during that scene change he had spun in two full circles looking to see where I was. He could have gone on without the hat but the teapot?! The teapot!! How could he go on stage and offer tea to people without a sodding teapot?!

There is never any point in arguing. You can’t do anything in those situations except apologise and sympathise.

Apologise and sympathise.

I honestly think it must be pretty terrifying having to deal with problems and situations in front of several hundred people. And even though it almost always turns out that the audience are none the wiser, I guess it sure as hell doesn’t feel like that at the time. There is no way I would accuse Paul of ‘over-reacting’ as I guess it must have been a pretty shit moment for him. I also know that going on stage gives anyone a certain amount of adrenalin and if that turns negative, the adrenalin which usually gives you a high can very quickly curdle in your blood and turn into a temper.

Paul had been flustered and distracted for the rest of the play and that was my fault. Entirely my fault. No denying it. I had failed as a stage manager and, probably, as a human being as well. After being reprimanded for a good ten minutes and then listening to doors slamming and more swearing as he made his way back to his dressing room, I went to the office and started to cry.

Elsewhere on this planet, entire families were being made homeless. Millions of pounds were being lost due to a poor economic structure, loved ones were being lost to cancer and our brave troops were fighting in a war.

But I didn’t care about any of that. I didn’t give a shit about the war and destruction and hatred going on in other parts of the world. Because in a newly built building in a wealthy area of London, I had put a hat on a man’s head approximately nine seconds later than I should have done.

And as far as I was concerned, that was the worst thing in the world.

I sent out the Show Report along with the words ‘CSM error’ and made my way to the tube. I felt my Blackberry beep within the confines of my bag and once down underground I looked at the screen. It was an email from the director wanting to know exactly how it had come about that the teapot and the hat had not been where they should have been?  Why had Paul been late? How had I allowed this teapot-based travesty to take place? What kind of person was I?

I boarded the train and then I sat on the Central Line and I cried all the way to Bond Street.

And then I sat on the Jubilee Line and I cried all the way to Canary Wharf.

And then I got home and cried some more.

And then I got over it.

Because that’s what you do.

Paul, it turns out, got over it as well. The next day he was full of effusive apologies and hugs and warm smiles and we kissed and made up, mutually falling over ourselves to ask forgiveness and tell each other how we were both quite marvellous really. The conflict and war and pain and suffering which had happened elsewhere in the world the night before was still continuing. But we didn’t care. Because we were going to do our play to a few hundred people and I was going to give him his hat and his teapot and everything would be okay again.

That’s the great and magical thing about theatre. It’s like a Time Machine. You fuck something up one night and then you get a chance to go back and do it all again. But this time get it right. So we entered our own little Time Machine and the events happened just as they always did, complete with teapots and hats and standing ovations. Our own little Groundhog Day ran to plan with no interruption or confusion. Because, in theatre, if you do something wrong, you always get your chance to fix it.

(Unless of course you make a mistake on Press Night. And then you get shunned for the rest of the production. And the rest of your life. And they take your first born away from you.)

I know that there are worse things and more important things in the world than theatre. But I don’t think that means we aren’t allowed to cry about it. I think it just shows that we care. At the end of the day, all of those rigorous shout checks and show reports are basically put in place to create a No Tears Situation. So when stuff happens beyond our control and we feel like we have let an actor down it genuinely is dreadfully upsetting.

Crying at work is something which is generally frowned upon. A particularly brutal CSM I worked with once was pretty open about how she just had no time for it. ‘Crying? That’s not an emotion. That’s just people leaking water from their eyes.’

Wow.

Personally I always feel dreadful if I see someone cry. And I do seem to see it a lot. I have seen an actress cry for a full twenty minutes after fluffing lines on Press Night. And I have seen a designer cry in the middle of a workshop when seeing a set which does not match the plans. And I have seen a stage manager weep uncontrollably because some blackcurrant jelly had failed to set in time for a matinee. Personally, I had the most sympathy for the Loose Jelly Situation.

That was a biggie.

And you know what? I have probably made someone cry in my time. Almost certainly. When feeling pressured or downtrodden it is easy to whirl on your black Vans and take it out on someone nearby. (Usually an usher. I’m so very sorry.)

Admittedly I have mostly witnessed women crying but I personally believe that men do it in a way as well. Maybe they don’t run to a toilet (that’s what the Front of House toilets are for, right?) but they have a pretty good way of retreating into their proverbial cave (usually behind an iPad or a Mac) in order to have a full blown Man Sulk.

Oh yes.

Men may not ‘leak water from their eyes’ but they have a pretty good way of oozing frustration and upset from each and every freckled pore.

And then they think about Kylie and get over it.

That wasn’t the last time I cried about theatre. I have done it since and probably will again. And I don’t think that is a bad thing. Although now I am older and (sort of) wiser, I am able to place whatever I am crying about in The Great Scheme Of Things and eventually feel okay about it.

At the end of the day, surely the whole point of theatre is not about the people onstage or the people backstage but the people sat on the uncomfortable folding seats who have parted with well-earned, cold hard cash in order to spend two uninterrupted little hours thinking about something else. A brief little 180 minute holiday away from their own lives and conflicts and whatever personal thing it is which maybe causes them to sometimes ‘leak water from their eyes.’

Isn’t that what is important?

Anyway, my point is, when I see people crying on the tube I always wonder what it is they are crying about. Are they crying because of a lost love, a dying relative, an argument with a friend or the fact that they fucked up a scene change?  Or because their till was short of money in the cash up? Or because they sent that secret and important e mail to the wrong person? Or because their manager criticised their window display? Or because whilst waiting on tables they dropped hot food into the lap of a customer?

I sat on the tube and I cried about my Conor. The loss of my first love. And then several years later I cried because I failed to efficiently pass a teapot to a man in fancy dress. And I cried about both of these things because I really, deeply cared about both of them.

Silly, isn’t it?

In the future we are all going to make mistakes. Scene changes will go awry, show-stops will occur, lines will be missed and quick changes will take three times as long as they should. And people will get upset and shout and place blame.

That is a stone cold fact. I’m not saying whether it is wrong or right but it is the truth.

And as a result we will retreat to toilets or tubes and, however much we fight it, leak water from our eyes. Because we care and because we feel responsibility and because however much someone says ‘it’s only a play’, we will still give a big, massive, rectum stretching shit about it.

And then we’ll get over it.

Because that’s what we do.






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Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Planet Futon

 
 
 

One night I sat up late in a B and B in Inverness. The day before, Friday, I had posted a status on Facebook joking about how there was only an hour left until you could apply for Artistic Director at the National Theatre. With my tongue wedged firmly in my check I said that I rather fancied my chances and was excited about my first season ‘Plays Without Props’ and joked that it would be ‘groundbreaking’ because that’s what I think Facebook should be used for.  

Silliness.

About thirty odd people ‘liked’ it and it got me thinking. What if I did run the National? What would happen if a stage manager ran the National? The thought just made me smile a bit. And there was something about that thought which didn’t go away.

So on Saturday night I did the get-out, went back to my B and B and stayed up for a couple of hours tapping away on my laptop and half watching some gruesome horror on Film 4. The one with the zombie people who have been affected by nuclear radiation. My mind was mostly on the blogpost but also on the bad prosthetics and trying to work out where I’d seen the blonde chick before.

‘Lost’. That’s it. She had been in ‘Lost’.

After a while I got bored and tired so just shut my laptop and went to bed. I had to be up for an eight thirty am B and B breakfast before packing up and catching the train from Inverness to Aberdeen.

The next morning, as I threw my face wipes and pyjamas and Po (my Teletubby) into the overnight bag (I always put my big suitcase on to the truck), I realised that my laptop was still on. As I flipped the screen up I saw the half finished word document from the night before. I re read it with fresh eyes and without the murmur of deranged, mutated monsters and chuckled a bit. It was sort of funny. Sort of.

Fuck it. I’ll post it.

I usually spend a bit longer on blog posts. A few days actually. Re-reading and pondering and editing. But I could post this now and my friend’s comments and shares would amuse me on the train. Because that’s what usually happens. I post my blog and my friends read it. Maybe they re post it or send it on to other people and then my lovely little band of Twitter followers say nice things. One time Louise Brealey (Molly in ‘Sherlock’) tweeted my blog because I was working with her. I got about 2000 hits for one post as opposed to the usual 500 and it was all very exciting. Dead exciting.

Probably the most exciting thing that had ever happened to my blog.

So I posted it slightly hurriedly. The title was fairly obvious. All I needed was the punchline and that took a few minutes more. What would show that I was clearly a fluffy idiot who had no real desire to run a building? What would leave the reader with the sense that the whole thing was clearly a load of nonsense and that I was barely capable of running a bath, let alone a prestigious building.

I’ll ask for a crown.

So I posted it, boarded my train and settled down to egg sandwiches and kit kats with the rest of my company. Every now and again my phone would beep with a comment or a ‘like’ or a tweet but nothing out of the ordinary.

Once in Aberdeen I had to hang out at a Starbucks for an hour or so as my digs landlady was not going to be home for a bit. As I had time to kill I tweeted the link to a couple of directors I had worked for who had enjoyed previous blog entries. Sure enough they retweeted it and then other people retweeted it and at about 4.30pm, roughly five hours after I originally put it up, I had about six hundred hits.

Blimey.

Finally my landlady let me know she was at home so I went and checked into the digs and did the usual small talk. Got given keys and shown showers and fridge space before being left to my own devices. My room had a low and comfy futon and that was about it. But it was clean and airy and warm and, most importantly, there was wi-fi.

Po the Teletubby, was placed carefully and lovingly between the two pillows, as is my digs custom, and I settled down with a supermarket salad and booted up my laptop.

The computer gave me a broader view of the internet than my mobile and I started to realise what was happening and I started to really feel excited. But not just excited, something else. Now I have thought long and hard and pored over my Thesaurus but the only way I can describe the emotion is this;

EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

It was only about this time, 5.30pm, that I started to think that actually this was going to be bigger than the usual hits and re-posts. Maybe people, important people, would read it and that would be cool. Really cool. All of the feedback was so lovely and positive and I couldn’t help but feel elated and flattered. How incredible to have so many people say nice things about me all at the same time. It was like having a birthday but with people sending you well wishes because they wanted to, not just because Facebook had told them they really should. I generally get annoyed with Twitter folk who re tweet their own praise but it was intensely tempting to let people know how much praise I was getting. It was like it was a validation of my existence.

‘Look!! I am an okay human being!! Lots of random strangers think I am cool!!’

All of this encouragement and cheer stimulated my boldness and I decided to tweet the National Theatre with the link. Again, my followers ran with this and it was swiftly retweeted all over the place. Some people also reworded the tweet to say things like ‘Come on @nationaltheatre. Give @agirlinthedark the job’ before including the link. The flattery and persuasion was profoundly intoxicating and I am happy to admit that I sat in my digs on my low futon and felt on a total high.

Then about six o’clock, my phone buzzed with a Twitter alert. I had been sent a tweet from a Well Known Actor. I saw his name before I read the message and instantly felt another wave of elation. By this point, people like Derek Bond and Stephen Unwin had tweeted me their support so I had no reason to think that it would be anything otherwise. This was even more exciting. A Well Known Actor was going to tweet me and tell me how great I was.

‘That’s some high-end, ill-conceived bitterness. And you’re actually sending that to people in your industry?’

To say everything came crashing down is an understatement.

It wasn’t that I came crashing down. It was more like I broke away. My little futon which was still fairly alien to me having only plonked myself down on it an hour before, suddenly felt a very lonely and isolated place. What was I supposed to do with this tweet? Ignore it? Confront it? Part of me said ‘dismiss it, let it go’ but I was curious. How had he read my blog as bitter? How had the drivel which I had tapped out not 24 hours before whilst watching a third rate horror film be considered as anything else other than light hearted bubblegum for the brain?

So I asked Well Known Actor why he thought I was bitter. He won’t reply though will he? He won’t give a shit?

Wrong.

‘Aside from the passive aggressive tone? All of it. Obvs you’re entitled, but I think it’s dumb.’

My futon broke even further away and went into it’s own solitary little orbit. Having just been riding on the shoulders of several hundred readers, they all suddenly placed me back down on the ground and strolled off. I was on my own, or at least that is how it felt.

I tweeted Well Known Actor several times and explained the joke. But he didn’t seem to be getting it and I was getting increasingly more and more panicked that the joke was on me. You see, any random troll could have tweeted me and I probably would have shrugged it off and climbed back on to the jubilant shoulders of my supporters. But this was Well Known Actor. And he was in Well Loved TV show. And you know what, if truth be told, I quite fancied him. As an experienced actor he knew what he was talking about and for the first time it dawned on me that the piece could be offensive or demeaning to people who actually worked at the National. Well Known Actor was baffled as to why I would write this stuff as I was a stage manager in the industry and thought I was stupid to ‘undermine and send up future colleagues.’

He did have a point. When I sat up at midnight watching that bird from ‘Lost’ running from half dead and heavily made up actors, it just never occurred to me that there was even the smallest possibility that they would read it. I mean, why the fuck would they? But the game had changed since the blog had travelled beyond the realms of my backstage mates.

However, I genuinely hadn’t written a piece which was meant to ridicule or offend. I don’t know him personally but I have a feeling that when Quentin Letts writes a vitriolic piece about someone who works in the arts, he doesn’t then reach for his Teletubby and get a wobbly bottom lip at the first sign of trouble.

It was not long before other people picked up on the argument. Although I didn’t do the traditional ‘lets tweet the nasty abuse so people come to my rescue’ thing, I did feel the need to put out a string of tweets stating that I had not meant to cause anyone offence and then people did their own detective work and located Well Known Actor’s tweets. People very dutifully came to my defence but it wasn’t long before I was being tagged in conversations which I really didn’t want to be involved in. When someone tweeted Well known Actor about the National having a sense of humour, Well Known Actor rather darkly responded with ‘Get back to me when Hytner reads it.’

Oh shitting hell.

Again, when I had bashed out my words at one in the morning the previous night (which was starting to feel several weeks ago) I had definitely not written it in the frame of mind that Hytner would read it. But Well Known Actor’s tweet made me feel slightly ill and I started to feel very na├»ve and vulnerable.

Someone tweeted Well Known Actor saying that I was right and that the ‘National Theatre was out of touch’. They included me and the National Theatre in the tweet and once again, I felt as if my planet was beginning to orbit further and further away from everybody else. As much as I wanted to slam the laptop shut and call my mum, I did come to the conclusion that the only thing keeping me linked to everyone else was the internet.

It was weird.

I was one hundred per cent by myself in that bare bedroom but I felt like I was in a jostling crowd of people. Well Known Actor could be on the other side of the world for all I knew but he felt scarily near. As if at any point he was going to walk in that bare bedroom for a stand up row. And the lack of control over what other people were tweeting was terrifying. I felt the need to step in and explain that I had never declared that the NT was out of touch and Well Known Actor responded just to me saying he knew that my blog was not saying that and that he was simply concerned about it.

The whole thing culminated in Well Known Actor tweeting me saying

‘I think I’ve also taken it all too seriously. Wanna do a play at the Nash??;)’

Phew. That was the one thing I did re-tweet and then thankfully everyone simmered down. But I was still getting private messages and texts all over the place about it.

‘Jess I saw Well Known Actor from ‘Well Loved TV show’ say those things about your blog!’

‘I know. Weird.’

‘Good though! Your blog will benefit!’

Indeed, the counter was going at an even more alarming rate now and had gone into the realms of 2000. Not even my most popular posts had hit that kind of number in a week, never mind several hours. My phone was buzzing with even more well wishers. Most notably a Facebook message from a very established lighting designer who had worked at the National saying that he had enjoyed it and several other established actors were tweeting me praise so I began to think that Well Known Actor was hopefully a one off.

That certainly seemed to be the case.

Then just after midnight, as I was scanning my mentions I saw a name and once again I froze. My little futon which had been the scene of elation could once again break away into vulnerability and isolation.

Jamie Lloyd.

In my blog I had mentioned Jamie Lloyd being ‘seventeen’ which was in no way a dig. It was just a reference to the fact that he is so bloody successful but not that old. Someone must have shown the blog to him as he was name checked.

‘Actually I’m only fifteen. And I’m excited that you wanna do the Falsettoland trilogy.’

He wasn’t the only one. Fifteen minutes after Lloyd’s tweet I got another one from Jonathan Harvey.

‘I wanna do the props play x’

I responded to both of these tweets in a cool and measured manner.

‘OH MY GOD!!! Thank you thank you thank you soooooo much!!!!’

I am such a tool it is unbelievable. But I think I was just overwhelmed with the relief that neither of them had publicly slammed me or declared me an idiot or bitter. They had read the blog in the way that I had written it and that was what was important. It also stopped me from just deleting the whole thing which I was very tempted to do.

So I went to bed having put a thing up on Facebook about my ‘4000 hits!!!’ and just thought ‘What a mad day. It will all calm back down tomorrow.’

On Monday morning, I realised that the tweets and shares were picking up again. I was clearly aware that it was a Slow Twitter Day and had I been up against the riots or Margaret Thatcher’s death I don’t think I would have stood a chance but it was still going strong. Stronger in fact, than the day before. Louise Brealey once again tweeted it. As did a whole other load of industry folk including Lyn Gardner. The Birmingham Rep put it on their Facebook as did other  theatre companies. But the most exciting one was David Eldridge, the playwright. He wasn’t as effusive as other people. All he did was tweet the link and write this.

‘funny’

It was enough for me and I am ashamed to say that it was the one tweet I did re-tweet. David Eldridge thought I was funny. And I’m really not. There is no way I could ever be a stand up comedienne or write like Charlie Brooker. I always start to laugh halfway through telling jokes and can never compete with the incredibly funny comic actors I work with. But David Eldridge thought that I was funny.

I felt like Brad Pitt had told me I was hot.

One unnerving thing that happened was that I got a phone call from a journalist friend of mine who said an interesting thing.

‘Anyone who wants to read this as an attack on the National will read this as an attack on the National.’

She had seen on Twitter how big it was getting and thought a little intervention was required. There is nothing like the word ‘libellous’ to scare the shit out of you. So with her assistance a light edit was made, again hunched over my laptop on my little futon. This little futon which I had flopped down onto at 5pm the previous day was starting to feel like my only home. I was a typing tortoise and it was my hard, smooth shell.

I got to the theatre and joined the Get In at about two o’ clock and it was great to just get on with it and ignore the internet flurry. The only time it was mentioned was when my production manager sidled over to me and said that I should really check with him before applying for other jobs.

People kept texting me saying I was all over their Facebook and Twitter. One friend called me and shrieked,

‘Jesus Jess!! You’re fucking everywhere! You’re like the Grumpy Cat of theatre!’

I don’t mind that moniker. The Grumpy Cat is fun and frivolous which is what the whole thing was meant to be. I never wrote it to cause offence or a storm. I just wrote it to be silly and because the horror film on telly wasn’t good enough to hold my attention.

So now the post is about to have it’s 35,000th hit. In the two years that I have been writing ‘Girl In The Dark’ I have had 15,000 hits. So in the past 48 hours I have more than doubled that. I have loved getting so many messages from people and been in contact with people I haven’t actually heard from in years which has been really lovely. I have had a real crash course in navigating the internet and feel lucky that I had great friends offering guidance and support and listened when I just phoned them up and went ‘GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!’

The National started to follow me but they haven’t responded in anyway. I don’t know who runs their Twitter account but they probably just got a bit sick and tired of it all. They clearly know, as I do, that these things die down just as quickly as they flare up. The internet is fickle and next week we will all be sharing a meme of a cigarette smoking lobster or something. I have had nice contact from a literary agent who has said that she enjoyed the blog and the writing style and maybe I should attempt a book. It’s a fun idea. I don’t know if I have enough ideas to attempt a book. I prefer writing in blog/column style. But maybe I will sit down one day and have a go. I don’t know, really.

Do I have any regrets about the whole thing? Yeah. I do actually.

Lunch Hour Twister.


I wish I had suggested Lunch Hour Twister.

 

 

 

 

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