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.


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.
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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