Theatre Magic – Seven Scenes from Show Business

“Let’s meet at the office,” says D., our producer.

The “office” is the muffin shop in Covent Garden, where the first one to arrive grabs the table by the back window, overlooking St Paul’s Church.  The Actors’ Church.  D. pulls out the A4 spiral notebook where he keeps amending the figures of the budget.  I hand out copies of the amended script, and B. spouts tap dance choreography terms, while ensuring the cups of cappuccino, Americano and steamed milk with hazelnut syrup do not get knocked over.  “The script has to grow organically,” says B.

“I don’t want any tinny synthesisers in my show.  I want strings – lots of strings,” say I.

D. pulls out the calculator.

Three people trying to put on a show.  A musical.  Three people no one has ever heard of – yet.

*         *         *

T. slipped a disc, this morning.  He walks into the theatre, holding onto the door frame, and winces as he makes his way onto the stage, two hours before the show opening.  My directorial debut.  “You can’t go on like that,” I say.  “You’re in too much pain.  I’ll go and cancel tonight.”

T. grabs my wrist and holds it tight.  There is anger in his pale green eyes.  Also intense disappointment.  The disappointment of one who fears he has not passed on his craft to his apprentice.  “Listen to me, little one.”  His voice is deep and his articulation like a fine cut diamond.  “Listen and learn.  You never cancel a show.  Never – unless the actor’s dead or the theatre’s burned down.”

He releases his grip.  I slide my wrist out, take his hand and give it a firm squeeze.  “All right.  We’ll go on.  Let’s just re-block that scene so there’s less pressure on your back.”

I have worked with T. before.  I watched him go on stage and play a comedy, and bring the house down, the night after his father died.  Nobody knew.  Nobody suspected.

 *         *         *

Looking around, you would think the 2008 Credit Crunch never happened.  Waiters in black waistcoats rush to top up your glass of champagne.  Others bring trays overloaded with hors d’oeuvre.  Expensive food.  Photographers snake through the crowds, and flash a spurt of bright white light in people’s faces, which bounces off the metallic glitter on women’s dresses.  Arms go around shoulders, groups huddle together, champagne flutes are held up high, smiles are fixed in anticipation.  You never know, your picture might be in The Stage, next week.

You can barely hear yourself think in the hub.  You peer through the dim light, trying to spot that elusive casting director.  You congratulate the star of the show.  “Oh, did you really like it, darling? Oh, that’s so lovely of you.”

You decide to travel up the wide, winding staircase, just so you can swoop down it.  You imagine yourself Mame, or Dolly, or any Jerry Herman heroine.  You float down evenly, balletically, back straight, head high and always level, and wear a faraway look.  You’re Eliza Doolittle at the Embassy Ball, and everyone is looking up at you, their jaws down to the floor.  Well, one person is looking at you.  The one who is trying to walk up past you, wondering why you are taking up the entire width of the staircase.

The opening party of a West End musical.  All glitter, champagne and dreams.  It’s just a business.  But it’s magnificent.

*         *         *

His footsteps tip tap on the linoleum floor as he comes down the corridor.  The girl outside the audition room ticks his name off the list on her clipboard.  He looks older than the others.  He sits on the free chair, and changes his town shoes into a pair of two-tone tap shoes.  He checks that the steel taps on his toes and heels aren’t screwed on too tight.  Just loose enough to vibrate against the wooden floor.  The girl watches hears the auditionees whisper to one another.  “That’s him.  He taught me to tap.  I owe it all to him.  If he’s auditioning for this, I might as well go home.”

One of the boys stands up and shakes the older man’s hand.  The girl with the clipboard is intrigued.  She goes into the audition room, to ask if they are ready, and asks if she may watch this one.  “Do come in,” she tells the man with the two-tone tap shoes, and introduces him to the panel.

He hands the pianist a music score, and sets the tempo.

During the pause that follows, the girl with the clipboard listens to the director, choreographer and producer.  “He can certainly tap.”

“The best we’ve seen, by far.”

“He’ll wipe the floor with everyone else.”

“He’s like Astaire.”

The girl with the clipboard smiles to herself.

“Yes, but his style isn’t quite like the others’.”

“Perhaps he’ll be too sure of himself.”

“He’ll start telling us what to do.”

“Hmm… He won’t fit in.”

The girl with the clipboard bites her tongue.  The sense of injustice is burning her inside.

*         *         *

He knows it will take him at least half an hour to leave the theatre.  There is always a group of people waiting for him at Stage Door.  When he comes out of his dressing room, they will hand him programmes open at the page with his photo, ready for him to sign.

His number gets the biggest cheer in the show.  An acrobatic number in which he dances his way up a tall scaffolding, at full speed and well-rehearsed recklessness.  He always makes it look so easy.  As he swings off the metal poles, and pirouettes on the wooden platforms, the audience holds their breath, afraid he might fall.  When he reaches the top, the roaring applause that follows is a blend of admiration and relief.

He hands his costume to the dresser and begins to unwrap the bandage on his knee, revealing several surgery scars.  That’s when the pain hits him.  He steps into the shower.  The fans will have to wait.  The hot water helps soothe the pain.  He digs his fingertips deep into the knee cap, massaging gently.  Recently, the pain in his knee has worsened.  The orthopaedic surgeon has advised him not to dance for a while.  A while.  That is what doctors call it.  The beginning of the end.  He forces himself out of the panic.  He is thirty-nine.  Still a few more years to go – up to ten, if he is lucky.  Most other dancers he knows, did not retire till their fifties.  He strokes his knee, pleading silently.

*         *         *

It’s a small theatre above a South London pub.  Nobody gets paid, unless there is a profit.  Of course, there is never a profit.  The only profession you fight to be in, stay in, even when you know you won’t get paid.  No teacher, lawyer, stockbroker or politician would work unpaid for this long.  But then this isn’t a job – it’s a lifestyle.  It’s not your profession – it’s who you are.  Take that away, and you take away the very thing that is you.

The Company gathers on stage for the Act I Finale.  Everyone belts out the song, as though every note were the last.  There is no holding back.  This is the real thing.  A strand of your soul flies out there with every word and every dance move, yet you know that a new, even stronger strand grows back in its place.  You are limitless.  You more you give, the more you have to give.

In the front row, a woman sits, her smile beaming at all the performers.  She knows you all.  Something in her eyes seems a part of you and of all this.  Yet her eyes are sad.  And she is dressed not like an artist but as someone who works in the City.  As the interval starts, she walks down the stairs to the bar.  Her friend supports her.  The theatre manager notices her from a distance.  “Hey! Look who’s here!” he shouts.  “How’s your new well-paid job, stranger?”

The woman does not reply, and he is suddenly running up the steps, towards her.  He hugs her.  “There, there, darling, it’s only a show,” he says, kissing her on the head.  She is sobbing, her tears soaking through his shirt.  She cannot speak.  She just trembles as he holds her tight.  “I know, I know,” he whispers.  “You miss showbiz.”

 *         *         *

End of Act I.  An open top car is racing along the coast, chasing after baddies from a country called Vulgaria.  In it, a widower and eccentric inventor, his two children, and a blonde young woman with a pink frock and a cut-glass English accent.  It is dark and foggy, and the driver cannot see the edge of the cliff.  The car is falling off the cliff at Beachy Head.  The passengers scream.  The car nosedives.  The audience hold their breath.  Suddenly, the car sprouts wings.  Red and yellow wings spread open under the side doors, and lift the car up again.  There is a loud applause as the car flies off the stage and swerves over the heads of the people in the front rows of the auditorium.  Suddenly, everyone – you included – is six years old.  The car is actually flying over your head, all glossy, all lit up, with its red and yellow wings billowing in the wind.  You clap as hard as you can, happiness swelling in your chest, practically bursting through your rib cage.

Scribe Doll

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12 Responses to Theatre Magic – Seven Scenes from Show Business

  1. Whatever will you come up with next? Applause, applause! The vagaries of fortune do often visit backstage, as I think everyone with even a smattering of theatre training knows. What an intriguing picture of that very thing happening, and victory in spite of happenstance!

    • scribedoll says:

      Well, I have a theatre background (former press agent, director, producer, theatrical agent, and general factotum). I tell you, there’s no profession like it. For better of worse, it used to make me feel alive and on fire.

      • Yes, though I never worked professionally in theatre, my student days as a theatre arts major were a frequent and major source of enchantment and amusement to me. I’ll never forget the time we put on a show (Peter Barnes’s 3 or 4 hour humdinger “The Bewitched”) in which two actors had to be peering into a jewel box together and showing amazement. Someone backstage decided that the two actors weren’t showing “enough” amazement (presumably one of the other prop people–I was working props that night, but wasn’t in on the joke, having my hands full with stressing and dying and printing with ink on window shades cut up to look like parchment). After that scene, the actors came off stage amazed, all right–someone had put a cut-out closeup of an act of fellatio in the top lid of the box, to get a startled reaction from them. That whole show was a series of things happening like that, because no matter how well the actors did (and we had some real talent among the M.F.A.s), the audience got restive and bored sitting still so long and started to walk out about 1 to 1 1/2 hours before the end. It was a brilliant directorial effort with great choices by our resident professorial director James Clancy, but it just wasn’t popular. Never mind, though, we all had the time of our lives putting it on. So yes, I can relate in a small way to some of the issues you speak of. You, of course, had the real thing, not just as a student, but I like to think that we have some common meeting ground in reminiscence, if nothing else.

      • scribedoll says:

        Absolutely!

        What a wonderful story! I can’t help feeling there is something vaguely sadistic about putting on long, long plays in this day and age. Even Shakespeare has to be trimmed. Modern audiences don’t have that kind of endurance.

        I really enjoyed the episode – thank you for sharing it.

  2. Chris says:

    This is my favourite thing of yours that I have read. Wonderful…

  3. Ashen says:

    Such a raw and tender life, walking the tightrope across the magic and drama behind the scenes. I enjoyed the glimpses you poignantly evoked, showing the excitement and the heartbreak. I experienced some of this intensity while working on film-sets. Like you, miss this time, the on-the-edge atmosphere, the rich stimulation, the unexpected turn of events, the celebrations, too.

  4. Anna says:

    Amazing, Katia!

  5. Wonderful! I especially enjoyed the paragraph about the staircase — isn’t that how most of our little fantasies unfold? Very nicely done, all of it.

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