“You can’t stand there, don’t you know there’s a rehearsal going on?” A big woman hissed at me from out of the gloom, as I stood waiting anxiously with my suitcase. I had found my way as per instructions – come in through the blue door in Sacheveral Street and up the steps on the left – it couldn’t properly be called a Stage Door – really the back entrance to the scene dock and the steps were wet and rickety. Once inside the darkened theatre, I was drawn, moth-like, to the wings of the brightly lit stage, when this actress in a large red hat appeared – not the stage manager I had expected. As I began to introduce myself, she immediately shushed me, “Not now, come with me.” I followed her past the prompt desk, with its panel of glowing cue lights and little mirrored spy hole; I wanted to stop and have a good look at everything but had no choice but to follow her down some stone steps into a big shabby room full of sagging sofas and overflowing ashtrays.
The Green Room was the actors’ hang-out and had a little kitchen attached. I was informed that was where I would make the tea for the company during rehearsals; Sam, the fireman would make tea during the performances. And I may as well start at once, as the company would break in a minute and would be parched, and no sugar for her as she took sweeteners. “By the way, my name is Mary Lainé with an acute accent over the E and not a Y. I know it’s a bore but do try to remember.” With that, she swept from the room.
The Stage Director came in as I was looking for the kettle and informed me that there wasn’t one and that I should set the water heater over the sink to ‘boil.’ Linda was the boss of backstage. She was of slight built with short blond hair and thick glasses. Over the next few weeks I came to appreciate her quiet authority and surprising physical strength. Next in line was the Stage Manager Geoff, who would be my immediate boss in the theatre hierarchy. He wandered in and grunted a greeting at me and then stared balefully at the reluctant boiler. Mary Lainé, I learned, was the leading lady and Michael Hall, the leading man. Ian Cooper, who had given me the job a few weeks ago, was the Artistic Director of Derby Playhouse.
I continued to wait for the boiler to actually do something before rehearsals ended, when the door next to me crashed open and a group of actors ran into the Green Room, lighting cigarettes and laughing. They were all pale from the long hours working in artificial light. I was introduced to all of them and promptly forgot their names, apart from Michael’s, he was older than the rest and seemed rather grand in his immaculate suit, but welcomed me warmly.
Everyone helped me to find tea things and pile a huge tray with mugs, milk, sugar and a big brown tea pot. I carried it carefully through the Pass Door and into the auditorium, where I placed it on the edge of the stage. From there, I shakily poured out about twelve teas. Mary declared hers to be “Gnatspistic,” which I had some difficulty in decoding, but eventually realised it was a pejorative reference to the urine of an insect. And that one of the most important things in my new theatre life was to regularly make a decent, strong beverage for the company. I was to run the Tea Club, collect money from everyone and then pay the bill at the end of the week in the shop across the road. Mary privately informed me that if I didn’t make money from this crucial job, then I was an idiot. After that shaky beginning, Mary became my ally and mentor.
The fact was, that although I now had a full time job, there was to be no money attached to this position of Student Assistant Stage Manager, I was the lowest of the low in the company. My mother gave me ten shillings a week for my living expenses, which I knew she scraped together from her work at the Electricity Board.
My job, apart from tea making, was ‘propping’ which meant going all round the shops in Derby and persuade them to lend their wares for the various shows. We were in fortnightly rep. so this was a regular task. The shopkeepers lent their china and furniture willingly, in exchange for an advert in the programme. Sometimes I was to be ‘On the Book’ – a much more responsible job which meant writing down all the actor’s moves in the Prompt Script, while sitting next to Ian, the director in the front stalls, as the rehearsal progressed on stage. I had to be careful to reverse left and right in the prompt copy, to accommodate the stage directions from the actor’s point of view. I was to learn to always be on the ball in following the script and be very careful with my prompts, in case I interrupted an actor with an inappropriate cue, while they were enjoying a dramatic pause; then they would yell “Don’t tell me – I know it, I know it.”
With the show changing every two weeks, the company was always in rehearsal for the next one, which put tremendous pressure on the leading actors. They were continually learning new lines for the coming show, while performing the present one at night. Rehearsals ran from 10.30 till 2pm so that gave time for rest and study before the evening show at 7.30.
That first evening, I was surprised to be asked to operate the sound for the show which was Tartuffe by Moliere. Although it was a small rep company, they attempted a wide range of work – from the classics, through to pot boilers like Sailor Beware as well as serious contemporary plays by Tennessee Williams and Max Frisch. And they also produced a musical comedy and a home grown pantomime, every year.
Linda took me up the metal ladder, into the flies. All along the gallery was a huge lighting board with levers and switches which had to be operated by hand. It looked like a railway signal box. Ronnie was the lighting man, blond, handsome and prone to moodiness. At the far end of the bank of levers was a desk, with a record turntable and a big tape recorder. It was called a Panatrope and tonight, I was the panatrope operator. “There aren’t many sound cues in Tartuffe so you should be fine,” said Linda, “But Ronnie will keep an eye on you.” So after giving me instructions and a little practice, she left me to it.
I stared hard at the red Stand By cue light on my desk and poised the needle over the groove on the record. I could hear the audience, muffled through the big safety curtain ─ called The Iron ─ dividing the back of the house from the front. Then it rose and the chatter became louder. My cue light flashed green, the signal from Linda in the prompt corner – I lowered the needle, the house lights went down, then a great brightness came up on stage with a lot of whirring and clanking of levers and cogs from Ronnie’s end of the gallery. The audience fell silent as the opening of Prokoviev’s Classical Symphony sounded, bang on cue, at exactly the right level, as per instructions. The play began.
Up in the dusty darkness with the little winking cue lights, looking down on the well-lit top of Michael’s big curly wig, I felt a huge surge of happiness. “Yes, I am here
– Cindy Oswin