Sunday, 8 March 2015

A Creature of Play - "The play's the thing..."

On Twitter I've recently been reminiscing about my days as a professional theatre technician. The above pic is one of my lighting designs from an amateur production. I blame my time on 'Les Mis' for a lot of things really... not least a few creative inspirations.

During my career I invariably got sidelined by loud-mouthed numpties when it came to trying anything new but it didn't stop me from earning honorariums for sorting out their mess afterwards, mainly when they had had an accident of their own making e.g. falling down a ladder at home to squash their own cat and well, stuff like that. Both technician and cat survived and recovered, children. Something about the way both are trained to fall I think to be so fortunate.

Instead of staying in the West End, I found I was able to use my creativity, my 'people-skills' (aka 'communication' to normal folk) and my trouble-shooting abilities to much greater effect in community theatre. If I wanted to do a lighting design of my own to learn more I could more often do so by doing an amateur production to generate interest in the next generation too. Often they would inspire new ideas by asking how effects could be achieved.

I don't regret my time in the West End, but I prefer a more hands-on involvement with ordinary folk - yes I know... I'm a weirdo. I prefer smaller scale productions but producing houses are rarely well paid and contracts are usually very short-term indeed and so you end up trying everything to make ends meet (including a brief stint as a street lighting engineer apparently) until the wonderful day arrives when you find another job that suits you.

"To be happy at work, you need to know yourself really well."

The person you are today is not the person you were ten years ago nor yet the person you will be ten years from now, but you can learn what you next need or want to learn by spotting with accuracy what you are happiest doing and where you are happiest doing it too. There is no point battling with a whole company if you are the only one that doesn't like the way things are done. It's you that needs to change, not them unless they really are truly corrupt to the core which actually is very unlikely. They might be stupid, they might be short-sighted, they might be all manner of things but 'ifs' and 'buts' and 'maybes' don't change who anyone is. They might be right and you might be wrong if it comes to that. At some point, at some time we all are, myself included. (Always wise to admit to it and apologise when that happens, I find).

I digress... I learned more by returning to amateur theatre to test drive a few gizmos there than I would otherwise have ever tried by only working professionally. People have cottoned on to this now so that I seldom get a chance to play in amateur theatre either. Yup, I do sulk about this but I have other interests and these things tend to go in cycles anyway. I am still called occasionally to assist in a show no one wants to do or that no one else has the time to do.

The current and next generation deserve their opportunity of learning, do they not? They stand a better chance of learning well when experienced people (when off-duty) are there to help though, not least in ensuring that they don't fall off ladders onto live animals or anything silly like that. During my days as a professional I trained those with no knowledge at all some of whom have since toured on shows like 'Spamalot' and have earned good money for it (bastards - they owe me a drink still).

I wasn't responsible for their learning, they were and it wasn't just me they learnt from either. I cunningly passed them on to others more experienced than me when they started to ask too many awkward questions. I wasn't born an idiot - it takes me years to practice that one, some are just naturals I note.

Another of my proteges was a BBC sound engineer roped in to running sound and lights on an amateur production by his fiend, I mean friend. He was terrified of stage lighting, partly because he was a wheelchair user I think, but by the time I'd finished with him all fear had ceased. In fact he told me to sod off to let him edit everything within the space of three days. Charming fellow actually, I didn't mind at all but, I ended up having to run up and down ladders as per HIS instructions over MY lighting design, if you please. It was a stunning job too as we had no two gels that matched and zero budget for more. The result was very... 'resourceful and imaginative' because of my experience. It was also very good at hiding the flaws in the set build so that everyone gushed about the lighting as the acting and direction also required a lot of imagination, but you can't win them all.

Lack of training in all professions I've worked in has been largely due to the lack of time and budget for training paid staff. In the curious world of theatre, wonderful gadgets that you'd never seen before would  regularly arrive at your place of work in a receiving house for the technical team that came with it to play with. The most you could do was allow them access to power, watch and ask questions on how they worked. It became necessary to know as often the touring crew didn't know either, so you'd ask around to make the show and it's gadgets work. In any workplace, it pays to bide your time and to take time to learn properly.

"A hobby you might have today, could well end up being your career if you learn it well enough."

Hobbies can become careers, so it was with me as for many years I'd been interested in amateur dramatics until one day, I was the lighting operator, rigger and programmer of a production of 'Richard III'. It was an outdoor production in the summer in the UK. Which meant it rained prolifically. At the denouement of the piece is a battle scene at which point, the director trod on the lighting board cable and the end of it nearly dropped in a puddle. Electricity and H2O do mix, but not in a nice way. The speed at which I reconnected the cable and manually worked that board for the building of lighting states (also the director's fault) for the climax of the play resulted in a job offer. Recovery is everything when mistakes are made, folks.

That's my version of events... and the entire technical teams' version too. The true version is far more er... technical and involved i.e. it was a joint cock-up between director and lighting programmer. Well who ever heard of programming lighting in daylight!!! Daylight is when lighting technicians sleep - I thought everyone knew that. I still got the job offer though.

The first show I did professionally was at the Grosvenor House hotel - it was not a theatrical production at all. Over-brimming with self-esteem I rashly thought I would easily be able to do the get-in, fit-up, run a follow-spot, de-rig and go home as fresh as a daisy 28 hours later. Ooops. The get-in was at 2am and by 9.30am if breakfast hadn't arrived I think I would have needed an ambulance.

Still, at least I didn't fall asleep on the follow-spot as someone I know did during an award show. I did however forget my glasses which made it rather tricky to pick out table numbers for the pick-up to follow the award-winners to the stage and back. However, thanks to team work from the rest of the crew shouting in an increasingly exasperated state down the headset conflicting instructions of "left a bit" and "right a bit" I got there, mainly because I largely ignored their shouting. There are few things worse when you're panicking than conflicting instructions being yelled at you. Luckily someone found my glasses so things improved after that. I can only hope it was that bit that was televised really. (Top tip, always be on excellent terms with film editors!).

The salary was less than the lift got, but it was worth it for the experience as not all jobs would even cover your travel expenses to get to them I was to discover - so I refused those as that struck me as a very silly idea indeed to encourage by working on. One could end up bankrupt that way!

The hilarious tales from all theatrical people could keep you amused for decades, but don't be fooled by them - they are a living history and a testimony of how hard it is to get anything right and it does take it's toll on people. You can tell when this happens by how cranky people get and also by how bizarre the creativity gets too in some cases.

Directors, technicians and performers are always under a lot of pressure not to give audiences any cause to demand refunds and yet none are perfect; in common with all other professions, they too can be pushed to breaking point and it is never a pretty event to witness. It is not clever nor wise to do this to anyone as they tend to have friends and connections to ensure you can't do it to anyone they know again. After a while you run out of people who will work for you if you are nasty, with any luck. It is not surprising that mistakes are made, such as the actor who gave away who the murderer was in the first scene of a murder mystery on the opening night. Strangely they didn't turn up for the second night... or the rest of the run.

Then there's the director who decided to cast a deaf impaired person in a play which required them to wear a paper bag over their head. They could not hear when their fellow cast members went off the plot to be able to improvise to rescue them, which was a pity as I heard that the deaf actor was extremely good in plays that didn't starve him of his sight as well.

There was also an actress who was difficult to rescue from the top of a set because she had no underwear on and wouldn't allow anyone to foot a ladder for her to help her down. No one is quite sure why she had no knickers on as the piece didn't require it, I'm not even sure she was supposed to be at that height or who had aided her in reaching it. Mysteries of that kind do abound in a theatre.

No, it wasn't me, among my favourite calamities was the door that jammed solid to warrant a thin saw being used to release it while I was playing Gwendolin being proposed to in 'The Importance of Being Earnest.' For some reason my beau kept staring at the door behind me and the audience were wetting themselves with laughter even when no dialogue issued forth. I was completely oblivious to all this until Lady Bracknell kicked the door in to make yet another of her tediously interfering and meddlesome grandiose entrances. Why she didn't enter via the fireplace I shall never know.

There are the costume handicaps too such as the technical crew that drilled holes in a stage for smoke to emit from them via yards of hidden of ducting - we can't have trip hazards you know, not unless it's part of the set. The play was a costume drama which involved hooped skirts from the ladies. The scene was a serious and dramatically poignant funeral which only gave way to whoops of laughter whenever the ladies moved to release, (in a terrifically spectacular whoooosh), huge clouds of smoke as if they'd just relieved themselves of a century of stored up flatulence to emit something highly whiffy, noxious and possibly poisonous.

The technical crew had only been following instructions to hide all the ducting after all, no one told them how to so they used their initiative. The audience came to be entertained and... they were. Phew, no refunds required. Oh yes, if you find that stage smoke is whiffy, noxious and poisonous you should probably tell someone like a theatre manager or a doctor, as it's never supposed to be. With a bit of luck the manufacturers will have to deal with an enquiry from Trading Standards and their heads will roll in a delightful-to-witness fashion and go to jail without collecting £200 for passing 'go'.

"Those of us who work in live events do so for what goes wrong as much as for what goes according to plan." 

People think that theatre is a laugh a minute but folks, nothing is or can be unless you choose to look for what's funny. It's not very funny for highly talented and skilled people of any profession ending up being unemployed regularly through no fault of their own. In some cases people make themselves unemployed purely out of being bored rigid that everything is going well. Some do so politely and discreetly, while others cause a stink as if they've found a self-sabbotage button and decided to see what happens by hitting it - few people don't hit that button from time to time, but most, like me have a safety valve to bring us back from it. People who hit self-destruction buttons lose, is what happens. Most people can and will adapt and find something else which they might enjoy more or not. I consider myself to be someone who enjoys changes of scene, but I do rather prefer the ones of my choosing because, as I stated before, I'm a weirdo.

Some things are not funny, nor ever will be, such as accidents that lead to injury or death. Do be careful and adhere to safety and health warnings won't you? Risk-takers are responsible for every great development we have in our world, but I struggle to think of any risk taken that hasn't taken it's toll on others and indeed many a genius themselves. Risk-takers should not encourage others to be as they are when others are not built to handle, or can learn to cope with such dangers. If you do not know how to do something, you can always ask or look it up in a library. I don't recommend looking much up on the internet now as there are too many misleading articles designed to either con you into buying things you never wanted, never had any interest in and will never have the time to use regularly or simply to stir up your emotions until you become enraged because you can't have more of the same crap from them without getting into major debt! (I've never understood that behaviour).

Health and Safety would never have been such a major concern in our lives had we never been so rash or stupid as to think we know things when we blatantly don't. It takes time and practice and above all many decades of dedicated learning to understand anything. It takes patience with yourself and others too. If we don't want a nanny state that dictates what we are permitted to learn and who may or may not learn it and when we are allowed to use that knowledge, then perhaps we should learn to be more careful in all things in the first place and above all not break the rules and laws that actually keep us safe.

To learn how to learn should always be uppermost among personal goals. Take your time to learn your specialism properly, it can cost lives and livelihoods not to because; in my "everso humble" opinion, play is the thing. It's the thing we learn from most... especially when it's fun but above all made  and kept safe.

PS: If any technician can correctly identify which gels and gobos I used, as well as the luminaries I'd be most obliged - I might want to do another show like it and well, my own record keeping on my own amusing achievements doesn't seem to be as well-documented as those I do for others when paid to. I haven't quite figured out why this is as it remains puzzlement I haven't quite got round to resolving. 

* * *

Written in memorial to Beryl who played Lady Bracknell - both formidable characters alive or dead,
I was very fortunate to have known Beryl well enough to be her friend.
"The show must, you know..."

(I have very few photos of shows I've lit for the simple reason that I seldom have the time to take them or
that pictures taken have strict controls over use - quite right too, say I!)

Monday, 2 March 2015

The cat that nearly lost its tail

One morning while bleary-eyed I was following my daily routine of breakfast with a cup of teas to take my medicine (which taste ridiculously revolting children, as medicines for adults always have to), when I spotted a cat, one of three that has happened to chose me to use me as her slave over the years.

Her nose was poking through the undergrowth in my garden. She had spotted something of great interest to her that I could not see. I decided to watch rather than go near as her claws and teeth are sharp as razors and as you know, all cats are royal and proud and don't like to be meddled with when they are on a mission of great importance.

It is a well known fact that there is nothing of more importance to a feline (all of which are royal) than food, unless it is sleep or tease and torment humans and all other creatures. Although it also seems pretty high up on their agenda to be a general nuisance and be the cause of criminal damage to furniture too - but that aside, food and hunting is the most important thing to a cat.

I decided to sit down on my back-door step and sip my tea to observe events from a safe distance. Frankly I feared that at some point I would have to spring into action to rescue some stray mouse or half chewed bird again. I was not in the mood to do so for, as I said I had only just got up from my own night-long nap and was therefore both bleary-eyed and not, as a cat always is, ready to spring anywhere fast. Cats are soooo very smug about that? Have you noticed?

They can go from totally sparko, out for the count, comatose to instantaneous attack mode faster than a speeding bullet and way faster than the speed of light... or so they will tell you, if you believe and can understand all they say as I do now I've been comprehensively trained by three of them.

As I watched, this furry fiend of an organic feline killing machine quite unaccountably jumped with all four paws losing contact with the ground most unexpectedly. This was very curious and I have to confess perplexing too. It is very rare indeed for a cat to be startled at all (if you believe and can understand all they say as I do).

At this point I should perhaps point out that one should always be respectful of royalty because they all have claws and teeth as sharp as razors one way or another. One should never laugh at them and only ever purr with them after permission has been granted, no matter how idiotically they may seem to behave. Cats are never idiotic (if you believe and can understand all they say as I do).

I continued to watch and wait to see what it was I might have to rescue from the furry feline fiendish monster this time. I confess to having become infected by a sense of curiosity which is a most dangerous and peculiar state to be in most of the time; after all it has been known to kill cats very easily. By this point I was almost alert enough to rescue whatever the cat had found, but not so quick of wit to grab my camera to record the event - which was a pity really as I think you would have enjoyed what followed as much as I did.

The cat continued to stalk what startled her, which in my humble opinion is not always the wisest thing to do. (Far be it for me to attempt to preach warnings to those who are adamant that they are wiser though). All things considered, her behaviour was so comical that I risked a smile which turned into a grin without her majesty's permission. I was fortunate she didn't notice this although I could tell she knew I was there from the brief twitch of one ear in my direction and one solitary flick of her tail. The grin on my face turned into a smirk and spread into a snigger and then a giggle and then... a laugh as her absurd behaviour just continued. Sniff, prod, startled jump! Sniff, prod, startled jump! Sniff, prod, startled jump!

Occasionally this had a slight variation of sniff, wiggle bottom, prod, startled jump, before returning to sniff, prod, startled jump! Sniff, prod, startled jump! Over and over again and well... repeatedly!

Luckily her royal highness was so intent on her hunting exploits that I only distracted her with my laughter enough to merit with one curt, stern, laser-beam glower before she was startled yet again. I did my best to stifle roaring with laughter and just about managed it because at that point I too was distracted by something else...

Just then the dog from next door ambled into my garden. He was a bit bleary-eyed too and forlorn, sullen and though I hate to say it, a bit sulky. He wasn't particularly impressed with my neighbour (his owner), who was busy gardening. He wanted to join in and help by digging everything up that they planted, but kept getting told off which he just couldn't understand at all.

Cats (if you believe and can understand all they say as I do), will tell you that all canines are daft, silly creatures. They are sooooo extremely stupid that if you throw a stick a dog will fetch it for you whereas a cat will never stoop to the level of picking up your rubbish. As we know we always have to tidy up after ourselves even though it's a tedious bore. However even chores like recycling can be made into a game as the dog well knew. My neighbour's dog was normally such a cheerful animal that I did feel rather sorry for him being told off when on another occasion he would have been rewarded with and extra bone to chew on for helping dig a hole for food rubbish to make compost. However even a royal feline knows that dogs can be unpredictable and dangerous and they can have claws and teeth bigger and more powerful than most small breeds of cat, though seldom as sharp.

Now, for many months this cat and this canine had been sizing each other up. The cat would do so from a safe distance, usually by teasing the dog by tip-toeing along a tall fence, tree or roof top; or glaring at it disdainfully from the kitchen window. Occasionally while in the garden, both would get so curious about each other that they would nearly touch noses. It was invariably ruined by and terminated by the all too familiar feline hiss which the dog was always most baffled by. It inevitably put a stop to his tail wagging and he would just amble off back to his home with a sad sigh. He just wanted a playmate after all and it seems he could never quite find enough people and things to play with, but for all that he very rarely sulked, never growled or complained. He's a very nice, well-behaved doggy indeed. Frankly both the dog and I were finding this cattish behaviour by her majesty rather tedious and childish, but neither of us dared say so to the cat.

And so... as the cat, intent on hunting continued to hunt and the dog... noticed the cat. When the cat became startled and jumped, the dog became startled and jumped. His ears pricked up and his head tilted to one side when she wiggled her bottom beforehand which he was thoroughly delighted by because his tail wagged faster with excitement. (I am moderately proficient in understanding canine body language and speech too, but please don't tell any cat or my life simply would not be worth living).

The dog was steadily getting ever closer after every startled jump to the point that he was about to catch the cat's tail in his big powerful jaws if not her entire bottom in one playful mouthful - just to see what might happen you understand, nothing more. He, as ever, just wanted to join in the fun and play and only wanted to grab her majesty's attention to ask permission. It couldn't possibly have been because he saw his chance to get revenge for all the disdainful glares he'd received I'm sure (or almost sure) as he inched closer and closer with his big happy jaw dripping with saliva and his rather large strong teeth glinting in the sunshine. Why he licked his lips and positively smiled and he wagged his tail so vigorously that it's a miracle he didn't wag his entire bottom off as it too seemed to be wagging in gleeful anticipation of something. No, I am almost certain he was being playful and had no intention whatsoever of causing her royal feline highness's tail or wiggling bottom any harm at all.

Have you ever heard a cat scream, children? It is a most piercing and disturbing sound as indeed it should be, as it is wrong to meddle with royalty and distress them, but equally it is wrong for them to distress us. However, being the appointed and most loyal slave of this royal furry fiend I was duty bound to stop the dog and protect her so... I picked up her royal highness by the scruff of her furry feline neck and pointed her face at the dog and dropped her! Ooops, so careless of me I know, but you remember don't you, that I was not fully awake. It was most definitely not deliberately done but an mere honest mistake from this oh so stupid human servant to an infinitely superior royal feline. And my decision on that is final, binding and non-negotiable for all eternity - just in case there are any silly and awkward questions to answer from anyone! The dog is my witness and I'm pretty sure my neighbour saw it too. (Note to self, remind the neighbour of what they witnessed today).

Instantly, the cat's tail puffed out like a demented, petrified, punk-style toilet-brush in a hurricane as did the fur along her spine. With her fur all on end and rigid she had literally doubled in size! She gave one long savage, angry hiss (fortunately for me at the dog) and hurtled past me at ten times the speed of light in a blur of fur, claw and needle sharp whiskers. At the same moment the dog too sensed great danger and shot past his owner to the safety of his back door whimpering pathetically, but I... (fanfare please) had saved the day! It is far better to have been frightened than to have been gobbled up or injured and everyone involved was both alive and well.

You might think I'd be up for an award for saving this feline's life... not one bit of it. One has to go way beyond one's normal duties for such honours from any royal, or so I've heard tell. The most a feline royal will do is head-butt you, endeavouring to try to trip you up as they do so if at all possible and maybe, just maybe give you a contented purrrrrrrrrr, purrrrrrr, purrrrrrr.

The moral of this tale dear children is that while focusing on one thing too intently one can often miss a greater danger that you know not of. This is why it is wise to have friends who willingly will help keep everyone safe and to always be on friendly terms with all your neighbours.


(For the adults among you, as I wrote this tale I was distracted by another story - one of Irish history where, when the greater danger came in the form of world war or two, even the bitter troubles between Britain and the Erin (aka Tara, aka the Irish Republic or Republic of Ireland) were put on hold for the most part. I myself am the product of a Anglo-Irish agreement between my parents, which although it didn't last as long as I hoped at least it didn't end in anyone killing each other - my parents' marriage lasted a good 20+ years. It did so largely because of sheer will-power and humour when so many criticised and attacked us all for that marriage's mere existence.

I hope that we can all learn to value life above the desire for vengeance; for the cost of war and violent conflict is not merely measured in the number who died but in the toll it takes on all those who survive it. It is never worth the pain whenever people can be decent enough to talk, negotiate and share rather than steal, grab and turn away from those in dire need of help.

People can and should learn how to touch noses as my cat and the door next door will do one day very soon no doubt in respectful acknowledgement of each other, if not in friendship. This much the Republic of Ireland and Blighty (aka Albion, aka Britain or if you prefer the United Kingdom) has done in it's most recent past. May no nation starve or steal from any other from this point forward. It is not, nor ever will be an adult, humane, intelligent or civilised way to behave. it saddens and degrades us all when we know it still continues.

The pictures are among many I try to take of animals... I suspect they are likely to remain more difficult to properly understand than even our own species but one tries one's best to learn and respect all if one truly wants to live in peace and harmony don't you think? Apologies once again for any grammatical errors or speeling mistooks that may irritate, I have not managed to be perfect but then to date I know of no one else who has either).



I suppose children of all ages, you'll be wanting to know what it was the cat was stalking that made her so startled that she jumped? Why it was a frog of course, no bigger than my thumb. It seemed totally bemused by the whole saga, almost as if it at been through it many, many, many times before. Do try to play nicely please, I have quite enough to do with that darn cat of mine that I seldom have time to chase after you!

Oh but, I should warn you children, oh darling little ones, that it's best not to have any mischievous ideas while I attend to her majesty the cat... cats have eyes everywhere and they often have adult servants to keep an eye on you! They meet up at night to plot things you know. Indeed many have teamed up with fierce and mighty, warrior wolves and some even with dogs and their owners who are are often also magical witches and wizards that pose as policemen, teachers, doctors, dentists and worst of all... sweet-snatchers and toy-trashers who are deployed as naughty child-catchers who will tease and pinch and snub and poke; and glue your hair and spit and joke... and generally not be very nice to you at all, So best beware and behave. At least, I've warned you.

"Yes... coming your majesty!" Must dash... her bowl needs filling again. Tch, royalty, eh... soooo demanding but she is rather good at warning me of danger too! ;-)