Theatrical Anarchy in Scotland
or Bouncing from the Sublime to the Ridiculous
Working in theaters as a Stage Manager in Britain was a vocation rather than a dependable source of income or a long-term career path. With the exception of the West End theaters in London and a handful of privately owned theaters in other cities, most theaters in the UK are owned by local governments and are heavily subsidized by various grants. The local Repertory Theater or The Rep can be found in many larger cities. The Reps usually have a permanent company of actors and stage staff engaged for a season that typically runs from September to April or May. This introduces an element of uncertainty every spring: "Will I be asked back for another season?". The long break between seasons is unpaid and everyone either lives off their meager savings or takes another seasonal job. Or signs on for welfare. It's an uncertain, stressful and nomadic existence, yet I found it fascinating, and for a time could not imagine doing anything else.
In 1975 I spent a season at Glasgow Citizens Theatre, affectionately referred to as "The Citz". At that time, the theater was located in the middle of some of the worst tenement slums in Glasgow, in an area called the Gorbals. During my first visit there, I could not find the stage door and I ended up walking through a "close" (a passage) into an enclosed courtyard with four levels of terraced balconies. The view was straight out of a Fellini movie. In one "flat" an argument was going on, in another kids were being scolded, from another you could hear some passionate sounds from behind the drawn curtains. It was raw, noisy and emotional. It was a human zoo of sorts, the Poverty Habitat.
Despite its immediate environment the Citz was a very respected, innovative and avant-garde theater. They certainly marched to the tune of their own percussionist. First, there was no "scottishness" in their repertoire. The tendency was to take the classics and make them over. Give them another slant. For example, the Jacobean tragedy "The Changeling" was set in the Wild West with reference to the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. Or "Hamlet" set in turn-of-the-century czarist Russia. It didn't always work and sometimes there was some self-indulgence evident, but the shows were invariably different. We'd often have a dress rehearsal or two when the admission was free or a nominal 50 pence. The house was always full of locals on those days - a very different audience then usual. Local gangs would declare a ceasefire that day and come to our show, which they were determined to enjoy no matter what. They'd treat every show as a full participation event. For example, Hamlet has many lines that everyone knows: "To be or not to be....pause....that is the question". Wild cheers, stomping of feet and whistling was the reaction as if the home team just scored a goal. It was unlike anything I'd ever experienced during a serious drama production.
Some the Citz alumni names are well known: Rupert Everett, Gary Oldman, Pierce Brosnan, Tim Curry, Alan Rickman and Robbie Coltrane.
The Citz was run by a triumvirate of directors. One focused on administration, one was a gifted writer and director, and the third was principally a set and costume designer, but the roles overlapped a great deal. It was a fine place to work, even though as a commited heterosexual, I was aware that there was a lot of gayness that percolated from the top management down to actors and actresses. This was not a problem for me and I never felt out of place. Until, that is, I tried to take a step up from stage management to designing sets. I talked to the directors about my ambitions and I was invited for after-the-show cocktails at one of their flats in Glasgow. This particular director had a young Asian companion who served us some foo-foo drinks. We talked and it was made very clear how extremely fortunate I was to be sitting there with them. Every actor in Britain would kill for the same opportunity. Perhaps. Nothing untoward happened that evening and evidently nothing was expected of me. Just as well, phew! I was offered work on the next production with the designer/director taking his concept and developing it into a full stage set design. The play was "Woyzeck", a dark tale about a young man's innermost jealousy that culminates in murder. It was written in 1837 by Georg Büchner but our setting was based on contemporary Turkish baths with lithe young men leaping in and out of a plunge pool stage center. It also featured the title character having unprotected sexual intercourse with a side of beef (specially procured from a local butcher every three days, just before it became too putrid to ...well, you know...) and other equally unorthodox shock-inducing antics.
Using the drafting skills I learned at the Light Industrial School in Prague a few years back, I drew the set design in several versions and then I was asked to present my work to the head designer, who was in London at the time, some six hours away by train. So I traveled to London expecting to return the same day, and met with the designer in his stylish pad in Notting Hill Gate. To my surprise he barely glanced at my designs; instead he talked about where we'd go to dinner that evening, which show we'd see and, of course, I would stay with him overnight. That was not quite my plan so I made an excuse that I had old friends to see that evening and I couldn't possibly...The designer was clearly disappointed as I made a hasty exit and took a cab to the railway station for the train back to Glasgow.
The set was built using my drawings, but there was no more talk of designing anything else and I was not asked back for the following season. Surprise, surprise. And that's how I ended up trading the most progressive of British theaters for the most traditional.
As luck would have it my next job was Chief Electrician in the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow. This was one of the last remaining "music halls" in Glasgow, a throwback to another era of popular entertainment. I think "variety" summed it up best. The Pavilion desperately clung to its diminishing audiences. As a privately owned venue it was totally dependent on tickets sales for its revenue. All of the popular Scottish entertainers of the past era have graced its stage. One of them, Tommy Morgan, apparently loved the theater so much that he asked to be buried there. So the story went.
We'd found Tommy's ashes and they were, probably still are, in the best seat in the house.
The Pavilion was actually a fun theatre to work in. There was a manager who ran the place, a dapper old queen he was. He always wore a plastic rose on his black jacket lapel. PLASTIC! But then Mr. Donaldson went on vacation to Spain with his companion and the vigorous activity they'd engaged in was too much for Mr. Donaldson's ticker and he expired in a cheap hotel room in Alicante. After a few minutes of perfunctory grief, I immediately tried to fill his position, with the full understanding that the Pavilion was likely to be a very different entertainment venue under my inspired leadership. Needless to say I did not get the job, but surprisingly, I was actually a contender for a while.
There was a management vacuum for several months during which I, and the largely clueless Stage Manager, Marion, ran the theater. Someone else booked the acts, we did not control that, but once the talent came to the theater they were ours. If we liked them, they were treated well; if we did not, their life was hell on Earth.
The theater had a more or less permanent band that was distinguished only by its bottomless capacity for drink. It was not unusual to see a band member in his tux take every opportunity to nip into one of the three pubs nearby. During two-show days, the band was largely incoherent by halftime of the second show. Once I saw a violinist cross the street in front of the stage door, pausing momentarily in the middle to casually vomit, wipe his face and continue into the orchestra pit to hauntingly render "On the Bonnie, Bonnie Banks O' Loch Lomond."
I've worked in various theaters for about 10 years in various capacities and myriad responsibilities. During that time I never stopped or canceled a show except once at the Pavilion. We were in the middle of a two-week engagement of David "Mr Glasgow" Dealley. "Mr. Glasgow" was a shrill singer/comedian well past his prime, but those two weeks of mostly tepid applause gave him the fix he craved. The man was imperious and we, the crew, couldn't stand him. The weather that day was odd with heavy rains forecast, not unusual for Glasgow, but in the evening just as "Mr Glasgow" wailed his way into his third number, the heavens broke with torrential rains. The main electrical intake was under the stage, below street level, as were a number of dressing rooms for the supporting talent. After only a few minutes water started to pour into the basement. First things first, we evacuated the dancers by carrying them through the stream that the corridor under the stage had become. Not entirely an unpleasant task. "Mr Glasgow" was still belting out his old favorites when I noticed that the water was rising close to the main electrical bus bars. If it reached them we'd have a mighty explosion followed by total blackout.
It was time to stop the show. I instructed the Stage Manager to get the hook and yank "Mr. Glasgow" off stage, declare an emergency and send everyone home. "Mr. Glasgow" reluctantly conceded (how do you argue against imminent electrical explosion?). The audience cleared the theater without any problems, encouraged by the sight of the ominously descending iron curtain. There were not many of them and I think some were quite delighted to escape "Mr. Glasgow's" unlovely singing.
After an uneventful night, I was awakened by a sonorous voice. It was the owner himself, a relic from a bygone age as he insisted on wearing a black bowler hat at all times. He was standing over us expressing his gratitude for our sense of duty and responsibility and how jolly nice it was of us to stay the night in his theater. At that point, Mickey who evidently missed the whole lofty oratory, let forth a most thunderous flatulo, a fart of biblical proportions, rich in tone, sustained in length and ending with a little coda of a tweeter. Thanks to fine acoustics in the auditorium the ripping sound traveled all the way to the Grand Circle only to bounce back to our location stage center. The owner twitched his nose, harrumphed, and made a speedy exit stage right.
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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions