Every actor’s nightmare
Like most people who’ve performed in the theatre, I’ve occasionally had dreams in which I find myself about to go on stage in a role I’ve not rehearsed, with an audience baying for blood, and without the faintest idea what I’m supposed to be doing. This is exactly what happened to me for real (well, almost all except for the bit about the audience baying for blood) on the evening of Thursday, July 24, 2003.
I’d done six weeks’ part-time work as Production Co-ordinator for Leamington-based theatre company Heartbreak Productions, culminating in the launch of their summer tour. Once the two productions (A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merry Wives of Windsor) were on the road, I thought my involvement had come to an end. Wrong.
On that Thursday morning, I was woken from my slumbers by a frantic pounding on my front door. It turned out to be Maddy Kerr, Heartbreak’s co-founder/producer, with the news that one of the cast of the Dream had fallen off stage during the previous night’s performance in Gloucester and broken both wrists.
I should explain that Heartbreak is very much a small scale company. Each of the two outdoor Shakespeare productions being toured during the summer has a cast of only seven, each playing multiple roles as well as operating all the technical equipment, constructing and taking down the set at each venue and so on. And there are no understudies. Maddy’s plea was, therefore would I go on that evening as both Demetrius and Peter Quince?
My first reaction was to feel sick in the pit of my stomach. Then I said no absolutely no way. Then I felt guilty and said, look, try almost anyone else you can think of and give me a call back in an hour if you draw a blank. Inevitably, the call came. I reluctantly agreed to do it. Then I really felt sick.
The performance was about an hour and a half’s drive away, at Berrington Hall, near Leominster in Herefordshire. The company van would be leaving Leamington at 2:30pm; arriving at 4pm, this would give them time to erect the set and have a break for tea before "curtain up" at 7:30. There would certainly be no time for a rehearsal. The best I could hope for was to go through the script with the rest of the cast in the van during the journey and mark up where my entrances and exits should be, and they would keep an eye on me during the performance and guide me to the right place as much as possible. The prompt script had been hastily photocopied and put into a ring binder for me to hold during the performance there was obviously no question of learning the lines at such short notice.
The weather was pretty miserable when we arrived at the venue and it rained persistently throughout the get-in. I was spared helping out with this, however, Simon (the cast member who doubled as company manager for the tour) deciding it would be best if I sat in the van and familiarised myself with the lines as best I could. Although it had stopped raining by the time the performance began, the stage was wet and slippery I had visions of the previous night’s accident being repeated. There was a strong likelihood of further rain during the evening and, with about half an hour to go, we realised that my photocopied script would quickly become unreadable should it get wet. A waterproof binder with clear polythene sleeves was hastily found and Simon and I spent a frantic ten minutes stuffing pages into them.
Well, to cut a long story short, it all went remarkably well. I generally managed to be in the right place at the right time (leaving the stage while another character was still speaking to me only twice), and even managed to differentiate between my two characters by the simple expedient of making Peter Quince, for no good reason, Welsh. Simon had made an announcement to the audience before the performance began and, being decent sorts, they were on my side from the word go, even managing to laugh politely at most of my gags something audiences often mysteriously fail to do even when I have the benefit of six weeks’ rehearsal.
The crowning moment came minutes from the end when I thought I’d made my final exit and was panting with a mixture of exhaustion and exhilaration backstage. One of the cast whispered to me, "Are you going on for the dance at the end?" "What dance? Nobody told me anything about a dance," I stammered. "Oh, come on, it’s dead easy and it’ll look odd if there’s a gap on stage," she said. "Just stand opposite me and mirror what I do." So I did. The audience clapped vigorously; perhaps, like us, they were just glad it was all over.
Any illusions I may have harboured about the romance of touring open-air Shakespeare were shattered that night. The physical work is incredibly hard there was no roisterous, self-congratulatory trip to the pub afterwards, just a couple of hours of backbreaking labour taking down the set and packing everything into the van before setting off back to Leamington, arriving home about 1:30am. The actors aren’t paid a great deal; I’m very lucky, at the Loft and the Talisman, to be part of a community of people producing theatre of consistently high quality purely as a hobby. For that one night, though, I had a taste of the alternative; and in future, when I have those bad dreams, I’ll wake up and know that they can sometimes come true.
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