Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Sunday, 27 April 2008

How to Put on a Musical 5 – The Creative Team (Part 2)

Costume Designer
Get a nice one. Get a cheerful one. They don’t have much of a life. They spend most of their time in small rather smelly rooms looking at actors in their underpants. The rest of their time they are dragged round the shops by the Costume Supervisor looking for fabrics, when they find one that they like they are firmly told by the Supervisor that they can’t afford it. The biggest cross they have to bear is that producers, who are nearly all men, don’t understand a) how clothes are made, b) anything about shopping and c) how a wig can cost as much as a decent second-hand car. So in the initial budget the allowance for costumes and wigs is normally 50% of what it should be and there is no end of woe and misery in the process of negotiating the figure up to a realistic amount.

Lighting Designer
In the good old days Lighting Designers didn’t exist, in those days the Company Manager would pop into the theatre, tell Cyril, the electrician, which colours to put in the ‘battens’ and then return to the pub to finish his pork pie and bottle of stout. Then at some point in the 1960s someone called Richard Pilbrow insisted that we all take lighting more seriously and it became a legal requirement to have a lighting designer. Engagingly the first generation of lighting designers were drunk most of the time. I have fond memories of a tech of a musical where the LD was spark out with is head on the DSM’s lap at the production desk. She gamely claimed that the LD had “just gone out to buy some cigarettes” and lit most of Act 2 herself. For almost a decade a bottle of Scotch on the lighting desk was de rigeur and alcohol fuelled creative differences, with headsets hurled across the auditorium, were the stuff of legend. These days it’s hard to come up with a convincing risk assessment for that bottle Scotch on the production desk, broken glass hazard, fire hazard, ill judged proposition to the choreographer’s assistant hazard and so on.
Today the top-notch lighting designer needs to be sober and on his mettle just to keep up with the latest technical developments, someone is likely to have invented a new moving light in the time it takes to fit the show up and there is always a smart arse 20 year old at the production desk who is desperate to impress.

Sound Designer
The first thing any aspiring Sound Designer needs to know is that, statistically, they are more likely to be fired before the First Night than any other member of the creative team. Why should this be? It’s because unlike the other disciplines, lighting, set and costume design which nobody understands, where sound is concerned anybody including the Producer’s mother-in-law (possibly particularly the Producer’s mother-in-law) can stand at the the back of the stalls and say “Ooer I don’t think much of the sound”. Anybody who ever owned a Decca Dansette thinks that they are a sound expert.
Historically Sound Designers are even later arrivals at the Musical Theatre Ball than the Lighting Designers. It’s only relatively recently that we have all decided to take Sound Design seriously and even now we sometimes smirk a bit when we think that no one is looking. In the Good Old Days there was no amplified sound, the band played in the pit and the cast sang on stage and if you couldn’t hear them you fired them and employed someone that you could hear. In the early days of the amplified musical it was considered a result if you heard the words and the music on the same evening. How things have changed. These days the sound rental package for a West End Musical is likely to cost twice the lighting package and you hear every note, every word, it’s almost as if you were in the same room as the performers.
Sound Designers need two important qualities. Firstly they need Secretary of the UN style political skills to deal with all the dozens of people who will come up to them and helpfully say “I was sitting in Row G/ Row AA/ Upstairs/ in the Bar and I couldn’t hear anything. I just thought you should know.” More importantly they need to spot the poisonous bastards who don’t pass on this helpful information but go and whinge to the producer about it. They also need obvious technical gravitas. It’s absolutely no good for a sound designer “Hmm that’s not loud enough” or “Turn the bass up on that”, they need to move in a techno-babble universe that only they and their keen bean assistants understand. When the chips are down this is likely to be their only defence against anything that the producer’s mother in law can throw at them.

Fight Director
All you need to know about fight directors is that they are never available and you probably don’t need one anyway. Figures from the Michigan Institute of Spurious Statistics show that on average Fight Directors are available for 8 minutes per calendar month. So it’s best to do without unless you are doing Zorro or Fight Club – The Musical in which case you will need squads of them working in relays.

Project Model – Maintenance!

The producers of Maintenance have done themselves proud in employing Buzz Phelps as Costume Designer. She has worked with Alvin Toxteth many times before and apart from being talented she is also unrelentingly cheerful, a keen Arsenal supporter and likes gin. She may be a welcome antidote to the Director/Set Design team who tend to be a little dour.

Geoff Osram, Maintenance’s lighting designer, is a direct descendant of Sir Horace Osram the inventor of the late 19th century automatic pig feeder which revolutionised breakfast, but he has no connections with the light bulbs which were invented by a bunch of Germans. He has been around a while and though not considered top rate or inspirational he is definitely a safe pair of hands. He tries hard to understand the creative needs of his directors and designers even if, at times, he completely misunderstands them, not being the sharpest tool in the drawer. He likes to wear pullovers.

Ian “The Geek” Geek is a new talent in the West End and much to everyone’s surprise picked up an Olivier for his sound design on Noddy & Me, the Slade musical, and his Heston Aerodrome sound effects on the Neville Chamberlain musical Whoops-a-Daisy were well regarded by his peers. He is known as “The Geek” not only because that is his name but because he is the ultimate anally retentive, techno-bore who only reads manuals and catalogues. He is the sort of man who reads the instructions on a Pot Noodle. He was reputed to have no sex life at all until one day in the middle of the ‘tech’ of Hedda Gabler at the National, a Mrs Geek appeared with four children, who she deposited in the stalls, she then hurled a bunch of keys at The Geek screaming “The car’s in the NCP. I’m off you boring bastard”.

Monday, 21 April 2008

How to Put on a Musical 4 – The Creative Team (Part 1)

Musical and dance go together like Germany and France - centuries of conflict. Directors resent the Choreographer’s need for rehearsal time and space, Set Designers resent the need for ‘a big flat bit in the middle’ to accommodate show stopping routines and Costume Designers despair at all those splitting gussets. Worst of all most dancers can’t act and don’t necessarily sing too well so the arguments start at the casting stage. Then again there are those who just don’t like dancing at all. Queen’s Roger Taylor expressed this point of view clearly the day he arrived at We Will Rock You rehearsals during a run of Radio Ga-Ga and loudly declared “Oh I fucking hate dancing! Can’t we cut all the dancing?”

Before you hire a choreographer you need to consider the dance style of the piece,
arty-farty balletic or tap, there is some middle ground but these are the two ends of the dance spectrum. Human beings have long known something of the emotional impact of tap dancing, the Romans were the first to attach ‘taps’ to their shoes, there are the accursed Morris dancers, and we should never forget the achievement of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard who routed Marshall Kutozov’s 4th Division by the sheer ferocity of their tap dancing on the cobbles of Austerlitz. After a peak in the Fred & Ginger years, tap dipped in popularity until relatively recently, and now nearly every village hall in the land echoes to the relentless tramp of OAP and toddler tap classes. Whichever way you go your choreographer needs protection from the forces arrayed against him/her, they tend to get the rough end of the schedule, the rehearsal space, the casting and are quite often presented with a set at an angle of 45ยบ with a surface like black ice.

My best example of a choreographer in extremis was probably Reda, the French/Algerian choreographer of the awful musical version of Romeo & Juliet at the Piccadilly. He had the shortest fuse imaginable and was a rich source of entertainment to us all throughout the production but he excelled on one occasion during the tech. He asked the director David Freeman if one of the set trucks could be moved slightly, David mildly pointed out that if the truck were moved it would block the next entrance. Reda exploded, he bounded off the stage, into the auditorium, and ran around shouting “Fucking English! Fucking English!” at the top of his voice for several minutes before vanishing through the Front of House not to reappear for several days.

Set Designer
Stage Design! What a rich field of human endeavour this is. On the one hand ‘design’ has transformed some musicals from just being successful into a global brand, on the other inept design can strangle the life out of a perfectly good musical and dump it into a shallow grave.
The key thing is to make sure that your director and designer are at least on speaking terms and it’s even better if they have had a meeting or two before rehearsals. Surprisingly this is not always the case. You would be simply staggered by the number of design presentations that I have attended where it appears that the director and designer only met on the bus on the way there.
I could fill a book with quotations from set designers, bewildered, embittered, angry, betrayed, and I probably will, so you will have to wait until then to hear them.

Project Model – Maintenance!

Kevin McHarrowing has insisted that the set for Maintenance be designed by his regular designer Ulla Hoos. Dungaree clad Ulla is Latvian born but UK based, she won her theatrical spurs working as assistant to Frankfurt Opera Artistic Director Klaus Kronstadt on the notorious nude Carmen (set on a croquet lawn) and the even more notorious Der Rosenkavalier, which closed after three nights following violent protests from animal welfare organisations. Maintenance producers Samuel J Bloodlust and Alvin Toxteth have their doubts (like McHarrowing Hoos has never done a West End musical) but have agreed to his proposal. Bloodlust said at the time “She’s what we need. We need to be edgy on this one. Why the fuck does she wear dungarees all the time?” Ulla has already set off for Mlada Boleslav, location of the main Skoda plant, in order to stay with a typical Czech car-worker’s family in the interests of research. The Kopecnick family are puzzled as to why this grim faced Latvian lady has come to live with them but they take her money with good grace. Mrs Kopecnick, particularly, got rather flustered when Ulla insisted on taking a photograph of the entire family in the bath together. The time has not been wasted, McHarrowing has been bombarded with giga-bytes of gritty car plant imagery, hectares of gear boxes and brake linings, rows of dumpy canteen ladies, men in showers, girls in showers and Skodas, lots of Skodas. The only piece of research material that Ulla may choose to disregard is the farewell advice from Mrs Kopecnick’s mother “You are are a nice girl but you will never find the love of a good man while you are wearing those fucking dungarees”.

On the choreographic front Toxteth and Bloodlust have opted for experience and proven success and have snapped up the doyen of Broadway choreographers, Bobby Brasso. Brasso has become available after the abrupt cancellation of Fight Club – The Musical and has promised to make something “Sweet! Sweet! Sweet!” out of the opening ‘Skoda Production Line Clog Dance’. He is a legend on the ‘Great White Way’ for the commitment and intensity that he brings to his work. He is such a dauntingly intense individual that he makes Bob Fosse look like a Golden Labrador jumping into a pond. Also there isn’t a row of tents anywhere in the world camper than Bobby Brasso.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

A Dull Day at the Post Office

The life of an international internet postcard dealer is not as glamorous as you might at first think. True there was that meeting in a West End hotel with a young Swiss banker representing a reclusive Geneva based collector who passed over a briefcase full of Swiss francs in return for the only known copy of a card showing Gustav Mahler playing snooker with James Joyce in Trieste, and then there was the time when a lady in a fur coat and not much else offered me far more than the asking price for a rare photographic card of the 1907 Upton-on Stour Coronation Day Sack Race in the car park of the Les Dennis Memorial Hall in Droitwich during the West Midlands ‘Card Bonanza’. But on the whole it’s a pretty mundane business, hours at the computer, scanning, listing, sending invoices, packing and finally the queue at the Post Office and the latter is where time stands still and you begin to question your whole existence and you think “What does it all mean?” “Why am I here?” “Is that blonde bloke in Hollyoaks really a girl?” I have tried to pass the time by humming the overture to Flying Dutchman in it’s entirety but there were complaints.
Last week however something remarkable happened while I stood near the back of the queue beyond the photo-booth, a lady wearing a badge on her ample bosom that proclaimed that she was both Valerie and a Supervisor approached me and said “Mr Irwin?”
“Er yes”
“Come with me please. Let me take those for you”. She seized my carrier bag full of post and strode to the nearest counter, elbowing aside an OAP who had waited 2 hours to buy a single second class stamp, “Sort these out for Mr Irwin”, she ordered the counter operative and then led me through the door next to the foreign exchange counter. On the right just inside the door was a young man sitting in a cubby hole surrounded by video screens.
“This is Craig” said Valerie “, he’s responsible for the CCTV round here. He’s the one you have to thank for all this. Craig has calculated that you have queued for more than 500 hours in this post office during the last year”.
“Very nice to meet you at last Mr Irwin” said Craig “I’ve put together a little montage of your highlights”. His nimble fingers sped over his keyboard and a series of images flashed up on the screens around me. There I was standing next to the drunk who asked me 26 times how long it would take for a letter to get to Kettering, there I was in the summer dressed in shorts and Hawaiian shirt, and there I was so far back in the queue that I was next to the cheap DVDs with titles like “The Glory of Sudoku” and “Design Your Own Garden Pond”.
“I’m not sure what to say” I said
“You don’t have to say anything at all Mr Irwin” said Valerie and led me along a bleak corridor to a door labelled ‘Staff Canteen’. She pushed me through the door and as she did so champagne corks popped, streamers flew across the room and a sea of grinning faces sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”. A pretty girl thrust a glass of champagne into my hand. A beaming chubby man stood on a chair and ‘tinged’ on his glass with a teaspoon until there was quiet.
“Welcome, Mr Irwin, to this little get-together to celebrate your sterling efforts in queuing for more than 500 hours in the last year. A remarkable effort and a branch record, furthermore you have achieved this feat without complaint. I think I am right in saying that you have not once asked for a complaint form”.
“Er there didn’t seem much point” I replied
“Quite right” said Mr Chubby. “Ooh by the way does anyone here know where the complaint forms are?” he asked the room in general. Everyone laughed uproariously at this. “Thank you for joining us today and now I think Mrs Winterbotham would like to meet you”.
Valerie took me by the elbow and led me up some stairs and along a carpeted corridor to a mahogany door with a brass nameplate.
“Mrs Winterbotham is about as big a cheese as it’s possible to be in postal circles round here” explained Valerie as she knocked on the door.
“Enter” said a commanding voice.
“This is Mr Irwin” said Valerie and she half curtsied as she left the room.
I was in a large and richly furnished office with a vast desk at one end and an open fire, sofa and coffee table at the other. The walls were hung with expensive Turkish rugs, there was a Faberge pen-holder on the desk and a polar bearskin rug in front of the roaring log fire. The room reeked of money and power. Behind the desk sat an attractive raven haired woman.
“Ah Mr Irwin, Valerie has told me all about you. Thank you for taking the time to pop up and see me”.
“Um …no problem” I replied.
“I’m interested to know which of our services you found the most useful”. She said as she stood up, and as she did so I saw that she wasn’t an attractive woman, she was a very attractive woman. She wore a bright red suit with an unexpectedly short skirt and had legs to die for. She gestured me towards the fire and sofa.
“Well I just use whatever seems appropriate…” I muttered.
“I see. Are you are a big user of ‘Proof of Posting?” she asked as she came closer “a lot of people find that very useful these days….”
“Er yes”
“….and the ‘Next Day Special Delivery’ is that something you might consider”.
By this time we were both on the polar bear skin rug. “Phoo it’s hot in here” she said and shrugged off her jacket revealing a sleeveless black silk top that set off her light tan but was having trouble restraining the gentle thrust of her breasts.
“I er…”
“Valerie tells me that you’re a big man for ‘International Signed For’. Is that right?” She was closer now and never once took her large brown eyes from mine. “Can I have a sip of your champagne?” She took the glass from my hand, our fingers touching for an electric instant, she sipped and returned the glass with a perfect semicircle of lipstick on the rim. She was standing as close now as was possible and not touch.
“Have you ever tried ‘Air-Sure’ ?”. She put her hand on my arm, I felt dizzy. “I think you might find ‘Air-Sure’ just the ticket”. Her lips moved closer to mine but then out of the corner of my eye I saw something in the fire that distracted me. It was an ‘International Signed For’ sticker. I bent and looked closer, the fire was no log fire it was a parcel fire. There were letters, packets, parcels, ‘Special Delivery 9.00am’s, ‘International Signed For’s, ‘Special Delivery Saturday Guarantees’ all ablaze. I turned back to her.
“What’s happening? This isn’t right!” but she had changed, her skin had yellowed and coarsened, her hair seemed grey. I felt time passing very fast and Mrs Winterbotham first became a cackling skeletal hag and then crumbled into bones and dust. I ran from the room, down the stairs and back into the main body of the Post Office. For a moment all seemed normal, the queue hadn’t moved an inch, but then I realised that the queue was petrified, mummified, skeletons clad in yellowing flesh and rags, a Royal Mail version of the Terracotta Army. I ran for the exit but as I did so the ghastly figures shuffled forward to bar my path. The horror was too much for me and I swooned and all went black.
I felt a prodding in my back. “Move along dearie” said the old lady behind me “Position 6” is available”. I was at the head of the queue and phew! It had all been an awful dream.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Great Shortcuts of Our Time

1. The Strand – Embankment
Should you be stuck in heavy traffic on the Strand thinking “Oh I wish I was on the Embankment”, turn into Adam St, first right into John Adam St, second left into York Buildings and then almost immediately left into what appears to be an underground car park but is a street. Lower Robert St, this will take you down to Savoy Place, near the riverside entrance to the Savoy Hotel.

2. Don’t bother to brown your meat when making stews or casseroles. This comes from the TV series Nigella Express and the kitchen goddess has got it absolutely right. Every recipe since the dawn of time has started “First fry the meat until golden brown” (not that meat ever goes golden brown it just goes ‘abattoir grey’) and you don’t need to bother. It makes no difference it doesn’t “seal the flavour in”. Apart from this gem the rest of the series was pretty dull only enlivened by Nigella looking coquettish in cardigans that are too small for her. Incidentally “coquettish” doesn’t just mean looking a bit tarty while you open the fridge door it is also the name of a 17th century dish made from partridge feet and quince, traditionally served during Advent.

3. Orange St to Trafalgar Square via the National Gallery.
The back entrance to the National Gallery (free entrance) in Orange St is unimposing and usually deserted. There is a security man behind a desk, who doesn’t disturb incomers and once past him you have the choice of going upstairs or downstairs. Downstairs (if it is open) is a large gallery packed with paintings roughly arranged by century and hung densely packed on hessian screens. The total value of the art in the room is probably several billion but it looks like a West Country auction room. At the far end of the gallery stairs take you up to the front of the building.
The upper path is definitely quicker than the lower, once you have learned the route through the Rembrandts, Poussins, Tiepolos etc, but of course the whole point of this short cut is to be distracted. If you find yourself in the vicinity of the gallery with five minutes to spare, why not skip that cappuccino and go in and see something extraordinary and amazing. My personal favourite is a self-portrait by Madame Vigee-Le Brun which normally hangs in Room 33. The fact that it is by a woman is remarkable enough in a gallery where I think that she may be the only pre 1800 female artist and she has done herself proud. A sexy self confident artist gazes back at you, palette in hand, with blue eyes, full red lips, a straw hat with a jaunty feather, nice knockers and curls of grey hair falling down her neck. She can come to tea anytime.
My other favourite is the Tale of Patient Griselda told in Medieval comic-strip form on 3 panels painted in Siena around 1490. The panels are hung in the ‘Carbuncle’ Sainsbury Wing of the Gallery which is mostly cluttered up with dreary Madonnas with Child and silly haloes. Who first came up with the idea of haloes? At some point one artist must have thought “I know what I’ll do, I’ll paint the Blessed Virgin Mary with a golden frisbee behind her head” and instantly haloes became an industry standard across Europe. Anyway I will now relate the Tale of Patient Griselda just to show you that Renaissance men certainly knew how to have a good time. The Count of somewhere or other was out hunting in the forest when he met a poor but beautiful girl named Griselda. He asked her father’s permission to marry her, which was readily given, and then he proposed to Griselda but only on condition that she swore to be utterly obedient for evermore which she duly did. The Count took her back to his court where he stripped her naked in front of his courtiers before giving her a wedding dress and marrying her. In the fullness of time they had a son and daughter. While Griselda was asleep the Count took the children away and told Griselda that had had them killed. He then staged a fake divorce, stripped Griselda naked once more and sent her back to her father. After some years the Count came back and ordered Griselda to return and prepare his house for his new bride, a young and beautiful woman with a handsome brother. Griselda did as she was told and at that point the count finally revealed that the new ‘bride’ and her brother were in fact her own children whom she thought had been dead all those years. How Griselda must have chuckled! Bizarrely they lived happy ever after.

Cycling Down the Danube

Cycling Down the Danube
The Map