The Haymarket Theatre is one of the smallest venues on our tour, a very friendly and co-operative place, and was deliberately chosen to launch the production. The idea was to begin from a point of feeling safe: so that the transfer to much larger venues would be something that we might all take in our stride.
First nights are exciting, high-adrenaline times for everyone concerned with a production. Questions are asked of everyone: does this work? Will it all come together smoothly with little or no hitches? It takes a while for the timing and rhythm of a production to feel familiar to a company, and so for several days most of us were walking around backstage with notepads about the sequences in the play in which we were involved: “Picnic scene, then P.40 take chaise longue on with Josh.....” is just one excerpt from my lengthy list.
Costume and technical crew have lists too - watching the play and seeing generally small things that need fine-tuning or adjusting. That the play opened to cheers and a small standing ovation is, I think, credit to everyone’s efforts in those preparatory weeks. For me, the first night was different from many I have experienced in the past. There wasn’t a sense of panic around me and within me: there was a heightened atmosphere of course, but that is necessary to produce theatre. We’d done thorough technical work and had three good dress rehearsals. We were ready.
The moves to Coventry Belgrade Theatre and, last week, Blackpool Grand Theatre involved expansion of the production. We were flattered by the amount of wing space we had, and also the set itself was wider, and so we had some adjustments to make with the placements of lighting areas, props and furniture as well as actors before we could begin. Every week these adjustments have to be made: how much space on stage do we have and how does it differ from what we had before? How large is the auditorium itself- will we all need to project our voices more to fill this space? Alongside all adjustments are the fine- tuning adjustments from our Director. He’s out there most performances watching what we’re doing and if he feels something needs to change then we take the time to rehearse the change.
The production is growing all the time as our familiarity with the play and with each other deepens - so when someone says “I think that was our best show so far” it will often only be another couple of days before the same thing is said again. We have to guard against getting complacent though: the play is being very well received and getting terrific reviews, but every night is a new first night for the audience who are seeing it. The bond between us all is such that I’m confident we shall keep everything on an even keel.
One of the fine details that was rehearsed in the army sequences was never forgetting how uncomfortable, often cold, dangerous and generally grim the trenches and dug-outs were on the battlefield. One of those details is the fact that lice was a very bad problem for all the men. “Don’t forget the lice” has been a frequent reminder from our Director: prompting a renewed urgency onstage of scraping armpits and other areas. I’m not one, I hope, to blow my own trumpet, but my own efforts in this activity led to what was proposed
More musing from the Birdsong tour next week.