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Adventures on the Fringe….

Another week, another show…

So, I’ve been living it up in the world of fringe theatre, and what an adventure it’s been.  As I write this, a stage manager who we’ll call Pingu for the purpose of this post, is sleeping on my couch in the room next door having just come back from the Edinburgh Festival, where her motto wisely has become ‘They all lie!’

But what, I hear the strangled cry, do They all Lie about?

Well, pretty much everything.  Take the venue where I’ve been working.  You walk in as a lighting designer and you’re told ‘we’ve got two beta packs plugged into a Strand series desk, we’ve got maybe fifteen fresnels and five profiles, we can run cable to wherever you need it but just keep an eye out on the overall wattage you’re pumping through the desk’ and you think ‘okay, yeah, I can cope with that!  No worries!’  And your director, who is basically very lovely and on it, when you asked if you could get some birdies in (because birdies are the world’s greatest lamp) has clapped his hands together and said ‘actually, I have 8 birdies already!  They’re all ready to rumble, new and shiny, and they’re yours!’ and you think ‘well, nothing can go wrong now, I have 8 birdies, my day is set!’

But oh no.

They lie.

Because when you look at the dimmer racks you’re not looking at a nice, healthy pair of beta packs… you’re looking at something that’s sorta the theatrical equivalent of sitting in the front row with your hands over your eyes shouting ‘not looking, not looking, not looking!’ in order to achieve the effect of a blackout… and one of the sockets doesn’t work and another, well, Christ knows what sound that socket is making but it’s not a comfort so okay, you think, I’m down to ten dimmers but that’s fine, I’m a Young and Dynamic Designer, I can still pull this off.  Thank Christ, you think, thank Christ I’ve got a strand series desk and a large number of lamps I can plug in!

Well yes…

… They Lie…

… because this desk you’re supposed to be operating the show on, once you’ve swept the cobwebs off it, is sorta the electronic equivalent of a Victorian drying mangle.  And alarmingly, every time you touch a control, something hisses inside but okay, you’ve still got 8 birdies and as established, is there anything in the world that can’t be achieved with 8 birdies…  (If you think I’m kidding, take a look some time at the front of the Olivier Theatre stage at the National and you will see dozens of birdies all lined up and ready to rumble… even in a theatre that seats thousands, you can never, ever, underestimate birdie-tastic power.)

… except…

… now you look…

… you’ve got 8 birdies with no clamps to attach to anything…

… and no plugs on the end…

… and actually 2 of them aren’t working…

… and now you’re looking at them you realise that they’re already paired, two birdies to one transformer each so if you were thinking of sticking a birdie on an individual control channel say bye-bye to that cunning scheme and you know what…

… whoever wired these birdies decided to wire them without an earth wire and while I’m not exactly Electrical Safety Woman, I can’t help but notice that our entire set is made of metal and you know, what with the birdies and the stove made out of lightbulbs and the number of people crawling all over this metal set perhaps, but just perhaps, we should consider sorta trying to make this set safe so that if the actors do get electrocuted at anywhere between 12-240V, they’ll only be electrocuted for a little while, instead of say, terminally.  And I say this as someone who has been electrocuted by full mains wattage and very unpleasant it was too.  (Although as an experience, what I remember mostly about it was lying in A and E wired up to a faulty heart monitor while a matronly voice demanded in the cubicle next to mine ‘Well where’s this child’s arm, then?’  A question which in the emergency ward of St. Thomas’ Hospital could be interpreted any number of ways… anyway, just thought I’d share that moment…)

But back to our fringe venue.
So fine, we’re down to ten dimmers, and by cunning de-rigging of other lanterns and some exciting work with cable ties, gaffer and chicken wire, we’ve rigged the 6 remaining functioning birdies and by a little dynamic doubling up of colour gel I’ve sorta got the colours I was looking for, okay, fine.  Now, to get power to these lamps…

‘It’s the magician!’ exclaims the venue technician in frustration.  ‘We’ve got lots of cable but the magician who does his act on Sunday nights has used it all to run to all his lamps and now we don’t have any!’

‘Define ‘don’t have any’,’ I soothe, sweetness and light in a pair of spanners.

‘Well, we’ve got all this…’ explains the technician, opening up a washing basket of the saddest limpest ends of bare stripped cable you have ever seen in your life.  It was like looking at the corpses of a baby snake culling, where the cause of death was beheading.

‘Okay, okay,’ I say, radiating my best calm-under-fire-persona, ‘Have you got any 15A plugs and sockets that I can put on the end of these dead bits of cable?’

‘Um… well… let me look…. no….’

Then ensues nearly an hour of desperate scrambling and scrounging from every corner.  At the LSE, my ability to scrounge was probably the only thing that dubiously qualified me as head of technical for the various societies I muddled by for – that and my capacity to access the dimmer room when Conferences forgot to leave me the key through a means that I will not repeat here… but RADA spoils a girl.  I mean, like all theatres, there’s a degree of scrounging at RADA, but I have never found myself stripping the ends of lanterns and crawling around on hands and knees in search of Just… One… More… Socket!!!  As a lighting designer, your cunning plans quickly get adapted and re-jigged as the true horror of the venue comes home to you, and I personally have quibbles with those lighting designers who walk into any venue and go ‘well, this is the way in which I light…’ as your cunning plan for how you may do your job quite often bears no resemblance to what is actually appropriate in the venue itself or for the production.  It’s all very well having a vision, but a vision without voltage ain’t going no where…

All that said, and for all that They Lie, (and they did) we did manage to throw something together!  This is both theatre’s greatest asset and curse, for it seems to be the perpetual story that no matter how bad things get, and at the point when you’re sat on the floor of your theatre at 11 p.m. on a Sunday night wiring cable together from scrap, it’s pretty bad, somehow it all comes together in the end and there’s hugs and everyone says how brilliant everyone else was and what an experience and in years to come we have competetive fringe stories down the pub and we’re all very relieved…

… but regrettably, owing to the above tendency, people sometimes forget just how close we come, every single time, to it not all coming together.  So next time you find yourself sat in a fringe theatre looking at an actor on stage and you notice that some of the lanterns are perhaps being held together as much by gravity and goodwill as by screws and chains, pause for a moment, and consider the lampie…