99% of technical theatre is begging.
I was a pretty poor ASM on the few occasions I had to do the horrible job, because I just couldn’t quite understand what was in it for all the various sources I went to trying to borrow, beg and blag props for no money whatsoever, in them lending to me. They wouldn’t get thanks, they wouldn’t get cash, they wouldn’t get kudos, they might even get their goods returned with a few more chips and loose screws. I mean how, just how, does this work out for them?
My strongest memory of being an ASM was when I had to work on an Irish play. It was horrible. The script was… and the props were… and it was… and that’s all I think I can really say about that…
And being as it was, an Irish play, we had to get Irish whisky. No problem, we thought, let’s churn off a few stickers and whack them on a few bottles… but oh no. The director sat up in horror at this and demanded, or else, that we acquire nothing more and nothing less than Jameson’s Irish Whisky, in proper (albeit empty) Irish Whisky bottles. So one afternoon, I emptied out the rucksack, put on my best comfy-shoes and went trudging round the West End of London begging my way round every pub, bar and unlikely drinking venue between Gower Street and Piccadilly. And for anyone who knows the area between Gower Street and Piccadilly, you will know that it is nothing if not changable. My first successful hit on an empty Jameson’s bottle came from a small pub just off Charlotte Street, from a recycling bin about to be emptied out. It was a little place, entirely deserted and silent during the daylight hours, but which in the evening overflowed with men and women in suits on their way to the multiple restaurants of the area after a hard day of law, or literature, or whatever they did in their smart shoes. My next near-hit was in the basement of a club some two streets further down, where the floor was still sticky from spilt beer and all the drinks had names like ‘Hot Sex on the Beach’ and ‘Green Groove’ and were ordered by the jug with four straws. Here the bar keeper liked to collect – not bottles, annoyingly – but the cardboard cylinders that the bottles came in, and one of which I took just in case.
Into Soho, and I realised the terrible mistake I’d made by coming into this area during lunch. Every door smelt of garlic, ginger, coriander, chips, curry powder, chilli, bacon, bread… and I, on my ASM budget, had to walk by it all, head down and focused on the Irish whisky challenge. I got lucky – two hits in a row. The first came in a gothic pub off Frith Street, walls lined with images of punk rockers and curiously incised sweaty bodies; and whose owner wore a black leather waistcoat and a lot of ink and metal,and went rummaging through the bins for me in search of an empty bottle, swearing blind he’d had seven Japanese visitors in last night from the karaoke bar next door who’d knocked back an entire bottle, and finally finding the object of delight at the bottom of the bag. The next success came a few doors down, at a completely different kind of bar, where the vibe was quiet, gentle, and very much for the gentlemen seeking the same. Here the Australian barman – because this story would not be complete without the Ozzie barman – chatted to me about theatre, and propping, and what an ASM was and did, and expressed amazement as the true horror of the job became apparent.
I wandered south, across Charing Cross Road and then up again to Cambridge Circus, to that small maze of clubs, pubs and wine bars that huddle in between the music shops and second hand booksellers. No luck, and I was beginning to feel that really, actually, all things considered, the director was being a bit daft and damnit, there were limits to our propping powers and the technical rehearsal began really quite soon and my feet were aching and you know what…
… time to head home.
But on my way home I stopped off at one last place, the Soho Theatre Bar, just in case. Don’t know what called me in, but there indeed was a bottle of Jamesons up on the wall, and the bar was quiet and I figured, what the hell. I went up to the bar and asked, as I’d asked a hundred times, if they had any empty bottles of Jameson’s Irish whisky. The bar manager waggled his eyebrows at me in a way which spoke of his Frenchness long before his accent did, and examined the bottle up on the wall.
“There is one drink left,” he explained. “One drink, and then the bottle is yours to take.”
“How much is a drink?” I asked, thinking in my own teetotal way about just how far the budget could stretch.
I managed not to splutter, but he was already getting out a glass and pouring the drink. “No no no!” I gasped. “I’m not buying the last drink for the sake of this bottle!”
He shrugged – again, I feel, in a way more French than Charles de Gaulle eating snails in butter – and swirled the whisky round in the glass like a true coinoisseur. “You’re sure you don’t want to have it?”
“I don’t drink. And besides, I’m not sure I could explain the receipt.”
Another shrug, and, with the laconic resignation of a fish faced with busy waters, he drained it down in a single gulp, pulled the (now empty) bottle off the wall, handed it to me and wished me well in the rest of my theatrical career.
Which brings me to the point of this blog.
As an ASM, you beg, borrow and steal things that may be worth, at the end of the day, anywhere between £12 and some blisters up to several hundred pounds of kit, but much more expensive than that and you start to go ‘you know what, let’s build… building will be better….’ As a lampie, most kit you ever buy ever starts at £500 and swells to a climax around the £20000 mark. Even a blown bulb in a theatre lamp can cost anywhere between £45-£800, and this creates nothing if not a certain reluctance for people to lend out their kit willy-nilly. There’s no fiscal gain in it; in fact, there’s often a bit of a fiscal loss, and always a risk that someone’s going to have split water on it and farewell that bit of lighting magic. As a result, I try my very best not to have to borrow lighting equipment too often, on the principal that, well, it’s a bad principal. And when I do try to borrow stuff, for free, I tend to be given the lighting equivalent of a bulb on a stick and told to go figure, long before I ever get my dirty mitts on what I’m actually looking for.
This, therefore, is the blog entry in which I say this, for the record, and as a rare sign of genuine appreciation:
I love Sparks.