I was concentrating fine, until the reasonably famous writer/actor sat two tables away from me suddenly exclaimed out loud, ‘But don’t you see, it’s a red herring!’ to the open mouths and mild applause of his friends and companions.
I furrowed my brow, bent down closer to my laptop and did my very best not to listen in, partially because I enjoy this particular writer’s work and didn’t really want to have the ending blown, but mostly because I was 2000 words from finishing my own day’s duties and very much At A Good Bit.
It was one of many surreal moments to a surreal day. My morning had begun with my alarm going off at 8 a.m. to much moaning and groaning – this being a Saturday – and by 8.30 I was at the keyboard bashing away. At 10 a.m. my alarm went off again, this time reminding me to damn well stop worrying about words and get some decent socks on for a long day. I hit snooze… and hit snooze again… and at 10.25 sat bolt upright with a sudden realisation that I hadn’t brushed my teeth, packed my lunch or found my torch, all important rituals for the day. A flurry of activity followed – where was my travelcard, where was my inhaler, which pocket had I left the door keys in, was my toothpaste really running that low, how many little boxes of cheese could one girl fit in her rucksack etc.. – and by 10.40ish I was running out of the house at high speed in search of the bus to work.
London Transport was kind, and I made it to the theatre without disgracing myself too badly, all thoughts of literary adventures briefly gone. By 11.30 a.m. myself and the other six members of the lighting department on call for the day were in the full swing of the on-stage reset. Bits of set emerged, lights were checked, bits of set vanished. Ridiculous numbers of smoke machines were examined, prodded and probed to make sure they were loaded up, ready to rumble, and hugely heavy canisters of carbon dioxide gas were locked into place ready to produce that extra-foggy effect that was so appropriate to the vibe of the play. By the time the cast had started to arrive, the lighting department were off in search of lunch, and I was back in the canteen, ploughing through the next 1000 words before the show went up.
I was really getting into The Good Bit when the stage manager’s voice came over the intercom, requesting the presence of cast and company to stand by for the matinee performance and so away with the laptop and off to the follow spot perch.
Today, I was operating a follow spot position I’d only done once before, and not particularly well, so once again all thoughts of literary endeavor were banished to the back of the brain and it was hunker-down for lighting time. One of the first things I discovered in this position was that, annoyingly, whenever one of our especially ridiculous bits of scenery lit up – and I don’t just mean lit up, I mean really-explodes-in-light-like-nothing-you’ve-ever-seen lit up – my working light, by which I could check what I was doing, went out, unable to draw enough energy to keep on working during the cue. As, I suspect, did most of the lights in the local area, but you’d really have to ask the National Grid for their thoughts on that one. This, combined with a handily placed speaker stack right in the way that made it nigh-on-impossible to see what was happening stage left, didn’t add to my calm.
Things were just starting to settle down when The Big Scene happened. Not big in terms of staging particularly, but big in the sense that for that scene only, all four follow spot operators were on and engaged, tracking two actors across the stage. One character shouted about murder and retribution, another quoted Paradise Lost.
“Isn’t it interesting, about the way we discuss god?” offered a follow spot operator over our private intercom channel.
A silence followed this statement. Make no mistake, as lampies go, we are a varied bunch, and defy quite a lot of technical cliches in our day-to-day duties. But it’s not very often that you get discussions about the nature of religion during a follow spot cue, particularly when that discussion degenerates into an analysis of the historical context of Paradise Lost and the problems of rationally debating theology when by definition, faith could not be put through the logical tests of philosophy. Add to this the fact that the character I was follow spotting from my new and slightly precarious position seemed to be, for this performance at least, bouncing all over the place with more than his usual reckless abandon, and you can understand why the old braincells were beginning to get taxed. But hell, in I waded, and by the time the rather toasty lamp in my hand began to dim, we were in full swing on whether the world needed religion and what the nature of social responsibility was in the modern age.
By the time the show went down, my head was stuffed full of a medley of bizarre thoughts and confusions, but none of this really overcame the fact that I was still, damnit, only 2000 words away from really finishing a Very Good Bit Indeed and there was still the evening performance left to go.
Back on stage – and once again, we did our reset, checking again all the things we’d checked in the morning to make sure it was still working. Bits of overly lumpy stage snow (‘Made with love in Canada… because we know our snow…’) were scraped out of the machine, trains were plugged back in, boats were charged, more fluid levels were topped up in more smoke machines and, but of course, those bloody LEDs that are the bloody bane of my life started playing up, and into the maze of unmarked cable we went to try and work out why. With the full resources of my years of technical training, I tried unplugging them, and plugging them back in again, and giving them a bit of a wiggle, and eventually it seemed to work…
By 4 p.m. we were pretty much reset, and off I went again to the canteen to carry on writing.
My laptop battery is a fickle thing, and can usually only manage an hour and a half or so of ruthless typing before the battery starts to give up. I’d had it on charge the whole show, so was beavering away fairly comfortably when I became aware of the other inhabitants of the canteen.
‘A red herring – that’s brilliant!’ exclaimed a voice by my right elbow.
‘Well yes…’ agreed the author and for a moment, the thought crossed my mind that here might be someone who got it. Someone who understood why the sweat was running down my back, why I was screaming at my computer every time it tried to auto-format my paragraphs for me, why the sound of typing was all I could hear and why the urge to laugh out loud at nothing much in particular was welling up inside…
… but no.
Maybe another time.
And then abruptly, at about 5.30 p.m., I’d finished.
I mean, not just the Good Bit.
Really, properly finished.
I sat back and didn’t really know what to do. Under normal circumstances, the situation would have called for an immediate phonecall to some of my mates and a trip to the nearest purveyor of cake. But we only had two hours until the next show went up, and only an hour and a half until I had to go and check that the front of house follow spots were struck, and really, where was a girl to go in an hour and a half? Feeling slightly shell-shocked, I saved my work, then saved again just to be sure, and tottered up to the LX crew room.
‘I’ve finished!’ I told the one lampie sat on the sofa.
‘Um… finished what?’ she asked.
I tried to find a place to get a signal on my mobile phone, and on the way, bumped into a member of stage management. Seeing my slightly hysterical grin and recognising the fact that I was a bare hiccup away from breaking out into floods of mad laughter, he asked what made me so happy. ‘I’ve finished!’ I explained, and he nodded, and smiled, and ran away.
Finding a mobile phone signal in a theatre is a nightmare, and I was back outside the canteen by the time I got decent reception. I had a missed call from a friend, who, by lucky chance, was one of the few I knew who would probably understand my glee. I rang her back. ‘I’ve finished!’
‘Aw, good to hear it sweetie. You’ve finished what exactly?’
I tried my parents, because sure, at 24 years old and after a silly number of books, I still like to let my parents know about these sorts of things. ‘It’s finished! It’s finished it’s finished it’s finished!’ I exclaimed, hopping round and round the hall.
‘Oh, good! Now… which one is this?’
Eventually I calmed down a little, and realised that, having finished, I now didn’t really have anything to do until the evening show. In order to at least honour some traditions of the trade, I went in search of cake, but cake was surprisingly hard to find at that time, on that day, in that area. Eventually I ended up in Sainsburys, and oscillated between potentially-disappointing chocolate cake and the unknown factor of carrot cake. Swayed by the ridiculous quantities of icing on the latter, I bought it and a large packet of cookies, and wandered back to the theatre to find someone to force-feed all this to so that I could explain to them, with sugar, just why I was so gleeful. The LX crew room was empty. The door to stage management’s office was shut. One soundie drifted down the corridor with a box of radio mics and a determined expression. On stage, one actor lay on his back, knees sticking up into the air, making motorbike noises. My phone was out of credit.
Eventually I drifted upstairs, falling back on my default search for Rehearsal Room 4. This room is both elusive and brilliant, one of the few rehearsal rooms in the theatre which is unlikely to be too busy in the evenings, and yet sports a piano. I sat down, wiping carrot cake off my shirt, and played the 5 bars of what few pieces I could remember. Badly. Still silence in the corridors.
At 7 p.m. I drifted back downstairs to strike the follow spots. By now more members of the cast were on stage, but the aura of intensity was already rising along with the red lights of pre-show, so it seemed like a dubious thing to go running into the auditorium whooping at that point. I struck the follow spots with trepidation – ever since the stage left spot had started dropping in and out, and one lampie had told a story of horrific injuries following an explosion from a similar make of light, my relation to that particular position had been nothing if not cautious.
Nothing like the fear of an exploding lantern in the face to dampen a girl’s spirits, I was pretty much calm by the time I got back downstairs, found my headtorch, eaten a bit more cake and got my professional face attached. The evening show had me back in a different follow spot position again, but one I was more comfortable with than the matinee. It was, however, a very busy show, complete with a mad dash from one position to another during a scene change, and the classic could-blow-up-any-second encounter with my least favourite lamp. By the time the audience was on its feet for the final applause, my glee had given away to inane grinning and total exhaustion. Three of us – the three girls in the department, by chance rather than intent – went to the bar afterwards not so much because we were planning on a wild and reckless time, but because there comes a moment after every long show when your eyes hurt and your hands are shaking and all you need is a quiet sit down before the journey home, and a quiet sit down we had, while all around us the bar swayed with the sound of famous voices discussing infamous things.
It was, in short, one of the strangest days I’ve had for a while. Somehow, when everything is so busy and on such a high, things don’t really have time to be fully processed.
I’ve finished Urban Magic 4.