This is not, in fact, an entry about Health and Safety, because while my life is nothing without being suspended by a harness over a sheer drop above a very solid stage while trying to find new and exotic things to do with electricity, the majority of theatre health and safety guidelines could be summarised as so:
Don’t be a tit.
No – this is a little more biological than that. This entry is based on the remarkable revelation that came to me a few weeks ago that, actually, working 14 hours a day in a damp, dusty, freezing cold tunnel underneath London Bridge does really bad things to a mild cold. Who’d have thought?
I don’t get ill very often. When I do, as I think I’ve mentioned, I tend to milk it. I lie at home, in bed, and whimper. There might be chicken soup involved. There will definitely be marmite. And above all else, I absolutely don’t go into work. Unless I really, really have to.
And I really, really had to.
I was lighting designer on a project called Theatre Uncut, which if anyone is wondering about was well worth the time and investment of energy and I was dead chuffed to be on it. The main event was happening in the Southwark Playhouse Vaults, which is an amazing space, literally underneath London Bridge station, guaranteed to creep you out without even trying. Victorian brickwork, spooky acoustics, far-off (and not so far-off) rumblings, suspicious darknesses and just a hint of ghost set the scene, and as lighting designer it was fairly apparent that the secret would be to embrace the gothic vibe and run with it, rather than, say, try to flood the place with a baby-pink glow and sultry music.
It is also one of those incredibly rare venues where, as a freelance lighting designer, you arrive to talk to the tech manager fully braced for the usual charade, and you are surprised.
The usual charade is this:
Lighting designer: Hello oh illustrious tech manager! Thank you for the tech specs, I’ve just got a few questions. I see there’s a smoke machine listed on the specs – can I use it?
Tech manager: Nah, mate.
Lighting designer: Oh, but then…
Tech manager: Yeah, it’s wrong.
Lighting designer: Okay. Well, how about some birdies – they are, after all, the world’s greatest light and they’d be incredibly useful, do you have any birdies?
Tech manager: Nah, mate.
Lighting designer: But I saw three sat on your desk.
Tech manager: Yeah mate but nah mate they ain’t for you.
Lighting designer: Right, okay, um… how about a control desk?
Tech manager: Yeah mate, we can do you a control desk, yeah, but it’s gonna cost you £20 every time you press a button and like, only me or one of my boys can operate it, but we ain’t in Monday-Thursday and you’ll have to pay extra but other than that, yeah mate, it’s totally yours.
I paraphrase – but only a little. However! All praise to the Southwark Playhouse Vaults, it’s one of only two venues I’ve walked into the last few months where, instead of the standard ‘nah mate’ reaction, the tech manager stood up straight, stroked his chin judiciously and concluded, ‘well, we don’t right now, but I’m sure we can get something in for you…’ and then, knock me down with a feather, was as good as his word. As a lighting designer, a lot of what you do is negotiation. You convince the director that this might work better than that; you coax the designer into leaving you room for a boom on the stage left wing; you beg the tech manager for a few more stands and grovel with the electrician for an extra lantern or two – in short, you try to operate with the diplomacy of the United Nations but the determination of Stalin and hope for the best. And while a bad tech manager can destroy your best laid plans even before they’ve finished printing, a good tech manager can save the day, and is a treasure to be cherished…
But back to health and safety…
I got a lift from my Dad, of all people, as I needed help lugging equipment to the theatre itself, and after a dubious encounter with the one-way systems around Tooley Street, as well as a regrettable left turn off Jamaica Rd, we arrived for the fit-up at the theatre around 10.30 a.m. and set to work fairly merrily. By 5 p.m. we were rigged and ready to rumble, and by 6 p.m. the first of my directors were starting to arrive for the tech. By 7 p.m. a bit of the show was up and ready and I was starting to feel distinctly under the weather. It wasn’t just that I’d missed my dinner break owing to some iffy cable, but my mild cold was starting to become a bit of a chesty cough, and I was beginning to realise that actually, being able to see my breath condense in the air even as I kicked a parcan out of the way of an expanding puddle on the dust-soaked floor, was not necessarily a good thing. I’d also come under-dressed – in the sense I had a jumper, a coat, a scarf and gloves – and only a very wonderful ASM who recognised that my skin wasn’t just turning that colour because of the gels I’d picked, saved me from losing sensation in all limbs and the end of my nose. By 10.30 p.m. we’d more-or-less teched a third of the show and my body was beginning to ask of itself whether it could defy the laws of science by producing more snot than I have internal mass.
By 6 p.m. the following day, everything was a lemsip blur. Suddenly I realised that it didn’t matter what lights I put on, because all lights are so pretty anyway, and really, accurate cue numbers were for losers. Directors came up to me with notes for their pieces and I’d stand looking at them and wondering if I’d ever met these people ever before and what the hell they were talking about. As a good lighting designer, I wasn’t really in a position, an hour and a half before the show opened, to ask ‘who are you and what do you want again?’ so tried to translate their requests through a warm haze of paracetamol and anti-asthma medications. As the show finally went up I looked at my screen and discovered to my surprise that four, very elegant states had appeared out of no where, which at no point were actually used in the show. I tried to work out what the hell they could be during the interval, because really, they were very nice, but no, not a clue. The sound/AV operator, who was sat next to me, poked me nervously as we moved from scene to scene, and through a myriad of gestures, only some of which were obscene, we vaguely managed to guess between us what the hell we were doing, with only one cock-up that night for which LX must take the blame. Though both of us, as good technicians, were in full blacks, no one in the audience would have been aware of this since, in my case, I was in full blacks, and a winter coat, and a body warmer, and a pair of fingerless gloves, and a stripy scarf and, to crown it all off, my bright pink wooly hat with a bobble on top that will forever, and through circumstances I will not describe here, be known as my Macbeth Hat.
Somehow surviving the show led to the thorny issue of getting home and sleeping for a week, and here again, my body pulled a fast one. I’m sure we’ve all been there – that clogged up sleepless state where you sit bolt upright in bed and wonder just what strange conspiracy between internal pressure and gravity means your head feels like it’s three sizes too big for its skull, and why someone’s rammed damp concrete up your nose. Though I wasn’t needed back in the theatre until the following afternoon, I drifted back into the venue on another lemsip high and only remembered that I should really check the rig was working, five minutes before the audience started to drift in.
By the time we actually got to the end, many shows later, I was starting to feel vaguely functional again, and went at de-rigging all my kit with a great deal of glee, hurling cables onto the floor with the kind of reckless electrical abandon you have to be rigorously trained in. To speed things up, and as there were only four of us techies on the show, some of the acting company helped, and it was a revelation. It was a revelation in two ways – first, in that there were suddenly so many people on the floor helping move kit and shift booms off to one side, that a get 0ut which should have lasted into the small hours of the morning, was over within barely forty five minutes and I was absolutely delighted. If I hadn’t been covered in dust and grease, I would have hugged the nearest actor I could find in gratitude for the intervention. The second revelation was this – the amazing different ways there are to coil cable. I mean, you think, coiling cable… it’s just coiling cable… I know I thought that… and now I know I’m wrong.
At the end of it, I still don’t clearly remember a large part of that week. I have a large collection of scripts and notes which are in my handwriting, so must have been written by me, and a vague memory of somehow making it to ninety cues in the show despite a feeling that it was a ‘lights up, lights down’ job from the initial meetings. I also have the shame of knowing that, while all my kit was returned in far better state to the provider than I was by the end of the week, somewhere out there is an elusive adapter that vanished on the final night… and I only hope and pray that the damp-dust-ghost of the Southwark Playhouse Vaults hasn’t swallowed it up as an offering to the dark…