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Simon and the Drum

A few days ago I blogged about a play I was calling Four Men in a Church.

By popular request, this production has now been re-named Simon and the Drum.  To explain…

The drum is the name for the giant spinning elevator in the centre of the stage.  It’s a beautiful bit of mechanics, genuinely stunning.  Three semi-circular platforms can be raised, lowered, and spun, simultaneously and around each other; bits can rise as others descend, things and move beneath and above them, and generally speaking, it’s a beautiful bit of engineering.

I had a tour of the drum a few weeks ago.  My favourite automation operator – since automation are the dudes who control this monstrosity – agreed to let me sit in during one of the show resets and take me through everything he did.  You can tell a lot about a department by the way they introduce you to their works; this operator, who we’ll call Pippin for the purpose of this exercise, immediately sat me down and said ‘these are our error logs’.

Ah, I thought.  A department that likes to introduce itself by its error logs.

‘There are twenty five common errors, but usually it’s just a motor tripping out.’

This caused me a degree of fear.  Surely, but surely, if you’ve got spinning, falling bits of set, often with actors on it, you don’t want motors to trip out.  But oh no, because the drum has no fewer than twenty two motors for spinning the thing round and round, and some great big mama motors for raising things up and down and actually, it would probably all be fine on only seven motors running, just not very fast.

When it does run at speed, in fact, it’s a rather brisk experience.  It can turn remarkably fast for such a bit piece of kit, and raise and fall with surprising zippiness; however, the earth does shake when it goes at full tilt.  That’s the drum…

Simon of our new title is the operator for the duration of this particular technical rehearsal.  There are several things you need to understand about this role.  First of all, it’s very specialist.  Second, it’s rather lonely, being as you are, essentially in a hole at the very bottom of the theatre.  Thirdly, he’s been there for fourteen hours a day, four days in a row.  He communicates with the rest of the world entirely by intercom – for professional business – and facebook, in order to chart his increasing insanity.  Status updates began with ‘Free the drum operator!’ and have now grown in mythology throughout the theatre to our new title of the play; Simon and the Drum.  Being as he is, in the basement of the building, some four storeys below the main event, his communication with the director is entirely one-way.  The director shouts… the sound department picks up the shout on a microphone… the shout is relayed downstairs… and Simon, having no return system to reply, does his work in silence.  Occasionally he can communicate, but everything he says has to be referred through the DSM’s intercom, resulting in everything being really rather open to interpretation.  Thus – while I’m sure Simon is far too professional to say it, a cry in the bottom of the drum of ‘no it can’t go bloody faster!’ will tactfully be interpreted by the DSM for the director to ‘the motors have a tripping issue at high rotational velocity….’  Because that’s professionalism, baby.

The problem Simon currently has is this:

The director says – ‘No no no no no!  That’s not acceptable at all.  What’s wrong with this?  Why is it going so slowly?’

The DSM says – ‘We can make it go faster, I think.’

The director says – ‘Well that’s perfect, make it go faster then, why didn’t we do this before?!’

Simon receives this instruction and duly accelerates the movement of the drum.  They run the scene change again.

The director hollars – ‘No no no no NO!  Why is it so loud?  What’s that rumbling why is it so damn loud I don’t understand what the problem is is the drum broken is that it, is it broken?’

‘No, it’s not broken – that’s the sound of every motor going at full pelt to try and get these massive bits of set in and out on time.  It makes that sound when it goes fast….’

Director – ‘Well then we’ll have to go slower, won’t we?’

And in this way, the whole cycle starts again.  Every scene change has different requirements, and therefore every time the drum activates we go through this conversation.  And regrettably, being in the basement, Simon exists more as an ethereal concept than a human being.  He has acquired the aura of a piece of machinery, neither seen nor emitting bodily heat, but rather something invoked a bit like a magic piece of software, ‘Simon!  Simon make it better!’

And so, as the days roll by, and we reset again and again to the same old change, and the director gets ratty and the room gets hot and the people downstairs start to complain about the shaking, we have our new title for this play…

Simon and the Drum.