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It Never Rains

This blog has been quiet for a few weeks – apologies.  All the life has been happening!

To catch up on some of this, and because people sometimes wonder what a scribbler’s routine (hollow laughter!) looks like, all the life has been something like this….

From January-May of this year I teched seven plays, and lit a dozen or so music gigs.  What this practically means is that of the twenty weeks encompassed in that time, at least six were spent glued to a lighting desk for fourteen hours straight, trying to coax lights into submission while living on a diet of chocolate fingers.  The rest of the time I was finishing the next book (currently called The End of the Day), drawing plans, attending rehearsals and trying to pass a martial arts exam.  And you know – life!  All the living too!

By the end of May, I was utterly, utterly knackered and resolved to stop doing theatre for a few weeks.  To celebrate this, I went to Estonia for a little under a week with my writer’s hat on, and had a wonderful time at the Headread Festival.  On my return, I decided the time had come to paint the flat.

Painting the flat is hugely therapeutic after you’ve been stuck up ladders for five months – there is nothing so soothing as sloshes of off-white/pinkish emulsion on a brush.  That said – after painting the bedroom and corridor solo, moving all the furniture around by myself, and after myself and my partner got a little too involved in painting the living room and emerged three days later covered in artex, I realised I was still pretty knackered….

At which point I did a Chinese course!  It was only a week long, at KCL (which unlike LSE, my former university, is willing to give me an alumni discount) but after five days of intensive Chinese I could sorta feel my brain beginning to dribble out of my ears.  The course was excellent, but I probably went in at a level a bit too low for me, which I didn’t expect to be the case at all – however I can now sing my high tones and bob along to my third tones far more convincingly, so fingers crossed for level two next year….

Four days after finishing the Chinese course, I went to Spain, where my still linguistically-addled brain found itself incapable of saying almost anything in any language, including English.  Thankfully I was in Aviles for Celsius 232, a wonderful SF/Fantasy festival, where for five days I was fed, treated like royalty and could quite happily rely on the incredible translator, Diego, to not only put my words into Spanish, but probably make them sound better and smarter en route.

Coming back from Spain, there were copy edits waiting for The End of the Day.  The copy editor has done, I think, a bang-up excellent job, but it’s still a scribbler’s job to go through the entire manuscript with a cry of ‘crap, did I write that?  What the hell was I even thinking?’

Funny thing, copy editors. Everyone has their own different foibles.  The latest objects to the use of ‘which’.  It’s not “Cat sat at a laptop which was balanced on an uneven table,” but rather, “Cat sat at a laptop that was balanced on an uneven table.”  Before this, the last editor had a thing about colons: even where one wasn’t really appropriate.  And before that I had a copy editor who used to erase line breaks

even the quite sexy

sorta narratively justifiable

character-based ones.

And of course one of the highlights of my career was the otherwise excellent individual who’d put notes in a margin line – “Are you sure that would happen?”  Or, “What is an STD?”

As a writer, I desperately, desperately need copy editors to reign in a writing style which (that?) would otherwise be the literary equivalent of a snotty sneeze across the page.  When you get a good’un – as I just have – your heart soars with relief and gratitude.

However!

Before copy edits could commence, it was my partner’s birthday.  He hadn’t really had a proper birthday celebration for a while; this time I wanted to treat him.  “I’ll take you somewhere surprising!  You like the countryside, right?  I can tolerate countryside for like… a few hours.  Why don’t I take you somewhere with forests or sea or something?  It can be a fun surprise adventure!”

“That sounds awesome!” he exclaimed.  “You should take me on a surprise trip to the Lake District!”

“Isn’t the Lake District a bit bumpy…?”

“It’s alright: you should take me on a top-secret totally surprising trip to Ambleside, it’s near some of the least bumpy bits.  Look, it’s got ‘amble’ in the name and everything.”

“Ok….”

“Here’s a list of Bed and Breakfasts that you might like in the town.  I look forward to being surprised!  Shall I buy the train tickets?”

So it was that we found ourselves heading North, and for several hours we played one of my most childish train-based games: competitive rabbit spotting.  By the time we got to Preston the score was 0-0, which I felt smacked of a bad omen given that the last time we’d traveled that bit of line between Milton Keynes and London it had been a 3-2 tense battle of wits….

On our arrival in Ambleside, my partner, giddy with excitement at seeing bumpy bits (he grew up in a place that was depressingly flat) exclaimed, “Let’s go for a stroll!”

“Ok, do I need to change into proper walking clothes?”

“No, no, we’ll do something really easy, gentle, like, totally on the path and everything….”

Twenty five minutes later, as the rain thickened and the mist cut visibility down to thirty metres in any direction, I felt the ground go squelch and stepped into a bog.

Even the bog had nice bits.  Sorta....
Even the bog had nice bits. Sorta….

Countryside… still not sure I’m a fan.  I mean don’t get me wrong, on the next two days the landscape was stunning, the views were immense, the skies stretched out towards a distant sea, it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve recently seen.  Yet my partner kept on insisting that we were climbing ‘hills’ but oh no, the Ordnance Survey map (WARNING: IT LIES ABOUT THE DOWNWARD PATH FROM HERON’S PEAK TO GRASMERE!) was pretty damn sure, and my legs were certain, that it was a long way up and a long way down however optimistic you felt about the scenery.

IMG_20160729_122352771

On the way back, we took the ferry across Lake Windemere, ate supper in Kendal and the final rabbit score was 1-0 after some very, very intensive scanning of the landscape by the light of the setting sun….

And by the time we got to Watford Junction, I had a stinking cold.

Three days of dribbling later, it was finally time for copy edits!  I was also by now gearing into full speed for the book that follows The End of the Day, and which is due for delivery in a bit over a month.  I also had job interviews (successful but extensive) for a show in October, and rehearsals to attend and all things considered, it was now full steam ahead for a manic two weeks of intensive work after the easier month of June, just in time for….

Tech!  Last week’s tech was, on paper, a relatively easy one.  Arrive on Monday to rig and focus, then plot Tuesday morning for an evening tech.  On Wednesday the show would then move outside, for this was a promenade production half inside a theatre, half in the rolling, beautiful grounds of the manor house where the theatre was housed.  As the plan for outdoors tech was Lighting By God, I figured I’d get most of Wednesday off, ready for a dress rehearsal on Thursday and an opening matinee on Friday.

Easy, right?

Huh… not so much.  I arrive on Monday morning to discover that the theatre was at the end of a punishing two month schedule of shows in which none of the crew had been given any time off, and no time had been alloted in the schedule for the venue to reset back to its basic state.  As a result we were scrambling through the rig trying to work out what cables dangling down were ours, and which were relevant to a show that had finished a month ago.  That took a day, and when we finally got round to focusing the rig on Tuesday it was a long fiddly slog, dancing round the ongoing set build and props setup.  I didn’t start plotting the show until a few hours before the tech rehearsal with actors was meant to commence, and as always happens in these things, by the time we were approaching the end of the show it was going on for midnight.  I was programming as fast as I physically could, moving and adjusting cues blindly with seconds to go before they ran, spotting faults and flaws in my rig with every passing moment.

Consequently, on Wednesday I was back in the venue at 9 a.m., adjusting lights, moving units and re-plotting things we hadn’t really had time to look at.  By 2 p.m. I was sorta done, but it was apparent that the rest of the crew were running into a logistical nightmare as they tried to prep the five outdoor locations of the show for the oncoming outdoors tech.  As a result I volunteered to play guard and look after one of the external sites while they finished fitting up the rest, as they had long since learned that if you left an open-air site unguarded in a public space, it will be trashed and props will be missing within barely half an hour.

So for two and a bit hours I sat beneath a tree and guarded the Lost Boy’s Lookout, until at 4.30 the deputy stage manager came up to me with a cry of, “Cat.  You know how we haven’t asked you to put in any outdoor lighting for these external segments?”

“Yessssss….?”

“Because of how the lighting was going to be provided by the sun and that?”

“Yeeeeeessssss….?”

“Well, we’ve just looked at a calendar, and we think there’s going to be at least two shows where it’ll be pitch black darkness by the time the audience get to the pirate ship for that final outdoors scene.  So um… we’re going to put some lighting in.”

“I see.  Would you like me to participate in this process?”

“That sounds good.”

So it was I got back to my feet, and an actor kindly took over guarding things, and off I trotted to try and find a way to light a pirate ship in the middle of a field.  For this purpose we had six LED parcans.  To put this into context, there were 143 units in the air lighting just Act 1 and Act 5 in the main venue; going down to six was going to be interesting.  We also had a lighting desk that was only capable of controlling four of these parcans without cunning scheming, and had to get these units installed in such a way as actors and audience, running around in the dark, wouldn’t die on either lamp or trailing wires.

We were also running low on cable.  There’s no such thing as a ten-minute job when not only is the main cable store a ten minute walk from where you’re working, but there isn’t any cable in it.  If you forgot anything, that was twenty minutes of your life lost trying to find it again, and by the time we managed to get lights turned on it was already getting dusky.

From the burning heat of the day – especially under the pirate ship, where I spent a good half hour crawling around trying to get cable between lights – to the cold of night, and by now the insects were coming out for a ball.  The assistant stage manager got bit by something that made her left knee swell up to nearly twice it’s normal size, while my skin was more bumpy than a map of Ambleside.

By 9 p.m. I was getting really very, very cold, waiting for the tech to get to our bit so I could get the director to sign off on the make-shift lighting I’d installed.  To stay warm, I had a sword fight with a pirate, which cheered me up a lot, and they sang sea shanties in exchange for cookies, which if nothing else warmed my soul somewhat.

At 10.15 p.m. the actors arrived to tech by the pirate ship, as I shivered and huddled by the lighting kit and wished, just this once, that LEDs gave off more heat.

Lighting for when God lets you down....
Lighting for when God lets you down….

The next morning I was back in at 9 a.m., mostly because by then most of my belongings were in the theatre rather than the digs where I stayed, and by the early afternoon my resolve to not help the crew set up for the dress rehearsal – not out of laziness, but because we needed to test the logistics of the show without the addition of an extra person who wouldn’t be there for the run – had cracked.  Oh the joy of trying to hide fencing in stinging nettles.  Oh if only I’d realised that this was going to be my fate and worn longer trousers….

The dress rehearsal started on schedule, which was something of a miracle, and for the first time I got to see the show in its full excellence.  Fun, joyful, moving – it was lovely to see it come together.  However it was also a huge logistic undertaking, with audiences being split into groups, moved between different sites, and simultaneous scenes happening in different locations, while one music director and one sound engineer hid in a booth beneath the trees and tried to track it all simultaneously.

Behind the moving audience and cast, came an invisible tangle of technicians, prepping and resetting every site as the show moved through it, and with all the logistics it wasn’t until 9.30 p.m., by which time it was well and truly dark, that we got to the pirate ship, before returning back into the theatre for Act 5.  I sat by the lighting desk and once again lamented in my soul that I hadn’t done better with the lights here, but made notes and swore I’d try to do more tomorrow….

On Friday morning, it was into the venue nice and early to try and fix those guilty cues, move the lighting desk into its final operating position and put in another smoke machine.  Putting in the smoke machine should have been easy but god still not enough cable….

While I was doing that, the entire crew was out on the grounds once again attempting to set the show up for the 12 p.m. scheduled performance.  This was grim, grim work.  The skies had opened overnight, and every single set, prop and bench was soaked, and it was still raining.  Arms and faces were coated in mud and grime, and as we moved towards opening the theatre to the audience the rain only worsened.

At midday the show commenced, and at 12.30 the first act came down, the audience trouping into the foyer ready to be taken on their tour of the external sites.

The rain, already pretty thick, was now borderline torrential.

We hung on for ten minutes… fifteen… and then made the decision.  No way could the show happen outside in these conditions.  And so, having never rehearsed it indoors and with the technical elements only loosely ready for this contingency, we took the first show inside.  I relieved my operator from the lighting desk and sat down, knowing that the only thing we really knew about what would happen in the next hour or so, was that no one knew anything.

The deputy stage manager came onto cans.  “So… Cat.  You gave me some emergency cues we can use here.  Any idea what they’re gonna look like?”

“Not really!” I exclaimed brightly, for while I had plotted in contingency states to cover just this situation, we’d never teched them with actors.  “But I think some of them will be green.”

The actors trouped indoors, costumes soaked, hair dripping, and gamely started act two.  So gamely did they start, in fact, that it took us a moment to realise that this was what had happened.

“Um… they seem to be doing the show,” said the DSM.  “So… shall we run a cue?”

For the next hour, this was how we operated.  Backstage, stage managers and crew ran around non-stop, making sure props were in a place that an actor could find, that people knew where they were going to go and what they were going to do next, trying to hold together lines of communication.  At the sound desk, the engineer hastily re-mixed the entire show for the internal PA, while up in the LX op box I snuck channels up and down, hoping no one would notice the changing values, and looked ahead at upcoming cues in the blind mode of the desk, and guessed at what might need to change based on what I was seeing now.

“So LX cue 48.5… it’s a blackout.  But looking at the way it’s going, I don’t think we’re gonna need a blackout, do you?  Shall we delete it and see what happens?”

“That sounds good….”

In this way, by the seat of our pants, we created a surprisingly seamless show for the audience.  The actors absolutely excelled themselves, pulling together a believable and consistent show in a space they’d not been prepped for, and in a miracle of communication no one went on with the wrong props, and no one was plunged into darkness or silence at the inappropriate time.  In a quaint way, I felt almost prouder of the mad dash work we threw together over that hour than I did of the carefully constructed, far sexier states that I’d plotted for tech.  As one tech put it – designing nice lighting is one thing.  Designing it without any idea how it’s going to run, with no time, tech or warning, and making it still look ok – that’s when you really find out if you can make good choices well.

The show up and in safe hands, I slunk back to London, and on arrival, largely crashed.

I dribbled and burbled all evening, and dribbled and burbled most of Saturday, and on Sunday I was still slightly dribbly when my friends arrived to play Pandemic Legacy.

If anyone reading this is wondering what board game to get for life-joys, get Pandemic Legacy.  It seems counter-intuitive – you can only play through the entire thing once, meaning a maximum of 24 possible matches – but it’s brilliant.  But exhausting.  After we survived March by building military bases and eradicating the yellow disease, in April we lost catastrophically, causing humanity to be wiped out, and a sudden outbreak of angry translucent semi-zombie-esque diseased people in central Europe means we’ve now got an entire continent on the verge of becoming impassible, while in East Asia both Sydney and Beijing are on the verge of collapsing, and Miami is rioting on the verge of going down, taking parts of the southern states with it.

As our final outbreak triggered a cascade of secondary outbreaks, threatening to scar our researcher character and set of a chain reaction of death, our researcher put her head in her hands.  “This is a disaster.  I need ice cream now!”

That was last night.  Today I sat down and for the first time, had a look at all the things I’ve been putting off for the last month or so.

The copy edits are in, the next book is pootling along.  There’s a bit of a backlog of stuff to be cleared, but there are new shelves up in the living room and this morning I discovered that if you smear toothpaste on the inside of your swimming goggles, it really does help prevent them fogging up.

Somehow, it’s also August.  I don’t know how that happened, but it’s been a busy old time.  An excellent, hectic, tiring, busy old time….