Notes from the Stage Manager's Box

Notes from the Stage Manager’s Box

 

By John Barber

 

©
John Barber 2012

 

Preface

 

This began as
the story of my progress through the National Westminster Theatre Club.
It beca
me a voyage of discovery of how my life changed as a result of my involvement.

 

It is also a personal account of a brief period
in
its history. The titl
e may have
changed but not the reason for its existence.
It is
now the Royal Bank of Scotland
Theatre Company following
the
RBS Group’s
acquisition of
Natwest.
At one time it was
called the Westminster Theatre Club after one of the constitu
ent banks that merged to form
National Westminster Bank plc.

 

In 1986 the committee decided to issue a small illustrated book to mark the centenary of the Club
which we
believed
was founded in 1886. When we came to look
in the archives we found evidence that the
originally named
London and Westminster Amateurs
had staged its first production
ten years
earlier; in 1876!
It remains the oldest
active
amateur theatre club.
So throughout this book it is referenced as the ‘Club’.

 

As I started to
make notes
I realised t
o my embarrassment that
there were some glaring gaps in my memory. The events of some shows seem to have slipped from my mind completely and others are as fresh now as over thirty years ago.

 

Although I have tried to concentrate on the Theatre Club parts of my career in National Westminster Bank have crept in. They help to colour the background and may appear interesting for anyone whose only knowledge of the bank
ing world is the ATM machine
. Others may
have experienced receiving
a letter
advising you of the overdrawn nature of your account and
requesting that you revert to the normal procedure whereby you
pay funds into the Bank
,
and not the other way around.

 

A word on how the genesis of this memoir came about. I left National
Westminster Bank plc in
1986. I
moved
from
Hertford which had excellent transport links to
London
to a small village cal
led Much Hadham some ten miles or so further north. W
hen I married we moved even further north up the A10 to Buntingford.

 

My wife and I managed an Off Licence there and one of our regular customers was
a
retired Army
officer by name of
Lieutenant-Colonel Vivian Cockle. He would have retired with the rank of Brigadier but had not completed the required six months. He was a member of a cavalry unit for as he explained he was short which was ideal for riding horses. His father had been a cavalry man as well and had ridden into rebel territory in
Northern India
to rescue his own father’s unit.

 

Lt.
.
Col Cockle came in to the shop one day and said he was off to
Australia
for a short while to visit relatives and whilst there complete some gaps in the family history. I said that was a
wonderful thing to do and always wanted
to do that myself. His advice was to do it now because people die and their memories die with them

 

T
hirty and more years on
my recollection of some of the history of the Theatre Club is sometimes a bit sketchy. I was se
arching for some unrelated
material
at home and came across
the programmes tha
t I had
produced. Many of the faces came back as I read the names and decided that Lt.Col Cockle was right, the time to do it is now.

 

I began my association
with the National Westminster Theatre Club
by
being volunteered as a member of the cast in a Festival of One Act Plays and rose from being a stage hand to Stage Manager and
to
the Producer
of
Grease.

 

This is not
intended nor conceived as
a manual for would-be Stage Managers or for th
ose interested in stage craft. On the other hand a
lot of my experienc
e is recounted which I hope
will help anyone who is looking for a career or involvement in the theatre. You learn more from your
mistakes than
your successes and that is a truism which will become self-evident as you continue reading.

 

Anyone who wants to know what goes on behind the curtains of a professional theatre will find the following quite illuminating. It concentrates more on the technical
roles than the acting
because that is where I spent my time. But there are some lessons for actors as well having watched them from a unique standpoint.

 

I joined the B
ank in 1969 an
d of
those seventeen years ten were spent as a member of the Theatre Club. It was a happy ten years. I made many
close
friends
amongst the
talented and interesting staff
; as well as
with
thea
tre professionals.

 

The Bank was generous in its funding of the T
heatre Club and
that cannot and should not be overlooked. Some of the productions were worthy of a
West End
stage and equally so some of the performances.

 

This type of
theatre is often called amdram
or amateur dramatics
,
as the cast have a full time job which is their main source of income but act or sing as a hobby for which there is no payment other than the thrill of performing in front of a live audience.

 

The Theatre Club was luckier than most amdram societies in that we had the backing of a large grant from the Bank. This allowed us to hire professional theatres and many of the extras that would have been beyond the financial powers of other clubs.

 

There was
the odd accident along the way when
at the last minute
we had to draft in someone who was not a member of staff but the overwhelming majority of cast, chorus and stage crew came from the ranks of the ordinary staff you see working behind the counters of your own High Street branch.

 

What would strike most people as unusual was the amazing range of talent there is amongst those members of staff. Ordinary staff could act, sing and dance with such skill that we were never embarrassed by a failure to perform to the highest of standards.

 

This is the kind of standard looked to be attained by most amdram societies but National Westminster Theatre Club could call on that grant to raise the bar. This brought us into the realms of pro-am theatre which is a more correct way of describing how the Club was run.

 

M
usical
s
such as South Pacific or
Oklahoma
need
much more than a compete
n
t cast of singers and dancers; they also need
a
big orchestra. We
hire
d
professional musicians
for the show

s run
including rehearsal time in the theatre itself
. They
needed a competent musical director who was there from the first rehearsal and possibly the auditions. He or
she
requires
the services of a r
ehear
sal pianist. All of these were
paid although it must be said
none of them ever demanded payment at
oner
ous levels although musicians did
expect the union rate.

 

Many of the dance routines might also require an experienced choreographer to oversee the moves so this would be another expense.
Although costumes are hired they may need repair or alteration or discarded for something made especially for the show. This is the role of the wardrobe mistress.

 

As I recall some of the earlier productions were directed by a member of staff but then in the later years we called upon the talents of an outside director.
I
t is a huge mix of professional and amateur skills melded together
into
a production team that we worked hard to keep together as a unit.

 

What follows then is the story of my journey and some of the characters I met along the way. There were some
acting
eccentr
ics but many
humorous
incidents and near theatrical disas
ters
also
littered the path
.

 

You will
not find any criticism or character assassinations because I can’t remember anyone offending me or anyone involved in the running of the Club. What you will find is a host of people with warmth, humour and dedication without which it would be a much poorer world.

Introduction – Early years

 

I confess to a love of l
ive theatre both musical
and drama
tic
over film and cinema. Every live performance is slightly different unlike
a permanent transfer to film. T
here is a relationship between actors and audience in live theatre that you just cannot get from cinema.

 

This love affair began
at
my
secondary sc
hool
,
Holloway
School
in Holloway
,
North London
.
It was previously
Holloway
Grammar School
and had just become
the second school in
London
to convert to
full
comprehensive
status
. It
was single sex and
still clung for a few years to the o
ld Grammar School traditions;
in the first year (Year 7 in modern currency) we had elocution lessons.

 

Pupils were drawn from the local area, predominantly Islington and
Camden
.  O
ur Englis
h teacher Mr Mortimer dragged the thirty or more
of
us
first year
eleven year olds
kicking and screaming to see Oliver in the
West End
. Despite the groans and complaints a trip
to
the
West End
with its bright lights and seedy back streets seemed as good a way of spending the evening as any other.

 

Th
is was back in 1959
and we were fortunate in watching Oliver with the original cast – Ron Moody as Fagin and Georgia Brown as
Nancy
– although we didn’t appreciate that at the time. It was a terrific show; the songs are as memorable and as fresh today as then. But it was quite a number of years before the experience was repeated.

 

The next stage of my involvement with theatre came in the sixth form. The GCE ‘A’ Level course was split into a number of separate papers; Shakespeare, modern playwrights, Modern Literature and Poetry. It was a heavy workload and the teaching was split between Dennis Pepper with whom we studied D H Lawrence and Thomas Hardy and Peter Hancock who taught all the rest.

 

I say taught. This is to do him a great injustice. He changed the way we looked at literature, he w
as a bright light and I daren’t
say so at the time but owe him a great debt of gratitude now. He was inspirational – no other word could do justice to our two years studying drama.

 

The Shakespeare paper
was based on Othello,
Henry V and The Tempest and we had two years to study them. It may seem strange to any young person reading this now but we spent the first year reading and writing about
the growth of theatre from the Greek classics
through Medieval Mystery plays
right up to
modern day playw
rights such as John Osbourne
.

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