Meet the Members Series: Stage Manager

Our very first ‘Meet the members’ interview takes you back stage into the world of our enigmatic Lola Harling, one of our most dependable and competent stage managers who transformed the role within HDC into what it is today. We asked her several questions ranging from those about the art of Stage Management to a few about the woman herself…

What was the first production you stage managed?

The first production I had a stage management role in was at college, on my BTEC Technical Theatre course. I was the Deputy Stage Manager for the musical ‘Oliver’. The college had a deal with the Key Theatre in Peterborough that students who studied Technical theatre, musical theatre and dancing could put on a professional quality musical twice an academic year. My first production I stage managed for Huntingdon Drama Club was ‘The Madness of King George’.

How long have you been involved in Huntingdon Drama Club? Tell us a little about your time with us.

I have been involved with the Huntingdon Drama Club since 2016. I became a member of the committee and have the role of Social Event Organiser. In that time I have seen the club move location from the Commemoration hall to places such as Huntingdon Town hall, in the courtroom and St. Mary’s Church.

Don’t you have to know loads to be a stage manager?

I have changed the role of Stage Manager for the drama club by combining two roles together. Before I joined the club the role of Stage Manager would describe a role very like a professional Stage Manager, where you act like a health and safety officer and ensure everyone is accounted for; someone who runs the stage area. I combined this role with the professional role of Deputy Stage Manager – this role involves a special item called ‘The Book’. The Book is normally a folder with an enlarged version of the script where the Deputy Stage Manager notes down blocking. Blocking is a note of where actors enter and exit the stage; the actors’ movements around the stage; if they have a prop (an item the actor holds or uses); and if the director envisions a lighting or sound change. The Book is very important to help if anyone is ill and misses a rehearsal or if there are any changes to what cast need to do, and is available for everyone to see. By combining these two roles it allows the director to concentrate on directing.

What is the most important thing to know?

The main role of Stage Manager is to look after the stage and what happens on stage, and normally does risk assessments for the production and plans how and when all the equipment and set get set up and come down, this is called a ‘Get In’ and ‘Get Out’.

To do a Deputy Stage Manager role (which we combined with Stage Manager), the only difficult part is knowing your Stage Left, Right, Up and Down when watching from the audience point of view, and making sure people understand your version of short hand notes.

Any other top tips?

My top tips are:

  • Stay calm
  • Forward planning/thinking
  • Be organised
  • Stationary is your best friend
  • Be confident
  • Remind actors to be quiet behind stage

Who’s in charge once we’re in the theatre space?

The Stage Manager is in charge of the theatre space once you enter the space. This means even the director must listen to you. Especially when you have a Tech Rehearsal – this is the rehearsal that is just for the technical team, lighting; sound; set and props. Actors may get bored and frustrated, but as I always say, actors have several weeks to rehearsal and the tech team normally only get a day.

Starter or dessert?

Most people who know me well know I’m a dessert girl; anything lemony or chocolaty mostly. If it is ice cream, sorbet or gelato I’m a happy lady. But if I’m feeling like a piggy wiggy I will have a starter as well – normally something garlicky or calamari.

Cats or dogs?

I don’t mind cats but I am definitely a dog person.  When my boyfriend and I get a house I’m hoping to get my own dog. I’m sad scaly babies are not included in the question as I have an amazing terrapin called ‘Ariel’.

Favourite HDC production moment and why?

My favourite production moment is an incident during the production of ‘A Bunch of Amateurs’ when the character Denis accidentally crashed into the audience on a mobile scooter due to the audience members moving their chairs into the aisle. It was a concerning and funny moment all at the same time, will definitely go down in Drama club history.

Describe your perfect day?

My perfect day inside is curled up in my PJs with my other half or with one of my besties, watching feel good films, eating snacks and maybe some ice cream.

My perfect day outside is a day at the beach, near the sea, enjoying the nostalgia of being a child and feeling one with the sea (Yes, I believe I’m a mermaid!)

Cathy’s ongoing legacy

There is a human detritus swirling around in the backwaters of the welfare state which nobody seems able to do anything about. Society and its public servants want passionately to do something – but somehow they can’t.

Cathy Come Home review – The Guardian, 17th November 1966

If part of art’s power is its capacity to draw attention to issues faced in contemporary society, if a portion of its purpose is to throw a lens upon those on the margins, if – in egalitarian spirit – it can explore the emotions and experiences of people from all backgrounds – then plays like Cathy are fitting and timely. Following the financial crisis of 2007-2008, the UK government enacted austerity measures which, though perhaps made in good faith, have come at a cost. Reductions in government spending have seen social services struggling under increasing pressure and those on low incomes have found it all the more difficult to get by.

Cathy (Kerry MacCuaig) and Reg (Les Roberts) discuss Cathy’s new living situation. Dress Rehearsal photography by Christopher Buckenham Photography

First performed in 2016, Ali Taylor’s play is actually a modern re-telling of an older drama. The inspiration was Cathy Come Home, a 1966 made-for television play written by Jeremy Sandford and directed by Ken Loach. Over thirty years later, it was still recalled as an important piece of TV; in 1998 a Radio Times poll declared it to be the “best single television drama” and two years later an industry poll voted it as the second best British programme ever made.

Still from Cathy Come Home, 1966

The story follows the lives of a young couple, Cathy and Reg, who initially have a good standard of living due to Reg’s well-paying job. Circumstances soon turn against them, however, as an injury sustained in the workplace leads to Reg’s unemployment and Cathy’s pregnancy means they can no longer stay in their flat, since the building does not permit children. With the loss of Reg’s income, the couple are now unable to find affordable accommodation. Despite periods of alleviation, their luck continues to spiral, and the growing family eventually finds themselves squatting in an abandoned building.


Still from Cathy Come Home, 1966

At that time, subjects such as homelessness and unemployment received very little in the way of media attention. This may have been partly due to the post-war economic boom which ushered in an age of prosperity for Britain, with the 1950s and 1960s seeing wages and living standards rise for many. It is estimated that wages rose by approximately 40% between 1950 and 1965. Luxury items were no longer only the preserve of the wealthiest; those on lower incomes could afford them. In 1959, Queen magazine announced that Britain had “launched into an age of unparalleled lavish living” and historian R J Unstead’s appraisal was similarly positive. “Opportunities in life, if not equal, were distributed much more fairly than ever before and the weekly wage-earner, in particular, had gained standards of living that would have been almost unbelievable in the thirties.”


Still from Cathy Come Home, 1966

This era of general prosperity perhaps led to nationwide complacency when it came to regarding the problems of those who still fell between the cracks. Even in times of unimagined growth, there will still be a minority who, sometimes through no fault of their own, fall upon hard times. Subsequently, those who struggled to get by in the post-war decades found their plight largely ignored – but Cathy Come Home changed that. Watched by approximately twelve million people (which at the time was roughly twenty-five percent of the country’s population) it prompted telephone calls to the BBC from viewers who had been impacted and caused discussion of homelessness in Parliament. As a result, Conservative MPs William Shearman and Iain Macleod led a publicity campaign which drew even more attention to the experiences of the homeless and the charity ‘Crisis’ was formed the following year.

Jay (L. T. Hewitt) serves Cathy (Kerry MacCuaig) with some unwelcome paperwork.
Dress Rehearsal photography by Christopher Buckenham Photography

Fifty years later, Ali Taylor’s Cathy is just as hard-hitting and thought-provoking as the play it is based upon. It does not shy away from the lengths to which some people are forced to turn towards in order to shelter and protect themselves – the squalor and hardship that Cathy and her daughter experience are unapologetically spotlighted, providing an unsettling window into the harsh and dismal circumstances into which their lives descend. But for all the depiction of unpleasantness, a grain of hope runs throughout the tale, barely visible at times, but always present in the minutest sense – serving, perhaps, as a reminder that in our darkest moments, hope is our single sustainer, and is possibly the only thing that the homeless can really call their own.

by Michelle Gibson, November 2019

Originally published in the Cathy programme 

The Magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The title alone informs the audience that they are entering a world quite unlike their own, one in which conventional rules do not apply. Fleeting and whimsical, dreams are a happy respite from the stultifying order of everyday existence. Similarly, the play creates a realm in which different laws are at work. Laws that are predicated around the reality of magic and the existence of fairies.

Gentle and humorous, A Midsummer Night’s Dream weaves its spell so subtly that an audience can believe fairy interference to be the most natural thing in the world. We all, of course, suspend disbelief when viewing a work of fiction, but my experience of watching the play goes beyond that: I feel myself fully inhabiting a world in which a magical worldview is the norm and the mild, teasing uncertainty of what is and is not real pokes, like tendrils, into my life engagement at large. Just like the play itself, what is ultimately “reality” is in question. One lesson I take away from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that, in some cases, if we can never know for sure what is real and what is not, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is the possibilities to be explored, the ideas to be considered and the creative and intellectual stimulation provided from an open approach.

Some have noted the disparity between the use of magic in the play and societal attitudes at the time of its writing. Since the decimation of the witchcraft-practicing communities of Pagan Britain and the establishment of the Church as the single spiritual authority, attitudes towards the practice of magic had typically been hostile: it was regarded as innately sinister and performed only for evil intent. Shakespeare’s use of magic, however, is much more benevolent; Puck is pure mischief, with no real malice, and the spells used, while creating confusion and chaos, ultimately cause no real harm. Any potential disaster – such as the suggested duel between Lysander and Demetrius – is averted by the fairies, and all is restored to rights in the end. Shakespeare even has the fairies use magic explicitly for good; in the final stage of the play, they perform a blessing for the human characters. This reflects a more nuanced view of magic than is commonly accredited to the time period – that magic is morally neutral and can be used for both good and bad. It can cause harm but also repair harm. Or it can simply be light-hearted and fun.

This perspective may seem incongruous when looked at in the context of the prevailing views of the time, but exceptions existed even within that narrow way of thinking. Cunning folk, or folk healers, who essentially practiced spells and other forms of witchcraft, were common throughout Britain, and it was not unusual for people to turn to them for their health needs or for positive magical acts such as protection spells. John Dee, adviser to Elizabeth I and therefore one of the most powerful individuals of his age, was heavily involved in the practice of occultism, including attempts to contact and channel disembodied entities – his famous scrying equipment can still be seen on display in the British Museum. It has also been suggested that The Tempest’s Prospero may have been inspired directly by Dee.  If you searched hard enough, you could find pockets of society that not only tolerated magic but actually celebrated and practiced it – was this what Shakespeare was drawing upon when he penned A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Ultimately, I believe that the magic is a large part of what makes A Midsummer Night’s Dream so popular and enduring – its prodding and twisting and bending of what is possible, its acting as instrument for delivery from the impersonally structured sequences of everyday living. The ambiguous nature of the tale is a reflection of some of the deepest philosophical questions – some things, people can never know for sure, and that is perfectly all right. 

Witchcraft and ‘The Crucible’

 

Some people might scratch their heads at a modern setting of The Crucible and wonder what relevance it might have for today. But it is often the case that our past and our oldest fables will lend meaning to the currents of the present – such is the cyclical nature of human experience.

In 2017, there are thousands of people in Britain who practice witchcraft. There is an annual ‘Pagan Pride’ festival – currently in its eighth year – where attendees can purchase wands, incense, crystals, and various other ingredients for their pursuits. They can be open about who they are without fearing execution. Modern-day Salem is now a haven for contemporary witches and professional psychics, with many a metaphysical business lining the streets. Its first ‘witch shop’ – founded by Boston-born practitioner Laurie Cabot – opened its doors in 1970. Described as the “grande dame of witchcraft” in the USA, Cabot is “proud of the fact that her witch shop and openness turned Salem into something of a safe space for practicing witches.” But however much we may like to think that we’re a universally tolerant society, there is still very much a cultural prejudice towards the idea of witchcraft. In some respects, little has changed.

Antipathy to witchcraft can be traced to the rise of Abrahamic monotheism, especially traditional Christianity. In the preceding polytheistic pagan cultures, the practice of magic was a natural and popular way of participating in an individualistic spiritual experience. However, the traditional Church frowned upon personal spiritual experimentation and insisted that the only valid way of exploring such matters was to submit to their organised hierarchy. Witchcraft was deemed demonic and those who practiced it – witches – were denounced as the most abhorrent type of evil, traffickers with Satan.

Those who practiced witchcraft were forced to do so in secret – the alternative being to suffer brutal capital punishment. Instead of understanding such customs, society was steadily gripped by a climate of fear, misconception and suspicion. Slowly, insidiously, this collective fear produced an unstable culture of finger-pointing, a world where no one was safe, in which monsters were skulking in the shadows and prowling the streets in search of fresh victims.

 

So people saw witches everywhere – and anything from a run of bad luck to a death in the family could be blamed upon maleficent workings. Huntingdonshire itself was home to what was described by George Kittredge as “the most momentous witch-trial that had ever occurred in England.” This case – known as ‘The Witches of Warboys’ – involved a plethora of accusations against local resident Alice Samuel – and her family – over a period of several years.

The initial allegations came about in 1589. Alice Samuel – then 76 years old – was accused by 10-year-old Jane Throckmorton (whose father Robert was Squire of Warboys.) Jane had become ill and was suffering from seizures; she proclaimed herself the victim of malevolent sorcery. On an occasion when Mrs Samuel had come to visit the ailing child, Jane is reported to have cried out, “Grandmother, look where the old witch sitteth – did you ever see one more like a witch than she is? Take off her black thrumbed cap, for I cannot abide to look on her.”

A number of the Throckmorton family’s maidservants became similarly ill, as well as Jane’s sisters; this led to further accusations against Alice Samuel. Robert Throckmorton’s friendship with Sir Henry Cromwell (grandfather of Oliver) led to a personal visit from Lady Cromwell, in which she interviewed Mrs Samuel about the pronouncements that had been made against her. This took place in 1590, after which Lady Cromwell maintained that Alice was deliberately appearing in her dreams to inflict emotional torture. Coupled with the now numerous allegations from the Throckmorton family, this was enough to indict the Samuel family in the eyes of the public, if not yet the law. After Lady Cromwell’s death in 1592, Alice Samuel was pressured into confessing to witchcraft and, along with her family, was tried in Huntingdon in 1593 – all were found guilty and subsequently faced death by hanging.

When so many are caught in the throes of fear, misunderstanding and prejudice, such travesties of justice are the order of the day. The history of Britain’s witch trials is filled with such stories; innocent people convicted on testimonies derived from ignorance or personal grievances. Hundreds sent to their deaths – all in the name of putting to rout an imaginary wickedness, concocted in the minds of the intolerant and the uninformed, and stoked by the fires of fanaticism.

Britain’s modern-day witches may no longer live in fear of the noose or the stake, but many are still subjected to a cultural alienation stemming from prejudice. There are many things that The Crucible can still teach us, and I’d suggest that one of them is that we might consider applying fair-minded appraisal and comprehension to individuals who are perceived to be following an unconventional route in life. There is an alternative to whipping up a panic and that is the opportunity for open dialogue and a willingness to learn.

by Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson

An abridged version of this piece was published in ‘The Crucible’ programme

Code Breakers Assemble…

code door
Turing would have cracked this in 2 seconds…

Arriving at the venue for our auditions, I aptly found myself unable to break a four digit code. Two members of staff later – we were in the room. Mr Turing would have been horrified…

Fortunately, the evening was a hugely successful one, with an excellent turnout, including three brand new club members eager to impress. We started with the usual ice-breaking excercise of introducing ourselves to each other, before I waffled on, almost coherently, about the play. Hugh Whitemore’s ‘Breaking The Code’ is based on Andrew Hodges’ definitive biography of the mathematician and wartime code-breaker, Alan Turing. It’s episodic structure takes us back & forwards through key moments in Turing’s life, where we meet his family, friends, colleagues, lovers and persecutors. It’s a surprisingly warm, and emotional story – funny at times and ultimately heart-breaking.

Watching the actors reading the parts and finding their way through the (often complex) script, we hit on an idea. I’m not going to reveal what that idea is just yet, but it will allow us to explore this play in a way that may not have been done before. Rehearsals begin next week and we’re raring to go..!

 

Dean Laccohee – Director

Meet and Greet – A Review

A review of our Meet and Greet by Josephine Hussey

 

On 19 March we had our first social gathering since the AGM and the new committee were elected. We ventured to the Falcon in Huntingdon for a drink and a chance for everyone to meet the committee.

sat round tableOur meet and greet was an enjoyable evening. Lots of members turned up and we spent the hours in the pub swopping ideas for what we want to happen with the club and productions over the next year.

It was great to see people were excited by some of the ideas thought up for social and the other aspects of our group. It was also fun to chat, get to know more people and feel the enthusiasm other members have for the club.

talk and discussion

Our next social is a play reading of ‘Noises Off’ at St Mary’s Parish Hall in Huntingdon on 16 April. Come along and enjoy reading and listening to a very funny play.

– Josephine

A month into rehearsal… by guest blogger Michelle Gibson

We’re just over a month into rehearsals for ‘California Suite’ and, as to be expected from a play which is primarily a comedy, it’s a lot of fun. If the amusement from the cast acal_master_MERGED2_FINAL_smallnd director can be any kind of barometer, then come 23rd April, the audience will be rolling in the aisles.

Having attended all of the Drama Club’s productions in the last year, I’m by now no stranger to the high-calibre performances that are always delivered, so it came as no surprise to find that my fellow cast members were a wonderfully skilled group.

Like as I would to extol the virtues of every actor, doing so would turn this blog post into a dissertation. So for now, suffice it to say that the interplay between Tony and Caroline is splendid, Scott is putting on a delightfully furious show as the indignant Mort, and Dean is going to have everyone in stitches with his portrayal of the hapless, panicked Marvin.

It’s great to be a part of it all. I look forward to seeing the play really come together in future rehearsals.

Club ‘field trip’ to the West End

0Last Sunday was no ordinary one for the Huntingdon Drama Club.  The merriment began when 15 of us  assembled  at the Duchess Theatre in the West End of London for a Club outing to see THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG, staged by the fabulous ‘Mischief Theatre Company’.  This was indeed a rollicking afternoon – with laughter from beginning to end.

It was hard to believe such hilarious havoc could be wreaked on a stage. The play  was a master class in  expert timing,  improvisation – and technical mastery!   We were also very fortunate to experience it from  prime Balcony seats (and at half price  – thanks to our contacts..)    This also meant we were in the firing line, from a member of cast, for a bit of improvisation  ourselves during the Interval ..causing more mirth over the ice cream tubs..   Being half-term, we  also had the delightful company of two of the  members’ children,  aged 11 and 12  who seemed equally affected by the hilarity of it all.

After the performance the cameraderie continued  as we commandeered a few tables in a Wetherspoons for a drink and bite to eat.  There did not seem to be a serious face amongst us the rest of the day.

It was a trip to remember and  another example of how the social events of the Club, with its diverse membership, can nourish us all!  We  look forward to the next fabulous outing.

Guest Blogger: Caroline Molony (currently rehearsing for California Suite)

News From New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, London… And Huntingdon.

Beverly-Hills-Hotel-18 Well, things are really starting to take off now in rehearsals for California Suite.  Pretty much all the blocking is done. So now it’s up to the cast to remember not to walk through the invisible wall centre stage!

Lindsay is doing a great job as Director – mind you, she spent one rehearsal flat on her back on bean bags on the floor.  In all fairness, that was not because she was tired and felt in need of a lie down but rather because she was standing in (hah!) for a cast member who couldn’t make it that evening.  A whole new directing technique has emerged – directing whilst prone on floor.  Could catch on.

Continuing on in my role as Civilian Consultant (advisor to the Director), I am impressed with the enthusiasm shown by the cast and how quickly they are becoming their characters.  Well done, Team Cal!

Guest Blogger: Valerie Gerrard

California, here we come!

111840710Rehearsals for Neil Simon’s highly amusing play, California Suite, have begun.  At the read-through on Monday the 26th January, the cast had a great time and laughed in all the right places, so that’s a good sign!  There is a great deal of enthusiasm for this comedy, with cast keen to participate and already showing insight into their characters.

Equally encouraging is the fact that we already have a virtually complete production line-up, headed by the inestimable Mr Bob Pugh as Producer.  The only role not yet filled is make-up, so if you are interested, please let us know.  Production meetings have already been held and the energy and innovative thinking is at a high level!

A major recent change is that I have stepped back from the role of Co-Director.  Originally Lindsay felt she needed a Co-Director as she doesn’t have a great deal of experience in directing adults.  We have worked very closely on setting things up, but she has got such a good handle on things that I decided a single Director would be a better idea.  A ship only has one Captain!  So, I will continue to act as a very involved Adviser, but it’s all Lindsay’s ship now.  The title I have opted for is Civilian Consultant.

We are hoping to dress the Crem (lobby in particular) to look like a hotel lobby and to have front of house and set dressers costumed as hotel staff (bell-hops, maids).  Watch this space!

So, things are very encouraging in these early stages and we feel confident that our production of California Suite will be vibrant, attractive and definitely funny.

Guest Blogger: Valerie Gerrard (Civilian Consultant)