Graham Rousell (our long-term sound engineer) has unearthed this tiny sound-bite of Fred entering the auditorium at the end of Act 1 on an unknown show in order to announce the start of the interval.
“Ladies and gentlemen, there’ll now be a twenty-minute interval.” While this pause gave the audience time to stretch their legs, head for the bar or – on a summer’s evening – explore the gardens, for the cast and crew this short time could be filled with sometimes frantic activity.
Relatively simple one-set two-act shows normally gave the crew an easy ride; perhaps re-setting items moved during Act 1 (a chair, say, or drinks tray etc, or if the passage of time was to be indicated, window curtains opened or closed – if more than a day elapses, fresh flowers gave the clue).
But if a set change was needed, the previous Act’s set had to be entirely struck but first of course any loose ‘dressing pieces’ (pictures, ornaments, furniture etc) had to be speedily but carefully taken from the stage. Then the flats themselves had to be freed of their constraints (wobbly scenery? So amateur, my dears!) A slow-motion ballet commenced as the cumbersome items were manoeuvered from the stage, stored, and the new scenery brought in and secured.
And if some audience members had chosen to remain in their seats, all this activity had perchance to be undertaken very quietly especially given the close proximity of stage to audience!
Once the Stage Manager was sure the stage was empty, he’d call for the following Act’s settings to be brought in. On our tiny stage, furniture positioning was especially crucial. Domed-headed brass upholstery tacks would have been carefully pinned through the neutral-coloured carpet with which the stage was permanently covered, and these indicated precisely where – for instance – an arm chair had to be placed.
If a ‘practical’ light (a desk lamp or standard lamp which actually worked) needed placing on, say, a bookcase or similar object, it would need positioning and plugging in to its dedicated dimmer-controlled socket so that power could be fed to it precisely on cue when the actor seemingly switched it on. Very rarely a stage light bulb may have failed during the preceding Act and that would necessitate the hurried arrival of ladder and new bulb amid the busy activity. (Navigating a ruddy ladder backstage was, let me tell you, the most nerve-wracking ordeal imaginable!)
On some big shows, the use of our mid-curtain was necessary. This heavy and quite intractable brute lurked high (a relative term on our tiny stage) above the acting area. It comprised a sixteen-foot scaffold pole along whose length Fred had anchored at one-foot intervals two-feet diameter wooden discs. These were joined by eight sixteen-foot battens fixed laterally to form a lightweight roller. Onto this, the heavy stage canvas was attached, along with its steel chain stabilizing weight sewn into the bottom edge. One end of the scaff pole turned in a simple bearing while the other end had in its bearing a grooved pulley around which a rope turned. The whole contraption thus allowed the canvas to be lowered or raised but my word it was heavy and, of necessity, was only brought into place once the rest of the downstage set had been finalised. The mid-cloth itself, with its painted imagery, hid a second scene which could obviously be exposed when needed).
Finally though, the SM would be satisfied that all was ready. A member of front-of-house staff would be given the nod; the cast and techies warned of the start, the front-of-house manager rang his five-minute bell and he and his colleagues rounded up the audience and returned them to their seats. And all of this would have taken place within the short time which Fred had announced. Sometimes, when the following scene had got under way, it was a relief just to sit down!
“And just when you thought it was all over…” (as the saying goes), once the show finished, we had to go through all that yet again in order to prepare the stage for the following evening’s performance but at least this time without the need for silence or that awful twenty-minute constraint!