Rehearsals, rehearsals, rehearsals !

What’s the old theatrical saying? “Amateurs rehearse until they get it right; professionals rehearse until they can’t get it wrong.”

Quite obviously over the years there were thousands of evenings of rehearsals given the number of productions we put on. They began with Fred & Val deciding on which show would next be offered to the patrons. (They were somewhat autocratic, rarely following suggestions from others – a rather pedantic view which did cause dissent at least twice.)

Once the show was chosen, they usually worked through the names of people who’d previously appeared at the Grange and whom Val, especially, considered ideal for specific rôles. And if no particular acquaintance seemed right for a part, then occasionally a total stranger – spotted by Val when, for instance, she would be shopping in nearby Chipping Norton – would be approached and asked if they might consider taking the part. If, as was often the case, the intended victim protested they had no acting experience, Val would cheerily tell them that they needn’t act because she’d neatly typecast them in the rôle; all (all!) they had to do was learn their lines!

I suspect, though, that there’s more than a little truth in this little poem given by Jackie Finlay!

And that was one of the great secrets of the Grange, these seemingly ultra-believable cast members who were just right in the part. One fact that’s difficult to take in, though, is that during our entire run of 40+ years we never used understudies! Ever. Val’s take on that was because her chosen actor/ress was pretty much the best fit for the part, why struggle with second best? I must admit it kept the cast on their toes and, as the small gods chose to bless us, we never found ourselves in the position of having to fall back on an understudy.

Once casting was complete, the pace quickened. The various Chosen Few (!) would be telephoned by Fred, and asked whether they’d like to take part. In almost every case the joyous answer came back “yes please!” and this would be for a variety of reasons: we enjoyed a most collegiate relationship at the theatre, rehearsals were (mainly!) good fun, and at the close of play after each rehearsal the actors would retire to the cozy Aga-heated kitchen from – especially in winter – a normally chilly auditorium, where hot coffee, buns and a bottle or three of red would be waiting for them. (The old stone building wasn’t normally heated until two weeks before a show and thus took for ever to warm up, so although a couple of portable gas heaters were placed in the autorium – one always next to Val in her front row director’s seat – they made little impact on the comfort levels especially in the early days of a show’s rehearsals, when the stage lights wouldn’t yet be adding their heat to the ambient temperature.) Once the cast list was finalised, Fred would then ring them all with rehearsal dates and times.

First rehearsal was always the ‘read-through’ in the comfort of the sitting room on well-upholstered, deep chairs and sofas. Much coffee and many biscuits would be consumed; and some ideas would be kicked around, suggestions made and a general sense of the show formed.

The next rehearsal would be on a relatively empty stage. While the cast tackled learning their lines, Fred would be prowling around planning how and where the scenery must be placed and Val would hawkishly follow her script – woe betide any actor skipping lines or substituting words!

A little while after that, when sets and any furniture was added, one vital part of the production was initiated – where the various actors would stand and their positions on the stage. In such a restricted area it was all too easy for an actor standing downstage to inadvertantly ‘block’ the view of one who was delivering their lines further upstage and so correct sight-lines – especially in a big show – were imperative. The stage had four entrances/exits (not counting the little foyer which led to the outside toilets nor the entrance from the bars, both of which were on occasions pressed into use). With the moves agreed, Fred would tack small brass-headed domed upholstery nails into the stage floor at precisely the correct spot where moveable furniture had to be placed; if a piece was set wrong – especially easy if a quick change had to be made in an interval – then the actors’ carefully memorised moves would be in vain. (During a change, behind the closed main curtains, the stage would be lit with two low-wattage lamps so the audience wouldn’t glimpse any movement behind them. The shiny nail heads would twinkle and the stage crew could easily spot them in the gloom.)

After a few weeks, when it became apparent the show was beginning to take shape, the lighting and sound techies would become involved and we’d have a discussion with F&V over what was needed from us. On simple shows this would merely mean setting the lights to provide uniform illumination; the sound guy would be asked to source, for example, some music to be played prior to the show, during the interval and for the walk-out as the audience left the auditorium.

For the more intense shows “lights” would have a meeting with director Val to be told what specific atmospheres  needed to be created; whether high sun or moonlight was in the plot, and any special effects (fx) required like a practical fire, table lamp, wall lights etc  (‘practical’ = on the set and having to work rather than simply being there).

“Sound” would be handed a list of fx for him to source. In addition to the pre- entre-act and walk-out music, very often there would be a variety of fx which could sometimes cause problems: the sound of an angry rabble or the collapse of a mine’s tunnel (How Green Was My Valley), a heavy bomber circling overhead (Flarepath), or a piano being played (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: this, on our tiny stage, was a real test for the actor who, under the eagle eyes of a worryingly close front row, had to give the impression that the piano – not a practical one, that would have been far too heavy and large – was indeed a real one.) There were numerous others ranging from general doorbells; church bells tolling; thunder and lightning; telephones of various vintages; birdsong;  heavy rain and/or wind; steam trains passing close by; cars approaching, doors slamming and cars departing; a flock of angry geese (The Darling Buds of May) and myriad others.

“Sound” had it considerably worse than “lights” on such shows because of course not only did the fx have to be to Val’s liking but during the performance itself, the sounds simply had to arrive bang on cue. The poor actors were so exposed on that stage – very rare were the times when a sound cue failed to appear when it should have – and they needed complete faith in “sound”. (Okay, there were a few occasions when snafus arose but, oddly, they’ve slipped my mind . . . but they wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by director Val. On those – mercifully – few occasions when either sound and/or lights dropped a real clanger we’d sneak away immediately after the rehearsal in the hope our sins may have been forgotten by the next one. They never were, though, and Fred would be waiting for us upon arrival with those dread words, “Evening chaps, Val would just like a word with you…”)

Just to give one example of how, um, exciting sound could be, here’s the cues from the start of Pygmalion:

“Before Curtain; sound of orchestral opera music (finalé) followed by heavy rain, thunder, crowd noises, Covent Garden Market sounds, voices hailing and whistling for taxis. Church clock strikes the first quarter of inserted dialogue…” Don’t believe me? see the rest of the cue sheet here.

No wonder Pedro would sigh as 7:30pm and the start of the show loomed ever closer. We’d have finished all our checks and would be gazing intently at the stage manager’s red cue lamp waiting for it to turn green. One evening he uttered the truism, “Half-past-seven, the moment when adrenalin turns brown!

Being on lights, it always pleased me to witness the actors’ response when – at a moment during a rehearsal when stage lights could be used for the first time – I would gently begin to fade down the house (auditorium) lights while cross-fading them with adding the stage lighting. Up until that point the stage and auditorium would be lit with relatively low wattage household bulbs which gave no atmosphere whatsoever but were considerably cheaper to run. Fred would often whinge if he thought I was using his precious and, let’s face it, expensive electricity “only” on rehearsals! With the stage lights on, a new feeling came to the rehearsals; at last this felt like the real thing!

From then on, events usually progressed quite smoothly. Costumes would need sourcing, fitting and allocated to their various store racks in bedrooms earmarked for changing rooms. Programmes and tickets would be typeset and printed and the all-important patrons’ mailing letter written and posted (the following day the Grange’s telephone would erupt and often an entire show would have been sold out within a very short space of time). The drinks for the bars would be ordered and collected (quite an art, carefully driving two heavily-laden cars full of expensive booze from the brewery at Hook Norton back to Little Tew on often rough and bumpy country lanes!) and the public rooms thoroughly cleaned and vacuumed, the toilets ditto, heating switched on and the drive cleared of fallen leaves.

At the climax of all this were the dress rehearsals – usually two – the first held on a Sunday afternoon (to allow of any hitches which could only be fixed by bringing  the performance to an unwelcome halt, and also for Val to work out from which stage entrances various members of the cast would appear for their bows at the final curtain – very necessary for a large cast). The final dress on Monday evening, run strictly on time from 7:30pm, would give us a proper idea of the show’s length).

Up until then, of course, the cast had rehearsed without any audience  but for the dresses Fred would encourage their friends and family to attend free of charge. This was not only to say “thank you” to long-suffering spouses and partners for the inevitable absences of their other halves but, most importantly, the presence of an audience gave a vital ‘feel’ to a show (especially comedies) where actors would need to pause whilst the audiences (hopefully) laughed. Timing in this instance was vital to maintain the pace.

And there we have it: the steady build-up to the opening night, which was usually the Wednesday after final dress to give the cast a well-earned rest, for them to bone up on any difficult lines, for the techies to attend to last-minute issues and for F&V to ensure the house was fully prepared for the onslaught of eager patrons for the next eight nights of the performances.

We usually ran Wednesdays -Saturdays for two weeks, at the end of which came the Last Night Party. And that was the highlight to all those long weeks spent rehearsing and preparing for the show. The moment the final curtain fell, willing hands in the kitchen piled quiches etc into the capacious Aga (not until then – we couldn’t have smells of cooking wafting around the auditorium!) while the last remaining members of the audience were ‘eased’ out of the bars so we could bring in the tables and chairs for our bash. (Memorably, on one show when some folk simply wouldn’t take the hint, Fred exasperatingly muttered to me, “I’ve got a good mind to appear in my pyjamas, old boy”!)

The following photos may give a clue to the wonderful atmosphere these after show parties engendered although, for me, the end of the party was bittersweet. During the festivities I would return to the control room and extinguish the stage lights and sound relays, switch off the auditorium heating and put the stage to bed. From that moment, the theatre would start to gently cool down and fall asleep once more until the next show. The folowing day would see the hard work (good for hangovers!) of rounding up plates, cutlery and glasses so the kitchen helpers could wash and store everything tidily away – it was always a matter of pride to us that we would leave Fred and Val with a clean and tidy home at the end of each show – while the crew would dismantle and carry the sets back to the scene store.

If you, dear reader, care to browse some of the critiques in this site’s General Newspaper Cuttings and within some of the individual show pages (under Productions), you’ll see in what high regard our toils in this dear little theatre were held. It may indeed be the case that “Amateurs rehearse until they get it right; professionals rehearse until they can’t get it wrong” but many were the times when we were so proud to hear that longed-for accolade of “Wow, that was almost professional!” Of course we were . . .

Here are some photos of our after show parties – wish you were there?