Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Half A Sixpence - Technically Speaking...

Tech week. Tech. Week. Not just a few days of shuffling through the show but a whole week (or two) of making sure that each and every tiny detail whether it be lighting, sound, spacing, costume changes… every single element must be perfect. It’s equal parts enthralling, exhausting and infuriating!

At the start of this week the entire company made their way to Chichester to set up home in their digs for the next two and a bit months. Digs can be as simple as someone’s spare room so it’s very important that they feel like a home away from home, and it’s a particular talent to be a great digs host. But there’s no time to sit around nesting, hours after arrival we are in the venue for our very first tech session in the Festival Theatre.

We start with orientation – a walk around the stage and backstage areas to familiarise ourselves with the layout. Those who know the auditorium of the Festival Theatre will be aware of the vomitoriums, sloped access to and from the stage through the audience. They’re a brilliant use of space particularly on a thrust stage that comes heavily into the audience, as it opens up the playing area and makes for more dynamic entrance options.  What most people won’t realise is that the run round from these vomitoriums back to the side of stage in full Edwardian frockage can take a minimum of 27.29 seconds through the rabbit warren of pristine white corridors. Believe me, we timed it!

The inspirational corridors of the Festival Theatre, 
featuring amazing performers from past productions.

After we’ve all got our bearings we begin the process of getting into character for the first time as tech happens in full costume, make up and wig. It’s the first time I’ve seen my wig for my character Helen Walsingham and so she hasn’t been dressed (styled) on my face before. Helen is interesting as although she’s relatively posh and needs to conform to social standards in that respect, she’s also somewhat rebelliously artistic. Helen Keane (Wig Supervisor) is determined to find something that reflects this style-wise and yet also suits my face shape. It’s a delicate process and one that takes us a few days to perfect, with Helen Keane constantly checking everyone’s wigs onstage under the correct lighting states to make sure they read the way she, Campbell Young (Wig Designer) and Paul Brown (Designer) want them to.

It’s very exciting to see everyone in character finally as you get a sense of how the whole show will look. Many of the cast play multiple roles and this doesn’t just mean various wigs for the girls but also facial hair for the boys! Post-transformation some of the cast are barely recognisable from their everyday selves. Jennifer Louise Jones, naturally a stunning redhead, makes an astonishingly beautiful brunette and Tim Hodges sporting fabulous sideburns looks so of the period that it’s almost as if he stepped straight from the pages of H.G. Wells’ novel.

The Facial Hair List

My own costume process is a nicely tricky one. Many of my costumes are slim fitting and so my corset has to be laced to a particular measurement before anything will fit. I’m wearing a long-line S-bend corset, which highlights the curve of the body, although makes me instantly regret eating a big lunch. Running from sternum to hipbone it also prohibits any kind of rapidity when it comes to bathroom breaks and means my microphone packs, often worn around the waist have to be carried on my inner thighs in some very fetching Spanx!

Devon-Elise Johnson (Ann), Bethany Huckle (Flo) and I share a dressing room and dresser in the fabulous Chloe, who is always on hand to get us ready, which is especially fortunate as costumes of this era weren’t designed to be got into solo. She’s become a dab hand over the past few days at cinching us in despite our jovial protestations, and her speed with a hook and eye fastening on a quick change is amazing. One of my dresses has 28 of these fiddly fastenings alone, plus 20 poppers and a sash tie!

It’s great fun sharing a dressing room, as there’s an automatic support network around you. Devon and Beth are brilliantly talented and a lot of fun to be around and I think we’ve already managed to find a nice balance, which is good as we’ll be working in close proximity for several weeks! The dressing rooms at the Festival, whilst not enormous, are perfectly proportioned with ample mirror, seating and hanging space plus an ensuite bathroom! It’s so great to be working in a theatre that is as well designed backstage as it is onstage.

Dressing room views don't get better than this!

Tech begins with aplomb and we slowly commence putting all the elements of the show together. It’s a laborious, complex dance of sorts. Every so often a shout of ‘STOP’ will go up over the God mic (as it’s known) in the darkened auditorium and the process onstage will halt so that lighting can be tested and adjusted for example or some choreography can be respaced. Once ready to commence again Tinks, our fantastic Stage Manager, will take the reins with a call of ‘ACTION’ and away we go again.

It’s not just the onstage action that has to be taken into account either. There are some incredibly large pieces of set to be shifted about by the wonderful local Chichester crew and all at incredible speed to facilitate the scene changes. Whilst the wing space of the Festival Theatre is large compared to many other theatres, moving around such big, heavy items needs to be choreographed within an inch of its life to make sure everything can be rearranged smoothly and silently without anyone getting hurt in the process. And if things don’t work the first time, we simply go back and keep trying it until it can’t go wrong.

By the end of the week we’re almost there. The show is starting to come together and there’s only one more element to add, the Orchestra. But that’s a whole other story…

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