As a seasonal theme, that of Hallowe’en and the Day of the Dead, the BBC broadcast a programme called Ghost Stories from Theatreland, narrated by the actor Jack Shepherd. He started by telling us about a ghost in the Palace Theatre Westcliff (Southend), my ears pricked up, for this was the first theatre I worked in as a scenic artist. I was there for 4 years, eventually becoming assistant designer, which meant I would design sets occasionally, as well as paint them. It was weekly rep, that is to say a different show was staged every week by its resident company of actors, later we changed to 2-weekly rep which was luxury indeed!
It was jolly hard work for everybody, the actors rehearsing for the next play during the day, while performing the current play in the evenings, plus matinées on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
As assistant I arrived at the metal-roofed badly insulated shed, each morning to light the gas burners, to boil up metal buckets of water and start melting the paint which had gelled overnight, ready for the designer and I to paint the large framed canvasses; called flats, these were of varying widths, (the widest being 2m,) by 8m high. For convenience these were painted laid on their sides, sitting on 2 struts of wood to keep them slightly raised off the floor. For years afterwards I would walk lifting my feet unnecessarily high lest I trip over! The backcloths measured 8m x 10m, so they had to be painted on stage, which meant that the only time we could paint them was at night after the show, although we were given more day time when preparing for the pantomime season, which could involve preparing 12-14 sets and backcloths.
The paints arrived from Brodie and Middleton in London, in powder form packed in large brown paper bags ; size (glue made from ground horses hooves and rabbit skin) arrived in crystals in 50kg sacks. This had to be mixed with water, then boiled in metal buckets and simmered until dissolved ready to add to the colours we’d mixed. You can imagine what we smelt like! Plus the fact that in summer the paints would putrify, so we would add disinfectant to mask the stench…..with no effect whatsoever….
The flats for the most part had already been painted with several coats because each week required a change of scenery, and therefore a different colour : we would prime them with gesso, which we mixed from whiting (chalk) and size to blot out the previous colours. After about 15 to 20 layers the paint would finally crack looking like a dried clay riverbed. Then we had to boil up loads of water to soak and scrape the old paint off back to the canvas. Meanwhile, the carpenters would be salvaging wood, extracting nails from old constructions and banging them straight! Ah, those were the days!
As can be imagined we often worked well into the night, and would do at least one “all-nighter” if not 2 every week. Hence this excursion into my past : for I was so exhausted one night, that I decided to sleep in one of the dressing rooms way up at the top of the building, there seemed to be no point in going home for I was due back 4 hours later. I bedded down, and immediately fell into heavy doze, I awoke with a start to hear distant footsteps gradually becoming louder as they slowly clambered up the stairs. My blood ran cold as I quivered with fear, my stomach churning, they stopped outside my door, hesitated for what appeared to be millennia, then turned and descended as deliberately as they came, getting quieter and quieter as they went further away.
Well… I didn’t get any sleep at all after that, nor did I dare to open the door, not until I heard the normal daytime sounds and bustle of cleaners arriving, then I was out of that dressing-room as fast as I could!
Anyway all this brings me back to the aforementioned ghost, for I have now learned from the BBC programme, 45 years later, that his name (if indeed it was he ) was George, and he was a stagehand who had fallen to his death from the flies soon after the theatre was built in 1912**. I assure you, there was no one in the building, I was definitely alone, and initially I was far too tired to let my imagination run wild……the sound of footsteps woke me ……..
**(The flies by the way, are up above the stage, reaching up to twice the height : 16m at least, in order to fly backcloths up and out of sight.)
I posted this last night, then thought up a Haiku to match the image, it’s becoming an obsession!
I’ve dug out a few photos of the sort of stage sets we painted, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare, Sheridan etc. there was never money for real wood mouldings, so everything was painted in trompe l’œil, including wallpaper, which would be designed and stencils cut according to the period of the play.
This is Agatha Christie’s Unexpected Guest, a wood panelled sitting room: It all looks rather sad and amateurish now, the sets are very simply painted and basic, but still I remember the thrill of working in the professional theatre, and the productions appeared, then, to be excellent. The photos look static due to the nature of photocalls in those days.
During the 4 years worked there, I calculate I worked on approximately 160 productions, and I’ve just remembered I designed all the posters as well, when did I ever sleep?
Here is a photo of the set for “The Little Hut” based on the play by André Roussin
‘Lock Up Your Daughters”
and a baronial Scottish Castle, I can’t remember the play, probably an Agatha Christie. We would beg and borrow furniture and carpets, often from the local auction rooms, often from the staff and crew, I think I recognise mum’s gateleg table there!
An Alan Ayckbourn play the title of which I cannot remember:
I must dig out photos of some of the sets I painted when in the Welsh National Opera, the budgets were much higher, and the sets more sophisticated… another post I think.
15 thoughts on “Remembrance of things past.”
Oh Liz, this is a SPLENDID post! The work, the hours and the dedication necessary when working in a weekly rep. You’ve reminded me of my own early days in the the theatre, and the sense of pride in achievement. Those sets look pretty sophisticated to my eyes. How fantastic it was that these small rep companies put on a different production every week. The idea of playing in one while rehearsing and learning the next, is so impressive, as is the madcap rush by the staff to produce a full set, wardrobe and props every week.
What a privilege and resource for the community these reps provided. To be able to experience live performance in this way, not as a once in a blue moon treat, but weekly. I recall season subscriptions. Regular patrons became familiar faces, always in the same seats. Of course it’s all long gone now. Nothing like it any more. The schedules were gruelling, but the excitement was palpable, and the sense of achievement when everything pulled together at the eleventh hour.
I knew so many actors who had done weekly rep for their entire careers. They had no aspiration to work in TV, or film, no sense of making it big and being recognised. There wasn’t a celebrity culture. They just felt lucky to have another season’s work, and to do what they had always done, and loved doing.
That’s right! They weren’t playing to empty houses either, I suppose it was before home entertainment took a hold. It’s difficult to imagine that this was during my lifetime, it was the late sixties/early seventies, and that feels like yesterday. The experience I had was not unlike that of a scenic artist from the 19th century, so I feel linked to the old traditions when scenery was basic but cleverly devised, and EVERYTHING was painted. The way you had to gauge the paint mix because it dried 2 tones paler, due to the chalk content, I quickly became expert at that! The effect of lighting a gauze from the front so that it looks solid, slowly bringing up the lights behind to reveal its transparency, this is still used of course, and it is magic!
Live theatre is magic, luckily it just about survives.xxL
I recall your expertise in judging the chalky dry-back of the paint, and how it always seemed like magic to me when I watched, because the difference between how it all looked as you painted, and how it looked later, was startling. And I recall as a designer being disappointed with the result when a drop-cloth of mine, painted by one of your staff at WNO, didn’t look the way I’d hoped, and how you rolled up your sleeves and set to work yourself on the canvas, and in a few hours had transformed it. (I was not the painter then that I am now, and I realise at this distance that you were very likely making up for my deficiencies as a designer.)
I still love a transformation gauze. Pure theatrical magic!
Wow!! What exciting times! A wonderful description.
Yes exciting times indeed, that’s why we all worked so hard of course, it certainly wasn’t for the money or for security!
thanks so much for the latest post. it made fascinating reading. what an interesting if exhausting four years they were. loved the images. i think the bbc would love to see it too. read the ghost story with horror! happy all souls day Liz :-)). judy xxx
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Thanks Judy, yes they were exhausting years, and it didn’t stop there, I spent a further 16 years at the Welsh National Opera which was equally grueling…..hence why I made a life change!xL
Loved this post, Liz. Did you not have ghost lights burning in the theatre at night? It is a tradition in all American theatres.
To be honest I don’t remember, Nancy, it’s a nice idea though, was it so the ghosts could see where they going and didn’t bump into things? Or to keep them away?xL
Dear Liz, what a great post, it brings me back to my theatre past as well. Nice pics, it shows the work you must have had! I love the ghost, that must have been terribly frightening. Thanx for the story!
Dear Marie, good to hear from you, yes, even though we are not so old, we theatrical people share common experiences!xL
Fantastic post Liz, thank you for sharing these memories, I’m fascinated by your descriptions of working at the theatre and the life of the company there. It sounds exhausting but I guess there was never a dull moment! I would have loved to have worked on sets like this. I know the fact that everything was painted in tromp l’œil was often due to resources but I love the effect of this style, it’s magical. And with a resident ghost too, what fun!
Thanks Phil, it’s funny how a chance word can send the brain off to the store of memories hidden deep in one’s mind; once I started running down those corridors, entering forgotten rooms, locating filing cabinets and sliding open those drawers, glimpses of all sorts of images came flooding through!! It was fun, after art college I was lucky enough to find work in the theatre, on my first day I knew immediately that was where I wanted to be, (even if I did do the classic slapstick of descending a stepladder and putting my foot in a bucket of warm white primer!)
Wow, that certainly brings back memories!! I saw some great productions there but hadn’t heard about a ghost….! xx
No, the funny thing is that was the only experience I ever had, and I don’t remember anybody else having one either, that’s why I was so pleased to hear that his name is George, and that I am not completely bonkers!xxL