Company stage manager Zac Holton has had nearly every job in the business. He tells Fergus Morgan about the work ethic instilled in him by his nan and how, aged 16, he found himself performing in Singin’ in the Rain and accidentally knocked out Tommy Steele with a chair
There aren’t many people working in the industry like Zac Holton. In a 35-year career, he’s done pretty much every job in theatre, from actor to director to fork-lift truck operator. Nowadays, he’s mostly employed as a company stage manager, working on tours for Theatre Royal Bath, although he still makes occasional forays into performing.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t work in theatre,” he says. “I couldn’t do a nine-to-five. I wouldn’t know what to do with my evenings.”
Holton was born in 1969 in Nottinghamshire. He was diagnosed as severely colour-blind aged 15, and felt like a lot of professional avenues were closed to him as a result.
“In 1984, the school nurse gave you an A4 piece of paper with a huge list of jobs that you couldn’t do,” he says. “For a good period of time I was absolutely gutted, because I wanted to go into chemistry.”
He found his way into theatre almost by chance. An actor acquaintance of his father’s organised for him to do a day’s shadowing at the Nottingham Playhouse. Holton was plonked in seat K18 and watched the technical rehearsal for Barry Heath’s Me Mam Sez, directed by the playhouse’s artistic director Kenneth Alan Taylor.
“That was my first experience of theatre,” says Holton. “I’ve spent 35 years working in the industry and all actors and stage managers hate the technical rehearsal. I love them, because it was my first day in the theatre. I’ve always found them fascinating.”
That one-day taster turned into two weeks’ work experience, which eventually turned into six months’ employment as an acting assistant stage manager. It was paid for through the sponsorship of a local hosiery manufacturer because the theatre couldn’t afford to keep him on itself. “I was like a sponge, soaking everything up,” he says of his early days at the Playhouse.
By his own admission, Holton’s consequent career in theatre has been “incredibly lucky”, but never more so than in 1986, when he somehow found his way on to the Tokyo tour of Harold Fielding’s Singin’ in the Rain, starring Tommy Steele.
Taylor had taken the cast and crew of his 1986 touring production of Salad Days to see Charlie Girl in the West End. Holton returned to the Victoria Palace Theatre to buy a programme the following morning.
“I went round to the stage door and asked the doorman for a programme,” Holton remembers. “He grumbled a bit, then disappeared to find one. All of a sudden there was a big commotion at the stage door, and Tommy Steele came in with an entourage of about 10 people, puffing on a big cigar. I turned around and nearly knocked him over.”
Holton followed the crowd and, to his surprise, found himself on stage auditioning for Steele. There was an even greater surprise when he got back to Bromley, where the Salad Days team were waiting.
“Most of the cast and crew were there,” he says. “‘Harold Fielding’s just been on the line,’ they said. “You’ve been offered a year’s tour with Singin’ in the Rain, the London Palladium production.” I was only 16, and I was absolutely floored. I’d only gone in to buy a programme.”
‘My entire career I’ve fallen from one thing to the next. I’ve been incredibly lucky in this industry’
Holton is full of stories like this, such as the one about his time on tour in Tokyo with Steele, and how he nearly killed the famous actor live on stage.
There was a brawl scene in the show, during which Holton had to hit Steele over the head with a breakaway chair, especially designed for the purpose. During one show, while waiting for his moment, Holton had a horrible realisation. “I’m sat there on this chair, putting more and more pressure on it, and suddenly I realise it is a real chair,” he says. “I’m sat on a real chair. And I’m about to clobber Tommy Steele over the head with it in front of an audience.”
The moment of the fight sequence arrived and Holton brushed the chair lightly down Steele’s back. “‘What are you doing?’ he whispers at me. I shake my head. ‘Hit me with the chair,’ he hisses. I shake my head. ‘Hit me with the chair,’ he says again, with some more colourful words thrown in. So I did. I hit him with the chair. And I knocked him out.”
Holton was called to Steele’s room during the show’s interval. “It was the longest journey from my dressing room to Tommy’s,” remembers Holton. “He comes out, puffing on a big cigar, and says: ‘If we are ever on stage again, no matter how much I insist, don’t hit me with a chair.’”
The stories keep coming. There was the time he was unexpectedly offered a part in a tourist information film for Nottingham. There was the time he showed up at a venue that didn’t have any electricity. There was the time he took a Bulgarian orchestra to Northern Ireland, as tour manager, only for it to wind up in Armagh, when it was booked in Omagh.
Q&A Zac Holton
What was your first professional theatre job?
Acting assistant stage manager at Nottingham Playhouse in 1985.
What’s your next job?
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, for Theatre Royal Bath.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Don’t try to do everything, just be good at one thing at a time.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Kenneth Alan Taylor and his family and network of friends and actors who all looked after me in those early years.
If you hadn’t worked in theatre, what would you have done?
I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else. Theatre has given me so many opportunities. If someone told me I couldn’t do this anymore it would break my heart.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Loads and none, depending on who I’m working with and how gullible they are.
“Being a company stage manager can be the easiest job in the world or it can be the most difficult,” he says. “You never know from week to week. Is the truck going to turn up on time? Are you going to have enough time to put a set in? Is the set going to fit? Is the company going to turn up on time? You have to be able to deal with the unexpected.”
The trick is not to panic. “The minute you start to panic, everyone around you notices and starts to panic too,” he says. “You might be panicking inside, but you mustn’t show it.”
One of his biggest bugbears is dealing with recent graduates. “I get frustrated by the number of young actors coming out of drama school who haven’t been taught the basics of touring,” he says. “They’re wonderful actors, but they don’t understand the rudiments – but maybe I’m just an old dinosaur, repeating myself all the time.”
Holton puts his lengthy career working in theatre down to good fortune – “My entire career I’ve fallen from one thing to the next,” he says, “I’ve been incredibly lucky in this industry” – and to his professional ethics.
“It was something my nan instilled in me,” he says. “Once you agree to do something, that’s what you do. I know producers who have been left in the lurch a week before a show starts because someone has left for something more glamorous. I’ve never done that. If I’ve said to someone, even over the phone, that I’ll do that tour, I’ve done that tour.”
And, despite what the school nurse told him when he was 15, he has never had a problem with his vision. “The only time I’ve ever had a problem with being colour-blind is when I tried to make a call on a Blackberry phone, and I couldn’t see the numbers,” he says. “It’s the only time in 35 years that colour-blindness has ever caused me any problems.”
CV Zac Holton
Born: 1969, Edwinstowe, Nottinghamshire
• Singin’ in the Rain, tour (1987)
A Song at Twilight tours the UK until July