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Phil Willmott: A technical rehearsal through the eyes of a director

Photo: Christian Bertrand/Shutterstock.com
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So here we are in deepest, darkest technical rehearsals. Like ghostly waifs, we dream of sunlight, a distant memory. Actually, we’re not terribly waif-like, because we’ve been eating crap food in our subterranean tomb. Pale and greasy phantoms, more like. I have one of those dull, persistent headaches you get from too much caffeine and too many cigarettes. I should cut down on both. But not this week.

In an extraordinarily impressive short time, a swarm of clever builders descended on the theatre, ripped out the existing stage and built an entirely new one to work with the complicated video technology we’re using. The auditorium is a sea of production staff (most of whom I swear I’ve never seen before), hunched over computers doing, er, stuff. I should also probably introduce myself, but I’m shy and so are they. Last night, they brought fish and chips to their desks and it smelt like heaven.

On stage, the actors always keep in good spirits, chipping in with creative ideas when things can’t be entirely as conceived. Everyone tries to keep them oblivious to senior management prowling around looking at their watches and the schedule and going slowly greyer in the face, illuminated by the ethereal spill from the stage lights.

As a director, you try to hover somewhere in the middle ground between the cast who you’ve spent the last month or so having fun with and the management who’s job is to fret so we needn’t. Despite this, the mood in the auditorium is pervasive, and a knot slowly forms in the stomach as management anxiety cancels out the high spirits on stage.

And then you run a section, and all the magic momentarily comes together. The actors’ voices soar, they’re captured by the perfect light at the perfect moment in the perfect costume, and you get lost in how glorious it’s going to be. And then everything inevitably judders to a halt again, while clever people huddle to advise on solving the next hitch.

Having perfected a scintillating range of withering passive aggression over the years, I try never to lose my temper – and usually succeed. But I must confess one of the producers and I had a little moment (“I pay your wages – do it like I say”, “If you knew what you were talking about, then I could”) in front of everyone last week.

We soon made up as we’re both rubbish at bearing a grudge, and we actually have great respect for one another. One of the creative team, also one of the nicest people in the world, had a momentary meltdown when he walked into a chair in the darkness, but he was fine and apologised to everyone in his usual charming way. As a result, we pick our way even more carefully around our notorious, treacherously steep auditorium in the darkness. My new varifocal specs make it very scary.

As directors, we have what’s called a ‘God mic’, which makes anything we want to relay to the stage boom out around the auditorium. The choreographer and I pass it back and forth. At the beginning of tech, we’re always embarrassed about using it, but, as things continue, we boom with increasing abandon.

At the centre of all this is the stage management. It is a seemingly unflappable rock, a mixture of parent and saviour in the more fraught moments, and we all adore and admire them.

It’s dinner break now and I’m unwinding by writing this in the park, my shoulders slowly relaxing. In 15 minutes, they’ll be around my ears again and we’ll be back in action, normal life a distant memory, first preview an almost unreachable shore, but slowly coming into view.

This show has approximately 1,000 lighting cues, 500 sound cues, 120 costume changes and well over 1,000 projection cues (involving, the projection designer tells me, around 50 billion pixels). And this is a relatively small commercial musical.

Yet by previews, Exposure at the St James Theatre will look effortless and we’ll all be one tech older and wiser… exhausted and elated.

Last month’s tech was at the Finborough Theatre, where we all share the one ironing board as a production desk. Next month’s will be in a 1,000-seat outdoor amphitheatre, huddled beneath umbrellas.

And the crazy thing is, none of us would rather do anything else.

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