One of the joys of working in a smaller producing theatre is the variety. Attempting to marry the inventiveness of creatives with the reality of small production budgets can lead to all sorts of activities technical teams don’t normally deal with.
Ventures into the theatrical unknown are often positive and, sometimes, educational, revealing untapped abilities. Our next show Albion, a revival of the 2017 production, which is set in a country garden, throws down an interesting technical gauntlet: during the play, the cast plants almost 300 living, flowering plants in front of an audience sitting less than 3ft away.
What was a vision of joy in the minds of the creatives was not, initially, so enthusiastically met in the production office as pooled horticultural knowledge proved to be lacking. However, this is the kind of adventure that keeps theatre exciting and the issue became one of logistics.
The initial production opened during October and the revival opens in February, so this dictates which plants are available and in bloom. The designer, with the help of a garden expert, will select a combination that will look stunning and hopefully survive the run.
Now we’ve all read those little information tags stuck into the soil of potted plants, which explain ideal growing conditions. Sadly, nowhere on the label does it say: “Stack tightly on a large trolley and place in a dark cupboard for two hours before steering briskly through the auditorium. Plant rapidly and bake gently for two hours under 150 theatre lights before returning to the trolley and storing overnight in the theatre workshop. Repeat every day and twice on Wednesdays and Saturdays.”
We take steps to protect the flowers so that each night everything is rosy in the garden. Because these flowers are not naturally suited to being indoors, the trolleys are pushed on to the street to feel the morning sun. Wilting flowers, dead leaves and broken stems are removed, soil is added, and then they are ‘dressed’ – teased into attractive poses, before receiving a thorough drenching.
Wilting flowers, dead leaves and broken stems are removed, soil is added, and then the plants are ‘dressed’
The biggest hazard is passers-by who sense an invitation to help themselves to a plant and polite signs have to be positioned to explain that this is not a pop-up garden centre.
Despite our best efforts, there are casualties so we run a ‘hospital’ where the plants can receive some tender loving care. We have to use the roof of the Almeida Bar, laying them out to rest in natural daylight. At any given time, in addition to the 300 ‘show plants’, there are another 50 patients on the roof; when healthy, they return to the stage.
By the end of the run, most of the plants should still be in a condition to be claimed by eager cast and staff members who want to give a loving home to a retired performer. This makes Albion a success in terms of recycling, and reminds us that with enough love and attention everything can thrive, even in the harshest of circumstances.
Jason Wescombe is chief technician at London’s Almeida Theatre. Albion runs from February 1 to 29: almeida.co.uk