THE ABSENCE OF WAR
by David Hare Brian Finch discusses his production for The Tamaritans, Plymouth.
The Tmnaritans Theatre Comp,1I1Y has been in existellce for over seven tv years. It produces fivl' me1jor pmductions ,1 year and is recognis"d as Plymouth's le,1d ing amatcur drama company. In the 1950s it ,Kquir,'d pt'rmanent premises which were '1dapted to blo'come The Little Tlwatre in Plymouth's B<1rbican ,1I"ea ,lI1d here w e performed, rdtearsed, built scenery and housed tlw cos tume ,1l1d property departments. Un foctuniltely, in the mid-1980s th e prope rty was so ld - latcr to become The Barbican Thea tre - ,1 nd we had to re-Iocate to premises which sa ti sfy all our need s except a performance ve nue. \,IVe now present our productions at e ither The Athenaeum Theatre, or in The Drum in the Theatre Royal in Plymouth's City Centr,, We have a membership avera gi ng 85 and we Me a registered charity. Our policy is to present quality material in sets, costu me, sound, and pe rformances at the highest possible standards our budgets allow. Our ve ry experienced directors come from within the company and the only outside help we pay for is the services of the lighting director. However, like most amateur companies, finance can be a problem and it is essential we operate using sound business management. Hence the need sometimes to go for Box Office appeal to replenish the coffers to enable us to stretch our talents with works of less commercial appeal. No doubt Plymouth is not alone in supporting musicals, comedies and thrillers but staying dear of drama and strong subjects. However, this is not an argument for not performing challenging material. We rehearse each production for an average of five to six weeks most evenings, but until the final week . we try to keep the weekends free. We are fortunate that a small group of retired members builds the sets during the day, enabling the cast to rehearse in them prior to dismantling and transportation to the thea tre. Late in 1995 I found myself in London and went to the National Theatre to see David Hare's ri veting and compelling play THE ABSENCE OF WAR. It was yet another brilliant prod uction by
Richard Eyre. The plays covers the da ys leading up to a General Election and specifically the events associated with the leader of the Labour Pa rty. Politica.l minds are scheming, their every action geared towards Polling Day. In the contemporary world of politics, power is absolute and this play goes behind the closed doors to offer an original look at the way modern politicians think and act. Although constantly seeking to find potential plays for the company, at this time I rejected the idea of doing this work because I considered there was no way we could afford to replicate the visual e ffects and technology which featured so strongly in this production. Then I saw the television production. I realised that THE ABSENCE OF WAR does not depend on theatrical wizardry: its great strengths are David Hare's powerful ideas and brilliant dialogue combined into a beautifully constructed work - in fact, a modern masterpiece. My views were confirmed when I read it in detail. At this time I informed our Production Committee that I wanted to direct this play during our 1996 season. It would have to be done in The Drum rather than The Athenaeum since, to do the
play justice it needed The Drum's advanced lighting and sound equipment, and had a better chance the re of getting an appreciative audience. The Prod uction Committee gave it their enthusiastic recommendation to the Management Co mmittee; but for various reasons it had to be slotted into our September 1996 date in The Drum. Then we made our big mistake! As usual, w e announc ed our fo rthcoming productions, but failed to confirm that the amateur rights were available. The Theatre Royal was very supportive of our choice of produc tion because it fitted their policy to present challenging and · memorable dramas in an overall balanced programme. We then discovered the amateur rights were not available. However, all was not lost and, after a direct approach_ through his agent, David Hare kindly gave us his personal approval and we ar; most grateful to him,
CASTING Realising that we needed a very strong and numerous cast at a time when several of our experienced players would be unavailable because of family holidays, we
agreed to hold ea rly audit] even though two other prod u -' we[e alrea dy in the pipelin > had a good response and werf' to cast th e main roles with experienced players with exceptio n of one key par t telephone call to an ex-m who had recently mov ed to . Devon solved the problem ap agreed enthUSiastically to comn::. daily. There was still a na'\... recruit more people to play ~ various crowd scenes, but per;; approaches and notices in th ' press eventually provided numbers required alt h subsequent experience sugge. that several should never allowed near a stage again even to sweep it! I had acti" e discourage some from contin and learnt the hard way to be ~ discriminating, even for (Tl work.
I recognised tha t key factors in . production would be lightin sound. Fortunately, om Li .J. Director is an expert and ha s _ with us since we took a produc of EQUUS to Poland a few \" ago. Our Sound man is an M . the way he created all the inl ac required by th.is play. It VIC challenging task for him. I al
11 o'clock, to avoid going into horrendous overtime for the thea tre staff. There was some routin e housekeeping to do on the Monday and we had a successful dress rehearsal on the Monda y evening.
1.5, underscoring, etc., but he h"d .• difficult job of finding the .: ialised s() und~ for the notaph, House of Commons, the ~ \'isi()n :;equence, and tlw mpaigns on the road . He came trul11ps. EMIl' in the plilnning ges I realised we could not create . thirteen sc ene~ rediistically. Th" "'Um is an open space studio-type atre with very limited off-stage 'l'age accommodation, hence the 'ations needed to be suggested imaginative lighting and sound .; cts. Both departments excelled "mselves.
SCENERY . ough no realistic sets were to p rovided, I decided to play the .. n on the two levels provided (he Drum space, and against flats ...red in black felt - the lighting action always looks good in setting. Certain specialised ;ns needed to be made and the rkshop Manager soon provided t" . I did decide to use realistic ~i ture and properties. At first nee there did not seem to be too \. problems, but a detailed j~ identified a range of items I "'Ited which are not easy to find. - naged to provide computers the associated equipment and '..:' office furniture. The Stage 1ger used her con tacts to \V some smart chilirs for the i sion studio scene and new desks. The main difficulties "pected would be television cameras, OB microphones, [as and equipment, bleepers, .:.. rn telephones, and mobile Eventually we obtained all _'1uired from local sources, but -uipment was expensive and d to take out insurance for ,00.
From the early planning stil ges it was realised th a t this play would not be easy to se ll to the public. It has several problems - it is generally unknown, has "war" in its title, and the s ubject is po litics. Neve rth e less, our Ma rkelln g Officer excelled herself and worked ve ry hard to promote it. She achieved good press coverage and ,1 wid ('s pread distribution of pos ters, handbills and displays. The Th eatre Ro yal also gave constructi ve support in its promotion. To raise the public image we d ecided to hold a special VIP ni , ht on the Wednesday, which was attend ed by local MPs, Civic . dig nitaries aod other gues b. The l'ress light was the Tu esday and we received excellent notices and throughout th e whole run had no thing but enthusias tic responses.
CONCLUSION The Stage lvlanager had major problems \·" hen we moved into the thea tre, largely because of the very limited space available. The movement on and off stage became very problema tic. It had been well rehearsed , but practical problems arose with the result that some last minute changes were inevitable and some of the furniture had to be changed or eliminated . Additionally, scrambled eggs and a buffet needed preparation for each performance. There were also numerous props to be checked and positioned accurately. Normally the Props Team would handle most of this: however, since I needed all the available company on stage, the Stage Manager's task became all embracing and the company assisted as and when they could. She had two permanent assistants one as Prompt and the other calling the cues for lights, sound, cast, etc. This was another enormous task, with approximately 80 Lighting cues and almost as many for sound. This member is also responsible for Wardrobe and she made considerable efforts to ensure the company wore the right type and colour. I specifically wanted dark and grey with the occasional splash of strong colour. However, all worked well in the end. We celebrated our final rehearsal on the Friday by having a company slipper party in our favourite local
restaurant. Satu.rday we spe nt dismantling the set and packing everything ready for transportation to The Drum. Early on Sunday morning the teams of helpers arrived to load the van and then to unload at the theatre. Because of the simple set of black flats there were few problems setting them before lunch, and concurrently the Lighting Director was placing his lights and focusing while the Sound Director established his sound levels and the associated work. The Stage Manager spent her afternoon orgalllSll1g the furniture, props, and dressing room accommodation (alternatives had to be used, since The Drum's were having maintenance work). I spent the afternoon with the Lighting and Sound Directors and Assistant Stage Managers doing the lighting plot and recording the details in the computer which is operated by the one operator provided by he theatre. We made excellent progress and complete the first phase by six o'clock. I then rehearsed the rather complicated. entrances and exits and scene shifting with the company. After a short break, we started the full technical rehearsal - a long and tediolls event, but it cannot be avoided. We systematically worked our way through and adjusted the computer as we went. We managed to finish just prior to
Although we did moderate business, nevertheless I think we achieved our aims by doing justice to a compelling play and providing the company with yet another challenge. In my personal vi ew, its best features were the imaginative use of sound and lighting, but above all the extremely high standard of acting. We are proud to be the first amateur company to produce this play and are most grateful to David Hare for risking his masterpiece in our hands. We hope we did him justice and to qllote the final line of the local review, production "...This transcends entertainment and should not be missed."
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