I and II
-Martin FIsher discusses his productionJor The Bcun Players, Oxted, Surrey.
Plot FollOwing a successful partner ship with my Technical Director on "Noises Of!" at The Bam Theatre, Oxted, we both wanted to put on a play for the benefit of Cancer Research, as several membcrs of the theatre had been touched by the disease. The name we decided on for our group was the Bam Players. The fund raising idea eoincided with my desire to Direct both parts of "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby", having ap peared in the first amateur pro duction at the Ashcroft Theatre in Croydon. The play is an adap tation (by David Edgar) of the oliglnal Charles Dickens story, and is a harsh comment on the social cond1t10ns of 1840. It follows the Ufe of Nicholas through the death of his father, his shocking experiences at the cruel school of Mr Wackford Squeers in Yorkshire, his ac quaintance with the colourful, theatrical Crummles family and his eventual meeting with the Cheeryble brothers, who tum out to be his benefactors. On the way he befriends the ill and Crippled Smlke, who has run away from the Yorkshire school and also meets the girl he mar lies at the end of the play. It also follows the story of Nicholas's sister Kate, who is sent to work in a millinery establishment by her uncle Ralph, who later embroils her in an unwelcome relationship with his business associates. Later, Nicholas's intervention leads to the down fall of Ralph and his eventual suicide is as a result of losing £10,000. The play was edited in agreement with the agents but stilI lasted some six hours with about eighty scenes. C.sting With the large cast of forty two Amateur Stage October 1990
players required to undertake about one hundred and twenty roles I knew that it would be necessary to go outside thc resi dent Bam societies. Of neces sity most of the players, except those undertaking the largest named roles, were to take one major and two ~r possibly more
Kate, and others It was impor tant to get light were Madeline (who marnes Nicholas) the Squeers ladies and Mrs Crummlcs. Once these were cast the rest was easier by the simple process of elimination. The children's parts were all played byadultsorat thcyoung
one trapdoor in our we had to do was rna.e hole In the Wings ' tnes/exlts easier. str1p the stage so tha! build upwards, requ:u-:. take out all the c ur1.a1.: .,." tables, proscenium s and overhead bord r.. tlon to building the 5 wards. ThIs gave u s u mum playing area and ~ audience sight lines. \Jo e _ bUilding at the beg!nc.n Apnl, as with such a dertakinga fewweeke nd£ obviously not be enou~ would also be beneficia! cast could rehearse .....1 :.. split levels as soon as pos. Items wcre stored where _ there was room and as the ceedlng show came dOW!' turned the theatre Into thing resembling a buildin for about ten days. The was a full four weeks to re ~ on a structurally completco This was to prove crucial II' production timetable. Most of the moving scenC!fJ simply tables, chairs and '" baskets, all of which co we shifted by the cast. The scene which Is more difficu..:. the bUilding on stage in full . of a Stage Coach from bas. . etc. ThIs has to be stn: enough to support sev people and also, fully 1.0adec. moved off stage. So that could do th.ls we designed . upper level of our main S ir ture to open up a bit like To Bndge, and also employed t: use of a truck which had . folding ends, each of wbJ.;.; could be opened separately _ together to give a combination acting levels. Early on I agreed with my Stage Dir on quality rather than qu for stage crew. In RSC fash the cast mostly moved :.h scenes on and off, includin the furniture. We used onl) 'skeleton crew' for each pa. under the overall co-ordin of the Stage Manager and S ~ Director. Rehearsals We started rehearsals in
minor parts. Personally I regard casting as the most important job for the Director. If you get that light then you have the best foundation possible. As this was a new society I was able to cast by invitation only and in particular looked for teamwork players. The part of Nicholas is massive and a real challenge. The actor obviously had to be young (Nicholas is sclipted as about 20) but of sufficient expe rience to play out the emotions to the full. As there were four or five contenders, some of whom I had never seen act before, a reading of selected pieces from the play took place to which anyone interested was invited to attend . Auditions were held and a choice was made. The same procedure was adhered to for some of the other male roles and I was lucky enough to have the assistance of a GODA adjudica tor in this difficult task. The major female roles did not cause too much of a problem. We are fortunate in having a large resident female member ship at the theatre, and the only problem was juggling the ladies into the nght slots. The first female part to cast was ofcourse
est teenagers, as young boys would not have carried the same acting weight. Also certain members had to sustain York shire accents and we had to find three people with good singing voices for an opera. In the end I could not have asked for a more multi-talented cast. Scenery Anyone who saw the Royal Shakespeare Company onginal set will know that it was an enormous structure created out of scaffolding and solid wood. It was fairly complex, with an upper level, ladders, flights of steps and a side gantry. A trapdoor in the stage was also used to give yet another dimen sion . Throughout the produc tion cast not actually in the act ing space below could stand on the structure to do narration, any effects such as falling snow and to lend atmosphere. After having watched the show on video (It was broadcast by Channel 4) the Stage Director and I decided to use the same concept, although we did have in mind a few adaptations. We had the services of a profes sional designer, who built us a scale model. There was already
PAG E _
March and although It seemed then that we had plenty of time with the show over three months away, time was in fact one com modity in short supply. In April two cast dropped out - one had turned professional - and the parts were reJuggled amongst the others. The biggest hurdle in
from lOam till 9pm. The last thing I allocated was the large chunks of narration which hinge the play together, plus the scenery moves. Our final two weeks rehearsals were domi nated by getting these right. They must be very slick if they are not to detract from the story
the early stages was that It took twelve rehearsals to get through the entire play and with eighty scenes the cast were having dif ficulty marking and remember ing moves. It was not possible to learn by repetition. As with any production using a large num ber of people, the other re hearsal problem was atten dance. Several of our cast were In other shows and were unable to attend when required until the beginning of May. Another problem was sorting out a re hearsal schedule. I put the scenes In rough groups and tried to re hearse all the Dothe boys scenes together, all the Crummles scenes together etc., but inevitably there was the odd scene In a different group when, at first, people didn't realise they were required. This problem resolved Itself in time but was an Inconvenience while It lasted. We moved into the theatre in late May and I appointed an Assis tant Director and my secretary as Directors Assistant. 50 far she had been writing up a record of everything, this Is a play which needs Iistsl We set our selves a target ofgetting through the whole play In four rehears als, splitting them between us. The cast shuttled backwards and forwards between rehearsal studio and stage - utter chaos. Tiredness was a hindrance too some rehearsals lasted until almost midnight and twice we undertook Sunday rehearsals
but add to it and in general actors are not used to "shifting". Everyone, from Nicholas down had narration and furniture to remember and at times I de spaired . Once this was sorted out we successfully began to run whole acts, and the continuity really helped to bring the whole thing alive. Co.twne. Although the resident groups at our theatre do have a large stock of costumes, to find around 140 variations in the period 1840 was beyond them. We decided to allocate a large portion of our budget to hirtng and contacted several companies. Eventually we were to use Midland Cos tume Hire at Stoke on Trent. They had a set of Nicholas Nlck leby costumes in stock and proved very helpful. They gave us competitive rates, too, as we were perform1ng for charity. In all they provided about seventy costumes for us and we col lected them about ten days be fore we opcned. Our wardrobe mistress at first concentrated on ge tting our own costumes or ganised and then ran around making adjustments adding shawls etc. to get It all Just right. Our main problem here was the lady playing Fanny Squeers dis cove red she was pregnant dur Ing rehearsal, and would reach the five month stage at opening night. Although Fanny is a character part, we decided that in the Interests of the original
Amateur Stage October 1990
story we would have to hide, and not accentuate, the bumpl lIu.le We used an orchestra of twelve musicians gathered from vari ous sources, some ofwhom were professional and donated their services. Anything that could be rehearsed with cast (Ie the op era, the Crummles company songsl was done so early on with the MD, but much of the Inci dental music was only re hearsed in the last week. The music adds a great deal of the atmosphere to this show and with the narration links the scenes together. Other sound effects, such as knocks on non-existant doors are done by the cast either In the acting area or watching from the gantry, and so are rehearsed in the normal way. Special effecu and pro.,. A large number of props were reqUired, fortunately most of them fairly easy to obtain. Among the more difficult were
some Items of period furniture and a pair ofduelling pistols. We obtained the help of a second hand furniture business and they came up with some perfect pieces which looked just right. The duelling pistols we pur chased from an advertiser In "Amateur Stage". Large num bers of muffins had to be bought and frozen as these we re handed out to the audience at one point and had to be edible. The main special effect was dry ice and to avoid the awful puff effect so often seen we installed the machine under the stage to get an even distribution . This worked very well.
Uahtlng We used a team of three e xperi
enced lighting technicians and from the start recognised how complicated the plot and set up would be. We required pools of light without using follow spots, different areas of the stage being lit to help the audience ide ntity different scenes. We temporar ily installed an extra board for the show, thus Increasing our capacity significantly. A plan of ten specific lighting pOints and twelve area positions was even tually decided. We ended up using around ninety lights with 220 lighting cues. The final re sult took ten solid hours of plot ting and was superb. Special Requirement. and Problem. In a nutshell, scale and logistics. Nicholas Nlckleby Is similar to putting on two full scale Shakespeares. Linking the scenes well and doing the story Justice are the main headaches. I cannot emphasis the word teamwork enough. I had forty
cast and over thirty other people involved In some capacity. Ef fectively we ran the show like a small business, with a manage ment committee not involved in the Direction, a superb back stage team with heads of 'De partment' and a direction team of four. The sense of achieve ment when It Is all over is mag nificent. We have been re warded with exceptionally good reviews from two totally inde pendent newspapers and think that we have raised abou t £8000 for Cancer Research. The whole project was satls(ying from a material as well as artistic standpOint. The only question must be "Whatever nex t?".