I had a designer ask me once, ‘What is your Sistine Chapel?’ We had been talking about some of the shows we worked on, and why they were special to us, and he wanted to find out which show for me had been my pièce de résistance. I had never thought about it before, and it got me thinking. Some shows are just so special that whenever you think about them, you start to glow. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a number of these, but what is it about them that makes them hold a piece of your heart?
For a long time I’ve been trying to work it out, and for me, I think it comes down to these key ingredients:
Some of the hardest shows I have worked on have been the most magical because they have something important to say. They have taken every ounce of my (and everyone else’s) energy, but they are meaningful pieces of work that touch audience’s hearts. Often they are the premiere of a new script and there are a multitude of problems that need to be solved along the way, but they bring you together to create something exciting. They are the kind of show that people ring you about three weeks later saying ‘I can’t stop thinking about that play’. When the Rain Stops Falling was one of these for me. An intensely beautiful script, transcendent music, detailed direction, and an evocative set supported the powerful and profound performances by the cast. From the start we knew that there was something special in this brand new work, and being a part of it was like having a constant tingle in your fingertips. For me this is the biggest contributing factor to a Sistine Chapel show; knowing that you are involved in creating a work that makes people think or feel something new is one of the main reasons I love theatre.
Sometimes a group of people come together and they just click. It can be a company of two or a company of 20, or even a smaller group within a bigger cast and crew. Most people in theatre know that feeling when a show company becomes your family. As with all families, there are confrontations and differences, however sometimes the most diverse groups are the most cohesive. But when you have a group of people who can manage those differences in a way that brings them closer together, it can feel incredible. They know you better than anyone else, and they understand when you want to chat and when you need time alone. They know how to make you laugh, they know your deepest fears. The ultimate is when you have a group like that on tour. You really feel like a travelling circus family. It’s difficult to describe, but it is a very deep connection that I’ve not found elsewhere.
There is, however, a shadow side to having such a tight-knit theatre family. When closing night arrives, saying goodbye can be tough. Over the years it has become easier, but there is a period of mourning afterwards. After spending every day with the same people, who feel like a part of you, all of a sudden you’re not seeing them every day. Everyone returns to their home cities and your theatre family disappears from your life. For some it can bring a real period of sadness and melancholy and learning to deal with this is important. I’ve found keeping in contact with people over the coming days with just a text message, or a funny email can help slow down the abrupt break in contact.
A busy show
The 39 Steps was so busy, but it was one of the most fun shows I’ve ever called from prompt corner. It is by no means a thought-provoking, meaningful production, but it is a fun romp that is even more fun backstage. It was an endless series of major scene changes with only a small crew. One in particular was so difficult that the crew only just managed to set the scenery and props before I needed to call out the cloth each night. At one point during early dress rehearsals, I looked into the upstage wing and found that the entire crew was standing doubled over, puffing and laughing. It was the first time they had made the scene change in time, and it gave us an enormous sense of achievement. The adrenaline ride that the show took us on each night was addictive, and I looked forward to going in to call it each night.
On the flip side, when cast and crew get bored, it can put a dampener on everything. You can tell people aren’t happy – they start mucking up, and then there’s discipline required from Stage Management. There are ways to prevent it though. Five years ago I worked on a production of Entertaining Mr Sloane, where the entire crew had no cue for over an hour. By the end of the first week everyone was getting very bored, and started using the time to rate the nightly performances (bad idea – see A Beginner’s Guide to Cans Etiquette). So we decided to do something together to pass the time. We decided to knit. Those who didn’t know how to knit learned, and those who did know helped the others. Knitting was good because we could still pay attention to the show and it was easy to put down if something went wrong. It seems like a silly thing now, but that ended up being a great season in the end, and it’s all because we found our way through what was, from a backstage perspective, a very quiet show.
So, how to choose my Sistine Chapel? I don’t know if I can. Each show means something different to me. One show is where I made some of my most lasting friendships, one show is where I laughed the most, one show is the one that took hold of my heart and still hasn’t let go, one show had me addicted to the adrenaline, one show when I was 38 weeks pregnant with my first child, one show when I was 38 weeks pregnant with my second child, one show where we danced the hokey-pokey every night at the beginner’s call, one show where we toured for so long I forgot which venue we were in, one show where it was just four of us and we drank two fingers of top-shelf whiskey after every show in the dressing room talking about the world.
So my Sistine Chapel is not just one production. Instead, it is the accumulation of memories, intangible moments and feelings; layers of brushstrokes that together form the complete work.