Where’s My Basement When I Need It?

 

Down in my parents’ basement, beside the ever-growing selection of camping and canoeing gear, there is a large series of wooden shelves that line one wall of the den. From floor to ceiling, these shelves are the location of the assorted fabric, notions, craft supplies, and woodworking supplies that my mother (with some help from my sister and I!) has accumulated over the last twenty-odd years. It’s somewhat of a combination of a costume shop and a hardware store: if you need a screwdriver, bit, nail, screw, hammer, length of wire, pliers, wrench, or tape measure, it’s in a (messy) box on these shelves; if you need a needle, button, zipper, length of lace, crochet hook, knitting needle, or pattern, it’s also in a (similarly messy) box on these shelves. And where there are no boxes, there are piles and piles of fabric: white chiffon, cream fleece, grey and red suede, navy blue (and white and green and red and black) broadcloth, deep purple satin, bright blue lycra … We’ve never made an inventory of everything on those shelves, and – since it’s basically the remnants of the last couple decades’ sewing projects – it changes regularly, but the first step in any sewing or costuming project I’ve done in the last eight years has inevitably started with “Let’s look in the basement.”

(And if you need a circuit board, motors, LEDs, diodes, resistors, capacitors, amplifiers, piezo transducers, light bulbs, switches, battery holders, buzzers, or microphones, those are also in the basement. Admittedly in a different room and on a different – but still messy – shelf. If you want the router, the table saw, or enough space to construct anything, you do have to move to the garage, where the workbench lives.)

Antony and Cleopatra is a good example: when the costume designer dropped out about ten days before the show, leaving absolutely nothing done, the stage manager and I got to pick up the slack, for the simple reason tbat the two of us both knew how to sew.

Toronto being much closer to Ottawa than Oxford is, the first thing I did was hop on a bus and make a quick trip home, with a lengthy list in hand: we needed navy blue, green, gold, and red fabric (check), appropriate colours of thread (check), black and grey cloaks (check), corsets (check), shawls (check), skirts (check), dresses (check), and gold costume jewelry (check). (This was when not having very many lines/scenes became a really good thing: during run-throughs and tech, I spent most of the time in a corner with the sewing machine, popped onstage long enough to say “Hail, Caesar, and my lord! Hail, most dear Caesar …” – and then promptly returned to producing colour-coded army tunics.) The round-trip bus fare – which the production subsidized – was a tiny fraction of the value of the stuff that promptly arrived in Toronto.

Another example: several years ago (age fourteen, I think), I was supposed to play the violin at a funeral, and managed to realize the morning of that I didn’t have any black clothes that still fit. Neither of my parents were at home, which effectively – at the time – ruled out “driving to a store and buying a dress”.

But why panic? There was black fabric and thread in the basement – there’s fabric and thread of pretty much any colour in the basement – and a sewing machine. (To be precise, three sewing machines …) There was even a black zipper of the right length in the notions box. So, four hours later, le voila! Black, stretch velvet, princess-seamed, ankle-length performance dress:

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(I still have it and it still fits; one of the advantages of not having changed size since the beginning of high school.)

In short: I’ve been thoroughly spoiled, because whenever things hit the fan, and I or a production desperately needed item X (usually with a budget of $0), I could usually walk down to the basement and – with some creativity, and some improvisation – find either something that would do, or something that would let me create item X within a few hours.

And there’s a part of my brain that still problem-solves as though I have access to that. Need radio for a show? Well, the components to build a functioning one (very useful for getting the news when the power goes out for a week after a snow- or ice-storm) are all in the basement … on the other side of the Atlantic … Need brains for a show? Well, there’s appropriately coloured plasticine and modelling clay (and even a potter’s wheel) in the basement … on the other side of the Atlantic …

This is of course not an insoluble problem; it is possible to go out and buy said materials without too much difficulty. It just takes longer than walking down to the basement and pulling things out of a box, and it actually costs money.

… of course, it’s also more time-consuming to buy things, since in the last few years, one of the largest mall complexes in Ottawa was built on the fields formerly across the street from my house. This conveniently included Home Depot, Future Shop, The Source (Radioshack successor), Canadian Tire, Walmart, Staples, Bulk Barn, Mark’s Work Warehouse, and several gaming & sports stores. So need 6’ long wooden dowel to make a spear in Ottawa? Walk across the street. Need 6’ long wooden dowel to make a spear in Oxford? Embark on epic search to find a store that actually sells lumber, then walk thirty minutes to get there.

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Costuming for my first-ever Oxford production has thus been rather enlightening. In true Oxford fashion, the costume budget was nowhere near zero, though also in true Oxford fashion, the prices for fabric are quite a bit higher here. (Fabric that I would pay $2.50 a yard for in the US does cost £2.50 a metre in the UK, even after running through all of my usual tricks for getting inexpensive fabric. Not how exchange rates are supposed to work! If shipping costs were not so exorbitant, I would absolutely start ordering from the US…)

And while I certainly have created my own patterns from scratch before, it’s rarely been necessary: between my own pattern collection, my mother’s pattern collection, my grandmothers’ pattern collections, and the existing costume collection, there’s usually something in the basement that can be used as a basic template (and then adapted – sometimes radically – to get the desired look). So the task of recreating patterns for period dresses, a corset, nightgowns, shirts, collars, trousers, vests, and so forth was certainly an entertaining one.

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I was, ultimately, fairly happy with the results – though I would have been even happier if I’d managed to spend less of the production’s money (my version of what constitutes a lot of money is still calibrated for Ottawa, rather than Oxford!), and if I’d gotten measurements from the cast much earlier – last-minute feats of speed-sewing are, while doable, hardly ideal.

I certainly do begin to understand why costumes are, in so many recent Oxford productions I’ve seen, stripped to the bare minimum, or consist almost entirely of items the cast already own: the time required to either source or make period-appropriate costumes, or specialized costumes consistent with an overall design, is somewhat inconsistent with a system that has not entirely learned how to plan (or to make firm creative decisions) months or weeks in advance.

~~~

Oh, well. At least I now have a new collection of leftover thread (and buttons, and a few other things) … it did come in handy for sewing, of all things, velcro onto curtains for another production this term. And I suspect that – while it will clearly be capped by the amount of space available in my room! – the more extra notions and random sewing stuff I accumulate on this side of the pond, the easier I will find any future costuming projects.

(Though it will also, inevitably, make moving an … interesting … challenge … the number of books in my room has already provided some incentive for moving as infrequently as possible during my time in Oxford; the sewing machine and assorted accessories are going to add significantly to that!)

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Theatre in Oxford

(or: Juggling Many Hats)

Assassins

 

Evaluating the quality of LED Parcans. Fake blood capsules. Cycloramas. Fabrics-that-look-like-silk-but-cost-less. Lighted candles on stage. Fire regulations. Stage combat workshops. Risk assessments. Hiring thirty square metres of raised staging. The mildly annoying detail that theatres in Canada still do architectural drawings in imperial, necessitating the purchase of a new scale ruler that will do metric (and switching AutoCAD settings!) How to twirl a double-bladed lightsaber 101. Making a 1960s-esque radio in sixty minutes flat, the day a show opens.

These are just a few of the things that have flown by my radar screen in the last few weeks, thanks to the ever-entertaining job that is working on – and training for – theatrical productions. So far, I’ve only finished one show – as ASM (assistant stage manager) for the Sondheim musical Assassins (tech week Nov. 23-30) – but mostly as a result of that production, I also have no shortage of plans in the pipeline for next term.

(And because I don’t believe in leaving things to the last minute … you can guess how much planning is happening/going to happen over the Christmas break!)

Now, as is perhaps evident from the variety of topics touched upon above, my role in theatre tends to be one that involves juggling a lot of hats simultaneously. (To take some non-Oxford examples, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore saw me as stage manager, fight captain, and costume crew/corset creator – in addition to performing in the show itself as a fighter and dancer. For Antony and Cleopatra, last year, I was originally cast as an ordinary actor in a minor role – Octavia – and then ended up doing both fight choreo and costumes.)

Unsurprisingly, while the staging of a production and the composition of a production team don’t differ too much from Canadian theatre, there are, as I have discovered, a few divergences on this side of the pond, and particularly in Oxford. One of which is the amount of work and responsibility foisted upon the stage manager: in Oxford, the workload is considerably lightened!

This has the potential to be a very good thing: on most shows that I’ve worked on before, if the director is absent, the stage manager is basically in charge, and certainly is tasked with being the communications nexus of the show. Making a cast-scene breakdown, making preliminary props, costumes, lighting, and sound plots, distributing scripts, scheduling rehearsals, preparing and distributing daily and weekly schedules, posting same on call boards, creating and keeping the prompt script up to date, attending all rehearsals and keeping a record of the blocking, ensuring that rehearsals run on schedule, passing on notes from the director to the production team, finding rehearsal props and costumes, taking minutes at production meetings and distributing them, running Q2Q, recording and then calling cues, taping the rehearsal floor (and then stage floor), allocating dressing rooms and make-up shifts, managing risk and ensuring that safety regulations are followed … all of these tasks (and quite a few more) appear on the University of Ottawa’s “Technical Task Guidelines” under the heading of “Stage Manager”.

And this makes sense: theoretically, the director and designers may have moved on to other shows after opening night, and it is therefore the responsibility of the stage manager to maintain “to the best of his/her ability, the artistic and technical intention of the Director, Producer, and Designer” (Canadian Theatre Agreement, p. 56).

In practice, that means my pre-show checklist would include a fairly long list of things, some of which are below:

– showing up with the keys and unlocking the building, booth, dressing rooms, etc.

– sweep stage floor; check audience seating & clean if necessary

– verifying that the lighting and sound ops have run their pre-show checks – or doing these myself if this is a student show and the lighting/sound ops don’t know how (and yes, this has absolutely included getting up on a ladder and re-focusing a light if it’s shifted)

– ensuring that all the actors show up, and tracking them down if they’re late

– checking/setting props

– checking costumes, and setting up for any quick changes

– verifying that the paging system is working, and that the program sound system is on

– coordinating watches and communicating with the house manager

– giving 15-minute, 5-minute, and “places” calls to the actors

– dealing with any crises that arise (actor took costume piece home, left it there, and realizes this five minutes before they need it onstage, prop breaks, light burns out, costume tears …)

The result, of course, is that knowing-a-little-bit-about-a-lot-of-things is fairly essential, and that the flexibility that I have tends to come in very handy.

***

… on the other hand, if this still sounds like an inordinate amount of work for one person, even if aided by an ASM or two, Oxford clearly agrees. The duties above are split up between multiple people – the stage manager, the deputy stage manager (who actually has very little to do with the SM, and is primarily responsible for recording blocking during rehearsals, and calling the show), the production manager, the director, and any assistant stage managers.

So at least on Assassins, that whole long list of things the SM & ASM must do before/during a show was reduced to something like this:

– sweep floor & check audience seating

– check/set props

– run fight calls (the idea of having a separate fight captain/fight director to do this is apparently not usually a thing in Oxford student theatre, ergo this is assigned to the SM)

– ensure that actors get props when needed, and help with quick changes

This has distinct advantages, inasmuch as – hey! less work! less time taken away from studying! – and distinct disadvantages, inasmuch as I didn’t get to know the actors/director very well, and I spent most of tech week feeling as though I really ought to be doing more work – and contributing more – than I was.

***

The other key differences between Ottawa and Oxford have mostly to do with Oxford not having a theatre/drama program: in Ottawa, there are a bevy of people far more qualified than me to do set design, and everyone in the theatre department – even students focused primarily on acting – would have had to complete a set of core technical theatre courses. This would be even more the case for something like lighting, where I was a fairly competent technician, but was never so much as a lighting crew head, never mind a designer.

Oxford, different scenario: I apparently have more technical training than the majority of Oxford students can easily get. (With some very notable exceptions, many of whom I had the privilege of meeting and working with on Assassins! And no, I am not simply saying that because some of them may read this – my parents and a few close friends could undoubtedly attest to the fact that they’ve had to put up a great deal of me gushing about the general awesomeness of the Assassins production team in the last few weeks!) But, yes, while Oxford’s student productions have more funding and much bigger budgets (and I am in absolute awe of some of the equipment that the theatres here have and take for granted), they also don’t have large numbers of trained students to draft in as lighting crew, set crew, or costume crew – the designers end up doing the work themselves. And getting to the level of competence where one could in fact design a show (if, say, one was a fresher arriving with an interest but no training) seems like it would be a serious hurdle.

The level of professionalism assumed on student productions also differs, and this is one area where Ottawa has a leg up: at least from my observations, there was, and is, a fairly close connection between university theatre productions and professional theatre productions. I could cite a long list of friends and acquaintances who – like me – started out in UOttawa’s theatre department, and then through the resulting connections, experience, and training, ended up working on professional shows in and around the city. Ottawa being Ottawa, the theatre community is sufficiently close-knit that I always assumed that any reputation, whether positive or negative, gained on student productions would inevitably affect the likelihood of getting professional work: Equity actors have performed in university shows, the Drama Guild will bring in professional designers to work alongside students for major productions, and Professor Lockhart prefaced his tech courses with the explicit statement that if you could pass his exams, you ought to be able to pass the exam to become an IATSE apprentice. I’m pretty sure it was the department’s introductory course, THE 1100, when I first heard the saying “If you’re early, you’re on time; if you’re on time, you’re late; and if you’re late, you’re fired.” As a SM, I would be calling an actor and wondering if something had gone wrong if they were so much as five minutes late – because everyone else would be in the rehearsal room, ready to go, and waiting on them.

Oxford has a much more laid-back approach, which is on the one hand more relaxing, and can be on the other hand quite amusing – and though it has not been too frustrating thus far, there are definite drawbacks. A production meeting scheduled for 1:00pm, for instance, does not mean that the meeting starts at 1:00pm and that everyone will be there 5-10 minutes before that – it means that the meeting will actually get started around 1:15, and most people will arrive between 1:05 and 1:15. Rehearsal schedules, same deal: the actors will not be ready to start a tech rehearsal at 9:00am if that is the call time; most of them will show up somewhere between 9:05 and 9:30, probably not having eaten breakfast yet, and therefore not actually ready to work until something like 9:45.

***

All of which means that I am in the following, rather odd, position: the flexibility and technical training so useful as a stage manager in Ottawa does not actually seem needed, as much, when working as a stage manager in Oxford. The role of an SM here is quite tame, comparatively speaking! But that same technical training and flexibility means that I can take on other positions – set designer, assistant lighting designer – that I would have had much less chance of doing in Ottawa, and consequently (I hope – the next few years will test this) gain a great deal of valuable experience.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, I am back to juggling multiple hats. Set, costumes, lighting, fight work, and stage management are all on the horizon for the next several months: it should be quite the adventure!

***

(I swear I am also getting academic work/research done. Truly. In fact, I just received word that an abstract that I finished and submitted in the middle of tech week for Assassins was accepted – so I will be giving my first conference presentation in Denmark in March!)