Find your light
So, my solo show Storyland opens at The Gilded Balloon tomorrow, and today - like the day before any show opens - the same story runs through my mind.
Back in the day when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and I was at drama college, I was lucky/unlucky/coerced enough to take part in our second-year stage spectacular – a theatrical version of the epic Victorian novel, ‘Vanity Fair.’ If you don’t know anything about Vanity Fair the novel, it follows the lives of Becky Sharp and her pal, Emmy, during and after the Napoleonic wars.
Because the story is set in pretty society homes, where pretty girls with bouncing curls wonder whether their soldier loves them, and because I am – and always have been – an uncurly Scottish person who is as much at home in Victorian society houses as I would be amongst a reclusive tribe in the Amazon jungle, I was cast as a narrator. My job was to stand at the side of the stage and introduce each scene as it was about to be acted out.
The director was very ambitious. There was a variety of sound and lighting effects. The play was double cast, which meant that there were twice as many people learning the same play, and they would alternate each night.
It took place in an old-style theatre where the stage is raked – which means it’s on a slope to make better sight lines for the audience.
The set was fairly simple, a cluster of little platforms on wheels that could be constructed into different setups - though you don’t have to be an engineering genius to work out that when you have a stage that is effectively a little hill, wheeled anythings are asking for trouble.
Rehearsals were tense. But I know what you’re thinking, it would all work out right in the end, right? Wrong. Very very wrong.
The over-ambitious lighting design was impossible for the lighting operators (also students) to master. This meant that during the actual performances, lights would switch on and then suddenly switch off again.
Sometimes the stage would remain in darkness for what seemed like half an hour. Other times the light would appear, randomly, somewhere else.
An actor might make a dramatic entrance in full light, and start his great speech, only for the light to suddenly disappear.
Then, the light would frenetically reappear on an empty piece of stage, or another actor, or on the audience, or occasionally on a tech trying to silently set up another part of the stage for the next scene. And the actor would yell their speech, part theatrically/part distress-call into the darkness.
Even after all these years, I still laugh when I remember the lights going out on one actress during a particularly emotive speech. The light then reappeared, full beam, on a tech girl called Lesley – looking terrified and not at all curly or Victorian – holding a side table in one hand and half a roast chicken in the other.
But the lights weren’t the only problem. There was still the issue of those platforms on wheels on the sloped stage.
One particular actor would invariably jump onto the little platform to proclaim something of great importance, only for the little platform to then roll at significant speed towards the orchestra pit.
Sometimes the lights would go off simultaneously. And all you could hear in the darkness was the sound of the wheels and an actor whispering, “Fuck.Fuck.Fuck.Fuck. Not again. Fuck.Fuck.Fuck.” under his breath, culminating in either a bang and a yelp, or the sound of the wheels screeching to a halt and a sigh of relief.
Throughout it all, because of my sheer un-Victorian uncurliness, I stood at the side of the stage and tried my best to explain to the audience what part of the story we were at.
Sometimes I was in light. Sometimes I wasn’t. Sometimes I was part of a play. Sometimes it was more of a rescue mission.
When I left college and meandered into stand-up, periodically I’d work at places that were considered pretty tough: like the club in South London where the bouncers ended up being jailed for manslaughter, or the club in Northern Ireland where they informed me that they’d only had one woman play there before, and she’d escaped out the back door before the show ended, or hosting the ridiculously rowdy Late N Live in the Edinburgh Fringe.
Before going on, I’d stand at the side of the stage and look out into the bear pit of the audience. I’d think to myself, as long as there was a working light and the stage wasn’t on wheels, then the odds of everything working out fine were even.
And mostly, they were.
And on the times they weren’t, Vanity Fair taught me that even the shittiest shit-show will one day exist only in stress nightmares, or in stories told to friends.
So wherever you are today – whether it be pre, mid, or post shit-show, know that whatever bothers you will one day just be a crazy story you tell.
And tomorrow’s first show will bring what it may. All I can do is look for the light.
Till next week
Edinburgh Fringe Festival Shows
Find Your Light. Audio version
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