Thursday, October 18, 2007

More bright sparks

I'd blogged previously about Spark*, a community arts programme for schools. On Tuesday afternoon, I was given the chance to go along to one of the post-course celebrations held at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
My role was to be an attendant in the main auditorium, which involved a small amount of training as to what to do in the event of a fire alarm. I was given my own special usherette seat at the back of the theatre, seen below.

From here it was possible to observe the audience and also notice if the fire alarm had gone off. In Britain, fire alarms are silent in theatres, being indicated by warning lights. A number of red strobe heads were pointed out to us near the doors and we were advised that the audience wouldn't be aware of them but we would. (This isn't strictly true as I always notice these things and have seen them go off during a show elsewhere, fortunately just a false alarm that didn't stop the show. Conversely, I have seen shows stopped at places like Butlins where evacuation messages have sounded triggered by stage Pyrotechnics and smoke machines).

Although it was a stage performance, we were being treated as a Conference so it was not necessary to follow the full procedures. (The emergency exit from my part of the theatre passed through a private area but it would be OK to direct them back to the foyer on this occasion).

When I arrived rehearsals were in progress and there were about 400 happy, noisy children in the theatre. (It holds 750 in a large fan shape). After they had been fed, they all came back for the show proper. Four schools each presented set pieces on the topics they had chosen from a range of puppetry, music, street dance, rap, banners and masks. This snap from my usherette position shows a shadow puppet show in progress with musicians behind.

The set is actually for Don Quixote (& not a windmill in sight) although the theme for the day was the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the theatre's Christmas show.

Here is an audience shot, hundreds of children with their spark* yellow T shirts on, having a great time. Long live live theatre!

Iwas surprised to notice that our "new" theatre had now been open seventeen years. Originally the Leeds Playhouse, it lived for twenty years in a temporary theatre constructed within the shell of a sports hall (originally on a ten year lease). It had a vestigial stage there but a very large thrust forestage into the audience on three sides. They liked the design so much that when the new building opened, the main house was designed in a very similar way, but with proper flying facilities on the regular stage behind.

I came quite close to selling this theatre a new lighting control back in 1989 (an AVAB Expert, with the help of Ulf Sandström). They were really impressed with the system but the product was a little bit too new, had a few software bugs that could cause it to lock up at inopportune moments and what I described as occasional lumpy crossfades (when you worked the board hard, the transitions were not always entirely smooth). Had we made that sale, the fortunes of CCT Theatre Lighting (and my career path) might have been entirely different, but it was not to be.

This stage demands big sets, or minimalist ones. The best show I saw here was Little Shop of Horrors when they created a naturalistic "Skid Row" filling this vast space, complete with simulated passing elevated railway trains at the rear. At the Finale', electric drop boxes opened around the ceiling lighting catwalks, allowing dozens of huge green tentacles to fall down close to our heads. A dramatic finish!


Welshcakes Limoncello said...

I'm sure all the kids had a great time. I didn't know all that about fire alarms in theatres. And you got your special seat too!

jmb said...

Having read both of our choices for the vote, I cannot choose which one is more interesting although I think this one has the edge.
How come you got to be an usherette instead of an usher? she asks innocently.

This sounds like an excellent program, with a T-shirt as well.

Shades said...

I was an usher (or, in PC terms, an attendant). In UK, an usher is someone at a wedding, an usherette is someone with a torch at the movies.