Back in the day I used to do a lot of sound and lighting for student theatre. I did a lot in Oxford, and went up to Edinburgh a number of times to do the Edinburgh Fringe. I did not go to Oxford University, but I did hang around with a lot of people who did. Once or twice I contributed to a theatre column in a student paper. It’s a bit thespy because it’s okay to experiment with language when you’re young. Reprinted here because why not.
We are known variously as technical managers or technical directors but in truth technical ambassador is more accurate. We scribble authoritatively on bits of paper, climb ladders and confidently stride about with complicated looking equipment. But as we crouch at the back of the theatre, we’re just as exposed as those on stage. As the last of the audience take their seats, we’re praying to the gods of the theatre just as fervently: we know exactly what can go wrong. But even our own fears are surpassed sometimes.
Fringe venues seem to compete with each other for obscurity. This year I found myself in a stone-walled, dank venue in the bowels of the city that even Mervyn Peake would have baulked at. This dramatic space had high, uneven walls, stalactites and a damp problem. We put up with it for most of the run but toward the end the gods turned on us. The water, hitherto content with running down the walls and making the venue manager ill, started dripping from the ceiling.
You have to put up with a lot worse as a techie, and a few drops of water running down my neck wasn’t going to put me off my stride. But as the drips approached the equipment, landing on the lighting desk, I must confess I did start to worry. Foraging for plastic to cover the desk with, returning every now and again to run a cue, I noticed that all was not well on stage.
Scenes that should have been brightly lit were slightly dimmer. Fades took twice as long and the wrong lanterns came up. One poor character had to act half a scene in complete darkness. Grappling with the faders, I attempted to do the show manually. That only seemed to anger the gods further.
The carefully timed snap-blackout that usually ended the show to rapturous applause took about five seconds, leaving the actor frozen in position and the audience mulling the punch-line over at their leisure. No amount of fader-twiddling would convince the lighting desk otherwise.
The curtain call, a chance for the cast to redeem the production in the audience’s eyes, didn’t go much better. The shaken cast, glad that it was all over, marched triumphantly on stage and up came the lights for the last time. But they didn’t get the warm, bright wash they deserved. The sulking machine allowed them nothing but a solitary purple lamp shining on their feet.
Needless to say, bloody sacrifices of propitiation will be made in future.