For Serena and all those who’re dying to find out more about my Prague adventure, here’s the second installment!
CHAPTER 4 – THE OPENING So we’re ready for our opening night. We’ve practised our get-ins and outs and are ready to set our stage in 10 minutes. So we creep downstairs in the darkness and wait for the show before us to finish in order to rush into the theatre and start unpacking our set. But the show before us doesn’t finish… It goes on and on and on. It’s about seals, apparently, a two hander about a legend of the sea… Nice, but can they please hurry up? We lean against the theatre door: they’re singing. “Pum, pa-pa-pa-pa pum!” Sweet. Then minutes later we’re still waiting. Finally, we hear clapping. Without even waiting for the audience to exit we storm in and invade the stage, casting angry glances at the two seal-actors. There’s a strict policy at the festival, all the shows must be under one hour long. The seal story will have to be shortened, perhaps they could cut the boring song.
IT’s OUR TURN!!
We pray that Polly’s going to remember everything and that Ellie will play the songs as we want them and not in the pop/folk version she’s keen on.
Polly isn’t wearing her hearing aid which is slightly worrying. Lee, Becka and I decide we’re going to poke Polly every time we hear her cues. Also, Polly is wearing a brown bra under her white costume and it shows. And white knickers with red dots. Her white pantaloons are a bit baggy and the knickers stick out. She looks like a 63 years old Croydon chav at Bluewater’s mall. Not exactly the look we’re trying to convey. “Ahm, Polly?” Lee begins, with her notorious cheeky smile on her face. Polly doesn’t reply because she can’t hear. “Polly?” Lee tries again. Nothing. “Polly!” She shouts, as if to call a dog that’s run away too far. “Yes?” she says. “You don’t happen to have some… white underwear by any chance?” “What?” “WHITE UNDERWEAR?” “Oh, yes, I thought about it. I actually packed some but I left it at the flat. Why? does this show?” “Yes.” “Oh…. Oh well, I’ll wear some white stuff tomorrow.”
Lee is not happy with this. The red dotted knickers could be pushed back inside the pantaloons but the brown bra must be sorted out. Idea! Let’s cover her bra in white graff tape…. She lifts Polly’s camisole like a doctor checking her lungs. Polly lifts her arm, surrending to whatever this bunch of crazy young actresses have decided to put her through…. Lee frantically begins to cut out pieces of tape and stick it to Polly’s bra, until the garment is totally covered. Once she’s finished she takes a step and looks at her. What do you think? She asks me. Polly looks as if she’s recovering from breast implants, her chest covered in what looks like white plasters.
Before I can express my opinion, Becka comes back.
Now, if I really LOVE clothes and fashion and looks, Becka is completely OBSESSED with it. In fact Becka is the only woman I know who has more clothes than myself and my friend Tanya put together (and I thought Tanya and I were unbeatable). Becka’s sense of aesthetics is better than Armani’s and Dior’s put together. So imagine her face when she enters the dressing room and find Polly covered in tape. “What’s that??” Lee looks at her apologetically. “We’re trying to fix her bra. It’s brown… It shows. Why? Do you think it’s hidious?” Becka coughs. “Why don’t we check how she looks under the lights? Perhaps it might work.” We drag Polly (who’s totally giving up on understanding what’s going on) under the lights: “Oh dear,” says Lee. “It’s like the Mummy,” I say. “Forget about the tape” proclaims Becka. We drag Polly back to the dressing room. “What’s happening now?” Polly asks. “We take it off.” And so saying, Lee lifts her camisole and pulls at the tape that comes off in one bra-shaped chunk. We’re back at square one. “I can’t believe it,” Lee says. “I’m sure I’d brought some spare white underwear and left it in the dressing room yesterday, but it’s disappeared!” Out of the blue, Ellie appears. “What’s up girls?” “Polly has brown underwear. And we’ve lost the spare white underwear we’d packed.” “Do you mean this stuff? It was in the guitar case.” We look at Ellie. She’s holding a bag full of white vests. “What’s going on?” asks Polly. “Polly, get rid of that brown bra. NOW!” Now, after turning her into the greatest comic character of this post, I need a minute to talk seriously about Polly. Yes, she’s a bit hazy, and a bit deaf and not always reliable…But dear me, she’s a good actress. The paradox is that we worry so much about her, we fret around her, we cue her, we repeat things 20 times to her… Then she goes on stage and she kills us all. Once Polly on stage she’s amazing. Her presence is strong, her voice is powerful, she’s funny, dramatic, grotesque, ironic… just great. She’s from that generation of actors who didn’t speak much about their skills, their technique, their method… They just acted. They toured for months, they played in rep companies alternating 4 shows in a month, they didn’t freak out if they couldn’t “warm up”. I have the feeling Polly thinks we’re all mad, that all our preoccupations are silly, that we’re just…. playing.
“Say your words and don’t bump into the furniture”, this is all the “method” she needs. It would make most of my contemporary scream in disgust, but the more I act the more I realise that all the “myth” around this profession, all the talk about the need to warm up, create the right energy, get into the character, etc etc counts nothing when you don’t have common sense. The daily reality of this profession is that you need to go on stage with no time for preparation, with a cold, with a cough, with props missing because you can’t find them, with one of your colleagues pissed off because their husband has upset her, with the audience not caring, with the air con in the theatre not working…
The nitty gritty of this profession is say your line and don’t bump into furniture. The reality of our job is that it’s a job, and you must treat it with respect but also with realism, with humour, as any other job. We’re doing a play, we’re not celebrating mass. We’re all full of energy and even Ellie manages almost to play the songs in the right way. Almost… I manage to get wrapped up in the 10 meter long piece of tulle I use to play Thetis (a nymph who tries to run away from Zeus only to be raped and impregnated by him) AND, more importantly, to get out of it. I can say that this is a trick that doesn’t go smoothly every night. Sometimes part of the set gets stuck in te tulle, sometimes they wrap me so tightly I can’t free myself and start panicking. Once Becka sprayed deodorant on the tulle, before the show, as it was stinking and I almost died of gas poisoning… But on the opening night none of that happens. The audience claps enthusiastically.
We made it. Yes, Christoph cut the music of our dance routine too soon, and played track 3 instead of track 2, yes there was one missing lipstick and yes we messed up words here and there (but hey, it’s poetry! Nobody can tell as half of the audience only understands part of it anyway, and the other half is foreign). We congratulate each other backstage and jump up and down, until we’re kicked out by the next group of actors claiming the space – an Irish company presenting “Krapp’s last tape.”
Now, a parenthesis needs to be opened about this company. Their show was apparently very good but they looked like the most depressed people in the Czech republic. First of all their director, Peter, had broken an arm on arriving in Prague (NOT a good omen) and he was wandering about the city wearing a sling and looking miserable as shit. Second, their main actor walked shyly and quietly as if had already decided nobody would ever been insterested in his Krapp (joke not intended); third, their (fairly big) stage manager was the angriest young woman Ireland has ever produced, scaringly staring at people from under her mafioso hat and quite openly hating us – and Becka in particular – for being slim. We were the only people the Krapp people really got to talk to, not only because we couldn’t logistically run away from them (being on stage right before performance) but also because we were the only ones to kind of feel sorry for them and offer them a shoulder to cry on. Everyone else would just hide as soon as they spotted them and touch wood, balls, red horns and any other amulet against bad luck. Oh, poor Peter!!! It’s not by being angry, scary, accusing the Festival of poor publicity strategy (quite rightly I must admit, we had to start hanging posters and handing out leaflets to tourists ourselves) and cornering actors to ask in a threatening tone how their show is doing that one can win sympathy and fill seats. At every passing day the negative energy surrounding him grew denser and heavier, his anger darker, his brows more ruffled, until I could almost see a thick black cloud announcing his arrival every time he approached the theatre. I think he secretly fancied Lee. . Every night she’s finish the show with a big grin on her face only to find Peter waiting for her in the foyer, ready to ask the fatal question: . “How many people did you have tonight?” “Er, not that many,” Lee ‘d try to say. “Perhaps 25?” He’d collapse on a chair. “We have 3 people booked.” “I’m sure more will turn up,” She’d say. “People often don’t book. And actually our show wasn’t that great tonight, you know. Lot’s of technical problems…” “Oh yeah?” Peter’d say, almost relieved at the news. “Gremlins are haunting us, eh?” “Yes! Gremlins! They’re nasty!” And so saying Lee would sneak out and rush away from his grasp.
It’s time to celebrate. At 11.30pm, after the last show has finished the A Rubin Studio becomes a bar and everyone involved in the Festival convey there to drink. Now, that would have been in itself a challange, considering there are hundreds of people involved in the Festival and the Rubin’s bar is as big as my sitting room. But the REAL problem is that there are hundreds of people in a place as big as my sitting room, and 95% of them smokes…. Have you ever tried a gas chamber? Have you ever tried a gas chamber with loud music and loud chats and you have to try to be heard over all that and over the thick blanket of smoke? Well, it turns out nobody in the Czech Republic has ever heard of the danger of smoke, nobody has lung cancer and nobody even SUSPECTS that smoke could bother non-smokers. They smoke EVERYWHERE. Restaurants, cafes, trams… Christoph was smoking IN the theatre, It’s like a national sport “Let’s find the smallest place we could smoke in!” Once I was in a tiny cafe eating a sandwich and coughing my lungs out (we all became sick, what with the cold weather, the lack of sleep and the lung-unfriendly enviroment) and two middle aged Czech ladies sitting right next to me just non-chalantly lit up a fag and began to exhale in my face! And I was coughing! And eating… I know, I know, it used to be the same in the rest of Europe, but how civilized we look now! Smoke is one of the nastiest things humanity has ever invented to try and self-destroy, and if I needed a proof that the smoke ban is a good idea as you simply CAN’T count on smokers’ respect for non-smokers, well Prague is the example. Smokers are oblivious of any non-smoker around them, full stop. So smokers should just poison themselves in the privacy of their stinking houses.
The very good thing about Prague though is public transport. Even in the middle of the night they’re spot on time. Always. You can tell what time it is on the basis of which tram is coming. People set their clocks on their local trams! I don’t know whether this is one of the very good things that the communist regime did do or whether the Czech are just reliable like the Germans, but it was pretty cool. It meant that when I had to drag a fairly drunk Lee back home, we only had to cross the street and reach the N 22 stop outside the theatre and exactly at 3.03am there it was, the splendid 22, full of stinking drunks but totally on time.
Pity after a few stops the tram stops at Lazerska. And sits there for 20 minutes. It’s 3.30am and Lee and I are desperate for our beds and almost out of oxigen, what with the smoke and the stink of sweat. Turns out that in the past all trams used to stop at Lazerska at night, because there used to be lots of cheap food stalls and the drivers and people returning home after a night of boozing would leave the tram and buy themselves a snack before re-boarding the tram and continue their journey. Pity the food stalls have disappeared years ago and there’s absolutely no reason for the tram to stop at Lazerska for 20 minutes. But hey, rules are rules, computer says “tram stops for no reason” and driver follows order.
At 4am, we finally see Tesco’s in the distance. HOME!!!!! That Tesco should represent home in the Czech Republic is quite upsetting
TO BE CONTINUED