In her final diary, Jenna Russell takes us through Urinetown The Musical’s tech week, with all its highs and painful lows.
So this week we are in our new home for the next three months, the St James Theatre. It’s a very new theatre and we all feel quite spoilt. Backstage at most London theatres is never the glamorous thing one would expect. The Victorians liked to throw around the gold leaf and beautiful plaster work at the front of their theatres but were happy to leave backstage very plain, dull and cold, usually consisting of hundreds of stairs leading to tiny dressing rooms and toilets that leave a lot to be desired.
Bless ‘em, actors usually bring in loads of stuff from home in the vain attempt to try and give their dull little rooms some personality. This mostly consists of pictures of families and friends, children’s drawings, tea making facilities, music systems. I even worked with an actress (many moons ago) who had an aviary built in her dressing room!
Alas in the tiny St James Theatre there is no room for such luxury. We have a cast of 21, a band of six, stage management, crew, wardrobe, wigs and sound departments all cramped into the backstage area. The theatre has two dressing rooms that normally seat four each comfortably! I have to say what they have done to incorporate us all is amazing, it’s all terribly cozy but there is room for everything and everyone. Tidiness and a Buddhist like approach to calmness is going to be the key factor here!
So we start our technical rehearsal. A technical, for those who don’t know, is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s the first time everyone gets to work on the set with lights and in full costume, make-up and wigs and microphones if it’s a musical. You work through the show from the top and often it’s a very slow process with wardrobe practicing crazy quick-changes, the sound department designing a soundscape and making sure you can be heard over the orchestra, the lighting designer working his or her magic and so on. They can be lots of fun if you have the right head on.
We’ve all been part of some seriously awful painstaking technical and this is usually the time where someone has a freak out! Not on this show though, thank the Lord!
It’s also the first time you really get to see what your character looks like. I started off the week with a beautiful blond wig and very natural make-up and by Tuesday evening I looked like an extra from Shaun Of The Dead with a greasy matted wig and face painted white with red lipstick smeared across it. Apparently I had been looking too glamorous from out front – there’s a first! Suffice to say, it’s not a ‘pulling’ part!
As it’s technical week the hours are long and my brilliant other half suggested that the four hour daily commute might be too much and that I should stay in London so I don’t get too run down. It’s even lovelier of him as it is half term and he has to be mum and dad non-stop for the week. So I have abandoned the family and am staying at the affectionately named Smelly Flat, so named due to unforeseen damp issues (I’m laughing but inside I’m crying!).
In Smelly Flat there is a bed, heating and hot water and that’s it! My tea in the morning is made in a pan with tea bags stolen from the theatre… Oh the glamorous life!
On Wednesday my other half brings my four-year-old daughter to the theatre to meet me for lunch and see where Mummy works. I tried to warn her on the phone that I don’t look very pretty in my part and am wearing funny make- up. Bless her little heart, I went to the foyer to give her a cuddle looking like Miss Hannigan’s dodgy sister and, after looking at me for a moment in either shock or terror, she tells me that I look beautiful. If you ever wondered what the point of having children was…
True to form our director Jamie Lloyd is looking after us all. We are not working in the mornings, which gives the technical staff some time to work on the set and lighting without the actors getting in the way. It also gives the acting company some time to rest up.
Technicals are a notorious time for everyone getting ill. Our dressing rooms are stuffed full of fruit, vitamin supplements, First Defence, Manuka Honey, ginger and my personal fave Pei Pa Koa, a delicious Chinese herbal drink that soothes the throat like nothing else.
Wednesday morning I feel the start of a migraine approaching and take my tablets. But it’s to no avail and by mid-afternoon I’m feeling rank, so with a throbbing head and nausea we get to the end of Act One where there is smoke and strobe lightning! I am in a tight-fitting wig and full riot gear with a mask that makes me feel like I’m sinking into a black hole!
After dinner break I feel really faint and under the orders of the girls in my room I’m told to lie down with my feet up. It helps.
It’s not often that you are lying on your cramped dressing room floor looking up at the underside of your dressing room table! There’s no chewing gum stuck there which is a good sign (a game I play in restaurants with my daughter to find out if they are posh or not!), but there are a few actors’ signatures from past shows. We’ll all have to sign too before we leave.
As I can’t walk in a straight line without wanting to be either sick or fall over I’m sent home to Smelly Flat for the evening session. I feel horribly embarrassed as I have never missed a tech session in 33 years!
I wake on Thursday feeling tons better so we plough on. Luckily I didn’t miss too much as they spent the evening teching the amazing numbers Snuff That Girl and Run Freedom Run. Is there a better Act Two opening combo out there? I seriously doubt it! I can’t wait to see and hear the audience response to them. Brilliant material expertly played.
The rest of the tech is a blast. We even get serenaded by Jamie bursting into song! Most directors use their god mics (I kid you not, that’s what they are called) to bark instructions at you and occasionally tell you to “Shut the f**k up!” Not in this tech or in fact throughout the whole rehearsal period. There’s surely a lesson here for all directors past, present and future that you can be a very fine director and have a laugh too.
I’ve never known a company more dedicated and committed to a director, he effortlessly manages to make everyone in the room feel important and have worth. There has never been a voice raised and above all else he is bloody good! Forensic in his detail, sharp with his comedy and brave with his vision. It is honestly, a joy.
This is the last of my behind-the-scenes diaries. Thanks for reading them! I don’t want to give too much away about the show as it’s so delicious in its many surprises. Even if you saw the Broadway production as I was lucky enough to, our version is so different and has so many new ideas it’s truly worth seeing again and again.
We stepped in front of our first audience on Saturday night and it seemed to be received really well. Is it boasting to say that we had a very spontaneous full standing ovation? I hope not, but that’s what happened!