“I’m about to do my fourth and final year at university” I would say.
“What are you studying?”
“Physics,” and whoever I was talking to would pull the same face that said: “so what are you doing in a theatre?”
I’m 21 and in a year’s time I will, with any luck, have graduated from Loughborough University with a masters in Physics. I’m at that stage where I have to think about where I want my life to be going. I’ve been at that stage for quite a while now. Pondering over many career titles I realised that I have always been drawn to the theatre and it’s somewhere I can see myself working. However, I don’t want to be an actor. I’ve taken part in four shows at the Edinburgh Fringe over four years and I’ve done shows at Loughborough. I had an idea of what needs to be done to put on a show, aside from writers writing, actors acting and directors directing, but in such small productions it’s difficult to know which jobs fall under which job title. In a professional company what does the producer, or stage manager, or artistic director or anyone actually do?
I live close to Colchester and have lived in the area for all of my life. So The Mercury was the obvious choice. I emailed them my CV and a covering letter and they offered me a week of work experience with them in September. I didn’t know all that much about the job titles I’ve already mentioned and I was about to be taken under the wing of a department about which I knew even less – the admin team. They sent me my itinerary before I arrived. In the morning I was doing admin and in the afternoon I would be with a different department each day. Thursday evening was the press night of ‘The Weir;’ a co-production between The Mercury and English Touring Theatre, and on Wednesday was the ‘Spektrix split.’ I thought the Spektrix split was going to be another show. Maybe some avant-garde physical theatre for children or something. How wrong I was.
I arrived at the theatre on Monday at 10am because that’s when they told me to get there. In fact I was a few minutes early. I was greeted by Valentina, the person I’d been emailing before I arrived, and my week of work experience officially began. She showed me to the admin office and gave me a tour of the place. I’d seen the auditorium before, of course, but never the workshop for sets and props and backdrops before. In fact, I was so ignorant that I didn’t even know it existed. I also had no idea there was a house behind the main building which housed the costume department downstairs, including a room full of shoes, and a lot of offices upstairs. It was very impressive, but this thing called ‘Mercury Rising’ is a scheme to make it even more so. That is the domain of the Development team and I was going to be seeing what they did on Friday morning.
Back to the admin office and I signed a few forms agreeing to let The Mercury amputate my leg if they want, or whatever – if I’m honest I didn’t really read it – and then I was given my very first task. Valentina handed me three pieces of A4 paper and told me to choose one. It was not a magic trick. My job was to pick which charity of the three was to receive two free tickets to a show at The Mercury while the other two would not. This wasn’t my idea of admin. I thought admin was paper clips and ink cartridges. After careful consideration I made my decision and that was that. She showed me to the computer I was going to be using during the week and introduced me to ‘Artifax’ which was the program used to keep track of what was going on in The Mercury by those working there, and to ‘Spektrix.’ Spektrix is not a contemporary dance troupe but is actually a software for selling tickets. I was very surprised to find out that as well as selling the tickets to their own shows The Mercury operates the ticket sales for stately homes and slightly more unusual venues up and down the country. Until that Wednesday, tickets for everything were on the same system, but now was the time to separate the Mercury shows from everything else and have two Spektrix systems. This was the Spektrix split. After meeting Carol, the other member of The Mercury’s admin double-act, it was time for lunch in the green room and once that was finished I went to experience the goings on in the Creative Learning and Talent department.
I did a few admin-like things for them and they did invite me to attend a youth theatre workshop which I’m afraid I declined on the grounds that overt enthusiasm isn’t really my forte. I got to hear a brief rendition of the ‘welcoming song’ that was going to be part of the workshop and, although very good, it did prove that the event wouldn’t have been my kind of scene. Then I joined The Mercury Theatre’s associate director Dan for a late lunch in Colchester. I should say I wasn’t eating, before you start getting ideas about me being the kind of person that has two lunches in one day. I explained why I’m doing the work experience, what I’m interested in and what I’ve done in theatre already, and we talked about what he does, what the life of a writer or a director is like and how you get started. It was all immeasurably helpful and I learned an awful lot. We went back to the creative learning office and I stayed there until it was time to call an end to my first day of work experience.
I got to the admin office at 9am on Tuesday and soon after I sat next to Valentina as she took the minutes of the managers’ meeting. After that it was back to admin. I had a username and password created for me and with ‘the split’ looming over us I was tasked with checking to see if the websites were as they should be, and with copying venues’ seating plans. So if you go to an event somewhere in Colchester and find yourself at a table in the middle of the dance floor then that’s probably my fault. The admin office kept me busy during the morning and after lunch I was with the producers. Tracey, the company producer, sat me down and we had a chat about what it is the producer actually does. She explained the process of when the Mercury produces a show from scratch and with an associate producer called Nathan I saw how they organise performances and events from visiting companies. It was a very lively office.
Wednesday morning. Dawn broke, and Carol and Valentina were close to breaking too. Today was the day the new system went “live.” There was a person from Spektrix there to help. I forget his name but he was very nice. I was told to transfer the show information from the ‘old’ system to the new one so that the sales team would know the details of what they were selling. So if the information for the pantomime has been mixed up with that of ‘A Night of Dirty Dancing’ then I’m really dreadfully sorry. I was relieved from admin duty in the afternoon to go and experience the daily life of the stage manager.
I tagged along with Marjanne, an assistant stage manager and measured some models of the pantomime set soon to be built full scale, and then we had another job; ‘The Weir’ is a play set in an isolated Irish pub in the ‘90s. Did you know there were five more polos in a packet back then than there are now? Carol told me that one. There isn’t a mention of polos in the play but they’re on the shelf on the set and so they needed to look authentic. To add to the already highly detailed set, the director wanted a plate and knife covered with breadcrumbs to go in there too. Marjanne and I went on our quest to find the right plate and the right knife in the Mercury’s storage and, once found, did them up so that it looks like someone’s just had a plate of toast. We then sanded down some model apples, as you do, so they were ready for painting and then we went to make sure all the props were in place for ‘The Weir.’ Or at least Marjanne did. I watched. I then went to meet the company stage manager Emily who explained the broader picture of being a stage manager and arranged for me to go backstage during the next day’s matinee performance of ‘The Weir.’ Exciting stuff. Back at the admin office the great split of 17 seemed to be going well and by the end of the day Carol and Valentina’s work had resulted in success.
The next day was a little calmer in the admin office. I was slightly late because I’d left my ticket to ‘The Weir’ in my mother’s car. Fear not, however, I recovered it and got to the theatre as soon as I could. There was admin to do. Until the afternoon that is, because then I was allowed to get in the way while everyone tried to set up for the matinee. It’s a play set in an Irish pub so no prizes for what the label said on the bottles. The bottles have to be refilled with something similar but non-alcoholic and re-capped before each show. I “helped” with some of that. I got to see the pre-show Q&A and then when it came to the performance itself I was backstage, seeing what the audience were completely oblivious to. Once that was over, I went to “help” the front of house staff. They were preparing for press night but took the time to tell me all about what they did, and when the audience started coming in I did the most helpful thing I could – I stayed out of the way until it was time to go into the auditorium. The show was fantastic, even though the great plate of breadcrumbs wasn’t visible from my seat (I was very disappointed), and a really great way to start a tour. As a piece of theatre it’s much better when you’re sitting down, not standing up behind the stage. The play had gone well, everyone was happy, and it was time for the after-show party featuring a cake made to look like one of the stars of the show – a pint of Guinness, of course. The night didn’t finish after that. Like something from a nature documentary, the theatre crowd migrated down the street to a nearby pub until it was time to go home.
That time to go home may have been later than it really should have been. Or at least that’s how I felt on Friday morning. Despite such hardship I made it to the theatre on time because I’m very professional. I was introduced to the two Abi’s – the development team I mentioned earlier – and after they had explained what they were up to we went to the fundraising committee meeting. I had been tasked with taking the minutes and was praying for their sake more than mine that nothing too important was going to be said. At least not something that desperately needed elaborate minutes. I’d never done it before and I found it a difficult job. It was hard to keep track of all the ideas being suggested and when I came to typing it all up I was never entirely sure if I’d actually taken down somebody’s joke as a genuine idea. Such is the off-the-wall nature of theatrical fundraising.
After a bit more time with the Abi’s I had been booked in for half an hour with the Artistic Director of the theatre, Daniel Buckroyd. It was a half hour I’d really been looking forward to and it didn’t disappoint. I’d been racking my brains for half an hour’s worth of questions to ask him since I’d been told of the meeting but as soon as I got to his office he started asking me the questions. This is one thing I was most taken aback by during my week; a very genuine desire to help and give good advice. What am I most interested in? What have I done before? Trying to suggest the best directions for the future. Very, very useful. He’s an incredibly busy man so once my time was up I didn’t keep him.
I made my way to the final department on my week-long tour of The Mercury – marketing. The marketing team had ideas for a window display in town based on ‘Snow White,’ which is this year’s pantomime. They asked me to find where nearby they could get model woodland animals. Squirrels and badgers and the like. This was another supposedly straightforward job, which I actually found remarkably difficult. It can’t be that hard can it? Well, all I could find were those well-known Christmas dinosaurs or the animals from that incredibly famous scene of Snow White and the dwarfs on safari. I couldn’t find many woodland animals so I don’t think I was much use, but I suppose discovering what you’re not so good at is all part of the work experience.
It was a week in which I not only learnt a lot and met some terrific people but it was also a week in which I had a lot of fun. Don’t let the fact that for a week in September I was given mild responsibility put you off buying a ticket “just in case.” I can assure you that the admin duo are more than capable of keeping it all together. I really don’t know how they do it.
By Tom Hampson.