Kitty Foster recalls some of her experiences as she joined the Penguin Club and started to stage manage shows.
Trying to squeeze a pantomime cow through a fire exit during a school production of Into The Woods (just after we had accidentally set fire to the stage) was arguably the first time that I knew backstage theatre was for me. Okay, perhaps that sounds a little backwards, but the way that the completely unpredictable nature of theatre somehow leaves you in almost Bertie Wooster-esque scenarios does make it both enthralling and somewhat addictive.
It was for this reason that, upon moving to Cambridge at the start of my sixth form years, I went on a hunt for new ways that I could immerse myself in the wonderful world of theatre. Through the ADC website, I discovered the Penguin Club (see Rachel Chapman’s article) and immediately got sucked into helping as a crew member on several productions that first month alone. I distinctly remember first turning up at the stage entrance of the ADC theatre, as a rather shy sixteen-year-old with next to no real experience in theatre, and gazing around at the array of doors and keypads. I wasn’t standing there for long, as the workshop door suddenly swung open and out jumped a four-legged flat that careered round the corner and headed up the stairs to stage. As I was soon to find out, the get-in was proceeding as all get-ins do, in an explosion of activity, a whirl of drilling, and a chorus of shouting coming down from the counterweight gallery about things people are about to drop on your head. That day remains a blur of I-can’t-believe-I-am-actually-here thoughts and near misses with long poles at head-height, but I clearly remember telling myself, “I need to get involved in this!”.
I was in luck, as very soon afterwards the stage manager for the upcoming production of Cranford at Christmas asked me whether I would like to shadow her. It was an opportunity I couldn’t believe and one that meant that, only three months later, I was sat beside her at the stage manager’s desk, when she turned to me and said, “You’re going to call the next few cues!”. I expressed my concern that this might not be the wisest decision she had ever made, but she insisted. “LX 17… errr… GO!?” and the lighting smoothly faded into the next scene. And I was hooked. I had just made the lights change on a show in an actual theatre!
Set on it's way to the stage at a typical get-in; the completed set of Cranford at Christmas (Photo: Sophie Wilson); part of the same set, seen from backstage (Photo: Phil Hazel); the cast and crew of Cranford at Christmas (Photo: Sophie Wilson)
To my surprise, both the ADC theatre and the various shows’ production teams did not seem at all put off by the fact that I was a sixth-former. Everyone seemed willing to make it work, coming up with solutions like offering to supervise me as I called the cues. I can’t express how grateful I am for those people who went above and beyond to give a sixth-former a chance to sit in the stage manager’s chair. I would be kidding myself if I said that it was always straight-forward. I always felt bad when I had to ask someone three times my age (and experience) to carry out a task, and the feeling of actual responsibility took a bit of getting used to, as well! However, I felt fully respected, no-one mentioned my age, and I have to admit that at times it was rather useful to have someone nearby doing some covert double-checking! (Such as when I almost made the classic mistake of giving the all-clear for the safety curtain to be wound down at the end of the interval, despite all the bright white worker lights still being on backstage… oops!)
Since first dipping my toe into the Cambridge theatre scene, I have had the most fantastic experience of working in shows across Cambridge, from West Road ballet productions to kids’ summer schools in The Leys’ Great Hall (again, thanks to the Penguin club!). Some particularly memorable moments include getting to drop ping pong balls on an actor, down from the ADC counterweight gallery during The Girl in The Glass, and leading a tech rehearsal completely by myself for the first time, for Separate Tables. However, my most special memory has to be just before the last performance of Emma, when the cast and crew gathered to sing me happy birthday and eat cake, to celebrate the fact that in less than a week I was finally turning eighteen!
Penguins at work during the Emma get-in (Photo: Kate Croft); the completed set, cast and crew of Emma (Photo: Sophie Wilson)
Now about to start my third year of university, I can also look back at two years of budget set building and excruciatingly late nights that is student theatre. My experience has progressed from a tentative stage manager to a production manager for musicals, but I still attribute a great deal of theatre knowledge, as well as confidence in myself, to the wonderful people who first encouraged me in the ADC theatre. Despite the inevitable complications that arise with having an under-18 backstage, I was supported, encouraged, and certainly inspired to treat daunting situations as simply an opportunity to learn, and for that I will always have a soft spot for everything that goes on at the ADC.
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