My Experience, By Gareth Brown (WTC Live Lighting Designer)
“I’m lighting a radio play”.
This is a line I’ve used a few times when being asked what I’ll be doing when I’m going to be working with The Wireless Theatre Company.
“I’m lighting the live recording of a radio play in a theatre with a live audience”
..Is a lot closer to the truth, but it’s a bit of a mouthful and doesn’t get people questioning my sanity.
Last weekend was a little different. It wasn’t in a theatre, it was in a circular brick room under the Camden Roundhouse with none of the facilities that a theatre comes with. When we arrived there were no seats, no sound system, no lights, nowhere to hang lights and the only power being standard domestic 13A sockets. On top of which, over the course of 3 days we didn’t do one play, we did six plays, with six different script writers, six different directors and about 45 actors.
All in all; a challenge way beyond anything we’ve attempted before. As a company we’ve never done more than one play in a day, we’ve never worked in a venue that wasn’t already a theatre, we’ve never done back to back days of different shows and we’ve never collaborated with another producer (Roundhouse Radio).
I suppose, from my point of view it started a few months ago, when this was originally meant to be a Halloween project. We got the actual dates early in September and it seemed like 3 months was plenty of time for such a huge undertaking. Then suddenly it was six weeks later casting began and we didn’t have all the scripts or all the directors or even a sound team on board (I’d love to tell you how important lighting is for the shows, but when you’re talking about radio plays the sound team really are important).
Suddenly, about a month before the shows the sound team came on board (fortunately it was TK (Tshari King) and Matt (Blair) who between them have done sound for all of Wireless’ live shows for longer than I’ve been around), the shows had all been cast and the end of the scripts were coming in. We didn’t have three months any longer, we only had three weeks.
I put together a lighting design, watched a few rehearsals and tried to make my design fit with 6 different plays, all with quite different styles. On the third attempt I managed to meet with someone from the technical team at the Roundhouse and among other things discovered that after each show I’d have a few minutes to remove everything so that the Underground Cinema Club could show a film each night. Time for a rethink, so the design was simplified as far as I possibly could and resubmitted. I got cue lists to the directors with a few days to spare, and fortunately they trusted me to make those cue lists into something that worked.
Last Saturday we got into the venue at 9.30am with 10 hours until our first play went on stage. The lights didn’t turn up for over an hour because the technician being provided by the Roundhouse was stuck somewhere on a train (not with the lights, but there wasn’t anyone else available at the time to get them from where they were locked up elsewhere in the venue) So I spent an hour sorting out the chairs, kindly borrowed from the Underground Cinema Club, trying to find the one’s that creaked the least so the our recording wasn’t interrupted every time a member of the audience moved in their seat.
Eventually my lights turned up and with the assistance of two Roundhouse technicians my rig went up in double time, suddenly I was glad that I’d simplified to a mere 9 lights. We started our first technical rehearsal late and I’d love to tell you how it went, but my memory is a total blur. We were supposed to rehearse one play in the morning, break for lunch and then rehearse the 2nd play in the afternoon. Somehow on that first day we didn’t get much of a break between rehearsals as we tried to make up time. Around 6pm we got a break in which to grab dinner before the shows went on.
I’m not going to tell you about the shows, all six were incredible in different ways and in about a week you’ll be able to download them from the websites of Wireless Theatre, Roundhouse Radio and Timeout. Then you’ll be able to make up your own mind. The one thing I would say is that most of the stuff I’ve done with Wireless has been comedy so at the end of a hard day’s work the performance is quite light, but these were somewhat darker. Though there were a few laughs we also had murdered prostitutes, demons, incest, paedophilia, cannibalism and all manner of other evils. A lot of this material was as dark as it comes, which is pretty draining at the end of a hard day.
The 2nd play finished and I removed my lights and the stands they were on. We’d finished our first day and survived, I may have managed a pint or two to celebrate.
The next two days were similarly hard work, but I believe the shows we put on were worth it. After three days we were all a lot more tired, a few of us myself included had picked up a really unpleasant cold with a vicious sore throat, we had somehow managed to do 3 sold out shows each including two different plays back to back and I still can’t quite navigate the circular labyrinth that is the Roundhouse Studios. Though after those 3 days I’m finished, the sound team who had more work than me to do in the venue are still working on the plays, editing the recordings to make them ready for download.
Every show I’ve done with Wireless has been challenging in some way (venues where you can’t see the stage, directors who arrive on the day with an entirely new set of cues or an entirely new edit of the script and a show with 20 minutes in the venue before performance), but this was tougher than anything. When in a few years we’re talking about these shows I might end up like the stereotypical Vietnam veteran telling people “You don’t know, you weren’t there”.
Despite all that, I am so glad I did it, or at least I will be once I’ve caught up on my sleep.