Shortly after my first half term break in Uppers, I receive a hand written missive commanding me to appear in front of The Big Cheese for a Royal Audience.
Now what? More “restructuring”? What have I done wrong? Is he about to sack me after all? Last in first out. My chest thumps.
Can’t seem to get a song from “The Mikado” out of my head.
“…defer, defer to the Lord High Executioner…”
The day of the meeting’s been blighted by whistling winds across the campus and driving rain. My Allegro’s playing up again so I’ve had to call the RAC. I’ve been asked to umpire a girls’ hockey match on Saturday. I’m really not interested. And there’s a note from Gentle Giant. Something about a complaint from a parent, saying her child’s work hasn’t been marked. No. She’d lost the work. We’ve been through this. Do I have to go through it again? Is that what the meeting’s about?
Then there’s tonight’s rehearsal for “The Mikado.” Normally I’d be excited, but Biggles has had to call off tonight which means rearranging things. Bugger. And then I’ve got bloody duty straight after.
There’s also that rejection slip from Dundee that’s arrived through the post. Thanks but no thanks to “The Lamplighter’s Daughter.” It might as well have said Fuck Right Off.
And another letter from mum giving me times and dates of her hospital visits.
It’s been a crap day all round. And now, to cap it all, I’ve got to face The Big Cheese. Everything’s shit.
‘Hi, sir!’ Fizz is carrying a tray, plate emptied. Those big blue eyes, wide and shining, full of life and cheerful fun. That big smile, toothy, bright. ‘See you at rehearsals tonight.’
She’s like an instant hit. Be positive. Like me.
What the hell. I need cheering up. ‘What are doing right now? Dump your tray and come and talk to me. I could do with a laugh.’
Her friends giggle.
By the time I reach the Big Cheese’s office, I feel more resolved. I’ve done nothing wrong; am working my butt off. If he’s going to sack anyone, surely it can’t be me? I’m cheap labour. It wouldn’t be fair. I might even tell him that. Be myself.
So what else can it be about?
“…defer, defer, to the Lord High Executioner…”
The Big Cheese indicates the seat across from him. Fixes me with a flint-like eye. What’s it about? My mouth’s dry. Heart beating harder. He speaks briskly. ‘I don’t like the number and length of rehearsals you’re having for the play. They eat into prep time considerably.’ His eyes bulge and spear me.
OK. It’s a fight for time. For “The Mikado.” Maybe for drama as a subject.
Time for me to try to play it as reasonably as I can.
‘I try to organise rehearsals so that they’re spread out for individuals. Always ask for feedback if there are problems with prep.’
Call me Mister Reasonable.
But he’s on one. His eyes glare, his cheeks fiery. It’s obvious he thinks drama’s a complete waste of time. “Lightweight.” ‘We need to concentrate on the academic subjects of this school.’ And fixes me flint-like once more. Here it comes. ‘I want you to rein back. No more than two, one-hour rehearsals a week.’ There’s an opaque dangerous glint in those eyes.
I want to say, now wait a minute, if you want a decent production, I need rehearsal time. And I have to rehearse in the evenings because Music, CCF and Sport take every available afternoon. And have you seen the theatre when it’s heaving with an audience? Like at “Darkheart”? I want to say you’re just not being fair.
What have I got to lose? The day could hardly get any worse.
Emboldened, I look him straight in the eye. My best acting. Dignified tone. Mister Mellow. ‘Headmaster. I appreciate what you’re saying, but we’re only a matter of weeks away from performance. Please let me see that through and then when you’ve seen the production, perhaps we could meet again?’
Mister Very Mellow Indeed.
His eyes are gob stoppers. Cheeks on red alert. Is he going to explode? ‘Give me copies of your rehearsal schedule,’ he eventually states. ‘And there’s to be no lessons missed, understood?’ Eyeballs me.
‘And make an appointment for the first Monday after the last performance.’
I’m dismissed. Like a naughty schoolboy.
It’s the opening night of “The Mikado.” Months since I first put up audition notices. Weeks of rehearsals, every week day night, 6.30 till 8. On the dot.
It’s involved a lot of running around, hand bills through letter boxes, adverts in the local paper, posters round the town in shops, letters to parents and friends of the school. Corridors covered in posters. Local schools are sent fliers. Get the message out there.
There’s the novelty appeal. A new Director. A frothy musical. Inoffensive. Fun for all the family. Roll up.
I peer round the theatre. I’m sitting in the middle of Row L. The seats are raked. A-Z. I’ve got some music gently playing over the speakers. Soothing. The new lighting box takes up most of the back wall now. Smoked glass windows so no one can see in from the audience. I’ve watched all the wires being lain, the installation of a sound desk and speakers. Dimmer packs. ‘Second hand,’ growls Gandalf. ‘St Benedict’s having a clear-out.’
The velvet red curtains, newly laundered, are closed. Dim glow from down lighters. A row of gun mikes line the apron; footlights. ‘Got a good deal on them too,’ growls Gandalf. ‘University theatre throwing them out. More money than sense.’
It’s quiet apart from the music. No one else in the auditorium. Stage crew are eating somewhere. The cast are behind stage, getting dressed and made-up, ready for my debrief session. 6.30. On the dot. Doors open at seven. I’ve got my notes from the Dress rehearsal. A list of people that I must, eventually, thank.
Obviously there’s Biggles. He’s got a very expressive face, eyebrows elevated, and commanding voice. He’s incredibly enthusiastic, even with those who can’t really hit the notes. ‘One more time, mouths open, you’re doing really well, and…’ And he can play. ‘Let’s transpose this.’ He’s organised all the musical scores and rehearsed the small orchestra - ‘leave all that to me’ – and he’s popular with the cast. Boys and girls alike. ‘He’s so comical! So talented.’
After rehearsals we always try to have a beer. Talk endlessly about every aspect of the production. Obsessed. ‘I’m hunting for a really good clarinetist,’ he’ll say wiping froth from his ‘tache.
Then there’s Gandalf in his tight denim shorts with work boots. He’s an institution at Fitzie’s. Turns out he even went here as a boy. ‘Drama used to be quite big then.’ A lifer. He smokes about fifty fags a day. Makes rasped remarks about the girls. During one recent rehearsal, he’d growled at them. Intimidating. ‘Black bras. Get rid of them. I can see all of your bits under the lights.’ Horrified silence. And then his whole demeanour changed and he’d laughed. ‘And you don’t want that do you?’ A lascivious laugh? Mischievous?
‘We used to be able to smoke in the common room,’ he growls, pulling another Silk Cut out. I once asked whether he’d ever smoked dope and he’d given that gravel laugh of his and told me a pack of lies. ‘It was good shit, man.’ Really. He said that.
Gandalf loves getting some implement out and ratcheting a few nuts and bolts on his scaffolding. Making a noise. Being seen. His sets for “The Mikado” are breathtaking. ‘I’ve made an arbour covered in roses.’ But he’s high maintenance. ‘Have you got a minute?’ Needs to be listened to. ‘I’ll tell you what we used to do...’ At length. ‘Did I ever tell you about our last outdoor production?’
Just as high maintenance is the Wardrobe Mistress, Mrs Undercarpet. The Deputy Head’s wife. I was hoping Matron from Cowdrays might help too, but she’s snowed under with extra work. ‘The High Master; he’s cut three support staff you know.’
Mrs Undercarpet is fussing. ‘Have you got a minute? Don’t worry if you haven’t.’ A nervous tick. ‘I’ve got another fitting tonight. Don’t you worry about me. I know you’ve got more important things to worry about than me.’ Tight smile. And I’ve lived through every stitch, heard about every rip, tear, or colour change. ‘Can you take a look?’ Fair enough. Because the costumes are stunning. Spectacular. ‘Wow!’ I’m grateful to Mrs Undercarpet. “The Mikado” will look splendid.
Then there’s the Commander. The stage manager. Turns out he was in the regulars. Does CCF and works as a science lab assistant. He shouts instructions to his stage crew. ‘No! Idiot! Move it there!’ Snaps his fingers.
His pupil stage crew are more motley crew. Motorhead T shirts. Beads. Grungers and groovers. The Commander recruits the dumb, the disastrous and the downright dangerous. It’s like he’s on a mission to reform them. He organises back stage with a firm hand. ‘Not there. Idiot.’ Takes no shit. ‘Just do it.’ Everything is to be done with military precision. He always carries a clipboard. Yes sir, no sir.
Tits ‘n Arse has helped with lots of the choreography. She’s infectious, well organised, ballsy, can shout louder than most, but is always, always, positive. ‘They’re doing so well,’ she’ll say to me after another disastrous rehearsal. ‘They’ll get it in the end.’ Alive, positive. Tits ‘n Arse. A pocket dynamo.
I’ve done routines myself. More physical theatre stuff than proper dance, but choreography none the less. Keeping it simple. The cast laugh when I try to demonstrate a move. ‘Do I look like I’m constipated?’
Taff has designed eye-catching posters and painted the backdrop. Mount Fuji. ‘You are a genius,’ I tell him. And he laughs. ‘Come on, boyo. You can buy me a pint.’
The door to the auditorium opens. A shaft of light. A girl in Japanese make up. Casual clothes. Instantly recognizable. ‘Hi, sir. How are you?’ She bounds up the stairs and shimmies down the aisle and sits bang next to me on a seat. ‘Are you nervous?’
‘A bit. Great make up. Makes you look almost human.’
Fizz laughs, mock shock. ‘I’ll have you know this is high art. What are you writing?’
‘Just checking through my notes from last night.’
‘We all thought it should have gone better.’
‘No shit, Sherlock.’ She’ll have heard worse. ‘Just attack your song more. Have confidence. Your voice has improved no end.’
‘Thanks. I’ll try. It’s really buzzing backstage. I think I might be sick when the curtain opens.’ She mimes throwing up. ‘All over the back of Nanki Pooh. Or Poo Bah.’
‘Shouldn’t you be back stage with the others?’
‘Oh, Make Up got fed up with me singing the Lord High Executioner, so I came in here.’ She swings her feet over the seat in front. ‘Is this where you sit during performance?’
I pull her feet back. ‘Mucky pup. No. I sit right at the back.’ I turn and point. ‘Back row. I’ve got my own seat by the lighting box.’
I tap my notebook. ‘Need to take notes. Need light for that. And, most importantly, I can swear like a trooper if something goes wrong and no one will hear me.’ I raise my eyebrows at her. ‘OK?’
She nods, stands up. ‘I’ll leave you to it then. There’s chocolate behind stage. What time’s debrief?’
It’s deliberate teasing.
‘You know what time.’
She walks back along the aisle, bounds exaggeratedly down the stairs. Opens the door. Turns to me. Japanese face. She bows, like a geisha. Speaks in mock Japanese. ‘Confucius, he say, Mikado will be glate.’
I laugh out loud. ‘Bye.’ Then go back to my notes.
The Lord High Executioner – The Mikado
I make no apologies for including some songs from “The Mikado” in this story. I owe “The Mikado” a good deal in my own life as a teacher of drama, and even now, when I hear the score it sends shivers down my spine, remembering the hype and the hopes invested in my own production of 1994.
In that year a new Head arrived at my school with very definite views about the role of “arts” subjects in school. i.e. a waste of time and effort. Yet…four nights of full audiences and an epic production soon had him changing his mind.
If You Want To Know Who We Are - The Mikado
It takes months to produce a large scale musical, drawing cast and crew together in a strong bond which I hope these episodes might suggest. As the opening song to the piece following the overture this particular song is a moment indelibly inked into my head – the curtain opens and off we go! Nothing quite reaches the pinnacle of excitement as the band strikes up for the first time and the cast are revealed, ready for three hours graft.
About the Author: Richard Parsons
I’ve been fascinated with writing since I was a youngster; creative writing in English lessons was my favourite part of school life along with swapping music with mates or playing sport.
When I decided to quit teaching after many happy years, I applied for and won a scholarship to do a Masters at Plymouth Uni in Creative Writing. Drama was really the main string to my bow, but I soon became hooked on the idea of crafting short stories, and, eventually, the longer form of narrative. After graduating with a distinction, I cut my teeth writing for women’s magazines, but this was never in my own “voice” and was always formulaic. “Given Circumstances” is the real me.
Hope you enjoy it!