Few people fully realise just how the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company operated on tour.
"You cannot possibly finish here tonight and open on Monday (two days later) in . . . (maybe two hundred miles or more away)."
"Of course, you don't carry all your own scenery and costumes around with you; I suppose you hire them in each town."
"You must get bored doing the same operas night after night."
These are just a few of the remarks I heard during my ten years touring with the D'Oyly Carte.
Strictly speaking, the most important part of any theatrical performance are the artists and/or musicians who are taking part in view of the audience, but they are only performing because a considerable amount of work has gone on behind the scenes during the day and has made the performance possible.
These people who work behind the scenes are rarely (if ever) seen. They consist of wardrobe staff, wig mistress, company management, music staff, production staff, stage management, stage carpenters, property staff - not listed in order of importance by any means, as each job in its own way is as important as the next.
It is an ideal situation for the public when they come to see a performance for them not to realise what is happening back-stage. They have come to see the end result, and, in a way, the artists are presenting in its finished form the end-product of a piece of well-engineered teamwork. The performance should run so smoothly, and the audience should be so engrossed in it, that they should never be given cause to wonder how it all happened. Perhaps on their way home, or when they sit down and take a closer look at the programme, they might ask themselves: "How did they change the scene so quickly and quietly?" or think: "What an enormous amount of costumes to iron and wigs to dress each day."
The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company operated with a relatively small staff compared to other major touring companies, or rather so-called touring companies, as the D'Oyly Carte was, strictly speaking, the only true touring company in existence.
We toured the provinces of Great Britain for forty-eight weeks each year, and the members of the company lived out of suitcases all the time; although some of our members had their own caravans, many of us were booking in at what few theatrical digs there were left, or looking in stationers' windows for adverts. of rooms to let. Members of the company only tended to regard themselves as "not touring" when they were lucky enough to be playing in their own home town.
On tour we normally played towns and cities for one, two, or three weeks; Manchester and London we played for longer. The normal routine was to finish in one town on a Saturday evening and open in the next on a Monday evening - and that was much more involved and complicated than it sounds.
The first thing that had to be arranged was the transportation of the scenery, costumes, wigs, and props. Ideally what we tried to do was to get each opera out of the theatre we were playing as soon as we had finished it. This, of course, depended on whether or not the next theatre we were playing had room to store anything prior to our arrival. If they had a small play in, they would be able to take in almost as much as we wanted them to; if they had a large touring show, then we had to think again as they would not be able to take anything. If that happened, we had to keep the scenery, etc., until about the Friday of the final week in a town, then we could start moving out - two loads Friday morning, two loads Friday night, two loads Saturday morning, and then the last three loads on Saturday night. Then all this had to be unloaded at the next theatre - a marathon task.
In the event of the next theatre not being large enough to take in all our operas, if we were in the south of England the operas we did not require immediately were sent to our stores in London, or if we were in the north they were sent to our transport contractor's stores in Leeds. When this happened, of course, we had to allow sufficient time to get in the operas from London or Leeds so that all the costumes could be ironed and the wigs dressed; also we had to move out our other operas we had finished with, to make room for the incoming ones.
On the last day in a theatre we tried to move out as much of our effects as possible, leaving the minimum amount for the final "Get-out".' To make life somewhat easier, all the wardrobe baskets were numbered, and colour-coded for each opera - Iolanthe was blue, Pirates was yellow, and so on. Props boxes were painted grey, Electrics equipment boxes were painted black, and general purpose baskets and boxes were red and black - this made for easy identification and avoided a lot of confusion. With nearly two hundred wardrobe skips, wig boxes, and props boxes on tour, we had to be very careful, when we were loading vans, to make sure we had not got the operas mixed up.
The final get-out commenced as soon as the curtain fell on the opera. The cast dashed upstairs and got out of their costumes as quickly as possible; almost as soon as they had hung them up they were removed by the wardrobe staff and packed in the large skips ready for loading. The wig mistress collected all the wigs from the various rooms and packed them in boxes, while the cast packed their make-up and left their make-up cases by the stage door to be packed into larger skips.
During this time the set had been "struck" and the scenery was already being carried out and loaded on to the waiting vans. The electricians were busy lowering in the spot bars and carefully taking off the lamps ready for packing; the property staff were packing the props away in their respective boxes; and the whole theatre was a hive of activity.
Within about two hours the only things left in the theatre were the back-cloths and borders - about twenty in all, most of which were forty feet long; these had been rolled up and were lying on the stage waiting to be loaded. A final check is made of all rooms, scene dock, and understage area before the vans left.
The crew would then meet at the next theatre at 9.00 a.m. the next day (Sunday) ready for the "Get-in and Fit-up". On arrival at the next theatre, all the vans had to be unloaded; wardrobe skips (some weighing between four and five hundred pounds) had to be carried upstairs to the dressing-rooms and wardrobe room; the carpenters carefully sorted out the scenery and put each opera on its own in a pack so that each one was kept separate; props boxes were stacked in the prop room (if there was one) or under the stage. If we were very short of space, sometimes we had to leave boxes and baskets outside under tarpaulins until they were required. The spot bars were hung, and the dressing-rooms allocated; by about 6.00 p.m., if everything was going well, the shell of the set was up and everything was ready for Monday morning.
On Monday morning the wardrobe staff began to unpack the costumes, which were ironed and put out in the dressing-rooms, likewise the wigs. Dressing-rooms had to be checked: were there enough chairs? enough mirrors? did we need racks to hang costumes on? The carpenters and stage staff finished setting, and then the lamps were focused. Act II was lit, and then Act I was put up and lit.
The orchestra pit was set out in readiness for a seating rehearsal at 4.30 p.m., and a final check was made of everything. There were numerous things to be checked: was there room for the company to go behind the back-cloths? If not, was there an understage passage they could use? Was the tannoy system working in all dressing-rooms? Perhaps there was a cue the electrician does not understand, and we had to run the series of cues so that he could see exactly what happened.
Then, hopefully, a break for a meal, and back to the theatre - allocate the dressers to the various artists, check that the stage staff know what to do in the scene change, and answer the usual barrage of questions that are invariably asked on a first night in a new theatre.
At 6.55 p.m. the Half-hour was called, by which time all the artists had to be in the theatre; a careful check was made to ensure that everyone was in.
At 7.25 p.m. the Overture and Beginners call was made, the orchestra were called into the pit and the bar bells were rung. The stage was set - the artists were slightly apprehensive about a new theatre and a different audience, and were busy going through their lines and music. It was their turn now; the work that had gone on in the last forty-eight hours in order to transfer from one theatre to another was only now proved necessary. The staff and crew could relax for a while - the hardest part of their work was over for the meantime. The cast were just beginning, but it depends on everyone to make the show a success.
7.30 p.m. We're ready, but the Manager asks us to "hold" until he gives the all clear - perhaps members of the audience are thinking something is amiss backstage.
7.34 p.m. The Manager 'phones; he's just seated a late party - we can go. The conductor is sent in, the house lights go down, and the overture commences. The next call will be "Curtain Up Act I", and everything is just as it was on Saturday night, almost as though we had never moved.
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