A week online a sprained calf and a red keyboard

Thoughts on making The Corona-tion of Celia

“Promise”. That is how it all ended.

That’s the last word of the play. Uttered from my lips at around 2.15pm on Friday 27 August 2021 at the Etcetera Theatre in Camden. Then – eventually – the stage goes dark, lights up and applause.

A bit dramatic, I know. But feels suitable to start describing my first play, which I managed to put on despite a week of rehearsals online (self isolation mandated), a tear in my calf on the final week of rehearsals and a slew of other obstacles, mostly related to being in various forms of lockdown for the past 18 months.

The play came about at the start of the first lockdown in March 2020. It is based on a series of experiences and some expansions to enhance the drama of the story.

It seems to have touched a nerve with many in the audience. The euphoric feeling of meeting someone you really like and the mind racing in dreamlike fantasies; the anxiety of rejection and, ultimately, the inevitable end – the horror of trying to negotiate a nascent relationship via text. The equivalent of using a firehose to draw a shamrock on a pint of Guinness.

Putting on a play so soon after emerging from a world of lockdowns was always going to be a challenge. Quite honestly until mid-April, the thought of doing anything related to performance or theatre was non-existent. I went into near-full theatrical hibernation since September of last year, apart from a bit of one-on-one training online and occasional bouts of juggling. But somehow somewhere between the limp spells of sunshine in April the idea of putting on The Corona-tion of Celia at the Camden Fringe Festival emerged.

Production is production, there is only one objective: just get the damn thing done.

I’m not entirely sure what or how it happened but I know that once it was going there was no stopping the project. Production is production, there is only one objective: just get the damn thing done. And so it was.

I was lucky to have support from a few good friends and teachers and to be able to find a willing partner in Pauline to undertake this endeavour with someone who has never produced or directed a theatre play before, but somehow was convinced it could be done.

When venturing into the unknown with an idea you passionately believe in it is always a fine balance between listening to the advice and words of those around you (often with much experience) and having blind faith in your ability. You only have to tune in to an episode of Dragon’s Den to know that the line between genius and idiot is paper thin.

And sometimes ignorance is bliss. If you don’t know the potential problems you might face then you are not worried about them.

The shopping list of what could and did go wrong is extensive, losing a week of rehearsals in the physical space and the injury. We just managed scrape two hours of tech on the morning of the show. Had problems playing our music cues from the laptop. The drama … alway more off stage than on it!

But on the other hand it is fringe. So you just get it done. Somehow scramble through and for the rest rely on the good will of your audience and the help of the people around you.

A stool, a stool, my kingdom for a stool

As a producer I understood intuitively that some things were essential. Very early on in the rehearsal room it was clear that we could not substitute chairs for the stools we were planning to use on stage. Too much of the movement took place on and around the stools.

A small stool is easy enough to come by and cheap enough to pick up in any hardware store, but a bar stool (one that won’t collapse after a week of rehearsals) is a different and quite expensive story.

I did spot one in one of the antique stores near The Cockpit, where we rehearsing, but it was only sold as part of a set of eight and it was about £3k for the lot, so was not really suitable.

Luckily a friend was moving house and I spent a lovely Sunday morning on London transport with my new best friend.

When in doubt paint it red

Some decisions on props were a product of what was available. The set was always going to be minimal (a table, a stool and a bar stool). We also needed a keyboard and a cup or glass that would double as the plastic cup Celia holds in the club and Jim’s whisky glass. Initially I was looking for one of those nice glass-looking plastic cups you can find at M&S or Waitrose outdoors section.

A perfectly good keyboard

Then I happened to walk past a Tiger Tiger shop and found a plain red cup. One that was almost symbolic of the object ‘cup’. Already then I had the idea that all object should be representative or ‘icons’ of themselves and to that end destroyed a perfectly good computer keyboard by cutting its cord and spray painting it red.

The red colour helped create a theme of representative objects. So it went without saying that the juggling balls we use would all be red too.

All this helped create the illusion of a representative space that could at the same time be Jim’s room and the club where his meetings and ‘fantasy meetings’ with Celia take place.

And where is your saint sir?

All productions need a patron saint to help look over them. Ours was Monika (Monika Gravagno of Facciocose) who helped us with some of the key movement sequences and ideas.

Her status is marked in this image.

Without her and my friend Marisol it would have been hard for me to have the confidence to get this project off the ground. Or at least believe that it can be done.

Happy?

Overall I am pleased with the outcome. The main objective was to communicate to the audience and to create a shared experience. And by all accounts that was achieved.

In some respects just getting to opening night was a success in itself, given all the circumstances.

Of course as a director and producer you always want more. You are never fully satisfied, mostly knowing that you have more ideas and other things that could have been done given more time and resources. But as a first go at producing and directing a theatre show I am pleased.


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