Experiencing Technical Difficulties

“Christ, what do all these things do?”

Stratford-Upon-Avon, 1997-1998

Once upon a time in a land far, far away (Warwickshire) I used to work as a theatre technician. I don’t mean a medical theatre- all clamps and tubing and bits being hacked off- but a theatre for the Performing of Arts.

It wasn’t a real theatre, actually, although I later managed to blag some work at the Royal Shakespeare Company off the back of it. No, this was student theatre, or more accurately the School of Performing Arts (and Music Technology, tacked on as an after-thought) at Stratford-upon-Avon College.

Now if ‘School of Performing Arts’ conjures up images in your mind of big-haired show-offs in leg warmers bringing New York traffic to a standstill with star jumps and choreographed routines whilst singing their little hearts out (bless), then you’re getting old.

You’re barking up the wrong tree also. This wasn’t NYC it was SOA, and the students weren’t Italia Cunti-type stage school moppets. No, they were BTEC (British Training Something Something) students from Brum and older folks studying for their HND (Have No Degree) at the largest Further Education Drama Department in the country.

Here, three hundred delicate egos, each the size of Cumbria, would be put through their paces and challenged by working on some of the greatest contemporary theatre going (and all really good art has to be challenging). It was an experience that undoubtebly stood them in good stead for a future of stopping people in the street on behalf of various charities.

*  *  *

I had blagged my way into the job, knowing absolutely nothing about the technical side of theatre whatsoever. I didn’t even know a Phillips from a flat-head. But this being arts education, nobody seemed to mind. None of the other teaching staff really knew what they were talking about either- they were just winging it and hoping for the best too, so I fitted right in.

My job title was Technical Assistant. Below me there was a General Assistant who had been taken on at the same time. He knew even less than I did, having dropped out of education altogether to study death metal and motorbikes, so got £500 less a year. Above us both, however was The Technician.

The Technician was a grotesque, fat freak of a woman with features like an undercooked ready meal. You are what you eat. She was meant to train us up, an idea nebulously floated in by the newly-appointed Head of Department, a company yes man who been given the job, not because he was the best candidate, but because he had agreed to do whatever the College Management wanted. The other teachers didn’t like him much, and would speak contemptuously about him when he was out of earshot.

“Have you had yer training on the rig, yet?” he would ask.

“No, and I can’t find The Technician,” I would say. “I think she’s out on another errand.”

I later found out that her ‘errands’ consisted mainly of gassing with the ladies in Finance and going into town for long lunches.

Students would rush up to me in her absence with some crisis or other.

“What do we do? What do we do?” they would panickingly demand, eyes bulging out with primadonna stress.

“I dunno,” I’d shrug. “I haven’t had any training, have I?”

Six weeks into the job, The Technician went on long-term sick leave with ‘a bad back’. When it turned out she was moonlighting elsewhere and wouldn’t be returning, we weren’t surprised. Although the General Assistant and myself were a bit concerned.

*  *  *

I quickly learnt to rely on the Technical Theatre students. From my first contact with them, when I had handed out the wrong screwdriver, they and I knew the situation. The Techies were to cover my sorry ass in return for being allowed to hang around the Resources area, which they thought gave them kudos. Perhaps it did. They were incredibly enthusiastic and knowledgable about the whole techie thing. I, however, was professional (in that I was getting paid to be there).

At the time I was doing a lot of clubbing and would constantly play techno at frightening volumes, frequently rendering nearby lessons unworkable. I didn’t care. I just sat there, wiring up lights and sipping tea, acting all surprised if I got asked to turn it down.

“So, what do you plan to do after college?” I would ask students during impromptu counselling sessions in Resources.

“Well, I really want to act,” they would reply, all starry-eyed, thinking about the lime-light.

“Well, tough- you can’t. I’ve seen you on stage and you’re rubbish” I’d say, if I felt they needed to wake up and smell the coffee (or if I was on comedown). “Have you thought about a job in I.T.?”

*  *  *

I might not have known much about technical theatre during my sojourn at the School of Performing Arts, but one thing I certainly did know about was taking drugs.

So when I got challenged one Sunday evening by a bunch of students I had bumped into in The Water Rat (don’t go looking for it, it isn’t there any more) to drop acid with them, I only had to consider it for a few minutes.

“Go on, drop one with us,” they urged.

“I dunno, folks,” I said. “I’ve got work in the morning.”

“Yeah, well we’ve got college too,” they said. “So what? Don’t you think you can handle it?”

This was like a red rag to a bull.

“I can handle double what you can,” I said, wagging my finger at these floppy-haired teens calling my reputation into question. “And don’t you forget it!”

“Well, prove it then!” they jeered.

Five seconds later I was swallowing a tab.

I won’t bore you with the details of the trip. They all came back to my flat, some of them got freaked out, some of them didn’t. I was aware that Monday morning was rapidly approaching, and had remembered something that had slipped my mind in the bar- that my week-long  First Aid At Work course was starting at 9. Oh shit.

That was when I got freaked out.

*  *  *

10am saw me hallucinating wildly in the middle of a conference room floor, attempting to perform CPR on a dummy whilst a room-full of unimpressed council workers looked on. It was one of the hardest experiences of my life. The lecturer had to help me up in the end after I just lay there, holding onto the doll instead of giving it the kiss of life. I couldn’t get my head round what I was supposed to be doing, much less co-ordinate my body.

Eventually lunch time arrived, and with it the worse case of flu I have ever had, which came on suddenly while I was trying to eat a sandwich. I was just getting to the crusts when I collapsed.

I stood up and managed to shakily make my way out and off campus. When I got to the main road I was holding onto things to keep myself on my feet. By the bottom of the road, I was crawling on my hands and knees, sweat pouring off me in buckets.

I was in bed for a week after that, feeling the illest I have ever been.

If there’s moral in all this, I don’t want to hear it.

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