This month marks twenty years since the passing of a man I worked with many years ago – John Randall. I was a stage manager at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town during the mid to late eighties, and John was a touring stage manager working for Pieter Toerien – one of the Baxter’s most important clients.
I can’t remember the name of the production that John arrived with, but I do remember that our crew-members were so impressed with his strength that they started calling him Rambo before we even knew his real name. He could carry single-handedly – with no evident strain – large pieces of scenery normally requiring two people.
The production was a farce with one of those sets literally comprised of doors, and John was the man in charge of putting it all together. He was very insistent about the order in which it had to be assembled and I think we were all a little scared of him, but only until we realised he was a gentle giant, with an endless supply of patience. I don’t ever remember John raising his voice. He didn’t need to.
A few months later he came back to the Baxter with another show – it must have been during early 1987 – and very kindly offered to transport for me a small sofa I had bought from one of my fellow technicians. John refused to let me touch the sofa and single-handedly wrestled it out of the van, onto the pavement and into my apartment as if it weighed no more than a cardboard box. Once again I could hardly believe the strength of this gentle, soft-spoken man.
In 1989, in Durban, I worked with John again. We had both left our previous employers and were now permanent staff-members at NAPAC. It was here that I learned a little more about John. I discovered that he had been a ballet dancer at CAPAB, and we worked out that I had actually seen him dance when Margot Fonteyn came to South Africa to dance Swan Lake back in 1973 when I was only twelve. John had been one of the featured soloists. Another ex-CAPAB staff member, Peter Wright, showed me a programme from a production of The King and I, which had pictures of John dancing in it.
In mid-1989 three of NAPAC’s stage managers took a collection of ten Loft Theatre productions to the National Festival of the Arts: John; an equally strong man called Larry; and me. We worked like Trojans to prove to the powers-that-be, that we could do what nobody said we would manage. For two weeks (the schools festival was first that year) we ran shows all day, every day, in the Grahamstown City Hall. Each morning started with cleaning the venue and washing the previous day’s costumes, then setting up the first of seven daily performances, which began at 11.00 am.
Of the seven daily shows, we each ran specific shows, but all three of us did the set-ups in between. We had our breaks when one of the other two was doing a show. We lived on 2-litre bottles of Coca-Cola and huge cheeseburgers from a place called the Bambi Snack Bar which was just down the lane at the back of the City Hall, and we locked up the backstage area every night when Neil Solomon and the Passengers started their gig at 11.00 pm. They had their own lighting and sound people and didn’t need our backstage area, so we could go back to the res and sleep before the next day’s onslaught of doing it all over again.
It was a time of enormous pressure, and we were constantly tired. Larry and I may have lost our tempers occasionally, but John never did. He was our rock. Through it all he remained calm, steady, never deviating from the task at hand, and yet he also managed to keep us upbeat and laughing at some of the ridiculous tasks we had been landed with.
We all came back to Durban fitter than we had left it, and I had lost so much weight I was able to wear skinny jeans I hadn’t worn in two years. At the end of the following month our overtime cheques doubled the size of our normal salaries, and suddenly everyone wanted to be part of the Grahamstown team the following year.
Before long, John moved up into a more senior position. It was inevitable – he was tireless, generous and diplomatic, and his worth was seen and appreciated. A year or so later I left Durban and moved on.
Early in 1997 I had a phone call from a Durban friend who told me about John’s death at the age of 46. I was upset, not only because he was a fine human being, but I also knew he had a wife and two small children – a daughter of twelve and a son of nine.
Some years later, in one of those eerie twists of fate, I found myself back in Durban working at another theatre. At some point we presented a dance show, and two of the dancers were pointed out to me as John’s children, now grown up. I later got to know both of them, and have often thought how sad it is that John didn’t live to see his children grow up and follow him into this business that he was so good at.
In addition to John’s dancing talent, both his children have inherited his smile, his easy-going manner, sense of humour and calm way of dealing with people. I have worked with both of them backstage, where they are as calm and unflappable as their father used to be, and both have the ability to soothe the frayed nerves of performers and backstage crew alike.
Kirsty and Chris, your father would be so proud of you both.