A Tribute to John Randall

Published February 14, 2017 by Susan Roberts Writer

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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.

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Farewell to Shrek the Musical

Published July 30, 2015 by Susan Roberts Writer

There is a tendency amongst people who don’t work in the theatre, to think that it must be the most glamorous, exciting place to work, filled with celebrities, glitz and wild adventures. Since I am in the business of enhancing illusion rather than shattering it, I usually smile and nod at the enthusiastic remarks from people who harbour these imaginings, then I mutter something innocuous or noncommittal, and leave them to treasure their fantasies.

However, every now and then along comes a production which takes away my breath and leaves me hugging myself in glee because I was lucky enough to be part of it. Such a production was Durban production company KickstArt’s wonderful Shrek the Musical, staged during May and June this year, and I was its stage manager.

Here I am with the theatre’s boss Jackie, larking about in the foyer pretending to be Shrek and Donkey on the final night.

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Although more than a month has passed since this musical’s run ended, it has stayed with me in so many ways. In my mind, my favourite songs play over and over again during unguarded moments, and familiar lines from the text pop up when I least expect them.

The hard thing about having moved to another country straight after the end of a successful and memorable show, is that no one I know in Melbourne saw it, so familiar lines are not familiar to anyone other than me. However, most people have at least seen the animated movie on which the musical was based, so I’m not completely alone.

What struck me particularly about this musical while we were doing it, was that every person involved with it gave it their everything in terms of love and care – way more than 100% – from producers Steven and Greg (who were also the director and designer respectively), right through the entire ensemble to the tiniest tap-dancing rat.

The biggest bonus for me was that Shrek the Musical also had one of the best technical and backstage teams I have ever worked with – and that’s high praise indeed from someone who is known to be as picky about such things as I am! Here I am with our small, dedicated backstage team: Bongamusa, Mthoko, Rebecca, Tina, Astrid, and Bryan hiding behind my head.

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If you were lucky enough to have seen this production, then some of the following photos may be familiar to you, despite them having been taken from a backstage perspective, where limited space was shared with horses,

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suspended dragons,

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and evil villains.

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A stage manager’s corner is definitely not a glamorous place…

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…and the view isn’t that great either…

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…although there’s a screen on the SM desk to give one a better overall picture.

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Sadly, all good things must come to an end with the final curtain call. Thank you, KickstArt, for making my final production in South Africa such a memorable one, and I wish you every success with your future productions!

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A Look Behind the Scenes: Shrek the Musical

Published June 22, 2015 by Susan Roberts Writer

I’ve been lucky enough to spend my last few weeks in South Africa working on Shrek the Musical which is sadly coming to the end of its run at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre. 

If you’re in Durban during the next week, do yourself a favour and see KickstArt’s wonderful production of this show before it ends.

Thanks to Jacobus van Heerden and YouTube for the link:

Early Mornings and Shakespeare

Published May 27, 2015 by Susan Roberts Writer

From as far back as I can remember, I’ve never been a morning person. It was always a trauma getting out of bed and getting to school on time. To me, the greatest pleasure on earth was to lie in bed reading.

It still is.

It was no chance accident that led me to a career in theatre. Let’s face it, we do our best work at night. However, we do sometimes have to get up very early in the morning in order to be ready to do theatre before nightfall. But that’s okay because somehow, if it’s all right on the night, then the day ends well. Those early mornings are the exception rather than the rule, and they last for a few days at the most, until the show is up and running.

The worst is when you have to start the day with an early morning performance of Shakespeare. And then do another one before lunch. That really sucks.

I once did an industrial theatre job where I had to get up every morning when it was still dark and drive a team of actors halfway to Potchefstroom to perform an interactive theatre piece about safety, to miners who had just come up from their all-night shift underground. Actually I quite enjoyed that because each performance was different due to the interactions of the miners who joined in with their experiences and re-enacted actual scenarios that might have taken place underground. The miners were interested, and an interested audience is the best audience.

(Of course, the really great part was that by the time we’d finished our workday and driven back to Johannesburg it was only about 2.30 pm and I still had the afternoon to myself before getting a very early night in anticipation of the next pre-dawn rising.)

But the early morning Shakespeare is an unforgiveable curse. No other word for it. Curse. Don’t get me wrong; I love Shakespeare – probably more than most people – but to do it in the early morning requires an iron will. Fortunately I’m not an actor because then I’d need an iron-clad ego as well, plus a very loud voice to be heard over the giggles and titters and incessant chatter of disinterested learners who find their phones more interesting.

Over the years I’ve died a thousand deaths on behalf of my poor actors who’ve had to cast their pearls before the proverbial swine or, to borrow from the Bard himself: “to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous…” misfortune? Apathy? Certainly plenty of jeering, paper aeroplanes and sometimes actual peppermints hurled onto the stage.

I have seen some of the country’s finest actors resort to extreme measures due to the callousness of learners who don’t really want to learn anything about Shakespeare. The great Frantz Dobrowsky once refused to take the curtain call after a particularly rowdy performance of Hamlet. He was hauled over the coals by management, but his point was made and some of the schools later apologised.

Mornings were surely not meant for Shakespeare. As an actor himself, I’m sure Shakespeare also felt that rise in excitement as the day ended and another performance at the Globe prepared to start as the sun went down and the candles were lit.

No, mornings were not meant for Shakespeare. Mornings were meant for lying in bed drinking tea and writing things like morning pages, blogs and one’s latest novel. My mornings are a little skewed at the moment. I wake up very early because my mind races constantly about preparations for my big move overseas. I lie in bed worrying about all the things I might have overlooked and then, when I realise that sleep is not going to return to me, I lean over and turn on the kettle. Once I have my first mug of tea next to me and the laptop is switched on, my mind can organise itself into categories for the day.

I wonder if this is how Shakespeare did it – minus the laptop, of course. He must have had a ready supply of parchment, quills and ink next to the bed in his draughty little garret. I wonder if he drank tea for inspiration. More likely the previous evening’s leftover mead, I suppose, as he scribbled down the remnants of ideas shared in the pub after the performance the night before. I mean, that’s where the greatest artistic business of theatre is created – in the pub after the show. The insights, the revelations – if only we could remember them all the next day. Maybe Shakespeare did.

Yesterday we had to get up early to do a preview of KickstArt’s Shrek the Musical to a schools audience. That wasn’t like doing Shakespeare at all. The audience were considerably younger, and much more engaged. The actors took it all in their stride, including a last-minute replacement because one of the cast was ill in hospital. Another cast-member had needed stitches on his face on the way to work, but being the true trouper that he is, he valiantly played on with his Pinocchio mask over his damaged, swollen face, and none of the children were any the wiser.

I wonder if Shakespeare ever had to do that…

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How Many is Too Many?

Published April 26, 2015 by Susan Roberts Writer

I’ve realised that I have a lot of theatre programmes, painstakingly collected over the years – not just since I’ve worked in professional theatre, but from my childhood as well. My earliest theatre memory was seeing the pantomime of Puss in Boots at the age of five. I still have that programme. Programmes are hard for me to let go of, but posters are a little easier to say goodbye to.

I am currently doing a long overdue cleanout of all my stuff before making a life-changing move to Australia. To say that it’s been a huge trip down memory lane would be an understatement. Posters which once adorned the walls of my various apartments and cottages in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Sun City and Durban eventually outgrew the available wall space, so they’ve been collecting in a tin tube.

Finally I faced the fact that we had come to the parting of ways. The posters – dog-eared, torn and many of them stained with Prestick – were just not going to crack the nod to go into the shipping container.

However, because I couldn’t bear to part with the memories that they brought back of some of the most dramatic and entertaining shows I had stage-managed or worked on in some other capacity, I took digital photos of each poster before letting them go. I intended posting a few of my favourites here, but when I started to make a list of them, there were more than I had bargained on.

Then I latched onto the bright idea of creating a poster archive page on this blog. Unfortunately, a more detailed, chronological record will have to wait until I’ve settled Down Under, but in the meantime here’s a small taste. Two posters from each of these five production companies: Pieter Toerien Productions, the Baxter Theatre, NAPAC, Sun City and PACT.

Perhaps you recognise some of them? If so, please leave a comment below, or send me a message via my Contact Me page, and tell me about your memory of that particular show.

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Things Are Looking Up…

Published March 16, 2015 by Susan Roberts Writer

My apologies for not having posted on this blog for a while. I’ve been busy with a project that is taking all my spare time, and unfortunately it will continue to do so for another three or four months. However, I don’t want to disappoint those of you who follow this blog, so for the next few months the posts will be shorter and from time to time I will use it for showcasing various theatrical things that interest me.

As many of you know, I work in a local Durban theatre, and we will be hosting KickstArt’s production of Shrek the Musical from mid-May till the end of June this year. It promises to be lots of fun. I’ve no idea what surprises KickstArt have in store for us, but I can assure you that – as usual – it will be a magical and unforgettable experience.

I used to have a video here of an excerpt from another production of this musical, but due to my own paranoia about copyright, I have deleted the link to it.

My apologies for any disappointment, but I’m sure you’ll find a similar video on YouTube if you Google Shrek the Musical.

Now That’s Entertainment!

Published February 9, 2015 by Susan Roberts Writer

I decided a while back that, since this blog is about theatre in general, I don’t want to limit it to only my humble experiences. I love entertainment and I love being entertained.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I also love anything to do with Hugh Jackman. Particularly when he’s being entertaining.

I used to have a video here of Hugh Jackman doing what he does best, but due to my own paranoia about copyright issues, I have taken it down.

My apologies for any disappointment, but if you Google Hugh Jackman and Neil Patrick Harris, you’re sure to find the video on YouTube.

 

 

 

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