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The Press Night, the Stage Technician’s Armpit and the Conductor’s speech

I had a couple of drinks on the way there.  Opening Nights at the opera company were, it was clear at first sight, a combination of booze-soaked debauchery, drama-queenery and incompetence.  There was no way to get through them apart from micro-managing via a haze of warm white wine, the first glass of which was served from the leaking office fridge prior to departure.

I knew what to expect long before I joined the company.  I had been gate-crashing these occasions for many years.   You could be passing the venue in question, realise that a press night was in the offing and stroll upstairs for a sweaty beer, drunk in the armpit of a stage technician, whilst watching the artistic director extol the virtues of his latest flop, slurringly from the top of the bar upon which he was unsteadily standing.

The team that I had inherited were determined to operate in approximately five different siloes from which they would concertedly bitch about each other, get wasted as quickly as they possibly could and flirt with the patrons whilst ignoring the fact that they had spelt those patrons’ names incorrectly in the programmes that they were failing to hand out during the pre-performance reception.

My third event of this sort was the unveiling of a new production of an old classic where the director had, in a style characteristic of this particular company, applied layer upon layer of whimsical intervention that bore little resemblance to either the libretto, the score or audience expectations.  

The simple expectation that I was keen to fulfil on this occasion consisted of a pre-performance reception where guests were served a drink, smiled at in a relatively sober fashion, sat in their seats before (not after) the lights went down and were approximately thanked in the speech at the reception after.   Not too much to ask.

The team were determined, at first glance, to do things ‘their way’.  The Corporate Manager had smuggled a bottle of champagne under the caterer’s bar for her own personal consumption rather than the house wines that were on offer to the guests.  The Individual Giving Manager was in the seventh stage of rage because the title page of the programme featured a mis-spelling of the name of one of the donors that she had cultivated and had supposedly crosschecked the spelling and rendering of their name with marketing for the purpose of this moment.  The Head of Individual Giving was perched at the end of one of the adjacent restaurant’s tables with her head lolling heavily in her hand whilst bewailing the fact that she used to be served a full three course meal on these occasions so that she could “network properly”.  And the Event Manager was, as ever, teetering on the highest of high heels imaginable, looking at her phone with such intent that it must have been featuring a newsfeed of the start of the third world war.

The 45 minute period before curtain up consisted of my smilingly circulating around the smattering of guests that I had assembled in the spirit of, who’d have thought, encouraging support for this ailing organisation, whilst cheerily suggesting to team members that that they might “put that out of sight not to worry it’ll be better next time why don’t you come over here and let people eat perhaps you’d like to check people off of the guest list rather than play candy crush hahahahaha”.

The Other Half swung into view in the final ten minutes and instead of being happily grateful at this planned-for show of moral support, I greeted him with, “Take this” [giving him his ticket], “and go and sit down.  I might see you in a bit”.

Just as the bells started ringing the only notable sight that caught my eye was the Individual Giving Manager, the Head of Individual Giving, the Event Manager and the Corporate Development Manager, huddled in a corner, poutingly pouring themselves drinks from the re-emerged bottle of champagne and literally casting me looks that were sharper than Tosca’s dagger.  I put my best sh*t-eating smile on and strolled over, saying, “Would you mind encouraging everyone to take their seats.  Thanks guys.”

A sigh that could have sailed dinghies across the channel emanated from the corner as I walked to the other side of the room where a fervent debate about the post-show reception speech was being conducted by various members of Senior Management.

“She says she’s not doing it”, said the Comms Director of the Chief Executive, who hadn’t been seen all day.  “She’s got friends in, she wants to entertain them and she doesn’t feel able to publically support this production”.

Fantastic leadership on all counts, I thought.   

“Well, I just need to see the donors getting thanked so I can go the fuck home’,  I said, and headed up the stairs to my seat next to the Other Half who was dutifully waiting and reading a programme for the second or the third time.

To say that the show passed off unmemorably would be about right.   In my experience, the most memorable of artistic endeavours are memorable due to the quality and the emotional impact of their delivery.  This one passed off in that the revolving set-piece in the second act just about judderingly managed to rotate.  The tenor approximately managed to hit the high note that he had failed to achieve throughout the rehearsal period.  The much-leaked moments of directorial intervention were greeted by the audience with a collective roll of the eyes.  And I sat in the middle of the row experiencing what can only be described as the worst heart-burn/gut-rot that cheap wine and high stress had ever inflicted upon me.  Did I need to burp, poo, puke or just go home for a lie down?  I couldn’t do any of those things because I was, indeed, stuck in the middle of the row for another hour or more.

I sent the Other Half packing at the end of the show, not wanting him to witness that carnage that was, no doubt, about to ensue.  I staggered up to the reception where the ‘design’ that had been argued over for weeks (ropes, posts, lights, food stations, pop up banners, costume displays and more) had been summarily ignored and one was greeted with the usual array of warm beers and wines that had been poured about 90 minutes prior, under stark strip lighting that was designed to bring out the darkest recesses of our guests’ pores.  Along with the Event Manager, standing by the entrance.   On her phone.

“All ready to go?”, I cheerily asked, knowing that this state of readiness was as prepared as we were ever going to be.

The usual throng of hangers-on, liggers, gate-crashers and staff members piled into the room and descended on the bar in the knowledge that the supply was going to be cut off the moment anyone vaguely important arrived and most certainly as soon as the speech was finished.

The Chief Executive was, as expected, nowhere to be seen.  The conductor of the performance sidled up to me and said “I hear I’m making the speech and you’re going to tell me what to do”.  

It was my turn to sigh whilst reaching into my pocket for the speech notes that I knew I would have to find, contrary to any previous expectations.  “Just mention all the cast and creative team by name and please please please mention these three people.  They gave us a lot of money to get this show on”.  I stood aside, expecting very little.

And in a long tradition of postshow speech-making, the conductor clambered onto the bar, struggled to make himself heard over the chattering of his own orchestra, mispronounced the names of the artists who he had just spent six weeks working with and utterly failed to thank the donors who had spent the last four hours watching their money get poured down the drain on a show that would never see the light of day again and had spent the last 45 minutes nestled in the armpit of a stage technician, waiting for a speech that would feature the appropriate level of thanks that was commensurate with the level of generosity that they had offered.  And which didn’t come.

I gave the conductor my hand in support of his descent from the bar, slapped him on the back with a warm, ‘Bravo Maestro” and headed for the door.

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