Michael Green wrote a remarkable and very funny book called ‘The Art of Coarse Acting, or, How to Wreck an Amateur Dramatic Society’. I was lucky enough to be given a copy of this book many many years ago, when I was the conductor of an amateur musical society, in England. I found the book hilarious, as I am sure anybody would, and not only hilarious, but, as I went, week after week to rehearsals, I found it all absolutely true. There are people who live to take part in musicals. It is their whole life and their whole being. They cannot wait for rehearsal night, and when this night comes around each week, to anybody standing and watching, they are obviously out to wreck the whole production.
A memorable time was had when the society decided to stage ‘Merry England’ by Edward German. You will easily be able to guess what the show is about and has in it not only characters from the Elizabethan era, but any character of note from before and just after. Robin Hood and Maid Marion, Elizabeth of course, Shakespeare, Bacon and others.
The set designer was new, and had some wonderful ideas on how to set the show. He decided upon a ‘box’ set. This is almost a continuous piece of scenery running around the back edge of the stage and is in 3 sections; a scenery wall to the left, a scenery wall to the right and a long scenery wall along the back of the stage. To complete the set he had a door right in the centre of the back wall. Now all this sounds good except for one thing. The whole set was dependent upon that door to stay upright – which must be left open for it to work. This clever device kept the whole set up and not falling forward onto the actors, the stage and anything else. The problems came when the set was finally completed which happened to be only minutes before the first performance. The actors would stride confidently onto the stage – usually through the door at the back, and would almost always SHUT THE DOOR! This called for sniggers at first from the audience and, as the show went on, open and derisive laughter. I can remember turning round from my position as conductor, and seeing several members of the audience, who had obviously had a ‘warming’ drink before the show started, actually lying in the aisle, tears streaming from their eyes, holding their sides with mirth.
I think the show was doomed from the start anyway. The director had decided that at Elizabeth’s entry, there should be a small boy scattering rose petals in her path. Now what could be dangerous about that? Nothing really until the well-meaning stage manager decided that the rose petals would look better if they had been moistened with water. As the young boy grasped the rose petals for the first time and brought them out of the basket they were clumped together! I remember clearly this sodden ball of vegetation heading towards the first violins in the orchestra. I wanted to shout, “Duck”, but unfortunately I was rendered speechless. The ball of petals hit the first violin music stand and the leader of the orchestra, who was easily in his seventies, almost died on the spot. He became a total nervous wreck from that time, and went on medication for the remainder of the season.
To finish off, literally, the opening night, the front of house people, in order to ensure a good first night audience, had decided to invite the local people from the hospital – which turned out to be an asylum for the mentally disabled. I was actually pleased and astonished to see a packed audience when I walked out to take my bow at the start of the show. Even the gallery was filled to capacity, not knowing that it was there that the people from the asylum were seated. The show had been on for a good half hour; there were actors almost being buried alive in scenery, and dangerous missiles flying around, and the people in the gallery were bored! It was at that point that the inmates decided to escape the confines of the hall – by climbing over the rail of the balcony and dropping the 5 metres onto the people below. This was the finish. It was not ‘Merry England’ anymore.