Damsels (and the stress)

Written by Richard McArtney

“Damsels in Distress” was originally an umbrella heading for two plays, “GamePlan” and “FlatSpin”, but during a very satisfactory rehearsal process back in 2001, the original Scarborough production became three plays as, “RolePlay” joined the fold. Their success ensured a transfer to London with the original cast. The reasonable run was not without controversy, but it was a theatrical highlight for those who hold Ayckbourn’s work as highly as we do.

Dick & Lottie, have always wanted to stage the plays and in keeping with our ethos that they should be produced, ‘as originally intended’, the fifteenth anniversary of the company was the perfect opportunity to create all three.

So, three individual plays, one set, one cast with the added bonus of performing them all in one day. It sounds like a dream for prop hunting, three plays with the same set! A kitchen with a living space set in a Thameside apartment. How simple could it be, until you sit down and ask yourself several questions. It might be one set, but is each play set in the same apartment? Do we need three different kitchens? Three different living areas incorporating chairs, breakfast table, coffee table, cushions etc?

After careful thought and discussion, we thought that the plays were all set in the same apartment, which made perfect sense. SPOILER ALERT: The family from, “GamePlan” move out, the police complete the sting in, “FlatSpin” and who knows what happens after the end of, “RolePlay”.

We settled on the same kitchen for all three plays (as per the original), the living room furniture would remain the same as the progression of the three plays could dictate. But, the details would need to change. Washing bowls, mug trees, mugs, kettles, cookery books, tea towels, biscuit tins etc would all need to reflect the people in each play. The props list for each play was therefore drawn up to reflect this, not forgetting the fact that an audience based on four sides would all be able to see in some, if not all the kitchen cupboards and potentially the refrigerator. We needed additional props to reflect the fact that these were two working kitchens, and one that was certainly pretending to be one. So in a week of performances that would incorporate all three plays, the level of props had not only trebled but they needed to be managed so that those audience members with a keen eye would not spot an inaccuracy.

There is always a challenge with any play, that every prop should reflect the period. For example, a bottle of wine can not only show a very clear year of production on it’s label, but if the play is set in the, not so recent, past it can also display a rather tell-tale bar code. A mobile phone from 2001 is not a mobile phone from 2019. The round teabag came into being in 1989, and I guarantee someone in the audience will spot anything and everything. When did we say goodbye to the VHS tape, or have we? Vinyl went and came back again! We were once caught out by creating an authentic wine label for a very expensive bottle of wine that was out of our budget, only to be pulled up by an eagle-eyed patron who noticed the shape of the bottle was incorrect.

Backstage, where space is limited, the team will set up a props table, or two, neatly taped into a grid to accommodate each item. With three plays, each table was set up at the convenient point for the actors, with the appropriate grid, then photographed and set up again for the next play and finally for the play that would be first to be performed. All boxes containing the items for each play were clearly marked up and any item that needs to be adjusted prior to performance was kept in a separate spot, so that they would not be forgotten about prior to performance. Wine to be decanted into a wine bottle (pear cordial to be precise, or cranberry juice, or a mixture of the two) for example. A selection of flasks for coffee or tea so that actors use the real thing and the audience can not only see the steam, but smell the aroma. It is always obvious to the viewer if an actor has no coffee in their coffee cup, no luggage in their suitcase. Never underestimate the audience. Those people who say, “they’ll never notice” are woefully misinformed.

Once the props are set off stage, those set on stage need to be documented so that before the start of the performance they can be checked against a list. It is unforgivable if an actor opens a drawer, lifts a lid or reaches into a bag and the item required is not there.

So “Damsels” has challenges all of it’s own. A good story, a great play relies on the audience suspending their disbelief, and it is the role of the production to make that as easy as possible. They maybe, “in distress” in their own fictional world, but a job well-done means the stress is managed to perfection.