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And Another Thing...: Making A Drama Out Of A Crisis

Arthur Loosley found that his opportunity to strut and fret his hour on the stage came late in his career, when he had to confront lively groups of 16-to-19-year-olds as a college lecturer.

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"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts,." So wrote the Bard of Avon, and so say all of us.

Of many theatrical encounters in the course of my career I particularly remember the experiences of the early 1950s when I was working for a press agency in a large Midlands town and moonlighting (perhaps I should say footlighting or limelighting) as a front-of-house photographer for a highly acclaimed repertory company. My photographs were taken each week during the final dress rehearsal, and I soon became immersed in the ambience of the thespian world, making a number of friends among the actors and production team and meeting them socially in local coffee bars. This was before the days of Starbucks and the other 'smart' places where it is impossible nowadays to order a cup of coffee without an interpreter to help choose from a list of exotic names in a hybrid language at exotic prices. We had the choice of the ubiquitous Joe Lyons, ABC, or the slightly up-market Kardomah. We chose the latter.

About a year into this new lifestyle some of my non-thespian friends began to detect that my conversation was becoming a little 'precious' in parts. Perhaps that was what catapulted me into my next dramatic experience. Live theatre had not, in those far-off days, been seriously damaged by the exodus to television, and in addition to the repertory theatre in our town there were several thriving am-dram groups. I visited some of them during rehearsals and found that they varied widely, some straining to emulate the professionals and others just in it for their own enjoyment and to entertain their friends. At one of these rehearsals an actor had great difficulty with one line.

I can't remember the name of the play, but the line was delivered as, "matter matter matter what does matter." I have omitted any punctuation because there was none as delivered. The actor mouthing these words was not happy with them. She turned to the producer and complained that she was made to sound like a machine gun, and asked if the words could be changed. The producer, who had watched the rehearsal in silence, following the lines with a forefinger running slowly across the script, assured her that she had delivered exactly what was written there, and the rehearsal continued.

On the way out, chatting with the actor in question and a few others I was asked for my unbiased opinion, as a stranger with no allegiance to the producer but an apparent interest in matters theatrical. I opined, tentatively (or perhaps arrogantly) that the line should be delivered as a crescendo. I received an impromptu round of applause for my unpractised delivery and was invited to come back next week and hear it in context.

As luck (or fate) should have it, when we arrived the following week at the unheated Co-op Hall on a cold winter's evening, we were told that the producer had called in sick, and guess who was asked to help out for one night only. All I was expected to do was to hold the script and help anyone who forgot their lines. I thought that was the job of the prompt, not the producer, but as it required no skill or knowledge other than the ability to read I agreed - but not without a cautious 'caveat emptor' in case things got out of hand.

The evening went surprisingly well, and with only three more weeks of rehearsal before the performance date I was asked if I could help them again if the producer was unable to return in time. I politely declined, and for this perceived snub I was not invited back again.

My opportunity to strut and fret my hour upon the stage came much later when, having left Fleet Street during the industrial crisis of the early 1980s, my career changed direction. I spent the final ten years of my working life as a college lecturer and found that trying to teach a room full of lively 16-to-19-year-olds requires a massive range of performing skills and crisis management. There are so many things for young people to do today which are far more interesting than studying for a career, that holding their attention for more than the first 40 seconds of a 40-minute lesson requires the dexterity of a juggler, the nerve of a tightrope walker, the thick skin of an Indian fakir, the compassion of Mother Theresa and a constant change of speed, mood and intensity to keep one step ahead of them. Every teacher knows that each time he or she enters the classroom, this performance might well prove to be the swan-song of promising career.

I felt drained by the end of each lesson, having exhausted every emotion available to the human psyche. At least, that's how I saw it, although the students, might have preferred the infamous words of American humorist Dorothy Parker, who once cruelly described a performance by the late great Katharine Hepburn as running "the whole gamut of emotions from A to B".

I hope not.

Arthur Loosley 2007


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