28 June 2019
A giant baby. A big issue
Our production co-ordinator Ellie reflects on ground-breaking show ZARA with learning disabled theatre company Mind The Gap
Zara featured an entirely learning disabled cast and a giant puppet operated by six puppeteers. As Production Coordinator my role on the project was to support the crew to deliver this spectacular event from a technical and welfare perspective, but I also ended up playing a very small part in the actual show this time round.
May 9th: Dress Rehearsal, Imperial War Museum London
9.30am: I jump on the train from Manchester Piccadilly and two hours later arrive in London. I make way South towards site based next to the Imperial War Museum, lugging my heavy suitcase filled with my kit for the week (or ‘personals ‘as we call them) behind me. Emerging out at Lambeth North tube station, the skies above are the colour of a pigeon’s wing. Soon enough, splotches of rain mark the pavement black. Working in Outdoor Arts, you get to be a bit obsessed about the weather, rain means a wet crew, difficult working conditions, which can potentially affect equipment, costumes and morale. I ruminate on where I might be able to buy ponchos locally and at short notice if needs be.
10am: At the grounds of the Imperial War Museum there’s a Russian war remembrance event going being held, people are milling about laying beautiful flowers wrapped in nationalistic colours. I make way through the hubbub and round the corner spot Eva, our giant baby puppet. She’s a bit hard to miss! Her ginger hair glows luminously against the green backdrop of the gardens. Bemused members of the public are watching us setting up from the sidelines.
A makeshift Production Office becomes mission control
I head to the makeshift Production Office, which is actually the Park Office, and inside there is a senior Production Meeting going on, the Mind the Gap team, SFX, Sound, Illuminos and members of Walk the Plank are huddled round a table. Joyce, the director, is running through the notes she has scribbled on her script from the Tech rehearsal the day prior. She goes from cue (a set moment which triggers for an action to be carried out) to cue asking questions like “Can I just check where the radical protestors should be facing at this point?” and “Would it be possible to have a bit more light on Zara when she is suspended there please?” The point of these meetings is to make sure the the creative vision of the piece is ‘flowing’ as it should, in terms of the movement of actors, the timings for the sound effects, the lighting. Also, to iron out any technical kinks. There’s such a huge amount of effort that goes into making a production look flawless and it’s essential we work as a team to make it happen.
I dump my bags, mouthing hello to people, trying not to disturb the meeting, and nod yes to a handful of mixed nuts and raisins offered as a bag of them makes its way round the room… never say no to a snack whilst out on a gig! I leave them to it, and go out to find if the rest of the crew need a hand with anything.
From feeding the crew to checking the weather
15.07 Crew has eaten lunch and the everything is being made ready for the dress rehearsal tonight, the rain is coming and going, at times it has been torrential. I notice Sammi, our Production Manager, regularly checking the forecast on her phone with a pensive expression. The community choir has started to arrive and despite the rain there’s a slight buzz gathering, I help one of the support workers to orientate a group of excited actors new to site, pointing out the toilets and the tea station and remind them that everyone has to be in costume and ready to start the dress by six at the latest. I hover round doing some general clearing in the production office and make sure the radios are on charge for use later.
18.30 I am sitting beside Jez, dressed in full military regalia, in the turret of a full sized tank. We are bang in the middle of the dress rehearsal and Jez, who plays the commissioner in the production, is doing a sterling job at belting out his lines. The rain is absolutely relentless. It is my job to twizzle the gun barrel of the tank towards the giant puppet at the key moment- to do this I spin an internal lever as fast I possibly can. Being a decommissioned 1940s war tank it’s a bit cranky and this quite a difficult, but I manage. Being in the tank offers a brilliant vantage point to watch Jez at work and also to see Joanne, who plays the lead Zara , during the finale scene when she does her aerial movement. I am absolutely in awe watching. Rehearsals run till 10.30. When they’re done we do a basic clear up and head out to the pub for a post-rehearsal pint. It’s important to decompress!
10th May- The First Show Day in London!
14.00: Crew are called back to site and we clear away anything that wasn’t the night before, this includes collecting strands of yellow streamers which have been ground into the muddy ground- remnants from the ‘poo-magedan’ scene.
I help squeegee the rain puddles from the stage alongside the puppeteers, then I go and help the tech crew push over 50 brown sponges back into the confetti canons- also part of the special effect. Tom, a Plank tech is concerned about whether or not our bubble machines are operating properly so I help him to test them one by one by unplugging all the component parts and turning them on again.
16.30: From my privileged backstage position I get to watch dance Sardine Dance Collective rehearse in golden afternoon sunshine. SDC are an incredibly talented dance group, an integrated collective of disabled and non-disabled performers. For our Zara performance they are delivering an incredible piece that communicates the story of a mother giving birth and her love for her baby. It’s incredibly moving.
A rapturous applause
22.40: Fast forward to the rapturous applause, which I am listening to from inside the tank turret.
I can hear that the first night has been an incredible success! The crew, actors and I celebrate head back to the hotel bar to celebrate. It’s Howard, one of the Mind the Gap actor’s birthdays. Executive Producer Liz asks if he wants to say a few words. Howard makes a simple but beautiful speech. He talks about how the production and its rehearsal period has meant a lot to a lot of people over the last year and more and it hits home to me what a special event this is.
15.00: One of my first tasks for the day is to help paper the interior of the windows of the Imperial war Museum. This is to make the Illuminos projection mapping onto the building really stand out. Projection manager Sammi, the Illuminos team and myself are escorted by museum officials into various backrooms stuffed with vintage war artefacts, we precariously balance on ladders to blu-tac reems of paper to the window panes. It’s nothing compared to the 40 plus windows I had to cover when we did the show at Piece Hall, Halifax! I love how working in outdoor arts you get to see parts of buildings few others get to, it often takes lots of people to pitch even to make the simple things happen. It’s always a team effort.
17.00: After grabbing dinner from the catering tent I wander over to talk to some of the Mind the Gap actors preparing for the show later. I am struck by their openness and excitement. In the background the costume team are counting up rails and rails of black and yellow bio-hazard suits which will be donned by performers later.
It’s a wrap
22.30: It’s done! The Zara performances are complete. Bubbles flume out of the machines and the final notes of the closing lullaby song ring out over the cheering crowds. Crouching down in the tank, it’s a moving moment.
There’s not much time to dwell on it though… as it’s also the de-rig tonight!
2.00am: It’s action stations all round as myself and the technical crew dissemble the staging, lighting, production office and pack ladders, stage weights, bubble machines, fire extinguishers… the entire site into the back of huge lorries. You have not known true exhaustion until you have to pack down a massive catering gazebo at 3 in the morning having already worked for 11 hours. The reality of Outdoor Arts is that it’s an incredible experience but also a lot of hard graft.
3.30am: I jump in a taxi with Sammi and Kev who operated the tele-handler that animated the baby puppet and finally make our way back to the hotel. I am so tired my fingers barely work as I scroll through my phone looking for a 24 hour pizza delivery company to feed the troops. When we arrive all the actors and crew are still up in the hotel bar. Our star Joanne is sipping a well deserved hot chocolate. Joyce the director is a bit teary with emotion. The atmosphere makes me forget how tired I am. I give Joanne a huge hug of congratulations and toast her success with a beer. I crash out in my hotel room and get some rest before I start work on the next production…