There is Nothing like a Dame
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Copyright© 2017 Bronwen Welsh
A sequel to 'The Might-Have-Been Girl' and 'All the World's a Stage'
Chapter 14 The Theatre
The following morning I was up at seven o'clock, more my usual time of rising, and after breakfast, where I decided to try my eggs 'over easy' for a change, Hiram said he would drive us both to the theatre. I was glad in a way that Henry wasn't driving us in 'Annabel' as I didn't want to appear to the citizens of East Devon like 'Lady Muck' as a friend of mine used to call people who wished to appear 'posh'. I thought Magnolia might have come too, but she begged off, citing things she had to attend to in the house.
We walked out to the six-car garage which was about the size of a medium size house in England, and Hiram selected a Jeep 'Grand Cherokee', which was quite a sizeable vehicle but nothing like 'Annabel'. We got in and drove down to East Devon, where Hiram pulled up in front of the theatre. I've always been a fan of Art Deco and hoped that the interior might be in the same style.
Hiram turned to me and smiled: “It was built as the town cinema about seventy years ago by two men who were overly optimistic in their expectations of how large East Devon would become. It passed through the hands of a number of owners and always struggled to make a profit.
“Eventually it closed down and lay empty for a number of years. There was talk of converting it to shops or even pulling it down, and that's where I stepped in. I managed to get a look inside and decided that even in its dilapidated state it was far too beautiful to destroy. I'd had a desire to start a Shakespeare company for a number of years, and this was the ideal place rather than building a theatre from scratch. I made the owners an offer and they jumped at it. I guess I paid too much! It took several years to restore but I think it was worth it. Come along, I'll show you inside.”
We walked through the lobby and bar area and into the auditorium. I let out an involuntary gasp, it was so beautiful and all decorated in the Art Deco style with an amazingly ornate ceiling, walls, proscenium and lamps. What's more, it had a thrust stage, perfect for playing Shakespeare. I suspected that this was a recent modification. The whole restoration must have cost a fortune but luckily Hiram had the money to spend on it.
“What a beautiful theatre!” I exclaimed and it was obvious from the look on Hiram's face that I had said exactly the right thing, and what's more that I meant it.
“We've made some recent modifications, adding the thrust stage. We've lost some seats of course, but the theatre capacity is still six hundred people and it was worth doing it in order to present Shakespeare in the manner in which the plays were presented at the Globe. The world's best playwright deserves to have his work performed in a quality setting,” he said. “I'll introduce you to the administrative staff and Artistic Director first and then you'll meet the players.”
We walked out through a side door and up some stairs to an office.
Two men and a woman turned as we walked through the door. All three were older than me and it occurred to me that they must surely be thinking 'What on earth is Hiram doing hiring such a young woman?' If those were their true thoughts, they masked them with welcoming smiles.
“Lady and gentlemen, may I present Miss Harriet Stow, our new 'artist-in-residence', all the way from Stratford-upon-Avon in England?” said Hiram.
He introduced each person in turn: “This is Miranda Strange, our Artistic Director; Nigel Wiseman is the General Manager and Morton Goldman is our Chief Financial Officer. I've invited them all to dinner this evening so that you can get to know them better. Obviously you'll be working with Miranda most of the time, but Nigel and Morton are important in ensuring that the theatre runs efficiently and balances its books.”
As he introduced each of the three I shook their hands and said “Pleased to meet you.” To the two men I said “I've been working in the theatre long enough to know that it wouldn't exist without gentlemen such as yourselves working behind the scenes to make sure that the enterprise turns a profit. I'm one of those fortunate people who walks on stage and gets the applause, but I know how important your rôle is too.”
That might sound like flattery, but I knew only too well that such praise from a young woman who was moderately comely in appearance and speaking to older men, could not fail to have the desired effect. Miranda knew what I was doing of course, but she gave no indication of it. Doubtless she had used the same tactics herself.
Introductions over, Hiram said: “Miranda, would you mind taking Harriet down to meet the actors while I have some discussions with Nigel and Morton?”
“Certainly, Hiram,” she said and led me from the office. Once safely out of earshot she said “They don't want us to bother our 'pretty little heads' over financial matters.”
I laughed: “Early in my career I heard someone else use those exact same words. I do hope that the theatre is not struggling financially?”
Miranda laughed now: ”Fortunately we have a very rich benefactor, although I think we do just about break even.”
“It's like that in many British theatres,” I said. “Fortunately the ISC and Stratford theatres are so popular with tourists as well as locals, they are very comfortable financially.”
“That's largely due to the quality of your productions,” said Miranda. “I had the privilege of seeing you perform in 'Romeo and Juliet'. Hiram sent me over to check you out before asking you to come over here. I hope you don't mind?”
“Not in the least,” I replied. “I just hope that I am able to make a contribution to your company. I know I'm rather younger than your previous resident artists and I hope that won't be held against me. Mr Thompson seemed to think it was a good idea.”
“I'm sure he's right. You may be young but you British have Shakespeare in your bones, and spending so much time in Stratford-Upon-Avon must surely have made you absorb him even more.”
I halted: “Miranda, would you mind if we spoke a bit more before I meet the actors?”
“Sure,” she replied, leading me to a comfortable padded bench seat in the corridor which led to the Circle.
I decided to be straight with her: “You know that this is my first experience of being a 'resident artist' whereas you have had others before me. I will do my very best to make my stay a success, but I will need your help in giving the actors what they want and need. I expect to learn things from them too, so it won't be all one-way traffic.”
Miranda smiled: “Yes we've had other artists here; some had a successful stay and some not so successful. You will be the youngest so far, and I think that will help you because you're just about the same age as most of the actors. Speaking of which, why don't we go down so that I can introduce you to them?”
We walked down the stairs and through a doorway leading into the auditorium. A number of young men and women were standing on the stage chatting with each other, and they stopped when we appeared.
Miranda led me up the steps onto the stage and said: “Good morning everyone, may I introduce Harriet Stow, our new resident artist? Harriet is currently working with the Imperial Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. I'm sure we are all looking forward to working with her on our latest productions of 'Romeo and Juliet', and 'Much Ado About Nothing'. Harriet, would you like to say a few words? Perhaps you can tell us a bit about your approach to performing Shakespeare, especially Juliet?”
I looked at the twenty or so expectant faces. This was it!
“Good morning everyone. I'm very much looking forward to working with you, and from the start I would like you to address me as Harriet. I'm fairly good with names, so I hope to remember yours within a few days, but thank you for wearing name tags, that was very thoughtful. I was glad to hear that the two plays we will be workshopping together are a tragedy and a comedy. I have performed in both these plays recently so I'm quite familiar with them.
“It's no secret that Shakespeare is my favourite playwright. That's because his plays don't date, unlike others which are far more modern. We can all relate to the themes today, which just goes to show that human nature hasn't changed much.
“'Romeo and Juliet' takes place in the thirteen hundreds, so it was an historic play for Shakespeare's audience too, something which is not always appreciated. We are told that Juliet is nearly fourteen which seems a very young age to marry, but she belonged to a nobleman's house so an arranged marriage is partly for dynastic reasons. As soon as a young noblewoman reached 'menarche', that is, had her first period, then she was considered old enough to marry and have children. This was one of the reasons for the high mortality rate among young brides, as their bodies were really not developed enough to bear children.
“Romeo's age isn't given but we can assume that he is several years older or Juliet wouldn't have fallen in love with him. Boys, after all, mature more slowly than girls.” This produced some laughter from all the listeners, even the young men present. “No-one as young as the characters ever plays the parts as it requires actors who are more mature and skillful, but there is a time limit on how old they can be, so I am making the most of my opportunities while I can still play Juliet. In fact, I'm scheduled to do so again, later this year.
“I'm sure that none of us is too old to forget our first love and what an effect it had on us. We spent almost every waking moment thinking about them and counting the hours until we could see them again. We might even have thought that we would die if we couldn't see them again.
“Their youth explains some of Romeo and Juliet's hasty decision-making, and of course that final decision that they cannot live without each other. In the background is the hatred between their families, going back so far that they probably can't even remember what started it, and in fact we are not told what it is, only that it is an 'ancient grudge'.
“The clash between the 'star-cross'd lovers' and their much older parents is another thing we can relate to. 'Old Capulet' as he is described, arranges a marriage for his daughter and when she objects, he treats her as a possession and insists that his will be obeyed. This is a crucial error on his part, since, as a result, she and Romeo arrange their marriage after only knowing each other for two days.
“I could go on, but this sounds like it's turning into a lecture. One of the unusual things about this play is the character called 'Chorus' coming on-stage at the start of the first and second acts and revealing in a sonnet, what we would now term a 'spoiler', telling the audience what is going to happen. This probably doesn't matter since I doubt if one percent of the audience doesn't know the ending of the play, but it does mean that as actors we must be as convincing as possible in our portrayal of the characters. I'll let you into a secret; if at the end of the play I didn't see some of the women and perhaps even a few of the men in the audience wiping their eyes then I'd know that I had failed.”
“And has this happened to you, I mean not seeing them wipe their eyes?” asked one of the young people.
“Not so far, but there's always a first time,” I replied, smiling. “That brings me to something I'd like to tell every actor to remember for their whole career; and I constantly remind myself of it; we play the same part a number of times in a season, but each audience only sees us perform it once, so we owe it to them to make it the best performance we have ever done.”
There was a murmur of agreement from the actors and it seemed my advice had hit home.
“On that note, I see that Mr Thompson is waiting for me, so I'll look forward to seeing you all again tomorrow at rehearsal.”
Before I left the stage Miranda took me aside: “You've made a good first impression,” she murmured quietly. “I'm sure we're all going to get on just fine.”
When we reached the car, Mr Thompson said: “Have you had any experience of driving on the right side of the road?”
“No I haven't,” I replied. “Even though I do have an international driving licence.”
“So why don't you drive us back? It's quite a straightforward route. If you are comfortable with it, you can borrow this car to drive down to the theatre on your own if you wish to do so.”
I stepped into the car, which was an automatic, and the first thing I was pleased to see was that the accelerator was on the right of the brake pedal, just like the cars back in England. Hiram sat beside me and pointed out the various controls like the turning indicator and windscreen wipers attached to the steering column, which were in the reverse position of what I was used to. I started the engine, checked the mirrors, started the windscreen wipers by mistake and drove off very cautiously. However by the time we reached Tara, I was feeling more confident.
“You're doing fine,” said Hiram.”So what do you think? Are you happy to drive yourself to East Devon?”
I could tell that he wanted me to say 'Yes', and in fact I thought I could do it without much trouble, so I agreed.
In the evening, Miranda, Neil and Morton were coming to dinner, so I had a short siesta during the afternoon and then had a shower and dressed for dinner. I had consulted Magnolia about what I should wear. I showed her my sparse wardrobe and said that I thought I should get some more clothes. She pointed to a tea-length dress I had brought and said: “That's very pretty, why don't you wear that?” I agreed with her. It was a two-piece sleeveless lace dress, deep blue in colour with a full skirt. It was elegant without being 'over the top'. I wore it with stockings and also six-inch heels in a matching colour. When I came downstairs, Magnolia told me that it was perfect for the evening.
When the three guests arrived, the men were wearing suits and ties, and Miranda was wearing a beautiful dress, so we women complimented each other on our choice, and the men gallantly said that they were privileged to be dining with such beauties. American men are certainly practised in saying the right thing.
The meal was excellent and Ellen was complimented on it. During the conversation, I was subjected to a gentle grilling on my background and the experience I had on the stage and also directing. During the talk, my friendship with Dame Emily came out and I'm sure that impressed them, as did some of the other famous names I had performed with.
“I'm sure our troupe will benefit greatly from your presence,” said Neil, and the others nodded in agreement.
“I certainly hope I can make a contribution and also learn from them,” I replied. “Every production I take part in is a learning experience.”
“What about television?” asked Miranda. “Have you had any experience there?”
“I've only been in two productions so far,” I replied. “I had a tiny part in 'Under Milk Wood' as 'Mae Rose Cottage', with a rather doubtful Welsh accent and also a small speaking rôle, 'Sylvie', in one of the BBC's 'bonnet dramas', Charlotte Brönte's first novel “The Professor”, which hardly anyone has heard of. It's very different to acting on stage; there's a lot of waiting around for scenes to be set up.”
“How were the ratings?” asked Morton.
“Quite good I believe, although the BBC being a public broadcaster does not rely on them so much since it doesn't have commercials. Still, they do like their programs to be successful since they are spending public money.”
The conversation turned to the plays that Hiram's company had been performing recently, which included 'Twelfth Night' and 'Henry V'. Eventually, Miranda looked at her watch and said that it was time she was going as there was going to be a rehearsal the next morning.
The three guests stood up and thanked Magnolia and Hiram for a most enjoyable evening. Miranda said she looked forward to seeing me the following morning, and they left the house. I told Magnolia and Hiram that it had been a lovely evening and then I went to bed.
To be continued.
Many thanks once again to Louise Ann and Julia Phillips for spotting my 'typos', thus allowing me to correct them before publishing. A special thank-you to Karen Lockhart, a native of New England who has provided me with local knowledge and correct American idioms for this and the following chapters while Harriet visits the United States.
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