Chapter Four – AMPLE MAKE THIS BED, December 15, 2019.

by admin on December 15, 2019

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

B3d (7)ack at her house-sit, that Kitty had lined up for her through her network of contacts and friends, Ama chewed over what the old lady had said. Even when she didn’t act on her advice, she always took some consolation from their talks together. Although there was a generation gap between them, she could say anything that was on her mind and Kitty was seldom fazed by it. More often the old lady surprised her with the breadth of her experience, as she had shocked her today, with the revelations of her and Mrs. Spengler’s past lives.

She smiled to herself, moving about the big lavishly equipped kitchen of Kitty’s absent friend, preparing some sandwiches to take to the theatre later. Spike would love this story of the two old ladies’ intrigues, she thought, but could she dare risk breaking a confidence. One day maybe, when she felt more sure of him, but not yet. Meantime, she had more pressing concerns. She picked up the house phone, found Ronnie’s agent’s number and rang him, to leave an urgent message for her ex. Then she changed into her scruffiest old jeans and top, collected her bag of sandwiches and drove her old red Toyota to the theatre.

 

Unlike most theatres in small towns throughout the country, the Regency was not a former movie house, but an Edwardian vaudeville purpose-built theatre. Erected by a wealthy merchant newly returned from London, and determined to provide a cultural palace for his affluent home town. Arcadia was in its heyday and no money was spared, to create a lavish theatre in the heavy Edwardian style. Etched glass, polished mahogany, heavy brass fixtures and an over-size glittering central chandelier were set off by deep red plush everywhere.

And herein lay Ama’s problem. After a century’s wear and neglect it was now, in these straitened times, shabby, faded and worn. Her initial enthusiasm for restoring the old theatre, by sprucing it up with a new coat of gleaming period maroon paint on the exterior, only made the interior appear even more depressingly dull and dreary. She knew there was no money to replace all the expensive original red plush carpets, swags and wall curtains. She mourned the huge bevel edge mirrors over the heavy mahogany bar, and in the restrooms and foyer, that had lost their reflective purpose as the silvered backings flaked and peeled off. It was hard for her to imagine the once polished and shining brass fittings, that had turned dull and black with age.

That was only the front of house and auditorium. As Ama knew, the whole of the backstage area was not only shabby and worn, it was dangerous. The open stair-steps to the fly-loft were riddled with woodworm and unsafe. The fly-loft itself, felt shaky underfoot and the heavy ropes for flying the scenery in and out, were rotten from disuse.

Ama sat in the middle of the auditorium in one of the worn lumpy red plush seats, trying to focus on her theatre renovation problems and forget about her wayward daughter. She was waiting for Claire Tremblay to show up. They had arranged to meet here to discuss how they could kill two birds with one stone – make the theatre ready for the opening performance and design a striking but simple set, which could be adapted for multiple plays. One thing she knew for sure, there would be no flown- in scenery. The fly-loft was out of bounds until further notice. She calculated that if she had the stairs boarded up, that would satisfy the fire officer and the insurance people. Flying scenery and props would have to wait for another day, when success might bring funds for repairs.

Ama heard a backstage door bang shut and two minutes later, a tall cadaverously slim woman in her sixties, in designer jeans and a knee length cotton smock, strode to centre stage and threw out both arms wide to declaim to the empty house:

‘“   …Pardon, gentles all –

The flat unraisèd spirits that hath dar’d

On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth

So great an object: can this cockpit hold

The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram

Within this wooden O the very casques

That did affright the air at Agincourt?’”

Ama applauded. ‘If we do Claire, it’s going to be a miracle.’

Claire nodded agreement. ‘It’s gonna be a tough sell alright, but are we down-hearted?’

‘At the moment, yes,’ Ama said.

‘Nil desperandum,’ said Claire. ‘I have a trick or two up my smock.’

‘I was hoping you would. Everything I think of, is going to cost money we don’t have.’

‘Trust me, I have magical powers,’ said Claire. ‘With a bit of gauze and glitter and some lighting tricks, I’ll conjure up any scene you like. I do it all the time in the most unpromising surroundings – warehouses, parks, church halls, disused factories – all smoke and mirrors, Ama, you’ll see.’

‘From where I’m sitting, I only see problems, Claire. A crumbling break-arch proscenium stage with curtains falling apart and a condemned fly-loft – all of which will cost a small fortune to restore. Where do we start?’

Claire disappeared into the wings and re-entered at the side of the auditorium. ‘Come with me.’ She pulled Ama from her seat and led her to the rear of the stalls. ‘We start by getting rid of the first four rows of seats. Way too many seats in here to ever hope to fill anyway. Instead we add a thrust stage in the centre and two long ramps, not steps, one on either side of the new stage area. Ignore the proscenium arch and curtain, we don’t need them. Replace them with lights and sound.’

‘Smoke and mirrors,’ Ama said.

‘And best of all, cheap. Some recycled timber, a few sheets of plywood, a couple of rolls of used exhibition carpeting, and the services of a good stage carpenter, which you already possess….’

Ama nodded. ‘Arthur. Another magician. You should see what he’s done with the dressing rooms backstage. I love this idea, Claire.’

‘I’m not finished, Ama, look up there.’ She pointed up at the curving old balcony above their heads, dimly lit by the stage work lights. ‘I want to show you something.’

She loped off on her long matchstick legs, through the shabby foyer and up the once-grand curving elm staircase to the balcony seating area. Ama followed her as Claire leaned over the balcony on stage left.

‘Look at that old box seating. It’s halfway between here and the stage. If we took out the two seats, you can have another acting area. And if we put in an open staircase from here to the box, and then to the side of the stage, we can link all three levels for entrances and acting spaces. And before you object, I have an old admirer who works with an exhibition joinery firm in Halifax. He has a warehouse full of used steps and stairs from old shows they’ve done. All we need is a local aspiring thespian with a pickup truck to collect them.’ She took Ama’s hands in hers. ‘Look me in the eye and tell me that the prospect of a three-level thrust stage doesn’t thrill an old director’s jaded heart.’

‘God,’ said Ama. ‘Do you really think we could do it?’ She stared down at the stage, visualising how she might make use of Claire’s design for half a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays she wanted to do in modern dress.

‘And with that new thrust stage section, we could easily put in a trap door, with access from the wings behind the proscenium arch. Another great dramatic entrance for you to use. If we can’t fly them in from above, Ama, we’ll bring them up from below.’

‘More smoke and mirrors,’ said Ama. ‘I’ve never had a trapdoor to use before. Yes, please. Have you spoken to Arthur about it?’

Claire nodded, ‘Piece of cake, he says. And speaking of smoke and mirrors, I’ve got an idea for the foyer area, too. Come on down and I’ll show you.’ She strode off again towards the entrance area.

They stood side by side in the middle of the old grand foyer and bar area, surveying the gloomy prospect before them. Ama felt the enthusiasm that had gripped her minutes before, begin to drain away.

‘Reminds me of the Forum in Rome,’ she said. ‘All it needs is some ivy growing everywhere.’

‘The glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome,’ Claire said, arms akimbo, glancing about. ‘The ivy’s not a bad idea, Ama, we can make some long garlands of it to hang around the bar. Now, what I had in mind was this. All these huge old bevel-edge mirrors are too expensive to restore – for the time being at least, so let’s cover them up.’

‘What with?’ asked Ama, ‘whitewash?’

‘Period posters from the Edwardian era – reproductions, of course. Stick them up like playbills, overlapping each other. There’s a terrific poster shop in Dartmouth I go in, every time I need inspiration. They don’t need to be theatre posters, just period ones to add some flair. I happen to think poster designers are brilliant artists.’

‘They would look great behind the bar,’ admitted Ama.

‘Not only the bar. In the restrooms, the foyer walls, anywhere there’s an old mirror mounted,’ said Claire. ‘As for the bar, what we need is a giant tin of Brasso, get all the brass fixtures gleaming again. Perfect job for volunteers. This old mahogany bar will glow with a few coats of french polish. Do you know anybody who does furniture restoration, Ama? My contacts are all in Halifax at present.’

‘I don’t, but I’ll bet Kitty does. She knows everybody in the county and she’s keen to help out.’

‘Good. The simplest way to transform the whole foyer is to suspend a cloth canopy from the ceiling down to the top of the bar and the front entrance area. Something filmy and light coloured so we can light it from above. Make it like a stage set as soon as they enter. Do you have a good wardrobe mistress, Ama?’

‘Our wardrobe mistress is a man, as it happens. Frankie can adapt anything to anybody, from a codpiece to a vest of chain mail.’

‘Perfect,’ said Claire, ‘let’s get him working on our canopy. We can have half a dozen different ones to change from one show to the next. Cheesecloth is cheap and cheerful. So is burlap.’

‘Old fish nets?’ said Ama.

‘Perfect – as long as they’re free.’

‘There are lots of redundant nets in Arcadia, along with fishermen.’

‘The nets we can use – not so sure about the fishermen,’ said Claire.

‘Can we talk about the plays now? I’ve brought some sandwiches. Let’s take them in the Green Room and make some coffee,’ Ama said.

The two women made their way backstage through the scenery store to the Green Room which was covered in dingy red flock wallpaper.

‘“Nightmare, darling – absolute nightmare”,’ said Claire, looking around. Grinning, she plunked herself down on an old sofa to stretch out her long thin torso, and kicked off her trendy ankle boots. ‘Like my kinky boots, Ama? Ten bucks in my local Amnesty shop.’ She glanced at Ama’s sturdy old canvas runners, splashed with paint. ‘What size are you? These are sixes.’

‘Snap,’ said Ama, ‘can I try them?’

Claire tossed them over to her. ‘Floor length mirror right there, if you can make them out,’ she said nodding towards the flaking silvered mirror on one wall.

Ama tried them on and stood in front of the speckled mirror. “These old work jeans don’t show them off to best advantage and my bum’s too big to fit into those skinny pencil jeans, Claire.’

‘My current squeeze loves women with bums like yours, Ama. God knows what he sees in me. Must be my fine mind.’

‘Is he what brought you way down here from Halifax?’

‘Partly,’ Claire said.

‘What’s the other part?’

‘The provincial museum department wants me to design a touring exhibition, based on the best of the holdings of all the maritime museums – wants it to tour across the country, and maybe a bit in the New England states nearby.’

‘What – paintings?’

‘Not only paintings – more a cultural mix of artifacts, to show off the ‘richness of our maritime heritage’, according to the blurb I was sent. Seems they got an obscenely huge grant from the federal government to promote tourism, to replace the collapsed fishing industry.’

‘Oh god, does that mean I’m going to lose you, just when I was thinking you were going to be our salvation?’ said Ama.

‘Don’t worry, it’s not a nine to five desk job. I can set my own hours, decide when and where to work. I chose Arcadia as it’s right in the heart of the south shore. Who knows, I might be able to exploit this as part of my cultural travelling circus,’ Claire said. ‘But for the moment let’s discuss your project, not mine. Tell me more about your long-term plans, Ama.’

Ama poured them out coffee from a thermos urn and sat across from her new-found designer. She spread the sandwiches from her bag on the low table between them to share.

‘I sort of fell into this role of artistic director by chance. At my age I wasn’t looking for full-time acting anymore. Usual problems with type casting, in an over-crowded field of too many aging female actors. Plus, big parts meant too many lines for me to remember, as a 69-year-old, so I began directing as a way to stay in the game.’

Claire picked a small sandwich and broke it in half to nibble on from her supine position on the sofa. ‘Not too many women directors working that I know, Ama. You must be one of the lucky ones.’

‘Wrong. I barely had any work professionally when I stopped acting. I soon realised if I wanted to remain in the theatre, which is all I know, I’d have to look at community and fringe theatre jobs.’

‘Can you survive doing that?’ asked Claire. ‘Judging by the size of the honorarium your board offered me, you’ll soon be thinner than I am and I’m a professional anorexic.’

‘So why did you agree to do it, Claire?’

‘Same reason as you. I was looking for a challenge. Commercial stuff pays the bills but it starves the soul.’

‘But this museum project sounds fascinating, I’d love to do something like that,’ said Ama.

‘It is, but theatre design is my first love. It’s what gets my creative juices flowing. You mentioned on the phone that you wanted to do modern versions of the classic repertoire. How could I resist an offer like that? When you told me Peter Brook was your favourite director, I was sold. Love his productions. Leave all those fussy period costumes and sets for television, they do it much better than the theatre. The stage is for the imagination,’ said Claire.

‘I thought first of a modern dress Shakespeare, say Twelfth Night. But then I thought why not exploit the Edwardian theatre theme, with playwrights from then, Shaw, Ibsen, O’Casey, T.S. Eliot,’ said Ama.

‘How about a German expressionist play and a French farce?’ asked Claire. ‘On our new stage, we’ve got the chance to try anything – “therefore be bold!” Lulu – I’d kill to do Lulu! Do you know, I saw the new Paris opera house do Wedekind’s Lulu last year. It was so breathtaking, I fainted with excitement. Better than anything the Met or Covent Garden ever did.’

‘I’d like to do Brecht’s Mother Courage on this new stage of ours – but it wouldn’t fit for this season.’

‘Maybe next, then,’ Claire said. ‘What do you want to open with, Ama? Something daring we can really get our teeth into. Rock them back on their heels.’

‘I’ve already begun doing rehearsals of Twelfth Night. But you’re making me rethink the whole season now. Save Shakespeare for later. Why don’t we meet again in a few days and I can come up with a list that will work together on our new stage. Meantime, you and Arthur can decide how you can rebuild the theatre with just smoke and mirrors, Claire.’

‘And I want to meet this wardrobe master as well, to get him started on our foyer makeover. Do you have a producer or co-director to share the load, Ama? I know how these community theatres work. I’ve seen too many people burnout after one season. Learn to delegate, that’s my secret. Never do anything you can persuade someone else to do – under supervision, of course.’

‘As a matter of fact, I do have a secret weapon,’ said Ama. ‘But he’s still in Dartmouth, working on his boat to get it ready to sail down here to rescue me. His name is Spike and he’s going to be my co-director.’

‘Have you known him long, Ama? Does he know what he’s letting himself in for, doing community theatre?’

‘I haven’t told him too much yet. I don’t want to frighten him off. He’s a professional actor I’ve known since drama school. He’s new to directing but I think he’ll be a natural. Providing I can persuade him to stay. We’ve only reconnected recently and I’ve had to use all my wiles, to lure him down here to Arcadia.’

‘Sounds like you have some history between you,’ said Claire. ‘How long has it been since you saw him last?’

‘That’s the crazy thing, it’s been over forty years and we bonded like we’d never been apart. I can barely wait for him to get here.’

‘Well, well, this is all very intriguing. I hope he doesn’t turn the tables and lure you off into the sunset on his yacht, Ama.’

She laughed, ‘Spike’s boat is no yacht. It’s a converted old Cape Island lobster boat. Takes a bit of getting used to – but I quite like it. He wants us to live aboard.’

‘Very romantic sounding. Although I expect the reality is rather different. I’m already curious to meet him. When’s he coming?’

‘Not for a couple of weeks. He’s getting it ready for the trip here with an old friend of a dead friend.’

‘Curiouser and curiouser,’ said Claire. ‘Better get to work on our play season ideas.’ She sat up and wriggled her feet back into her ankle boots. ‘I’m off to find Frankie and Arthur to get them started.’

 

Ama finished her sandwiches while browsing through the theatre’s old play library, housed on dusty shelves around the Green Room. Nothing was in any semblance of order but she found actor’s copies of several plays from past productions with their parts and cues underlined or highlighted with marker pens. A paperback edition of ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ caught her eye and she took it with her back up to the stage.

She had seen a production of Joan Littlewood’s play, at the Roundhouse Theatre in Camden Town in London years ago, and it had had a powerful effect on her. She paced about the stage with the script in her hand, visualising how it might be performed in the revamped theatre of Claire Tremblay’s design. The highly stylised production she had loved so much would adapt well to the three levels and runway entrances of Claire’s imaginings.

‘Oh, oh, oh what a lovely war,’ she sang aloud, recalling the tune from the play’s title song. The period was right although the play had been written much later than the First World War. It’s combination of commedia del arte style, crossed with music hall-type numbers and a harsh Brecht/Weill approach to the setting and music, would utilise the full effects of the new thrust stage and multi-level acting areas. It made Ama wish Spike was here to share her excitement over all it’s possibilities, as an opening show for the new theatre’s season. Claire’s offer of a trapdoor in the new thrust section made her think of a trench scene she could stage, with suitable pyrotechnics and sounds.

‘Smoke and mirrors,’ she said, gazing up at the balcony with fresh eyes to its possibilities, once Claire’s linking staircase was added. Her cellphone rang, breaking into her reverie and she tried to ignore it but it continued ringing so she answered it at last.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

janie morris December 19, 2019 at 10:41 pm

I really enjoyed this scene.Everything felt very real .I wanted to join the two ladies and go on their journey.Look forward to reading your book.
Cheers, Janie

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