What happens when you direct a play (for the first time)

This post was written on the opening night of my directorial debut with The Canterbury Players in June 2014.

A while ago, I wrote about hay fever. But now I am going to write about Hay Fever. No, not the ailment that’s killing me slowly via the nose. I mean the thing that’s probably going to kill me by way of a bunch of people kicking me to death while shouting “is it stage left or right, you silly bint?!!”

Yes, tiny darlings. I am directing a play. Namely, Hay Fever by the one and only Noel Coward, and it starts tonight (Thurs 26th June) at The Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury.

Excuse me a moment while I vomit profusely from gut wrenching nerves.

The Demon Gin, Hay Fever, Canterbury, credit Becky Lamyman

First, some background. As you may know, I am an amateur thesp. Yes. Oh yes I am. I’ve been a member of a few am dram groups for the past few years, but The Canterbury Players takes up most of my acting time as they are both prolific in their productions and a jolly nice bunch of people. I’m pleased to call many of them good friends*

This is, however, the first time I’ve been asked to actually run a show. Obviously, it’s a great opportunity, and a great play to boot. Plus it’s being staged in the theatre of my former university.

Excuse me again………………….Okay…okay, I think that’s the last of it.

I first saw Hay Fever performed in London in the early 1990s, and loved it from start to finish. The production was outlandish, camp and slick, and it stayed with me for years afterwards. No new version that I have seen since has ever lived up to that initial, side-splitting production. True, the play itself does not really have much of a plot – a family of dramatic bohemians invite some guests to their country home, and hilarious social awkwardness ensures. But it revolves around rich, strong comic characters, who need to be larger than life without descending into hammy farce. Done right, it’s a masterpiece of wit, whimsy and comic timing.

The Demon Gin, Hay Fever play, Canterbury, credit Becky Lamyman

One night, at a committee meeting for the Players, we thesps were trying to decided on a suitable summer show for the group. I piped up that Hay Fever would be perfect and then, for some unknown reason, found myself saying: “I’m happy to help direct it!”

Oh God, hang on, there’s more….I better eat some bread or something, I’m think I just threw up  a lung…

So it came to pass that I took on the job of directing the show, assisted by my good friend Kasia as assistant director (AD) and Nick G as stage manager. 

Three mad months later, and we finally have a show. I write this an hour before curtain goes up for the first time, but I dare not spoil the fun for you and use this post to talk about the show.

But what I can do, in the meantime and to distract me from vomiting, is share what I have learned during my first stint as an amdram director.

Well….well obviously this isn’t proper directors’ advice, as I am not experienced enough to tell anyone what to do. But I can give you The Demon Gin take on what expect…

You will lose 10 weeks of your life
Once rehearsals start, that’s it. You now live and breathe the play, and no amount of gin will block it out. If you think you can fit it around all your other hobbies and be totally laid back and casual, you are WRONG. It will consume you. You can’t move for the amount of directing and planning you have to do, and you have to be awake for almost all of it.

You won’t have thought of half the things you were supposed to
Midway through rehearsals, when the cast seem happy and comfortable, the horror questions come. “Aren’t I suppose to be using a soda siphon here?” “How are we actually going to smoke on stage?” “Do we actually have a grand piano for this scene, as it is referenced several times?”

I was asked every one of these questions. My general response was to smile, nod, and say “don’t worry, don’t worry, it’s all taken care of.”

Ten minutes later, I was on the phone to my AD while simultaneously trying to make a soda siphon out of shoe and a hose, screaming: “How do we get a fucking PIANO on the stage?! And can any of us even play one? Oh God and we’ve got to have fags too – can we smoke on stage now, is that allowed? I don’t care, fire proof EVERYTHING!”

This is why you need a good stage manager and assistant director. They will help you to remember things you haven’t thought of, and will talk you down from the chandelier.

The Demon Gin, Hay Fever play, Canterbury, gulbenkian
Nick and Kasia, playing with the set. For God’s sake, hammer something!!!
The Demon Gin, Hay Fever play, Canterbury, credit Becky Lamyman
The finished set
The Demon Gin, Hay Fever play, Canterbury, credit Becky Lamyman
Obligatory set beer


You’ll forget the things you did think of
Me on phone: “Hello? You know those costumes we hired from your lovely shop?…..was I supposed to collect those?….I was. Good. Good……uh…..can I get them now? Yes I know it’s 6am and I’ve been ringing your doorbell for an hour, but I just thought I’d double check.”

You start to suspect you have an ulcer
Even on calm, peaceful, problem-free shows, you are still working around the clock (if you have a day job too) and juggling many tasks. Then, one day, you wake up and your stomach is doing acidic somersaults. You spend your days chucking Rennie into your mouth like peanuts, muttering “it’s an ulcer, it’s got to be an ulcer, this show is eating me from the inside.”

No you big big freak, it’s not an ulcer. It’s because you’ve been existing on a diet of biscuits, chocolate, caffine and red wine due to you having no time to cook any more. Your gut is crying out for spinach.

You have a lot of big ideas that never come to fruition

In those heady, early days when people are merrily reading and blocking scenes, and there’s a full eight weeks to go, you have some pretty outlandish ideas of how to make the show pop and boost ticket sales. “I think we should do an entire dinner event in the cafe before each show,” you cry, Malbec flying from your glass as you gesticulate. “We’ll all dress up, and we’ll serve themed food, and there’ll be a band! And dancers! And a quiz!”

Three weeks before show, one of your crew asks about the pre-show event plans and you throw a cat in their face while chewing on a cigarette. “Screw that, no time, do I look like I have the time? There’s no fucking time for anything!”

The Demon Gin, Hay Fever play, Canterbury
Backstage, pondering
The Demon Gin, Hay Fever play, Canterbury, gulbenkian
Trying to make a garden makes Kasia coy. And blurry

You volunteer to make things when you really shouldn’t

“Now,” you reassure the cast. “Get what accessories you can, and I am going to make some extras at home.” You have visions of creating gorgeous flapper head bands and head scarves dazzled with plumes and jewels.

Your efforts will ultimately end up looking like an ostrich died on a bit of dressing gown chord from being pelted with sequins.

You WILL go to the shops and buy replacements, and speak no more about what came before.

You will flip out

At some point, something small will go wrong and it will set you off completely. Your stage manager calls to tell you that you might not have enough matching cups and saucers, and he later finds you in a canoe, paddling yourself across a small lake near Chilham and muttering “I’m sailing to France, I’m sailing to France”

Just try to keep it together in rehearsals.

The Demon Gin, Hay Fever play, Canterbury, gulbenkian
Director enjoying a smoothie. I’ve clearly lost my mind

You get vicious about ticket sales

When you are on stage, it’s nice to know lots of people are in the audience looking at you being brilliant, but it isn’t the end of the world if it’s a quiet night. You’re there to have fun and to enjoy your art.

As a director, every empty seat looms over you in your dreams. Our group is popular, but it’s rare that we ever sell out (especially in the summer). Yet it’s your show, and every unsold seat begins to represent a colossal failure by you to present an appealing night out.

Soon, all ticket sales become personal. You call up people you haven’t seen for years, you message people for a chat and a hard sell, you grab strangers in the street and shout “go and see my show”. Anyone who doesn’t attend you assume hates you, and has always hated you, and is just jealous of your success.

Remember that sometimes, a smaller audience is better than a big one. Not in terms of money, or credibility….but intimate crowds often laugh the loudest at comedies, and it gives the cast a reall boost.

And for the love of GOD, make sure everyone off staff has at least eight wines in the interval.

You swear this will be your last show for several months

It never is.

The Demon Gin, Hay Fever play, Canterbury, credit Becky Lamyman

******

A few serious words about the show, before lights go up and you all get to bask in the glory of my directorial debut.

The cast features people I’ve worked with before and newcomers, including the beau that I oft mention in this here blog. Honestly, I could not have asked for more better actors – there is not a weak link amongst them**, and that is a rare thing in am dram. Everyone has mucked in, brought props and costume ideas, worked late and remained sane while I snapped about lines. They have made their characters their own, and are an utter joy to watch. Such talent deserves your praise.

Thank you Caron, Matt, Sally, Mike, Ben***, Tim, Ellie, Nathalie, and Tessa  from the bottom of my heart and the middle of my kidneys.

Secondly, the show’s backstage crew have been outstanding. My incredible stage manager Nick and my amazing assistant director Kasia are both highly talented, innovative and considerate professionals, and without them I would not have had nearly as much fun. Thanks must also go to the ever resourceful set designers and builders Derek and Stephen, who saved us from a near disaster when our original set plans fell through and have created a truly stunning home for the actors.

Final thanks to all the people who have helped out so willingly – prop wrangler Sally P, costumer Alanna, lovely LX designer Emma and operator Jack, the tireless backstage crew Beth and Jasmine, and fearless front of house Sarah, Sally E, Kat Jim, Jill and Tony.

My unlimited love to y’all.



The Demon Gin, Hay Fever play, Canterbury, credit Becky Lamyman
Da cast and da crew

*To their face that is. Behind their backs, I say terrible, godless things.
** I’ve just been told by the cast that I have used the words ‘there isn’t a weak link amongst you!’ about 50 times. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, apart from ‘please don’t screw up’
***I’m thanking him even though he had to shave for the role and I don’t much care for him clean shaven.

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