Tech Blog: The Gondoliers 2011

By Chris Armstrong, longtime techie.

It's that time again, the blogging event of the year; my review of The Gondoliers, 2011. Don't all swoon at once.

The Gondoliers was last performed by the society in 2004, and several members of that cast were around to see it and perform it again. Iolanthe was also on the cards for 2011, but I believe Jenny Draper, assistant director and seamstress for The Sorcerer, wanted to delay that one until she was back from a year in France. Anyway, whatever the actual reason, it was The Gondoliers that won out against the other 12 Savoy Operas (including The Grand Duke), and we were set to perform what is perhaps the most musically demanding of the Gilbert & Sullivan canon.

Tom Nichol was chosen for the Musical Director role, and had the responsibility of teaching the 50 or so page opening number to the cast and the finger-breaking arpeggios to the string section of the orchestra. For the first time, we auditioned the MD role in front of the cast (it's rarely a contested position, but this was spurred on by the fact that they couldn't make the JCM, so it was put off). Tom narrowly won over James Gaughan, so Tom’s music department contacts gave us a fabulous orchestra and allowed James to do an awesome, albeit highly lecherous, Grand Inquisitor. Meanwhile, the directorial team consisted of Siân Lomax and Siân Lomax; having been fresh from directing the previous summer show, Be Our Guest, she seemed confident to take on the role by herself and may indeed be stupid enough to try it again. It's not an insurmountable task to do a show alone, but a definite break with the tradition of two artistic directors. To ease the artistic strain somewhat, I elevated myself to the lofty position of "production designer", which would enable me to stick to all the design aspects of the show such as set and costume. This had basically been my de facto role since about 2006 anyway, having delegated all the sound and lighting decisions to others while being TD in previous shows. The position also meant it was my first time on stage, ever, having neglected to take a directorial bow (as TD) at the end of the run in any of the previous productions. This was fun. I wore a suit and everything. With all the intentions in the world of being highly prepared and justifying the otherwise pointless position, I made concept sketches of both set and characters as early as June. Some of them turned out to actually look like the final product, although I confess the exercise was just so they could be scattered throughout the programme to give the impression we were far more organised than we were. The technical team was finished with Ben Whitelam (who had first appeared for The Sorcerer and turned out to have a good working knowledge of electric screwdrivers) and Toby Foster (who had also been elected treasurer, making for an interesting conflict of interest when it came to splashing the cash). Peter Estdale, who as part of the Press & Publicity team is credited with the show’s fabulous logo (which was even stolen for use by another production at one point!), meant that the entire production team consisted of 5 first year students and one cantankerous postgrad - a worryingly effective combination, it turns out.

The very first meeting (possibly even before the second JCM where the team was selected) was on a warm summer’s day in Halifax College and was remarkably sober, in contrast to other brainstorming sessions I’ve experienced over the years. To replicate here what was said and suggested at that meeting would take an age - and this should be about what was actually done, not what silly ideas we had to talk ourselves down from. The set was the first port of call for us, production wise, and the order of the day was Venice. There are very few ways of getting around the fact that replicating the stunning architecture of one of the most famous cities in the world and then (like many other G&S shows) swapping it to a completely different locale for the second act, all the while on a tight budget, is a big ask. With our stock of preassembled flats only fairly minimal after The Sorcerer (and with the last of Andrew Vick’s Princess Ida set consigned to scrap) the construction was going to be a near unprecedented scale. The entire set would bring us back up to the Ida/Patience configuration, but with the addition of a raised walkway behind the set leading to two additional entrances. The side wings would also both feature double doors, rather than a cut out and curtain as previously and would be covered by an additional set of flats for the first act, something first done in Ruddigore to good effect. This double-double door set up turned out to be less of a problem than we initially imagined as we had The Sorcerer, Die Fledermaus and Mike’s new house to look back on for experience of hanging working doors, and in the end we didn’t need to use the power planer once. With the exception of some improvised door handles made of gaffa tape and a little jamming against the floor if opened too wide, they worked fine. The main issue with the set was raising it up to the full 12ft height. Usually the flats are assembled on the ground and raised up using up to a dozen people to support and move them. Not wanting to rely on sheer man/woman power to do it this way (it often leaves people with nothing to do for ages in between 5-10 minutes of difficult and almost dangerous work) we erected the lower level first and raised the upper flats onto them. It transpired that this method is also difficult and almost dangerous work, but at least could be done with far fewer people. The second act involved covering up the set as best as possible to transform the pale hues of Venice into the intense red and black of Barataria’s court (not a “Spanish Castle” as the review from The Yorker seemed to think it failed to be). We ripped down the two lightweight facades over the doorways and raised a few pillars and curtains the cover the front. There were also a few cheeky tricks involved, the steps up to the raised stage were flipped to change from the magnolia of Venice to the black of Barataria and on the last night, with nothing left to lose, any remaining bits of white were covered in gaffa tape. Put that way, it doesn’t seem like much work but the first night set change clocked in at a fraction over 20 minutes, although we had it well below 15 minutes by Saturday owing to an extra screwdriver and a little more experience with where to store everything once it was down.

While the scale was impressive, the most striking parts of the set were the set pieces. Venice featured a canal, but unlike many other productions where such a thing would get in the way, this was retracted into the set when not needed. It formed a trip hazard backstage because of its length, and required a few verbal hoops to be jumped with the University duty managers to make sure it was safe (I’m still amused that the health and safety people are concerned, nay, obsessed with minor trip hazards and PAT testing, but never, ever actually check if the set will fall down and kill someone or not). But what is a river without a gondola to sail along it? Nothing, that’s what, so we built one of those too. It was pushed on from backstage via some brute force and a folding handle to make sure it could fit backstage and still be operated without stagehands popping up in full view, and was used on three occasions in act 1. First, the arrival of the titular gondoliers in the opening number, then during Luiz and Casilda’s love duet in act 1 (ironically, this was one of the slower songs yet the fastest turnaround time for the gondola/river combination) and finally when the two gondoliers leave for Barataria, with them being pulled back into the set, closing the first act as the lights dimmed. This, surprisingly, worked most of the time, and only properly crashed once as the rear wheel steering made it impossible to manoeuvre once it had run aground on the sides of the narrow river. The second act only had one such contrivance, with the two gondoliers (now kings) being pushed onto the stage on two elevated thrones, converted from cheap, second-hand chairs from Banana Warehouse to thrones by the use of gold spray paint and some red velvet.

Worthy of note at this point is the lighting. Toby had promised "subtle yet technically complex" lighting, and certainly delievered. Unlike most other shows, there were no sudden lighting changes, and each transition moved over the course of several minutes. This was most noticable for Casilda and Luiz's love duet in the first act, which was to take place at night. The lights gradually dimmed over the course of Team Espagne's preceding dialogue so that the duo could have their romantic midnight gondola ride, staying up all night until the sun rose at the end of the song. Speaking frankly, this was f**king beautiful.

Despite the scale of the set, The Gondoliers is most memorable for the sheer amount of costume porn involved. The majority of the costumes were hand-made by Cecily Blench and her assistants; including a full set of skirts and stays for the female chorus, four amazing dresses for the Duchess and Casilda, waistcoats and cummerbunds for many of the men, a pimping cape for The Grand Inquisitor and two frock coats for Marco and Guiseppe themselves. Most of the main principals were, as TV-Tropes puts it, colour-coded for your convenience. Gianetta (Annabel Medland) and Tessa (Anna Stephenson) were in fetching purple and green dresses respectively, each one a slightly more elaborate version of the chorus outfits and their partners’ frock coats and hats matched. The Duke and Duchess from “Team Espange” were in tweed (with Tom Newby’s Duke recycling bits and pieces from Chris Charlton-Mathews’ wardrobe), while Casilda and Luiz were in hideous brown. For the second act, their new found wealth afforded them significantly better costumes. The Duke wore a far sharper suit with a deep burgundy waistcoat and Helena Culliney rocked the Duchess with a dress in the same material. Casilda and Luiz evolved from dark, penniless brown to very passionate reds. The star costume was almost certainly Casilda's red dress that totally wasn’t at all in any way, shape or form, shamelessly based on the 'smouldering temptress' dress from Moulin Rouge, and Pippa Loughran wore it very well, even managing to dance effectively in the massive train that it had. While we had a significant stock of straw boaters, striped shirts for the gondoliers were a pain. Nowhere, not even Primark, sells striped shirts that don’t have logos or unnecessary decals on them - the grand irony being that you couldn't move three inches in any shop without seeing striped girls shirts, as “nautical” was a big thing this season, apparently. So these were eventually hired at reasonable expense.

As always, many things were left to the last minute, although not due to the lack of trying. Even by the dress rehearsal the second act set wasn't finished and it didn't really come together until 4:30 am that night (Thursday morning) when Ben and I had an extra-long stint painting and assembling the last of it. Similarly, the river wasn't even started until we got into Central Hall and the red and white Venetian poles were still a mystery until we stumbled upon some old cardboard carpet roles by chance on Tuesday afternoon. The load bearing chassis for the gondola was ready in September, but it didn't take shape and get its final lick of paint until show week. Most of the act 1 painting was done in the week before, when we managed to co-book the hall with Fusion, and even then I put off the one last flat until Thursday. Despite all the planning and preparations for this one, some things just won't change.

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