Tech Blog Ida 05

By Chris Armstrong, longtime techie.

This is the first of twelve (by the time I'm finished it'll probably be the first of thirteen) notes on the staging and production design aspects of all the G&S shows I've been involved with. Although I certainly wasn't particularly in charge of some of the earlier productions and most of the summer shows, I'm including them for the sake of completeness. It also means that this will chart the lifetime of the set as it was made by Andy Vick and co in 2005 until its eventual demise some time last year.

Princess Ida is considered the first flop of Gilbert & Sullivan's partnership at the Savoy Theatre. Despite the insistence of many fans that Ida contains some of Sullivan's best music, this "flop" stigma is difficult to shift and directors are often tempted to try something different in order to woo an audience to see it. In our case, the theme was "a 1950s twist" - indeed, that's what the poster even said, verbatim. How much of an actual twist this was is debatable.

The set and production for Ida in 2005 was impressive, the plain white backdrop being constructed from scratch in the run up to the show and dressed by a myriad of things to convert it from castle to school room to sports field (more on that later). This backdrop has been the foundation of many society shows, consisting of a series of 8 ft x 4 ft pieces of hardboard supported on wooden frames and bolted together to form a 24 ft wide and 12 ft high back board, with additional wings for entries. The flats did have a tendency to require maintenance, as they were held together by nails which often slipped, and it turns out that there is no easy way to attach hardboard to a wooden frame securely. This was the template for most of the shows until the flats succumbed to wear-and-tear and some over-zealous modifications that left it impossible to assemble in that form again.

The set for the first act of Ida were based around monochrome pop-art like installations and combined with the cast equally well-dressed in black and white was particularly striking, if not actually beautiful. The centre stage was dominated by a massive, angular door - although unlike the ones we now use, this didn't open or go anywhere - which in turn was set atop a set of over-engineered (or to use the technical jargon "fucking heavy") stairs. This act remains almost unique in the fact that it also had a removable flooring, also in stylised black and white. The second and third acts were more run-of-the-mill and certainly less visually interesting. The school room of Act 2 notably used two tables taken from the old Langwith dining room (again, the technical jargon refers to these as "very fucking heavy") while the third act was a sort of sports field, complete with two bleachers for rival teams to stand and cheer on. Again, the technical jargon refers to these as "fucking heavy" too. Only recently have these two benches been fully dismantled, such is the sturdy build quality and enduring solidity of chip board and nails.

Such was the complexity of the set design and the amount of material that needed to be shifted in both intervals, the set changes were rehearsed with the same, if not more, precision and dedication as the cast's choreography. Everything in the first act was stripped down, dismantled and removed - although the second two were mercifully easy to assemble. This was also in the heady days before we owned numerous power-tools to do the hard work for us, and scrambling for the screwdrivers that weren't chewed often occurred - it appears Mr Vick didn't believe in Pozidriv at the time.

Although the set and principles for many following shows were started with Ida, the most enduring aspects of the production were undoubtedly the costumes. The 1950s theme here really only extended to the leather jackets worn by the male principals - The Fonz would be proud. The knights of the original were transformed into rugby player while the women of Castle Adamant were hockey players, making quite a surreal and awkward sight as the girls had to explain why they were arming themselves with hockey sticks (axes originally in original script) for war against… rugby players. Anyway, just enjoy the flashing colours. Just don't mention the skirts.

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