The Drama Scene

The Thirties





Though devoid of any major Shakespearean production, the nineteen-thirties were not without any drama activity at the VI’s new premises. Each year a concert would be staged on Prize-giving Day comprising a variety of items including poetry recitation by a prominent personage like the School Captain or a Scholar and the staging of a one-act play or a scene from a well-known longer play. In 1938, the School presented the second act of Walter Hackett’s Ambrose Applejohn’s Adventure – a pirate adventure. It called for the creation of the deck of a pirate ship on the VI stage, a project that challenged the resourcefulness of the VI boys.

On April 12th the School presented the second act of Walter Hackett’s Ambrose Applejohn’s Adventure to a full house in the School Hall. The presentation, we understand from a usually caustic critic, was very good, and so we feel that our labours were not in vain. This year’s programme was a departure from the usual procedure of giving a number of short scenes and recitations. Instead, all our energies were centred into producing one long act, no expenses being spared, to make the programme a success.

Let us go behind the scenes for a few intimate glimpses of all that happened before the final product, smoothed and polished, was put on the stage for the real test.

For a long time a small committee was on the lookout for suitable material for acting on Prize-giving Day. A number of plays were read and rejected, and at last we found “just the thing,” a play that was light, humorous, and thrilling.

The leading players having been fixed, we went into production with little delay. The first rehearsal, which was more in the nature of a selection of the minor parts, including crowd extras, was held on March 8th and subsequent rehearsals were on every Tuesday and Friday.

Meanwhile, in true Hollywood style, research in the dress worn by pirates was carried out. It is quite easy to picture pirates, and you would probably say that pirates could be dressed in any old clothes. But when, in practice, you dress the players “in any old clothes,” they look like anything but pirates. Various books on costumes yielded little to the solution. Then, quite accidentally, we found illustrations of pirates in an advertisement in Punch. The Punch advertisement was found when there was only a week left before Prize-Giving Day and there was a scramble to the local tailors and outfitters.

A whole evening was spent at the shops ransacking them for the correct material. The cloth has to be inspected in artificial light since a shade in daylight does not appear the same in front of the footlights. The salesman did not seem to understand that what we wanted was something cheap, and although we explained in patient detail, they would frequently bring cloth that was “very cheap and durable, finest quality, only a dollar twenty a yard!” But we politely told one of them that we wanted to have fifteen sailor suits made and would he please show us something cheaper. He said he’d try and brought some cloth which was absurdly thin and almost transparent!

And so it went on..... explanations, apologies, more cloth, more explanations, till at last, when we were almost on the point of collapse we found the cloth we wanted. And the order was given. In one of the shops we found some cloth with the correct nautical background which might do very well for a jacket. But the “cloth” turned out to be a carpet! Undaunted, the wardrobe master announced his intention to order a couple of jackets from it.

“Out of this?” asked the bespectacled salesman. “Yes,” said the wardrobe master. The salesman looked at us queerly, shook his head, smiled, and called the tailor to take the measurements. The tailor, when he understood what was required, asked his assistant in Hindi, “Are these people in their right minds?” Only I, in our party, understood what he had said. Those two must have doubted our sanity! Later it turned out that the stitches would not hold, so we discarded these jackets.

The act opens with the library in a house in Cornwall. Under a dim table-lamp (dim, because somebody is suspected to be prowling outside) the hero and his cousin Poppy pore over an old parchment which relates the adventures of the hero’s ancestor, a pirate. Poppy goes out to get Ambrose, the hero, a cup of coffee. While she is away he falls asleep and starts singing. Suddenly, in his dream, the face of Borolsky, the villain appears and then vanishes. Ambrose rouses himself at the sight, but finds it too great an effort to keep awake, and once more singing, falls asleep. Meanwhile the table-lamp goes out slowly and, at the conclusion of the song, lights go up revealing the interior of a pirate ship.

Now, to put this metamorphosis of scenes on the stage the technical department had two major worries: to get a dim table-lamp which did not flood the scene with light and which would gradually go out getting dimmer and dimmer, and to project a small beam of light so that it lit Borolsky’s face clearly without lighting the rest of the scene. Probably you wonder why we were so particular about keeping the rest of the scene in darkness. The explanation is simple. Right from the start the scene was the cabin of the pirate ship. (We relied on the imagination of the audience to tell them it was a library at first). Now this meant that any light falling behind would dispel the illusion.

The first difficulty was overcome this way: an experiment with dry-cell batteries was unsatisfactory as the light was insufficient. So we decided to use electric current. First the current was stepped-down from 230 volts to 12 volts by a transformer. Then a resistance was fixed which enabled us to dim the table-lamp. The correct intensity of this light was obtained after experimenting for half an hour. But even this little light showed the background very clearly. So a black board (not a blackboard) was tacked to the table, behind the lamp. On Prize-Giving Day while Ambrose was singing in the darkness, we substituted another table for this one without anyone in the audience the wiser.

The second problem presented more difficulty. The iris of an old optical lantern was procured from the Science Wing but the use of it only increased the depth of focus without letting a circle of light grow. Eventually we found that a powerful electric torch with a cone attached at the front gave the best results. This monstrosity was fixed and it took two nights to make it give the correct sized circle and the correct intensity of light. A black screen was used behind Borolsky.

While this was going on, a gradual change was taking place in the face of the stage. One day there were ancient back-curtains, and dilapidated side screens; the next, there was a universal Saturnalia. There was a small army of workers, painters, carpenters, assistants, associates, all schoolboys drawn mostly from the cast. In one corner there were stacks of brown paper and a couple of boys measuring and cutting them into the correct lengths. Others were tacking these lengths to the back wall, and revolving side-screens. A few painters were painting them to give a beam effect. Others were in the wings fixing the newly-bought beige fly-curtains to match the oak girders and bulk-heads which were all made roughly, yet gave a realistic effect from a distance. Yet others were shortening the flex of the huge electric top-floods which were too low.

We fixed a door and a window on the back wall. Behind them was a blue canvas screen with a mast, complete with rope ladders, and the hull painted on it. The screen was then sprayed with white paint and from a distance gave a most realistic cloud effect.

The Headmaster coming down to see our progress was temporarily shaken off his equilibrium on seeing it, and by the look on his face, he seemed uncertain whether it was faked!

And out of nothing sprang the interior of a pirate ship - true to type!

A schoolboy wag came one day and told us that it looked more like Uncle Tom’s Cabin than a pirate ship. We pocketed the insult. Next day we turned it to him, when he came and confessed it looked like a ship, now that we had made everything ship-shape!

The position of property-man is not at all a sinecure. It is even less so, when he is also a universal stand-in, and in charge of light and sound effects. Such was the state of affairs here, until a separate hand was found to manage the sound effects. A prop-man finds it useful to keep a notebook in which to jot down such things as “See me about the wind-machine… Get asbestos for the bulb tomorrow… Remember to switch off the sidelight tonight… There’s too much light on the heroine’s face… etc., etc….” He must keep in touch with the property constantly. In the confusion we completely forgot about a snuffbox until the last day, when we substituted a matchbox!

A full-dress rehearsal - which is better left to the imagination - took place on the day before the concert. At last the Great Day came and found us in trepidation and nervousness. The usual speeches and the prize distribution were gone through and then came our turn. There was half an hour’s wait, so we went through everything to see if anything had been overlooked, and then, the calm and steady voice of the producer, “How is its effects and light?” Both those in charge nodded in assent. “Ready? --- Curtain!” Up went the curtain, and the show was on………

S. S. B.

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