The Drencher, Humility and Leadership?

“All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes” – Winston Churchill.

I used to work in a well-known theatre in the West End of London. I was twenty-something, and following a dream.

Although I always wanted to be an actor, I ended up as Stage Door keeper.

For the uninitiated, the Stage Door keeper looks after the dressing room keys, incoming and outgoing calls, the backstage tannoy system, the “good mornings” and “good nights”, any visitors for the actors, most deliveries and the coffee machine.

They hear all the news, excuses, mishaps and tantrums. They hear about all the worries, the insecurities and the fragile egos. They witness the nerves, the bravado, highs and the lows. And – not being one to gossip – all the juicy gossip.

One of the principal roles of the Stage Door keeper therefore is to listen. To just be there. To be on hand, To offer an oasis of calm. To absorb bad vibes, and return a “There, there, never mind,” or a “I’m sure it will go better tomorrow.”

As Stage Door keeper, you are always on call.

You are, in fact, a Leader.

Typically, in a theatre there are those who work for the theatre itself, and those who work for the “Company”.

The Company usually comprises the actors, the Company Manager, Company Stage Manager (CSM) and Assistant Stage Manager amongst others. They are analogous to Contract Staff: once the performance run has finished, they move on to the next gig.

The theatre staff, however, are analogous to permanent staff. Once the performance run has finished, they “strike” the set, do the “get out” and prepare for the next show (the “get in”).

The backstage theatre staff fall broadly into four groups: Electricians, Carpenters, Stage Door, Wardrobe.

When I worked there, the Chief Electrician – who looked like Phil Lynott of the ’70s band Thin Lizzy – was called Phil. Handy. The Wardrobe Mistress was a Jamaican-born gay man who liked to be called “Jo Jo”. And he also liked to be called the Wardrobe Mistress. So that’s what we called him.

The Stage Door keeper was me.

The Master Carpenter – the subject of this blog – was a man called Bill. Built like a Roman Centurion, or a Centurion tank, he had worked at the theatre forever. In fact, he was the theatre. He was respected by everyone. He was calm in a crisis. Approachable. Fair. Honest. Trust-worthy. Respectful. Amusing. Quietly imposing.

With one hand, he could remove a tin of tobacco from his jeans pocket, open it, extract a rizla paper, load it with tobacco, roll it, lick it, put the lid back on and replace the tin in his pocket. With one hand.

He had a letter tattooed on each of his fingers which seemed to mean nothing, until he interlocked his hands when it read “I L O V E P A M”. Pam was his wife, who was the wardrobe mistress at a nearby theatre down the road.

Bill was hard, but fair.

He wanted people to learn. He wanted people to grow. He didn’t mind honest mistakes, so long as you didn’t make the same mistake twice. That was intolerable. He would tolerate pretty much everything, apart from a repeated mistake.  And disrespect.

He was the kind of person you want on your team.

So, what’s a Drencher?

In a theatre with a proscenium arch – that’s the frame or “arch” that separates the auditorium from the stage and from which the curtains (or “tabs” in theatre speak) are hung – there is always a safety curtain (referred to as the “iron”) which is lowered in the interval and after the show. It is designed to stop fire from breaching the auditorium/backstage divide.

But some theatres have another safety feature which is also fitted to the top of the stage-side proscenium arch (or “pross”), the name of which sounds like a villain from a Marvel comic.

It’s called The Drencher.

The Drencher is a well-named peace of kit. In an emergency, its role is to provide fire protection by creating a wall of water between the audience and the stage.

How?

Fitted to the top of the pross, stage-side, would be an eight-inch pipe running the entire width of the stage, with small nozzles in it spaced out equally, and aimed at the front edge of the stage.

The pipe is connected to the mains water supply, and kept closed or “off” or “safe” by a valve.

Activating the Drencher is simple. Dangerously simple as it turns out.

It’s activated by pulling on a handle which is usually fixed to the pross, close to where the CSM sits while he or she is running the show.

The handle is connected to a valve.  The Drencher valve.  An important value.

When someone pulls the handle, the valve is opened, a zillion gallons of water is instantly forced through the nozzles at mains pressure and hey presto!  a wall of high-pressure water.

The volume of water is immense, and as such, it is enough to keep the wall of water in place and stop a fire from hopping off the stage and making itself comfortable in the stalls. Or visa versa.

Typically, the handle is not spring-loaded, which means once pulled, it remains pulled. The water won’t stop until you push the handle back up, whence it came.

And of course, until you do, the devastating torrents of water will continue to smash down onto the stage, bulldozing its way through the set, throwing props and furniture out of the way, ripping down the flats in the wings, and tearing down anything in its way without discrimination, second thought, or care.

Many theatres have an “Orchestra pit”, often found just in front of the stage, or sometimes under it, where the show’s musicians (if there are any) set themselves up. In most cases, there is a small opening with a step on which the conductor stands, slightly raised to give line of sight to the actors on stage and the orchestra underneath.

A Drencher likes an Orchestra Pit. It can have fun there.  The devastation is biblical. The relentless deluge of water smashes its way through the pit, taking out everything in its path.

The instruments which are set up ready for the next performance are ripped off their stands and thrown out of the way, connected amplifiers are pulled off their speaker cabinets as the force of the deluge separates electric guitar from amplifier beyond the reach of the attached guitar lead.

Music stands, drums, microphones, chairs, timpani, keyboards are all scattered by the force of the flood. Everything is shoved up against a wall or into a corner, pinned there by the force of the water and the growing quantity of flotsam.

The speed at which this chaos unfolds is staggering.

Water is heavy, and under mains pressure, and in such volumes, it becomes confident. Challenging. Destructive.

Many theatres – particularly Victorian theatres – were built with the Royal Circle at street level so that the landed gentry didn’t have to condescend to walking upstairs to the Upper Circle, or worse, downstairs to the stalls. In such theatres, the top of the pross is approximately in line with Royal Circle – and consequently, it follows, the stage is below ground level.

Water, being the kind of guy it is, has a nasty habit of flowing down hill. Of finding the lowest level. In a typical Victorian theatre, as we’ve heard, the “lowest level” is under the stage.

This, then, is where the water likes to call home.

Often, this is where the carpenters’ workshops are.  It’s where the props store can be found. Spare lamps, costume rails, half-built sets, everyone’s cigarettes, half-eaten breakfast, the coffee machine, electrician’s bicycles, paperwork, paint. Everything.

If the water finds the orchestra pit, your day is ruined.  As is everything in its way.

So what?

Well. One day, I’m standing at the stage door cleaning the coffee machine, when the door opens and Bill steps inside, followed by his apprentice – who looks sixteen.

Bill does his cigarette-rolling thing, much to the amazement of Sixteen, who looks on with wide eyes.

After a while, Bill says “Is the iron in?”

“No,” says Sixteen. “I mean, I don’t know what that means.”

“It’s the safety curtain,” says Bill, “Have you lowered it yet?”

“No,” says Sixteen, shifting his weight a little nervously.

Pause.

“Then would you do so please?” Bill asks, dangerously.

Sixteen looks confused.  Bill helps him out.

“There are two handles mounted on the pross, prompt side by the pass door,” says Bill.  Master and Apprentice.  “Pull the right handle hard in the direction of the arrow.”

Sixteen nods. “Ok,” he says. “What’s the other handle for?”

“Oh, you don’t want to touch that,” says Bill….

Learning Opportunity

The show had to be cancelled for the rest of the week, while the set was rebuilt. The costumes were remade, replaced and refitted. Instruments were salvaged as best they could, most were replaced. Insurance policies invoked.

Lost revenue touched the £45,000 mark, per night.  The show was closed for five days. The producers were not happy.  Not one little bit.  And there were 225,000 reasons why they were so grumpy.

Huge quantities of water had to be pumped out from under stage to the dock doors at the back of the stage. Most of the stage props, including an Axminster carpet and long case clock, had to be replaced – beyond repair. Amplifiers, speaker cabinets replaced.

Double time for everyone to get the hit show back up and running as soon as possible, working around the clock in shifts until everything was ready to reopen.

The Health and Saftey people, the fire-brigade, SWET (Society of West End Theatres) all gave their stamp of approval to re-open.  The Marketing department and press office went to town to take advantage of the situation and drum up some column inches in every conceivable periodical and newspaper.

They reopened.

What about Sixteen?

Sixteen comes charging towards the stage door with panic in his eyes and across his features.  He barges through the stage doors looking round wildly for Bill who hears the commotion, and turns to face Sixteen.  “Drench-” manages Sixteen.

Bill doesn’t need to hear the rest.  He drops his coffee and flies out of the door like a cartoon Roadrunner.

Lesson Learned Log

A couple of hours later, Bill wanders up to the Stage Door, as if nothing has happened.  Not a care in the world.  I’m thinking that Sixteen has seen his last day in this theatre.  I mean, that’s a hell of a mistake.  It’s 225,000 mistakes.

I look at Bill, who reads the question on my face, with a glint in his eye.

“Well,” he says lighting a cigarette,  “he won’t do that again.”

I laugh at the understatement.

“I guess he learned a big lesson!” I venture, laughing.

Bill turns to face me, fully locked on, serious face.

“No, ” he said, “it was my fault. I learned the lesson. I assumed he knew the difference between ‘Stage Right’ and ‘Right’ – which as it turnd out, he doesn’t.”

Wow.

“He did nothing wrong. It was my fault.”

He wanted people to learn. He wanted people to grow. He didn’t mind honest mistakes, so long as you didn’t make the same mistake twice. That was intolerable. He would tolerate pretty much everything, apart from a repeated mistake.  And disrespect.

He was the kind of person you want on your team.

Post navigation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: