Tuesday, November 11, 2008

There's no business

In a previous life, I was a followspot operator.

That doesn't mean much to people until the word "spotlight" is used, at which point they usually sing, "…like super trouper, lights are gonna find me".

This was the job I started three months or so after leaving university, having moved to London with no particular plan for what I was going to do with my life. I look back on this time with some amazement now. It shows that a control freak like me is capable of stupid/brave decisions. This was the stop-gap job that I stumbled into, that became a five-year stint.

[Actually, I should qualify: I spent six months in 1999 living the dream as a family history/probate researcher (!), during which time I barely earned enough to pay my rent or eat, and got myself into horrific debt, the remains of which haunted me until the middle of last year.]

I worked in a landmark-type building, the type you arrange to meet your friends outside. As for the show, well, it put me off theatre for life. Honestly - I'll do anything to avoid going. It's the worst kind of mawkish, lowest common denominator tripe and it amazes me that it's still running, albeit in a different theatre now.

The work was excruciatingly dull. We had to watch the show and light the turns (we never used the word actors. The male lead was always "top turn"). I watched eight shows a week. It was like being driven slowly mad by the same thing, day in day out, like groundhog day, only no Bill Murray in sight. We used to sleep-walk our way through it every night: it was the only way to cope. Luckily, the distractions were plentiful.

There were four spot ops, and we were on a radio channel on cans, talking shit for three hours a night. My colleagues were, on the whole, the best I've had in any job. Funny, quick-witted, talented, sparky – just goddamn fun to be around.

I saw some of these people for the first time in years this weekend at a celebration for Miss MW's 50th birthday party. It was an absolute pleasure. So many faces, but it's the timbre of the voices that take me back - those voices that I'd hear over cans every evening, cracking jokes, impersonating horses or relating the latest relationship breakdown.

I'm not going to lie - while I was in this job, I had some dark times. But with the benefit of some distance, I look back on my time at the Palace warmly. It was a ridiculous and pointless profession. But perhaps it was also the best type of job: there was no end product, no resolution, no deadline to be met, nobody to manage, nothing to worry about (aside from the odd technical hitch): if you didn't switch on your light, it wasn't the end of the world; if you happened to show up to work drunk, you could still make a passable fist of it.

When I consider my five years at the theatre, I couldn't put it any better than one of my old colleagues did on Sunday:

"Amazing really - for 24 hours a week, we showed up to work and spent the time laughing, and chatting, having the best time with your mates. Occasionally, we'd remember to light the show."



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