Britain’s Got Fashion

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It has been a wonderful journey working on this play with Get Over It Productions, the all female London based theatre company who famously perform Shakespeare with female only casts.  I was therefore thrilled when I met Velenzia, the producer, in a networking event a year or so ago and we had an instant rapport as I told her about an all female play that I had written in response to an actress who complained there were never enough good parts for women on stage. I had developed it as far as I could and had had a couple of professional readings, then ran out of steam and passed it over for more pressing projects.

I always felt it had great potential but that there was perhaps a scene or two missing and a satisfying ending, so I was seduced by the idea of doing some development workshops with the company and improvising around the script to see what would come out.  Then they surprised me by jumping the gun with the idea of a showing at the Camden Fringe Festival to see if we could get a producer interested and on board with the project.

It also gave the company something to work towards since they have been faithfully bringing a show to the Camden Fringe Festival for the last eleven years, almost since its inception.

During workshops the cast appeared to embody my characterisations with remarkable ease which was a great relief as I was concerned they would be criticised as two dimensional stereotypes- the usual easy put down- but they assured me they were fully rounded with clear development to their journeys and lives of their own.  It’s sheer joy watching consummate performers inhabiting these characters and bringing them so perfectly to life as I envisaged when writing them. But watching them improvise around the script was fantastic and I filmed the resulting scenes and began the painful process of annotating every word they uttered across each other in a flurry of exchanges.

I was excited to try and incorporate some of these scenes into the existing script so set about the time consuming cutting and splicing of improv with my original. The script swelled to another twenty odd pages or so and was far too long for our ninety minute slot. So I waited patiently and exhausted whilst the team slashed most of the added scenes from the script back to largely how it was before. But the penultimate scene worked much better with the added improv material as I knew I had been too heavy handed and sentimental in my original. Now it was a tender scene with real heart between a caring Gillian and the young model, Leanne. The final scene also worked better and was much cleaner and more focused without the added material.

The tough process of editing has continued in rehearsals as I’ve had the privilege of hearing actors speak the lines and heard where they are sounding a little wordy or holding up the action and then edited in consultation with the rest of the team.

We searched for the right venue and decided it could only be The Cockpit Theatre for what could potentially be quite a big show with a live televised catwalk to stage with a cast of six, costumes and enough space to allow it to breathe. We’ve gone for the 9pm late slot as it has that slightly risque, rude, Burlesque adult body positive vibe in parts.

What, you still haven’t booked your tickets? I also wanted to give centre stage to a leading role for a black female actor who is the designer finalist of the title reality TV show who is hell bent on promoting her collection. But everyone has their work cut out to compete with the celebrity girl about town, Sloane ranger, Monaco, who’s fronting her own show, A Day In The Life of a London Socialite. Though our Burlesque girl, Candy Peel is taking no nonsense from her and is the one voice of reason who is not afraid to tell it how it is.

The young and vulnerable Leanne is a fish out of water and is proving something of a liability on a live catwalk with very little training as a green and fresh faced model from the Agency. And what a day it proves to be with the World”s First Supermodel, Gabriella Sodenburgh, giving her hard boiled, hard won wisdom and words of advice to the wannabe models. Gillian is holding the whole show together just about until events begin to spin out beyond her control but she seizes back the show from the depths of despair to give Monaco a role she can be proud of at last.

This had been a great process and I’m thrilled to have finally finished this play and had the opportunity of bringing it to life with such a talented cast and company for the 2017 Camden Fringe Festival.

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28 Plays Later Challenge #6

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Today’s challenge given an opening line and asked to write the rest, as long or as short as you wish and as many characters as you like. I made a few notes, what’s the situation? Who’s involved, what does she want on the roof? What’s at stake? Ah, its love, of course.

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Gaslamp Quarter: Fliering with ‘Michael Jackson’


I soon realised when in Edinburgh, doing my one man show a couple of years ago, that one needs some kind of strong visual quirk of costume or trademark, to make one stand out from the crowd and every other precocious performer vying for attention. And let me assure you, at a Fringe Festival, there are plenty of them! Short of donning an oversize animal suit, a la Disney, or walking on four foot stilts or going around sporting a cabbage leaf as a beard… as I witnessed, there is little that springs immediately to mind for a writer!

One is in competition with professionally trained performers who tend to be naturally, larger than life with a voice and presence to match. Whilst I am by no means a shrinking violet, I do have to turn on the more extrovert side of me.

In contemplating what to wear in America, I decided to take my 50’s straw hat that I had bought especially from a vintage gentleman’s outfitters in Greenwich to wear in my Edinburgh show, Message In a Bottle, which was my tribute to the 70th anniversary of the popular Radio 4 programme, Desert Island Discs.

In something of a doff to that show and as a kind of novelty trademark, I decided wherever I ventured in the US, I would always be seen to be wearing the hat. I’m not entirely sure this is a good thing as it seems to age me in respect of those middle aged guys who take to wearing hats to hide their receding hairlines or baldness. But it becomes a kind of friend by the end of my time here. It has literally followed me everywhere, or accompanied me I should say. Perhaps it has even kept a little sun off me, which is an added bonus, though not much since it doesn’t have a broad brim. Today I am also wearing the official purple ‘San Diego International Fringe’ tee shirt that was kindly presented to me by Kevin, the Festival Organiser.

In San Diego, I have something of the same feelings of being an isolated performer, a one-man band, despite the fact I am not performing; I am the writer of a three-hander play. But because they are American actors and have day jobs or other pursuits to follow in the case of Loie, I am usually to be found on my own. I think this is why I am enjoying the camaraderie of the other British and American performing acts. It means I’m not isolated and alone.

Another lone performer is Devra, the San Diego based dancer and Michael Jackson impersonator. I first see her on the Tenth Avenue Rooftop perform an uncanny rendition in full gold jacket, shades and black pants costume. Facially and physically she embodies his character and as a dancer she has the moves off and since he was so androgynous and slight, it is very plausible that a woman should portray him.

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The first Public Previews of the San Diego International Fringe Festival are at Sprecklels Theatre on 2nd July at 7pm. It will take the same format as the Rooftop event at Tenth Avenue Theatre a couple of nights previously, each company presenting a two-minute extract. But Bryant decides that in view of this and the present state of our show, we need to utilise this valuable time for another rehearsal.

By means of compensation, it occurs to me that I shall need to give my show an extra boost of publicity. I need to be there as the audience files into the theatre to flier them if I am to stand any chance of competing.

Now a note about the gentle art of fliering: I also learnt at Edinburgh the necessity of self-promotion, of having to flier the public and actively engage with them about your show. It is something that everyone feels obliged to do in order to build up a decent audience to the thing you have devoted a large part of your life to. Nobody who hasn’t created their own show will understand the kind of fanatical grip that overpowers you, lending superhuman powers of endurance whilst you seize every conceivable opportunity to thrust a flier into the hands of the least aggressive looking passer by and bore them with a list of reasons why on earth they should pay to come and see your show over all the others. It is an art form. Avoiding the brush of rejection to befriend, then engage your prey. And if an affable Englishman can’t charm a few American ladies into coming to see a show about Marilyn Monroe, then what can he do?

Having got a lift downtown with Ryan, I pop in to see my cast then walk up Broadway to cross over the many blocks between Tenth Avenue and First Avenue where Spreckels is situated.

I naturally assume every other company will also be there like an assembled scrum of paparazzi press photographers, swarming around a red carpet premiere, vying for attention and waiting to pounce on unsuspecting members of the public. I arrive to take up my position and am gobsmacked to find I am a lone ranger. The place is deserted.

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I begin to wonder if I have the wrong night or venue when I am joined by Devra, who, as a seasoned performer obviously knows the importance of fliering and doesn’t miss a trick in this respect, loitering outside most theatres pre and post shows handing out her fliers. We chat and she tells me she will be fliering the ‘Gaslamp District’ later on as she doesn’t want to waste time watching the second half of the Preview since she is done in the first half! Would I like to join her? Again, in my spirit of saying yes to everything, I happily consent as I want to explore more of down town San Diego away from the familiar beaten path of the theatres and experience what it would be like to flier with ‘Michael Jackson’.

We agree to meet up in the interval.

There are very few members of the public entering the theatre and I begin to be concerned I have somehow missed them.

I step though the mini doorway cut out from one of the huge double barn stage doors and walk to the wings of the theatre. There is a hive of activity behind the flats and I find myself staring at the darkly lit, back stage magic of a Laura Knight painting. There are ballerinas flexing and en point, gracefully dipping like swans breaking the surface of water and rising again. On one particular ballerina I am transfixed. Unusually tall and graceful, wearing a black bodice and tutu with white tights, she has more the appearance of an elegant ostrich, only with far shapelier, powerful legs that completely captivate my attention. I see the Haste Theatre girls in their unusual costumes and the Tin Shed Theatre guys and Doctor Smochter cast as I make my way onto the stage to find a seat. I am astounded to see a fairly full house of around 150 seats- some obviously made up of performers but I realise the audience must have entered the theatre via a different route- from the front perhaps? And I sneak up stairs to the back row as the previews have already started and the stage is in pitch darkness!

It is again a revelation seeing short clips from this year’s fare. A sensational black and red costumed troupe that are magnificently Spanish looking with a great flair for dance and theatre and a very strong cabaret type musical troupe who are performing a Kurt Weil Opera with great aplomb! A New Yorker called Dacyl, acts her balsy comic one-woman show, Will Work For, about her increasingly desperate attempts to find work and survive redundancy in post recession New York City.

The variety is stunning. Then the ballerinas make their debut and the one I was captivated by is on my side of the stage spinning and dipping seemingly in front of me with that long perfect poised neck and flashing dark Eastern eyes.

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I am handed a programme with the companies performing listed in Two Acts and am dismayed to read that we are down on the list to perform tonight in Act 2, despite not being here. I mention to someone that we wouldn’t be performing but I was told later that my name was called out and everyone waited but nobody appeared.

At the interval, Devra comes over and asks if I am ready? We hit the road.

It is a real eye opener accompanying someone who is the reincarnation of Michael Jackson and particularly in America, the kind of blind adulation that he still engenders from beyond the grave.

“Michael” people call out transfixed, questioning their knowledge of his death when he is clearly re-embodied in front of them.

“We thought you were dead, Michael,” the more daring add, as if in humour.

“We love you Michael” others chant. People stare in star struck wonder and want to come and talk and Devra is ready for this.

Then she hands them a flier for her show.

“Is it a Michael Jackson Show”? They enquire.

“No, it’s a show about my life” she responds honestly “but it starts with me doing Michael”.

“Do you sing”? They ask?

“No”

“Do you dance?”

“Yes. I’m a dancer so that not exactly difficult for me”.

She explains to me the contrary nature of this business of her duality in that

”They think they’re getting a Michael Jackson impersonator. That’s all they want you to do! But this is obviously about my life, which is when the real die hard fans lose interest.”

“There is a Michael Jackson Tribute Show coming up in San Diego a week on Sunday which is going to be massive. I was thinking of fliering it post show and see if I can capture a few that way.”

I feel for her because in a way she is trapped by the huge following of his fans that are blind to a show about anything other than Michael. Who after all wants to hear about your life?

“Can we get a picture with you?”

“Okay”, she sighs, “Well I usually say for a tip. Otherwise I’d be doing it all night.”

So she patiently stands by while these fans arrange themselves around her grinning like they’ve just been reunited with the dead!

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“Michael” and in that one name there is the recognition, the lament, and the question that they could possibly be seeing their hero resurrected before them as real as life. “Are you a ghost?”

I suppose Devra has heard them all by now. Yet its part of her show, part of her.

“I never intended to become a Michael Jackson Impersonator,” she confesses in her show, Woman In the Mirror: A Dancer’s Journey. And in fact she has been a lot of other things in her time. A brave, woman of integrity who, in trying to stay loyal to her roots and love of dance has had to move sideways, crab like, to cover a lot of the seedier sides of the business in order to continue her love of movement, exercise and mastery of her chosen profession she trained so hard for.

Seeing her show made me humbled for the hoops she has had to jump through, for the way she has reinvented herself time and again, moulded herself to the economic vagaries of her profession and lived to triumph over the verisimilitudes life can throw at a dancer, at such a transient career.

Now in her fifties, she seems to celebrate the flexibility and pliancy of her figure as a testament to her life story and journey. It is a poignant show, which seems to me to express a woman at a crossroads in her life, uncertain of the next route to take. As if she is balanced on the threshold of the next period when the body must, by definition, start to lose its perfection and the finely tuned machine starts the inevitable slow journey towards decline.

As with all these one person shows what one marvels at, in the end, is the sheer confessional honesty with which they are told, and the fact here is a snap shot of a person’s life.

She tells me that she hired the Tenth Avenue Theatre to put on her show before the Fringe at considerable expense and is reprising her show at the same venue to be included as part of the Fringe.

As we go round she graciously introduces me to the crowds and says I have a show about Marilyn Monroe for me to flier too. There is a glimmer of recognition on their faces before focus pulls back to Michael. Image peddling two of the greatest icons of all time through the restaurant and café littered streets of Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Avenue to seated diners and booking hostesses at lecterns is one of the more unusual of my American adventures.

I am never going to experience this again I tell myself and see it as a unique insight into the kind of surreal fanatical celebrity fan worship here.

One black girl leaves her friends and comes trotting out of a restaurant to get Devra’s number for a private party- her birthday. It’s all about her. She’s not interested in Devra as a person only the image she represents in front of her and the power of that lingering icon continues to play in the minds and hearts of black America out of proportion to what kind of man he was and his dubious private life, which could so easily have been found to be suspect, had he lived to be investigated properly.

“Hey Michael! I want to hire you for my Birthday! Yeah, I’m gonna get you to come on over and entertain me and my friends. Do you sing? Can you sing? Oh my God, I want you to sing for me! I’m going to book you for a private party. Oh, you don’t sing? Oh, that’s too bad! So… what do you do exactly?”

I’d be surprised if she got one person or couple to attend her show through those exchanges. And I realised I was no competition when faced with her and though it was a real eye opener and a chance to check out the Gaslamp District café’s nightlife, it was a futile exercise as most people just wanted to eat and indulge in a little free diversionary restaurant entertainment as they hoofed their steak, beef burgers or Mexican tacos in the warm open air.

It was like feeding time at the zoo. This is the tourist area of San Diego, the place to hang out and be seen. Each Avenue from the Fourth to the Sixth, sixteen and a half blocks of café’s, bars and restaurants, largely created in the 1980’s ‘historical gaslamp’ themed redevelopment, to sit and eat outside and watch the world go by. Originally this area was know as ‘New Town’ when it started to be developed in the 1860’s by Alonzo Horton, the real estate developer who arrived in San Diego in 1867 and purchased 800 acres of land to build on.

The sprawling modern shopping mall, Horton Plaza commemorates his name and the part he played in developing modern downtown San Diego. By building the wharf directly at the harbour end of Fifth Avenue, Horton opened up the immediate area to visiting sailors on leave.

By the 1880’s to 1916, the area became known as the Stingaree, a derivation of “stingray” and was notorious as the contained or “restricted” vice district, home to drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes and gamblers in the many saloons, gambling halls and bordellos. Between 1887 and around 1896, the famous former lawman, Wyatt Earp owned four saloons and gambling halls in Stingaree, one on Fifth, one on Fourth Street, and two others near Sixth and E. During the height of San Diego’s real estate boom, Earp was said to earn up to $1,000 a night in profit.

The Oyster Bar on Fifth Avenue was one of the more popular saloons in the Stingaree district. One of the reasons it drew such a dedicated clientele was perhaps the brothel upstairs named the ‘Golden Poppy’. Apparently each room was painted a different colour and each prostitute wore a matching dress.

By the 1950s-1970s the decaying Gaslamp Quarter became known as a “Sailor’s Entertainment” district, with a high concentration of pornographic theaters, bookshops and massage parlours. I suppose it was the equivalent of London’s Soho district in the same period.

Devra and I are literally trawling the empty streets for punters. She explains at 8pm or 9pm we are a little early. The area really doesn’t start to get busy until 10pm and it is a Wednesday night after all!

In fact she even changes pace to a slow-motion meander, giving people a chance to register her and react. Then she gently approaches them in Jackson’s quiet manner. I am feeling increasingly like her bodyguard.

“Hi, how are you guys doing?”

She gets a polite “Good, thank you” and then “Oh my God, it’s Michael.”

The occasional “What are you doing here?”

“I’ve come back to haunt you” she retorts.

“Can we get a picture?” they ask. It was as if she was one of those performing monkey’s one used to have one’s photograph taken with at fairs.

We wouldn’t get any of these people interested in attending some fringe show about someone’s life or a play about Marilyn Monroe. They are here to have fun and food. It gets a bit much when we encounter a wedding party outside the columned canopy of a hotel taking photos of the various guests and happy couple. When two older guys spot Devra, its imperative ‘Michael Jackson’ should form part of the Wedding pictures. So although obliging and mentioning a tip, Devra is pressed into every conceivable coupling in this photo shoot while I stand on the sidelines with a stupefied grin on my face. When it’s over they shove a dollar or two at her and don’t want to listen to her about her show. She has fulfilled her purpose.

I suspect that under all this is the simple overwhelming desire for Devra to be loved for who she is, not for what she has disguised herself as in order to be accepted or appreciated? In this respect it is like selling out to the common denominator, popular culture versus high art of ballet and dance? Every American knows who Michael Jackson is but how many of them go to ballet? It’s another example of a woman hiding behind a façade in order to be accepted or compete in her field, like Sitwell or Monroe. Devra has chosen to adopt a recognisable shell through which she can articulate her life, resonate with others and give it meaning.

Talking to her later I suspected that she got most work while he was still alive? “Actually the best months were those following his death” she said “and since then a steady falling off of bookings”.

As we walk back to her car we bump into Jon, the young, fast-talking Australian comic, another sole performer, who is apparently on tour with his show. He has an agent and is making ends meet, like Devra, earning a living through it. I was intrigued, what a fascinating life. He asks if I might be interested in a road trip to Mexico? It sounds like a great idea as I want to travel after the Fringe and I regret not pursuing it. But I think he is after an adventure with border control culminating in getting locked up in jail so he can write about it in his next show. He is one of those loud, personality types that you encounter on the Fringe that you definitely have to ensure you have a strong presence to match up to, lest you are drowned by their overwhelming bravado. By this time of night I am tired and almost ready to switch off.

Talking of common denominator, he has hit on an incredibly popular novelty that he’s turned into a world touring show, Pretending Things Are a Cock, which just goes to show how far a simple knob gag can take you! An entertaining evening closes as Devra kindly drops us both off at our respective lodgings.

The next day exiting the Tenth Avenue Theatre after my show, an older red haired lady with a face full of freckles and piercing pale eyes is stood to the right of the door fliering.

“Hello David” she says. I look distractedly blank at her. “You don’t recognise me, do you?”

“Er… no” I reply.

“It’s Devra,” she says with a knowing grin, completely transformed.

Tenth Ave Theatre: Tech Rehearsal and Ghosts


The next day, July 1st we are scheduled a Tech Rehearsal at Tenth Avenue Theatre at 8pm -10.30pm. Bryant calculates if we can get all the lighting and sound cues sorted in the first hour we have time for a full run through afterwards.

We are called to meet again upstairs at 6.30pm in the rehearsal space just outside the office and Bryant is delivering the settee, side tables and props so we can have a dress run through with set before the tech.

Earlier in the day I email Ryan to see if he wouldn’t mind giving me a lift in to town later as he lives out near to me. “Oh, sure, of course, no that’s like, totally fine.”

In fact, knowing it will be a late night at the theatre I suggest he might like to join me for a late lunch at the local Italian place on the corner of Adams Ave, which calls itself Antique Café. He says he’d be delighted and in fact it’s a nice opportunity to get to know him a little better as there is little time to chat in rehearsals. He never hangs out in this area he tells me and assumed, like me, that Antique Café was, in fact, an antique store!

I have one of their specials; a wonderful stir-fry chicken dish on rice while he orders a burger in a bap when he arrives. We sit outside on the corner boardwalk in the welcome shade of trees, enjoying a perfect Californian afternoon relaxing in the lull before driving into town for a full evening of rehearsals and Tech run.

Since relocating from San Francisco, Ryan appears to have done extremely well establishing himself in professional stage management in theatres in California at the tender age of twenty-three. He was recent stage manager on The Mother Fucker With a Hat at Cygnet Theatre and got his big break work training at the Old Globe Theatre after pestering the Artistic Director with daily emails and phone calls till he finally caved in. Persistence pays off being the moral of this particular tale! He then worked at another San Diego theatre and has news of just getting another show after mine so he is certainly on the right track!

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Tenth Avenue Arts Center exterior is painted a curious dung colour, and seems to be similarly rendered the texture of an old cigar. Art Deco in style, it is reminiscent of cinema architecture. It’s symmetrical sleek lines and large multi-pane windows, set between four tapering squared columns running the full height of the building are redolent of a Mondrian painting.

I believe it’s an old 1920’s chapel that was converted into a theatre some years ago. The building next door was originally The First Baptist Church where the faithful worshipped since the 1800’s. I’m going to quote directly from the website since it tells the curious history most succinctly.

“In the mid-1920’s, a generous member of the congregation donated money so that the church could build a chapel. The benefactor’s intent was to provide a 24-hour place of worship for the military personnel of San Diego arriving home from a long stint at sea. The thought was that if sailors arrived in port at three in the morning, they should be able to come to a house of worship for comfort, prayer and motivation.”

It also cites the story of the ghosts that are said to haunt the building and again I shall let the website regail the stories.

“Ghost 1- The British Lieutenant

During World War II, a Navy doctor had a special tradition upon returning to the United States, he would go to a nearby church and pray for the men he treated, but could not save. One particular soldier had suffered a gruesome chest wound. The doctor desperately worked to save the man’s life to no avail. The doctor was cupping the soldier’s heart when he felt the heart give its final beat. The doctor simultaneously felt some odd sensation throughout his body.

When the doctor returned to port in San Diego he set out to fulfil his solemn tradition of praying for the souls of his fallen comrades. He did this at the chapel of the First Baptist church. He reported that he entered the sanctuary and sat down in a pew at the back row. He knelt to pray and was suddenly rocked backwards against the pew. As he gazed to the ceiling with his eyes and mouth wide open, he felt that same odd sensation that he experienced back at the field hospital on Okinawa. A church official found him slumped to the floor and unconscious where he had been kneeling. It seems as though the spirit of the British Lieutenant had entered the doctor’s body back in that hospital and was now free and had taken up residence at 930 Tenth Avenue.

Following this doctor’s visit to the chapel, the eerie echo of a British officer’s voice has been heard throughout the building. At times, it sounds like the officer is barking out orders as if in battle. Other times, the voice seems to be keeping soldiers marching in unison with a staccato march cadence. He has even been heard singing pub songs as if celebrating the victory in the Pacific over Japan.”

Ghost 2- Missy

When the building was occupied by the First Baptist Church the rooftop was used for a variety of outdoor activities. The church youth took advantage of the great downtown playground for such games as basketball, badminton, volleyball, and shuffleboard. On one particularly hot day in October, a girl named Missy had had enough fun on the roof and wanted to go back downstairs to get out of the heat. The pastor supervising the handful of kids on the rooftop reassured Missy that right after the current basketball game ended the group would be going down to the social hall on the second floor for refreshments but impatient, she bolted for the staircase.

The pastor excused himself from his referee duties and ran after Missy. In the stairwell, Missy had made it down the first flight of stairs. When she heard the pastor calling her name, she turned the episode into a game and yelled out to “Catch me if you can!” The pastor quickened his pace down the stairs and as he rounded the landing between the third and second floor, he heard the last words of Missy’s young life. All she was able to shout was “Catch me…” before the pastor heard a small shriek, then a series of dull thumps.

Missy’s body was found at the bottom of the stairs on the second floor, her head split open and leaking blood. The horror-stuck pastor scrambled down the stairs to the twisted body of the dead girl. He would never be the same.

Missy has been known to only roam the stairwell. The thought is that she is playing in that vertical playground for eternity. While travelling the building’s stairwell, a person might have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the little girl peering around the corner of a landing. She’s easy to recognize. She had mid-length dark hair with straight bangs across her forehead. She also sports a white headband. She’s wearing a green and white striped dress and will draw attention with her whimsical smile.

Ghost 3- The Baptist Pastor

The pastor who ran after Missy never recovered from the idea that he had caused Missy’s death. After the tragic accident, “Catch me…” echoed in the pastor’s brain, just as it had echoed off the smooth, plaster stairwell walls. Eventually the pain and guilt reached a level that was intolerable for the pastor.

On the morning of Monday, November 25, 1963, the church secretary unlocked the front door to the church and proceeded up the stairs to her mezzanine floor office. She was still thinking about the inspirational sermon the pastor had given the day before. He spoke beautifully about the need to be strong after the horrible assassination of President John F. Kennedy that had occurred on Friday.

The secretary knocked on the pastor’s door. There was no response. She walked back down to the first floor and entered the sanctuary and called out for the pastor. She noticed a dim light glowing from a cloakroom on the side of the altar. Thinking that the pastor was organizing the choir robes from the day before, the secretary walked down the side aisle of the large chapel and called out to him. She entered the small room and uttered the pastor’s name again. Suddenly she recoiled in horror as she stared up at the dead body of the pastor hanging from a storage loft access ladder.”

As we arrive we decide to ascend the fourth floor in the small period 1930’s wooden lift, the type one first has to slide open the panelled door of, then the metal safety grill, and close again after you before it can ascend. It’s like a leap of faith and a prayer and not something I would wish to be stuck in for any length of time!

When we reach the fourth floor, Loie and Rhianna are changing into costume in the office and Ryan gets a message that Bryant has arrived downstairs. I offer to go down with him and help with the props.

He has a small settee on the back of his open truck, an impressive American affair he has borrowed from his father to transport the furniture. The settee is a small two-seater lightweight metal frame of a summerhouse style with lift off padded seating that is the perfect solution for transporting around. And by sheer luck or design it just fits within an inch or two into the tiny lift to take it upstairs. While we are negotiating it through the sliding door and concertinaed metal trellis Bryant suddenly regails us with ghost stories about the theatre. He has seen something more than once on the stairs; the figure of a little girl and whenever he arrives or leaves the building he greets them! He has worked here several times on his own accord and had to lock up last thing at night.

He has customised the settee with an attractive embroidered patchwork throw that we are instructed to tie on properly by Loie after she gets her cane caught up in one corner and nearly goes flying when her foot does likewise. A trick of fate is the two random golden damask cushions I picked up in the thrift store on a whim match perfectly with the cover!

Not only that but Bryant has very kindly lent his very own mahogany ‘Campaign style’ occasional table from home to lend a touch of class to the set design. He has also mustered a cut glass vase complete with fake flowers.

“The one thing with me is I have this almost obsessional attention to detail” he confides. It looks as though everything is coming together like a dream. What could possibly go wrong now?

I hear the scenes run for the first time since Saturday and the marked development that has taken place since I was absent all day on Sunday and I am thrilled to get a glimpse of the magic that might finally be achieved. I am sat upstairs with Ryan who is deputising whilst Bryant decamps downstairs to start setting up the tech sound and lighting cues. I tell Bryant I can see the way its come on while I was away and saw a glimpse upstairs of something special, by way of encouragement. It seemed we were finally on target for a coming of age for this show.

When finally we get onto the main stage at Tenth Avenue it is a huge cavernous space with the recognisable proportions of a church and one in which my actors are clearly going to have to play “bigger” and throw their voices far. They appear slightly overwhelmed on first impression by the available space after that of our rehearsals.

Tech runs can be extremely dull but I enjoy being involved in all the processes of a show to understand how directors work with lighting and sound to weave magic around a script.

So for the first time I get to hear the sound effects that Bryant envisages for my piece. I have been slightly alarmed by his verbal imitation of clocks ticking in rehearsals as Sitwell waits impatiently for Monroe to arrive at the top of the play. But I like the fact he is bringing something different to the mix and I understand that it is there to represent the passing of time, while Sitwell waits for longer than any real time we can afford on stage. I also like the Hollywood score he has found to open the show, it strikes the right flavour and period for the piece.

Seeing the different lighting moods is an eye opener. We choose a very sexy half lit pre- set when the audience come in where the set is just illuminated. Bryant selects an unusual backlit dark transition zone between scenes, that don’t go to blackout as I had stipulated in the script but an intriguing semi-darkness. He then works out a dumb play drama between scenes where there is an element of silent film acting as Cukor serves the two ladies champagne after scene one then collects glasses from them after scene two but Marilyn refuses to part with hers until Cukor seizes it, which then gives her motive to storm off set ready for her locking herself in the ladies before scene three. It works beautifully and I love this element that is added. It seems to happen so naturally and organically. The music matches and underpins these inter-scenes with great aplomb.

Everything was coming together to make a sophisticated show and I was really looking forward to see how it would play on this wide, generous stage.

Then came time for the run through. It was as though a different cast had been asked to learn a new script that night. It was like watching a slow motion car crash as they lumbered through, forgetting lines and cues so slow it was like a different piece. It creaked, it limped, it apologised for what it might have been. Loie was particularly thrown by the novelty of the large stage, nervous and forgot lines. Rhianna’s words were lost when she turned to face Loie and Randy still fished for the correct sequence of his lines. It was dreadful and we all knew it.

I wasn’t hopelessly worried. I knew there was always a bad dress run before the opening night by law of averages and nerves. It was good to get the bad one out of the way to scare the actors a little into giving a storming performance at the first night in two days time.

What was to be done? Luckily there is one more rehearsal tomorrow night before first night the day after. Do you trust the moment and the actors to do their work on their own until it reaches the arc of perfection.

Bryant, a little shell shocked and distracted like me seems inclined to leave the production to fate trusting that the hard work had been done and now it is just a matter of polishing the fine surface of their toil. It’s late at night and the cast are all tired and anxious after a very disappointing run through and the toll of a full week of daily rehearsals.

Rhianna, usually self contained and smiling, is clearly upset and dashes away in tears explaining that she is so tired and just needs to get home to bed and get some rest before tomorrow. Whether it was sheer frustration at her own or others performance or a dawning realisation that she really isn’t quite sure what she has let herself in for and is now too far committed to extricate herself, I’ll never know. But it is a lot to ask of anyone to perfect such a complicated role in a week.

Loie, quiet and crestfallen surprises me most of all when I offer to walk her to her car. As we reach it, she turns round and asks me, matter of factly, “Could I have a hug, please”? Of course I oblige and I suddenly feel humbled as I realise for the first time behind the formidable façade here is an insecure, isolated human being, just like Sitwell or Monroe herself, wanting to do good and just like all of us, made aware of our own shortcomings and vulnerability, alone in our struggle to resonate with power and ambition in our chosen environment.

I return to the Theatre. They are storing away the settee and side table behind the seating area. We are the last one’s left in the building. As we walk back out to the hallway we turn out the lights and are plunged into darkness, an eerie silence befalls the place. “Goodnight” Bryant calls out to no one as he closes the large double doors, locking them behind him. “Thank you for having us”. “Oh, I always talk to the ghosts” he tells us. “They’re friendly. But you have to respect them.” He laughs at the novelty of his actions, as only someone who has been left to lock up a haunted building on his own in the dead of night knows.

I suppose in a way we are all of us ghosts too, passing through this brief dimension, leaving footprints, sounds and echoes behind us, some of us more strongly than others. I’m  evoking the ghosts of Sitwell, Monroe and Cukor in my play. There is perhaps something strange in bringing the dead back to life on stage and making them interact with each other for a certain dramatic effect. But I hope, in so doing, I have managed to remain faithful to their personalities and to have captured their true spirit.

When Bryant first offered his personal stories of ghosts at the theatre, knowing I was to be working here for the next week and a half, I said tell me later. I never did hear them from him so I asked him if he wouldn’t mind writing down his experiences and so I give him the last word.

“In March, while in rehearsal for Tricks, we were rehearsing up on the 4th floor. Present in the room was the director, Sandra Ruiz, Devon Hollingsworth, her assistant director, Gail Phillips the stage manager, Jacob Cruz, an actor and myself. Right at the entrance (which are double doors with faded windows,) I noticed a shadow constantly peeking through the window. I walked over there and opened the door and nobody was present. It was as if a curious child wanted to know what was happening. I knew that was the little girl who died in that building. That wasn’t the only time we would see the little shadow girl peek through the window.

Downstairs while putting up the panels, the stage manager’s son, Jimmy Phillips saw a man standing near the entrance to the stage. He mentioned that he was a tall man that disappeared.

That same day, we noticed a shadow figure pacing up in the technical booth of the theatre. There was a blue light that would be covered every time he would pace near there.

During our tech/dress rehearsal, as Jacob and I were running Act I, in a moment of an emotional scene, just up stage left of us we heard a sound and all of a sudden, a cable of a stage light just came dangling down almost like the shape of a noose.”