Eartha Kitt in concert

Eartha Kitt ‘Live in London’ 1989

My role:
Production Manager, and Technical Manager for the Shaftesbury Theatre

This was a very busy period: the Cameron Macintosh production of “Follies” had just finished, and I was heavily involved in both the get-out of this, and a number of major building refurbishment projects. These included: the repainting of the Auditorium, the refurbishment of two bars, the final stage of the installation of air conditioning, the demolition of the followspot box and lighting control room, and the installation of a new lighting board – altogether eight building projects simultaneously in a six-week period, at a total cost of over £ 1/4 million. Additionally, I was busy dealing with the incoming production of “M. Butterfly” which we were to receive immediately after “Eartha Kitt” ended.

It costs a lot of money to run a Theatre, and dark periods have to be kept to a minimum. Many of the building projects were timetabled to operate multiple shifts, running from 0700h on Mondays overnight straight through to 1400h on Saturdays (the balance of the weekend being available to catch up on any backlog), and I generally worked a pattern of 12 hours on, four hours off. Not everything went smoothly on the building front – we had to replace one contractor two weeks into the period – but in general my role here was just keeping a daily progress log, and making the on-the-spot decisions, authorising minor variations that always crop up during building work, and just keeping everyone from falling over everyone else’s toes! The only serious problems that arose were from building trade suppliers who didn’t recognise that exact timing can be essential – I remember a ready-mix concrete delivery arriving five minutes before the end of the three-hour timeslot that we had permission to park on the very busy Princes Triangle – fortunately the traffic wardens seemed to be concentrating their attentions elsewhere!

“Eartha Kitt” was fairly straightforward – there was excellent liaison with the set builders (P L Parsons, who I’ve worked with many times), although a mid-construction revision to the spec. by the producer caused a mild panic: there was some prospect of the show being revived abroad, and it became necessary to ensure that all set pieces could be broken down to a size that would fit on a normal commercial jumbo jet flight. I spent a happy day on the phone trying to get detailed information from air-freight companies as to what this size might actually be!

As a West-End Theatre, the Shaftesbury technical team did not have a great deal of experience with actually mounting productions (the West End tends to work on brought-in shows and equipment). A new lighting control board, the overhaul and return to use of much of the in-house lighting stock, drapes etc, and especially the return to service of the in-house followspots in new positions, was a very steep learning curve for the team. They rose to the challenge magnificently, many choosing to put in a lot of additional hours (in those days before the Working Time Directive) … often to the point of excess: this is the only production on which I’ve ever worked where a young technician actually fell asleep standing up during a technical tryout before the get-in of the show!

It was a positive relief to get into the production period, and once the show was running all the staff worked show calls only, except as required to prepare for the incoming “M. Butterfly” in three weeks time. Audiences were excellent and extremely enthusiastic – Eartha has a loyal and vocal following in London, and there was always a queue outside the Stage Door after the show. After the first few days I took over as relief lighting board operator, to give the Deputy (who had spent the previous couple of weeks learning to plot on the new lighting board and helping the followspot team) a chance for a well-earned few days break – and also because I really enjoy board operation: I’m always fascinated by the way that shows evolve over the run, and differences in audience reactions on different nights.

There was one night of slight panic about a fortnight into the run when members of the Stage Management team were unexpectedly too ill to work – on a smallish show (by West End standards) there is never a lot of slack in the staffing. Fortunately, my boss, the producer of the show Ian Albery, was an Equity Member in good standing, and volunteered to take over as DSM at less than three hours notice – it being the first time he’d been “on the book” (calling the cues etc) for a show for about twenty years! Although both he and the crew were understandably nervous about this, by that point in the run everyone pretty much knew what they should be doing, and the performance passed without incident. The magic of live performance!

During the run of the show, CNN’s “60 minutes” programme filmed for a 20-minute segment about Eartha, which was transmitted shortly after the run ended. Here are two short clips showing a little of the live show, and the backstage and Stage Door areas of the Shaftesbury Theatre.