Touring around the world always sounds glamorous – and it is – before the fact and after the fact. The reality is that you spend countless hours on buses or trains or planes, many times only seeing the theatre and your hotel. A lot of times performing in less than ideal venues – so the performing is taking a greater toll on your body. When you do manage to find some time to see any of the sights – it’s usually early in the morning after a long night of physical work and before another night of physical work. On top that – you’re not getting your usual meals because working in another country means the food is different, the hours they eat are different and the availability of food is different. It makes for an increasingly cranky group of people.
We had a three-week engagement of outdoor shows near Nantes – in March. It’s kind of cold in March. We were performing in a tent that was set up in a variety of venues around the area – the middle of a field, a parking lot, etc. The stage itself was a raised platform that was accessible from wooden ramps on each side. A wooden walkway was set up from the ramps to the tent flap behind the stage that led to our dressing room – a trailer. Twelve people crammed into one small trailer. The heating for the tent was provided by pumping in the exhaust fumes from the trucks that hauled our equipment. Yeah I know – I’m not quite sure what the logic was either. The tent also leaked as we soon found out. During one performance, it began to rain and soon the entire stage was covered in growing puddles of water – puddles of water that made the floor slick. Within minutes, dancers were sliding through the water and grabbing on to anything that would give them balance. It was getting dangerous and it was only a matter of time before someone got seriously injured. All of the dancers made a decision that we had never made before – we refused to continue the show. During intermission, the entire cast trouped back to the trailer, removed their costumes, removed their makeup and put on their street clothes – without a single word. No group anger, no group discussion – just a silent group capitulation. The director was furious and began screaming at everyone. No one said much except the occasional quiet “No.” I don’t know if the director ever got over that small mutiny – I do know that she never trusted us again. I can see her point – she had a contract with the producers – I can see our point – our physical safety was at issue. Some times there just isn’t a winner but you do what you have to do.
Tours to France always meant endless weeks of crisscrossing the country in a bus. The company did what they could to make a hard situation better by renting buses that they could modify by taking out all the back seats and laying down mattresses. Even with bus modification the trips were long and France’s road laws made them longer. Unlike drivers in North America who would drive all day and night with the occasional stop, our French drivers couldn’t do that. A couple of hours on the road and they would have to stop for a coffee break. A couple of hours more and it was lunchtime. The next stop was another coffee break and if god help you – you hadn’t arrived at your destination yet – you still had the dinner break and maybe another coffee break. Endless hours of sitting on the bus waiting to arrive and your mind would start to fry. What best sums up the catatonic state of our trips would be the time when Brian, Delia and I were having dinner in Lyon, after a long day of travel. Delia who was always the cheerful one and was always able to find the bright spot in any situation, perked up, looked around and declared, “I think Limoges is beautiful.” Brian and I just stared at her. “Delia, this is Lyon. We haven’t even gotten anywhere near Limoges.” “Oh,” said Delia blinking. The next day we were back on the bus for the trip to Limoges. It took the entire day with us arriving at the theatre just in time for the performance. The problem with any long bus ride is that your muscles stiffen up and no matter how much you to move around the bus during a long trip, when you get off and you ask your muscles to perform – they don’t. Everyone tried their best that night but the muscle shakes and the wobbly legs won out. Everyone in the cast wiped out – one by one throughout the entire show. After a while, there wasn’t much more we could do except keep score.
Why is it that while France is known worldwide as the home of style, fashion and décor – almost every single hotel room I have ever stayed in looked like a throwback from the sixties? Pink and orange. That was the predominant color scheme. Curtains with big orange flowers and a pink flowered bed spread on lumpy bed (in some other pattern). Nothing ever matched. I always felt like I had stepped into a psychedelic time warp. What did they do? Have a countrywide hotel conference and decide on a color scheme and décor? In one hotel, three of us were given a room with six beds. I’m not kidding you – six beds. The room was enormous. The only problem was that every single bed was broken and we ended up throwing the mattresses on the floor to get some sleep. The landlords of a lot of these places were incredibly cranky. One particular fellow didn’t like us taking showers at night. Everyone had to take a shower after a performance (being covered in sweat, makeup, floor grime) but many of the theatres didn’t have adequate facilities so we’d clean up at the hotels. This guy wasn’t happy about the massive water use every night (this was during the three week tent job). We gave him a choice – either let us clean up or have us damage his sheets with makeup and dirt. He was happier with the dirt.
In all of the French theatres, firemen were required to be backstage during a performance. It was a safety thing and after getting a look at some of the theatres – I can tell you that I was happy to see the firemen hanging around. While the theatres are really beautiful (like little jewel boxes), the back stage area was scary. Some I would swear haven’t been cleaned in the past century and gargantuan dust bunnies are extremely combustible. The only problem with the firemen was that they liked to stand in the wings – in the place where you were about to make an exit. I never did find out whether they stood their due to regulations or because they wanted to watch the show. I just know that they were there. As hard as we tried, it was practically impossible to avoid a collision. To every French fireman that I took out – sorry.
France also had a fair number of raked stages. A raked stage is a tilted stage. The newer stages that most of us know have flat stages for the performers and the audience is on the tilted floor. Older theatres were opposite. The audience sat on the flat surface and the stage tilted upwards to the back. This is that moment where a couple of the stage directions finally made sense. Upstage – walking upwards towards the back. Downstage – walking downward towards the audience. Get it? I finally did. The problem with a raked stage is that it throws your weight off. Try spinning around – now try to do it while going up a hill. Takes a lot more effort – doesn’t it? Try going downhill. Not so hard but try stopping. Not so easy. The hardest part of raked stages was staying out of the orchestra pit. Add to the rake a couple of hundred years of performers before you and the stage is pitted and wavy causing little speed bumps. You get used to it eventually but it really does make you appreciate the newer designs.
One performance took place in a circus. Not the tent sort but a real circus building. The stage area was designated in the center ring and a backdrop was erected to form a more traditional theatre semblance. Problem with the venue was that the dressing rooms were scattered around center ring space and so were the entrances. It was confusing to remember which entrance led to the stage and which entrance was a “no no” because it would land you in the audience. Many dancers found themselves frantically running around in circles trying to find the right doorway. The acoustics were incredible. I’ve never been in a building like it. You could whisper in the center of the ring and be heard loud and clear. Unfortunately it’s not so conducive to dance which is supposed to be a silent art form. Yes we make sound, but we’re normally the only ones who hear it. The sound doesn’t and shouldn’t travel to the audience. Not in this place. We sounded like a herd of hippos. The dressing rooms came equipped with old planks to sit on, crumbling dressing tables, ancient and cracked mirrors and that oh-so-fresh eau d’elephant. You really have to develop a sense of humor if you want to be a dancer.
The best part of touring France was always the stops in Paris. The shopping put all the fashionistas of the group in seventh heaven. Jacques had the best fashion sense but when he wasn’t around, Brian became my consultant. Or at least he was the guy who would tromp all over the city with me in search of the perfect outfit. At one point – I had my heart set on finding the perfect skirt. It had to be black, it had to be wool, it had to be incredibly tight and it had to have a hemline right below the knee – very Audrey Hepburn. Brian and I spent every available hour going through the different Parisian districts in search of this skirt and on the last day of our time in Paris, I found it! Fit like a dream and I was bouncing with joy. You know the one thing they never tell you about tight skirts is how hard it is to walk in them? Think about it. Or even better, try this. Put your knees together and try to walk – or step off a curb – or step up onto a curb. See the problem? Those stupid criss-crossy walks that models do down catwalks aren’t just a weird industry affectation – they’re survival! I mastered the model walk in baby step style so I could saunter down the street. Curbs and stairs? No problem. A little hop would place me up on the next level. Thank god for strong dancer feet.