A story of drama, inspiration and Tubeway Army singles.
They didn’t call us ‘Anoraks’ in those days. Or ‘geeks’, or ‘nerds’; or any one of a hundred other terms which you eventually become inured to. Some of us like working with computers, crawling around under desks, plugging things in, conversing in jargon. It makes us happy. I exhibited this kind of behaviour from an early age – I clearly remember unscrewing the wall sockets to see what was behind them – but there was a serious drawback in 1979: no-one had really invented the computer yet. At least, not the way we know it today – Hazlehead Academy‘s computer was wheeled into the Higher maths class one day for us to peer at. It was perched on a trolley, and looked not unlike a knitting machine. Apparently, if you typed things like:
- 10. GOTO PRINT
- 20. HELLO
- 90. END,
after a couple of weeks the word ‘hello’ appeared on a piece of tickertape. The world held its breath.
Instead, I had the Drama Theatre. For a short while in my fifth year, it was my own personal playground. I think I’d better explain.
I sat my Higher French on Election Day in 1979. A lot of things changed after that. Because I was intending to come back for sixth year, I was obliged to keep going to classes – the fact that I didn’t actually have any classes was a mere technicality. Actually, I was doing Higher Physics (for some reason) over two years, and I’m sure that SYS English started after the exams, but really, that was it. After the exam period ended, I (and several of my colleagues) had vast swathes of free time peppered with odd classes which we attended out of some residual sense of duty. We needed Something To Do.
At this remove (hey, it’s over 20 years ago) I can’t remember how the whole thing started. I do remember Tuesday night Drama Club. A group of us with thespian tendencies met in the Drama Theatre after hours and mostly mucked about. We couldn’t decide what to try to put on, although we did read through a couple of things, and I think that the whole thing pretty much petered out. I do remember someone having the idea that perhaps we might try to restore the centuries of neglect which had accumulated in the scenery pit, and that there might be something worth saving in there. I was also, after a couple of productions with Longacre Players, quite keen to have a go at the lighting and sound systems.
Actually system is rather too grandiose a term for what we had. The lights – there were about a dozen of them – had to be winched up and down from one of the side gantries, they were connected to the electricity supply by those lovely old round-pin 15 amp plugs, and at least three of them were still wired in to the box at the back of the theatre. There was a tape recorder, but it didn’t appear to be connected to anything. This decay seemed natural to me then – the whole place was ancient, after all; but looking back at it I feel certain that my memory is playing tricks on me – the whole school was less than ten years old at that time. Still, there was something there to work with, and I had lots of free time.
At this point I am obliged to eulogise about a teacher. Those of you of a sensitive disposition may prefer to look away.
Mr. Dunbar was a legend among Hazlehead pupils. There were only a few names which filtered down to Primary leavers in the term and holiday before we went up, and almost without exception they were those we were warned about. Those among us with older brothers or sisters would pass on stories of Mr. Cable and Mr. Middleton (no nicknames at this stage – we weren’t qualified) and the more impressionable among us got very little sleep the week before we went up to the ‘Big School’. But Mr. Dunbar was different:
“See if you get Mannie Dunbar – ‘at’s a magic skive!”
The reports from those who had encountered this wonder in the first week were even more encouraging. I had first-hand reports of slothful classmates enthusing over a teacher – not so much a skive, more a bucket of cold water in the middle of Double German. I’m not sure what his remit was, or indeed if he even had one, but he kept us entertained, and invigorated. There is a generation of Aberdonians who cannot hear Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi or Weather Report’s Birdland without being transported back to the Drama Theatre, and Mr. Dunbar’s movement class. As a budding actor (oh, alright, showoff) with the Children’s Theatre I was more enthused than most, and the Drama Period was the most eagerly awaited event of the week in those terms when it was scheduled.
By the fifth year, of course, such things were somewhat behind us – a Drama class was more likely to involve analysing Brechtian sub-plots than prancing about to modern jazz. Still, I kept my association with the denizen of the Drama Theatre, and he it was who provided the catalyst for the whole thing. Someone told him – I don’t think it was me – about our search for a play, and our burning desire to clear out the pit, and not only did he provide two texts, he gave us the run of the place.
The single biggest obstacle facing AmDram companies the world over is that women always outnumber men by about four to one. There is a huge market in plays for a large female cast, and those that exist are somewhat flogged to death. Mr. Dunbar came up trumps for us, however – Chamber Music by Arthur Kopit has a cast of eight women and one man. It is a staggeringly difficult and challenging piece – set in a mental hospital, it tells the story of the eight women who believe themselves to be famous historical figures, and who agree during the course of the work to murder one of their number, who may actually be Amelia Earhart. Did I mention that it’s meant to be played as comedy? By contrast, the other chosen text, Jean-Claude van Itallie‘s TV was a piece of cake, being merely a multi-layered exploration of crumbling relationships set in a TV studio, with the cast playing the programmes supposedly being broadcast while the protagonists argue in the studio below. But we were young, and keen, and we knew we could do it. And if we couldn’t, then at least we’d have cleaned the whole place up a bit.
The intermezzo between Fifth and Sixth Years was certainly turning out to be a strange place – not only did I barely attend a lesson some days, but I spent more time than was good for me listening to records in the Drama Theatre dressing room. I think we were supposed to be rehearsing, but there was a record player in there, and so much dangerous music to try out. Punk may have taken it’s time to reach Aberdeen, but we clutched it and it’s wild, sweary music to our adolescent bosoms. I remember putting on a Buzzcocks B-side, whereupon the room emptied, leaving me to explain why the First Year drama class was being given a lesson in Anglo-Saxon. Even here, the tide was turning; David Bowie became the order of the day, and the impending synthesiser boom led me to the first really grown-up feeling I ever had: I popped into town one lunchtime to buy a record. It wasn’t exactly an earth-shattering event – I got on the bus, got off at the Clydesdale Bank, popped into The Other Record Shop, crossed Union Street, got on a Number 4, and went back to school – but it felt like I was someone else; someone (whisper it) adult. The record? Tubeway Army: Are Friends Electric? Yes, I’m embarrassed by it now, but back then, I was at the cutting edge, let me tell you…
Oh, and one other rite of passage: at some point in those mad weeks, Mr. Dunbar became Allan. I suspect that 20 years on, things are a little more relaxed, but at that time this was a Big Deal. While we slaved away, covering ourselves in indelible black paint, knocking nails in, sawing things up, hanging curtains, and generally turning the place into something resembling a theatre, our teacher metamorphosed into our co-worker. Mind you, he was still directing one of the plays, and basically telling us exactly what to do and when, but it felt different – it felt like a partnership. For myself, I was in my element. I gutted the control booth; I swung from the gantries; I exhausted myself winching lights up and down, and by the first night, I could boast a full lighting and sound script. I am even convinced that I had a full Technical Rehearsal.
To the uninitiated, a Technical Rehearsal sounds quite intriguing – let me assure you, they are positively mind-numbing, even for the technical staff (er, that’ll be me, then). Actors hate them with a justified passion. They always take place on Saturdays (Sundays are for the full Dress Rehearsal) and in all my thespian years, I never experienced one which reached the final page of the script. The director always falls out with the lighting guy, or the sound guy (that’ll be me again) on the third page and the rest of the day is spent trying to move that spotlight 3 inches to the left. For an actor, especially one with three lines in the final act it is actually less interesting than watching paint dry, with the added excitement of knowing that we were all coming back to do it again the following day. In costume.
Still, the protracted rehearsal period allowed us to continue the agonising over our most contentious problem. The opening of Chamber Music has Joan of Arc, in chain mail and carrying an 8-foot crucifix, colliding with the doorframe. And swearing. The crucifix we had built, and painted black – parts of me were black for about a year afterwards – and we had made (somehow) some quite convincing chain mail; but we were left with one outstanding problem. I don’t know what the policy would be nowadays, but in 1979, fifth year pupils didn’t swear in public. Or on stage, as far as we could see. The issue rapidly became one of Freedom of Speech: all compromises were rejected; the text is sacrosanct. Of course, no-one thought to raise the issue with the school – we didn’t actually know we weren’t allowed to swear, but no-one had any illusions. Eventually, the issue resolved into two camps – those (most of us) who believed that we should just go ahead and curse: we were only on for one night; they couldn’t exactly take us off. The remainder – including yours truly, a born coward, and, crucially, the actress who would have to do the actual swearing, reckoned we could fudge the issue. I don’t remember whether we formally agreed on anything; in the end, Joan of Arc made her spectacular entrance (with three people hanging on to the scenery from behind) and said, in a not entirely convincing outrageous French accent “Oh, Sheet!”
Opening Night was, of course, also intended to be Last Night – we could fill the Drama Theatre once, by calling on all our family and friends, but we knew perfectly well that this was a One Night Only deal. Except that, after our triumphant third curtain call, word reached us that the school would like us to repeat our performance to the older pupils over the next few lunchtimes. Those of our friends who had had their arms forced up their backs to buy tickets for the evening show then had to sit through a slightly inferior version the following lunchtime. And, let’s be honest, we weren’t that brilliant to begin with. Oh, we didn’t embarrass ourselves, but the two or three of us who had acted in slightly better organised productions knew that this was different…
Part of the problem was one of direction. Allan directed TV, and it hung together rather well, considering how complex it was. Some of the dumbshow going on behind the main performers drew unintentional laughter (and I have to hold my own hand up here – in my defence, I was rather preoccupied with all the technical stuff as well). Chamber Music was directed by one of my fellow pupils; and I’d like to tell you that she’s now a West End director, and that we could see all that talent shining through even then; but it’s fairer to say that the play was directed with rather more enthusiasm than anything else. Anyone who doubts the value of a trained director should have seen the difference in the one scene which Allan had worked with the cast on – it stood out like a shining beacon in a sea of – well, I’ll leave it to your imaginations.
I had my own personal triumph, however – the Drama Theatre now had a fully functioning lighting and sound system; and I was handed the ultimate accolade of being asked to light the school concert the following week. I’d like to tell you that my subtle and soothing lighting plan for the concert set me on the road to a career in lighting design, but the truth is that one of the teachers (I’ve blanked his name out, but it was definitely a he) turned on all the fluorescent striplights at the interval. He did have a point – you couldn’t see the wind section – but I was crushed. So I sublimated my need to work with technical things, and went off to study Linguistics. This naturally led to a career selling books, and then chocolates, until one day I woke up and realised that I was an anorak, and I should be playing with computers all day. My dramatic career is far behind me these days, although I do have my moments of wistful gazing at theatres; I wish I could tell you what became of my fellow thespians, but shamefully I can’t even remember most of their names (I do have a copy of the programme somewhere: it will turn up when we move house, and I’ll cheerfully embarrass all of us by publishing it here). I do know that the school is still there, and I presume that the Drama Theatre is still in working order; and part of me would like to see it one day, but a bigger part of me is happy with my memories: we were good friends, doing something we loved, and in subtle ways we didn’t recognise at the time, we were growing up.
Author’s Note: If any of the cast or crew of TV or Chamber Music reads this, I’d love to know what you’re doing now – I’m sure it will be no less believable than what I’m doing – and if you’re not doing anything else, I’ve got this idea for a one-act play…
I’d also love to know what Allan Dunbar is doing these days – I can be contacted via email