Thu, Oct 6, 2022 6:00 AM

Setting the scene


Tessa Jaine

Marlborough is blessed with a thriving drama scene and an abundance of talent both on and off the stage. Paula Hulburt talks to the backstage volunteers that help make theatre magic.

Behind the scenes, huge curtains swing down in elegant swathes, cloaking the sounds on stage. All is hushed as, out of sight of the audience, the volunteers at Blenheim Music Theatre perform their own routine. Their moves are not choreographed, each tread instead a familiar one borne over the years of practice to bring the magic of theatre to life.

Set manager Lloyd Bush is in his element, his carpentry skills having helped create some of the theatre’s most admired sets.

Standing still for a minute, he smiles as he listens to the voice of the young Gavroche ringing out on stage. The audience is entranced and it’s a proud moment for the former funeral director, for it is his youngest son, Jasper, who is bringing the Les Misérables character to life. “Les Misérables is his first big show. I took him to Auckland in 2018 to see it and on the plane on the way home he said he would apply for the part. I was working behind the stage and could hear him every night he performed.”

While the main barricade was a hired set, the huge construction was supplied in two parts, Lloyd explains. “It takes around 40 plus people backstage every night making sure that stuff happened when it was supposed to.”

Blenheim Musical Theatre was formed in 1918 to promote and foster the study, production and performance of musical theatre in Marlborough.

President Phillip Rayner says that without the volunteers who dedicate their time and skills, the trust would not exist. “As an organisation that is amateur, we are all volunteers, in fact, without volunteers we wouldn't exist. We do have some very special people among our ranks.”

Lloyd says he has always had a love of carpentry and volunteering backstage gave him an opportunity to use his skills. His first show with the trust was My Fair Lady in 2011. Since then, he has worked on 21 other shows, including Annie and Phantom of the Opera.

Blenheim Musical Theatre Set Manager Lloyd Bush at the workshop where the sets are created. Photo: Sarah Brown

The handmade set for the King and I was almost complete when the arrival of Covid-19 and lockdown saw it cancelled at the last minute. “I’ve always worked backstage during shows, buildings sets, I like to build and construct things,” Lloyd says.

For the former funeral director whose time was often devoted to the families he cared for, the chance to switch hats and pick up his tools was a way to relax. “When I was a funeral director, I couldn’t commit to working for the whole show so couldn’t take on a Head of Department role, but now I can,” explains Lloyd who has since turned his craft into a business, working as an artisan upholsterer from his Blenheim residence.

It is a cold Tuesday evening at the theatre rooms on Lakings Road, clear skies and starlight speak of the frosty night ahead. From the workshop, sounds of industry spill out.

With each set taking three to four months to complete, the construction crew meet every week, twice a week as a show approaches. Some of the workshop team have more than 50 years’ experience, a dedication to their craft that shines through their work. “We’re always looking for volunteers to build or who have painting experience,” says Lloyd.

While some of the cast performing on stage may get show night nerves, it’s never an issue for Lloyd. “The creation and design come from the director, and we transpose it. I’ve done my bit and it’s nice to sit back and take the opportunity to see how it looks.”

This year, the crew from dance and performing arts company StageLab also put the BMT rooms to good use. Their sold out run of Sour Crème the Musical was a huge hit with audiences. For friends and volunteers Tash Stewart and Margie Fletcher, it was a culmination of months of work – one that began with cocktails, laughs props manager Tash.

Backstage, the cocktails in question, complete with hand-crafted ice cubes, shimmer under the lights. These props of tropical colour look as good as the real thing but are entirely fake.

Both Tash and stage manager Margie went to Marlborough Girls’ College and were friends there, reunited when both started at Stage Lab.

For Tash, finding the perfect props starts with company founder and director Rose Platenkamp. “Rose and I go through the script and she gives me ideas, and then I get free reign.”

From creating a smoking volcano in Penny’s Dragon last year to a machine that steals children’s tears in Sour Crème the Musical, the props can put even Tash’s ingenuity to the test. Finding solutions is a challenge she thrives on, she explains. “We’re proud of what the team and children achieve. There are some lovely relationships. One little boy stood quietly beside me and said he wanted to thank me for all the props,” she smiles.

Tash has two children, Amiee and Charlotte, who are part of the popular performing arts group. For her, it’s the family atmosphere that makes volunteering backstage so rewarding. “There are a few sets of siblings which makes it a family thing, which is really nice.”

Stage manager Margie Fletcher and props manager Tash Stewart behind the scenes at a rehearsal. Photo: Klint Vicedor

Margie chimes in, in quick agreement, “They’re really nice kids with interesting and different personalities, but they all get on well.”

As a show approaches, both Tash, who is also a Girl Guide leader, and Margie, a full-time water and waste engineer with Marlborough District Council, give up almost all their free time to help. Asked to be stage manager three weeks before Penny’s Dragon in 2021, Margie jumped right in. She had done several children’s cushion theatre with the late theatre director Duncan Whiting.

For a girl who went on to study Engineering at Canterbury, the return to the stage, albeit behind the scenes, has been a welcome one. Supporting and organising the different teams involved in the day-to-day running of Sour Crème the Musical and the cast of 65 children keeps her on her toes. “It’s like herding cats,” she jokes, “except cats listen.”

“They [the children] have so much energy and are so excited to be here. Although it can be hard, it’s so rewarding too. You see the shy kids come to life on the stage.

“It’s such a great team environment and Rose has amazing vision. It’s about the kids, it’s about making sure they have this opportunity.

“People did this for me when I was a kid and it’s fun. Yes, there are times when it's difficult but it’s seeing the kids come out of their shells that makes it so worth it, you’re proud of them.”

The pair are all smiles, and as they talk several small cast members come in to ask one or both a question, it is clear they are needed if the show is to go on.

Would they recommend volunteering behind the scenes to other people? Both nod straightaway. “It can be very busy,” explains Tash, “but if you get the opportunity to come and help out, take it, it’s so worth it.

“Please, please support the local arts, we just couldn’t do it without everyone pitching in.”

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