On the Road Again

After two years of disruption, actors, singers, dancers and musicians are happy to be back on tour – most of the time! Susan Mansfield heard about the highs and lows of life on the road.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s Christmas Concert tours four cities in four days – and that’s just one part of their busy December programme. Stage and production manager Craig Swindells is the man who keeps the show on the road.

“There is a two-week period in December when we are playing five different programmes, each one with a slightly different line-up of musicians. The biggest ones have eighty to eighty five people. I need to make sure I have what we need for three different concert types loaded on the truck.”

“Our priority is the safety of the instruments, which are very delicate and very expensive. You can’t have a two hundred-year-old violin or cello banging around in the back of a truck. We have purpose-built flight cases for the instruments and the temperature and humidity in the truck is carefully controlled.”

“Just before the pandemic we played in Bergamo in Italy. It’s a beautiful walled town on a hill – and we couldn’t get the truck anywhere near it! We had to park two miles away and work with a fleet of smaller vans to bring everything up the hill and through the narrow archways.”

“We always take a couple of bottles of whisky.”

“Before Brexit, touring in Europe was as easy as going anywhere in the UK. Now it’s as complex as going to the USA or China. We have to fill in 120-page forms for Customs & Excise, and we have to work with a European haulier. We still love touring, we just have to find other ways to do things.”

“Sometimes the musicians have the morning before a concert to explore, but we tend to be first in the concert hall and last out. But you’re in a new place, seeing new things. You’ve got to grab every moment and appreciate it.”

“When we’re on tour, we always take a couple of bottles of whisky. Then, after the concert when we’ve loaded the truck, we sit down with the venue staff and have a dram. We like to leave a little uniqueness wherever we go.”

RSNO Christmas Concert Featuring ‘The Snowman’, Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow & Edinburgh, Dec 14-18, www.rsno.org.uk

Isobel McArthur and MJ McCarthy, writers of Kidnapped adaptation, National Theatre of Scotland1 - Photo credit James Chapelard
Isobel McArthur and MJ McCarthy, writers of Kidnapped adaptation, National Theatre of Scotland. Image James Chapelard

Gavin Johnston has been a theatre production manager for 30 years, working for Dundee Rep, the Traverse, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Perth Theatre and the National Theatre of Scotland. He is production manager for the 2023 NTS tour of ‘Kidnapped’.

“Touring in Scotland has challenges, because all the theatres are very different. Some are brand new, others are very old. Some of the stages are flat and some are raked, and the cast and crew need to know that. You don’t want to see things rolling down the stage and into the front row.”

“International touring throws up a whole lot of other questions. I once took a production from the Edinburgh International Festival to Cairo. Everything was different there – safety standards, electricity supplies, trained staff. The whole team had to do cultural awareness training – what to wear, what to say, what not to do.”

“The mud turned the stage into the Somme.”

“When I was at the Traverse, we toured to Toronto with Sue Glover’s ‘Bondagers’. The original design was an earth floor, so we had ordered lots of earth to arrive at the Theatre by the Lake. What we forgot was that it was minus 15 degrees, so our bags of earth were frozen solid. It took two days to defrost them under theatre lights, which turned the stage into the Somme!”

“The biggest change in my career has been the move towards sustainability. There used to be so much wastage. Now we need to think about what can be repurposed or what can be borrowed or bought from another company.”

“One of my most memorable experiences with NTS was when we did ‘The 306: Dawn’, a play about the men and boys shot for desertion during the First World War. It was staged in a barn in Perthshire in 2016. Everything had to be brought in – equipment, generators, portacabins for dressing rooms and production offices. We did a huge structural survey of the building to make sure we weren’t going to collapse the roof.”

“It was early summer and there were times when the weather was warm and times when it was very cold. The grand piano from the concert hall had to be tuned almost every day. Becky Minto did the design and it was wonderful. The sound of the bleating lambs made you think you were in the middle of France.”

“I worked on the original production of David Harrow’s ‘Knives in Hens’ at the Traverse, which we toured to small venues around Scotland. We staged it in the open air next to the village hall in Glenelg. The midges came out and the temperature plummeted, but the backdrop, the mountains of Skye, was stunning.”

Kidnapped by the National Theatre of Scotland tours to Greenock, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness, Perth & Newcastle Mar 28-May 13, www.nationaltheatrescotland.com

Charlotte Kennedy is starring as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady on a seven-month tour of the UK and Ireland. 

“After the last couple of years we’ve all had as performers, you never really forget how lucky you are to be working. Touring is a lovely way to see different parts of the country. We are in each place for two to four weeks, so there is time to explore, and that’s been a joy.”

“Everywhere we go the audiences are slightly different. They react to different parts of the show. In Dublin, they really got the humour of it. The audiences in Cardiff love the comments in the script about the Welsh. The feedback we’re getting from audiences is that, given what everyone’s going through, live theatre is so important.”

“We do eight shows per week. The schedule varies, but usually there are two days a week when we do a matinee and an evening performance. Because the role is so huge, so vocally demanding, I don’t socialise a huge amount. I’m quite boring. After a show I tend to go home and sleep.”

“I went out and did an improvised version of one of the songs.”

“At one of our Saturday shows in Cardiff we had a problem with the set. We had to stop for 20 minutes while the technical team got things up and running again. I was asked if I would go out and help entertain the audience, so I went out and did an improvised version of one of the songs. It worked a treat.”

Charlotte Kennedy as Eliza Doolittle photo by Marc Brenner
Charlotte Kennedy as Eliza Doolittle. Image Marc Brenner

“I do miss my home comforts, my own bed. I’ve got very good at packing. Packing cubes are my saviour! But Eliza Doolittle is an amazing role. It’s unusual to play a woman in musical theatre who goes on such a journey. It’s the hardest thing I’ve done and the most rewarding as well. I’m so lucky I get to do it night after night.”

My Fair Lady is at the Edinburgh Playhouse Dec 14-Jan 7,  www.myfairladymusical.co.uk

Hannah Cubitt is a dancer with Scottish Ballet, which is currently on its biggest winter tour to date with over 70 performances of ‘The Snow Queen’ in five cities.

“It is a bit of a marathon. On a long tour there are ups and down. It varies from having a blast to ‘I need an extra lie-in today’. But everybody looks forward to going on tour. That’s what our job is. We’re performers and it’s exciting being able to perform.”

“We have two or three days a week when we have both matinee and evening performances. You have to rest when you can. Sometimes you’ll find us all napping on the floor of the dressing room.”

“There are lots of traditions we have to keep morale high. We decorate our dressing room with paper chains and origami. And when we’re getting ready for the show, we have a dressing room playlist on Spotify. All the classics. A bit of Shakira, a bit of Beyonce. It’s like a little disco, and the volume goes up and up the closer we get to curtain call.”

“Last Christmas we started doing a scream circle. We all just sit in a circle and scream as loud as we can for five seconds. Studies show it increases energy and releases any negativity. The first time we did it, one of the ballet masters came in to see if everyone was alright.”

“We all just sit in a circle and scream as loud as we can.”

“Just before I joined the company as a full-time artist, I toured the Highlands and Islands with Wee Hansel & Gretel, a show adapted for younger kids. That was incredible, going to places I’d never been, and we had the two weeks of the summer when the weather was perfect. The venues were small, so when we came onstage in our tutus, we could hear the children whispering ‘Oh wow!’ I remember when that was me, and now I’m on the other side.”

“After the performance on Christmas Eve we have a couple of days off, so everyone is manically packing and rushing off to catch flights home. I’m lucky, my family is in Scotland. But really, in a show like this, we’re celebrating Christmas for about three months!”

Artist Hannah Cubitt as Snowflake, shot from the side of the stage during Scottish Ballet's The Snow Queen. Image Andy Ross
Artist Hannah Cubitt as Snowflake, shot from the side of the stage during Scottish Ballet’s The Snow Queen. Image Andy Ross.

The Snow Queen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness & Newcastle, until Feb 4, www.scottishballet.co.uk

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