In Vino Veritas

Episode 8

A year of working in the theatre was drawing to a close. It was time to move on and go and see, for real, the artworks that I had been studying. Theatre life had been good, not only the painting, but also doing behind the scenes drawings of touring dance companies, the Russians in particular.

Working on a pantomime was great fun and was to have later repercussions. This one was all about the sea, with submerged wrecks, sea creatures, all manner of sailing ships and, of course, lighthouses.
Some things still stay with me.

1. How to get a dead level horizontal line running across 10 metres of stretched canvas.
I bet Raphael and his mates did this in Renaissance times. Simply attach a cord to the correct height at either end, ‘chalk’ and tension said cord. Stand in the middle, pull the cord back like a bowstring and let it go. SNAP! There is your line.
2. Painting scrims was also fun. This involved painting on an open weaved fabric (difficult), but when completed, if it was lit from the front it could be a brick wall, lit from the back it virtually disappeared.
3. My last theatre experience. This was at a different theatre and consisted of a one- man show of the most withering satire on Australian life. This guy was stunning, a class act. His name? Barry Humphries.

OK. How to get to Europe? The Boeing 707 was well and truly around by now, but pricey. The next cab off the rank was the good ship Ellinis. If one thumbs through the current crop of cruise liners, at jaw dropping prices, it might be tempting to put the Ellenis in this class. Not quite. Somebody less charitable than me described it as 8 million rivets sailing in formation. Unfair and untrue.

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Prospects of loads of female company for the best part of a month lent a certain sense of anticipation to this sojourn. What diminished said keenness was, to put it mathematically, the male/ female numbers ratio.
It was lopsidedly male.
WHY?

In Vino Veritas

Episode 7

Life in the theatre took a new turn. I was approached by the stage manager who sounded me out about working the follow spotlights during the next series of evening productions.
Why not? the dosh would come in handy.
These lights were based on a simple principle. They consisted of two carbon rods (about 2cm diameter) which were aligned at an angle of about 45 degrees. The high voltage electrical current flowing between them produced a crater in the lower carbon,
which in turn was the source of a brilliant light. This light could go from a ‘pin spot’ to a full flood, depending on the lens control. The carbons had to be ‘fed’ as the burning continued , one praying all the while that the top carbon did not come loose and land in the bottom of the lamp holder. All of this was conducted under ferocious temperatures, you could fry an egg on the lamp case, or roast a finger or two.
The whole caboodle was mounted on gimbals, so the beam could be directed wherever one wished, at whatever size. So far, so good . Two ‘operators’ were needed to cover the whole stage. This background info. makes sense of the following proceedings.

The opening evening of Swan Lake was upon us. I already had
several shows under my belt, so to speak, so I was ready for this. My colleague for the evening was Roland. This dear fellow was a ‘chocoholic’ an addiction to this confection going back for years. At any point during the day his Mae West boiler suit contained up to 10kg of assorted chocolates. This soporific substance, I discovered, has no equal.
He was an electrician and his colleagues feared for his life when he seemed to be drifting off atop a 10 metre ladder re-wiring the spot bars.
Finally, we we both had headphones to get our orders.

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Swan lake proceedings got underway with a total blackout. The orchestra concluded the overture and I got my first instruction from the director.
‘With the smallest of pin-spots, pick up the male dancer emerging from the wings on the prompt side of the stage’ Fine. Done. Ditto to Roland to pick up the female lead on the other side. NOT SO FINE. At this precise point Roland fell asleep. In so doing, he relaxed his grip on the lamp. The pin-spot, getting bigger, then drifted up to the proscenium arch, up and up until it came to rest on the theatre ceiling.
By now the stage director was apoplectic. His screams could be heard in the back rows of the gods. Roland came to. Desperately, he tried to put things right. The band played on…..Until the conductors desk and those of the first violins were illuminated by a thousand watt spotlight as Roland valiantly tried to find the stage.
As is (or was) the case in music based theatre, the actors or dancers will sometimes follow the music to gauge their arrival. In this case the entrance of the corps de ballet took place in total darkness, as they spilled, literally, on to the stage. One wonders what the collective noun is for a tangled heap of swans. I still had the male lead in a pin-spot, his facial incredulity was the only thing to be seen in the whole theatre.
The stage managers voice rose equally in volume and pitch. Then, a top C and a deafening silence.
I got home early that night.

In Vino Veritas

Chapter 6

Meanwhile, still back at the theatre, painting scenery continued. By now I was familiar with the whole set-up . In a long narrow-ish studio, the huge back- cloths were attached to stout wooden stretchers. A gap between the floor and the wall, (together with the aid of an electric motor), meant they could be raised and lowered as and when. Painting the flats and other props was very straightforward.
If one imagines about 200 ice-cream cartons filled with every tint, tone and high colour imaginable, the whole approximating the range of a High street DIY paint retailer, then they were occupying a central table. They were maintained, in exemplary fashion by Steve, the splodger… hardly a flash job description. All water-based, of course. …the colours, not Steve.
Work proceeded well on the Viennese hell. Endless drop shadows, highlights, reflected lights, marbling, wood graining, cast shadows, all the usual old tricks of trompe l’oeil orthodoxy cascaded down. Rather similar to sucking boiled sweets.
BUT WAIT. I was admiring the job I had done on some alcove encased temptress and then became aware of a fellow admirer. A delicious exchange followed.

‘Look’, said our leader, ‘um…hmmmm…this is rather good….ummm ..’
He glanced at his watch…’could you do a few more?’ I glanced at his efforts. Rather me do them than him, I thought.
‘No problem , I said, you go and have a rinse or 3 with your mates and leave the alcoves and little darlings to me.’
Not a lot was said, but it was hugely significant.
Theatre mythology is also huge; Quasimodo, phantoms, ghosts, creaking woodwork, strange meanings, wobbly stairs, all of that.
I usually arrived first in the morning to get the studio opened up.
Up the creaking stairs. I grabbed the handle of the ancient door. Resistance. Push then came to shove.
The door opened a bit to reveal a pair of shoes stuck underneath.
Why the hell would somebody?….. A closer look. There were legs in those shoes.
According to the coroner, the death must have been agonising. Huddled in the foetal position, Steve had tried several exit stratagems, but lethal photographic chemicals had been most effective, at God knows what agony.
To complete the theatrical… because of rigor mortis and the narrowness of the stairwell, his body had to be put in a sling and lowered down on a rope.

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One reflected upon previous conversations with Steve, but there was no indication of what he was thinking. More entry into the world.

 

In Vino Veritas

This post contains mature content in the form of life drawing and nudity.

Chapter 5: The Journey to Thinking Big

At the end of secondary school it was time to go back to Melbourne and stay with my Aunt. Why? It meant that I could study art at the grandly named Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. This activity was not so much a learning curve, rather more a vertical axis.
The tuition was very good, three years illustration was followed by 2 years painting. I was , and still am, deeply devoted to both. Customer satisfaction. Life drawing, a splendid discipline, was included in all of this.

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DA studio NZ2
This is a shot of my continued life drawing practice, in my studio in Auckland a good few years later. More on that to come. Photograph courtesy of Geoff Studd. Models name Penny.

In my final year I was employed as a lecturer to teach the first years and part-timers this noble art…. a valuable experience. The students did not seem to be troubled by the age of their tutor. His love of the subject seemed to preclude this. I got my diploma and learnt how to do many things.
THEN! Overtaken by events. A major theatre in the city had approached the college to see if they had a student who could paint theatre scenery. I could imagine how the conversation went… ‘We need somebody who can draw and represent the physical world…for God’s sake don’t send us some abstract expressionist or cubist clown or a mystic Meg. We want technical skill. Give him, or her, anything, and they can do it. They will have to work on a huge scale. More than that, they will have to produce results before the pubs open’!

I got the nod. My meeting with the head honcho was salutary. He was short, golden bristled in a Scottish sort of way, and had the eye colouring of a Norwegian fjord.
He gave me a ‘O God, here’s another one’ sort of look and then pronounced in a voice flat with indifference, ‘Look,sunshine, if you can’t do this, I will bloody soon find somebody who can. I can’t frig around, let’s go’. I have heard similar sentiments expressed many times over the years. You either drop your bundle or it puts iron in the soul. As if to under- score this, he produced a cartoon ( in the original sense, a preparatory study). This was about A2 landscape in format and had to be scaled up to a massive 10×5 metre back cloth. Suddenly, a jaw dropping moment.
Our leader folded the cartoon twice, and tore it from top to bottom in order to make 3 identical panels. He took one, his long time assistant another, and he gave the third to me.
‘OK,’ he commanded, gesturing at the prepared canvas, ‘you guys start at either end, I’ll do the middle. Don’t screw it up’
I am as dry as a dead dingo’s….. ‘You have an hour to get the first stage knocked in’.

I looked at the cartoon. It was a kind of Baroque hell. Greek columns, acanthus leaves, Brunelleschian architecture, figures in alcoves, tracery, decorative stone and woodwork, and on and on. It was to accompany a Strauss type Viennese Operetta. I am sure the blue Danube must appear sooner or later. That would be a doddle.
Enter the real world…

Two legacies of all this… 1. Only ever using thin paint as the cloths had to be rolled for transport; and 2. An undying love for working on a very big scale.

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Opus 5 Requiem, dye and acrylic on canvas, 198 x 370cm