Behind the scenes: surviving the “McKellen Marathon”

by By Andrew Wilson

Park Theatre had two objectives for Ian McKellen’s one-man show, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Others & You which ran for the first week of July.

One was to raise £250,000.

The other, according to Dorcas Morgan, the theatre’s Development Director, was to make sure McKellen survived the week – “Not just alive but in good spirits!”

Of the two, the second was arguably the more daunting: McKellen not only took on a full week of performances but a gruelling programme of post-show signings, galas, dinner dates and dressing room visits.

The week was a marathon for the theatre staff, with staff donating their time, working extra hours and doing jobs they don’t normally do in their daily work. But, she adds, “However tired we were, we were always aware that we were not 78 years old and doing 11 performances in one week.”

Everyone’s a fundraiser

During the week, Dorcas co-opted all staff as members of the development team, focused on getting the maximum benefit from this unique fundraising opportunity. That’s how Finance Officer Judy Lawson and Deputy Sales & Marketing Manager Rachel McCall found themselves supporting the Front of House staff collecting tickets and selling programmes and bottles of wine. “Keeping the usher’s red aprons topped up with change became a job in itself,” Dorcas recalls. “By the end of the week Rachel was on first name terms with the cashier at the Finsbury Park HSBC.”

But I thought I belonged to the Finance Department!

Rachael and Melli keep the fans moving

Dorcas, Jez and Ian in a quieter moment

The Front of House and Technical Departments also went above and beyond the call of duty, as did some of the theatre’s valued volunteers and Friends. She mentions Gail Jermyn, who volunteered for the week, keeping glasses topped up during dressing room drinks and preparing canapés for over 200 guests at one of the gala performances.”

A lot of the work was physical, such as dealing with the special Ian McKellen vintage wine (1,800 bottles only) donated by the Macedonian wine producer Tikveš. Dozens of cases of wine had to get to the three local restaurants that hosted McKellen dinners. Dorcas made the deliveries with the theatre’s new development assistant, Daniel Cooper, dashing over the cobbles in the streets of Finsbury Park with what she calls “a fairly well-behaved trolley.”

Another physical job was moving ropes and stanchions (upright posts) around the building. The ropes started outside the building at about 6pm where a security guard checked people’s bags. Then they had to be moved downstairs, beneath a bus stop sign welcoming people to dressing room drinks. Then back upstairs for post-programme signings.

In order to coordinate different activities and duties, Daniel maintained a central spreadsheet that showed every department minute by minute for each performance day. Each day was different, depending with either one or two performances and different combination of galas, dinners, dressing room drinks, and post-show signings.

Every event generated its own administrative tasks. There was list for those coming to dinner with Ian, and another for people who’d paid for personal signings. Ian was given background information on people he needed to know about, and Artistic Director Jez Bond– who was on hand for every performance and event – had to be briefed about anyone special coming.

“Hello! Where do you come from…?”

Dorcas describes the “finely tuned conveyor belt” needed to move 50 people through to get their programmes signed and selfies taken with him. “We tended to do those on the matinee days, when Ian had a limited break between finishing one show and starting another. Someone would be ticking of the guest list, others taking peoples’ phones and shooting the photos, someone scooting them out as soon as the person in front had finished, someone handing them their bottle of wine as they left.”

Daniel, trolley, and hitchhiker

McKellen is famous for his approachability. Asked if that was a good thing or a bad thing when you are selling access with different prices on his time, Dorcas smiles: “We didn’t want anyone to feel rushed but we were quite clear with Ian that he needed to keep it quite fast otherwise he wouldn’t get to have a sleep and something to eat before the evening performance – and that was really important. But he’d say, ‘Hello! What’s your name and where do you come from?’ and would soon be into a deep conversation. We’d try to get it done in 45 minutes but he was frequently out there for an hour and a quarter.”

Daniel comments, “The same would happen in interval drinks, when there’s a finite period of time. You’d think he’d want a definite break in between the two acts. He would often stay and chat after the five minute call, giving all the time he could to the budding actor or whoever was there with him.”

Dorcas sums up: “He was incredibly generous with his time. I know Ian finds this hard work, but he always looks like he’s enjoying himself. He was very conscious that people had paid a lot of money, and wanted to make sure they had a good time.”

“I saw you on stage in 1988”

Contrary to expectations, no one turned up dressed as Gandalf or a hobbit, and there was no need for intervention by the security guard.

While audiences included many fans of McKellen’s blockbuster movies, most who had interval drinks with him were admirers of his theatre work, as were those who purchased objects McKellen donated for the auction. “One American gentleman had seen Ian do a one-man-show in 1988, and bought one of the famous Nobby Clark portraits of Ian. We always tried to give Ian a bit of background about the people who bought the different things.”

There was a near-disaster when a mother bought tickets to interval drinks for her son and three friends as a birthday present. Due to a ticketing mix-up, they didn’t show up at the appointed time. Daniel picks up the story: “The immediate result was that one lucky guy – who starts drama school next year – got to have a drink with Ian on his own. We couldn’t arrange another interval drink, but we checked with Ian and put the four young men at the beginning of the queue for post-show signings. So they had their birthday photos and a chat with Ian, who was lovely with them.”

Local reaction

Park Theatre tries hard to engage with the nearby Andover and Six Acres housing estates, and sometimes can offer local residents free tickets to public dress rehearsals.

“Ian was very keen to bring drama students to the rehearsal,” says Dorcas, “so we had a mixed group from the Andover estate and students from RADA, Central, etc.” Not everyone was familiar with theatre etiquette, and Dorcas describes one young man who was on his phone the whole time. “He wasn’t taking photos, just having a quiet conversation. It was stressful for our Front of House Manager who was wondering how to reach him to tell him to stop, but Ian just calmly continued with the rehearsal.”

And at least one local resident became a complete convert to theatre. Park Theatre hosts monthly meeting of Age UK in the Café Bar, when elderly local people come for tea and biscuits, and can access pay-what-you-can tickets. One regular had never seen a show in the 18 months he’d been coming, saying he hadn’t the concentration to follow a play. “Well,” says Dorcas, “he came to see this show because it was Ian McKellen, and he’s come to every show since!”

He just got on with it

A former actor herself, Dorcas was impressed with McKellen’s sang-froid onstage. “Ian had a huge amount to remember, and sometimes you could see him thinking – very calmly – ‘I’m not sure where I am now, let me just think about it.’ He wasn’t going to get into a panic, he held the stage and just got on with it. If he needed to he’d pick his running order and he’d be back on track.”

And the two objectives mentioned earlier? The first was not only met but surpassed: the impressive £275,000 raised will allow Park Theatre to fund more of its own productions, increase its financial reserves and continue to provide accessible and affordable theatre.

The second can be judged by the fact that the very-much alive McKellen is preparing to play King Lear at the Chichester Festival this autumn...

Below: Park Theatre staff take a bow with Ian on the final night.

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