Dancing Bare

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 14

Assistant Stage Manager

There was no welcoming committee at the station and the town was not as I remembered. It was quieter, older, tattier, and less interesting. So was the theatre, where the doorman had no idea who I was, refused to let me in, told me to come back at one o'clock, and shut the door in my face. It was just after ten, so I shouldered my bag and legged it through streets lined with terrace-houses and cluttered with pallid, soccer-playing youths to Harry's, where I'd get the welcome I deserved!

An unshaven scarecrow opened the door, frowned as if I was the last person he expected to see, found his voice, and invited me in with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. I knew Harry wasn't handsome, but… that gigantic mouth, those hands… I must have been out of my mind to let him feel me up! To think I'd been worried he'd be expecting an amorous relationship! He was obviously having second thoughts about even renting me the room!

I sat at the table while he made tea, clattering cups, spilling water, dumping a packet of biscuits on the table and himself on a chair. After a couple of false starts he finally repeated more or less what we'd already agreed. It was OK for me to rent the room, but I shouldn't get any ideas because of what had happened backstage. I wasn't his type, and it was better to get that straightened out. Also, I had to be very discreet about… you know… because this was a gossipy small town and he couldn't afford to let rumours start and…

I let him ramble till he'd run out of worries, nodded seriously, told him I was keener than him to maintain a low profile, was grateful for his honesty, and considered his suggestions very wise.

He flashed a perfect-toothed grin, regaining his 'almost handsome' status, and we dunked ginger nuts and chatted – Harry waxing lyrical about some of the guys at the gym – tradesmen and labourers who liked kicking a ball around, downing a few pints at the pub, throwing darts, and occasionally coming home with him for a bit of rough and tumble.

At one o'clock, actors were preparing and the backstage crew were making last-minute checks for the matinee of Arthur Miller's All my Sons. I wandered around the set admiring the clever fake perspective, then sought out Frank, the stage manager, natty as ever in white shirt, tie, and khaki overalls. He finished an internal phone call to the lighting guys in their box up behind the dress circle, grunted a friendly greeting, told me to keep my trap shut, eyes open, and out of the way. There was no time to meet the actors then or between shows, because they all raced home for a meal.

I watched the sixth and final performance of the play that night from the rear of the stalls, joined by the director who placed a firm hand on my thigh, instructed me to call him Alfred, and explained with peppermint-diluted halitosis that All My Sons had been popular because during the war there had been an American military base nearby and several servicemen had married local girls.

It was a good show, but I wasn't overawed. After greasepaint and costumes were removed, friends milled backstage offering congratulations, getting in the way of stage crew who had already started dismantling the set.

The party that night was at the house of one of the actresses. It wasn't far, but Alfred took the prompt and me in his Austin Mini. Once inside the mock Tudor, two up and two down semi-detached, he introduced me to the hosts.

Rosemary was a vivacious, slightly buck-toothed redhead pushing 30, married to Paul, a mathematics teacher at the Grammar School. Paul was tall, thin, and pleasantly pale, with a shock of dark hair, and black-framed glasses. He shook my hand firmly, welcoming me in a rich baritone that reverberated in my chest. I admired their house, thanked them for the invitation, reluctantly extricated my hand, and followed Alfred to meet the other actors.

"Alan, this is Rigby, our new A.S.M."

Alan, who looked to be in his mid-20s, lounged on the sofa, stared rudely over my shoulder, and yawned.

"Alan's the junior lead," Alfred whispered as we moved away, as if that excused offensive behaviour.

Alice was Alan's female counterpart; an innocent-looking blonde who boarded with Rosemary and Paul. She shook hands, smiled, and welcomed me with charming earnestness.

Totty and Terence, a husband and wife team in their 40s who had already drunk too much, offered limp hands and muttered something about not needing a taxi yet. Totty was fighting a losing battle with weight and the ravages of time; Terrence began a long story about his misadventures at the greyhound track, but Albert dragged me away. "Terry's a good stick, but he'll bore you to death if you let him."

Jeremy was in his late 30s, sandy-haired, pleasant, and running to seed. He offered a soggy hand, leaving it to me to grip it and waggle, said nothing, then wandered off to sit beside Alan on the sofa.

Hugh and Marjorie were in their 50s, had retained more than their fair share of good looks, and shook hands with an aristocratically vague, "How d'you do?" before turning back to their respective spouses, to whom I wasn't introduced.

I thanked Alfred for the tour, removed his hand from my upper arm, and made my way back to rejoin Paul, the only person in the room I felt comfortable with. As I passed the sofa, a beautifully modulated voice cut lazily through the smoky fug.

"Jerry, who the fuck was that fellow Fred dragged over?"

"The new ASM."

"A Jew!"

"How d'you know?"

"Bloody great honk… and circumcised."

"You've X-Ray vision?"

"Thin trousers and doesn't wear underpants… conceited cub. Needs a kick in the cods!"

"Or a codpiece."

I pretended I hadn't heard. He was wrong about me being a Jew, so he was also wrong about my conceit. Arrogant prick! Of course I didn't wear underpants because nothing looks more ridiculous than an underpants-line halfway up your bum. As for my cods, as Dad's friend said when he sold me my first bikini, "A real man is proud of his manhood."

Paul was alone at the drinks table in the kitchen and seemed pleased to see me, so I told him what Alan had said. "Huh. Alan's jealous. He's a mummy's boy boarding with a wealthy widow. Rumour says she rapes him every night. As for your trousers, they're perfect… if you're looking for clients."

His easy laugh didn't stop my heart thumping. Had he guessed? Did he think I was a queer prostitute? I forced a laugh and moved away. Five minutes later, I was jogging home through frosty air, the best experience I'd had all day. If that was a party they could keep it. Smoke, booze and noise do not for me a party make.

Weekly repertory is relentlessly demanding. A new play was presented every Tuesday night, running through to the Saturday matinee and evening performance. During the day, the play for the following week was rehearsed in a stuffy rehearsal room upstairs. Inevitably, the lines of the play in rehearsal sometimes found their way into the current show, but being experienced they knew how to extricate themselves.

Actors' hours were midday to five o'clock, then seven o'clock to whenever the show ended, Monday to Saturday. Sunday was a rest day to finish learning lines. Monday afternoon was the first time on stage with the new play and the new set, and was followed by a lighting rehearsal that could go on all night if the director wasn't satisfied. Tuesday morning saw the set dressed, and Tuesday afternoon was a last run through with costumes before the first performance that night.

The following morning they'd begin rehearsing the next play. They were professionals who learned lines rapidly and needed only minimal direction. All were secretly seeking fame. All were wisely prepared for disappointment.

Actors had to supply their own costumes, personal props, and makeup, which they applied themselves – even for character roles. They dressed in crowded, poorly ventilated dressing rooms under the stage with scant assistance. It was an exhausting schedule for little financial reward. No wonder tempers frayed and bitchiness prevailed. It's difficult to imagine anything less like the light-hearted fun and pleasure of amateur dramatic clubs, where rehearsals get bogged down in laughter and silly games, and acting is just a pastime – an enjoyable way to spend a night with friends of similar bent.

There's nothing light-hearted about being a professional actor because there are always hundreds of 'resting' actors waiting to take your place if you lose your touch. Despite everyone calling each other 'darling', professional theatre isn't a fraternity, it's dog eat dog. A few decades earlier, cinemas had lured audiences away from music hall and theatre; and now television was increasing the pressure – also on cinemas, hundreds of which were being converted to bingo parlours.

After lunch on the Sunday following the party at Rosemary's, a ferocious looking young fellow with long incisors took Harry and me in his Land Rover to an old warehouse that backed onto a private woodland through which ran a tributary of the River Colne. About a dozen men aged from 18 to 40 went for a jog through the trees to the stream, dipped in the freezing water, raced back, lifted a few weights, then held boxing matches – that I watched in alarm.

Boxing terrifies me. My pain threshold is minus ten, which is why I took up wrestling. I also reckon wrapping your arms round a man's loins is more fun than punching him in the face. Harry was the founder and organiser of this gym, and popular. After delivering us home, our driver remained for a noisy fuck with Harry, before returning to his wife and kids for supper. I wasn't jealous.

On Monday, I assisted with the lighting rehearsal of The Chalk Garden, followed by the props and costume rehearsal, during which, in a notebook containing a page of script faced by a blank page, I recorded every change, detail, or organizational point of lighting, scenery, costumes, props, noises off… that had to be corrected before the evening show. Cigarette fumes belched as Alfred shouted, sulked, and enthused in turn. Nobody took offence – nor did they take much notice. We were finished by seven o'clock.

"That went well, don't you reckon?" Alfred demanded, placing a hand on my thigh. I nodded. He scanned my notes, said he hoped I was able to read them because he couldn't, so I'd better rewrite them, and the manager wanted to see me the following day.

Head buried in an account book, the manager peered over a desk littered with ledgers and ticket butts. Between smoke-induced coughs, he outlined my responsibilities, then reminded me of the duty, respect, and loyalty I owed the company and the public, and that I had until the summer break in July to prove myself – ten weeks.

All that respect and work for the princely sum of six pounds ten a week! No wonder so many actors were hiving off to the relative riches of TV. After bringing up a wad of phlegm, catching it in a stained handkerchief, examining it and folding it into a pocket, he flapped nicotine-stained fingers in dismissal.

Life as an ASM is frantic. I had to assist anyone who asked; stage manager, director, wardrobe, prompt, set-building, fetching food, ironing costumes, sound effects, electrics, working the follow spot, pulling up and bringing down the curtain, clearing rubbish from back stage, carrying messages, going out for cigarettes, calling the actors… My job was everything and nothing.

If a walk-on was required – waiter, servant, friend, prisoner, accomplice, chauffeur… I was he. Sometimes I even had a few lines. The work wasn't mentally demanding, merely endless. I learned a great deal about how to run a theatre; how a good stage manager is the true boss – the lynch-pin of a theatre company, how sets were made, stored, and converted; how to kill someone's funny line; how a director can reduce actors to impotent tears and backstage hands to revolt; how to design a lighting plan and execute it… but I wasn't acting! ASMs could expect to wait a year or more before being given a substantial role.

Everyone except Alan was friendly, but then he got up everyone's nose. I had no desire to go for drinks with them after performances and sit in their smoke, or socialise in any other way. I was always too tired. On Sunday mornings, I caught up on sleep, then went to the gym with Harry's mob. A couple of times Harry had tried to talk me into bedding someone, but rough young men who had been pushed into marriage, had kids, fucked their wives once a week, and enjoyed a bit of male flesh in between, was not what I was looking for. The last thing they wanted was what I wanted – emotional attachment. Probably more natural than my pathetic hopes of one day finding a lover for life.

Alice and Rosemary were always fun to be with and I often went home with them and Paul for a snack between five and seven. One afternoon, Rosemary suddenly asked if I liked Paul. I took it as a joke and laughed, "Yes, of course," hoping they didn't realise how much I liked him – not because he was sexy, which he wasn't, but because he was so nice.

Then, out of the blue, Alice casually asked if I would deflower her – her words – because she was a virgin and as I was a homosexual I would be gentle and wouldn't laugh at her ignorance. A chill swept over me – I'd been so careful! How on earth had they guessed?

"What makes you think I'm queer?" Defensive.

"You haven't tried to sleep with me."

"You're not my type." Harry's line.

They all laughed – but not unkindly, suspicions confirmed.

In fear that my dread secret was out, I asked Harry later what to do. He snorted derisively. "Alice and Rosemary are lizzies. They shag each other."

"But… Rosemary's married!"

So was the guy I fucked last Sunday."

"And Paul?"

"Paul's queer as a coot. I've seen him at the baths ogling guys. It's the usual marriage of convenience. He'd be kicked out of teaching if they thought he was camp. He's probably got his eye on you."

Putting that thought aside to savour later, I told him about Sean's reaction when he discovered I'd brought a guy home. Harry was furious. Couldn't believe I'd been such an idiot. Where the fuck had I been living? Surely, I knew that homos could be brought before the courts, imprisoned for up to 20 years and be raped, have their crimes published in the papers, be fired from their jobs, kicked out of rented accommodation (which is why he wanted to own his own house), disowned by families, incarcerated in funny farms, given electric shock treatment and…" He dropped his head onto strong arms and let years of anger and anxiety erupt in sobs of impotent misery.

I knelt and stroked his head. I felt sick, angry, and helpless. It was much worse than I'd realised - no wonder Emil had fled! I'd sort of known all those things but hadn't really understood. It had just been words. Harry's anguish created vivid pictures in my head of what I'd escaped, and as the full, technicolour realisation percolated, a chill invaded and something in my spirit that had been large and untroubled, turned to dust and vanished, leaving behind the twittering fear that had pursued me after talking to the policeman outside the Houses of Parliament.

Harry raised his head and sadly explained that this was our life, and we had to learn to live with it, to use all the tricks we could to fool the enemy. And never become a victim because the world hates victims.

It may sound melodramatic, but it wasn't – it was the truth for us then, and remains the truth for most same-sex-oriented men in the world today.

After the anonymity of London, even large provincial towns feel claustrophobic. Everyone seems to know everyone else. You come to work and discover you've been seen wandering along the river, eating at Lyons, buying food in Tesco's. For someone like me who needs privacy as much as fresh air, it's very stressful. Not that I want to do anything bad, but because I've always known I was 'different', I've always been slightly secretive. One day, Alfred asked me how well I knew Mr. X. "I don't know any Mr. X," I replied. "Yes, you do. I saw you smiling at him in Sainsbury's."

I remembered the incident. A handsome fellow caught me staring at him. I blushed, he smiled, we nodded and walked on – he to join his wife, me to a lonely supper. No wonder so many gays took off for London as soon as they could! You couldn't even smile at a bloke without someone noticing and reporting!

I'd been ASM for six weeks, it was the beginning of June and the first leaves were appearing on trees that had been bare for over six months. Daffodils lifted their heads in the parks. There were still morning frosts and freezing winds slicing across Essex as if they wanted to cut everything off at ground level. I missed the sun and needed more sleep. I longed to lie on a sandy beach in the sun, go body-surfing, or stay home at nights to read and sleep instead of hanging around a freezing, draughty theatre.

I was eating a snack with Rosemary and Alice when they asked my opinion of Alan, and if I really wanted to act. We agreed he was arrogant, prim, fussy, selfish, vain, and a wimp, and I assured them that all I wanted to do was act! Satisfied, they outlined their plan.

The next play was Kenneth Horne's A Good Young Man; a comedy about a shabby family living in a cramped basement flat, who are visited by a distant cousin, a missionary's son brought up in Papua New Guinea. He's come to England in search of a wife and nothing could be more tiresome, his cousins imagine. But he turns out to be a dreamboat; Tarzan in a lounge-suit, and the family is galvanised into self-reinvention, seduced by muscles and a smile. In one scene, the cousin wanders in shirtless, and is taught to kiss by one of the sisters. Alan and Rosemary had been cast in those two roles. With a pang of sadness I recalled Waita using exactly the same trick on me. Where was he now?

From the stalls, Alan looked and sounded pretty good and was the heart-throb of many a middle-aged woman. However, without clothes he was pigeon chested, slack bellied, and spindle-shanked.

Rosemary's plan was that during the second rehearsal she would insist that Alan take off his shirt so she could get used to it. I would be taking notes as usual, also shirtless because the room was hot and stuffy. Rosemary would stumble and fall. I would rush forward to support her, forcing a comparison with Alan. Later, they would work on Alfred, and the role would be mine. Yeah, right…

The trap was sprung on Thursday afternoon, and on Friday morning we were told that Alan would be away from Sunday to Thursday visiting a sick relative. I was relieved of ASM duties and had until the following Tuesday evening to learn the lines. The girls and Paul coached me, but Rosemary kept cracking up during the kissing scene, reckoned she couldn't get the hang of grabbing me and planting a kiss. Paul offered to show her how to do it. I felt his hard-on through his trousers, so gave him a real kiss – a good move.

He suggested I stay over on Saturday and all day Sunday to give us one-and-a-half days of uninterrupted rehearsal. Later he admitted he'd only agreed to the plan in the hope of getting me into bed. I was hopelessly flattered. Paul was an intelligent and cosy man and an undemanding lover, content to pleasure me while telling jokes and babbling head-swelling compliments. Sharing a bed with him was no penance.

By Monday afternoon's dress rehearsal, I was word perfect and we'd planned another little ambush, this time for Alfred. He was so relieved at my progress that when Alice mentioned a bare bum had been seen on stage at The Royal Court theatre in London, he reluctantly agreed to bring the play into the 60s by having me appear in underpants, instead of merely shirtless; but only if the entire cast agreed.

Paul had already plastered me with artificial tanning lotion for two days, and we'd bought a pale blue Jockey bikini in anticipation. I looked pretty good, as long as you didn't get close enough to see the somewhat streaky 'tan'. A black-and-white photo of me in my briefs appeared on the posters outside the theatre on Tuesday afternoon, and in the local Wednesday paper.

We had full houses as usual, so although reviews had judged my performance 'adequate' and my 'near nudity' as 'tastefully done', at least I hadn't put anyone off. In a moment of weakness after the final performance, Paul talked me into growing a beard and moving in with him permanently.

Moving out from Harry's was as much of a relief for him as for me. We had little in common. I liked him, but it was exhausting to pretend I liked his pop music, thought his jokes were funny, and his boyfriends sexy. For me, ejaculation takes a back seat to mutual cuddling, kissing and arousal – something Paul was good at because he fancied me rotten.

For the next four weeks, we stayed home as much as possible, and if we went out it was as a foursome – Rosemary and Paul, Alice and Rigby. No better camouflage has ever been invented and no subterfuge is more soul-destroying for a young man who'd always thought of himself as honest and self-reliant.

The season continued with more of the silly drawing-room comedies and lightweight thrillers that were so popular. Did I really want to be an actor churning out stuff like that? Wasn't my dancing and performing for the Mays just as entertaining, more liberating and much more fun? Or was I simply an exhibitionist?

After careful thought, I decided that actors and performers are the opposite of exhibitionists because they're not themselves when performing; they're playing a part, concealing their true selves. Off stage they're usually unrecognisable.

I once stood beside Alice listening to a couple of women gazing rapturously at her photo on the theatre posters. "Oh! Ain't she lovely, she's so beautiful, I'd love to be like her." Then they turned, brushed us rudely out of the way and wandered off, not realising the object of their envy had been standing right beside them. Alice was delighted. Like most sensible people she valued privacy more than fame. Privacy and attention seeking are not mutually exclusive, but privacy and fame are. Celebrity puts you on a very wobbly pedestal in a glasshouse – not my idea of fun.

I'd been with the company for nine weeks; it was decision time. Did I want to spend at least another year in this cold, dark theatre with only one free night a week, not enough sleep, no real acting? I'd learned just about everything they could teach me and I was bored. Paul had been fun but he was too old – turning thirty and not someone I'd be proud to show off in a dancehall. Does that make me shallow? I don't think so.

I liked him, but was too young to get stuck with the first man who asked me to hang around – especially not in a County town! I might be a Colonial, but I couldn't bear to become Provincial.

Alfred and the stage manager said they were disappointed, but understood, and the manager appeared resigned to losing his ASMs. Paul hid any disappointment, merely insisting he wanted a photo to prove he'd once had a manly lover.

Poppy never sent the money she owed, but I guess her introduction to the Mays covered that debt.

As the train hurtled back to London, I felt I was riding the crest of a wave of relief and exhilaration. In my pockets I had five exciting documents; a letter from Waita telling me he would be arriving in London in three days; an invitation to a function at The Victoria League; an appointment for an audition with the Westminster Shakespearian Company; and the cards of both the fellow who organised the show in the conservatory, and the woman who wanted me to model for her art classes. My cup was running over.


The position of A.S.M. was seldom a dead end. It was a valuable apprenticeship for professional acting. It just didn't suit me. A few weeks after I became an Assistant Stage Manager, Ian McKellen took up an identical post in the North of England. He persevered and became a famous actor of stage and screen; Knight of the realm; heroic gay icon and magician.

Robert Farrar, the grandson of Kenneth Horne who wrote The Good Young Man, is now also a playwright. He's gay and regularly has plays produced on the London stage that include nudity and simulated gay sex. I'd arrived in London too soon.

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