Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Importance of Being British

Posted by Bruce Miller
One of the things that make producing a show like Shirley Valentine such fun for me is the chance to dip my toes in the waters of another culture. Shirley is a very British play. Too bad I didn’t have the sense I should have had after so many years of toe dipping. Had I been smart, I would have recruited a “British consultant” to advise us on all aspects of the production. But I wasn’t and I didn’t. Consequently, I received this very nice and constructive (and slightly embarrassing) note from a friend of our theatre.

In the end, I think this correspondence is informative, very positive, and kinda fun. So I’ll share the constructive note first, and then our responses.

Here's the nice constructive note...

Dear Barksdale,

I saw the performance of Shirley Valentine last night at Hanover Tavern and while the acting was quite good, the set and prop designs were completely inappropriate. I understand designers and directors often reset plays in different eras than the action was originally set---Shakespeare in modern dress etc.--but the presence of a bottle of Fairy Liquid and a couple of boxes of Weetabix led me to assume the action was indeed still supposed to be set in an English kitchen.

Apart from those props, however, everything else was completely wrong for an English kitchen--from the huge refrigerator to the curtains, cabinets, faucets, and even a cookie!!! jar. The English do not eat cookies; they eat biscuits. It may be nit-picking, but even the color of Shirley's passport was wrong. While it is true that today's passports are a burgundy color, in Shirley's time it would have been navy blue.

And no respectable English person-of-the-period would serve ketchup with egg and chips--it has to be HP Brown Sauce--in a bottle of course!.

I am a subscriber to Barksdale Theater and both my husband and I have really enjoyed all the plays at Willow Lawn. I understand you work with a tight budget, but a little more effort at authenticity would have been appropriate.

But then again, being English myself, maybe I am the only one who noticed these things and the only one who was bothered by them.

Sincerely,

xxxxx

Here's the first response from Jessica Daugherty, our webmaster who receives all emails first and lives in New Zealand…

Dear Ms. xxxxx,

Thank you for taking the time to write. I currently work from New Zealand and have learned some of the things you spoke about while living over here, where they also use slim refrigerators and say biscuits instead of cookies. I'm sorry you were disappointed with the set and props, but glad that you still enjoyed the acting.

I'm forwarding your message on to our Artistic Director, Bruce Miller, so that he can see your comments.

Kind Regards,
Jessica Daugherty
Internet Services
Theatre IV and Barksdale Theatre

And now here's the response from me…

Dear Ms. xxxxx,

Thanks for your support of Barksdale Theatre, your thoughtful letter, and your valuable constructive criticism. May I keep your name and contact info on file to use as a "British consultant" in the future? Your points are all very well taken, and I appreciate the constructive input. We certainly could use your help.

All the matters you mention regarding inaccuracies in our depiction of Shirley Valentine's home and its contents relate to my responsibilities. I manage props, furniture and set decoration for all Hanover Tavern shows. I did a fair amount of research for Shirley, but clearly not enough.

Regarding the appliances, I contacted Biasco - The Kitchen Specialists, a major English wholesaler and retailer of refrigerators and washers. I asked them what brand of mid- to low-price refrigerator and washer would have been installed in a British flat in the 1950s, about the time we imagined Shirley's 1985 kitchen to have been constructed. Among the brand names they suggested as meeting that criteria were a Frigidaire refrigerator and a Bendix washer. Our Tech Director for Hanover Tavern, David Powers, searched for, found and purchased a 1950s Frigidaire refrigerator and a 1950s Bendix washer. The refrigerator is small by contemporary American standards and appears to be the same size as the refrigerator used in the West End production of Shirley Valentine. The script says only that the refrigerator must have a built-in freezer and this one does.

I'm glad you noticed the Fairy Liquid and Weetabix. The Fairy Liquid was a generous loan from a friend of our director, Amy Berlin. I bought the Weetabix along with every other British-seeming grocery item I could find at Ukrops. Several of the other pantry stuffers (King Arthur Flour, Old London Melta Toast, Wellington Toasted Sesame Crisps) were less visible on the set but nonetheless there. We had British beer in the fridge, purchased from Total Wine and Beverage. We re-covered the Biz laundry detergent box (too American) with blow-ups of the British detergent logos for Daz. We printed can labels for Harry Ramsden's Mushy Peas and Batchelors Bigga Marrowfat Processed Peas (the most mid-80s British-looking labels I could find on the Internet) and covered over the Food Club labels that were too recognizable, too American and too 21st century. These counterfeit cans were among the items that filled the shelves.

Regarding the condiments to accompany the chips, I went to Icons-A Portrait of England online (http://www.icons.org.uk/), and found this: "Who can bear the thought of the perfect, soft-centred chip without a generous splash of malt vinegar to provide an extra burst of flavour? No self-respecting chippy is without the obligatory bottle of malt vinegar on the counter, along with salt and perhaps tomato ketchup." So I purchased a jar of malt vinegar and replaced the American-looking label with a computer-generated mock-up of the authentic British label (London Pub Malt Vinegar). When Shirley served her "chucky eggs and chips," she salted them first and then placed glass bottles of London Pub Malt Vinegar and Heinz Ketchup (that's the brand all the British grocery sites carry) on the table with the chips, in keeping with the instructions found on icons.org.uk.

Regarding the cookie jar, you got me! That was sheer stupidity on my part. I know better and appreciate the constructive criticism.

Regarding the British Passport, I Google Imaged "British passport 1985," and literally every photo of a British passport that appears on the Internet in response to that search shows a burgundy passport with the gold British crest. All the U. S. passports from that period are navy blue. So I photocopied the burgundy passport cover with gold British crest, did away with the words "European Union," and applied the forged cover over my mother's navy blue U. S. passport from the 80s. I'm sorry my research on passport color and appearance wasn't exact enough.

My research indicated that British Airways was the most likely carrier to transport Shirley from London to Greece, so I found some vintage photos online and created the fairly authentic British Airways ticket you saw in the show.

Curtain fabrics, window treatments, cabinet and faucet design are the work of our set designers, Terrie Powers and David Powers. They tell me that the curtain fabric and treatment were inspired by "Ironing Hopes in a British Kitchen," a Flickr photo found via Google Images online after searching for "British kitchen." The cabinets and faucets were modeled after images found on BritishFlats.com.

All of this is meant to show that there was a significant "effort at authenticity" even if the results of those efforts didn't pay off. In the end, the lesson I need to learn is that all the Internet research in the world can't replace the input we can receive from someone who actually lived there.

Thanks again for your support of Barksdale and for your excellent input. We'll try to do better in the future.

All the Best,

Bruce Miller
Artistic Director
Barksdale Theatre

Note: There were two sets in Shirley Valentine, occupying opposite sides of a turntable. The first was Shirley's tiny British kitchen, the second was a Greek Island cliffside adjacent to the surf. Both are pictured above.

--Bruce Miller

6 comments:

Travis Bedard said...

I really enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing.

Frank Creasy said...

Though I'm born and bred American proud, I have to admit - once you've had HP Brown Sauce, it's hard to go back to ketchup!

andy said...

I didn't see the show, i'm deathly afraid of English accents, but maybe next time if someone gets their "knickers in a twist" about the authenticity of your set design you could hire me to stroll around in a simulated fog shouting "ecky thump" "cor blimey"
and "is there 'owt on't telly 'ar kid" By the way Jason was outstanding in Guys and Dolls.

Bruce Miller said...

To the Anonymous Commenter Who Was Saddened by this Post -

Thanks for writing. I decided not to publish your comment. I understand and respect your feelings, but I also want to encourage constructive criticism, particularly when it's written with an overall spirit of support. I honestly think the "nit-picking" helps us to do our jobs a little bit better every day.

Please keep reading and commenting. I value your opinion.

JB said...

ahhh. I miss my set already. I can't believe I never even thought twice about the cookie jar! Too funny. We should have gotten Andy to pop by. I think since a few people from England saw the show and thought I was from there maybe he wouldn't have been too put off by my accent?
I wonder if anyone from Greece saw the play? I know that was not a real attempt at a Greek accent but just me playing Shirley imitating how she remember Costas sounding. And she had a lot of wine by then.
Now I am curious by the deleted comment. I'd love to know what else was said.

Rosie B. said...

It was a facinating kitchen set (to compliment a marvelous performance). What wasn't apparent to the audience was the effort it took to achieve that look. Sometimes we wonder where the theatre staff managed find the vintage props. Now we know there's a bit of theater magic involved in some of them (and a good color printer) -- along with a lot of research. (Bruce, where do you find the time?!)