Arts Editor, Kate Procter, met up with the students behind SUTCo’s 24-hour show once they had caught up on some much-needed sleep.
Pulling an all-nighter is never easy. But imagine producing a full-scale musical involving over 100 people in just 24-hours. Well, that’s exactly what Sheffield University Theatre Company (SUTCo) did earlier this month. A biennial tradition to fundraise for Sheffield-based charity ‘Cavendish Cancer Care’, this year’s surprise musical choice was Grease.
Back in July, when the secret musical was being decided, a couple of ideas were thrown around – Annie, Footloose, Fame – but the one show the previous team, from 2017’s Oliver, had warned against was Grease. Yet, despite the potential tangle involved in accessing the rights to the show, this year’s team, fuelled by sheer resolve and a fortunate financial windfall from the alumni foundation, embarked on the challenge.
“I was just determined to do Grease,” Producer and second year student, Helen Denning, tells me. “It’s so well-known and so fun – I just knew it would be perfect.”
“The rights are more expensive for bigger name shows but they do bring in the extra people,” adds Tom Robbins, Production Manager and fourth year student.
And Grease certainly did bring in the extra people. Despite their uncertainty over audience turnout, over 400 people came – with a particularly high number on-the-door – raising hundreds of pounds.
“It was quite overwhelming when we walked in and saw the size of the audience. We thought the two bleachers at the end were going to be quite empty,” says Helen.
Drawing an audience is a typical concern for any theatre company. But there is an added irony to actively hiding what your show is until the night before. The musical was revealed on the night before the live performance, not just to the audience, but also to the actors, musicians, technicians and crew – with only a handful of people in-on-it during the run up.
“I found keeping the secret alright, but it was hard not to slip up,” admits Assistant Producer and third year student, Martha Evans.
But in a twist that couldn’t be fitter for modern times, Helen reveals that it was the rights company who ended up leaking the secret – on Facebook, no less. A week before the musical’s announcement the company posted to the site that SUTCo were performing Grease and Helen had to quickly contact them to delete the post.
Otherwise, the team managed to keep the secret under-wraps until the 24-hour countdown began.
For the set designers this introduced an interesting challenge. For instance, they did not know the car from the infamous ‘Greased Lightnin’ scene needed to be made. A quick dash to Wickes before closing time was in order to get all the wood they needed to knock up an automatic, systematic, hydromatic greased lightnin’.
The cast rehearsed solidly until 4am, with the majority of the company sleeping over in the Octagon.
“It depended on which team you were in as to when you slept… and if you slept,” says Martha.
Third year student, George Evans, who played Danny Zuko, adds: “I brought my entire duvet. I have a big rucksack that I use for travelling so I just whacked it in there with a pillow. And just curled up… under a table. There was no real time to rest because even when I wasn’t in rehearsal, I would have to be learning my lines and going over dances.”
In fact, the only time the cast and crew got any fresh air was when they all went for breakfast at ‘Scott’s Pantry’ near the Students’ Union, before promptly returning to rehearsals and preparing right up till the doors opened.
“We had the dress and tech run as one – when it should really be two – and we finished 15 minutes before the doors were to open and people were already in the building!” says Helen.
Actually, the others correct, they did not even finish the run before the audience arrived.
“I had no idea what was happening for the final scenes,” jokes Tom.
Naturally, the show did contain some hiccups, George recalls: “There was a scene where Kenickie (Harry Carling) and Rizzo (Joanna Grey) were supposed to have an argument, and he [Harry] thought it was my line and said [in an American accent] ‘It’s not my line!’ and I said ‘Well, it’s not my line!’ and we got into a bit of a stalemate.
“There was also the scene when I was the only T-bird who went on stage and I thought I was in the wrong scene because it was only me and the Pink Ladies and I was like [in an American accent] ‘Am I in the right scene? Have I ended up in Frenchie’s house?’
Much to the audience’s amusement, there was also a mishap with a stubborn double bed refusing to go on stage for the scene in Rizzo’s bedroom. The Pink Ladies started coming on before the set was ready and Rizzo joked: “Oh, I love rearranging my bedroom!”
Luckily, says Tom: “There’s expectation of quality – but not of slickness. The improvised parts are still of high quality and I think doing that to a musical as well-known as Grease, you wouldn’t normally get that opportunity as compared with our normal productions.”
The lead cast members with the most lines to learn had some hilariously innovative ways for not-so-subtly hiding their words, such as pasted to a back of a guitar, hidden in a magazine, or simply inscribed up an arm.
“One thing we gained was that the audience was on-side with the cast because they knew it was for charity and no-one had slept; the audience felt part of the show, which I don’t think you normally get and it creates a nice atmosphere,” says Martha.
George agrees: “There is a freedom to the performance. When on stage I know that, no matter really what I do, I’m not going to look like an idiot because it’s all within this unspoken contact with the audience and crew that things can go wrong and it’s actually funny when they do.
“You just have to go for it. You can’t hold anything back because you’re not going to get out what you want from it otherwise.”