RED’s Senior Partner, Jeremy Railton, pulls back the curtain to give readers a rare glimpse into his creative mind in this personal blog, DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK. In “Break a Leg” part 1, Jeremy recounts, through anecdotes and images, the beginning of his journey in theatre design, from boarding schools to college at the University of Cape Town.
DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK shares Jeremy’s creative evolution through a series of intimate anecdotes, ‘scar-tissue’ tips, and the practical wisdom acquired from over 40+ years of entertainment design.
Break a Leg Part 1
The beginning of my journey in theater design
It started with my childhood on my parent’s farm in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, fifty miles from Victoria Falls. It was the early fifties. There was no electricity, only a battery-powered radio to listen to the news from the BBC home service each evening and a telephone that was shared by five farmers on a party line. We had to count the rings.
My friends were local Ndebele kids and I had no contact with other white people. Entertainment was provided by tribal drum circles, dances and stories of the great Ndebele past told by Mama gogo Mani, an old lady that lived across the river—the last surviving wife of one of King Lobengula’s warriors.
At Christmas, Mum and Dad would have a Christmas party for all of the kids on the farm and after dinner, we would sing a song about Santa. I can still remember some of the words of the chorus: Baba mkulu ow na la ndevu (Big father OW with a beard). We would stand in a circle and on ‘OW na la ndevu’ we would bend over and hold our hands to our chins to indicate Santa’s beard. We all loved this moment where gesture, music and words came together and it was my first introduction to the power of theatrical timing.
On our short-wave radio , I listened to an English radio show called Bottle Castle and The Goon Show, so I knew that out there in the world, people acted out stories, but that was the sum total of my theatrical Background until I was sent off to Rhodes Estate Preparatory School (REPS) school at age 8.
REPS was based on the English boarding school model—think Harry Potter’s Hogwart’s. Located in the Matobo hills, it was 40 miles from the nearest town, which made it difficult for the annual runaways, farm kids like me, to escape.
British indoctrination started early, with a first term play, a reenactment of the signing of the Magna Carta. Its historical relevance made no sense to me. I was cast in a non-speaking part of a spear carrier as I only spoke Pidgin but because I could draw, I was told to paint the costumes of the English knights. I loved this job and it pointed me toward my future path.
There were other plays that I can’t remember, but I do remember a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because during the performance, one of the boy’s mothers stumbled and fell into the fish pond in front of the stage!
At 14, I was sent to Plumtree School, founded in 1902 in the Matabeleland region of Zimbabwe, on the border with Botswana. Two hours from the nearest town by strip road or the Great Northern Railway steam train, Plumtree was even more remote than REPS and elephants had been known to wander onto the school grounds. Like me, most of the kids were farmers’ sons, thrust into a world that was totally imported from England—even the teachers and Head Masters had a tradition of fifty years or more when I got there.
The King’s English
Unfortunately my speaking had hardly improved. For instance, I might have said in my pidgin English ‘I want to gata lo bike gawena so wedjuputcherbyke?’, which translated into standard English would be, ‘I would like to ride your Bicycle where did you put your Bike?’ I was immediately enrolled for elocution lessons given by the House Master’s wife, Margaret Turner, an elegant lady who had been to the Royal Academy of Drama and Art in London, and had not changed her hair or make up since the thirties.
Mrs. Turner—Ma Bungie as she was familiarly known—shepherded a few of us towards the theater (the year before me, it was Dyson Lovell who went on to produce Zeffirelli’s Hamlet with Mel Gibson and that wonderful TV-series, Lonesome Dove.) I really liked her and was fascinated that she had no eyebrows—she had stayed with the thirties look of painting fine arches on her forehead. The other schoolboy giggle was that every now and then an unpleasant smell pervaded the room and as cover, Ma Bungie would boot out her two dogs, Sally and Gina.
Ma Bungie took me under her wing, sharply pruning out any Ndbele words from my familiar mode of expression. During my training in elocution, I would read out loud with her and in this way she introduced me to Noel Coward, Shakespeare, and Gilbert and Sullivan. Each year, she also produced and directed three theatrical events: a Shakespeare production for the first term, a Noel Coward play in the midterm, and a Gilbert and Sullivan production in the third term. Because I took elocution I was cast in all three, even the musicals, which was surprising since I can’t hold a note!
Until our voices broke, juniors were automatically cast in the ‘Girls Chorus’ for Gilbert and Sullivan productions. The Pirates of Penzance was my first musical. The hair was attached to the wigs.
Since Plumtree was an all-boys’ boarding school, the girl roles were taken by the junior boys whose voices had not yet broken. This tradition was a ‘given’ and never questioned, so I never heard any gay innuendos, in fact it was a point of pride to learn to act like a girl rather than to pretend to be one. After Rugby practice, we would rehearse in our sweaty rugby gear and high heels to practice walking.
There were some challenges: I was cast as Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the most senior head of the school was cast in the role of Theseus. Ma Bungie directed me to put my hand on his arm and the school head threatening me not to so much as dare touch him. Instead of worrying about the delivery of my lines, all my attention was keeping my hand a half-inch above Theseus’ arm to avoid being punished by him, but close enough so that Ma Bungie wouldn’t yell at me.
My friend and fellow thespian, Clive Howard Williams who was Tatania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Myra in Blyth Spirit and Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest, spent his life as a research biologist and had a peninsula named after him in the Antarctic.
The set designer was my art teacher and my first entry into scenery was painting pictures for the set walls. My second entry was the year my voice broke, so I was not cast, but helped the art teacher paint the scenery for a Gilbert and Sullivan production of the Mikado. I also designed and painted my first set for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. By my sixth and final year I was painting all of the scenery for the school plays.
When I graduated from Plumtree, my grades were good enough that I was accepted at the University of Cape Town and hitch-hiked fifteen hundred miles to enroll in the UCT Michaelis Art School. At Plumtree, I had been a big fish in a tiny school pond and had gotten lots of support for my budding art career; I thought all I had to do at University was show up. In the back of my head I had acting and Hollywood in mind, so I experienced a bit of a letdown when I discovered a new world of talent at UCT other than the few farmers’ sons I had grown up with.
With a swelled head, I was not listening to the instructors and keeping to my own style, so when I almost failed my first quarter art courses, I was shocked into reassessing my approach. I started painting like my professors, in a kind of abstract expressionist style. I quickly discovered that I had a facility for mimicking styles and in the second quarter, I shot to the top of the class. Every month, the students would submit paintings for review. One of my submissions was a detail that I had copied from a Rubens painting that I had done as a prop for a play. The History of Art professor didn’t realize that it was a copy and gave me a wonderful review. Needless to say, when he found out I was no longer his favorite student.
From early on, I was more comfortable being a ‘pleaser’–preferring to paint what others wanted. I would drive my Mum and my sister mad asking them what I should paint—the first indication that set design would be a good fit since the script told me what style to paint in and what I should paint.
The theater was on the same campus as the art school so I started auditioning for production. I was cast in a ‘wig and powder’ restoration play and when I made my entrance, I heard a shriek from the audience that I recognized it as my sister’s. Later I asked her why and she said I looked exactly like our cousin, Marta. I also started to work at the theatre doing any odd job to earn pocket money.
My girlfriend from childhood, Winifred Ayliffe, a real farmer’s daughter, came to live with me in Cape Town (with both of our parent’s approval!) She started her modeling career and so together we had fun exploring fashion and fame.
During my years at art school the acting phased out as my interest in scenic work grew. The theatre’s resident set and costume instructor was Keith Anderson who had a diverse background in circus arts and puppetry. (I first heard of Sid and Marty Krofft and their musical puppet show, Les Poupées de Paris at the 1964 New York World’s Fair through Keith. Twelve years later I would be working for them on their Atlanta Theme Park!)
While painting scenery, Keith had set up a trapeze in the paint shop and a few of us started classes. Eventually, we formed a troupe that was booked by Boswell Wilke Circus for the summer season. Too big to fly and too small to catch, I was given gold tights, a golden cape and stuck up on the highest rung where I would yell ‘Olay’ and hook the trapeze for the high flyers! By the end of that season I had completely lost my nerve, but my love for the circus life started there. I think the last performance was as a slave dancer in gold tights for a pantomime Aladdin.
After art school, I worked for any theatre that would hire me. Painting sets for Giselle, I fell in love with a ballerina and learned to love that art form. My love for opera bloomed after painting sets for a production of Turandot in the old school way, with hot water and size. After working through the night to set up scenery, I fell asleep at five in the morning on some dusty old drapes under the stage, only to wake up to the strains of Nessun dorma, and the first orchestra rehearsal, as if I was in a dream.
It was Giselle and Turandot that paid for my trip to London to seek my fortune! A group of good friends and I saved up and to a ship to Europe together– a new adventure seeking the next leg of our journey.