Feature: Sadler's Wells Story

Tuesday 12 August 2008

Paul Richardson, Technical Director, Sadler's Wells *If you’ve been to Sadler’s Wells, you’ve almost certainly heard the voice of
Paul Richardson, as before the start of every performance he reminds you to turn
off your mobile and refrain from taking photos. Not for much longer – the Technical
Director of Sadler’s Wells is leaving the building after some 43 years working
behind the scenes, (give or take a year at the Coliseum).*

It was seeing the original 1958 production of *West Side Story* at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the West End that decided the course of Paul’s career. It was the first musical
he’d ever seen and he thought it was brilliant. Working in the theatre was what
he wanted to do and in 1963 at the age of 18 he joined the stage crew at Sadler’s
Wells. When it was announced that the 50th anniversary production of *West Side Story* was coming to the theatre this summer, it seemed like things were coming full
circle and this would be a great show to go out on.

When he started, Sadler’s Wells Opera Company – later to become English National Opera – was still based at the theatre and the first production he worked on was
their version of Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

Over the years he’s worked behind the scenes on thousands of shows at Sadler’s
Wells, always seeing them from the auditorium for the dress rehearsals and worked
his way up through the ranks, to become Technical Director, by the late 1970s.

He’s also worked through two versions of the Sadler’s Wells building. There’s
not much of a hint of nostalgia for the old 1930’s model, which closed in 1996: “_it was a nice place to work at the time, but I was glad when they finally pulled
the old place down – I know there were some people who weren’t happy about it – but you’ve got to progress. When you think, it was the birth place of the Royal
Ballet, Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet as it was then; how on earth did they manage
on that stage? It was only 9 metres wide and 8.5 metres deep, whereas now it’s
15 meters wide and 16 metres deep, so it’s a big dance space now”._

For years through the 1970s, the theatre trust and the ballet company had worked
to raise money to open out the proscenium arch. Margot Fonteyn was just one of the many at the forefront of appeals, which Paul remembers used
to involve bucket collections for cash donations in the auditorium. But a radical
rebuild was going to be the only solution – and that possibility became a reality
in the 1980s when the National Lottery was established. The Director at the time, Ian Albery, seized the opportunity and the rebuilding of Sadler’s Wells became one of the
first capital projects to be supported by the Lottery. The new building was opened
ten years ago in 1998.

Apart from the size of the stage, the new building had many advantages – the
new powered flying system for moving scenery in and out for a start: “_In the old days you’d have needed six or seven crew to do what one person can
now do with the press of a button.”_

The sheer diversity of shows which come to Sadler’s Wells as a receiving house
has always called for a technical team able to meet a range of demands with flexibility
and ingenuity. Over the years Paul has relished visits from Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal which have involved a lot of earth, rocks, growing grass and carnations, to
mention only some of the challenges. The production which stands out for Paul
is Palermo, Palermo (2005) which involved the whole of the front of the stage being bricked up.
At the start of each show some five tons of breeze block would crash to the stage
floor for the performance to begin. “_We had to convince the local council that when it fell, it would always come
back on to the stage – and not into the auditiorium.”_

Animals on stage always have very particular requirements – permits, handlers
and even a passport for a chicken to perform in Pina Bausch’s Masurca Fogo. In recent years at Sadler’s Wells there have been a pack of dogs in Les Ballets C de la B’s Wolf, alsatian guard dogs in Pina Bausch’s Nelken and horses in La Cuadra de Sevilla’s flamenco Carmen. But Paul’s stand out livestock memory comes from 1969 and Cologne Opera Company’s production of Der Junge Lord, which featured three chickens, a donkey and a puma – in a cage. You get the
feeling it’s a very rare occasion when he says ‘no’ to a visiting company. “_This German director said we ‘must take the puma out – it will be on a lead’.
I said ‘you’ve got to be joking, all these kids here, it’ll have them for breakfast,
tea and dinner!’. We wouldn’t let him do it – I got the council involved as well,
we said you just cannot have that.”_

Nederlands Dans Theater have been frequent visitors to Sadler’s Wells since the early 1970s. After an
incident which happened on their first visit, London audiences should be grateful
that they continued to come. The company were performing Glen Tetley’s piece *Mutations*, Paul remembers. “_The set consisted of a white floor – and in the old theatre there was a middle
aisle and this walkway went from the stage right to the back of the stalls – and
two dancers used to start from the back, crawling towards the stage to this Stockhausen
music.”_ Paul was standing at the side of the stage with the company manager when it
became clear that something was wrong. When the dancers came to the side of the
stage, they were covered with an abrasive white concoction of itching powder and
ground glass. “_We stopped the show to clean the stage and for the dancers to shower. After that,
for the rest of the run we had to have plain clothes coppers at the back of the
stage and one in the auditorium.”_

How, who and why remain unanswered questions about the Nederlands Dans Theater
itching powder incident. It’s safe to conclude it didn’t have anything to do
with the benign ghosts which are associated with Sadler’s Wells. The eighteenth
century clown Joseph Grimaldi was said to haunt the boxes in the old theatre and there are tales of the ghost
of Lilian Baylis stalking the upper circle. Paul has never met either of them – but he did have
a sense of the uncanny in the theatre just once. _“It was when Ian [Albery] first arrived. He wanted to get more seats in and we
were looking at putting them into the old orchestra pit. It was a bright sunny
day outside and as four of us were working, drilling out the orchestra pit, suddenly
a sort of whirlwind seemed to go around the theatre three or four times. The weird
thing was the old fly tower, when it was really windy, it used to rattle – but
there wasn’t a sound. And when we went outside it was still a beautiful day.
So when people ask me if I’ve ever seen a ghost, well that’s the nearest I’ve
ever come to it. Maybe we were touching things structurally we shouldn’t have

Loyalty to many friends made in visiting companies from around the world prevents
Paul revealing what have been his favourite shows from over the years. “I’m not telling you – it’s as simple as that, it wouldn’t be fair!”

So who stands out in his memories? “_Well Rudi does for a start – Nureyev. He guested with the Paul Taylor Dance Company in 1970, for just one performance, which was of course completely packed out.
He was quite crafty actually – on stage we had a trap door which had some give
in it and he worked out that was where to jump to give himself that extra lift.
He could be a bit of a Russian tartar if he wanted to, but he was good as gold
here. Margot Fonteyn was still dancing in those days and she adored this place. I’m convinced that
when he came here to dance she’d said to him when you go to Sadler’s Wells you
behave yourself!”_

Marcel Marceau, a regular at Sadler’s Wells in the 1980s, is another old favourite. “_The thing with mime artists, you could never stop them talking. If someone was
mopping the stage, he’d have to mop it with them – and he’d be talking all the
time, you just couldn’t stop him talking!”_

These days under the Artistic Directorship of Alistair Spalding, Sadler’s Wells is busier than it’s ever been (although Paul remembers the Doyly Carte Gilbert and Sullivan seasons which used to run for three months over the Christmas period in the
1970s being packed out).

“Dance seems to be getting a different audience in now – a lot younger. I’ve seen the audiences growing over the years, from your old die hards going to see the classical, ‘safe’ ballet companies like Scottish Ballet and the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet and now it’s interesting to see new generations of kids coming to see classical work – but also to see these new artists like Matthew Bourne, Akram Khan, Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant.”

Does this production of West Side Story lives up to his memories of that first one? “_Well that was fantastic, but yes this is brilliant too. They’ve kept really
faithful to the Jerome Robbins choreography and it’s one of those rare things – they can all dance & they
sing as well. It’s interesting to see it’s attracting a younger audience too.”_

Audiences won’t see Paul Richardson taking a bow on 14 August, when he officially
retires, but it will be the end of an era in Sadler’s Wells history.

Paul, meanwhile, isn’t looking back. He’s looking forward to spending more time
in the Canary Islands with Sadler, his dog (there are no plans to get him a friend called Wells) and there’s also
work to be done on the estate of his old friend and neighbour comedian Kenneth Williams, who left Paul his letters and diaries when he died in 1988. And when he does
fit in the occasional visit to Sadler’s Wells, from now on he’ll be very definitely
staying front of house.

Interview: Carmel Smith

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