I was flicking through the channels when a guest on one of those chat shows caught my eye; Meredith Ryman. She looked exactly the same as she had six years ago, except that the sleek red dress she wore was designer now. She was being interviewed by Edward Jenkins, a middle aged man with sandy brown hair and laughter lines, and one of the foremost celebrity interviewers on British TV.
“So Ms. Ryman, you were shot to fame by The Show Must Go On, a competition for amateur theatre groups that started 6 years ago.” As soon as he said the name of the show my ears perked up. We’d both been with the same troupe at the time and it wasn’t something I was ever likely to forget.
“That’s right Edward. I participated in the show with my local theatre group.”
“It was The Phantom of the Opera right? Your troupe seemed to gain a lot of attention!” Meredith laughed daintily, if there was ever such a thing.
“I had the lead role of Christine. We had a very talented team behind us who created fantastic costumes, sets and staging.” This time I was the one that laughed. That’s not how I remembered Meredith at all. She was the ultimate Prima Donna and hated it when us ‘plebs from Back of House’ didn’t do things quite the way she wanted.
“And you were the shining star! Proved by your glowing career in the past 6 years.” Meredith smiled at that, her ego suitably stroked. “But there were some rumours that the Phantom wasn’t just in your show?”
“There were rumours yes, but it was actually just a few of us playing a prank. We never expected anyone to actually fall for it.” Ah, there it is, the silent dig to those of us in the know.
“Someone fell for it? This is new!” Edward Jenkins looked excited at the possibility of a scoop. A sick feeling sprang to life within me as I worried about exactly what Meredith would say on National TV.
“The Assistant Director did. We hadn’t realised she was so easily led or we’d never have done it.” Meredith had a false look of apology on her face and the anger swelled inside me, a half shriek leaving my mouth. I pushed up from the sofa cursing and heard the shrill cry of a baby. I hadn’t meant to wake my daughter up and now I was going to pay the price for my outburst.
“Shh Mummy’s coming.” I said in a soothing voice and moving towards Gracie’s nursery. She was only 3 months old and I loved her more than anything else. Even my husband had to take second place. I picked her up from her cot and bobbed her up and down and mumbling soothingly. “Sorry Gracie, Mummy got angry at the TV, it’s all okay now.” She soon started gurgling and I smiled at her. I couldn’t help but sigh. The time I spent working on The Phantom of the Opera had been difficult; What Meredith had done was horrible, but it wasn’t the worst thing that happened in that time. Nor was it the best, and without the show I’d probably never have met Jack, or had the beautiful baby girl who was falling back to sleep in my arms.
6 Years Earlier
The stage was a flurry of activity as the opening scene played out. Each cast member had a script in front of them trying to remember their lines as the director, John, shouted at them all to hurry up and learn them. I was the assistant director for an amateur production of my favourite show, The Phantom of the Opera, and I couldn’t be more excited to be in charge of the staging. The first scene had been easy enough, there wasn’t that much to it, but the transformation from derelict building to stunning opera house was still eluding me. I ignored the chaos on stage and stuck my ear buds in to play the first track. I was sure that key to getting it right was that first note of the overture; and then it hit me; a sheer curtain. It would still be possible to see the same backdrop of the opera house we were using for the other scenes but it would appear dull. Then, when the Overture started the curtain would drop. I sketched away in my notebook, bringing the vision in my head to life and jotting down notes on how it would work as I went.
“That’s brilliant.” An unexpected but smooth male voice came from behind me, making me jump before I turned around, pulling my ear bud out so to avoid any more surprises. Jack was looking over my shoulder with an apologetic smile on his face. “Sorry. Hadn’t realised.” He gestured to my iPod.
“That’s ok; I was lost in the zone.” I smiled weakly, the butterflies in my stomach were going crazy. I wish I wasn’t so affected by him but Jack was tall and blond with just the right amount of definition to him, without looking like he took steroids and spent most of his free time at the gym. In other words, he was the perfect person to play Raoul and almost impossible for me to ignore. Not to mention his amazing voice. We’d become friends of sorts in the past couple of weeks, especially since I’d insisted to John that we should cast him in a lead role even if he was new to the troupe.
“How would it work?” He asked, looking back at my annotated sketch.
“Very simply. We would hang it from the galley walk and then when the time came stagehands would need to let it drop. It’ll have to be a light weight material so it won’t hurt anyone if it falls on them accidentally.” At least I hoped it wouldn’t. The last thing we needed was to injure anyone for real.
“And you’ll use the same technique on Carlotta?” He asked. His question stunned me and I sat there in silence. I hadn’t expected him to have enough knowledge of the story to pick up on something like that. Most of the amateur actors we had here didn’t even know the basics of whatever show we were working on until the first read through. He shrugged. “It’s a memorable story, I can’t help but like it.”
“I’m not sure if I will.” I replied finally regaining the power of speech. “It seems like a cheap trick to use it twice; it could lose effectiveness.”
“Maybe. But you could make it different. What if you had lights at the front of the stage that lit up during the Overture, like in the film?” I mulled it over for a moment. I liked the idea, though in practice it might be difficult to pull off.
“It could work, but I’d need to look into how. Maybe those fake cloth candles could work?” Jack nodded beside me.
“So what other ideas do you have?” He asked, moving around to sit beside me. I was about to answer when a shadow fell over my page.
“Shouldn’t you be on stage Fenton?” Henry sneered. Like Jack, Henry was well suited to the role he’d earned as the Phantom. Dark haired and broad though not overly tall, he certainly had a presence. Unfortunately for me we’d had a brief fling at one point and he wouldn’t let me forget about it.
“John wanted the chorus and Merry to run through the ballet before we run through the whole scene.” Jack replied calmly not rising to Henry’s baiting. “Besides Annabelle was just showing me some of her ideas.” My heart skipped a beat at the sound of my name from his lips; barely anyone called me Annabelle and I was used to that but his using my full name made me feel special.
“Belle does seem to have a knack for it. Probably all those hours she spent listening to the show. She used to make me listen to it all the time.” I huffed at his lie, he’d suggested we went to see Phantom on the West End and I’d agreed; It had been our only attempt at a date, as well as the one and only time he’d had anything to do with the show before this.
“Don’t exaggerate Henry. We went to see it once.” I didn’t want Jack thinking that there was anything between us, though I’m sure he’d heard of our past by now. Probably from Merry, she had a nasty habit of speaking about people behind their backs.
“That was such a great trip babe.” He said casually slipping an arm around my shoulder. I shuddered and pushed it away.
“Don’t call me babe.” I said through gritted teeth. Being called babe was a pet hate of mine especially since my one and only failed relationship. Even more so when it was coming from a past mistake of mine.
“Just trying to remind you of the fun we had together Belle.” He sulked, pout and everything. something he was surprisingly good at it for a 22-year-old guy.
“I’d rather you didn’t.” I was surprised by the steel in my tone. Things hadn’t actually been bad between us, but he’d been looking for a girlfriend whereas I’d been testing myself to see if I was ready to date again after Toby. It hadn’t been a good combination.
“Keep telling yourself that babe.” I glared at him as he walked away wondering what I’d ever seen in him.
“I’m sorry about him.” Turning back to Jack I smiled weakly. I didn’t know why Henry was being such a jerk, normally we acted as if there had never been anything between us even if it was too well known to be a secret.
“I wouldn’t expect any less from someone who’d lost a beautiful girl like you.” I blushed, probably clashing horribly with my copper coloured hair. I wasn’t used to people telling me I was beautiful and thankfully I was saved from coming up with a suitable response by John shouting from the stage.
“Fenton. Ryman. Stage now.” Jack smiled before standing up and walking towards the stage.
“I’ll be back Annabelle.” He said over his shoulder. I watched as Merry took her place on stage and got ready to sing, while Jack took his place to the right of the stage in a fake box. I’d wanted to keep things simple for Christine’s first song, the only complicated part would be how to change her costume. Luckily for me our costume designer, Hayley, was also my best friend and we were able to work together to make the costumes and the staging work perfectly.
“Please tell me you want me to dress her in something horrible.” Hayley’ voice was a fake whine as she sat in the seat that Jack had only just vacated and I laughed despite myself.
“I don’t think Merry would stand for that.” I responded begrudgingly. Merry’s voice was already filling the theatre, and even if I didn’t like her, I admired her talent. “Besides, we want to shine don’t we?”
“We do.” She agreed. Hayley was stunning, with blonde curly hair and a heart shaped face, not to mention a pair of baby blue eyes that would make any guy swoon.
“I was thinking that we could design all her costumes around the one corset then we could cut down on changing time.”
“Good call, but a corset may be a bit restrictive, especially in the ballet scene.” Her face screwed up in concentration and it was a state I knew from experience that I shouldn’t interrupt. Her point was completely valid but then that’s why she was the costume designer and I stuck to my own job. “I can make it appear like a corset if I put bones into the sides rather than all around. Clever detailing on the front and it’ll stand up to most scrutiny.”
“Bingo.” Her idea fell in line with what I wanted for this scene. “What have you planned for the ballet scene?” I asked.
“I’m thinking white with gold piping. Softer skirts that flow as the dancers move as opposed to a traditional tutu, after all we need to hide the fact that most of them can’t dance to save their lives.” I mulled it over.
“What about silver instead? We could keep the gold for half the dancers, then silver for the rest. It would make changing Christine’s costume easier.” She nodded.
“I can work with that.”
“Awesome. If we dim the lights during the instrumental in Think of Me then the back stage crew could run on with a full skirt. That way she wouldn’t have to take off her ballet costume but it would look like a completely different dress.” The whole thing was clear in my head, and was partly inspired by the same scene in the film, though a big change like that was completely out of the question. It was challenges like this that I loved, especially when it came to live productions. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Hayley nodding along, luckily for me she was talented enough to make even my most outrageous visions possible.
“So…I saw you talking to Jack.” I cleared my throat nervously, Hayley had a disturbing knack of being able to tell what I was thinking and my feelings about Jack were complicated to say the least.
“Yes.” Even if it didn’t make any difference in the end, I didn’t want to make this too easy for her.
“You should ask him on a date.” Ah, here we go. “It’s been three years since Toby, and Jack doesn’t seem to be that kind of guy.” I sighed.
“Yes but Toby didn’t seem to be ‘that kind of guy’ to begin with either.” I knew Hayley meant well, and more than that, and the rational part of me wanted to be ready to actually date someone again. Unfortunately, it was the irrational side of me that held the reigns when it came to dating.
“Yes but you were 17 when you got together. Who knows anything at 17.” She had a point. She’d also been through some pretty disastrous attempts at relationships, including a guy who’d actually turned out to be gay. I made a non-committal noise. I knew I’d have to move on at some point but I’d always assumed it would just happen and I’d fall into a relationship with a guy. Secretly I still had hoped that it would be as easy as that. “Oh Belle, if you don’t go on a date with him then you’ll end up regretting it for the rest of your life.” I looked at Jack on stage. He didn’t have many words in this song true, but he was singing out to the audience rather than towards Merry on the stage. My heart sped up with the idea that he could be singing to me before I shook my head to remove any more absurd ideas.
I arrived to find John was pacing back and forth in his office. He’d sent one of the stage hands to find me and I was nervous; John could either be a highly supportive director or one who would rip your ideas to shreds without a moment’s notice. It seemed to be a common trait of artistic types, though I was harder on myself than I was on other people when it came to ripping ideas to shreds.
“Sit down Belle.” He nodded to the chair in front of his desk. We were a pretty successful amateur theatre troupe, so much so that we actually had our own office and attached studio in the theatre. The office was John’s domain whereas the studio belonged to me and Hayley and was strewn with hand drawn ideas, swatches of fabric and the odd prop that I hadn’t returned yet. I stilled my fidgeting hands not wanting to reveal just how nervous I was.
“You wanted to see me?” I asked after a few more agitated paces on his part.
“I’ve entered us into an amateur theatre competition.” He continued pacing as he spoke. “It’ll mean that there’s a bigger budget.” I perked up at that. A bigger budget meant that some of my more extravagant ideas would actually be possible this time around.
“What competition is it?” Now I knew that he wasn’t about to rip my ideas to shreds I felt more confident in speaking up.
“It’s called The Show Must Go On. It’s televised.”
“But that means cameras.” I spoke without thinking, though my concerns were valid. John nodded and my heart sank. There were reasons I worked behind the scenes and not wanting to be on display was definitely one of them.
“It does but they won’t be here all the time. We have a couple of weeks until they first arrive and that will just be to conduct interviews with us all.” I gulped loudly, though if my interview went badly hopefully they wouldn’t use it. “We’re going to use the studio as a backdrop with some of your and Hayley’s drawings on display.” This time it was my turn to just nod.
“When are you telling everyone else?” I asked at a complete loss for anything else to say. While in theory I acted as the assistant director, in practice I had very little say in things like this. My domain was normally about how the final production looked on stage.
“After rehearsals tomorrow.” He responded though I got the impression he wasn’t really interested in carrying on the conversation. I pushed my chair back and got to my feet.
“I need to go sort out the next scene.” I mumbled not knowing what to do with myself. John spoke just as I reached the door.
“Keep up the good work Belle. I was pleased with what you achieved in the first few scenes.” It was rare for John to comment on something like that without prompting and I felt my chest swell with pride.
The kettle finished boiling and I poured the hot water into my mug leaving the tea to stew for a few minutes. I propped open my laptop and pulled up my latest brief from the company I worked for. As a freelance graphic designer my job was to create things like infographics and logos based on whatever brief I was sent. It wasn’t ideal, and I actually wanted to work in concept art, but I was good at it and the style of work meant that I could do my assignments around my theatre productions. My latest assignment was an infographic on German Markets whose popularity had soared around Christmas time; not exactly riveting stuff but least I could get it over with quickly and being paid by the piece not the hour was always good. I was about to get started, armed with my cup of tea and a notepad when my phone buzzed.
Unknown Number: Hi Annabelle, you free tomorrow night? This is Jack btw. I didn’t know how he’d got my number but I actually found myself smiling as I replied.
Me: I am at the moment. His reply was almost instantaneous.
Jack: Do you want to grab some diner?
Me: Sorry Jack, I don’t date. I bit my lip not knowing why I’d sent that, nor why I’d assumed it was a date.
Jack: Okay, fancy a non-date dinner then?
Me: Sure. 7?
Jack: It’s a non-date ;-) I smiled to myself again. I wasn’t too sure what I was in for and even with him saying it was a non-date it sounded suspiciously like one. I’d just have to hope that Jack wouldn’t be too disappointed when I put the brakes on. There was a jangle of keys and Hayley walked through the front door. After dumping her things in her room she came back and flopped down on the sofa.
“Why did you say no to a date with Jack?” She asked and my stomach dropped, at least that explained how Jack had got my number.
“What do you mean?” I feigned innocence but I don’t think that it was working very well. Especially when I saw the look of scepticism on Hayley’s face.
“I mean I got a text from him that said you didn’t want a date.” Hayley pinned me with a stare. To most people she was bright and bubbly, the kind of person who wouldn’t say anything even remotely nasty. But for some reason with me she would get to the point in whatever way necessary.
“I don’t know what you mean.” She coughed before flicking through her phone and quoting the message she must have received from Jack.
“She says she’s sorry but she doesn’t date. Would you mind coming with us to dinner tomorrow? I’ll invite my friend Isaac.” She put her phone down and sighed.
“He invited you?” I asked. I couldn’t believe that he’d clearly gone out of his way to make me comfortable even when I’d shot him down. Saying that, inviting his friend did seem a little bit like a double date.
“He did. And we’re both going.” I looked at her incredulously. “We’re going. Jack could be good for you.” She said firmly and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to change her mind no matter what I tried.
“I’m scared Hayley.” I muttered quietly not sure if I really wanted her to hear or not. She sighed again.
“Of course you are Belle. But if you don’t at least try and move on then you’ll be stuck on Toby forever.”
“I’m not stuck on Toby.” I sounded like a child and knew it, though it seemed that wasn’t enough to stop me.
“Okay, stuck on was the wrong way to put it. How about this; that jerk was never good enough for you, and every moment that you’re still thinking about him and not dating other guys is another moment that he’s won. Do you want him to have that much power over you Belle? Because I hate seeing that he does.” Her voice cracked towards the end of her rant and I felt guilty for putting her through all this. I sat down on the sofa next to her with my head in my hands.
“I’m sorry Hayley. I just can’t seem to help it.” I was close to tears and needed to focus on something else. “I do like Jack; he seems like one of the good guys.” I conceded to her, and it was true. I did like Jack, a lot more than I wanted to admit; even to her.
“I think he is one of the good guys Belle. You just have to trust yourself to know that.” She put her arm around me a squeezed. “Now what are you going to wear tomorrow night to make him realise you are interested?” I laughed.
“Something wonderful that you’ve made?” I responded hopefully. Hayley was at college studying fashion and not only was she great at designing and creating costumes, but she was great at designing and creating normal clothes too. Most of my wardrobe was made of clothes my crazily talented best friend had made. I bought her the materials she needed and somehow she made something beautiful from them. Her volunteering at the theatre was dually because she enjoyed it and she needed the experience for her course.
“Bingo. I have this gorgeous royal blue dress in mind.” She smiled at me and I was glad to be back onto safer topics. “So what are we having for dinner tonight?” Despite being talented when it came to clothes, Hayley was a terrible cook and most evenings it was down to me to put something edible on the table.
“Chilli?” She nodded enthusiastically. Chilli was one of her favourites and luckily it was one of my best dishes. While pulling out the ingredients I just hoped that making it would be enough to keep my mind from wondering to tomorrow night.
The first day of filming rolled around far more quickly than was comfortable. We were in the middle of staging the scenes up to the chandelier drop but we couldn’t seem to get past the Phantom’s interruption without something going wrong. The only highlight was that it meant Merry had to stay silent for the vast majority of it.
“Merry you’re too far forward.” I called out. She wasn’t one to like being out of the spotlight and needed constantly reminding that she wasn’t the focus in this scene. That role went to the normally shy Veronica. She was a fantastic actress and her singing voice rivalled Merry’s in power and purity, but she’d landed in the supporting role of La Carlotta rather than the lead. “This is Veronica’s scene not yours.” I added to emphasise my point. Normally I would be pointing out issues to John and he’d be shouting out the commands, but he was busy with the producers of the show and so it had been left down to me. On stage Merry was pouting, clearly unhappy with my direction.
“She hates the fact that you’re telling her what to do.” Jack said from beside me. He was watching from next to me, taking advantage of the fact he wasn’t needed until after the ballet.
“Of course she does.” I replied. “For some reason she hates me.”
“She doesn’t hate you. She’s jealous.” I laughed at his assessment.
“Jealous of what exactly?” I very much doubted that she was jealous of me. After all I wasn’t the one on stage with all eyes on me.
“She needs to be in the spotlight.” He nodded towards the stage where Merry had once again crept to the front. I fixed her with a glare that she obviously noticed because she scuttled backwards quickly enough. “Whereas you seem happy without it.” I gave a rather unladylike snort at that.
“I don’t think Merry gives me a second thought.”
“You’d be surprised.” On stage they’d finally managed to make it to the ballet, though they were making a complete hash of it. Thankfully it wasn’t my responsibility to sort out shoddy dancing. That fell with Nina who doubled as the ballet choreographer and the role of Madame Giry. I privately enjoyed the symmetry. “I think I need to be backstage now.”
“Break a leg.” I smiled at him and he smiled back as he turned to walk away.
“I don’t think you realise just how much you’ve got going for you.” He said in a whisper and I wasn’t entirely sure that I was meant to have heard it, but his words went straight to my heart and kicked it into over drive. Our dinner with Hayley and Isaac had gone well and we’d had a great time. Hayley was especially excited because she could now claim to have a gay best friend in Isaac, who hadn’t been what I expected but his bubbly personality was kind of infectious and had really helped me to relax. Jack had been friendly and attentive throughout the night and while we’d flirted he hadn’t once made an attempt to kiss me. Something that more than a small part of me was disappointed about despite the idea of dating anyone scaring me senseless. I watched the rest of the first act play out, which thankfully only took a couple more attempts on the part of the cast, all while trying to mentally prepare myself for my interview to come.
“So Ms. Phillips, you’re the assistant director correct?” I nodded until I noticed the unimpressed look on my interviewer’s face. I didn’t know his name and he had one of those faces that would be difficult to pick out from a crowd.
“Yes, I’m the assistant director. I’m responsible for a lot of the staging and the sets rather than telling people what to do.” He smiled, apparently that had been a better response.
“What got you into set design in the first place?” Huh. If his questions were going to carry on down this path, then maybe being interviewed wasn’t going to be nearly as bad as I thought.
“I went to the Harry Potter Studio Tour in Watford with some friends. Near the end of the tour there were rooms full of concept drawings. I’ve always been good at art and visualising how I want things to look, and so becoming a concept artist seemed to make sense. Getting involved in amateur theatre gave me the chance to practice and gain experience so I can work towards a permanent job in the field.” I was talking quickly, my passion for my career goal coming through.
“And how do you find working on The Phantom of the Opera?”
“It’s amazing! I’ve always loved the show and even before I knew that we would be performing it I knew what I wanted scenes to look like. Of course some of those were influenced by what I’d seen on stage and the 2004 film version.” I was pleased that I’d been able to answer another question so fully, and that it was on something I felt comfortable talking about as opposed to anything personal.
“Can you give us an example of a scene you already had planned?” The interviewer asked. I thought for a moment, most likely pulling a horrible face as I did so.
“Masquerade.” I answered after a moment’s contemplation. “It isn’t fully blocked yet, but I already have several of the key moments worked out. I know that Hayley already has several of the costumes planned too which helps.”
“Will you tell us anything about the scene?” I laughed and shook my head.
“It’s one of the most dramatic scenes in the show, and one that involves the entire main cast as well as the chorus. I’d be ruining it to give anything away. Plus, without blocking I don’t even know if what I have planned will work.”
“And how will you work out how you want that scene to go?”
“I’m not sure. Most likely I’ll find an empty room and move around while listening to the music. I’m not a choreographer so the chances of me being able to communicate what I want without doing it myself are low.” Which reminded me that I really needed to spend some time working on it.
“How do you think rehearsals are going?”
“Great! Merry, Jack and Henry are extremely talented, as are the other actors and actresses we have working on the show.”
“Speaking of the three leads…is there any drama going on? Maybe a show romance?” I shook my head.
“There’s nothing that I’m aware of.” I thought of Jack and smiled. “I’m sure there’ll be something. We spend so long in the same space that something is bound to kick off. People clash all the time and don’t even mean to.”
“What do you think of your chances of winning?”
“That’s a very hard question to answer. Of course I think that we’re the best. We have a great cast and crew. But without seeing any of the other shows and what they have to offer, I can’t possibly comment.”
“Thank you Ms. Phillips.” The interviewer said with a smile. “We’ve got some good stuff here.”
“When does the show air?” I asked. For some reason I hadn’t thought to ask John when he first brought up the show.
“It starts at the end of next month, that way by the time you guys are ready to put on your show the audience has caught up with each groups progress.” That made me nervous. We were going to be on TV and that was only just sinking in for me. I forced a smile to my face.
“Thank you. We’re excited to put on The Phantom of the Opera.” I couldn’t think of anything better to say and that seemed to tick several boxes.
“Good luck Ms. Phillips.” And with that he began to pack up his equipment. Mine had been the last interview of the day, mostly because I had been busy acting as director in John’s place. I’d finally get my studio back, and considering I had a lot of work to do it wasn’t a moment too soon.