‘Mae West – In Her Own Words’ by Ayshe Raif
Director: Leslie Finlay
Designer: Suzanne Field
Lighting Designer: Bevis Evans-Teusch
Mae West – Pene Herman-Smith
A chance meeting between my good friend Leslie Finlay and actress Pene Herman-Smith at a retirement party for the Ramshorn Theatre’s Artistic Director Susan Triesman led to the opportunity for me to dip my toe into the world of theatre once again after many years working mainly as an Art Director for TV.
Pene had previously commissioned Ayshe Raif to write a one woman play based on the life of Mae West which she had performed several times before but was planning to do a totally new production of at Oran Mhor in Glasgow.
Oran Mhor is an interesting venue in the heart of Glasgow’s West End and the performance space is in continuous use as a club, a gig venue and a venue for daily theatre performances as part of their A Play, a Pie and a Pint programme of events. The stage area has really low head height and is a tiny 5m x 5m space with hardly any wing space but for our purposes was more than adequate. There is also some extra rostra and treads that can be used to create a tiny thrust stage which we decided to use. The audience area has comfy leather sofas around the perimeter and individual chairs can be laid out in any configuration on the dance floor. There is a bar at the back that the audience have access to throughout any shows taking place.
‘Mae West – In Her Own Words’ was an evening performance and the audience seating was set out like a cabaret club with circular tables lit by candles which leant itself really well to the way the play was staged and performed and also to some extent how it was received by the audience.
The action started off at the back of the auditorium by the bar…..
And progressed through the audience, the actress addressing the audience directly, until she finally arrived at the stage……….
The budget for this show was tiny and I spent a lot of time trawling around Glasgow’s many charity shops to find suitable furniture and props. Both set and costume were purchased as Pene intends to tour this show possibly taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer. The furniture was then painted white and reupholstered using a cheap damask print fabric. The play is set in the hotel suite that she lived in for many years which was decorated in gold and white (mentioned in the script so no deviation from this scheme allowed!!)…….
A lot of the small hand props (vintage atomiser/compact/fan etc) were bought for buttons via eBay – a complete godsend!!
The costumes were a mixture of items that Pene already had like this black lace dress……
I just had to repair the many holes and add some shoulder pads and a little bit of decoration that I removed from some cheap headbands bought from Primark. The addition of a long diamonte earring completed the look! All the faux diamond jewellery was bought from either Primark or a cheap as chips wholesalers that I use for prop shopping.
The hat was an eBay purchase (£10) It was a bit 1980’s so I just cut out the crown and added a feather boa bought for £1 from a charity shop to make it work. I made the fur stole from some good quality faux fur lined with a heavy steel grey satin – this cost around £20.
For the next costume the corset was bought from a Goth shop and the slip was a nightie from BHS to which I added a deep frill in black satin to match the corset.
The only hire was this Chinese robe which I hired along with the fluffy mules from Scottish Opera…….
We wanted to show the passage from the old image of Mae West to the one she cultivated for her new Las Vegas show – a sort of phoenix from the ashes type idea. I found an image of her from this era on youtube and decided that this would work well for our purposes.
We bought a long, straight up and down dress with a split up the back for £20 from a vintage shop (I didn’t realise that 1990’s are now classed as vintage!) It swamped Pene but the basic shape was OK and the fabric was very bling which was what we wanted so I took it in and reset the sleeves. I then sewed up the split up the back and created a new split at the front and added a fur trim and cuffs.
The headdress base was created using the leftover crown of the hat I had chopped up, to which I attached one of the hairbands I had taken the decoration off for the first dress. I bought 2 long black feathers and 3 shorter white feathers and attached them to the hat base and finished with the spare earring from the pair I used to decorate the first dress. Total cost £7.40 – a bargain! Best of all nothing was wasted!
The wigs were the biggest expense but well worth it as Mae West had such recognisable hair that you cannot do a show about her without them. They are pretty good quality and should last some time hopefully.
I really enjoyed working with Leslie and Bevis again – we have collaborated on many shows in the past, the last being the World Premiere of ‘The Reader’ by Bernard Schlink adapted for the stage by Chris Dolan which was staged at the Assembly Rooms during the Edinburgh International Festival about 10 years ago!! All of us work in different areas of the arts now but I think I can speak for all of us when I say it was great to be back working in theatre again – albeit only briefly!
I was pleased with the overall look of this piece but inevitably some compromises were made – things could have been a little more polished but given the constraints of time and budget I think we did pretty well. The show was really well received and Pene, with the aid of some great direction from Leslie, really made the part come alive. I must admit that when I read it I was less than impressed – it does not read well, but when I saw it performed for the first time (the dress rehearsal!) I was totally engrossed and thoroughly enjoyed it.
PS I took all these photos on my little crap camera during the tech rehearsal so excuse the poor quality images!! Also she didn’t have her proper make up on!