Extracts from Chi and I by acclaimed actor, director and playwright, David Wood : Part 2, Life as an extra, 1963
Soon after I had gained a place at Worcester College, Oxford, I was asked to be an extra in the second season – a soldier in Saint Joan and a policeman in The Workhouse Donkey. As a summer job before going to university, this proved to be a fantastic and eye-opening experience.
As extras we were introduced into the productions in the final days of rehearsal. First, we were shown the set of Saint Joan with its two sets of steps descending from the back wall down into the Dauphin’s court scene. We five, plus professional John Rogers, came on three from each side, carrying a tall pike topped with a sharp-looking metal spear. The director, the no-nonsense, sharp-tongued John Dexter gave us the cues and told us where to stand absolutely still for much of the scene. Not long after, we were plunged into the first dress rehearsal. Wearing our breast-plates, helmets and woollen leggings, we made our entrance.
Joan Plowright, who had married Olivier two years previously, was playing Saint Joan. Robert Stephens, as the Dauphin, was interrogating her, with members of the court looking on. Suddenly a screech echoed from the darkened auditorium. ‘Daaviiid!’ My heart froze. Throughout the dressrehearsal, the earlier parts of which we had been allowed to watch, there had been no stoppages or instructions from out front. My heart raced. Surely there must be somebody else on the stage called David. I was standing there, stock still as directed. The voice returned. ‘Have you got short arms or something?’ Below me I was aware of suppressed laughter, particularly from Frank Finlay, playing Stogumber. After a pause, I realised that Mr Dexter must be addressing me. Lamely I replied, ‘Well, yes, actually I think I have …’ More laughter, somewhat less suppressed, from below. Mr Dexter called out, impatiently, ‘Then put your pike on a lower step. It looks f***ing awful!’ I did as I was told.
The Workhouse Donkey by John Arden was Chichester’s first world premiere. It depicted political shenanigans in a small northern town. Stuart Burge, the director, personally gave us our instructions and, after each run-through or dress rehearsal, having given notes to the main company and his technical team, would make a point of coming to see us and ask if we had any problems or queries. As policemen, we had fun in several scenes, arresting people or raiding a nightclub. Burge also cleverly used us as scene shifters. Each performance there were two special moments for me. As I made an exit, the drunken Charlie Butterthwaite, played by Frank Finlay, lunged threateningly at me. I dodged him and escaped. This moment was instigated by Mr Finlay and I looked forward to it as much as the exciting experience of escorting Mr Finlay, having arrested him, through the auditorium, up the stairs towards the back and out of an auditorium door.
On the day we first attended rehearsals for The Workhouse Donkey, I was lucky enough to meet the legendary Fay Compton, who was playing the mayor’s wife. After a run-through we met again, drinking tea in the foyer. As usual, Miss Compton was smoking and holding the lead of her faithful dog companion. ‘Well dear,’ she said to me, ‘you’ve seen the play now, what did you think of it?’ I replied, somewhat lamely, that I thought it was very interesting. ‘Well dear,’ said Miss Compton, ‘I’ve learnt my lines, I come on where they tell me to come on, say the words the way they want me to say the words, and go off where they want me to go off, but …… I don’t know what I’m doing, dear!’ Needless to say she gave a priceless performance.