Flashdance: Steelworks & Stagecraft
There's a scene in The Full Monty where our heroes sit huddled round a TV screen showing Flashdance, after taking dance tips from Jennifer Beals. "I can weld better than her an 'all," says one. After all, it's only in Hollywood that a skilled performer such as Alex Owens could also pass muster as a steelworker. Or is it?
Ewan Maclean, PhD, long-time fan of GMT and Technical Manager at the Plate Mill of a well-known steelworks ponders the nature of 'High Art'.
I work on a steelworks. Earlier today, as I do most days, I donned my hard hat, hearing protection, safety glasses and fire-retardant overalls and went out into the mill to investigate some issues. At work I split my time between my office: sitting with a cup of tea in my hand in front of a slightly grubby computer situated conveniently between a stack of grubby folders and a selection of steel samples, which are surprisingly non-grubby; and the plate mill: a truly awe-inspiring, if somewhat grubby, complex that converts a large thick lump of steel into a much thinner, longer and often wider lump of steel. Imagine a pasta machine that's 3 ½ metres wide, weighs more than 150 tonnes and rolls pasta at around 1000°C and you'd be surprisingly close.
When I'm not steelworking, I perform with a local musical theatre group and can be found therein variously:-
protecting myself from the advances of a several hundred year old Scottish lass;
trying to shut down a house of ill repute;
or picking up some evangelising American broad by describing the quirks of my family history.
As part of this I sing, I act and I dance, albeit rather badly in the case of the last item [not true - Ed].
Last year I performed in Flashdance with a local group and I found myself thinking of Alex Owens, the principal character. She also works in a steel mill (most likely in a strip mill, which is much like a plate mill but making thinner material) and by night she's an exotic dancer, in essence she lives a double life. So am I, like Alex, living a double life?
In some senses, yes. People who know me from one aspect of my life are normally surprised by the other part. But are they really separate? If I'm presenting a plan for improving steel quality then it's a positive boon to have a strong stage presence: to know how to make yourself heard and, on occasion, to manipulate your audience.
Thinking on your feet isn't just an essential part of any amateur performance, it's also a valuable life-skill for those awkward questions in meetings you haven't prepared for. Is there really any difference between getting a committee full of volunteers to find time to book theatres, design flyers and organise rehearsals, and getting a group of shift-workers engaged on an improvement project? Who hasn't applied the skills of last-minute set-build to the setup of a small scale trial on a mill with minimal resources?
All well and good, but what about the singing? Well... it's fair to say the singing is more difficult to fit into a formal work environment. That said, in my experience most people are just looking for an excuse to burst into song. In the run-up to a show it's not just my voice that can be heard when 'Steeltown Sky' finally gets the better of me, it's as if I've opened the gates of workplace singing, with mumbled lines of myriad songs floating, slightly out of key, down the steelworks' halls. Plus, it turns out, if you go out into the mill with its giant pasta machine rumbling away noisily, the control cabins soundproofed and the mill workers wearing hearing protection, that you can practice your solo at full volume and nobody will hear you.
Ewan Maclean played the role of Jimmy Kaminski in Wilton Productions' version of Flashdance at the Plowright Theatre, Scunthorpe in September 2014.