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Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Show Must Go On....A Stage Management Career.

So, first, the background part. I’ve loved the theatre for, oh, for forever. All the different groups you’d imagine, from concert parties got up to, ahem, entertain the town’s old folks to school groups cheerfully murdering Shakespeare. But in my teens, real life asserted itself in the form of school principals and their so called ‘careers advisers who told me no, what you have to do is study hard and get a ‘proper’ job. Theatre didn't count as a proper job by any stretch. Listening to their talking heads instead of following my whispering heart, that’s what I did for years, resigning myself to my real love never being more than a part-time lover….a sideline to whatever ‘proper’ job I happened to be doing.

Until the ‘proper job’ fell apart. And my life changed forever. Word got out. The phone started to ring. ‘I hear you’re free right now….’ ‘As you’re not working, would you have time to….?’ Almost by accident, I was working in the theatre. A 'proper' job....?

In my theatre-as-just-a-hobby years, I’d drifted away from the on-stage lights, curious to know what really went on in that mysterious, cavernous world backstage. Never a ‘sing up, Louise’ kind of kid at heart, I’d discovered that being in the limelight interested me less than how that limelight worked. How DID the show actually go on? I’d learned how by absorbing as much as I could, graduating from working for fun and the price of a drink in small, ill-equipped halls with no more than four black walls and a couple of stands to clips lamps on, to bigger theatres with all the bells and whistles. The crews in those places had become my friends, and now they pushed opportunity after amazing opportunity my way. I grabbed every single one, until the day I found myself on the train to London, wondering how I’d had the gall to answer an ad in The Stage for a Deputy Stage Manager….and how on earth I’d been granted an interview…..

That’s how I discovered my dream job. The role of Deputy Stage Manager is a very precise one. I’ll call her ‘she’ just for simplicity, but there are as many ‘he’ DSMs as ‘she.’ Step into any rehearsal room, and you’ll spot her. She’s the one joined like a Siamese twin to the book.

The book IS the show. It consists of the script of the play set into a loose-leaf folder. If it’s a musical, it’ll have the words and the songs. If it’s an opera, the whole thing consists of a musical score called the libretto. The pages of the script are arranged to appear only on the left-hand side of the folder as you open it on the desk in front of you, and they’re interleaved with blank pages. This is how the book looks on Day One of rehearsal, at least. It doesn’t stay like that for long. From that moment on, the DSM begins to record on those blank pages every single thing that will happen before, during, and immediately after the show as it will happen in performance.

This consists of – well, let’s see. It’s a long list. The floor plan of the set, and how it changes from act to act or scene to scene is kept in the book. As for the bodies on the stage, every one of their exits and entrances goes in there. Every single move the cast makes onstage – the ‘blocking’ – has to be meticulously recorded. Same goes for props and furniture – where they’re placed and when, who uses them, and how. Later, the places where the lighting changes or sounds effects will happen have to be noted. Scene changes involving hefty bits of scenery ‘flown’ above the stage or large pieces moved in on wheels or ‘trucks’ can be dangerous movements on stage and therefore have to happen in a consistent, particular order so that everyone involved knows precisely what’s happening at any given moment. That’s in the book, too.

Why? Don’t the cast just learn all this themselves? Well, sure they do, but during rehearsal they sometimes forget. Sometimes even the director forgets! A central record has to be kept. And what if, at some point during the run of the show, someone literally ‘breaks a leg,’ and the understudy is called to the fore? The moves for the part they’re taking over are in the book, and that’s vital. It also provides technical and production information if the show should be performed again at a later date in the future, in revival, if it goes out on tour, or if there’s a cast change, and so on.

The first stages of rehearsals rarely take place in the theatre – most theatres have little or no space for this – so you’ll probably find yourself in some draughty premises in a part of the town only reached by one bus a day, or on the furthest reaches of the tube train system. If you’re lucky, you might get a room in a purpose-built studio with clean loos and an in-house café – if you’re lucky! The DSM is also responsible for the boring bits in the rehearsal room, getting there in the morning before anyone else arrives to set up the space and makes sure everything’s ready to begin bang on time. In theory, she has a one-hour lunch break, but in practice that’s mostly taken up with drawing up props lists or notes for the stage manager or assistants, making phone calls to the set designer or the wardrobe department, passing on queries or notes from rehearsal. Depending on the production, the days can be long – three sessions a day, morning, afternoon and evening, isn’t unusual, and the DSM is in on each session. At the end of each session she makes sure the company know tomorrow’s ‘calls,’ the times they’re next needed for rehearsal, then she’ll tidy up the room and sweep it ready for the morning. Hopefully someone else from the cast will have saved her a seat in the nearest pub and already ordered her a nice, cool drink….as she takes her first sip, the director will plop down in the seat beside her with ‘just a few more notes to pass on….’

Then comes the day when the entire company and its chattels decamps to the theatre itself for production week. You’re in the venue! Suddenly, ‘real’ theatre begins. A production desk is set up in the auditorium, manned by the director, the DSM, and any of the designers getting their first proper look at the production onstage. Here is where the plotting takes place – no, that’s not some kind of wicked conspiracy, but one of the most exciting parts of the process, when the stage lighting design is worked on by the designer and director. The electrics department, known as the LX team, ‘plot’ the lighting plan by running various groups of the stage lights based on the lighting design. Gradually each lighting cue is signed off to the director’s satisfaction, and the points at which the lighting cues will happen are noted in the book. Same for sound cues and any other effects called for by the production.

Into technical rehearsal, and the DSM moves to what will now be her permanent, backstage home for the run of the show – the prompt corner. It’s usually situated somewhere in the left of the backstage area, but if it’s on the right it’s called a ‘bastard’ prompt! The book now lives permanently on the prompt desk - see photo, left - and will never leave the theatre. Here the DSM will ‘call’ the show. The prompt desk allows her to communicate with all parts of the theatre – all the backstage areas including the dressing rooms, wardrobe department and the green room, which is the cast’s rest and preparation area just off-stage, all the technical members of staff including stage crew, all stage management, and the electrics and sound operators. She can also talk to ‘the flies,’ which isn’t a sign of a creeping stress-induced madness characterised by an overwhelming desire to talk to invisible insects, but refers instead to the crew in the ‘fly tower,’ the vast area above the stage where scenery is lowered down or lifted up to be stored till it’s needed again – in other words, it’s ‘flown’ in or out by the fly crew or flymen. All of these operations are signalled by the DSM either vocally through a headset talk-back system - the 'cans' - or by means of a series of coloured cue lights used to signify when the operators must 'stand-by' for their cues and then 'go.' Split-second timing is a skill all DSMs are born with! The prompt desk also has the facility for the DSM to communicate with ‘front of house,’ the audience areas, either by ringing the three-, two- and one-minute bells before the show begins, or to make spoken announcements inviting the audience to take their seats.

Technical rehearsal of course always goes smoothly with no hitches – well, maybe not! But everyone backstage, including the cast, knows that the technical rehearsal is vital. It’s not about acting your heart out or singing your soul out, but is the time when each move and each cue is rehearsed over and over till it’s perfect. Not until all the technical and safety aspects of the show are running without a hitch and to the satisfaction of the DSM and the stage manager can the show go ahead. See now why all this meticulous recording and note taking earlier on was so essential…..?

Dress rehearsal now, and yes, that should go without a hitch! Unless a safety issue is involved, the dress rehearsal will run ‘as per show,’ just as it should run in every performance, with no stoppages. If the technical rehearsal worked, the dress rehearsal should be fine.

And then – first night! The sense of relief after a good first night is palpable. A party is called for! But not too boozy and not too late into the wee small hours. After all, tomorrow is another day….and another show.

That was and is my dream job, and I loved every minute of it, . I’ve worked in some wonderful venues – everything from some of the UK’s most beautiful Edwardian theatres designed by the famous Frank Matcham, to brand-new state-of-the-art venues. I’ve done open-air theatre in the grounds of stately homes or ancient castles and even, for one fabulous summer, a restored Tuscan monastery. I’ve been so lucky to work with some amazing directors and designers, and made lifetime friends – I even met my husband in the theatre, and only gave up the job when I was well into my first pregnancy!

Great memories. Yeah, the show always goes on, and it was fabulous to be a part of that.

Jane Richardson writes 'sophisticated, realistic and uplifting romances with a lyrical voice.' Visit her website here.

London's West End/Gielgud Theatre photo by Steve Parker
Prompt desk photo by KeepOnTruckin
Playhouse Theatre London photo by Peripatetic

25 comments:

Lindsay Townsend said...

I love it! Love all this backstage, how it's done. Sounds very much like a 'proper' job to me!

Would you be tempted to go back to it, Jane?

I think yahoo must be playing up because sadly I can't see your pics.

Savanna Kougar said...

Jane, I had no clue it was that 'involved' for lack of a better word.
It must have been the most maddening and magical of times.
I did a tiny bit of theater in college, acting some and helping with the lights and cues backstage.
But, nothing ever close to what you're describing. Wow!
To be honest, I never felt more 'at home' than when I was doing that bit of theater. The comraderie and creativity grabbed my soul.

Sadly, I can't see the pics, either.

Margaret Tanner said...

Wow Jane,
Sounds fascinating. Now that would be a job to die for (figuratively speaking, of course).
Regards
Margaret

Jane Richardson, writer said...

The photos are showing up for me, so I don't know what the hitchy-glitch might be. :(( HAve asked a few 'experts' but no clues yet either. Not to worry!

Jane x

Jane Richardson, writer said...

PICTURE RESULT! Thank you so much to Alan who tried Plan B and managed to get the photos to the blog. You're a star, Alan! :)

J x

Jane Richardson, writer said...

Lindsay, hi! I often think about going back, but the sheer logistics of juggling family life would make it impossible for the moment. But another time, yes, maybe. It's the most satifying work I've ever done bar none. :)

Jane x

Jane Richardson, writer said...

Hi Savanna - YES! Maddening and magical in equal quantities. I so agree with you about the cameraderie, and that sort of group creativity and effort is a profoundly satisfying thing to be part of, isn't it? I'm glad to hear you felt the same things, and it wasnt just me! ;-)

Jane x

Jane Richardson, writer said...

Hi Margaret! Yes, a great job, either to die for or sometimes to feel like killing someone.....! There could sometimes be long, frustrating hours, or even long dull hours, but the moments of magic always made it worthwhile. You do hold on to the best parts, don't you?
Lovely to see you!

Jane x

Lindsay Townsend said...

Beatufiul pics, Jane! Can see them now!
Hang on to the idea you can go back one day...
Cheers, Lindsay

Mary Ricksen said...

This sounds so exciting. I remember working behind the scenes in high school and even that was a thrill for me.

Celia Yeary said...

Dear Mrs. DSM, I mean, Dearest Jane--I cannot imagine this world. You might as well be discussing working on the moon. I've always known you as a unique, slightly quirky individual, greatly talented, and highly amusing--well, you're a real star! This is my first detailed glimpse into "backstage." You make it sound so exciting and fun! If I worked in the theater, I'd be one of those back there doing something--never in a million years on stage.
Oh, I was once in a melodrama! The faculty at the Military Academy put on a melodrama, a different one four years in a row. We had A BLAST!! And the students were awestruck that we could do all that. Me? I was the musician, the pianist, on stage, part of the scenery. I wore a boy's black suit and red tie, black bowler, and black flats with white socks. I played that "villian" music, and "chasing" music", and crying heroine music (like violins), whatever was required. It was great! At the end of each show--each of the 4 years--the entire cast came out and donned sunglasses, and began dancing to "That Old Time Rock and Roll." The kids went wild. Oh, such, memories. Now you have me all weepy. Love you, Celia (and the pics are great!)

Bekki Lynn said...

Oh, wow! That is so amazing. What a wonderful career.

I could actually follow you around and see all the hustle and bustle.

I've seen some of this in various shows and always found it interesting.

The long hours, the frustrations when things aren't coming together -- it's all worth it when that opening show's final curtain falls, isn't it?

Thanks for sharing it with us.

Jane Richardson, writer said...

Hi Mary, so nice to see you! Great that you enjoyed your backstage time. FOr me, it's definitely the most exciting aspect of theatre, being on satge is fun but being part of the nuts and bolts of the running of the show is the best thing :)

Jane x

Jane Richardson, writer said...

Oh, Celia, I'm laughing so hard imagining your melodrama, and yes, I know exactly what music you mean! What fantastic fun! And hey - who are you calling 'quirky????' ;-))
So good to see you, as always, so glad you stopped by! :)

Jane x

Jane Richardson, writer said...

Hi Becky! Yes, wonderful career, and after thinking that it wouldn't be something I'd ever do for a living, to end up actually doing it for real was a dream come true. It taught me one thing, to never, ever, put someone off their dreams, especially a young person. There can't be anything more deeply satisfying than doing a job you truly love, no matter what that is, and that's what I tell my kids now - go for what you want to do, what you know in your heart is right, and I'll support them all the way. :)
You are so right about the first night final curtain. There isn't a feeling in this world to beat it, a mix of elation, satisfaction and relief, and such a sense of 'we did it, and we did it good.' It's the best feeling.
Dreams can and do come true. :)

Jane x

Savanna Kougar said...

Oh, yay! We have pics.

I well remember those theater highs... I was acting in an original play that got nominated for a state competition... talk about a thrill!... well, all of us in the original cast got the ole hatchet and another 'preferred' cast were given the parts, instead.
That had to be one of the worst moments-times in my college life.

Carol A. Spradling said...

Hi Jane,

What a fabulous life. That is so exciting. I can see you passing on all of these insites to your children. Neighborhood plays will be popular on your street.

Bess McBride said...

What a wonderful story, Jane. It sounds just like you...interesting and always genuine.

Bess McBride

Jane Richardson, writer said...

Hi Carol! Neighbourhood plays, now there's a great idea! Thanks for coming by. :)

Jane x

Jane Richardson, writer said...

Oh, Bess, what a kind thing to say. Thanks so much. Lovely to see you. :)

Jane x

Sharon Donovan said...

Hello, Jane! I'm late for the party, but got to read all these wonderful comments.
All I can say is WOW! I feel so honored to be friends with a celebrity! And that's
just what you are. What a fascinating time in your life to cherish and showcase.
What fun it must be to chat about these days to your family and friends. I had no
idea it was so involved. You must have had a whirlwind of adrenaline or caffeine
rush to keep you on your toes through all that. But I can tell how it was in your
blood. I hope you get back to it some day. And truer words were never spoken. Never
give up on a dream. Here here! You left your footprint, and I'll just bet it was
hard to fill your shoes.
Sharon

Jane Richardson, writer said...

Oh, Savanna - OUCH! I'm smarting for you. What a mean thing to do to you all! Ah, me, showbusiness is a rotten game sometimes. :(

Jane x

Sheryl said...

Oooh, Jane. What a superb blog! And so informative, particularly as I am interested in writing sitcom for stage.

I did go backstage once, at the Birmingham Hippodrome (UK). What I remember the most was the smell of the greasepaint! Nice one, hon. Artistic talent will out, you know!
xx

Jane Richardson, writer said...

Oh, Sharon, no celebrity invloved at all! Much, much happier being on the business end where you don't get noticed!
Funny what you say about caffeine and adrenaline and all - one show I was working, one of the guys from the chorus was watching me with a big grin on his face. When I asked him what was so funny, he said 'you're so efficient doing your job, I bet you're really disorganised at home!' And the thing is, he was right!
SO lovely to see you, thank you so much for popping over. :) loadsa luv,

Jane x

Jane Richardson, writer said...

Ah, Sheryl, yes - the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd! ;-))
You let me know when your first stage sitcom goes the go-ahead, and i would be DELIGHTED to come and work for you! Wouldn't that be a blast!
Always so good to see you. :)

Jane x