Amongst my favourite theatrical roles, I have a special place in my heart for that of Stage Manager. Much as I love being on stage, I also quite like sitting in a dark corner, cans on and calling cues. There’s something very satisfying about watching a slick scene-change of your own creation on a little screen. But there’s also all the boring-but-essential tasks like checking fire exits and headcounting actors long before curtain up, plus the stresses of tech day and painstakingly writing precise cues into scripts (always pencil, never pen). It’s hard work and great fun in equal measure. It’s also possibly one of the greatest multi-tasking challenges known to humankind, especially when it involves a cast of children and young people.
I fell into Stage Management 6 years ago. I’d put my name down to direct at my theatre. I was a bit surprised to get a phonecall asking me to SM a production of My Boy Jack as the SM had pulled out at the last minute. I turned it down. I’d never done any backstage work in my life, what bloody use would I be in charge of all of it?! But I was assured of a bit of tutoring and that it would be “a good experience” if I wanted to direct. (As it turned out, no one had pulled out, they’d had me lined up to do it all along. Sneaky….)
My Boy Jack is the story of Rudyard Kipling’s son who went to the trenches in WW1 and was reported missing in action (to this day his body has never been identified) and the years that followed as Kipling searched for the truth of what happened to his son. This was a play that took place in the Kipling’s living room and in the muck of the trenches, so two separate sets. It involved firearms, explosives – and children. And the stage revolve. I was in at the deep end, but in hindsight, it was possibly the best way to learn. Stage management is a bit dull when it’s curtains open, lights up, doorbell rings…… 13 pages later…… dog barks…… 22 pages later…… blackout, curtains close, house lights up. A cue-heavy show initially seems daunting, but it keeps you focused. We meticulously choreographed scene changes so that no one bumped into anyone or ended up on the wrong side of the rotating stage. At the end of Act 1, Jack Kipling and his comrades go over the top – every night I would watch with joy as the trenches set cleaved in two, both sides perfectly synchronised, sound effects of shelling and machine gun fire ricocheted around the auditorium and the boys slowly marched into the gloom of stage smoke as we faded to blackout. It was beautiful.
I’ve since directed once (and am about to direct again), but I’ve been back at the Stage Management desk far more times in the intervening years, including every summer production of our youth theatre. It’s where I started, so they too have a special place in my heart. It gives us a chance to teach them a bit of stage craft and good habits, but in the gap between the matinee and evening, I let them come and play with the SM desk, press buttons, make announcements (It’s mostly them giggling and saying “heellllloooooooo” to the empty Front of House and imitating me with “this is your five minute call” in official-sounding voices to the dressing room). I’d much rather indulge their curiosity when we have time and not be dealing with “what does this button do?” mid-show. Their productions have an element of unparalleled chaos to them and there are times when you just have to let it happen. I challenge even the calmest of SMs not to feel like they’re about to have a nervous breakdown in the middle of the show. In addition to the usual of following the script and calling cues, there’s the occasional skipped line (or page), and all of the below is going on at the same time:
- In my left ear, the ensuing (occasionally potty-mouthed) questions in my headphone from the tech crew asking what page we’re on
- In my right ear, I have a 9-year-old asking if they should be wearing shoes for their next scene
- Or telling me that their bucket of fish has gone missing
- Whispering the occasional prompt
- Operating the revolve every 5 minutes
- Beckoning kids away from the edge of the wings where they can be seen by the audience
- And away from the locked high voltage boxes before anyone gets electrocuted
- Helping someone who’s got their sleeve inside out and has to be on in 4 lines
- Figuring out how to retrieve a prop that has been left on stage
- Endless shushing and stern looks with a finger to my lips
- That sudden moment where everything on stage goes deadly quiet and having to make a judgement call on what to do
- All of the above without losing my temper
But for them, it’s the culmination of months of rehearsal and their taste of the limelight in front of parents, grandparents, siblings, aunties, uncles and cousins. They love it. As they take their final bow, the roar of applause from family and friends is deafening and makes me unbelievably proud of them. Their sense of achievement is tangible. All is forgiven – and for some reason, I immediately want to do it all over again.
The last time I stage managed for them, they bought me these. I nearly cried.