Stage Struck

Many dream of treading the boards, bitten by the acting bug, but a rewarding career awaits those who pull the theatrical strings behind the scenes, says Henrietta Bredin

The Lady, 15 July 2010

My sister and I inherited and fought jealously over a small collection of books that had been favourites of our mother's as a child. Almost certainly the best loved of these was The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown. A group of children in the small English town of Fenchester start up their own amateur theatre company, the Blue Doors. The youngest, Maddy, is a shameless and extremely successful borrower of props for their shows, charming (or terrorising) the roprietor of a local antique shop into handing over, among other invaluable items, a small wooden spinning wheel and a pair of pewter tankards.

By pursuing this course while also preparing to take part in the dramas on stage Maddy was following in an old and now mostly defunct tradition. Getting an Equity card was always the passport to an acting career and a great many actors managed to get their card by starting off as assistant stage managers.

Stage management is a terrific career, and an excellent (potentially more reliable) alternative option for the stage-struck who discover that their talents do not in fact lie in performing. This country leads the world (how rarely one gets to say that these days) in the training of stage managers and it is also a field in which women particularly excel.

'It's the old multi-tasking thing,' says stage manager Laura Thatcher. 'You have to be able to keep an extraordinary number of things in your head at once, you have to be practical, calm, diplomatic, organised and resourceful, all mixed up with a good old-fashioned dose of motherliness.' She and Jocelyn Bundy - sometimes a stage manager, sometimes a deputy stage manager (more of that later) - both trained at the Guildhall, and for the same reason: the course offered a specialist training in score reading and they were both keen musicians. Any additional skills add to your value as a stage manager and work prospects open up considerably if your musicianship is good enough for you to work on operas and musicals or ballets. You should also have good first aid training (with a valid certificate) and a CRB check (Criminal Records Bureau) if you are working with children.

All the drama schools offer stage management options and it's an ideal way to learn because of the acting course running alongside (and opera as well at the Guildhall), with all the scope that entails for working on shows. Both Laura and Jocelyn are dismissive about degree courses in stage management, considering two years ample time to learn the trade and to become equipped with skills which can only be improved by practical experience. There are of course technical things to be learnt; also matters of protocol and etiquette, the language used to communicate concisely and effectively in a backstage atmosphere where timing is crucial and nerves wound tight.

There are three separate roles: assistant stage manager (ASM), deputy stage manager (DSM) and stage manager, and each has very different responsibilities. The ASM specialises in props and, in a larger theatre, will run a wing, or one side of the stage. In smaller theatres, where there isn't a props department, the ASM will go out propping - begging, borrowing and buying - and will often make props if necessary. 'People are incredibly generous', says Laura. 'You ring them up and say you're doing a play and you've seen they've got a rather beautiful Ming vase and would they consider lending it in return for a pair of tickets and a credit in the programme? They almost always say yes.'

A DSM is, these days, often called a show caller. They are what Laura calls 'air traffic control', in communication with all the operators in the theatre - lighting, sound, stage crew - to cue the show, giving the go-ahead for each element of the performance, working from the script, known as the book or the bible, or from a musical score.

They also, as Jocelyn explains, run the rehearsal room and are often the main point of contact with the director and, in opera, the conductor. In theatre the DSM is more like an assistant director, helping members of the company run their lines, prompting if necessary, marking up the book with all the cues and the actors' moves, known as blocking.

The stage manager is essentially where the buck stops. They have full responsibility for anything that happens on stage, giving or withholding permission for anyone not directly involved in the performance to enter the stage area. 'It's your job to make sure that people know they can completely trust you,' says Laura. 'If you're strapping someone into a harness so that they can be flown thirty feet above the stage they need to be absolutely sure that you know what you're doing.'

In America now the divisions have been eradicated so that, although everyone has a specific job to do, the team is referred to simply under the group heading of 'stage management'. Both Jocelyn and Laura think this is a good thing and hope that it will be adopted in the UK, as the words 'deputy' and 'assistant' imply a pecking order that doesn't really exist.

Performers react in all sorts of different ways to the tension and challenge of getting out there to do their stuff. Some people withdraw into a self-constructed bubble of private focus and need to be left alone; others come off stage and immediately want to engage in distracting chat before taking a deep breath and going back on again. Stage managers feel all the adrenalin buzz but have to stay calm. 'People think you don't feel nerves but of course you do, especially when you're doing something for the first time, like giving clearance for a big scene change.'

Every single show is different, and every single performance has its own challenges. For Jocelyn it's part of the ongoing appeal of the job: 'You wake up in the morning and know that you'll have a completely unknown set of problems to solve, not remotely resembling those of the day before.' And some directors have quite specific requirements. Laura worked with director Katie Mitchell on The Women of Troy at the National Theatre and, in order for the actors to be completely immersed in their roles, they remained in character from the moment they walked into the theatre to the moment they left. This meant that, as stage manager, Laura was expected to address them at all times by their character names and, instead of referring to 'stage left' she had to direct people to 'the quayside'; instead of giving clearance for the performance to begin she had to say 'Menelaus's ship has landed.' She admits that it took a bit of getting used to but that 'once I'd got over my moment of thinking 'Oh lord, this is so pretentious' I saw what an extraordinary effect it had on the performance and how it increased the intensity in an astonishing way.'

Ultimately that's what it's all about: enabling talented people to do extraordinary things. 'There's nothing better. You can think someone's good in rehearsal and then they get on stage and take it up another gear and it's incredibly thrilling. The hairs stand up on the back of your neck and it's just bloody marvellous.'