Thoughts on stage managing – Interview

What form of training did you receive prior to working professionally?

I didn’t, I came into it by accident through teaching. I originally trained as a teacher then got into schools tours, education theatre; and then got into rep (by accident again) through a contact. There wasn’t a great deal of technical training around back in the 70s.

What interested you in becoming a Stage Manager?

I thought it was a really grotty job until I actually did it. Like most of the people I interview for the [Stage Management] course there was a moment of recognition where I thought this is right for me. The first attraction to being a performer then you suddenly discover there’s this other bit over here which goes on. I thought it was low grade work and was quite surprised at the complexity of it all and I found that deeply satisfying. The fact that I’ve always loved about it is the diversity of the work as well, so one minute you could be hefting steel deck around and the next minute you’re talking to a peer of the realm or someone quite important; so it seems to be the last of the renaissance jobs really, you get to do a bit of everything.

In fact, once you go into it, it is the craftsmanship which is involved; getting a particularly high quality outcome in terms of the practical work that one normally considers craftsmanship; the craft of stage managing, being able to manipulate people to get to do things that they might not necessarily want to do, but in the interest of the show; that is the bit that fascinates me. It is highly skilled, highly complicated, nobody actually sees what it is that we’re doing, really, but it is also the basis of the whole craft of theatre. In that sense I wish that more performers had stage management training, it brings back an awareness of the relationship of the stage to its audience. In all the mechanisms of the stage, it’s not just about text, not just about the actor giving the performance, it is the whole panoply of the mechanisms of performance. It is what we look at.

Please give a short job description of what you do as a stage manager.

The view that I’ve come to (studying it while watching students do it) is that it needs more than taking a functional approach, which is where the theorising of stage management goes wrong as it just looks at the role functions. I think you need to take it from a different perspective, what the stage manager is responsible for. In a small company, a small TIE company you are responsible for the whole of the performance, so therefore you need to do all that, as you have very few resources at your disposal you do everything as well. The bigger the scale of the organisation the less you actually do and the more you become supervisor of other specialists that are doing something. So you can almost say that what a stage manager does is relative to the scale of the organisation. If you are working on a large scale opera house, then yeah, you wear a dinner jacket or an evening gown and basically run everything off the clipboard which is similar to what you were describing about practice in the States.

A lot of British training is based on the repertory theatre model which in itself is slightly obsolete, but nevertheless it provides a good foundation as the theatre is big enough to have departments but it is small enough for people to still be hands on.

I think that one way of looking at it is that there are five basic areas of responsibility. One of which is for provision of technical elements in performance. The second the management of the rehearsal process and the development of the product and it’s the management of that rather than the direction, so it is working closely with the director. The third area is general administration of the process and putting all that stuff together, so basically the office stuff. The fourth one is being a public face for all of the technical departments and its that integrative aspect.

One of the things I’ve looked at is a model I’ve got from a business study. If you look at the theatre organisation as such, and look at it as a series of teams rather than a series of hierarchies: so that you have a team of performers, a team of technicians, a team of administrators (and front of house type people, marketing, finance and all of that) then you have a creative team and the stage management job. Each of those teams will try and claim stage management as part of itself. The Director might see the Stage Manager as an Assistant Director, a Production Manager will see them as a Technician, the administration would see them as an administrative function while the Company would see them as the hidden performer. And in that sense all of that is true, but each of those is only a partial truth so it is the communication between and the different languages of all the different tribes within the organisation. Its actually one of the most important things that we do. Consequently it is one of the reasons why stage management is undervalued, because each of the groups communicated to only understand their own section of it.

What is your professional relationship to the director?

I think inherently directing is subset of stage management in terms of the stuff that I was talking about earlier; the role of director grew out of the role of stage manager. It is just one of a number of specialisations that grew out of that concept. So when you talk about stage management in society; ‘that party political broadcast has been stage managed’ for example, it is what we in theatre would call direction. They are organising the creation of meaning in that sense.

Nevertheless I think that the stage manager from the craft role has a deep responsibly. There is a potential paradox, which is where the conflicts quite often come from, in terms of the various powers of the two positions. Its not true, but if the the Stage manager starts to organise themselves then they have to gear towards performance; then the director has to give them a show to manage. We’ve slightly got the whip hand actually in as much as we have a role where we are having to demand answers to certain questions but a good stage manager will understand that it might be impossible to answer that question just yet, but nevertheless they still know that they have to have an answer to that question. Who comes on when? What is the order of events that goes on? How are they cued and what is it that the show itself is trying to do. And in that sense, what is it that is the quality of that show that the stage manager is going to be responsible for in performance.

Now, taking it from that perspective, rather than the stage manager being subservient to the director it reverses that role because in the sense that the show and its communication to an audience is the predominant thing, those are the questions that a stage manager has to have answered. Consequently there is an implicit power conflict between the two roles. It’s almost ideological. The stage managers role is craftsman-like; ‘tell me how this will function’, also, on the back of that, artistically, why? Whereas the director will come in with the notion that artistically this show needs to do this, this and this and so how do we make it function.

The two roles, at their best, are entirely complementary. In fact, many directors will try and keep their DSM as a long standing relationship as it is somebody they trust to put things in place for them.

Again, I think that it is a more interrogative perspective of Stage Management then you are likely to get from the American side as they are looking at things extremely functionally, in a very demarcated way. British tradition, because we have always been under-funded. (It’s different in the States) Whereas under-funding through subsidy in this county has kind of allowed this great limbo to emerge where people are doing it for love, it also comes out of the social democratic/liberal tradition of ‘this society has been one where people do things on a mixed economy mode’. It is a peculiar relationship between commerce, art and the practicalities of putting stuff together.

What is your professional relationship to the designer(s)?

The conclusion I’ve come to is that designer training is particularly interesting in that it always happens in art schools, nevertheless I am conscious that a lot of designers come out of a theatre performance tradition (and some of them come from being stage managers which is interesting too.) There is something about the ideologies, the philosophy of art schools since the sixties where its been about the development of the creative process, and I think that they are taking inspiration from people and looking at the re-utilisation of objects and all that kind of stuff. The notion of the designer as an artiste; somebody who struggles with their soul, somebody who had artistic integrity and who has a vision and all of which is very individualistic in terms of its outlook. Whereas by its nature a lot of theatre work tends to recognise that there is a communal aspect to it. Again, there is a perceived individualism in terms of Peter Brook. Nonetheless, Peter Brook starts to talk about the communal aspects of theatre making although practicing it from an individualistic aspect. But certainly in theatre one is never far from that tension between the artist or the performer as an individual, or as the performer as part of the ensemble. In art school of course there is very little of that communal creation. So consequently the relationship with the designer sometimes has those tensions in there. Designers can be very suspicious of stage managers.

It is possible as a stage manager, and probably only as a stage manager, to look at the process of theatre creation as a series of competing creativities so I now hold that view. I’m sure you’ve looked at the books on stage management they give a blueprint; this is how it happens and how it should happen. However, what they don’t do much is to talk about resolving creative conflicts, which is one of the things that stage managers are constantly doing. In the end there are a series of ideologies. The ideology of directors theatre; the ideology of performers theatre; the ideology of design-led theatre; site specific theatre; community led theatre; all of these ideologies, which may be held by different individuals, so you might get directors who may believe in ensemble theatre, designers who actually believe in directors theatre. But they never actually talk about it, have these discussions. It is something you work out in the process while you work on it. So not only you are tying to create the show, you are trying to would out where other people are coming from in terms of making the process.

The number of times I’ve been in a situation where you’ve got an actor who believes that the director should give them more direction and a director who believes that the performance should come from the actor. So, consequently total kind of empasse between the two of them while the stage manager is constantly trying to do the translation of the different ideological perspectives.

One of the things I am coming more and more convinced about is the highly political nature of the stage manager; that is, a really good stage manager is where they earn their respect, being able to manipulate the political power struggles that are going on. That sometimes it is about people trying to get rid of power as well as earn it, so that in fact, that’s what one is actually managing. The number of times I talk to student production managers who say; ‘Oh, its not about the things, is it, its about the people?’ And you say that you’re manipulating the various agents that put the show together, and its kind of tricky when you have somebody as powerful as (named director) who can be a very dominant character with a strong vision. I mean, I love all of that, but nevertheless, put them in a situation where somebody who is a strong visionary designer and you can see there is the potential for huge arguments and disagreements. It might come out of disagreements over costume, but it might come out as disagreements over a prop that you’ve just bought. The prop itself then becomes a symbol of whose show is this. That’s part of the analysis of ‘what’s going on here?’, and in fact, quite often the answer is the prop. And in the end the stage manager needs to have a strong vision of their own, I believe in terms of their relationship to the potential audience.

Sometimes you do work with directors who don’t know the craft of theatre. They may be very good at intellectual analysis, they may have strong visions but don’t know how to put it in place, where as, in fact, because the function of theatre is in our hands, quite often as stage manager can say ‘I think it might be a good idea if you did such and such’ because they can see the solution there. This is a functional solution. It is a craft solution rather than an art solution.

I did have a wonderful example of a director who was going completely over the top with a show and on the third day of the tech rang in sick. We all had this kind of train crash around us. So I stood up to the plate and said ‘ok, we’re going to put this show on, we’re going to make it work. What happens next? Don’t worry if it looks good or not. What happens next? What is the order of events?’ Because, in the end, once you have decided that, whether it is good, bad or indifferent we’ve still got a show.

The other bit that I think is part of a stage manager’s perspective is synaesthesia; that there is a connection with where people perceive one sense in terms of another. One conductor (Frasnz Liszt) asks his orchestra for “more pink”, so he’s seen the sounds that the orchestra is making in terms of colour. Now, I think what the stage manager is making has to do with calling the show. Working out what the balance of that lot of text has against that effect, has against that lighting cue etc. And you start to see things in a different way. You get a sense of how the show is constructed as a series of building blocks. Less in terms of how the actor gets to it, which is how drama is normally taught, but more in terms in what’s the weight of that performance. I don’t care how you got to that, but I know it’s a strong bit. It’s a lot closer to Laban in those terms, in terms of what is the quality of that bit of performance, as opposed to the quality of the lighting cue, or the sound fade, or the piece of music that’s going in there.

Good directors see it the same way actually. Developing almost an iconic language. You see it with lighting designers; a lighting designer will say ‘F*** that light off, that’s not doing it’ and suddenly something will come up and say ‘that works’. ‘That works’. And so connecting into the functionality of it. If it works artistically then it works for the show. There is something in terms of the pattern that’s being created that fits the pattern of the show, but you can’t quite articulate that as again it is a craft process – developing that language; ‘a bit more of that thing that happened over there’ is the kind of conversation that goes one and you think ‘yeah, I think I know what you mean’.

Nick Hunt (Lighting designer) talks about a good board operators. When the LD will say ‘bring channel 34 up’ and the board op will say ‘oh sorry, that was channel 36’ but actually because the board op has remembered that that is the light that will solve that problem so intentionally/accidentally the put the wrong light up just to make the suggestion but not to challenge the LD as it is a way of supporting, which again deals with the delicacy of competing with creativities. Politically its not challenging the role, but its being supportive. A good LD will clock that that has just happened as it is actually supporting him in the conversation with the director as that politics is still going on there as well.

In our society children are taught that power is something to be very careful of. Its still a reaction to the second world war and to fascism actually. It’s as if power is something that doesn’t happen in a democratic society – that’s b******s actually. Somebody needs to take control. The question is that (a) the spirit in which they do it and (b) if they do it on behalf of or if they have been given that authority or if they have earned that authority of the people they are working with. Nevertheless the authority is necessary as the show is authored – the authoring itself is a power. We talk about the power of theatre and we have to take responsibility for that and for the process of creating it.

What is your professional relationship to the actors?

Actors/performers/musicians/dancers – it’s interesting. I think there are different views in the construct of performing – they equally require management.

Originally when I started out I found myself getting very frustrated with what I saw as pettiness of the neurotic behaviours on the part of most of the actors. I’ve now come to understand this as a necessary pert of what acting is about. I think what we ask actors to do, in Freudian terms is to regress to a childlike condition, because the actor playing is exactly that. Its something that Jean Norman Benedetti pointed out in a lecture some time back; playing is exactly the same for what a child does and what the adult actor does. So if we are asking someone to resort back to a child like condition, that has implications then because what we want, in the Stanislavski method, we want them to exhibit the same level of concentration that a child would when its playing with a toy.

I did use childlike rather than childish and sometimes it tips over into the other state. Nevertheless, it is important in part of the creative process that is also a spiritual thing to give them the freedom to do that. Therefore the stage manager and the director have to enter into a quazi-parental role, in an adult or parent like role.

You even see it in terms of musicians, in the wings, nervous as hell, they will regress into pettiness, chucking their toys out of the pram, or breaking their guitars over the amplifiers or whatever. The stuff that Pete Doherty or Amy Winehouse do, its actually a childlike tantrum. Therefore it is important that the stage manager, this is transactional analysis, I as an adult stage manager in the conversation in the greenroom, once I am in the rehearsal room I am starting to act in a parental role. And I as a stage manager then in the mother role and the director, male or female is then in the father role in terms of the traditional. I don’t want to over gender that, but nevertheless, its kind of the nurturing bit, the creating a warm supportive environment and giving the performer the room to experiment in a safe environment and therefore the stage manager has to put forth discipline and structure into place in a warm and loving way, like a good mum would do. In the same way the directors job is there to inspire and exhibit greater worlds like a good dad would do.

So that I think is probably the right kind of relationship, it is again balancing out authority and love.

Could you list your duties for one day?

I am going to decline that question. There is a reason for it as well. It is based on the notion of contingent management in that you do what needs to be done. A mixture of stuff that is stratigic and tactical. – how do I get this prop, how do I get on stage etc.

My philosophy of stage management is not pased on duties it is based on a management of objecitves in the sanse. – what is that trying to do rather than what does that have to do.

What do you feel is the most exciting part of the process?

Three points that used to terrify me, and it took me a long time to work out why;

1. The first day of rehearsals

2. First day of the tech.

3. The opening night.

What I realised at some point was that these were the points where new human componenets were added to the machine, so up until the pre-planning phase you are looking at design, looking at the design, looking at what’s what and trying to get design concepts in place. You then get struck with the actors. Again, in The Empty Space Peter Brook describes the first day of rehearsing for an opera and the chorus all start doing everything except the thing that he asks them to do and he has the choice of whether to work with the individuals or whether to go and drill themto do his vision. He chose the fromer. To a certain extent that’s working out the human landscape of the process. All the actors are nervous too.

Similarily the technical bit is where everything that has been happening in the rehearsal room is brought together with everything else that has been proposed. Adding again, more componenets.

Again, opening night is where you add the most significant componeant, the audience. To that, the notion of the performance itself being a ritual. You are bring the ritual to the audience.

What is your role once you take over the show?

The major part of the stage managers job is quality assurance. Maintaining the qualitiy of performance. Apart from doing the things that you have to do. To be honest I always felt that this is the easy pert of the job. Ok, things might go wrong, but then a lot of the stage managers job is dealing with things as they go wrong. I would always try to reserve pert of my time on the show in the evening so that I was free enough to deal with things that went wrong other than being busy all the time. I would try and delegate as much as possible. To start with that was quite strange as I do believe in leading from the front but I do think that it is important to give people the would to do, saying ‘come to me when there’s a problem’.

There is lots of supervision in making people feel supported in the things that they do. Encouraging the actors, giving them the space that they need, rather than what some business people believe ‘efficiency and effectiveness’. You can terribly efficient but not that effective because you can create waves. You need to be baseline efficient and make sure that things are generally there. People will forgive you the odd c**k up if things are generally right as you are being human. If however you paint yourself as an inhuman machine then by the standards you’ve set yourself, if the machine fails then you scrap it.

A stage manager needs to manage information. Modern technology allows us to contact teams quickly with rehearsal notes etc. If it is processed correctly not everything needs to be sent out. It needs to be taken into account and simulated. If you type information as it comes, you are nothing more than a secretary. The information needs to be processed, evaluated.

There is one thing I haven’t seen in books. Gail Pallin asks in her book ‘what is the creativity of a stage manager’, and kind-of has to duck the question in the end; because at that time there wasn’t much of an answer to it. I think there is something in it now about the imagination that the stage manager has to bring, imagining what the production is going to be, that’s when creativity comes into it. That in itself is straying into directing terrority. Coming from a community performance as well, having done stuff in the back of a van round north Yorkshire and working with black theatre companies, I’m very concerned with the meaning that is being created by the piece.

I have never been averse to meddling in that. I have always believed that I have a right to express my opinion. In that sense, if I am taking round a piece of theatre that promotes race hatred into a series of black communities its me that’s in the firing line, and I have responsibility to that. I found myself in that situation. It was black on white race hatred and it was back in the 70s. (It could just as easily been white on black or black on black.) The whole issues of social conflict that were in there that I’ve been through the process of production, that, in itself is part of the meaning that is created by the performance. The stage manager needs to respond to different system methodology and recognise what’s going on.

In that sense I kind of want to get rid of the term stage manager because its layden with so many references to past practices which are associated with middle class values, in terms the way it is organised, that the stage manager is in control of a class within a class structure. If we were to regard ourselves as cultural managers; that means that we are managing the cultural performance. We then ally ourselves with the administrative managers and we understand that, we understand what it is that we are trying to do – they are the clean end, we are the dirty end. that’s the only difference. Between us, we find it easy to have the conversations about what that cultural artifact is. We can talk to curatrs in museums and still have the same conversations because they are dealing with the same idea set as we are. That also appeals to stage managers ambition. One of the biggest things is not that the stage manager is personally ambitions but for the area of knowledge that they represent because everybody tells us that we’ve don’t a shit job, because that’s the only point where they know that we are there. In fact the ambition of a cultural manager is somebody who is dealing with all those conflicts and in that sense I wouldn’t separate out the process of managing from the process of creating meaning, in fact I think the only way you can understand how to do your job better is to understand what it is what you are supposed to manage.

June 27th, 2008

Last modified: Sunday, 6 July 2008, 08:48 PM