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Stage Management, an insiders view
Its an SM's Life for Me
I came to London at the tender age of 17 to do a Stage Management, Technical Theatre and Design course at Mountview Theatre School. In two years I learnt everything I needed to know about the business, how to make props, design sets and lighting, stage manage a production, be a show caller and get drunk as cheaply as possible without getting ID'd.
I then popped off and did some touring, lighting my way around number 3 venues in the UK, finding the seediest nightspot to spend my per diems on a Monday night in Billingham and finally ending up in the West End in 2002, and I'm still in the West End today.
The problem with drama school is that it is not at all a true reflection of the real world. You are delighted to be there and so is everyone else, you soak it up and dream of the first big show. You want to be there, learning, being creative everyday with like minded people. You soak up theatre like a sponge, getting tickets for everything and anything, weedling your way backstage for a tour or some work experience, maybe even a depping job. Your enthusiasm has no bounds. In reality after 15 years you become a tad jaded (and a bit tired) and so there are a few extra things to know before you decide that Theatre is the place for you.
It will be 15 years in April 2012 since I graduated and I have spent the last 10 years working in the West End on Musicals. If I'm honest I'm not that jaded, I do love my job and have an excellent time with the team here at Mamma Mia! It's just a shame the hours aren't more sociable and the pay better (plus I don't have time to go to the Theatre anymore).
There's no Business Like Show Business!
1. Show business is in no way glamorous, not one bit, nope not at all. Old Theatres' are dirty and smelly, a dead rodent lurks around every corner and the drains always back up. Always. And who puts fish and cabbage in a microwave in their dressing rooms??? Ugh
2. The Band are the only people in a theatre who can drink alcohol before and at the interval of a show (unofficially but socially accepted). It's a big no no for SM's. Not that this should put you off doing the job necessarily, just don't make the mistake of joining them for a beer and inevitably getting caught. If you want to drink at work that badly then learn an instrument!
3. It's perfectly OK for you to grope your fellow cast member, if you are also an actor - budding SM's do NOT join in. There's no such thing as sexual harrassment in a West End Theatre, not when the cast all walk around practically naked in the wings. This, by the way, is in no way erotic and shouldn't be a reason to get into theatre. There comes a point when you've seen so many boobs and bums that you become oblivious, it's true.
4. Theatre is not brain surgery-end of the world-life or death stuff. It's sequins and sparkles, low smoke and pyro's. It's a jolly old time and it can be fun, especially musical theatre, but some can take it just a spot too seriously. You would think that the world was collapsing around some actors ears if there drill isn't charged to the max or their favourite prop (and not a spare because the actual is being fixed) is available. We of course all strive for professionalism, and the West End is the leading light in the Theatrical community because of the companies and teams of highly skilled people who run the shows. I'm just saying that I think other jobs have more pressure (Paramedics for example) and some folks should lighten up a bit (join the band for a sneaky beer perhaps???)
5. Don't bother asking people to be quiet in the wings, they just ignore you or talk louder. Get used to being ignored. Always. Then stand on the stage, after warm up, and take the telling off from the Company Manager or Resident Director with the rest of the company and technical staff because everyone has to be told off at the same time so no one is singled out (even though it wasn't you and you've tried to get them to shut up, but they wont bloody shut up and so you get told off with them) grrrrrr.
6. You will never get as good opening night or Christmas present as the cast. They get Dom, you get Moet.
7. Wearing black doesnt make you invisible, especially against a blue well lit set. Black on black on the other hand...well in a black out, in a black box set...yep, chances are you wont be seen so I wouldn't choose stage management if you have stage fright, you often find yourself diving onto the stage for one reason or another and you do stick out like a sore thumb, try not to trip up or drop anything.
8. Kiss goodbye to your social life. It's a six day a week gig, and now that a lot of shows are performing on Sunday's your day off typically falls on the worst day of the week - Monday (what is there to do on a Monday except clean your house? Everyone else is at work!). Get used to missing a lot of social occasions, and if you can make it to a party after the show expect to play catch up - they'll all be drunk already.
9. Your body clock get's screwed. You're not like a normal person, you need to wind down when you get home so life gets shifted. Bed time can be one or two am and, eight hours later, you surface around ten or eleven and its considered the middle of the day to some. Get used to people thinking you're weird and lazy and, no matter how many times you explain how it works, they still wont get it.
10. Practical jokes are the norm, get a thick skin and hone your sense of humour, don't be offended it makes you too easy a target. Join in and have fun and you will have a great time at work. I was aware, from my time at my local theatre, of these practical jokes but newbies can get caught out by unscrupulous techies so hears a heads up: there's no such thing as a sky hook, tartan paint or left handed anything. If you get sent for a long wait go and have a coffee and a cake, declare to your boss on returning that you had a lovely time, thank them for the unscheduled break and tell him that your Mum was glad you called - that will soon wipe smirks away!
11. Finally, if you are slagging somebody off, be it technical or cast member, make sure your cans mic is OFF, or the backstage call mic is OFF, or the front of house announcement mic is OFF or the show relay is OFF. There's plenty of ways of being heard in a theatre and it will always come back and bite you on the ass.
P.S. Actors be careful too, the Sound department can hear what you're saying whenever they want when your mic is switched on. Don't slag off the follow spots or you'll find yourself on a very dark stage.