so there is corrie, on stage in her ‘apartment’, 5 minutes away from having to light a fire.
i am standing backstage, behind the ‘front door’ wondering how to smuggle a small yellow box of matches onto the stage.
the rest of the cast and crew are in the dressing room listening over the tanoy to what is happening on stage, how she is going to save the situation of needing to light a fire without matches.
the audience, oblivious, is laughing at all the right places
corrie, her mind frantic with how to light the fire, and “why did i forget my handbag with the matches”?
and i am still trying to find a way to get the matches on stage. can i quickly dress up as a delivery man and deliver matches to the apartment? too contrived. can i leave her to cope without them and improvise? no- i need to try and help her till the last possible moment. will the audience notice if i drop them over the apartment wall into the kitchen? yes! and will corrie know it is even there then… what to do…
and that is just one of the things a stage manager needs to do during the course of an evening supporting the crew on stage.
a performance evening would start with my arrival about 90 minutes before curtain up, unlocking the theatre and dressing rooms, preferably before anyone is there yet. gives me a few minutes peace to settle myself and get the doors open. then i climb the steep stairs to the mezzanine level to switch on the tanoy. this is the moment from which people need to beware that was is said on stage can be heard in the green- & dressing rooms…
reverse back down the stairs (the only safe way) and begin to set the stage for act i.
in the current case, this involves manoeuvring a 4 metre long ladder from the green room into the wings and setting up without knocking any of the lights or curtains out of position… then ascend the 4 metres into the cavernous space above the stage with a jug of water in hand to fill the “tap-pipe” with about a litre of water. the cut-open plastic coke bottle is an ingenious idea to get real water onto the stage when the tap below is opened.
then manoeuvre said ladder through the wings and the front door of the set onto the middle of the stage to set the snow-contraption. this involves climbing up, releasing a cloth contraption, thereby releasing dozens of snowflakes onto the stage. obviously after refilling the snow-contraption with snowflakes, it is returned to it’s lofty perch ready for release at the right moment.
and while i manoeuvre the ladder back through a door, around a flap, under the wings and bars into the green room, the cast & crew are arriving and need to be let in at the stage door.
they need to be there by 60 minutes to curtain up, otherwise the “where-are-you” phone calls begin… in one instance where i couldn’t get hold of the one cast member i was busy learning his words when he arrived, seemingly oblivious to the consequences of his not informing that he was on his way, but stuck in traffic.
another time, the lead (not know for his time-keeping skills, by his own admission) was called 45 minutes prior to the start to find out where he is. his casual “thanks for the sms you sent last night” confirmed my worst fears, that he was nowhere near the theatre… upon asking where he is, and mentioning that curtain-up is in 45 minutes, he remarked that there isn’t a show today… but he made it with 15 minutes to spare.
in the period between this call and his arrival, i moved my car and blocked the bay so he had somewhere to park in front of the theatre without having to search; we sent someone into the wardrobe to find shirts for him in case he didn’t bring his; we endeavoured not to tell the director who was schmoozing in the foyer with the charity guests; we asked his co-lead to help calm him down on arrival and get him into character.
oh, and during all of this the normal other activities took place – assisting the props team to get the goulash & alcoholic drinks ready for the stage, giving the cast and crew their 45 / 30 / 20 / 10 and 5 minute calls. making sure that the sandbag is behind the bathroom door, so that it doesn’t open too far. making sure that all personal props are in the personal possession of the cast.
then in the last 15 minutes, i need to close the tabs (curtains) so that the audience can come in, make sure i have a walkie-talkie to be able to communicate with the lighting & sound team. they are situated closest to the foyer, so they are my link to front of house.
they let me know when the 5 minute call is played in the foyer to advise the audience to start moving in (or back in, if it is during interval).
they give me clearance when the last audience member has come in. i let them know when everyone is in place backstage so that they can start playing the intro music. all over a walkie-talkie.
by this time i’ve called “beginner’s on stage” and made sure the curtain-opener is in place to open the tabs at the correct cue in the music.
i’m sitting backstage and watching the action through a narrow gap in the back of a cupboard, through the beads hanging in the front of the cupboard, waiting for my cues to ring the doorbell when it is needed in the script. i also watch what is happening on stage to give other actors their “go-on-now!” or “speak now!” cues (which can be as subtle as the opening of a fridge door, a nose-blowing or the bottom of a bottle of gin making contact with the coffee table. exciting stuff!
all the while, there you sit in the darkness of backstage, with a slight blue light to show the obstacles to avoid. with a shaft of light from the stage to read my script by. all the while only whispering if you need to talk to others, or tiptoeing if you need to walk to others.
and everytime the audience laughs, you give an involuntary smile.
everytime they don’t laugh when you except them to you wonder what’s wrong with them.
you stop breathing everytime someone forgets a line.
and you start breathing everytime they save each other and continue – the audience non the wiser.
in the end i poked my hand through the back of the cupboard at a moment that corrie looked that way. i showed her the matches and dropped them onto the floor of the cupboard.
did she really notice?
and she did – changing her moves a little – doing a bimbo’y move across the stage to get the matches to light the fire. all in character. all good!
close curtain. for interval. of 20 minutes.
that means our work really begins – as we need to set the whole stage for the next act. from an ostensibly empty apartment to one that is fully furnished with net and normal curtains, pictures, mirrors, books and trinkets, carpets, bowls of fruit and cans for tea & coffee. no detail is spared in the quest for authenticity.
in one case i even needed to make small repairs to an in-stage wooden screen – to hammer a few nails into a narrow piece of wood. once that was done, i spotted a piece of cladding that came off the front door, so quick actions to repair that:
find double–sided tape
try to separate double-sided tape from its backing
find brown paint
find knife to take off blotches of glue on the back
hear “5 minute call” from lighting box
reply with “we need 8 minutes”
apply plaster (ever noticed how long that can take?)
go to stage and try to screw into place
fetch hole-maker to aid screwing in
hear audience’s chatter as they return to seats
fasten second screw in place while assistant is already painting brown paint over the first
quick check of stage that all is in place
go backstage and advise cast of wet paint on front door
call beginner’s to stage
check personal props of beginners in place
tell lighting we’re clear to go
get a reply that we are all go
check that curtain-opener is in place
get message that we are waiting for 1 person
have a quick wee (no flushing allowed)
get the all-clear
sit down and wait for paint can to touch fireplace on stage so that i can ring doorbell
wait backstage with feet up following the words, laughter and smiles.
actors come off stage and go back on. one of them needs to take of her dress on stage, and remembers at the door that she has forgotten to put her petticoat on…
so i run backstage and brainstorm a way to get the nightie to her. my colleague has an idea that there is a moment when she thought she could change. so collague goes and stands back stage in the bathroom and waits for the change scene. actress arrives, is super thankful, and does a lightning change behind the door instead of in front, and the audience is none the wiser. (have i said that before?)
drinks are made backstage – voiceless hand requests are made in the shape of a t or a c. i choose a c – i need coffee.
the scene continues.
the scene nears its ending.
make it snow.
stop the snow.
close the curtain.
sweep up the snow.
change the set.
beginners on stage.
all systems go.
nearing the end now… all in place for curtain call!
you stand backstage and watch. and listen.
bow of the cast
bow of the leads
bow of them all
bow of them all
is there enough applause to warrant another bow.
close the curtain.
applause dies. chatter starts. laughter continues.
tell the actors how well they did (ego-stroking is an important part all the way through)
clear the stage.
let out the troops.
lock the dressing rooms.
climb the steep stairs to switch off the tanoy.
switch off the lights.
set the alarm.
lock the theatre.
repeat after work tomorrow.
and the next day when people ask how it went, you will only remember how well the cast did. how happy the audience was, how much they enjoyed it. how well we overcome little obstacles.
it’s been compared to a child. at times frustrating as hell, but overwhelmingly lovable.
** of course, not all of these happened on one single evening. sometimes evenings run without any of the additional challenges that i also described above; but other nights we do have one or two of them to deal with**