I’m sitting in the audience of a dress rehearsal for a show at uni. I hardly know anything about the show. I notice one of the students is standing at the end of the traverse. The show starts and she hasn’t done anything yet. I wonder when she’s going to enter the playing space and who she might be playing. It’s not until I get halfway through the show when I realise, she’s not in the cast, she’s the stage manager.
She’s rather brilliant (both as a person, and as an SM) and we’ve since worked together pretty much non-stop since November last year. I write this as we come to the end of our third show together. She also happens to be letting me stay in her spare bedroom during NSDF. She’s on the Tech Team this year, and I’m writing for Noises Off. I think this is the perfect opportunity to get a critic and an SM together for a little conversation. And it goes something like this…
JW: How are you feeling about going up to NSDF this year?
RR: Very excited! Looks like a really great opportunity.
JW: I often find that critics sometimes ignore the role of technicians. I think we’re getting a little better at it? But stage managers are basically always ignored. Does this bother you?
RR: I think the SM is a slightly less creative role? Lighting and sound technicians have a more artistic, creative perspective. Stage management is more about the logistics. When people are critiquing or watching theatre, they’re looking for what’s creative rather than what’s actually making the machine work. Sometimes my ideas about creative stuff are taken into consideration. I prefer the logistical side because I don’t feel I’m a very creative person.
To what extent is the SM a creative role? I think Roma is more creative than she takes credit for. A decision/idea can be both logistical and creative; the two often work hand in hand in a rehearsal room.
JW: But there must be something that urges you to work in a creative environment still?
RR: I enjoy working with creatives and being part of the process.
JW: Is it frustrating that stage management teams don’t get the same sort of applause as the actors?
RR: I think audiences appreciate what’s in front of them. When I started going to the theatre, I didn’t think about what was happening behind the scenes or the process…It would be a bit weird if SMs came out and bowed.
We talked about this. I think SMs could definitely come out and bow! They usually work just as hard as everyone else has. They certainly give up the same amount of time. If we’re clapping the work, why not clap for them too?
JW: Have you ever seen a show where the SM team are intentionally made to be visible?
RR: I saw a show last year where the SM had to move a set item, but they were in costume. Even the fact that SMs and technicians are asked to wear black clothing suggests we’re meant to be invisible.
We talk about the function of theatre as leisure. The fact that we go to the theatre as a means of escape, to forget about our work lives, but that we ironically do this by watching other people work, but that this work is hidden (behind costumes, set pieces, wings, etc.). We talk about the repetition of emotional labour and the 'magic' of theatre. When an audience applauds its actors, what is it actually applauding? Does it consider the makers behind the scenes?
JW: Are you an SM interested in theatre or a theatre person interested in SM?
RR: Growing up, I didn’t go to the theatre that often. Our regional theatre was good, but I never really went. I went to go and see pantomime and family shows and got involved with a youth theatre. There was a little bit of everything there. I got involved with the set painting and building. I always knew I wanted to work in the arts and came across an assistant stage management placement opportunity and haven’t looked back since.
We talk about access to these unpaid opportunities. We talk about to what extent you need to be able to work for free to get a foot in the door of this industry. Even here at NSDF, we’re encouraged to apply for the opportunities, to essentially help launch our careers, but (bursaries aside), we’re all paying to be here. What kind of message does this give to those who are interested in getting involved in this kind of work?
This conversation didn’t go how I was expecting it to. I was ready to write up an article fighting for more recognition of the work of stage managers and theatre technicians - and I still think we should be doing this – but I suppose it’s also worth considering that some of those who work behind the scenes are very happy to keep themselves out of the spotlight (!), 'behind the scenes'. So how can we still appreciate and value this work without applause? Perhaps that’s a task for the week ahead.
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