Me, The Stage Manager?

Already CalmI’d never expected to ever be a stage manager. When you work on shows with someone who is an experienced and awesome stage manager then it’s a job that is definitely not available. Plus I’m actually quite happy just moving chairs and tables, making pictures crooked or cleaning blood* off the set and leaving the responsibilities to somebody else.

But when James couldn’t go to the Loxwood Joust this year, and it was suggested that I could stand in for him as stage manager, looking after a few artists on a little stage in the middle of  a woodland, I found myself saying “Yes”. After all, I know the festival already, know my way about a stage and best of all I could get advice and instructions direct from the expert.

So nervously I set off on a Friday night with a new tent, a clock and a clipboard with the running order and detailed instructions attached. My instructions said I needed to acquire a broom and inspecting my domain on arrival I could see that I did, as the stewards were laying out straw bales in the woodland and using the stage as (sorry) a staging post. Still, it was getting dark, so I put my worries aside (mostly) and went to the bar for some mead.

Early the next morning I hung up my clock backstage with a copy of the running order and went in search of the broom. That found, I made a start by sweeping the copious amounts of straw off the stage. Feeling I had now claimed my territory, I settled in to do my job. By midday I had met everyone performing on my stage that weekend and the sound guy (who had the harder job), made a “No Entry” sign and told countless (not many, I just wasn’t counting them) people not to come backstage and, most importantly, got the first act on stage successfully. With some surprise, I realised I actually could do this and somehow my earlier nerves had evaporated. Perhaps I was just too busy keeping track of the time.

Still like all theatre jobs, it evolved over the four days of the festival until I was also plugging in microphones, laying out tambourines and hunting for the juggler’s balls**. All this in a (surprising) glow of calm confidence, and no, it wasn’t just the result of the mead.

Next year I have no doubt James will be back to reclaim his stage and of course he’ll do an even better job than I did, but for once I have been the stage manager and I loved every second.

*Fake obviously. Unless someone really upset the SM…

**Crystal balls. He threw them off stage when he’d finished juggling with them. What did you think I meant?

A Tale of Two Sets

See How They Run

See How They Run

Have you seen the one about the retired actress, with the French doors and the staircase?

I was recently asked to do props for a delightful farce featuring a retired actress, several members of the clergy and an escaped German soldier. The play (See How They Run) features a charming set comprising of a living room with French doors, a staircase and doors on each side.
The show was fantastic, funny and great fun to work on. I’d never done props before but I thoroughly enjoyed myself and the cast were all great to work with.

While all this was going on I was simultaneously rehearsing for another play. This one featuring a retired actress, her family and their several houseguests. The play (Hay Fever) features a startlingly similar set.

Hay Fever

Hay Fever

The deja vu was heightened by the appearance of a barometer on each set, and the astonishingly similar sounding door bell (blame the sound engineer/stage manager respectively).

Further parallels within each play include the rehearsal of part of another play within it, the mention of “If” and…well I could go on.

Double the fun for a busy but satisfying month.

The Power Of Sound Effects

There's a Triffid behind you...

There’s a Triffid behind you…

In any show sound effects are important. They can set the scene, provide atmosphere and cue the action. Getting that just right can make a huge impact; as I was reminded recently.

If you are of a certain age (and a sufficiently geeky mindset) then there is one sound effect that will be instantly recognisable to you, the menacing rattle of a triffid. I’m sufficiently geeky to currently have it as my text message tone*.

So imagine the scene: a family day out at the Living Rainforest, walking along shaded jungle paths, when apparently out of nowhere comes that deadly rattle. The young woman standing next to us looks round in alarm.
“What on earth was that?” she exclaims.
With a straight face, I reply “a Triffid” and stroll away; leaving her obviously none the wiser and not at all reassured. Round the corner there is laughter and high-fiving with the family, including of course the person who has been conveniently texting me at irregular intervals hoping for just this result.

Still, it just shows how effective that sound effect is. Even out of context it is scary and organic, even more so when watching the show. Sound engineers are often under appreciated, but listen out because what they do is important. Even that telephone doesn’t just ring itself you know!

*Thanks to my favourite sound engineer who gave it to me.

How Can I Crew Better?

Having developed a real love of being backstage I thought I’d put some effort into learning how to do it a little better. So I signed up for Crew Class training.

It’s primarily aimed at people who want to work in the industry full time but as someone who always wants to do the best job I can (and is not averse to the idea of being paid part time for doing something I love either) I thought I’d give it a go.

So off I went to a little theatre in London to meet an assortment of people and spend the day learning about the world of backstage work.

Simon who ran the training was enthusiastic and entertaining. It was a long day with a lot of information being thrown at us but it was never boring and our attention was held throughout.

A major part of what we learned was terminology. From things we all knew already (‘upstage’, ‘downstage’) to terms I’d never heard before (‘socapex‘,’tallescope’). These were accompanied with pictures and in some cases returned to again and again to ensure we’d remember them.

As well as that we covered how to put a show together. Power, lighting and sound were examined and explained in a way that made sense. We were given good practical advice on working in the industry. (I’ll give away here the fact that the first rule was ‘Don’t be late’). There were practical examples given from real experience which certainly gave me a few new ideas.

For me the day felt like revision (and validation) of what I’d already learned and de-mystification of some things I’ve not yet encountered. I left feeling more capable, more positive and able to go on to bigger and better things. At least I’d like to hope so.


A Year Of Lighting (and assorted activities)

A year ago I helped with the lighting for the first time in our little theatre. While not my first ever lighting job (I’d helped with a folk gig some years before) it was practically my first and my first as a ‘house tech’. Over the year I’ve done a variety of things and it seems a good time to review what I’ve learned.

    • It’s never routine.
      No matter how much you think you know what is required for an event, on the day you will end up improvising, making do and making it so much better than you expected.
    • We’re all winging it.
      You think you know what your job is, but then again you can end up doing something that surprises you. I’ve done lighting, sound, crewing, followspot and production assistant (that means I ran around fetching things). It all depends on what is needed and that’s the way i like it.
    • I’m not really a sound guy.
      I’m sure I can do enough sound for a play (and that’s a win) but I’ve watched enough visiting sound guys for a variety of gigs to know I really don’t have the ears to do live mixing.
    • I love doing lighting.
      I’m a visual person so lighting is more my thing. I’ve learned you have to look (and concentrate) all the time. But it feels so good when you get it right. A sense of rhythm can be useful too.
    • Every show can use a black sheet (or two).
      From turning a pile of pallets into a professional followspot stand to propping up a sound desk a large piece of black cloth is your best friend (along with a huge supply of tape and sharpies).
Before / After

Before / After

  • There’s never enough time.
    No matter how early you arrive at the theatre you will be wishing you had another hour or two to play with by the time the house opens.
  • There is no better kind of tiredness than the end of a show.
    By the end of the day you’re exhausted, achy and still have tape to get off the floor and cables to coil and put away, yet somehow you feel better than you ever have before and you’ll mark today down as a fantastic day. Once you’ve got some sleep that is.

And so I wake up the next day to reflect on finding myself followspotting Hats Off To Led Zeppelin a year after I first sat at our lighting desk (also for them) and I’m actually amazed at how much I’ve packed into that year, how much I’ve learned and how much I still have to learn.
But I am having the best time ever.

Seeing Grace – Show Roundup

While I usually write here about my experiences performing (in one form or another) I have been taking an increasing interest over the past year or so in working backstage. I’ve enjoyed helping out with sound and lights for various visiting performers at our local theatre but then I accidentally fell over* an advert asking for backstage crew for a production in Oxford, a show called “Seeing Grace“.

So allowing serendipity a chance I  duly offered to help out and to my amazement they said yes!

The project was a fascinating one. A challenging topic (human trafficking and prostitution) rendered through a mixture of drama and dance. Much of the cast were still quite young but all incredibly talented, hard working and professional.

My job was easy; move chairs and tables, oh and keep track of an array of props including an ever increasing amount of crumpled paper. It was, despite the seriousness of the topic, a lot of fun. There was a great camaraderie and even one night an impromptu yoga session.

The run was far too short, only two nights, but those two nights saw a show that was simply breathtaking, powerful and emotional. I’m very glad I could be part of it.

The photos are some we were able to take dring the dress rehearsal.

 *Google search results can be unpredictable but I’m certainly not complaining. If every search brought such an opportunity I’d be delighted.