“Ted please tell why I need stage manager?” was the question asked on an almost daily basis by the Moscow promoter of We Will Rock You, Sergei Baranov. I would look across the table, take a deep breath and have another go at persuading him that the show needed someone to organise scene changes, to structure the rehearsals, to set props, to produce a prompt copy and above all write it all down so that we could do approximately the same show on the second night that we did on the first. After my explanation he would shake his head dismissively and leave the room. Eventually he was persuaded to employ a show caller so that at least we would have some coordination between departments. The lucky candidate was Julia, a recent graduate from an Arts/Business course, whose backstage experience was nil but she was very keen, had a few words of English and was very beautiful. In desperation we flew Tracy, stage manager from WWRY London to give emergency guidance, which she did with great charm and skill. Julia did come up trumps a couple of days into the tech rehearsals in responding to some criticism from our rather upmarket director (his day job was directing Chekhov) with a volley of abuse that translated roughly as “Don’t, you fucking well tell me what to do you fat bastard. I’m the bloody stage manager here I’ll have you know!”
As we started the Tech Rehearsal I realised that there was no one backstage who had a clue what was supposed to be happening and so, with a heavy heart, I put on a headset and got up on stage to get things going. After 10 minutes of shouting (Russians love shouting) I got someone to turn off the working lights and the stage went totally dark, completely and utterly dark, and at that point I realised that I hadn’t checked that ‘Act 1 Beginners’ were standing by onstage. I thought about getting the working lights back on but couldn’t face any more shouting so I decided to check by feel alone. Luckily the actors playing ‘Pop’ (long wig) and the 2 policemen (helmets) were easy to identify by touch but as I tugged at Pop’s wig I had one of those moments of clarity that we all have now and then and I thought “What the fuck am I doing here”. At the same time I decided that not having any stage management can put you in a very dark place both literally and metaphorically.
So you definitely need stage management even if they can be a bit anal and a bit irritating at times. For a musical you need at least four and probably more, you need a stage manager in charge, a Deputy who calls the show from the prompt corner and will probably have developed a large bottom from sitting on a prompt stool night after night. You also need assistants to run either side of the stage, props etc.
It is sometimes said that whether you were born in the stairwell of a Peckham tower block or in a four-poster in a stately home when you work in the theatre you immediately become an honorary member of the middle class. This is never truer than with stage management, they are the stuff of which the Empire was built. In days gone by your average stage manager would not have been unlocking a rehearsal room at 9.00am but would have been administering an area of Africa bigger than Surrey. Stage Management are willing to give their lives to ensure the show goes on and the nation needs more people like them.
The wardrobe mistress is a key figure in backstage life, apart from organising her department and washing lots of smelly clothes she is a clearing house for all company gossip, using the dressers to garner information with all the skill of a KGB spymaster. Should the Company Manager need to know anything about a member of the company, drug habits, drinking habits, sexual tastes, he goes straight to the wardrobe mistress. Traditionally they are large, motherly, drink gin and sleep with the master carpenter. If you happen to employ a wardrobe master they tend to be slim, excessively tidy, drink gin and sleep with the master carpenter.
If you have children who show no obvious talent for anything in particular then you might consider pushing them in the direction of wigs. As a production manager I find that putting together a wig department is extremely tiresome. There aren’t enough wig staff about, competent or otherwise, so Mrs Worthington put your daughter into wigs and she will never be out of work again.
Project Model – Maintenance!
Production Manager Stewart Cowless, Company Manager Anthony Fawning and Producer’s Assistant Kevin Whimper interviewed more than twenty would-be stage management for Maintenance and finally settled on Rowena Pettifer as stage manager, a well organised determined girl who is probably not tough enough for the job in hand but is the best of a bad bunch. As DSM they have hired the ballsy Sazz (Sarah) Muldoon an Irish girl with a backside the size of Gloucestershire, as ASM book cover Maggie Truelove a West End veteran and finally as ASM Justin Philpotts a charming young man from Brighton who was hired by Fawning and Whimper while Cowless was out of the room making a phone call. He enchanted them by declaring that his mother, herself an actress of sorts, had had a dream in which she saw him emerging from the stage door of the Palladium to be greeted by his adoring fans. He declared that he had come to fulfil his destiny. Thus begins the career of Justin Philpotts who by the year 2050 will be known by all and sundry as a ‘National Treasure’ and his Sunday night chat show Philpot’s Pals will attract vast audiences. Cowless was enraged to find that someone so utterly inexperienced had been employed without his say-so and accused Fawning and Whimper of going for the prettiest bum.
Angie Overlocker has been employed as wardrobe mistress and she lives up to the stereotype handsomely. She is large, jolly, motherly, but can be tigerish when negotiating quick change space in the wings or defending her position in the queue at the bar.
The Wig Mistress will be Natalie Tongs, who is delightful in every way other than that she has only ever been an assistant and has never run a department before. The main thing going for her is that she has spent nine months on The Rolf Harris Story at the Queens, dressing wigs for Maintenance!’s future leading lady Erica Fortinbras who is known to be difficult.
After the debacle in Andover (see blog of 25th May 2008) plans for the TV audition show Baby You Can Drive My Car are revised down to a more controlled, not to say ‘fixed’, enterprise in order to give the producers the cast they want. Unfortunately it turns out that Hampshire Gold TV, who were to produce the series, were sponsored by the city of Reykyavik (strap line “Where the fish come to party”) and their funds were cut overnight resulting in a total collapse. For a brief moment the producers toyed with the idea of a radio version but then went back to more traditional methods of casting. To play the leading role of Barry, Kevin McHarrowing has picked Gavin Shoestrap, a 3rd placed X Factor contestant, who has made a decent living over the past couple of years with soap opera parts and the occasional chart entry. He has promised to lose weight in rehearsal. The part of Barry’s girl friend Tracy has been given to Erica Fortinbras whose lack of anger management has landed her in court twice, once after an incident on the Jonathan Ross Show and once when she assaulted a dresser with a stiletto heeled shoe after chasing her out of the fire exit and across the roof of the Shaftesbury Theatre during rehearsals for Petra & I the Blue Peter musical. The voice of the Haynes Manual will be delivered from an offstage vocal booth by veteran soul singer Charlie ‘Duke’ Magee. The vital role of Morag the Mechanic is as yet uncast.