Coming Soon To A Theatre Near You…

By Susan Roberts

When I tell people what I do for a living, their eyes light up and they exclaim, “Oh, it must be SO exciting to work in the theatre!” Of course it is, but probably not in the way that they imagine.

I recently passed the 32 year mark in this industry, and have spent most of that time as a stage manager. Would I swop it for anything else if I had those years back? Yes, if I could become a best-selling, rich-and-famous author or a Disney princess, but let’s be realistic here.

It wasn’t always fun. Like most people who began in stage management over thirty years ago, I started off as an assistant stage manager or ASM. What a misnomer that was! The grandest part of the job was its title, and once I got over that shock, the realisation hit me that I had studied for three years at university only to become a floor-sweeper and tea-maker, to be seen and not heard. I was frowned at if I ventured a drama student-like opinion on anything that wasn’t related to sweeping, tea bags or petty cash slips. Even after I had climbed the ladder to actual Stage Manager status a few years down the line, the most important things that anyone wanted to know from me was whether the urn was boiling and if the milk was fresh.

Stage management as I first learnt it fitted perfectly into the old British class system. Picture any scene from Downton Abbey that involves the servants – even those who are highly-prized and sought-after by other stately homes – at the beck and call of their masters and mistresses at all hours of the day or night. This will give you a rough idea of what it was like to be considered a good ASM back in the early 80s.

In that small but larger-than-life world, ASMs were essentially second-class citizens. We addressed leading actors as Mr or Miss; we swept the floor and set their props before they arrived, then made sure that their tea was ready when they needed it. We spoke only when spoken to and took the blame like whipping-boys when anything went wrong on stage or in rehearsal. If an actor forgot a line, it could usually be blamed on something that the ASM did or didn’t do which distracted the actor and threw his concentration in that crucial moment.

Anyone who dared to rise above the glass ceiling set by actors, directors and producers was said to have “ideas above their station” or were “uppity” and “wouldn’t last in the business.” Well, several of my fellow ASMs left after a few months to take jobs which paid more. Even those who made it to stage manager usually moved on before the age of 30. I lost colleagues in those early years to journalism, restaurant management and television production, but somehow I never quite managed to follow them. I tried leaving the industry three or four times, but always found the right hole to crawl back into, putting myself back where I belonged, where I felt at home.
theater-seats-10035525 Why did I stick it out for so long? I don’t know but I’m glad I did. And it got a lot better along the way. Cynics might say that my enjoyment in the industry depends on how precariously those rose-coloured spectacles are balanced on the end of my nose, but I find it fascinating to be an observer of life that is a little more skewed than reality. I have always been an avid student of literature and I am constantly intrigued by the motivation behind people’s actions. This love of drama and history has provided me with endless material since I turned to writing.

I still enjoy stage management though, and thanks to the way the industry has evolved in 30 years, those old master-servant lines have long since blurred. In fact, in the theatre community in which I currently work, they have been erased altogether. With shrinking budgets, actors have become directors, set-builders and stage crew, while ASMs frequently double as performers. We all work together as a team instead of a hierarchy, and it’s a great place to be.

After more than thirty years in this industry, I can look back on a warm, fuzzy core of happy memories, outrageous stories that no one would believe, and a community of theatre friends who pull together, support each other, laugh a lot, and are worth their weight in gold. Today we can all watch Downton Abbey without feeling like some of us should be below stairs.

Maybe it’s a fairgold-stage-curtain-100147119y tale world, but I wouldn’t like to be anywhere else. Somehow I never grew away from wanting to be part of a world of make-believe and today I channel my spare energy into writing imaginary characters in a fictional world. Maybe not so fictional, given that store of outrageous stories I have collected first hand. When theatre’s been your bread and butter for so long, you get comfortable with the taste of it.

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20 thoughts on “Coming Soon To A Theatre Near You…

  1. Sue says:

    Haha! No matter how much hard work you tell me goes into a production I am always going to believe in the magic of the stage (and imagine you all having a big party behind that curtain!).

  2. jacky says:

    Ah Susan – so true; once the theatre’s properly in your blood it stays put. The smell of the dressing room, the magic when the lights go up and and and…Downton Abbey, Up and Downstairs and that great movie with Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney ‘The Dresser’. It just doesn’t go away . Thanks for another excellent blog.

    • Susan says:

      Thanks, Jacky. I saw a stunning version of “The Dresser” at the Market Theatre in the early 80s, starring Michael McCabe and Michael Atkinson – both actors were wonderful in it! There’s a 90s movie called “An Awfully Big Adventure” which presents the slightly darker side of working in theatre. It depressed me when I first saw it – I turned to my friend afterwards and said “Is that how what we do looks to others?” – but it has since become quite a favourite of mine because it tells its story without frills and fluff. There are brilliant performances by Alan Rickman and Peter Firth amongst others, but the biggest surprise is a marvelously dark and sleazy turn from Hugh Grant. Don’t watch it when you need cheering up, though…

      • jacky says:

        I shall, and I shan’t Susan! hard to imagine Hugh Grant dark and sleazy somehow – quite a refreshing change from his usual Oxbridge floppy hair fop parts, so I’ll look out for it.
        In the film of The Dresser, the last 30 minutes were just too sad to contemplate, right from when Sir ripped off his Lear mask and collapsed in his dressing room; perhaps the backstage genre suits sadness? I hope not.

  3. stephpais says:

    Reblogged this on Stephanie Pais and commented:
    An article well written by a theatre veteran !

  4. stephpais says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading that. Thanks Sue. Are you on Twitter?

  5. Susan says:

    Jacky, the backstage life is more bittersweet than sad. Happiness is fleeting but the bitterness never fills the cup to overflowing (to completely misquote Solzhenitsyn!), but I think it depends entirely on one’s attitude. Did I mention that I have another trunk novel set backstage during a production of Hamlet? Maybe I should get that one out and have another go at it…

  6. David says:

    Sue: there’s an autobiography in this …

  7. Peter Terry says:

    I don’t remember you EVER calling me Mister. Oh, wait…

  8. jacky says:

    Yes please Susan, to Hamlet. I’m all agog. About the autobiog too – excellent idea.

  9. Tanya van der Walt says:

    As usual, you hit the nail on the head. I think that the art of being a stage manager is so much about enjoying the watching – as an SM, one spends so much of your time just watching, absorbing every nuance of what happens in rehearsal, in performance, and backstage. For me, that watching taught me to be a director, and I think you have used it to be a writer – both of these art forms require a finely- tuned sense of observation, and a heightened awareness of nuance. You are a great SM, Susan, and we would all be poorer of you had left us!

    • Susan says:

      Thanks, Tanya. For me, the downside of being a watcher was that the first few characters I wrote were passive observers who pondered an awful lot but never actually did anything. People tell me I’ve mellowed as a stage manager but I think that’s because, since I’ve now given my written characters more guts, they do the raging active stuff while I just sit back and watch people instead. By the way, if you’ve ever seen “An Awfully Big Adventure” don’t you just love that marvelously understated, all-observing performance that Peter Firth gives as Bunny, the stage manager? Wonderful stuff!

  10. From starting in amateur theatre (what ever happened to this?) at age 8 and working my way into the mainstream, building a career hoping that I’d found “a home”, only to watch the industry all but disappear, I salute your resilience. Exited the stage door many years ago.
    Do I miss it, Yes…oh yes. Thank you Sue for the memories that flooded back reading this!

    • Susan says:

      My pleasure, John. I also did amateur theatre and that’s what started me off on this path. Sorry you left the industry, but I understand why. In my late thirties I had to rely on my mother to help me pay my rent because times were so bad. Many people were not as lucky. Hope you enjoy whatever it is that you do now.

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