Calling the shots: A life in the day of a stage manager

It’s not actors whose way you need to stay out of behind the scenes at a theatre but stage managers, the key crew who subtly crack the whip from the wings

 

Leaving home at 6am on a freezing Sunday earlier this month, after less than an hour of sleep and dressed in a makeshift uniform of black clothing that makes me resemble nothing so much as a remedial ninja, I remember that this all started as a joke.

“Maybe you can just make a documentary about me doing it?” Caoimhe Regan had texted me. She and I were talking about 24 Hour Plays, an annual event in support of Dublin Youth Theatre that had sold out the Abbey Theatre.

Actually, this seemed like a great idea. Regan is a radiantly beautiful stage manager, based in Dublin, who has worked with the best: the Gate, Druid, Anu and Landmark, to name a few. If stage management is done right, Regan says, it’s invisible. Recently, though, more and more people are noticing it.

Last year, for instance, we saw Sonya Kelly’s excellent Tiger Dublin Fringe hit How to Keep an Alien, which was as much a hymn to stage managers as it was the story of keeping her Australian girlfriend – a stage manager – in Ireland. Rough Magic’s production featured Justin Murphy, the company’s own stage manager, on stage throughout in a supporting role, soon after he had featured in the company’s artifice-exposing co-production of Rise and Fall of the City Mahagonny.

Then, in January, the nominations for the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards included, in the Judges’ Special Award category, “Stage managers and technicians: For keeping the show on the road after opening night and for loyal support to cast and creatives”.

To say that the wording of this encomium drew some interest would be an understatement. “Stage managers LOL,” wrote one stage manager on Facebook on the day of the nominations. It attracted a few hundred arch comments.

Regan and I make a deal. I’ll spend the day with her as a dangerously unqualified assistant as she works on 24 Hour Plays, in which six 10-minute plays are written, cast, rehearsed and performed in the space of a single day. I promise to help with any work that is unskilled and to stay out of the way of anything that isn’t.

In exchange I agree to mention her radiant beauty in print. My hope is that, in these accelerated circumstances, I will get to know more about how stage management works. This, it turns out, is like trying to learn more about the aviation industry by interviewing an airline pilot in the middle of a hijacking.

Saturday, January 31st

5pm

Things begin calmly enough, early on Saturday evening, when Philip Naudé and Eva Scanlan, members of the 24 Hour Company, outline our strictly regimented schedule for the next 29 hours or so. Soon the cast, writers and directors will arrive to pool their ideas, talents and props.

 

The next morning will begin with “stagger-throughs”, which, as the name suggests, are a run through each play, with scripts in hand and terror creeping into the eyes. It is here that the producers, designers and stage managers anticipate needs, foresee problems and serve as a supportive audience.

“ ‘Let me see what I can do,’ is the magic phrase of the weekend,” Scanlan says. “Never promise anybody anything, in order to avoid disappointing them.” This may be one of the most valuable life lessons I have ever received.

Already there is a hum of nervous anticipation about the technical rehearsal, a period of high crisis late in the day, when shows that are nowhere near finished must have their sets arranged, their lights plotted and their lighting and music cues programmed.

The other lesson is more worrisome: stage managers don’t eat. During a rare break between meetings I suggest grabbing a quick dinner from a falafel place across the street. “I’ll probably get a smoothie from the shop,” says Regan. I offer a range of alternatives. “I’ll probably get a smoothie from the shop,” she says. The entire team work through their break. I have already failed the first test of stage management.

7.30pm Later, in a large studio, when Naudé announces the morning call time for actors to collective groans –

it is nearly two hours later than ours – and explains the nerve-jangling schedule, one actor grimaces and disappears into the cowl of her sweater. Regan sits nearby, arms folded, cool as a cucumber.

Sunday, February 1st

 

 

7.45am

The next morning

 

the producers, stage-management team and Dublin Youth Theatre crew assemble in the Abbey and begin reading the fresh scripts, most on their phones. I make it bang on time.

Everyone else has arrived early. Once there are printouts Regan begins looking for a hole punch and, when one cannot be found, seems anxious for the first time. Shortly afterwards Stephen Dempsey, the Abbey’s company stage manager, supplies one, and Regan collects the assembled scripts within a pristine binder.

Certain things are sacred to stage managers: a jealously guarded Leatherman multitool, an entirely black wardrobe, an infinite supply of patience. But this, it turns out, is something more important. It is the prompt copy: the performance bible.

9.45am-2pm Throughout the day

Regan never stops moving, watching stagger-throughs attentively, liaising with Dempsey to secure props, wrestling with unco-operative printers and a barely co-operative apprentice.

“Be nice to everyone,” she says as a general tip as we ascend a flight of stairs into the Abbey auditorium for the dreaded tech. On a makeshift desk Regan opens her binder, sets out a ruler, three pencils and a sharpener, and gets ready to mark her prompt copy. “Are you all set for your exams?” someone asks her. She smiles back, being nice to everybody.

2pm-5.20pm Wearing headsets, Regan stays in

precise, good-humoured communication with Sarah Jane Shiels, the lighting designer, Denis Clohessy, the sound designer, John Gunning, his assistant, and Naudé as a succession of directors and their casts come in to work through their technical rehearsal.

“So, who’s taking the cue notes for this?” Gary Keegan, the director, calls up, calmly and deliberately, while preparing a lively comedy by Róise Goan. “That’d be me,” Regan calls back.

Keegan outlines shifts in lighting and sound, fastidiously timed. Shiels and Clohessy plot and Regan annotates the cues in impeccably neat script: “Lx Q211 – full lights – Go.” “Five seconds.” “Sfx Q1 Go.”

They run the sequence, a comic moment at a yoga retreat that turns surreally cosmic under a shimmer of music and lights that bathes the set in cyan.

Everything is slightly behind schedule – a buffer that Regan had called for in previous years, the “Regan 10”, has been squarely obliterated – but everyone is relaxed enough to watch the scene and even to laugh. Gerry Stembridge is up next. “Caoimhe?” he calls up airily. “You’re a Caoimhe? Most of them are Caoimhe.”

When Regan was 16, a transition-year student at Mount Temple Comprehensive School and a member of Dublin Youth Theatre, she got work experience at the Gate Theatre.

Her first errand, for Donna Leonard, its stage manager, was to go into town and buy some K-Y Jelly for some unspecified use in Selina Cartmell’s production of Festen. After trying every supermarket food section in north Dublin, Regan was finally advised to try a pharmacy.

Later, having been asked to slice up reams of fake money, Leonard inspected the counterfeit bills and brusquely asked, “Who cut this?” Regan owned up. “That’s the smoothest cutting job I’ve ever seen,” she was told.

Soon after Regan’s work experience ended Leonard recruited her for another show, in which Regan’s instincts were noticed and rewarded. “You might be the most naturally talented stage manager I’ve ever met.” For Regan, who was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child, this came as a revelation.

“I grew up thinking I was thick as shit,” she says. “It’s moments like those where you go, That made me feel like I was good at something. When you’re 16 and you’ve spent the last five years failing tests, that’s a big deal.”

Through her last years in school Regan worked professionally as a stage manager on about three shows a year. When she finished she briefly studied theatre at Inchicore College, where most students wanted to be actors, before the lure of full-time work drew her into the profession. She hasn’t looked back.

5.30pm I have been given a set of

cans – headphones – to communicate quietly and secretly with the backstage crew. I’ll also get to sit with Regan backstage as she calls the show, delivering every cue for lights, sounds and entrances from behind two monitors. But first she takes pity on me: “You should take a break.” I agree.

When I come back from dinner, 20 minutes later, my cans have been confiscated, I am no longer allowed to sit with her, and I have been given more heavy-lifting duties. Stage managers do not eat. I bring her a bag of popcorn. “Thanks,” she says. “I’m starving.” She never opens it.

7pm The view backstage is another revelation:

carefully laid out prop tables lined with fake cigarettes, fake whiskey and fake champagne, a corridor of nervous performers and watchful stage managers sharing vigorous critical commentary.

Where do we stand to stay out of the way of the actors, I ask Caoimhe Ní Fhaolain, the assistant stage manager. (Most of them are Caoimhe.) She shakes her head. “The actors stay out of our way.” I’m beginning to realise that theatre happens only because stage managers allow other people to think they are in charge. (Regan dismisses this theory when I share it with her. It doesn’t work if we’re antagonists.)

7.30pm: show time My job tonight is exclusively menial. Still, I’m pretty nervous about it. What if my palms sweat and I drop the chaise longue? What if I can’t see the Lx tape – jargon for electrical

tape – on stage that marks its position, and it ruins Peter Coonan’s performance? What if I’m exposed for not having a headset or being a Caoimhe?

There are reassuring sights, nonetheless: Jerry Fish, a musical guest, pacing nervously offstage; Eileen Walsh carefully positioning her own props; Eva-Jane Gaffney theatrically chewing her knuckles before going onstage, then bringing the house down; or Keith Duffy, fresh from his own performance, watching his son Jay perform through a splinter in the wings, his face a picture of pride.

Regan is on the opposite side of the stage, unseen, but anyone on cans can hear her calmly and quietly calling the shots. “Standby . . . Lx Q210 . . . Go!” In the beginning there was darkness. “Lx Q211 . . . Go!” And then there was light. “Sfx Q1 . . . Go!” And then there was action. “Go! . . . Go! . . . Go!”

The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards take place on Sunday, February 22nd at the National Concert Hall, Dublin. Tickets available from nch.ie. Edited highlights will be broadcast on The Works, RTE One at 8.30pm on Friday, February 27

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