On the face of it, stage management in Community theatre is a fairly straightforward affair, with a perception of it being a thankless task, writes Megan Lucas.
Usually lacking the resources to ‘call’ a show, as you would in professional theatre, stage management is mainly seen as making sure props and actors are where they need to be when they need to be, and dealing with any problems that might occur along the way. In reality, it is much more complicated than that.
When I stage manage a show, I have two main priorities; doing everything I can to ensure the director(s) can concentrate on the business of directing and doing everything I can to ensure the actors can concentrate on the business of acting. Whilst the previously mentioned basics play a big part in this, it needs a lot more to serve those priorities. At times I act as a counsellor, or a confidential ear to vent into. Occasionally I’ll have to tell someone off, but far more commonly, I’m providing encouragement and praise. During one rehearsal, I was left literally holding the baby. It helps to be prepared for anything and everything, such as when a cast member came to me, seconds before going on stage, with a broken shoe. The answer to that problem was gaffer tape. To be honest, the answer to most problems is gaffer tape.
“If you can’t fix it with tape, you’re not using enough tape.”
There’s a variation of the old lightbulb joke that sums up the attitude a good stage manager needs to have: How many stage managers does it ta…Done! I’m also a lighting tech, so I can’t help but state they are lamps not lightbulbs, but pedantry aside, this perfectly encapsulates the mentality a stage manager needs. Fixing a problem before most have even noticed there is one.
Behind The Scenes | Stage Management in Community Theatre
Some of the most important attributes a stage manager needs are reliability and respect. Without these, it is almost impossible to do the job well. When directors and actors trust that you’ve done your job properly, they don’t need to worry about it, and the whole show benefits. When you’ve given a show your all, and earned the respect of the cast, they’ll respond in turn, and again the whole show benefits. It’s also important to be aware of every last detail of a show, even if it might not seem relevant at first. Depending on the complexity of the play, you’ll often be spinning a lot of plates simultaneously. It’s not uncommon for something unexpected to crop up during a performance, by having that awareness, you stand the best chance of dealing with it calmly and quickly, without letting the plates fall. A stage manager also needs a cool head under pressure.
The relationship a stage manager has with the cast, is quite different to that of a director, particularly during the run, when a play is largely handed over to the stage manager. During the rehearsal period, I’ll make a lot of effort to get to know anyone I’ve not worked with before. This then helps me understand what they need to get the best out of themselves, and is especially useful before a performance. Some actors need peace and quiet, others respond to a pep talk or confidence boost. It’s a nuanced affair, that without the groundwork, would be difficult to get right. The happy side effect of this approach is some wonderful friendships, and hopefully a better performance. It is always worth the effort.
“… if you’re mentioned in a review, something has probably gone wrong… “
Similarly, the relationship with a director is different to that which they have with the cast. I aim to be their friend and confidante. Some directors find the process quite isolating, and the stage manager is in a position to alleviate that. It helps that I’m usually good friends with the directors I work with. I’m currently stage managing Masque’s Madame Bovary, with the directing team of Tamsyn Payne and Alex Rex. This will be our third production together (although we’ve all worked with each other on a number of other projects in different roles), so we have a well-established working relationship, and a close social one. Obviously, this makes life a lot easier for all three of us, but the principles are the same whoever I work with.
Despite the long hours, moments of frustration, and hard work, it is incredibly rewarding. You’re not on stage receiving applause, and if you’re mentioned in a review, something has probably gone wrong, but you’re a big part of making the entire show, and the team behind it, come together. The applause is for you too, and when you’ve done your job well, the cast and crew always make their appreciation known. Having directed, acted and run the technical side of a show, I’ve found that the pride, enjoyment and that post-show feeling when it has gone well, is much the same when stage managing. I would recommend it to anyone, even if it does mean you’ll develop an unhealthy relationship with gaffer tape.
Megan Lucas is a stage manager, lighting & sound designer and technician, set and prop maker and designer, director, playwright and occasional actor. Her next production is Masque Theatre’s Madame Bovary at The Playhouse Theatre, Northampton, 10-14 April 2018