Stage Management (1999)

Over thirty years ago I sneaked into professional theatre via the then established back door employed by the untrained aspiring actor or director who, for one reason or another, had chosen to eschew the formal entry route through drama school. I became an acting Assistant Stage Manager (ASM). Underpaid, if paid at all, this underclass was trapped between full time career Stage Manager and the fully-fledged actor. Stage Managers regarded acting ASMs with a mixture of amusement and contempt.

Acting ASMs, in their professional experience, sat for hours in prop rooms taking three days doing a task badly that would have taken them three minutes to do well, dreaming of the day when they too would tread the boards. Acting ASMs, during performances, often performed their stage managerial duties while still wearing their stage costumes. I once worked the fly gallery in a rather skimpy sarong. I'd never climbed a ladder quite so fast.

Actors (the proper ones) tolerated us, albeit with a certain wariness. We were, after all, inaudible, untrained amateurs wearing rather too much stage make up and often having a tenuous grasp of the text. We were an economic liability foist upon them by a penny-pinching management. We were dang the job that should properly have been done by a trained actor.

In the social order of things acting ASMs could be classed as the tweenies of the theatre. There was, in those days, still a residue of the old theatrical class system left over from a pre-war era which decreed that, while actors were above stairs, stage management belonged very much below stairs. Rarely did the two mix socially. In 1967, when my first West End play was doing its pre London tour, Celia Johnson invited the company, cast and stage management to Sunday lunch at her home near Oxford. Celia was adored by us all as much for her charming self as for her formidable talent. Nonetheless there was a certain social embarrassment when, lunch having been announced, Celia indicated that the sole stage management representative among her guests would be eating separately from the rest of the party in the kitchen with nanny. So fondly was Celia regarded that no one present had the heart to say anything.

In the space of my lifetime I have seen and, needless to say, applauded the change in attitude between the two. Rightly and properly, the relationship between stage manager and performer has became a closer one with (in general!) each respecting the other's craft. I did once have to stop a stage manager, driven to his hysterical limit by an offstage cast devouring his carefully prepared sandwiches, from spraying the food with a mild poison.

Part of this new found respectability is undoubtedly due to the demise of the acting ASM. Stage Management is no longer regarded as something that any passing body can take up at a moment's notice. Part, too, is the seriousness now given to training. With the growth of backstage technology, the running of even a quite straightforward show these days requires enormous presence of mind, cool nerve and fast reflexes.

As a director of a small regional company, I spend most of my year in rehearsal. Other than the cast, the only permanent observer of the production's progress is the Deputy Stage Manager (DSM). She or he (usually she) is our only day to day link with the rest of the building, passing on decisions, potential problems and possible conflicts of interest between departments ('Design department: Miss Jones is now climbing out on to the roof in her crinoline, can both windows be made to open fully, please.'). Importantly for the director, the DSM becomes another pair of eyes. How often have I sneaked a covert glance towards my companion to see if the faint smile still approves the comic climax, or that the blink rate has gone up ever so slightly at the tragic denouement.

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