Friday, 27 September 2019

Ladders and Snakes


There is an important little sentence that sometimes you just have to say out loud. And some people say it a lot, and some people hardly at all. It can be a tough thing to vocalize, and sometimes the four words can stick in your throat like a February wind, or a Strepsil you swallowed too fast. But you just have to say it nonetheless.

‘I can’t afford that’.

In my experience there are several different ways to say it.  And I’ve done them all.

You say it when you are a teenager and hanging out with good mates, daft friends, who are maybe in a similar financial situation to you. You say it when it’s normal and okay to not afford things. Like nights out. Clothes from Gap. Day trips. Things that are sometimes just out of your budget. Just a little beyond your reach. But there’s no shame in it, and you all have a sweet and na├»ve understanding of it. Not affording things is okay. It’s a part of life. A tough but bittersweet chapter of growing up. You get your period. You get spots. And sometimes you just can’t have the things you want.

‘I can’t afford THAT!!’ you laugh as you yank at the tag on a slippery genuine leather coat. And then you shove each other and snort and stare back at the shop assistants, before marching out of River Island and down the High Street to C&A. Because there you can find a t shirt with a slogan on it for £6.99. And you’ll wear it with combat trousers and knock off Converse while you drink some Hooch in your best mate’s bedroom and feel like you’re a member of All Saints.

Then there are the times when you are older and finding yourself in awkward social situations where your funds, or lack of, suddenly become something you feel you have to disclose. Company meals. Whip rounds. Weddings.

‘I can’t afford that,’ I practically whispered to my flatmate when the invitation to a Scottish wedding dropped through the letterbox. We were in our early twenties and Michelle was the first in our circle to actually get married. The weekly wage of my fringe theatre gig was not going to stretch to trains, hotels, an outfit that would be suitable in a church and a ‘small’ donation to a fortnight in the Seychelles. I chucked the invite on our mug-laden coffee table where it sat amongst crumb covered plates for weeks, and despondently repeated myself.

‘I just can’t afford that.’

Then there comes the time when you are in your mid-thirties with dependants and nursery fees and a big fucking chip on your shoulder. And you get bold enough to straighten your shoulders, look people in the eye and say

‘I can’t afford that.’

That’s the way I say it now. But it took a long time to get there. And for a while I chose to not say it at all and instead just shouted it inside my mind. Like when the twenty four year old producer at the fringe theatre company wrinkled her nose in disgust when I asked her if there was a computer I could use.

‘What!? You mean you don’t have a laptop?’

Nope, Sasha. I don’t. And on the £350 a week you are paying me, I doubt I’ll be getting one any time soon.

Or you mutter it quietly to yourself when someone at the table of a company meal suggests splitting the bill.

‘Lets just split it eleven ways shall we?’ someone whines. ‘It’s so annoying when everyone has to work out what they had!’

Yes, yes it is annoying. But you know what, Karen? Some of us literally did just have the tricolore and a 7up. So pay for your calzone and pipe the fuck down.

In one of those situations I did actually decide not to just quietly bitch and moan, and I actually spoke up for myself and other company members. A well known television actor was playing the lead in a play I was working on at a regional theatre, and had decided we should all as a company go for dinner, but the restaurant he had chosen was particularly exclusive. The stage management team checked out the website and we were shocked to discover that starters were £27. (I didn’t even scroll down to see the mains. Just shut the window.) When I spoke to the crew and indeed, other cast members, everyone seemed to be saying ‘well I’ll just go and not drink and have a salad’.

What a FUN night out. Like going to a brothel because you fancy spooning.

I attempted to bring this up with the actor in question, but didn’t get too far. He just looked mildly amused and said ‘well Jess, if you can’t afford it, we could always have a whip round.’

True story.

Fortunately most lead actors who earn substantially more than anyone else in a company are not all total arseholes who want to create a weird class divide within their colleagues. Many of them are hugely generous and kind and sensitive to the fact that not everyone can dine in the way that they have become accustomed. But I have also had so many strange and unsettling experiences whilst working in this industry. Nobody ever warned me it would happen. And nobody ever really wants to talk about it. You mostly just have to work it out by yourself.

I grew up in Liscard. In Merseyside. My dad taught at a secondary school in Liverpool, my mum didn’t work and I had two older sisters from my mum’s first marriage. And life was pretty great. We didn’t have tons of spare cash. We never went abroad. But we always had food and shoes that fit and access to culture and activities. We were incredibly fortunate. And I wasn’t really aware that people had it any different. In a time before social media, the windows into a wealthier world were not yet open. And I assumed that having money or living in a house with a pool only really happened to Macaulay Culkin.

Once a week I would get driven half an hour to a slightly more affluent area where my after school theatre club was. I was one of about three people from my borough who went there. The others all lived closer to the village hall where we jumped about in our jazz shoes and tracksuit bottoms. They lived in Heswall.  Or West Kirby. I was vaguely aware of their driveways. Their two cars. Their holidays to hot countries. But it didn’t really bother me. And it didn’t bother them either. We were all too busy learning dance routines to ‘The Wiz’ or seeing who could get into the splits the quickest to talk about that kind of stuff.

It was probably when I got to drama school that I began to work out that there were people who lived a different lifestyle to me. My sister, Jo, was six years older than me and had gone to Hull University. I had visited her on a few occasions and was totally enamored by her student lifestyle. Her and her friends were completely broke, but their tales of counting out pennies on shop counters for Pot Noodles or walking miles home because they had no money for the bus, were always regailed with squawks of laughter, high fives and affectionate eye rolls. My general understanding of student life was that everyone was skint, but you were all skint together. And because of that you made the most of it and got by.

With all of that going round in my head, drama school was quite a shock.

I took a one year stage management course at a very small and not widely respected drama school. It was £2000 for the entire year, which is pretty cheap considering the other three year courses that were available. But it was still very expensive for my folks. So they went into their savings and spread the payments over the year and they did it. I considered myself phenomenally lucky, as I knew that not everybody gets that opportunity to have that level of higher education.

There were no halls of residence so I found a flat near the college and rounded up three other soon-to-be students to share it with me. It was £90 a week in Zone 3 (god bless you 2001), and this was a cost I needed to cover by working evenings as an usherette at ‘The Lion King’. I’d finish college at 5pm, jump on the tube and sell ice creams and drinks before dozing off at the back of the auditorium during the big fight scene between Scar and Simba. Sometimes I would take home loo roll or the bashed up sweets that we couldn’t sell. And of course when we were doing shows at college in the evenings, I couldn’t go to work or earn money. So my wages had to be stretched to their limit. I couldn’t get a student loan as my course was only a year, so I just had to use normal bank loans which would eventually be paid back. With interest.

It was pretty early on that it started to dawn on me that I was having a different student experience to my sister. And actually a very different student experience to the other people around me. At one house party I got chatting to someone on the acting course who, it transpired, lived in the flat where we were doing shots of cheap, throat burning tequila. It didn’t really look much different to mine. Magnolia walls and a sticky bathroom floor and a gas oven with inch-thick grease on the rings. My flat was in Tooting and his was in Clapham which was nearer to the college. I asked him how much the rent was as I was wondering if I should move. He momentarily looked away from me to blow out his fag smoke, and then looked back.

‘Oh I don’t pay rent,’ he shrugged. ‘My dad bought this when I knew I’d be coming here.’ He carried on, oblivious to me trying to swallow a mouthful of Bacardi Breezer mixed with undiluted shock.  ‘It just… you know… made sense.’

I eyed up this fellow student as he bemoaned the issues of being the landlord when some of his mates lived there too, and I tried to get my head around what I had just heard. He looked just like me. Sounded just like me. We both had H&M clothes, shit hair cuts, no phone credit and a palpable uncertainty about the career we were both embarking on.

But his parents had bought him a property.

He wasn’t being a dick about it. And, as he said, they just did it because it made logical, financial sense. It was an investment. An asset. A completely practical thing to do. When I started to write this I looked online at flats in the Clapham area, and compared the prices of them in 2001 to now. And I thought about my old fellow student. His parents, who just like mine, will have paid the money it takes to put their kid through drama school. Yet they will have actually profited from it. Profited from putting their child through college.

He was a delightful young person who wasn’t bragging about his landlord status. To him, it was just quite a normal part of his lifestyle. And as the year wore on I discovered there were many students living in family-owned houses. Or still living at home with their London-based family. Or just having their rent, bills and spending money completely covered by their parents

The following morning was a Saturday, and as I took a paracetomol and started to get ready for a loud, family-filled matinee (Hakuna fucking Matata), I started to realise why my student experience didn’t seem to be as fun as my sister’s.

It was because the majority of other people at my drama school weren’t really like me. The romance of pot noodles and cheap booze and walking miles because you don’t have your bus fare is only really fun if you are doing it with other people. Doing it by yourself is shit. I sometimes wonder if there were actually more people who shared my financial situation, but we were all so busy studying or working to notice.

I reached the end of drama school fairly exhausted, financially broken and in actual proper debt. As I’m sure most people do. I didn’t go to my graduation party as the ticket was £60. So what with the cab ride (no night tubes or ubers in those days) and the new outfit (I’d heard other girls talk about gowns and shoes from Debenhams) I just skipped it. I figured that my horrific social awkwardness meant I woudn’t enjoy it anyway.

And then I was out in the Actual World Of Theatre.

I had stupidly assumed that the financial gap between me and my peers would close up. But if anything it just seemed to get bigger.

My course was absolutely brilliant. I learnt theatre terms and how to make basic props and how to focus lights and mark out a props table and operate a lighting desk. It was an absolutely vital part of me learning the backstage ropes and giving me an understanding of how theatre worked. But I started to notice the difference in my education as I joined other stage management teams in the professional world. The majority of them had trained on three year courses, where what they had learned was far more sophisticated. In my first professional pantomime it became cripplingly obvious that I was out of my depth and had not learnt enough about bigger shows having spent a year working on what was essentially student fringe theatre. My ‘work experience’ was literally stage managing a fringe production of a new play. And I was completely stunned to discover that the graduates of the bigger drama schools had completed work placements at the Royal Court or the National Theatre or the Tricycle or in the West End. I already felt very behind, but getting out there and discovering how ill equipped I actually was destroyed my confidence in a way I never thought possible, and I questioned many times if I should just quit and try to find a new path. So many of my peers and competitors had already made contacts and gained experience that I could only dream of. And even though I knew that we were all at the bottom of our own ladders, I felt like mine had some rungs missing and that I was already lagging behind.

That’s the thing about ladders. It’s all very well having the nouse and determination and drive needed to climb them, but some people’s ladders are already in better condition than others, years before you even know which ladder you want to pursue. And often it feels like some people aren’t going to get a proper ladder at all. Just one of those stupid Ikea things with two steps.

The Bekvam.

It only gets you up to a certain point before you are precariously clambering onto greasy worktops or wobbly tables, quickly coming to the conclusion that whatever you are reaching for is probably not worth the fall you are inevitably going to take.

And you know what, even when I got higher up my ladder, there were often times when I wondered if I was meant to be there at all. So many people in my rehearsal rooms didn’t appear to have the same financial stress as I did, and it crossed my mind on more than one occasion that this was an industry for the elite and maybe I simply didn’t belong. I had never considered myself to be poor or disadvantaged. Far from it. But I did often feel slightly isolated by the theatre world.

All that time spent climbing a ladder. Only to practically search for the snake that would take me back down.

And sometimes colleagues did very little to make me feel any different. The snorts of derision when I didn’t know how to mark up a musical score. Or the eye-rolls when I lacked proper tools or equipment. And even a haughty look of disbelief  from a director when I said I didn’t know the plot of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.

‘You don’t know the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

I know. Crazy, isn’t it? Yes I’m sure you saw it AND studied it AND performed in it whilst you were at St Andrews, but some of us didn’t and, guess what? It’s not some kind of weird theatrical crime to not know the plot of every single Shakespeare by the time you’re 26.

I even vividly remember one technician eyeing up my little Samsung Netbook about two days after I had eventually saved enough to buy it and making his utter disdain known.

‘Why didn’t you just get a Mac?’ he scoffed, ‘They’re the best.’

Maybe it was around that time when I started to stop what I was doing, look people in the eye, and tell them why I didn’t have a Mac. Or why I didn’t come to the company meal. Or why I wasn’t subsidising the props budget until someone could give me petty cash.

‘I can’t afford it’.

Just because you are on the same company wage, it does not mean you have the same annual income. Or property portfolio. The numbers that come up when you all check your bank app on payday can be wildly different. And I’ve been in too many awkward situations where it starts to be clear that not everyone is sensitive to that. Interestingly the place where I have felt this most has been in fringe venues. The company members or creative who do the sums and decide that they have had a good enough year to be able to afford to take the part in the exciting piece of new writing. And the company members who, like me, didn’t have a huge amount of choice but are going to try their best to make it work.

I’m so proud of my route and my journey and the ladder that I got up and the snakes I refused to let pull me down. I left stage management earlier this year and am now at the bottom of a different ladder, but am working out how to climb it nonetheless. I have found an amazing network of creatives, actors, stage management and backstage staff who have all succeeded in this industry against the odds. Who don’t turn their noses up at those who don't know the entire back catalogue of every dead playwright, and who work hard at creating opportunities for people not as fortunate. 

There are also people who were blessed with a smooth and well-made ladder, who do everything they can to get people to climb up it behind them. Before I left the world of production, I would see so many creatives empowering and encouraging their associates, and it gave me real hope.

I also try to pay it forward in the smallest ways that I can. Charities like Arts Emergency are developing and I see the determination from theatrical practitioners to keep the industry as open as possible. But as time goes on I do see less and less people get into this industry via slightly more unconventional routes. Especially young people. The one year stage management course I did is long gone. Even the universities that do offer theatre studies are becoming as crazily unaffordable as drama schools. Work experience slots are in high demand and will mostly get taken up by those on the bank-breaking courses.

The ladders of opportunity for the next generation are being pulled up one by one.

I clearly don’t have the solution to this issue. And this country seems to be so fucked up by people who bypassed the ladder, went round the back and took some magical LIFT that I don’t know how many affordable government-funded schemes are even on offer any more. 

Plus there are too many people who, like myself, reached the top of their ladder and were made to feel so inadequate by some people up there, that they come to the conclusion that theatre is not for them and actually went back down. But something has to be done. Or one day we will just wake up and discover that theatre is entirely made by the elite for the elite.

And we simply can’t afford that.

Thank you so much for reading this. If you enjoyed it please do share. 

Friday, 24 August 2018

Like a Press Night Without a Tech

‘So when are you due?’ asked the young actor stood before me, politely. He was handsome and sweet and barely out of drama school. It was probably one of his first auditions, maybe his first ever audition. He compulsively adjusted the strap of his messenger bag for the fifth time since arriving whilst I checked his name off on my clipboard and patted the wriggling elastic-clad bulge between us. My belly button jutted out prominently above the waistband of my maternity jeans, and every now and again a small elbow or foot would ripple under my stretched skin.

‘Yesterday’, I smiled.

His eyes widened as he tried to form his next sentence without causing any offence or accidentally calling me fat or mad or something. He’d been about the tenth person to ask me that morning, and I was still enjoying everyone’s response at my answer.

I was stage managing the auditions for a huge 18 month international tour. Hordes of hopeful actors and actresses had been streaming in and out of the doors all day, either for acting auditions or a movement workshop. And every single one of them was being greeted by me; a slightly breathless woman who looked as if she had recently ingested a well inflated beach ball.

‘There’s two people before you’, I said. ‘Just take a seat.’

The fresh-faced hopeful warily cast a glance over my slightly animated bump one more time before sitting on the bench and reading his crumpled script. And as he did so I discreetly looked over at him and thought for the fiftieth time that day that my son or daughter would be almost a year old by the time this tour finished.


The chaotic nature of the weeks surrounding my due date meant that my usually tight schedule was in freefall. I could barely plan the next fortnight, never mind think about this time next year. Would I be back at these rehearsal studios tomorrow? Would I be holding a baby in my arms by tonight? Would I be able to meet a friend for lunch next Thursday? My life was full of wait-and-sees. Whereas if the actor sat across from me did actually get this job, his entire life would be planned out for him over the next year and a half.

Call times, meal breaks, trains, flights, check out times.

Months and months of schedules and rigid theatrical time keeping. And I couldn’t even fully commit to a cup of tea with a friend the following morning.

The day before, on the morning of my due date I had woken up so hopeful and certain that this baby would adhere to the same approach towards time keeping as his or her mother. But there was no sign whatsoever.

(Except for the previous and rather fraught weekend when, during a shopping trip in Ikea, I thought that my waters had finally broken. But it transpired that the pressure from the baby teamed with the excitement of meatballs at 11am had simply caused me to unceremoniously piss myself in the glassware section.)

So when the theatre company called and said they were still a person short to run these auditions, I waddled in and carried on as normal.

‘You’re crazy!!’ my friends cried. ‘Chill out!! Watch Netflix!! Rest up!!’ The people in my friendship circle who were already mothers helpfully suggested that I slept, before rising an eyebrow and darkly adding ‘WHILE YOU STILL CAN.’ But I just couldn’t. I was so terrified that once this baby came I would have to abruptly end my career entirely. So I stubbornly and steadfastly continued to stage manage, until I literally couldn’t stage manage any more.

Another week passed by and even the theatre company wouldn’t let me run auditions anymore. My impending labour was making everyone a little nervous, and auditions are generally considered nerve-wracking enough without the looming threat of a stage manager suddenly bringing a new life into the mix. So I accepted an offer to go and do admin work at the Stage Management Association. For several days I sat at a desk looking out over Borough Market and working on spreadsheets. I spent my time processing joining fees and chasing late subs whilst my very late baby kicked the edge of the desk in front of me. The days after my due date kept passing and passing, until finally myself and my midwife couldn’t wait any longer, and the decision was made to get him or her out by any means necessary. Like when those hostage movies ultimately end with the FBI storming into the overtaken building to heroically retrieve and rescue the innocent. Except it wasn’t beefcakes with guns breaking down a reinforced door, but NHS staff workers putting entire hands into my vagina in a rather unromantic bid to birth my baby.

But despite prods and pokes and pills and drips, my baby remained firmly tucked up far beyond my birthing canal. So on a cloudy and otherwise uneventful April evening, I found myself lying on an operating table with a numbed body and a racing mind whilst I waited for the medical professionals surrounding me to physically pull another human being out from deep within my body.

The world’s greatest magic trick.

I looked up into the brightness of the overhead lights above me before scrutinizing the masked faces for expressions of alarm or worry. And before I knew it, the light was briefly blocked by the small body of a tiny girl as she was passed from surgeon to nurse and finally to me. Grey and wrinkled and beautiful and already screaming furiously at the injustice of the world.

Not even 24 hours passed before I was back at home with this new bundle of flesh and bones, which finally filled out all of those freshly washed and folded baby-gros. She screamed waterless tears if she wasn’t fed every ninety minutes, and when she did feed she fed for at least an hour. But then sometimes she would sleep for four hours at a time and then feed for twenty minutes. On her first weigh in, the health visitor informed me she had lost just over ten percent of her body weight and that I needed to ‘take it up a notch’.  

So I did.

We entered this relentless cycle of breast feeding and barely sleeping. And during those dry-mouthed hours of endless sofa time, I found I had a lot of time to think.

And the thing I thought most of all was,

I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.

I had been on the NCT course and I had read the books and scoured the internet and been told about the dangers of putting your baby in a microwave. But now she was here.

My daughter.

I was a parent.

And I didn’t have a fucking clue.

I have been a stage manager since I was nineteen years old. It’s all I’ve ever done. All I’ve ever known. I used to be bad at it and then I worked at it and got better. And then suddenly I just wasn’t a stage manager anymore. And I was having to learn how to do and be something completely different. I know it sounds completely and utterly batshit mental, but I felt like nobody had really warned me of this. I had been told about sleepless nights and sandpapered nipples and crying for no reason at ‘Neighbours’. But I felt strangely angry that no one had sat me down and said ‘so you know that thing you’ve done for sixteen years? You’re just going to wake up one morning and not do it anymore.’

I had even refused to let my pregnancy get in the way of work. And for the latter part of those nine months, I had worked as a CSM on a busy West End show. Every single day from 9am until midnight I composed emails and looked after the cast and sorted out tickets and made unplanned visits to hospitals and answered phone calls and reassured and planned and scheduled and soothed and then

It just stopped.

I wasn’t needed.

At least I wasn’t needed by that particular company of actors. My new tiny baby needed me for literally everything. How we ever survived as a human race always baffles you once you’ve had a baby, because they are completely fucking useless by themselves. I now watch nature programmes about baby animals with fascination, and marvel at baby lizards being born and instantly knowing how to make their way to their parents at the shore. Human babies know how to make a noise so loud and irritating that you would rather slice off your own ears with a blunt pair of nail scissors than listen to it anymore. But that’s about it.

So of course I was needed. And needed by the most important human being in my life. But without a strict daily schedule to adhere too, or any kind of rehearsal or performance call to send out, I felt completely and utterly lost.


Now this is a hard thing to admit. And a very complex issue to publish on the internet. But motherhood didn’t come to me very naturally, and I didn’t relish being the centre of attention immediately after the birth. I felt fat and hot and inadequate, and I struggled with the fact that I had to get my boobs out whenever my daughter needed to eat. Which just seemed to be all the bloody time. I was not prepared for this whole section of Keeping a Baby Alive and had no breastfeeding clothes or nursing bras. In fact I didn’t really have any clothes at all. My maternity clothes were instantly useless, and I was still too round, too circular, too chubby, for any of my old stuff. For the first week I lived in my husbands t-shirts and some trackie bottoms and tried to shy away from iPhone cameras which seemed to be pointing at me so much at a time when I desperately wanted to hide away.

During this time of working out how to parent and breastfeed and soothe, I really wanted to shut the door and just work it all out with my husband and my daughter and no one else. I wanted some rehearsal. A workshop. A warm up. I needed time to go over my lines and ready myself in the wings. But I was just out there. On stage. Feeling naked and vulnerable and like every bad dream that every actor has ever had. There was this whole whirlwind of joy and excitement about the arrival of this incredible new person, created by myself and the love of my life. And right in the centre of it was me. Exposed and nervous and vulnerable and feeling like I just wasn’t doing ‘It’ right.

An unprepared and clumsy novice.

A press night without a technical rehearsal.

And whilst I tried to work out how to parent and breastfeed and pack a baby bag correctly, I also tried to understand exactly what I was meant to be doing in the day. I was so baffled by my lack of timetable and structure. As someone who doesn’t really binge watch TV I didn’t see why I should start now. And other than cooking and cleaning and general housework, I struggled to find stuff to do.

Of course I did go out and meet up with other mums. I did baby sensory. Which I loved. And baby massage. Which I didn’t. I found leaving the house scary and anxiety inducing and I always seemed to forget some vital piece of baby equipment. Baby classes felt like a test, not an activity. I developed an unhealthy obsession with my Fitbit as a way of giving myself some purpose. And actually it kind of helped. If I could get my 10,000 steps in every single day, I was doing alright. If the number on my wrist hit the jackpot and buzzed and showed me a tiny little fireworks display, it meant that I was doing fine. That I had achieved something. That I had not just stayed indoors all day languishing in my own breastmilk.

‘I DID 17,000 STEPS TODAY’ I would proudly bellow at my husband as he walked through the door in the evening. And then I would stand there, flushed with pride and achievement, and wait for him to praise the fact that I had literally Just Walked Around A Bit.

And sometimes I just made up completely bizarre reasons to walk, simply so I could get in those steps and see that number on my wrist. One morning my husband said he wanted some really good bacon as he was going to make breakfast for some friends the following weekend So I walked three full miles from Walthamstow to the Ginger Pig in Victoria Park to buy some bacon. And then I walked three full miles back. I walked a six-mile round trip pilgrimage for some independent artisanal pork. Just so that my Wednesday afternoon could have some purpose.

And then came the tears. In the years that he has known me, my husband could probably count on one hand the number of times he has seen me cry. But once the baby came he was seeing it once, twice, three times a day. One evening he walked through the front door and was met by me; tear-streaked and breathless and panting ‘I’M NOT THE WOMAN YOU FELL IN LOVE WITH ANYMORE.’ Not only had motherhood taken its toll on my mental health but I was also behaving as if I was starring in a particularly badly written episode of ‘The Archers’. And as a response my amazing husband calmed and soothed me every single time and told me I was brilliant and wonderful and not that fat really. And I would stay relatively sane for the next few hours until I would just start crying again.

So in addition to my unfulfilling schedule of Walking And Crying, I experimented with my slow cooker and posted photos of my baby on Instagram and read other mummy blogs and somehow I felt like I was doing it all wrong. Like I was supposed to be getting something amazing and magical out of all of this free time.

But I didn’t.

I just wanted to get back to work.

So when the call came in offering me a job as a Deputy Stage Manager on a high profile show, I didn’t even think. My baby was seven months old and I was just so relieved that the Company Stage Manager, someone I had worked with several times before, hadn’t just written me off because I’d had a baby. So I said yes. I had put my baby on a nursery waiting list when I was four months pregnant because I’m a neurotic psychopath, and so after much discussion with my husband and the grandparents, who would also be caring for my daughter, we went in.

The play was three and a half hours long.

There were two intervals.

Over thirty scene changes.

All done by a large ensemble company.

So it wasn’t exactly a gig I could just phone in, and in hindsight was maybe not the best project for a woman who had just had a baby and spent the last few months slowing losing the plot. It was hard and relentless and there were evening rehearsals and Saturday rehearsals and hordes and hordes of children, so in addition to endless complex blocking I had to remember not to fucking swear. But I just absolutely loved it. I was tired and exhausted but simultaneously exhilarated and challenged. I sat on the tube each evening with a head full of scene orders and setting lists and baby-led weaning ideas and I just relished every moment. I think people were bewildered that I had accepted the position in the first place, and were then maybe more surprised that I enjoyed it so much. But I did. It wasn’t easy or without its complications and I would be lying if I said I never struggled. Early on in the process my daughter got sick and the nursery couldn’t take her, which resulted in me missing an afternoon of rehearsals. But the team covered me and supported me and helped me to understand it was ‘just one of those things.’ There were times when I sat in a rehearsal thinking I should be at home. And times when I was bathing my daughter and thinking that I should be working on a running list. And I still cried for no reason. Or many reasons. And I still had moments of feeling lost and adrift.

But I was reassured to be back in a world that I understood.

During the tech we moved intervals and entire scenes and we cut things and wrote new things. And I sat at the top of my perch with a printer at my feet literally throwing new scenes at actors and feeling almost breathless with how good it felt to be dealing with the usual pressures of a show and to have my mind racing again. In some stressful moments during the run I craved the smell of the top of my babies head, but I knew that she was safe with her father or one of her grandparents, who were all caring for her tirelessly so that I could work. And when I got home late at night, I would sneak in to see her and whisper that I loved her. And then almost crave the moment when she would wake at 2am, so that I could go in and feed her and mumble rubbish to her about understudy rehearsals and running times.

Working on a show of that scale with a baby that young did take its toll though. And by the end of it, we as a family were all exhausted. So I took a break from work and had a few weeks of being a full time mum again. Although this time something had shifted. The fear which had encompassed me several months before had passed, and I found it easier to enjoy the time I had with my baby, who was becoming more and more like a little girl by the day. Jobs came in, but experience taught me to examine each role more carefully, and work out whether it was good for me and for my family. I said many no’s and a couple of yes’s. And I am still finding my feet as a stage manager and a parent. My last project was an incredible play with a cast of just four and it fitted. It fitted me and my baby, and prompted a confidence within me that stage managing really was going to be a viable option.

When my little girl was just over a year old, I saw a tweet about how that large international tour was coming to a close. I looked at the accompanying photograph and saw faces I recognized from that audition process. During my first year as a parent, these men and women had formed friendships and relationships and travelled around the world. And of course it would be really easy for me to end this post by saying something like ‘AND OF COURSE I MYSELF HAVE BEEN ON AN IMPORTANT JOURNEY’.

But I haven’t really.

I mean, I’ve been to the Mothercare on the North Circular several times. And I’ve been to a Sports Bar with a soft play in Center Parcs and declared it paradise. But I haven’t really been on a journey. I’ve just become a mum, same as millions of other women around the world every single day. And I’ve done it in my own way and at my own pace and that’s all any of us can do. I don’t think any less of women who choose to stop working when they have a baby. And I would hope that they don’t think any less of me. And yeah, maybe working a job where you basically have to give a large proportion of your wage to a nursery is slightly daft. And maybe eventually I will have to throw in the towel and do something completely different.

But for now, I’m going to stage manage. And I’m going to parent. And there will be times when I am making mistakes and letting someone down and tripping up in front of my audience and wondering what my fucking lines are.

Sometimes it still feels just like a press night without a tech, and I don’t think that will ever change. But I’m slowing starting to learn how to care less about the critics.

And I’m trying hard not to be the worst critic of all.

Thanks so much for reading this. I'm on Twitter as @agirlinthedark and also have a Facebook page 'Girl In The Dark'. If you would like to share it you can click on 'more' on the top left or just copy and paste the tiny url which is here 

Saturday, 23 December 2017

This House

Several years ago I was working as Deputy Stage Manager in a theatre where I cued the performance from a position within the auditorium. I was basically sat within the audience, which gave me a clear view of the stage and also of all my fellow punters. For some reason I found this fairly nerve wracking at the beginning, and dealing with unexpected situations whilst buried within the theatregoers was strange and unsettling. But after a while I relaxed into it and realised that people-watching during the slow bits was actually rather fun.

One day about five minutes into a Spring matinee, I saw a shaft of harsh light suddenly streak across the stage. It got the attention of myself and the cast and the half-sold auditorium. And it didn’t take long for me to realise that a Fire Exit had somehow been forced open, and that five teenage boys had entered the theatre. There was no way that they were ticket holders and so I was immediately tense. Would they go onstage? Disrupt the performance? Find a route around to the dressing rooms and rob the whole company? It was confusing and a little distracting, but the play continued, and so myself and several ushers just watched the boys to try to work out what their plan was.

I have no idea if they had heard anything about the production or if they were simply opportunists who had decided to try and access the building on a casual Wednesday afternoon whim. But whatever it was, they found five empty seats (which wasn’t hard), sat down and turned their attention to the ninety minute piece which was being performed in front of them.

After ten minutes they still hadn’t moved, and attempting to get a member of Front of House to remove them would have been incredibly disruptive. So we did nothing. And they did nothing. They didn’t seem to want to cause trouble, and as I continued to keep an eye on them I was pleased to see that they were just responding as the rest of the audience was; laughing at the jokes and gasping at the plot twists and seemingly having a pretty good time. They clapped heartily throughout the curtain call and then simply exited via the Fire Door through which they had entered. I never got to talk to them and I still don’t know why they did it. The result of the whole episode was that the Fire Door got fixed and a group of lads saw a matinee for free which was half empty anyway. Okay, so it was a bit distracting and they saw a play without paying. But I didn’t feel any malice towards them. And as I wrote about them in the show report I mostly just thought about how much they seemed to have enjoyed their experience and how little harm was actually done.

They were surprisingly respectful.

And myself and the cast respected that.

I was reminded of this episode when I noticed a video being shared widely on social media.


Usually I’m fairly allergic to click-baity bullshit videos. Maybe I’m a sad old woman but I can’t abide the strange narcissism which accompanies Facebook Live, and I am baffled by the Youtube generation where people are famous for everything yet simultaneously nothing. But I clicked on this one as I was under the impression it took place at the National Theatre and OBVIOUSLY that was something that interested me, what with being a total theatre nerd and all.

And then what took place over the next fifteen minutes provoked such an uncharacteristically odd mixture of reactions that I wanted to open the laptop and self-indulgently inflict my muddled thoughts onto the internet.

So here goes.

The video starts with these two young guys managing to gain access to the National Theatre via an open door on the roof. Obviously this has prompted the National Theatre to review their security measures in light of recent terrorist activity. That is a subject which is a little too complex for me to tackle right now, and I'm also not discussing the security guard. So lets just shelve the whole terrorist/security argument for the time being and concentrate on the lads and their own intentions. 

Once inside the building they find their way to the Olivier Stage, and what immediately happens is sweet and strangely compelling.

‘Oh my god! Are you seeing what I’m seeing? This looks fucking SICK, bro.’

And of course they’re right. They are looking down on to the Olivier floor and then panning up above it. I have lain down on the stage of many a theatre simply to gaze up into various fly floors and be struck by the complexities and parallel lines and pure fucking physics which means that several tonnes of set and cloths and lights can be suspended right above your head. And the shot from the narrow balcony where they are filming from is pretty breathtaking. How often do we get the opportunity to see the actual nuts and bolts of just what holds a production as ambitious as ‘Follies’ together? The fact that it isn’t a fancy, professional marketing video makes it even more fascinating. It’s hard not to feel slightly envious of them and admire their appreciation for the equipment and the atmosphere and the striking aesthetic of a backstage environment.

They then get out onto the roof and we see a shot of the London skyline in all of it’s fabulous and shining glory.

‘An incredible view!’ they exclaim.

The view is indeed spectacular and it’s encouraging to see these kids so engaged with something as stunning and yet so simple. For a brief moment I got a little swept up in the adventure of it all and started to champion these guys, these plucky little ruffians. Their enthusiasm and curiosity is infectious and buoyant and I breathlessly wondered just what we would see next.

So they get off the roof and go back into the theatre.

And then it all begins to go horribly wrong.

The two lads begin to clamber around the rig and over the bridges, often both on one bar simultaneously, and the view of the drop down to the stage started to make me feel very uncomfortable. My understanding of lighting rigs and set construction is pretty poor, but I know that a lot of thought and consideration go into how much weight can go onto each individual bar. And the dramatic consequences if the weight is then unbalanced. I was also struck by how their limited theatrical knowledge meant they weren’t exactly clear on what they were walking on. For example, if one of them had moved a safety chain, would they be aware of the danger they were putting staff and company members in?

And also, what about the bloody focus? When I watched the video I tried to imagine I was a member of the ‘Follies’ lighting department, and just how enraging it would be to witness someone literally walk all over your work.

Then things take an even darker turn. The guys start to descend down several floors by way of the railings. The shots are fairly stomach churning, as the drop to the concrete floor is a long one. One of them clambers down to the next floor below and grips onto a bar. But the bar slides and slightly swings him out over the drop.

It’s a truly horrid moment and the shake in Ally Law’s voice confirms that this is an unexpected event and they are both aware of the fatal accident that almost just occurred. The bar is not connected to anything and Harry almost falls four floors to his untimely death. Ally is clearly unnerved but is soon joking about the situation.

‘This place is dangerous, man!’

Oh piss off, you fuzzy chinned twerp.

The amount of planning, effort and administration which goes into keeping that building (or any theatre building) safe is phenomenal. And the disrespect that these guys show for it is maddening. If Harry had fallen, only to be split in two on the solid and sudden floor below, I can’t even begin to imagine the effect that would have. As a parent I now obviously view everyone as someone’s baby. But in addition to the loss of human life I can’t help but think about the effect a tragedy like that would have on the mental well being of the staff at the NT. Having a young innocent slip and fall from a loose bar in your building would be absolutely devastating, regardless of the fact that it would be down to the boy’s own foolishness.

Ally does have the grace to admit that they ‘shouldn’t be climbing down the fucking side’ anyway, Which is true. But my patience and admiration for these guys was swiftly running out. However, some of the footage they were getting was still fairly riveting, so I found it hard to switch it off.

They make their way down to the stage itself.

And it’s absolutely beautiful.

Being able to look out into an empty auditorium from the deserted Olivier stage is a rare opportunity. And I would like to think that Ally and Harry appreciate this. At least they seem to.

And it’s round about here that I start to guiltily enjoy the film again, and get fascinated by the cheerful arrogance of a boy performing parkour on a world renowned stage, when he carelessly diced with death just moments before.  

The two then discover they have been plunged into darkness and are now locked within the building. They find a set of tabs to sleep on (anyone who has ever genuinely had to sleep in a theatre won’t have been that impressed) and the next day they leave the building just before ten, although it transpires that this is not as easy as entering. Gates have been secured overnight and they need to find an alternative route that involves a drop in order to leave. On their way out they babble on about merchandise and how to buy posters and calendars and how to win a Go-Pro and then they’re gone. And it’s done.

They didn’t steal anything. They didn’t graffiti on anything or purposefully damage anything. And they seemed to be genuinely impressed with what they saw.

Yet the way they went about it felt a million miles away from those five teenage boys who forced their way into a theatre to watch a play.

For so many of us a backstage area is such a sacred environment. We clean it. We organise it. We spend our lunchtimes and dinner times in it. We do painstakingly detailed shout checks in order to prepare it. And we will spend quiet periods of performances arranging it for the following day.

Nobody expects anyone not involved within the production to trespass on it or move costumes or dangle from bars. And nobody expects anyone to then take their slightly disturbing experience and share it so widely on the internet. Their ability to simply use the National as a way of getting more hits and likes and comments is sadly casual and disrespectful.

In some ways I am glad that they accessed a building which should be so accessible to all. I’m glad that they witnessed the backstage of the National Theatre in all it’s historical glory. And looking at the 300,000 hits that it’s clocking up, it’s good to see that many other people are getting to see just how brilliant it is too.

I just wish, that like those other boys, they had done it with a little more respect.

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