For this particular show I have a rather complex pre-set. But during the show itself, I only really have one main responsibility; The Sliding Doors.
These are two doors in a wall which slide open in opposite directions. In the presence of the Designer and the Director, they are always, always, referred to as the Sliding Doors. But when discussed in the pub or on cigarette breaks with certain colleagues, they are referred to as the Blankety Blank Doors or the Star Trek Doors. I’m sure I don’t need to explain why.
Throughout the performance, actors constantly enter and exit through the Sliding Doors. An unsuspecting audience member could almost believe that these doors were Automatic and similar to those found at the entrance of supermarkets. But this is theatre and we are on a budget. A bloody tight budget. (Believe me, it’s lucky we have Sliding Doors at all and not just a Big Arch).
So during a performance, an actor will go to leave the stage and about three seconds before they reach the Sliding Doors, the doors will slowly open for them to disappear through. And just before an actor enters the stage, the doors swish open to reveal the actor standing in the doorway, beautifully lit and ready to deliver lines of great importance and magnitude. Once the actor has passed through the doors, they slide shut almost instantly behind them.
If you’re a firm believer in the Magic of Theatre, then I suggest that you look away now as I am about to dispel any myths. Those Sliding Doors are operated by yours truly. Throughout the show I constantly lurk behind one of them in my black clothes and listen attentively over my headset for my cues.
On that command I pull at my Door and it opens. Thanks to some technical trickery, the other Door also swishes open in the opposite direction. Once I have calculated that the actor has either exited or entered, I push them shut. Although sometimes I wait a second longer as I have a recurring nightmare that I will shut them too soon and unwittingly trap a cast member in between my Star Trek Doors and cause a theatrical (yet comical) disaster.
When I prepare myself to swish open the Doors for an actor’s grand entrance, I always ensure that I am not looking directly at the actor and that my facial expression is earnest. I am so terrified of distracting them and I want them to be aware that I take my role as Chief Door Opener incredibly seriously.
This play is grim and the actors are playing intricate, multifaceted roles. The last thing they need is a stage manager distracting them and diverting their concentration from the crucial lines they are about to deliver. Just before a cast member enters we may accidentally make eye contact but I will always look away quickly, maybe even slightly apologetically. If unplanned eye contact happens, I will then turn my head slightly from the actor and focus on a spot in the darkness. I then try to breathe as inaudibly as possible and just concentrate on listening for the command from my headset.
During tonight’s performance, I inexplicably made eye contact with an actor who was waiting for the Sliding Doors to sweep open and reveal him in the doorway. In a moment of madness and without thinking I smiled at him.
But he did not smile back. I swallowed and looked away but even in the darkness I was aware that his eyes were still resting on my face.
Bollocks, I thought. Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks. He is about to go on and I have committed the unspeakable stage management crime of distracting him just before he enters.
I tighten my grip on my Sliding Door and finally he looks away from me and stares ahead, obviously concentrating on the forthcoming scene. By this point in the run I know the script well and there can only be about five seconds left before I pull apart the doors so that this man can enter.
He licks his lips, draws breath, and keeping his face forward, he slides his eyes towards me.
Oh my god. Is he going to speak to me? Now? Right now? Right before he enters? Surely not.
But just before I pull the doors open, I distinctly hear a gravelly but eloquent voice murmur;
‘Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be....’
And then the doors are open. And he’s on.