Saturday, 1 September 2012


Sometimes, being a Stage Manager is pretty shit.

There. I said it.

It seems to me that admitting this fact or saying it out loud is slightly frowned upon. It’s one of those thoughts which I have on a regular basis, but feel that vocalising it will cause those around me to look slightly awkward or instantly demand to know why I would say such a thing. Or just roll their eyes and mutter ‘Oh Jess.’ I have lots of these thoughts about all kinds of stuff, all the time, but experience and gut instinct tells me to keep quiet. Mostly.

Here are some examples.

·         I quite like One Direction

·         I don’t think I did enjoy your play.

·         I think your baby is ugly

These are things I keep to myself. But recently I have decided that, us stage managers, instead of sitting round in pubs and sharing our hilarious anecdotes and trying to outdo each other with stories of the best prop or the most complex scene change, we should talk about, how sometimes, our industry is actually sometimes tough and stage managers get a raw deal.

It’s the truth. A terrible and painful truth.

If I ever become a stage management tutor (which is unlikely), I think that would be the very first lecture that I would give, just so that all my students knew what they were getting themselves into.  Within the thick walls of whichever drama school had employed me (most likely one which was lenient on the old CRB checks), all the different departments would be working away; the lighting guys would be fiddling with gobo frames, the production management course would be perfecting the art of looking busy but not actually doing anything, the sound technicians would be learning how to be an expert on everybody else’s departments except their own and the actors would be learning how to lie with feeling.

But in my class, the SM students would be sat, staring morosely at a blackboard where I had, somewhat manically, scrawled the words

‘Sometimes, being a stage manager is pretty shit’.

Thirty grand well spent.

Although, to be honest, I doubt I am the first to uncover this revelation.

Over the past few years I have regularly heard friends say, ‘I am giving up stage management to have children’. But more and more recently I am hearing other statements such as;

‘I am giving up stage management to become a massage therapist.’ Or ‘I am giving up stage management to become a teacher.’ And even once,

‘I am giving up stage management as I have discovered that I have a rare gift which enables me to establish a telepathic communication with animals.’

I shit you not.

You may mock but out of all my friends who have left the profession of show, she is by far the most successful. Probably a lot more successful than my friends who have uttered the fateful words,

‘I am giving up stage management to become a photographer.’


The photography industry has been flooded by embittered stage managers and struggling actors alike. It appears that if you have a Crumpler bag, a camera with a neck strap and an unhealthy habit of taking black and white snaps of graffiti in Hackney, you can become a freelance photographer.

Although I also blame Instagram for this phenomenon.

Fucking Instagram.

Can I just take this moment to say that for many years I was perfectly happy not knowing what my friends consumed for every single meal? If I wanted to know what they had indulged in during mealtimes, I would politely enquire. I do not need to constantly see dingy, scratched up, ‘ironic’, faux-seventies photos of fry-ups, fajitas, roast dinners or picnics on tartan rugs. With a smug little caption of how this is ‘Bliss.’

And please, please, stop referring to food as ‘nom-nom’s’. Unless you are of an age where you are being spoon-fed by an adult using the much-loved ‘aeroplane’ technique, using baby talk on social media is just not acceptable.

Is that another one of those thoughts I shouldn’t actually vocalise?


Well anyway, I digress. I often press these ex-stage managers on their reasons for leaving the industry and get the usual answers; they want to settle, they don’t want to tour anymore, the hours don’t fit with having children, they’ve slept with so many actors that they are no longer able to enter a rehearsal room without a member of the company blushing a deep shade of ‘oh-god-we’ve-fucked’.  
But I know the real reason. I KNOW!
They are leaving because sometimes, being a Stage Manager, is a bit shit. They know this, I know this, but NOBODY IS SAYING IT!

I haven’t written this blog for a really long time because, a few months ago, I ended up doing one of those jobs which every stage manager has done at one point in their lives. One of those stage management jobs which just seems to drain you of all your personal resources until there really is nothing left. One of those jobs that, even when you are not in the theatre, you are still in the theatre. My head was constantly trying to deal with the issues and the frustrations and every time my Blackberry vibrated with an e mail, a text or a phone call, it took all my effort not to fling open the window of my boat and chuck my phone into the murky Thames water.

There was one morning when I was lying in bed, trying to muster up the energy to get myself up and showered and on the tube to go and deal with whatever tiresome rubbish was waiting for me at the venue, and I suddenly realised that this sensation was unsettlingly familiar. There had been a previous point in my life when I had felt that everything was futile, when I had felt this despondent, frustrated, exhausted and…. well…. crap.

And suddenly it struck me what this emotion was and why I had felt it before.

It was heartache.

Genuine, throbbing heartache. But my cracked core was not stinging because of a failed relationship. And I wasn’t grieving because it was no longer possible for me to wake up and bury my nose and cheek between the shoulder blades of the object of my misplaced affection. This breathtaking melancholy was being provoked by a play. Just a play. That was all.

In the interview I was told that I was basically a stage management team of one. But that was okay as the play was so ‘simple’ and ‘straightforward’. But it soon became apparent that this play was anything but. There were fights, blood, flying pieces, a finale scene which involved a meal set for six, a stage which got covered in filth and scuff marks yet had to be spotless and gleaming each night.

Each afternoon I would get to the theatre about three and hear the words ‘You’re in early!’ as I passed people from the office. It took all my energy not to stop, whirl on my heel and fiercely explain that to have the show up and running by seven thirty I HAD to be in at this time.

The props were extensive and fiddly with a lot of running stuff and food which constantly had to be bought and prepared. The stage needed to be swept and mopped but then to get rid of the scuff marks, I had to liberally throw Cif everywhere before getting on my hands and knees to perform a vigorous and repetitive move which is only really seen in hardcore pornographic films.

Then of course there was the rig check and the speaker check. And the costumes.

This venue was what they call ‘green’ and so did not believe in having a tumble dryer.

How nice for them.

I am all for saving the environment but question how I am meant to dry the costumes for a cast of eight without the practical means. Well, the answer is Mother Nature. But when you are in a damp, basement level venue, even Mother Nature is going to shrug her shoulders at you and look slightly perplexed. The only way I could really do it was to get them washed the night before and hang them around the venue. The washing machine would churn away while I boiled a kettle in order to do the large amount of washing up. Oh, did I mention the venue had no hot running water either?

And if the following day was a matinee there was no guarantee that the clothes would be dry in time for the show having received no air throughout the night. So I would power up the several gas fires and hang the garments in front of them, using god knows how much energy and occasionally scorching them in the process.

It must be said that the cast and director were unbelievably understanding and supportive. They were very aware of the problems within the venue and helped in any way they could. Although of course, they were dealing with their own problems; the dressing room conditions and the low audience figures. Both of which are understandably frustrating for people who have worked hard and trained for their craft.

Now, don’t read this and think that I am moaning because I have only ever worked in large, well-funded venues. If you look back at my past blog posts, you can see that I have worked in similar venues and been perfectly happy. The venue above the pub for instance. Yes it was not ideal and yes it could be a lot of work. But there is a huge difference between ‘a lot of work’ and ‘too much work.’ Especially considering the meagre wage I was receiving.

My attempts to communicate with the-powers-that-be that coming in at three and leaving at midnight was not right were ignored. But like all bad jobs, I knew the contract was one day going to end and so thought that I could just get my head down and get on with it. Which was an okay coping strategy but I think it was the night of Literary Death Match when I lost all patience and positive thought.

Literary Death Match had booked in to perform on my stage after our performance had finished one Friday night. It was an event which was part of a larger festival taking place in the area. As soon as my show came down at about nine, I had to quickly sweep and mop the stage before the Literary Death Match people descended and took over the space for a couple of hours. As the washing machine was right next to the space, I would not be able to get it running straight after the show as it would 'disturb the literature'. I would have to wait until they had finished before starting the machine and then I would have to wait for the machine to complete two cycles so I could attempt to get the costumes and white linen tablecloth dry before the matinee the following day.

In order to be set-up and scuff-mark-free for the matinee I would need to be in at ten am. But with the Literary Death Match going on till half eleven and the washing machine cycles taking 45 minutes each, I would not be leaving the venue till one am.

And the icing on the cake?

It was my thirtieth birthday.

A bespectacled young man sporting red skinny jeans and a knitted jumper with two pugs on the front approached me, his lovely big brown eyes blinking at me through thick rimmed glasses. He sweetly asked me if I would like to come inside and watch Literary Death Match but I politely declined even though I was slightly intrigued. To this day I’m not really sure what happens during Literary Death Match but I like to think that all those East London types bludgeon each other around the head with hardback copies of Austen and Coelho until one of them finally falls to their knees with a caved in skull.

So I just sat outside with my bottle of red wine. I had heard whisperings from the company that they were planning to get me a cake, but fortunately they weren’t offended when I suggested I either took the cash or they got me booze.

Obviously I had planned birthday festivities on other nights but this night was my actual birthday. My actual thirtieth birthday. And I couldn’t help but question whether I even wanted to be in this industry anymore. The reason why I was feeling a dull heartache is because this job, this industry, was actually breaking my heart.

However, my thirtieth was back in May and we are now in September. My birthday celebrations were glorious and I managed to surround myself with wonderful people and perfect friends. Plus a lot has happened since then. I took a show to a theatre which was flooded with staff and whenever I went to touch something or re-set something, a staff member would come forward and tell me ‘that’s my job!’

What else has changed since I last posted? I don’t live on my boat anymore and have moved in to a little flat with a sky-blue door in Leytonstone. I’m sprawled out on the couch right now, finishing this blog. And once I am done I am going to finish packing my suitcase with my black stage management clothes and my favourite dresses and make sure that my passport is in my rucksack. Along with a bit of paper which says I am allowed to enter Australia on a work visa. And that I can go and stage manage a play at the Sydney Theatre.

Sometimes being a Stage Manager really is a bit shit.

Sometimes, it’s pretty fucking awesome too.

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  1. As a fellow 30 something Stage Manager (Canadian), I can totally appreciate what you are saying. Thank christ for the people we surround ourselves with. Although sounds like you Brits need a refresher course in Stage Management Rule #1: Don't Fuck the Talent! ;)

  2. What about the untalented ones? I can fuck them, right?

  3. You don't want to be a feminist?

  4. So you're doing laundry, rig checks etc etc? As a SM? You wanna get on a proper production - you know, one with Wardrobe and LX for starters.

    Theatre is mainly shit though. An indulged few and everyone else is their bitch. Me? 27 years and I really should get out.

  5. Odd comment....

    I just like to vary my work. About to do a six month uk number one tour with a full complement of staff. Is that 'proper' enough?

    27 years is a long time to work in an industry you think is 'shit'. Wow!!