Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Things I Have Learnt

What have I learnt?

This is a question I try and ask myself towards the end of every production. Being a stage manager can be an odd thing and the skill set required varies from job to job. Despite doing this for over a decade, it is very often that I step into a job and realise that I am going to need to learn something new and learn it fast. Drama schools can really only teach you so much about How to Be a Stage Manager and there are many tricks and helpful hints which you gather along the way. And I truly think I am yet to do a job where I learn absolutely nothing. Even if the only thing that I do discover is that I am completely useless at papier mache and that casually commenting to an actor that they probably won’t be called till next week because they ‘don’t really say much’ will cue a One Man Campaign of Hate and Vitriol which will last for the duration of the five week run.

My current play will be ending shortly so as I start to eye up the set and decide what might be worth keeping (a fake Louis Vuitton handbag and a vintage Scrabble set – merry christmas mum) I am starting to really think about what I have learnt.

And I have learnt a lot.

First of all there is all the Actually Quite Educational stuff. In this instance, Greek Tragedy. I rather lost interest in secondary school and all I can really remember is photosynthesis (engrained in my brain forever) and wondering if the purchase of a ludicrously expensive Helly Hansen sailing jacket would instantly make me more popular. Many years on and I am pretty happy to report that the Helly Hansen thing was one teenage craze which I did not partake in. Seriously girls. I know we lived in close proximity to the River Mersey but what were you expecting, a flash flood?

So to do these plays and learn about Helen of Troy and the Trojan horse and the tragedy of baby Astyanax is all pretty cool and these details are ones which I can try and retain for future pub quizzes in a bid to look worldly, intelligent and Smart In A Sexy Way. As satisfying as it is to win a much-needed point for your quiz team, nobody is ever overly impressed when you can name every single Big Brother winner and put them into chronological order. And nobody wants to go home with you.

However, if you can confidently confirm to your whispering team mates that it was Paris who Helen eloped with (‘No Ben, it wasn’t Hector, he was the other son. Honestly….’) , you are hopefully going to gain respect, gratitude and the possibility that you have convinced your team mates that you are something other than a thirty year old woman with no A-levels, no degree and just an encyclopaedic knowledge of Heat magazine. My cripplingly low self-esteem about my lack of superior and intellectual knowledge has made me an avid and eager student in the rehearsal room.

Then there is all the prop stuff I have learnt on this show.

This play has been a bugger to prop. As I sat hunched over the script the week before rehearsals, casually scanning the text but scrutinising  everything in italics, (that’s what everyone does right?) my heart started to sink and I began to see the next few weeks stretch in front me; a seemingly  eternal abyss of fruitless Ebay searches, pleading phone calls and Merlot-infused evenings of despair.

But, as always, I made my list and tried not to get too overwhelmed by my lack of budget and the extensive catalogue of desired items. There were a few props which I knew were in other theatre’s prop stores. But how to get them? Well, here is a Lesson I learnt several years ago.

Booze Gets You Props.

So for the price of two decent bottles of Chablis and a couple of Smirnoff Ices, I managed to borrow two hospital beds, an antique wheelchair, several army blankets, a whole load of medical equipment, a rare whiskey bottle and an AK47.

And it was whilst borrowing the AK47 that I learnt my next lesson.

You Can’t Take Guns On The Tube.

Now obviously I wasn’t planning on strolling onto the Central Line, swinging my Topshop handbag and a lethal firearm with gay abandon. But with no transport budget and only a few tube stops to go, I decided to take the risk. My floral shopping trolley and a cleverly placed bin bag appeared to completely keep the gun from view and some internet research showed me what you are meant to do when carrying fake/prop/deactivated weapons.

You have to carry a letter.

So when I perkily skipped through the London Underground, smiling winningly at the staff and putting all my efforts into looking as innocuous as possible (I even put Dido on my iPod. No terrorists listen to Dido), I knew that the pink and green shopping trolley I pulled alongside me not only held a very large and threatening rifle, but also a note. And on this note (which was on headed paper) it clearly stated that the rifle I was carrying was indeed an AK47 but that it was deactivated and intended for theatrical purposes.

So that’s okay then.

I must admit that the protection of a letter left me feeling less than confident. Had I slipped and fallen on the escalator, my trolley tumbling before me and the offending weapon clattering out of its binbag and across the floor in front of startled commuters, I am not sure how much time the special forces and the station staff would give me to squeal ‘WAIT! I have a NOTE! On headed PAPER!’

Let’s be honest, if a blind man with a white stick can get accidentally tasered, then me and my menacing shooting iron wouldn’t stand a chance.

But the trip occurred with no events and the AK47 made it safely to the rehearsal room where all the boys took turns holding it and saying lines from action films because that’s what boys do.           

Something else which I learnt on this show is that it is okay to ask for help. More specifically, it is okay to turn to social media for help. This is something I have never really done before, but with my number of Twitter followers gradually growing and the majority of my Facebook friends being theatrical professionals, I decided to start putting out requests for help, advice and hard-to-find props. The responses were immediate and undeniably useful. I managed to obtain a brand new Iphone 5 box and many leads on various difficult objects.

It was incredible really. Moments after I had logged on and put my propping desires out into the ether, the suggestions came flooding back in. My iPhone beeped and buzzed with replies and offers. 

It was like Grindr but for props.

 Is this considered as cheating? I know that older stage managers say that we have it too easy these days with the internet (‘In my day you just had to prop a show using an out of date Yellow Pages, morse code and a compass!’) but is this something which we will see more often? Stage managers reaching out into their respective social media communities and asking for support? Or has this actually been going on for years and I have only just stumbled onto it, like Dropbox.

(That is another thing I have learnt on this show. The wonder of Dropbox.)

I was amazed by the responses that I got when I started to ask for help and was glad to see that the showbiz community is not too stuck up to offer advice to each other. I personally do not think it is cheating. Especially as I try and answer questions just as much as I enquire. It gives me a great sense of pleasure to go on Twitter and share the Things I Have Learnt;

‘The best fake blood? Pigs Might Fly by Nick Dudman. You’re welcome!’

‘Hmm. Try the Tricycle. I think they still have a couple of coffins. Good luck! ’

‘As you build up speed, keep your hand in a fist at the shaft and relax your throat. Enjoy!’

Those are just some of the little pearls of my acquired wisdom which I feel should be bestowed on others in order to enrich and ease their lives.

However, on this show I have learnt many things and if I talk about them all in the same detail that I have so far, then this blog will rattle on endlessly with no point or conclusion. So instead I am going to just do bulletpoints and list the Many Things I Have Learnt.

Okay. Here goes.

I have learnt that….

·         you can achieve a lot with Dirty Down spray, circular key-rings and a little imagination. And with these three elements an old Primark handbag strap can be easily transformed into a perfectly plausible AK47 shoulder strap.

·         when using office-style water- coolers, you need a completely new and un pierced cap each time you change the bottle. The company that provide the bottles only provide you with one cap per bottle so if you are planning on using one bottle many times, you need many caps. It is good to have this information early on when dealing with water coolers, and not just discover it the day before tech.

·         they sell water bottle caps on EBay. And they do next-day delivery.

·         when trying to get a water cooler to do something a water cooler is not meant to do, it is very easy to blow up the water cooler, make water gush everywhere (including into a plug socket) and therefore completely plunge an entire theatre into darkness.

·         my lighting designer is very good natured.

·         apparently ‘basic physics’ caused my water cooler to blow up. Interesting.

·         Troilus is the name of a character from Greek tragedy. It does not mean Without Troy.

·         when an actress needs to do full-on Boobs and Pubes nudity onstage, make sure that you do everything in your power to make sure she feels confident and comfortable.

·         making the aforementioned actress completely confident and comfortable may require rubbing body oil over the actress when she is completely naked.

·         it is okay to draw your own boundaries when rubbing body oil over aforementioned completely naked actress. If this includes saying the words ‘Okay, I will rub body oil into your bum but I am not going anywhere near your pubes’ then so be it.

·         Body Shop does very good body oil. Not too greasy and smells like rain.

·         stage blood washes out of everything easily except for my hair. Then it just congeals and takes a bucket of Herbal Essences conditioner to get it out.

·         having a reliable and supportive DSM is completely invaluable. Especially when it’s a two show day and you are dealing with heartache, a headache and the grim realisation that your black trousers are still not dry.

·         aforementioned actress doesn’t mind when I shyly but excitedly ask ‘what is Benedict Cumberbatch really like?’

·         Benedict Cumberbatch is apparently really lovely. I am so glad.

·         when an actress dislocates her jaw during a performance just stay calm, offer to stop the show and then watch in stunned disbelief while she relocates it before your eyes.

·         when a jaw is relocated it sounds like someone cracking their knuckles in jam.

·         the NHS is worryingly generous when lending out hospital beds.

·         trying to get five television screens under budget is incredibly difficult.

·         my flatmate and I don’t really miss watching television.

·         there are some things that I just can’t do. I cannot stop grapes falling off their stalk. This does not make me a bad person, a bad stage manager or a failure.

·         Marks and Spencers grapes usually stay on the stalk for quite a while. Tesco grapes do not.

·         one of my new favourite things is when aforementioned actress and I are the only two people backstage during the show and she puts ‘Dancing In The Dark’ on her iPhone so we can dance about. Sometimes she’s clothed. Sometimes she isn’t.

·         my job may be mental, demanding and exhausting but I never get bored.

·         I love my job.

But I learnt the last one ages ago.
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  1. great Jess, thankyou!

  2. Another great post as always. Very funny stuff. I genuinely laughed out loud (without the acronym) at 'knuckles in jam'

  3. This article was hysterical, awesome and helpful. Even though I've sworn never to Stage Manager or Props Design another show EVER I can't help but stow all that info away in the recesses of my mind, especially the part about how booze can get you props. BEST ADVICE EVER!

    1. What a lovely comment. Thanks so much.

  4. Thank you for that post. It was *very* interesting.
    It's great that you love your job. It was brilliant to share a bit of it with us (it looks quite demanding - particularly on the tube? *insert wink here* - but it's fascinating).
    I was very kind to show us a bit of what goes on "behind the curtain"... and thank you for working so hard to make things come alive and real on stage.

  5. I am very entertained. Thank you. :)

  6. Such a great blog! So funny and interesting. As an actor I have HUGE respect for the job that stage managers do and this particular job sounds like it was packed full of challenges! Congrats. x

    1. Thank you for your congratulations. New post up now so do check it out.

  7. always a wonderful insight. thanks x

  8. as a theatre obsessive, I really enjoyed reading this post as a great insight into what really goes behind making a show happen. Glad I stumbled across it thanks to a twitter RT

    1. I am also glad you stumbled across it. Thanks for reading.

  9. Just started reading your blog after your "application" for the National theatre. Love it! Keep up the good work!