Thursday 10 April 2014

That's Not My Job

‘That’s not my job.’

Yep, I’ve said it.

Or mumbled it.

Or maybe just thought it.

There has been many a tech period when I have sighed, exasperated, at the fact that I am being asked to do something which I firmly do not believe is my responsibility, and muttered the words of the aggravated stage manager. More and more in the UK theatre industry, especially London,  we are finding ourselves in situations where we are working on a show as a stage management team of one and expected to perform the skills of wardrobe mistresses, technicians, production managers and assistant directors. And I know that most of us have the attitude that if nobody else is going to do it then we had better just crack on, but still with those words going round and round our heads.

‘That’s not my job.’

But when I recently went and worked in New York, I found myself having to deal with a totally different issue that was, at first, just as frustrating.

‘That’s not your job.’

As soon as we arrived at the theatre in the Big Apple, it became very clear that the US theatrical unions were very different to ours. I’m sure that a lot of you have already experienced the logistics of working in US venues or have at least heard about it. If it’s not in your department then you are just not allowed near it. Any object not stage management related quickly became like Kryptonite to my ASM and I. We weren’t allowed to touch costumes, mic stands, things with plugs on or large bits of set. Even putting down spike marks on the stage became quite a complex activity with certain staff members required and protocol to be followed.

In England, there had just been the two of us backstage. Charlie, my ASM, dealt with radio mics, props and quick changes whilst I called the lights and operated AV. Once we had crossed the Atlantic however, every small backstage task seemed to require an additional crew member. An actor would exit the stage and usually just be greeted by Charlie who would check their mic, give them a prop and chuck a cardigan on them. But now they were being greeted by three different people which took some getting used to.

I did find this occasionally frustrating and felt that it over complicated things. But that was nothing compared to the dinner breaks.

In the UK we typically have an hour plus thirty minutes to allow actors in and out of costume. They had 90 minutes in the US also, but the reason for this was so that the crew had time to get down from their positions, eat their dinner, and then also have time to prepare to continue the tech.

I was very much struck by this as it really showed who was in the position of power. During the tech it was the backstage team who determined when breaks were taken, and the cast and even the director were powerless to disagree. There was just never a question of anyone working through their dinner break as the stage had to be cleared. And absolutely no mention of things like ‘well let’s just get to the end of this scene?’ or ‘do the crew mind missing a tea break?’

At first I genuinely found the system obstructive as I felt that I could occasionally have made up time by doing the odd jobs in my breaks, just as I would in the UK. But it simply wasn’t allowed. How many of us have felt compelled to work through a break to ensure that we are ready for a dress or a first preview? And how many of us have done it with no extra pay and, let’s face it, a rumbling stomach?

If I’m being completely honest I don’t think I have ever turned around and refused to miss a dinner break. I worry far too much about looking reluctant, lazy or uncaring. And I do always want the piece to run smoothly and feel it is my responsibility to ensure that.

But I do get annoyed that there now seems to be an expectance that backstage departments will work, unpaid, through dinner breaks. Often without the issue being properly confronted. It seems to be quite rare that somebody will say ‘Well to achieve this you will need to miss a break. Is that okay?’

One day in America, after the tech had been suddenly halted by the crew for a dinner break, I chatted with one of the guys about their breaks and how sometimes I found it could be a hindrance.  As CSM I was starting to worry that we just weren’t going to be ready in time for the first preview. His response?

‘We don’t do it to be difficult. We do it because it enforces good management.’

And he was right.

The producers/directors had to schedule in enough time for a tech (plus dinner breaks) and they had to employ the adequate amount of staff as there was no possibility of people performing several roles. The result of this, I have to admit, was a fresh and able crew who were always well rested, prepared and, most importantly willing.

So why, in the UK, are we still feeling obliged to work through our breaks unpaid?

If I am working on a contract where I am getting paid overtime, I will happily, gleefully, fill out my time sheet and put down every single missed meal break, every additional hour and every infringed overnight break. And I also do the work willingly. I may be tired, stressed and hungry. But I am also comforted by the knowledge that I am being rewarded. When I get my payslip the following week it makes all that extra work worthwhile and I am happy that I can use that extra cash by pushing up the numbers on my savings account or paying off that extra bit of my tax bill.

(I’m clearly kidding. Overtime means hitting the Benefit counter in Boots and stocking up on their over priced yet miracle tinted moisturiser.)

But sadly these contracts which offer overtime seem to be dwindling and a lot of London theatres do not offer these rewards. A lot of contracts I am working these days are straight buy outs.

Which is fine.

But the expectation that we will carry on working these hours regardless seems to remain.

And, personally, I do not think this is fine.

But how do we deal with this?

I have been in so many situations during a tech week where, for example, an hour’s break is scheduled between the end of the tech and the first dress. Or there will be notes onstage up until an hour before the half. But how exactly is that supposed to work? How exactly are the backstage department expected to take their break and be set up and ready for the performance in that one single, solitary hour?

So then you are left with a choice. Do you make a stand? Do you leave the building completely and take your hour’s break? Do you sit in the green room in full view of everybody, stubbornly eating your Pret a Manger salad and pointedly ignoring all show related questions? Or do you work, unpaid, and ensure that the production is ready. But feel short changed.

Because, as a stage manager, that is ‘your job’.

When I am in these situations I feel that, more often than not, there is a real expectation that the stage management team will do the dutiful ‘above and beyond’ thing. That we will work constantly and forgo these breaks and do it without complaint. But it feels that so many of us have been doing this ‘by whatever means necessary’ routine for so long that it isn’t even exceptional anymore. I have been in techs where the issue of dinner breaks for the stage management team, technicians and crew is not even discussed. And that if you choose to do something as outrageous as take the dinner break you are entitled to, you are being difficult or lazy.

Let’s be honest. You are in a situation of high pressure and high stress and everyone, including you, wants the show to be the absolute best it can be. So if you sit down and refuse to work for a whole sixty minutes do you look heroic? Do you look empowered and brave and stoic and unflinching?


You look like a cunt.

And this situation doesn’t just apply to tech weeks. Even in the early stages of rehearsals I have found myself feeling unable to take lunch breaks; if you are a DSM and a lunchtime production meeting occurs, it is sometimes impossible to get someone to sit in for you in the afternoon so that you can take that much needed lunch break later. And directors have sometimes made it very clear to me that they want the same stage manager in the rehearsal room throughout the day so cover is not an option.

Also how many times have you heard this;

‘Okay, so let’s take an hour for lunch and when we come back we will go straight into a full run through of the play.’


So I need to be set up and be totally ready for a run through? And that is going to take me, what, half an hour? Forty five minutes? The full hour? And then I need to stay focussed for blocking, prompting, sound operating etc on an empty stomach and with no time to breathe.

I see.

But again, what is your option?

Well, luckily, some directors are aware of these issues and will allow time for pre-sets etc. I always love it when a director puts in time for a pre-run company warm up which allows the stage manager time to eat and take a full break as well as get set up and ready.

But I think it is a shame that stage managers do not feel as if they can confront some directors and ask for the time it takes to set up for a run plus the full dinner break.

And, personally, I take rehearsal room run-throughs incredibly seriously. Just as actors need to warm up/prepare/get into the zone, we stage managers also want to check, double check and feel ready for a run-though as, believe it or not, we really understand the importance of them and feel the pressure just as much as the creatives.

These dinner breaks which we are supposed to take are not just about food or the much desired coffee.

They are about being able to leave the room and leave the building.

Being able to take in fresh, un-conditioned air.

Sending a text or email that is not related to work.

Having a poo.

As a DSM, sitting on your bum all day staring at the script and constantly rubbing out and re-writing blocking is very tiring. However much I love a play, the words can start to jump off the page and float around the expanse of white as I struggle with weariness. I get envious of watching other people moving around the room whilst I sit, unmoving, at my desk.

There is a fringe venue in London which I work at fairly regularly and absolutely adore. It holds a very special place in my heart and I truly respect all of the people who work there. It does a lot of new writing which is my favourite type of theatre to work on (mostly because you get your name in the published script) and the sets and designs are always very ambitious on tight budgets. I always go home from a Press Night feeling elated by what I have achieved, and proud of the work that we have produced on a small budget.


I did once work out the hours that I had worked during a tech week and then divided my weekly wage by that number.

It didn’t even cover the National Minimum Wage.

When they asked me to return for a fourth production I asked to speak with the producer about this issue and showed them my calculations. We spoke very frankly about the problem and how exasperating it was to work a normal week and get paid a set amount of money, and then work ridiculously hard yet still get paid the same small amount. Obviously the small venue did not have the resources to pay me the overtime that I was working during busy periods. But they were willing to discuss a compromise.

So they agreed that during tech weeks I would get paid a set bonus, regardless of how much overtime I did. Okay, it was not anywhere near the amount I would have been paid had I filled out a timesheet and detailed every infringement of the contract, but it was enough to make me feel that all that extra work was being acknowledged in some small way.

And I really want to express just how grateful I am that we came to that conclusion and that the theatre was listening to my point of view and working with me to make the situation better. In the future I would hate to lose out on work simply because people considered me difficult or demanding.

‘Jess Gow? Oh yeah I’ve worked with her before. She’s okay as a stage manager but can be pretty unreasonable. Sometimes she insists that she… you know…. eats and stuff.’

I have also done the tours when, during the interview, the twenty two year old Producer who sits before me, twiddling her hair and tapping on a Mac, proudly tells told me that there is a set ‘company wage’ and that the actors and stage management are all on the same wage.

Because, apparently, that’s ‘fair’. And means that everybody in the company is equal.



During one of these tours I would arrive at the venue every Monday morning at 9 am to do the get-in, wash costumes and buy food for the show. It was rare that I would get a lunch break due to the nature of the performance although I would always ensure the in-house crew got a break. During the afternoon we would continue to focus lights and be ready for the cast arriving around four pm. They would tech various elements of the show before breaking at 5.30pm whilst I did the pre-set.

Then for the rest of the week, as company stage manager, I would be arriving at the venue at about 3.00pm for laundry duties, tour admin, petty cash etc before getting ready for the performance, which obviously I had cues during.


You take this ‘company wage’ and you divide it by the amount of hours the actors do.

And then you take the exact same ‘company wage’ and you divide it by the hours that I do.

And then you tell me that this is ‘equal’ and ‘fair’.

I asked people on Twitter about this issue of taking breaks and, as usual, was presented with a lot of responses from a lot of different people. Most folk, including directors and actors, agreed, that people are far more productive when taking the allotted tea breaks and dinner breaks. Fatigued and irritable cast and crew are less likely to produce good work.

A well respected director tweeted me this;

‘As a director I rely on the SM to tell me we need breaks. They aren’t being difficult. It’s vital. Everyone needs breaks.’

Somebody else tweeted me that, when working as an assistant director, they had realised that once calls and notes were done, the DSM was working 12 hours a day as a matter of course. And again, I was reminded by the fact that not everyone is aware that a DSM’s day of work does not just end when rehearsals end.

Another stage manager tweeted saying that he was sometimes happy to work through these dinner breaks but only if people are recognising the extra work as nobody likes to feel as though they are being used.

Sadly I had some rather unsettling direct messages from stage managers saying that, in the past, they had decided that enough was enough and claimed a dinner break. But been told that it ‘was their job’ and that on a buy-out contract, they had no right to complain.

When I asked whether people would state ‘no pay, no way’ when it came to skipping dinners, or if they would carry on yet feeling exhausted and disgruntled, a director I know asked if there was something in between this. A happy medium.  And personally, I believe there could be. And this is the conversation that I want to open up.

I genuinely don’t believe that enough producers or directors are aware of these issues and I want to write this so that more people do know and can take these things into consideration when planning rehearsals or tech periods. Especially the venues which are providing buy out contracts.

Maybe these theatres need to start making a choice. Either your have a buy out contract and accept that the SM will take breaks which may have an impact on the production and schedule accordingly. Or have SM teams who work whatever is asked of them but with the overtime being paid to them.

And I also want people to know that in other places in the world, like the States, it is not considered acceptable for people to work consistently without the adequate breaks. And that producers/directors are forced to approach the issue and schedule in adequate time. Otherwise the crews there just stop and there is nothing you can do about it. Maybe we can discuss the issue before it gets to a point where crew/stage managers/wardrobe mistresses are just downing tools and it starts to truly damage the final product.

Of course, the blatant ignorance of rules and regulations does not just apply to backstage. There has been many a time when I have been aware that actors are being asked to work way beyond their remit, especially during previews when the usual rule of ‘ninety minutes before the half’ seems to go completely out of the window.

On one occasion I was in a notes session just before a second preview. Myself and the actors had been rehearsing all day, and had a show to do that night. We should have finished at 5.30pm but it got to 6.00pm and the director showed no sign of letting up, clearly in a zone and wanting to give the all- important notes. Any mention from me about needing to finish had been met with an irritable and snappy ‘Yes, I KNOW Jess. I know. But we need to do these notes.’

So I gave up. The actors had seen that I had tried and what else could I do?

We continued for a while. But then at 6.05pm, one of the older male cast members stood up and solemnly declared;

‘We need to break now.’

And so we did.

That was all that was needed.

It just took one more person to make that stand and then the director had to admit that the break needed to be taken. When this actor made this statement I had shrugged at the director as if to say ‘what can you do?’

Although in my head I was thinking ‘WHOOOOOOO!!! YOU GO, MAN!!! POWER TO THE PEOPLE!!’

That really is all it took. Just that one other voice, along with mine, to say, ‘No. We stop now.’

I started in this profession when I was 18 years old and was pretty content to work the extra hours and skip the usual breaks, so eager to impress and be congratulated.

But now, at thirty one, I am less willing to work extra hours with no recognition. And a nice message in a Press Night card is not adequate payment. I know that other people, too many people, feel the same way and want something to be done about it. Equity has created and stated these rules and regulations so why do we keep ignoring them?

Someone needs to take a stand. But who? Exactly whose job is it to make sure that we are no longer exploited?

I’ve said it before and I will say it again.

That’s not my job.

It’s not your job either.

It’s our job.




Thanks as always for reading these ramblings. You have no idea how much I appreciate all of your support and the only reason I now have a column in ‘The Stage’ is because of all of the lovely people who read and share my writing. So thank you very much.

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  1. As a Stage Manager - WELL SAID ! (S D Laffoley-Edwards)

  2. I think this is a major reason my husband and I left stage management. The complete ignorance of the fact that we are not robots, we can't go on day after day, year after year, regularly missing meal breaks, not enough sleep half the time and being just expected to fill all the gaps without question. You can get away with it in your twenties to a point but the older you get the more draining it gets on your basic sanity and well being.

  3. Ex Stage Manager - 'nuff said!

  4. Agreed, and well put. I think once you step away from theatre you see the relationship between productions and crew as sometimes abusive. As you say there is often an expectation to work on or just deal with it. In other forms of the industry like concert touring or film the long hours exist, but are dealt with through better pay, and importantly catering! Makes a huge difference being able to walk through a door to a free hot meal.
    The American system isn't perfect, but it does protect the crew from systemic poor conditions.
    I now work in museums, where no-one skips a break. Ever...

  5. This is a huge pet peeve of mine - I used to be a legal assistant and there was a similar attitude. If you simply took your scheduled lunch break, left on time at the end of the day, and didn't want to work unpaid overtime on weekends, you weren't a 'team player'. Gah! I really don't understand this over-work culture at all. All the studies say people are more productive if they take a break to eat, yet we still have situations like this. Drives me mental! That's why I'm now a self-employed editor - I can take a break whenever I need one. :)

  6. As a technician in a fairly large, unionised agreement, company based outside London (over 30 full time technical staff alone) the main problem I see is the general acceptance of buy-out contracts by stage management historically. Don't get me wrong its not the fault of the people currently employed on these contracts who now have little choice.

    In my company stage management are the only ones outside senior managment/production management bought out of meal break infringements, sixth day working or tea breaks in my company of 200+ people working on shows. This was done historically as part of an overtime buyout which with the hours currently worked means a lower overall rate of pay than technical staff in other departments.

    If I'm honest my company would grind to a halt during rehersals if stage management took all of the breaks the BECTU agreement staff are contracted for. A part of me thinks that one day they should just to set the example. However, they generally are in a better position than most stage management with full time positions or year long contracts I see that most SMs on short term contracts could never afford to do this.

    As a second point, in my company at least all the technical staff involved must agree to work through a tea or dinner break before it can be done. Generally people will say yes if given a good reason or a defined end time if missing dinner. Not really sure how this came about but it has been the case for at least the last 5 years that I can remember. Protects both sides from working far too long with no break or cheeky overtime claims.

    Sorry for the anonymous comment but I'd be in a technical breach of my companies social media policy by posting.

  7. Well said Jess! I've lost count of the amount of missed breaks and overtime that I've not been paid for over the years. The unions in America are very powerful and I sometimes think they've got it right. I know many freelancers who are too scared to speak up for fear of losing work and of appearing to be obstructive or unhelpful. Its wrong and something needs to change!

  8. Unfortunately this will just continue because everyone is this industry is too scared to stand up for themselves for fear of being awkward and getting a reputation for being "difficult" and it's not just stage management it's all backstage. If you refuse to work the break-less 13 hour plus shifts we are "expected" to do there will be someone else eagerly waiting to take your place. A very wise ex-scenic once said to me "If a theatre/production company can't afford the show they shouldn't put it on." I'm tired (literally) of working all hours of the day and night, unpaid overtime is not fun.

  9. This could of been written by me. I jokingly call myself a professional doormat. The last job I took. I'm on now. I told them in interview what skills i have and don't have. And not to ask me what I cannot do and that the break time mean the whole production pauses for all.....I know....I'm a fucking pioneer! There has not been an issue yet.....Tech starts Monday.

  10. Having done much small scale touring as the only technician I know where your coming from. From that perspective it was vastly dependent on the competency of the local crew. In one venue with only 1 member of staff we achieved all breaks for their full length in other venues with even up to 4 in the team we would just make lunch or split meals for in house crew. Luckily I had a great producer (an ex stage manager) a lot of the time who was good at insisting on breaks. For the tours when I didn't I used to say I had a medical problem which meant I had to eat a proper meal on a regular basis! They didn't know it was called staying alive and not crashing the tour van that night due to over tiredness!

    I think expectation levels need to change people need to realize that the industry is losing a lot of experienced practitioners because of burn out, that youth and enthusiasm can't make up of knowledge, wisdom and experience. I have moved to being a small cog in a big venue and my health is vastly better. I got tired of taking on long hours away from my friends and family for a wage I could barely live on.

    Good on you for starting the conversation. Long may it continue!

  11. Well written, and well said Jess. Whole-heartedly agree.

  12. If you don't like the terms, don't sign the contract.
    If your CSM doesn't have the balls to call breaks don't work for them.
    Fringe theatre has very little money. The clue is in the name "Fringe".
    If you're working on an Equity contract put down all your missed breaks.
    In the last 10-15 years Union contracts have been diluted beyond recognition. Most staff are on buy out contracts.
    If you're a union member stand up and make a change.
    If you're not, maybe you should be or maybe you should accept the terms of employment you foolishly agreed to?

  13. Great post Jess!
    The existence of this problem is actually a credit to all industry staff that so regularly go above and beyond, sadly it's become considered normal, but there is nothing normal about it, you all rock.

    So where is the starting point for the happy medium? Personally I think it should start with the union agreements. I have only worked under an equity sub rep agreement so have limited knowledge of others, but when looking through it (as I have done many times) you get the feeling it's really only talking about the performers! It's not! The general terms are for both performers and stage management, slightly odd when you think that we are generally doing fairly different jobs! Yes there are sections related solely to Performers and SM, but the SM section only covers staffing levels, SM on Stage, SM extra services (that sounds so wrong!) and show blacks. Most of the contract infringements mentioned fall in the general terms.

    In trying to treat us equally we are not all being treated fairly! So, perhaps the starting point is drafting our own agreement dealing with the areas that matter directly to our jobs? As arts budgets continue to get tighter, buy out contracts will continue, so an agreement that allows for them but allows for fair pay / breaks will be all the more important!

    That's my penny's worth!

  14. Well done for saying this jess...hopefully it resonates...are you 31?!

  15. Having been a Company Manager on a buy out where I worked out that I was earning less per hour than my ASMs who were on an overtime contract I wholeheartedly agree with you. That was 25 years ago and it is sad that nothing has changed. I now teach stage management and we try to instill the regulatory Equity breaks into the culture but this is met with resistance from the directors we work with and has little support from our colleagues who teach acting. The only solution is for the next generation to put their foot down. I hope they will.

  16. As wardrobe, during tech the only time we can get our hands on costumes is during breaks. So we ROUTINELY miss all our meal breaks as a matter of course. We can't take them during tech time, as we are needed for changes. We are always on a buy out. During tech weeks, our hours are generally between 60 and 90 a week. We will tag team dinner, eating it quickly (sometimes whilst sewing, making sure we don't get any on the costumes!). The worst thing is when they schedule 3 session tech days. This means we have to stay late to wait for a 'quick wash' to finish, bung it in the dryer overnight; come in early to iron it and do the few, important notes that we can before we start again. We only wash and iron things that really need it, but still there will be stuff. Why do directors do this? The actors are knackered by the end of the day, and no one can get any notes done.
    But worse than this? No, I can't do wigs and wardrobe. They are two entirely different skills. Look at my hair, you idiots, I have 2 styles: down, and scrunched up into a band.

  17. Fantastic article. I love it.
    Very fitting that I am reading this on my last day working full time in technical theatre.
    The industry is broken, and I am putting my money where my mouth is - I'm out.
    Many off the things you have written about in this article have influenced my decision. I've been doing this since I was 16, and now, at the age of 33, I am tired of being treated like dirt.
    I know what the problems are, I know how to fix them, but also know it's impossible, as people won't stick together, regulation does not exist, and the guys with the purse strings are too tight.
    People might think that the Technicians in the USA are difficult and annoying, but when they are sitting there in their nice house, with a nice car in the driveway, and nice family holiday booked, and a healthy savings account, they probably don't care, and more power to them. We probably look pretty stupid in comparison.

  18. Nice article about an age-old dilemma. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Perhaps I am very lucky to have never, in 8 years of stage managing for experimental theatre, been in a situation where I have felt like a c**t for enjoying a break when others have forfeited theirs, or thought of anyone else a c**t for enjoying their break when I'm working through mine. (This may be a pleasure of the more collaborative environment, mind).

    In my opinion this issue comes down to professional self-esteem, which generally seems to be at a low amongst the current stage management work force, compounded by an irrational fear of future unemployment. Naturally we make decisions every day about whether to take all, part of, or any of a break, based on a number of factors - but peer pressure, the scorn of my employer and union rules should not be included. We should stop citing a horrible new 'industry norm', stop relying on union agreements, stop fearing the worst and start 'putting our feet down' as confident professionals. Maybe we should all get Pret salads and spend our dinner break eating them before our next opening night...

  19. Great article.
    This doesn't just apply to theatre work. I work in a sales office and some people sometimes work through lunch, start early, or/and work late. (me too but less as I am aware of the issue) and we don' have 'breaks', and I can see that they are burning themselves out, particularly as one of them has his first new born and is getting very little sleep!

  20. Just out of curiosity, which (overpriced) miracle tinted moisturiser is this...? This could be a handy addition to my tech-week-concealment arsenal!

  21. This also extends to House Managers who do not receive payment for missed meal breaks or overtime. The busiest part of our day is during traditional lunch hour and teatime before the shows so we frequently go without any break at all. And as we all know, lieu time is never taken as most venues run a busy season.

  22. Brilliant article, Jess, but I don't understand why you never mention Equity or the Equity Dep. I usually Dep. on productions I'm involved with and would refuse to tolerate the abuses you describe. I'm aware, of course, that the buyout culture for employing SM has spread widely even in theatres using Equity contracts and this complicates things. Do you think Equity should be fighting harder to stop buyouts?

    1. Richard,
      I think the buyout culture stems from the fact that union contracts are too complex for smaller companies. Equity (and ITC/TMA) should work harder to simplify their contracts so more companies will use and understand them. How many people need to work in the admin office of a theatre company to pay the correct wages when one clause in a contract states that holiday pay is 1/13 of the daily rate pro rata and there are 39 pages of T&Cs? How does the average actor or stage manager have any hope of working out what they are entitled to?

  23. This comment has been removed by the author.

  24. Incidentally, regarding the article, you stated: "I started in this profession when I was 18 years old and was pretty content to work the extra hours and skip the usual breaks, so eager to impress and be congratulated." I believe directors and producers are well aware of how hard they are pushing people but know they can get away with it because many people (especially younger ones) consistently let them. The same phenomenon occurs here in the US in the corporate world. Managers will overwork employees until they're "burnt out" and then simply get rid of them.

  25. I am an American Equity Stage Manager and had the reverse culture shock when I toured the UK. I was so used to not being allowed to touch anything that it was refreshing to be able to just move a prop or set piece if I needed it moved. We always ran by American standard break rules so working through never came up, although to some extent, that happens on all levels of SM wok... if I was not setting the stage I would be in the office adjusting paperwork etc, but that was certainly my choice, I could have left the building.

  26. Great! Many thanks for saying what needs to be said. I don't work in the theatre but in corporate events where exactly the same happens. The paymasters/project managers/clients all do not appreciate what the crew do for them. It works on all levels too as I work as a Production Manager when I can get the work and when I can't, I work as a technician and the same attitude prevales. You work until the job is done and it is expected of you. Any breaks are taken on the run and you end up being tired. Being that equates to a poorer quality of work and the possibility of accidents increases.

    I have worked quite a lot in the Middle East where as a PM, if a job needed to be done, you just couldn't ask one of the crew to do it. You had to get the right person for the job. It wasn't unionised but it was just the way it was done. And it was good too. There was enough labour around to make sure it was done, and on time, safely and cheerfully.

    So the next question must be, how do we educate the powers just what is correct without destroying the careers of many people. Any ideas out there?

  27. I'm a member of the I.A.T.S.E., the American stagehands Union. To me it comes down to this: Professionals get paid to do a good job and that mens they get paid if they are forced to miss a meal. Amateurs don't mind working through meal breaks. So are you a professional, or an amateur?
    Also, any creative person will tell you that creativity requires a certain amount of being able to step away from the task at hand, catch your breath, and then return to it with fresh eyes. Your Union, or the Actors Union, should be looking out for you.

    1. Could you elaborate on your statement that "Amateurs don't mind working through meal breaks", and how you arrived at that assumption please. Thank you.

  28. Well said young lady! I've been involved in professional theatre for over 25 years now and have done a few stints as a SM (mainly worked as a lighting & stage hand here in Australia) I have nothing but admiration for all SM's and the sh*t they have to do to keep a production up and running. So one day while I was sitting behind dome up in prompt side perch, (it was a Wagner opera!) I wrote this little poem for our hard working SM! Hope you like it!

    “Ode to a Stage Manager”

    Tristan & Isolda - Adelaide Festival March ‘90

    They sit alone, all by themselves, with no-one to talk to,
    Except a mike, with headset on, faceless voices coming through.
    Beginners calls, and stand by cues, they happen all the time,
    Making sure the Actors there and everything is fine.
    In a corner, at a desk, blue light to show the way,
    Reading lines and giving cues, hard work for little pay.
    Authoritative decisions that make themselves sound bolder,
    Pesky people creeping up and peeking over shoulder.
    Rustling noises from upstage, talking in the wings,
    Leaking pools and late delays are not their favourite things.
    Prima Donna’s with huffy views, demanding this and that.
    Dome operators who fall asleep, fold back sounding flat.
    Act 3 scene change in Act 2, house curtain refuse to go,
    Extra’s who don’t hear their call, pick up’s that are slow.
    Gaffer rolls left on stage, important props go missing,
    Sloppy Domes that go astray, A.S.M. s’not listening !
    A million things can go wrong, and a half a million do,
    Live theatre is a risky job if you stuff up one more cue.
    If a lighting bod doesn’t press a switch, or a Mech forgets a black,
    It’s the poor old Sod behind the blue lit desk is the one who cops the flak.
    When the curtain falls, and the bump-outs done, and everybody leaves,
    Spare a thought for the ‘ol S.M. who’s ulcer aches and bleeds !!


  29. I work in costume, and this is just such a brilliant and true article. During tech and dresses, the only time we can alter costumes is during lunch breaks when people are not physically wearing them. Especially on low-budget productions (I'm in my early twenties) it can be one-costume-per-person and I am the only one in the department. When else am I supposed to make things happen except when I'm supposed to be breaking?

    If I have an assistant, I can usually make it work. I take lunch at lunchtime while my assistant does alterations. Then they break for the first hour of the new tech session while I sit in the auditorium/do alterations myself. Then I start taking costumes off the actors so we can do more alterations. Also, they usually get more than one costume so it's not the case that literally everything is being worn at once. In theory, this is OK. However... I usually spend my lunch break eating and talking at the same time as I explain the alterations. I usually end up eating and sewing at the same time as there is too much to get through. I often have to give dressing notes to the actors while eating. I leave the building for as long as it takes to run to the nearest supermarket to buy a sandwich and then come back and immediately start the aforementioned eating and talking. Daylight? What's that? I've also worked with directors who have refused to let me take costumes off the actors. This drives me nuts! Also, if my assistant is also the dresser then depending on the show, it can be impossible to get us both out of the auditorium and to the sewing machine/shops.

    What can people do to help?
    - Hire enough damn people to do the job. Yes, it does take two people to costume a show. I shall be adopting the phrase "If a theatre/production company can't afford the show they shouldn't put it on"! But also, if the supervisor cannot hire their own assistant then please interview properly and hire someone who can actually sew.
    - Buy me lunch. It makes such a difference to have those precious ten minutes of running to the shops back as then I can actually put my feet up for a few seconds.
    - Let me take costumes off the actors. If it's that important that they are wearing a specific garment at a specific time, I'll know - I'm the costume supervisor, after all!
    - Thank me. It does make a difference.
    - Teach drama school students how to make sure they get a break. I've seen good and bad examples of this, but sometimes all it needs is to explain that it's OK to say "I'm going to go and have dinner now." I do this a lot, explaining when I'll be back and what I'll do next. It never goes down as badly as you think. Especially if you back it up with something like "because I'm absolutely starving".
    - Know what needs to be done now. It has never come down to an actual argument, but I often say "OK, we'll do that note tomorrow because I think these are more important for tonight" and people can get a bit grumpy, but then I ask if they'd like to offer to help and they change their tune quite quickly!

    The last producer I worked with was brilliant as the director refused to admit how long the preset took (two hours, apparently!) and that it meant the SMs would have no break. She put her foot down and insisted that they finish notes an hour earlier so the SMs could actually have a dinner break before the show. I would now go to the ends of the earth for that woman as I know she will always stick up for me.

  30. I also never wash anything during tech ever unless it specifically gets dirty during the show (e.g. fake blood). This rule is extended to EVERYTHING, from shirts to underwear. It's a personal sanity measure, believe me.

  31. I'm in theatre because I like the fact that it's still an industry where you can think on your feet, work in the present and push boundaries. I don't want to work in a highly structured and heavily unionised situation where you're scared to move for fear of breaking the rules. What I do want is for those who run theatre companies (producers, production managers, artistic directors) to understand employment laws and practices, such as the working time directive, and apply them when agreeing schedules, budgets and staffing. Then I would like those who are employed by theatre companies (actors, stage management, technicians, creatives) to read and understand the contracts they are given. Much of my overtime is used up explaining to people what they are and aren't entitled to or why they can or can't do such and such.

    Girl in the Dark is absolutely right that we are usually expected to work over hours without a fuss. More often now, we also have to cover other jobs where companies don't have the funds to hire staff but simply expect those they do hire to make up the shortfall. What's needed is not a bigger pile of rules and legislation but understanding on both sides (employer and employee) and a realistic sense of what needs to be done and what is achievable.

    I recently had a short CSM job where the company was seriously under-resourced and everyone was covering elements of missing positions. On one occasion I was asked to cover the DSM for an evening call because she was over hours. She was right to ask and, as her line manager, I did cover her even though I was already over hours myself. following a particularly fraught tech/opening week (80hours+) I discovered the get-out had been organised for the Sunday and refused to do it on the basis I should not have to work 7 days straight. My line manager (the PM) said he was disappointed in me and accused me of not 'playing for the team'. I later discovered Sunday get-out had been arranged to simply to save the company money on taxi fares! What about overtime payments? What about the law?

    We won't eradicate crazy hours and pressure to do fifteen extra things because theatre isn't funded in the same way as the U.S and we rely on our reputations to get work and we want to keep working. But in order to get back a little of our sanity let's all get to grips with what is allowed, what is correct and what is best practice, stand up for it and ask others to do the same. Then show a little acknowledgement and appreciation for those times when people do put in a few more hours or chip in where it really isn't their job.

  32. Like Jim B. said, there are always young and eager newbies, who are waiting to take your place, and willing to put up with the abuse just to prove themselves.

    I stage managed in the U.S. for 14 years, and experienced the same problems (missing breaks and unpaid over-time) in both union and non-union theaters. I put up with it because I loved the collaborative work environment and the praise I received from running a tight tech rehearsal, not to mention the adrenaline rush of calling a show.

    The last show I stage managed, I was verbally abused by the director on a daily basis. I worked countless hours of over-time every day trying to meet the director's demands, fix notes, and keep everyone informed of her constant schedule changes. She was constantly changing the location of the rehearsals too (from the rehearsal room to the stage, and back) and expected every prop, costume, table, and actor to be readily available all the time. My assistants and I worked our butts off scrambling to accommodate and have everything ready, but nothing was good enough for her.

    She complained to the production manager about me, and they sat me down for a little chat, telling me that I just wasn't getting it. Nobody stepped in to support me, so I told them I would be happy to leave if they wanted to find someone else to finish stage managing the production. They back-peddled when I tried to quit, so I stayed on, but nothing really changed.

    After the last performance, they told me they were pleased with my abilities to run a smooth tech rehearsal and call a perfect show, and then asked if I would stage manage the next show, but at that point I'd already had enough. I work in publishing now, and I'm treated much better.