Thursday, 17 April 2014

Theatricals Assemble (That's Not My Job: Part Two)

I published my last blog post, 'That's Not My Job', on Thursday morning not long after I had woken up. I guess it was around 8 o'clock in the morning. I had submitted the brief column to 'The Stage' a couple of weeks previously but was still tweaking the final, full length version right up until I put it online. Once I had decided I was satisfied with it, I hit 'Publish' on my blog and then left to meet one of my company, Natasha. I am currently on quite a long tour and last week, when 'That's Not My Job' went out, we were in Aylesbury. I had purposefully asked Natasha to do a long run with me that morning so that once the article was online, I would not be around to see the immediate reaction. It would only take one negative word for me to lose my nerve and delete it, so I decided that I needed to put it out there for a while and not hover over it, refreshing the counter and waiting for a response.

I was genuinely quite nervous. 

Not only of what people would say, but the fact that at 3,500 words, the blog was long. Longer than anything else I had written. And the content just wasn't funny.

It was not a theatrical anecdote.

Nor was it a spoof job application. 

It contained some of my very own thoughts and feelings and I felt quite wary of broadcasting them.

We ran for just over seven miles. Three and a half miles along the canal and then three and a half miles back. It took us an hour and ten minutes and we talked all the way, keeping a steady and consistent rhythm with each other. We ran past swans and ducks and said 'Morning' to other runners and dog walkers. Natasha knew that I was slightly jittery about the post so we talked about anything other than that; the Haruki Murakami book I was reading, the snakes she had encountered in South Africa, our siblings, our chocolate bar of choice, my irrational fear of cows, Canada. 

Anything really. 

When we got back we made a beeline for the Waitrose which is right next to the theatre. The sweat on our faces was drying to a salty grit and the muscles in our legs were feeling worked and heavy but awake. Fresh blood was flowing straight from my heart and my mind was in the midst of a post exercise high. We grabbed coffees and decided to share a hot cross bun and went outside to stretch. 

Well, Natasha stretched. I sat in the grass with my feet together, half heartedly pushing my knees to the dewy ground and checking my phone.

'Anything?' enquired Natasha.

'Its okay' I said, 'Nobody seems to hate me.'

I have to say, I was pretty surprised. In the hour that I had been pounding down the canal, scaring the feathered wildlife and keeping my breath steady enough to hold a conversation, the blogpost (I do feel a dick saying 'article' or 'piece') had been tweeted and shared a lot more than I had expected. Nobody was bored or horrified, just nice and supportive.

After our stretch, I walked back to my digs and received two messages from good friends of mine, Lisa and Amy, about five minutes apart. And they both basically said this;

'Let us know what we can do to help.'

As I walked I kind of frowned to myself. Help? What the fuck do they mean help? Help who do what? Are they worried I am going to need support in case of a backlash? What exactly is it they think I need help with? I've written the post and expressed my thoughts and then hopefully it will start a debate.

What else do they think I'm going to fucking do?

As the day continued, the number of hits it was getting rose at a steady pace. People were commenting on the piece itself and most people were supportive and in agreement. A lot of people had interesting opinions I had not even considered. Someone pointed out that American theatres charge an awful lot more for theatre tickets and so are in a better position to pay more staff which is something that hadn't even crossed my mind when I wrote it. People also expressed how they had tried to tackle the problem in their venues, and some people told me how they couldn't work in backstage theatre any more and were leaving. I heard from a lot of costume/wardrobe people about how much the lack of breaks affected them and also from American stage hands who told me about their experiences when they had come to work in the UK.

However, my favourite comment was probably this.

'Oh shut up.'

After 'My Application to be Artistic Director of the National Theatre' spread widely, I learnt pretty quick that even if you are just trying to make a joke or write something humorous, there would always be people who wanted to take offence, so I wasn't that surprised to have negativity. Another person wrote a lengthy comment about the post and how I just needed to accept it as part of the job. People said 'things will never change'. And I stopped and carefully considered all of these responses in the exact same way that I responded to the positive ones. I didn't want to ignore them and tried to use the way that they challenged me to improve my argument.

By Friday night I had gained 200 followers on Twitter and had been sent more tweets than I could reply to. My Inbox on Facebook still had a number of unread messages and there were lengthy comments on the post. I was trying to read them all as fastidiously as possible but you have to remember I am currently working and my week involves matinees, understudy rehearsals and evening shows. Sometimes I was only able to skim over all these messages. But I could see that not only were people showing their support by coming up with suggestions or tales of their own experiences, they were also starting to ask questions. 

'Do you think the buy out contract is working?'

'What exactly is the difference between ITC, SOLT and TMA?'

'I am on tour and we don't get a dinner break or overtime on matinee days. Is that allowed?'

'Can you tell me what the tinted moisturiser is that you use as my skin can't take a foundation?'  

'Are you really 31?'

I think I can only answer the last two confidently.

It's from 'Benefit'. Twenty seven quid but lasts for a year. And yes, I am. Although at this stage I felt about fifteen.

Interestingly, Equity also tweeted the link which I took as a sign that they know something is not right and that they did not just think I was a grumpy stage manager with a chip on my shoulder. I also got a message from one of the Equity councillors who said that they were looking at the issues that arose within stage management and would be interested to hear any suggestions from either myself or other stage managers. It was at this point it struck me that having voiced the issue and gained the support, simply walking away from it was not the right thing to do. All these new followers, these messages, these tweets.... I felt like a lot of people were saying 'Okay, yep. We agree with you. We support you. Now what?'

So on Saturday morning I started to look at the various contracts and concentrated mostly on the ITC. I found myself skimming it is as the vast majority of it seems to be aimed at actors and there is very little mention of stage management. I have even worked for small companies who do not operate on an Equity contract but still issue separate contracts for stage managers and actors. 

Which makes sense. 

We have a totally different skill set so why are we all signing ourselves to the same thing?

It was when I tried to make comparisons to the other contracts that I felt like I was hitting a very solid and high wall. I couldn't make sense of any of it and there were clauses and statements that I just didn't understand. I flopped back onto my digs bed, groaning, and wondered why the hell I had started this in the first place. And it was while I lay there on a lumpy bed, in someone's cluttered spare room, looking at a ceiling which held the childhood stickers of someone who was now probably about forty two, that I started to feel exactly the same way I did last summer. 

When 'My Application for Artistic Director of the National Theatre' came out. 

I wrote about the whole experience in 'Planet Futon' and suddenly all of those old feelings were coming back. It's very strange to write something that is then read and discussed by so many people. Initially there is a feeling of overwhelming jubilation and a thrill to get your voice heard by so many, but it doesn't take long before that is replaced by a slightly suffocating feeling of solitude. It's odd as I am not usually a person who experiences the emotion of loneliness. Not only do I surround myself with friends and family, but I am usually pretty happy in my own company and alone with my own thoughts. I suppose that working in theatre is usually so much about being in a team. But this blog is something that I do by myself.

It's just me.

My thoughts. 

My feelings. 

It's not even like my column in 'The Stage where someone can edit me. 

So if ever there are any repercussions because of something I have written, it is solely my responsibility.

So whilst I lay on this alien bed, once again feeling like it was breaking off into a separate orbit, several thoughts went through my head.

Why have I done this again?

Why am I always on fucking tour when this fucking happens?

But most importantly,

I need help.

And it was at this point that I remembered those text messages from my friends. I couldn't help but grin as I sat up and seized my phone.

Friends are just brilliant, aren't they? Lisa and Amy had offered me what I needed a whole 48 hours before I realised I even needed it.


For the rest of the day my mind was taken up with two shows and a Get Out, and on Sunday I travelled back to London to witness friends run the Marathon. As I stood on the pavement whooping for strangers in costumes and scanning the sweating mob for familiar faces, I received another message. This message came from a producer who runs a small but very successful theatre company which tours and also stages productions at London venues. She said that she would be interested to talk to me about my blog as her company always paid overtime and endeavoured to schedule in adequate breaks, and that sometimes it was quite a shock to see larger companies not doing the same. I was really happy to get a message like that from this particular producer as I hold so much respect for her, and I was equally encouraged to discover that even small companies were taking these issues into consideration. 

Maybe it was being at the marathon, watching all these strangers moving together towards one goal, that I started to realise something. 

I couldn't just use the help of other stage managers. 

It wasn't going to be enough. 

I needed the help and input from other people from other aspects of the profession. As much as we all think that we know about other departments (everyone in this industry seems to believe they are an expert on marketing) we really, truly don't.

I have no idea about all these different contracts and the various pressures of running a theatre company. And as great as it is to come up with all these ideas and theories, I don't really know if they would solve the problems. Just as it is important to have someone go 'Yes, you're right', it is also just as necessary to have someone say 'no, that wouldn't actually work because.....'

As I headed back to Leytonstone and let myself into the little flat with the sky blue door, I started to feel a bit like one of those characters in a Marvel comic, who gathers the most appropriate super heroes for their strength and various skills.

Theatricals Assemble.

I think the movie would be intensely dull. But very well organised with good stationery and cake.

I proposed to the producer that we meet and discuss the issues outlined in the blog with myself and other stage managers and she enthusiastically agreed. She even offered her theatre company's headquarters as a venue. I decided at this point to recruit another producer and got in contact with the woman I actually mentioned in the blog who had worked with me to come to an arrangement about my tech week hours. Again, she was completely up for it and I started to feel upbeat and positive about the whole thing for the very first time.

'Girl In The Dark' was no longer just me. I had people. 

We were people.

So now I have Lisa, Amy, two producers and also John, a West End stage manager. I think that is enough for now. Any more and I don't think the conversations will work. We have a date and a time and a meeting place.

And we are going to talk.

I want to go to Equity and I want to go with sensible and achievable ideas that I have discussed with producers, and maybe soon directors. I want to discuss the contractual issues that people are facing and I want to raise awareness about the issues of over worked stage managers. I am hearing about accidents and exhaustion and I don't think it is right.

The other night as I slugged down a post-dinner glass of Shiraz, I received a tweet from a director saying that he knew he was guilty of what I had written about and would 'try harder'. I gulped down the dregs of my glass and slurred 'if I can change at least one person's mind then all this is worth while.'

The next morning, when I woke up, I realised I sounded like a right tosser so I'm not going to say that ever again. But you get the idea.

I'm not starting a battle or picking a fight with anybody. Nobody is the enemy as far as I am concerned. I think that this is the sort of issue that can be resolved if people work together and come to some understanding and compromise. 

If there is a reason why we can't have separate contracts to cast members, then fine. 

If there is absolutely no way that backstage teams can have the breaks they are entitled to, then fine.

Explain it to me and educate me as I truly want to learn. 

But if there isn't a valid reason, then let's move forward and create a contract designed for and tailored to the needs of the backstage team.

It's not about attacking anybody or placing blame. As a lot of the comments on my blog state, a large number of backstage staff have had the experience that if you point out the issues in a reasonable manner, people can be be very accommodating.

I'm also not proposing a situation like in the US. Having a million different people for each individual job probably wouldn't work here. We don't have the money. And as much as I want conditions to be better, I am also aware that overly strict regulations could destroy companies starting out.

The Edinburgh Fringe, which we all know is run on beer and love, would collapse. And that is one of the things I want to discuss with my wonderful group. How we can change and develop without just making things difficult for everybody. 

At the moment, that really is all we are going to be doing. Talking. Brainstorming. Maybe nothing will come of it and maybe things will continue just as they are. I don't know enough about the goals and possibilities to work out how achievable they are. So maybe this focus group won't amount to anything. But I'm not ready to believe that. Not just yet.

So there you go.

That's what I have been doing since the blog came out. It's not what I planned to do and every now and again I feel very far out of my comfort zone. I have never considered myself to be political (that is the dinner party conversation I always shy away from) and I don't believe I am savvy or knowledgable when it comes to this sort of thing. I mean, I really didn't plan this. 

It just kind of happened.

And just like last Thursday morning, I feel apprehensive and nervous and vulnerable and I'm  wondering what people are going to say. Will people even care? 

Maybe not.

But I do want to at least try.

So what am I going to do now?


I'm going to go for a very, very long run.

Thank you, so much, for reading this. 

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Thank you again.



  1. Good luck with the campaign, Jess. If you live in Leytonstone you have a fantastic, active and committed Equity Branch on your doorstep (the North and East London Branch) who would be delighted to offer support and help you make progress.

  2. Well done for opening that can of worms, Jess. It's well past its sell by date. When you're done brainstorming, please do come and talk to Equity. Best wishes, Hywel Morgan, Stage Industrial Committee

  3. There is no valid reason for putting up with the over-expectations of the people that a lot of us work for. I'm not a stage manager but I do work backstage and I am still amazed at times at some of the hours that I am expected to work with little or no break times. The only reason that people have to work through breaks and other times is that there isn't usually adequate time given to a production or adequate members of staff available. I know people who have had to sleep on a sofa at work due to the fact that they are supposed to be back at work in less than 6 hours, after a get out.

    I have had been told off for not doing overtime, being told that I was not committed enough, even though I have done all the hours that my contract has asked me to do, even working through 10 hour days with no breaks grabbing bites of food every so often without properly stopping.

    I have had people I know say that on tour they regularly used to do fit ups on shows without any breaks because they were on a buyout contract and they had no choice to get the show up. People don't say no to these contracts because otherwise they wouldn't get the work, and most freelancers have to go from tour to tour/job to job to survive.

    I applaud that someone has finally said out loud what I have heard so many people, including myself, grumble about for years. I love my job, yet am often disheartened by the lack of understanding by some people, often the people in charge how hard we all have to work sometimes to get a show running in the little time that is available. I have worked the shows where they wouldn't happen if we didn't work through breaks, but in my mind that is a lack of planning and forethought, or willingness to pay for the correct amount of time needed without having to rely on the good will of the staff having to do the work.

    Good luck in changing the minds and attitudes within the industry. I hop you can help something to change

  4. Glad that you're back, it's not just the US that enforces breaks and so forth, most European theatres do so as well. Although some aren't quite as enthusiastic as the National Theatre of Strasbourg (who knew),where the entire stage management team vanished without comment around 4.00 pm, to be discovered two hours later about to sit down at table (complete with starched tablecloth, wine and candles) to eat the meal they had spent two hours preparing. A less frivolous observation; we lampies also find ourselves caught by this problem (as do noise boys etc), as issues arising from the work that has just been done can only be dealt with when rehearsals aren't in progress. Thankfully the expectation that you will do overnighters without question seems to have gone, I still look back at shows when I sat at the desk programming for 24 hours without more than pee or coffee breaks, the director snoring away in the small hours and shudder. In my last theatre, Stage management were very carefully managed (as they were on an Equity contract), techs were, in theory, on a buy-out, but in effect this meant that their hours were not managed at all, until someone happened to notice that this might cost money. I was instructed to take two weeks holiday during panto 'to use up some toil hours', as HOD I was able to refuse, but longer standing employees had become accustomed to being told when they were going to take their time off.
    I think you are absolutely right when you crystallise the issue as being one of management, making some form of informed calculation about the time costs of mounting a production, and not simply ignoring the people who will either just get on with it, or whose contracts allow them to be ignored would be some kind of start. With my Production Managers hat on, I know it should be, but most commonly more time and care is taken about the people whose working time is costly and over-runs are expensive than those whose hours seemingly have no value.