'Right here is where you start paying. In sweat.'
I love the movie 'Fame'. I really do. However, I sometimes wish they showed more of the stage management department. You know, some harassed looking techies clutching adjustable spanners in amongst the neon leotards. Or a DSM scribbling on some post-it's in a tension fuelled ballet class.
Actually, who am I kidding? There clearly isn't a stage management department. If there was, they would have risk assessed that whole dancing in the street business and organised some street cones, sharpish. Or called a swift halt to it altogether. New York traffic and musical theatre wannabes?
Health and Safety nightmare.
Anyway, although I did learn a lot at my drama school, (paid in sweat etc etc) I learnt even more once I got out into the big wide world. And I continue to learn. Every job and tour educates me in ways that surprise me. And this tour has been no different.
My current tour is about to end and, once again, I have been in a position where I have had to learn something new and learn it fast. The challenges you face as a stage manager vary from job to job. It might be how to make a prop or how to deal with a certain type of personality. Maybe learn a new bit of technology or call a very complex sequence.
But on this tour, I took on one of my toughest ever challenges.
Learning how to pack 10 tonnes of set, sound, lights, costume and props onto a 45 foot wagon.
When I was first approached to do this I was a little bit reluctant. Maybe very reluctant.
Okay, I may have had a bit of a strop and said I didn't want to do it.
Ever the willing professional.
It was nothing to do with being lazy or snobby or wanting to catch the last train back to London on a Saturday night where my Real Life was. It was simply because I was scared. Scared that I was going to make a fool of myself. Scared that I would simply be unable to carry out the task. Scared that I was going to be mocked for being weak/crap at packing vans/looking like a twat in a high vis jacket.
Of course none of those things happened.
Except the looking like a twat in high vis bit.
After down-right refusing and darkly muttering about contracts and stuff, the slightly bloody-minded and curious part of me thought long and hard and then decided that, yes. I should do this. I needed to stop being afraid of the unknown and push myself that little bit harder. Okay I have spent a large amount of time just calling/propping shows. Maybe it was time to try something new.
Now I know that some of you reading this may scoff at this. You may consider packing a wagon, several wagons, to be a simple and achievable task and some of you have no doubt been doing that for years and it is second nature. But this is the sort of stage management that I have never tackled. I'm usually the stage manager with the pretty stationary and the perfect manicure who sits in prompt corners cueing shows or sits in rehearsal rooms writing down blocking all day.
Maybe not all day. Till about 4.30pm anyway. After that you've lost me.
But yeah, sitting. Lots of sitting.
A Saturday night 'get out' for me is usually powering down the sound and maybe packing a few props. It's been a long time since I have done physical, manual labour and the last time I held a podger was in college.
And even then it was to pass it to someone else.
But I'm never one to refuse a challenge. So I dug out my weight lifting gloves and took to the internet to order new steelies. I have to order them specially as they don't usually make them in a size three.
So I shadowed the first get out and listened carefully to my (incredibly patient) CSM and technical manager as they gave instructions and advice.
And before I knew it I was by myself on the wagon. Staring at the vast and empty amount of space and wondering how I was going to make our show go into it and genuinely wondering what the consequences would be if we just left the set where it was.
Quite big, apparently.
My CSM, sensing my nerves, did two great things for me. She knitted me the most beautiful little hat for the long cold nights and gave me the best piece of advice.
'Make friends with your driver.'
So I did and have continued to do so on every single of my seventeen get outs since then. Our get out means there can be quite a lot of waiting around while our crew take down the large ceiling and I'm pretty happy to have a chat and a gossip about what the drivers have been up to. When it comes to get outs they really have seen it all and I found their tales pretty hilarious. Plus I enjoyed their company. Being out in a town centre surrounded by drunken revellers on a cold night can be pretty lonely, so their chat about life, love and everything in between was welcomed.
I can't lie. At the beginning I found packing hard. Really hard. I sometimes panicked and got flustered. The crew would stand and look on whilst I took a minute to think or rearrange upon realising I had fucked it up. Sometimes I nipped inside to ask my technical manager for a bit of help. Which he did and never once did he mock or moan about my learning process. Something I will be forever grateful for.
I would forget what had worked in previous weeks and stare forlornly at an overly tight pack whilst considering a career-move into casting.
Casting sounds good. There's no carrying in casting.
But gradually I got my head around it. How it fitted and where the ties went. The importance of getting the driver on side, having a bag of Fruit Pastilles to hand and keeping a smile on your face in the constant and unrelenting Manchester rain.
During the very first couple of packs I realised that I needed to be strong. Certainly stronger than I was. I was going home with aching arms and, whilst on the truck, I was having to ask for help with lifting flight cases more often than I would have liked. I had stepped up my fitness by running most days but it wasn't enough so, driven by my fear of looking weak and girly, I enrolled in a week long bootcamp on our only holiday week off. For six days I exercised from 6am to 5pm doing circuits that made me want to vomit and assault courses which made my cry. At the beginning, myself and fifteen other women had to explain why we were there. Most people said 'weight loss' or 'toning' but when it came to me I simply blurted out,
'Heavy things. I need to lift and carry really heavy things.'
The ex military trainers were bemused but with their help I got to a stage where I could lift and carry 'really heavy' things. When I returned to work and did the first get-out since bootcamp, I couldn't help but grin widely when I lifted a piece of steeldeck singlehandedly and slid it into place unaided. Had this been a movie, it almost certainly would have been the final shot of a montage set to rousing music (maybe a 'Destiny's Child' track) which charted my progress from girly deputy stage manager to.... erm... slightly less girly deputy stage manager.
Let's not go nuts. Yeah, I lost weight and toned up but I didn't exactly become Jessica Ennis.
Obviously there were things that made me grumpy but that happens in every job. Like the time when we went to Scotland and the entire company (including myself) put their own big suitcases on the truck, throwing my well-organised pack well and truly out. The result being that I just started forcibly kicking suitcases and guitars (actors and their fucking guitars) in amongst the furniture.
Sometimes brute force and ignorance is the only way.
Listen, I said you could put your suitcase on the truck but I'm not bloody UPS. It will get there but whether it all gets there in one piece is another story.
After a while I realised that I was starting to actually look forward to the get out on a Saturday night. I wasn't jealous of the fact that the rest of my stage management team were going to go home or to the pub. I was kind of happy to be left behind with 'the boys'.
Yes there were sometimes girls but, in my experience, a theatre's crew are pretty much entirely made up of men with the occasional girl. I didn't mind this and quite enjoyed being able to keep up with them or sometimes occasionally being able to lift more.
The only time I got irritated was with the (very rare) sexism which I encountered. When issuing instructions on how I needed the steeldeck to be brought on (wood to my right, lugs on the top) I sometimes heard the words "Bossy, isn't she?'
It never failed to make me cringe slightly as I just found it rather patronising. If it had been a bloke telling the crew how to stack the steeldeck I doubt they would have called him 'bossy' and I didn't understand why they used that term to describe me. I thought it strange that men still sometimes found the need to comment on a woman who was in charge of a situation.
But I soon came to the conclusion that it was them who were struggling with being told what to do by a woman and it was not my problem, nor my concern, if they were unsure of their own masculinity.
It's funny, as this whole packing lark has made me realise some stuff about myself. A few years ago I positively relished male attention of all varieties. My own insecurities probably. If men made lascivious or flirtatious comments I welcomed it, encouraged it even.
But on the back of the wagon I just had no time for it. It annoyed me. I didn't want to be treated as 'a bit of skirt' on the get out and I felt strongly about that. I wanted to be treated as an equal. In my twenties I would have used my femininity to get men to do my bidding. Get them to lift the things that I couldn't or even the things I could. But now, at the age of 32 and with a whole new set of feminist views, I just wanted to be treated the same.
Another time during a get out I got told (as a compliment) that I lifted 'like a cute little lesbian'.
Okay I might be 5ft 3" but I'm a little baffled at how my ability to push a flight case up a ramp can be linked to my sexual preferences.
Which is straight.
Just in case any of you ever had any doubt.
The sexism I encountered on the truck was very rare and mostly the male crews were just friendly and fun. They taught me a lot and their patience whilst I learnt was endless. The majority of them were up for a laugh and a bit of banter whilst we got the job done.
But anyway, I have also learnt a lot about bits of theatre equipment which I never previously had any knowledge about. On one Tuesday get-in, I was recounting the tale of how I got the monster bruise on my leg to David, our relighter. Whilst clambering about on top of a layer of flight cases, clutching a boom bar, I had slipped, lost my footing, and fell down between two TW1 flight cases.
David listened politely to the story but then told me he was more impressed with the fact I could distinguish what type of flight case it was rather than with the bruise itself.
At the end of my first 'good' pack, the sense of achievement was overwhelming. I skipped home in the early hours of a Saturday night cheerfully dodging the rowing couples, swaying drunks and pools of blue WKD vomit, feeling like I was no longer just 'that kind' of stage manager. I could do something else. Something other than just cue a show. Something I had previously been scared of and said 'I can't do that' when it was suggested.
I may never have donned neon leg warmers or danced on a yellow cab, but I definitely feel like I have learnt something on this tour. And paid for it in sweat.
Packing a truck is nothing to a lot of people. I know that. But to me it was an intimidating task to take on and one which was way out of my comfort zone. Having now achieved it is the best glow in the world.
I guess maybe those lyrics in 'Fame' are true. In all aspects of theatre, not just performing, you can sometimes feel as if you've learnt how to fly.
Even in steelies.
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