Thursday, 23 July 2015

Boring Bitch


I am boring.

Seriously.

Really, truly, fucking boring.

Although I had been having suspicions about this prominent characteristic of mine for quite some time, it was only about a year and a half ago that my hunch was finally confirmed. I was in my office and the show relay was on, broadcasting the conversation of the technical staff who were on stage and fervently discussing a future large night out, the invite to which I had politely declined just two days before. My fingers paused and hovered over the faded letters of the PC keyboard when I heard my name.

‘So, whose coming out tonight then? You. Me.’

‘Ed.’

‘Jess?’

‘Nah.’

A pause.

‘She’s so boring’.

The stage manager who was typing alongside me glanced over, her face reddening with embarrassment. But I couldn’t help but laugh as I continued to type up my Running List.

So it was true.

I actually am quite dull.

And that really is totally fine with me.

I am currently on a large-scale and particularly lengthy tour. I first embarked on a similar job about twelve years ago at the age of twenty-one. Fresh faced, a little chubby and with a penchant for fake tan, tiny vests and brightly coloured alco-pops, I ricocheted around the country, causing gentle and well-meaning havoc in towns and cities whilst (barely) performing the role of an Assistant Stage Manager. 

People always assume touring is so exotic. But it's hard to feel as if you're fulfilling a lifelong ambition when you find yourself sat in a leisure centre in Billingham, where the 'theatre' stinks of chlorine and the town itself houses nothing other than an Argos, a Wimpey and a pretty racist pub. Plus the fact that a 2003 digs bedroom had no wi-fi and just a crackly TV showing about five channels, which simply provoked you to spend more nights out exploring the provinces that your faceless tour-booker had sent you to.

But saying all that it was a good tour. A great tour. There was booze, drugs, drama and an incident with a flyman in the disabled toilet of the Buxton Opera House which I would really rather forget.

(None of my colleagues ever used the word ‘loose’, but it often hung in the air.)

My career kind of shuffled on like that for a while; not really committing to the work I was doing and focussing more on what was occurring once the curtain came down. Then something kind of shifted a couple of years back. My presence at the drunken post-show nights was rapidly decreasing, as was my rather problematic habit of abruptly snogging actors or fellow backstage staff, simply because there had been the slightest lull in conversation.

Days were no longer spent nursing hangovers in Wetherspoons or spending hundreds in Topshop, still slightly drunk from the night before. I was starting to slowly discover exercise and better eating. The internet had fully transformed all of our touring experiences, and nights at home in front of a laptop and Netflix weren’t too bad. Especially if I was planning to be up with the lark in order to attend a 6.30am Bikram Yoga class at a gorgeous little Glasgow studio or make a spinning class. The determination I once possessed to relentlessly persuade the rakish blonde in the ensemble to spend the night with me in a single bed in Stoke (well there was sod all else to do) was replaced with a competitive and unrelenting desire to run 5k in under 25 minutes, or complete a half marathon.

I became a regular gym-goer, always locating the nearest fitness studio or opting for long runs along canals or round fields. This meant that my booze intake also dropped dramatically as I was unwilling to allow my best time or quality of exercise to be affected. The unforeseen consequence of this, was that my relationship with company members was not as tight knit as it had been on previous jobs as I was less involved in the ‘mental’ nights or the hung over fry ups which can bond you. What was even more surprising was how little it bothered me as I realized that I was enjoying the sensation of opening my eyes without wondering where I was, what I had done the night before and who I needed to send a grovelling apology to. Instead of flailing wildly for paracetamol and a Coke, I was getting changed into running stuff and making it out of the digs before 10 am. My shift in lifestyle and mindset meant that my attitude to work also changed and I (slowly) became more punctual and conscientious.

And oh god, I was feeling so happy. Happier than I had in such a long time.

So calling me boring when it comes to my personal life really doesn’t bother me. The people who use the word 'boring' to describe my lifestyle are the people whose opinions I give absolutely no fucks about. I enjoy my routines and am also not restricted by them. Prosecco, take aways, beer and chocolate feature heavily in weekends, holidays and time spent with my bloke. And I don’t regret that in the slightest.

However.

Calling me boring when it comes to work is what affects and frustrates me.

For instance, a while ago I was in previews for a show and we, stage management, were getting the same note, night after night, from the director.

‘I’m hearing so much noise from backstage. Chatting and talking. It has to stop. You need to make it stop.’

The position I cued from was pretty far away from backstage so I was powerless to stop it during the show. But my stage manager and assistant stage manager were always present. Unwilling to be given the same note from the frustrated director they were keeping an ear out for noise levels which would reach the audience.

At one point, when the casts voices were reaching a point where it was audible from out front, my ASM nipped over to chirpily ask them if they could keep it down.

‘Blimey,’ one giggled ‘you're like the Fun Police!’

Obviously a comment meant in jest and the actors did obediently lower their voices. But afterwards I chatted to my heartbreakingly despondent ASM in the office.

‘They called me the Fun Police!’ she rather solemnly explained before protesting, ‘But I’m loads of fun.’

I couldn’t help but agree. Amber was probably one of the most fun people I had ever worked with, constantly making me laugh out loud with her candid observations and remarkably witty one liners. Plus the fact she once attended a Production Meeting in a Scooby Doo costume, simply because the CSM had told her to.

But by doing what the director had repetitively asked of us, she had been gently mocked as being someone who controlled and stopped fun. I liked that company tons and understood that nobody would have said it had they known we would have taken it to heart. But it is something that stage managers get on a pretty regular basis; the irritated eye rolls, derogatory scoffs and muttered moans when you are attempting to enforce basic yet necessary rules. 

Which then naturally prompts the unshakable feeling that most of your colleagues are under the impression that you're just being a bit of a bitch.

Most stage managers spend a lot of their time at work trying to enforce these rules by belting out numbers from everyone’s favourite album entitled; 

'Now That’s What I Call Stage Management Nags’.

The top hits include ‘Baby, Don’t Walk Around In Bare Feet’, ‘Guys Can You Keep It Down’ and ‘Honey, Please Be In By The Half And Don't Leave After'. Plus the totally catchy and much loved number:

‘Take Your Sodding Coffee Off The Stage’.

And it’s not just stage management. The wardrobe/wigs departments also love to serenade company members with popular tunes such as ‘Don’t Break My Heart And Bloody Eat In That’ and ‘Are You Seriously Wearing Actual Costume In Warm Up?’

So why are we so persistent? Why are we forever making our lives more difficult by repetitively getting hung up on the tiny banalities of backstage life?

Well, here’s why.

I fervently believe that the actor is the most important person on the stage.

Honest.

Theatre began with one man telling a story and then more people getting involved and then the use of props and costumes and wigs. Elaborate sound and lighting all came much later. And then we had to wait an even longer amount of time for video. Although that’s not exactly unusual. 

We always have to wait a long time for bloody video. NASA sent a spacecraft to Pluto and back in the time it takes us to 'render' some content.

But anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that I sincerely do believe that the actor is of the upmost importance. There is no way I would get up on stage in front of hundreds of people, baring my soul and saying a thousand words without a verbal trip up. I scarcely manage the beginner’s call without stumbling. I have an unbelievable amount of respect for what performers do and I am only there because they are. And I fully understand that the most prominent part of my job is to try and ensure that the cast are okay and capable and supported. Which is maybe why the song that all of these backstage departments don’t sing enough is that of Bryan Adams.

‘Everything I Do, I Do It For You.’

Like the bare feet backstage thing. I don’t harp on about people wearing footwear in the wings because I’m some kind of weird shoe enthusiast or have severe podophobia (fear of bare feet). Having witnessed what goes on during a get-in when those large scale touring sets are built, I feel about as enthusiastic trotting around bare foot backstage as I do entering a public toilet at Glastonbury with naked soles.

Trust me. Technical staff don’t walk about wearing chunky steel toe cap boots because they are avid fans of the Village People. They witness first hand exactly how a set is put into a theatre and there is no way they would take the risk.

Touring sets are what can only be described as a weekly construction site with tools, nails, pins and skin splintering wood chips. We do our best to keep it hazard free but everyone knows that in-house vacuum cleaners are usually as effective as an asthmatic gerbil giving a blowjob. Plus I have been on the scene of far too many unpleasant foot related injuries, which can often lead to an understudy going on. Stubbed toes, splinters and (most unpleasantly) a lost toenail. That was a bad one. Once the bare-foot and bleeding actor in the latter example had been taken to A and E, the CSM asked me to divulge exactly what had happened and wincingly I did.

‘Gross’, he confirmed. ‘And then he puked up?’

‘No.’ I cringed, eyeing the sad little pool of brown vomit. ‘That was me.’

So when your stage manager asks you to wear shoes in the wings or wear appropriate foot wear for fight calls etc, just remember it’s because we are trying to prevent injury.

We very ‘boringly’ just want to keep the cast safe.

And that goes for the set and costumes too. All theatrical rules such as the ones I have mentioned previously are usually created when something goes awry or gets damaged. A freshly swept and mopped stage gets tea knocked all over it, causing the stage to have to be mopped again and subsequently the house has to be held. 

So Lo!! The rule of having No Drinks Other Than Water Onstage is created.

The technical staff will also be sensitive about liquids such as tea and coffee being placed on surfaces backstage as one drop of fluid can take out an entire piece of equipment. The most extreme example of this I ever witnessed was an actor’s cup of Ribena taking out a £10,000 DiGiRack and cancelling a performance as well as costing the company a shit load of money.

(Most people never realize the cost of backstage equipment until it’s broken. I always follow the theory that if it has little flashing lights on it, it costs more than I'm willing to spend to replace it.)

Look, if I could cue a matinee with a strong cup of coffee and a packet of Marks and Spencer's mango, trust me. I would. But I understand the necessity of the rule just as I understand an actor’s frustrations when they get told to take it off.

‘But I’m not going to spill it!’

Let’s be honest. No one ever plans to happily chuck a cup of tea over a table full of paper props. It just happens. No one is assuming that you're a clumsy irresponsible oaf. It’s just that accidents really do regularly occur.

And stage managers have witnessed every single one. 

It’s the same with people eating/drinking in costume. Wardrobe have enough trouble maintaining the quality and look of costumes without also scrubbing out beetroot-juice stains or mustard marks. This also applies to wearing costume during warm up; a rule which can understandably baffle people.

'I’m going to wear it on the stage doing a similar thing. So why can’t I just wear it now?'

Warm up/fight calls usually take place after a lengthy and rigorous wardrobe pre set has been done,  (which also happens after wardrobe have been in for a good couple of hours fixing, mending and reinforcing) so if something has been set and then a company member uses it, it can have severe repercussions during the show when the bloody thing can’t be found. (Same goes for props).

Rips, tears, scuff marks and sweat damage occur and wardrobe are more than happy to repair the damage when that damage happens onstage. But when mishaps are happening to clothes in warm ups, it's far more frustrating. Which is why it is preferable to keep the time that actors are wearing clothes to a minimum, unless a very particular item of clothing is necessary to a fight sequence and subsequently has to be worn in a fight call. The majority of actors I work with understand that providing warm up clothes for yourself is a part of the gig, just as I provide my own blacks. Nobody would ever use prop cutlery or crockery to eat a post matinee meal so why help yourself to your costume to warm up in?

When wardrobe departments spend so many painstaking hours ensuring that costumes are laundered, steamed and set so precisely, it’s frustrating to see the work be so swiftly disregarded.

Basically, they just ‘boringly’ want the cast to look good. So they have created this ‘boring’ rule.

And as an actor once said to me ‘Those girls have seen my skid marks. I’ll do whatever the fuck they want.’

Stage managers/technicians/wardrobe don't expect constant praise for the jobs and work they do. But when the work and the rules get so swiftly discarded and you've already been in for a couple of hours maintaining, facilitating and preparing, it's hard not to feel as if your effort is being ignored. There have been the jobs when I look at a sink full of dirty mugs and cutlery on a get out day or witness a cast member going out after the half or see a carefully mended bit of costume chucked on a dressing room floor or get shrugged off when I breezily ask someone to take their coffee elsewhere, and it's always pretty easy to feel that not only are you being undervalued, but that someone has simply chosen to give you the finger.

I guess I feel the way that an actor would if I stood in the wings and talked loudly over their speech. Ignoring their work and quite openly disrespecting it. 

When I asked on Twitter about how actors felt about the rules and regulations of backstage theatre, the main complaint that arose, is how actors often feel patronised. And I can sympathise with that. I have attempted many methods of enforcing basic rules and it can be hard to get the tone right. Maybe it’s something that we, as stage managers, should work on.

Implementing without ordering.

Instructing without being over bearing.

I will hold my hand up and admit that when you have asked for a rule to be acknowledged a dozen times it is hard to not lose your temper when having to ask again. Especially when you have been in a situation where something has gone wrong or been broken and the Producer asks the awful question;

‘How could you let this happen?’

Because, when it comes to the powers that be we are viewed as the people who care and maintain their expensive-to-run and very precious show. So when accidents occur and they want to know why, answering their question with ‘Well we did keep asking but they got proper moody with us’ isn’t really good enough.

All of those crappy and annoying rules might be excruciatingly dull to abide by. But trust me when I say that dealing with the aftermath is what's actually really boring. 

So yeah.

There you have it.

I’m like a lot of stage managers.

Boring.

Mind numbingly dull.

Captain of the Fun Police.

It's not like I was born like that. Few stage managers are. It's just that experiences, mistakes and accidents have led to us being that way;

Unbelievably and relentlessly boring.

But that’s just the way it has to be.

Because actually, when I stop and think about it, the actor isn't the most important person in a theatre.

The audience member is.

And at seven thirty each night, in theatres up and down the country and throughout the West End, thousands of people sit in those crappy folding seats having organised baby sitters, transport and maybe a night off work. Taxis are booked, hard earned money is parted with and Tripadvisor is consulted for a half decent pre-show meal.

The ‘boring’ bit of planning their evening out is finally completed, and countless pairs of eyes glisten in the darkness and look to the stage expectantly.

Ready to witness the results of all those vocal warm ups, fight calls, movement calls and extra rehearsals.

Ready to witness the results of laundry, ironing, rigorous pre-sets, rig checks, shout checks and all of those fucking boring rules.

Ready and waiting and wanting.

To be anything but bored.













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