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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Working In Theatre- Stage Management Duties-Part 12

I've discussed my time working in stage management in earlier posts on here. I have mentioned running 'The Book', where a member of the stage management team was in charge of rehearsals and then the prompt corner when the show eventually reaches performance on stage. We would begin the whole process with a read-through of the play, when the cast will no doubt meet the entire company for the first time, although in 'rep' (repertory) there would be a core team of actors, around 10-12, who would remain with the company for the entire length of the season (around 6-8 months) although guest actors might be cast in specific productions and not for the entire season of plays. The read through of the play would be the first time the stage management team would get to meet the whole cast as well as the director who might also guest direct or in the case of a rep season, the theatre's artistic director would direct or one of a team of assistant directors might take the helm. The show's designer would have made a model of the play's set, a scaled reproduction which would be made of card and in the simplest representation show how any scene changes would be done. Not only helpful to the actors but the stage management who would have to do the scene changes, although in some shows the actors would also help with scene changes, move furniture or carry on props.
When rehearsals began in earnest (and if it was a two, or three-weekly 'rep' season.) there would obviously be a limited time to rehearse the play as there would be another play running in the evening. Stage management would have market out the play's set with chalk or coloured tape on the floor of the stage or if not there, in a separate rehearsal space elsewhere, either within the theatre or in a hall elsewhere in the town. Many theatres have their own rehearsal space, such as at Liverpool Playhouse where there was an excellent rehearsal studio which I believe has since been converted into a theatre space for actual performances.

Wherever I worked in stage management the jobs were given to staff for  1) The Book 2) Props
3) Sound operation and sometimes (depending on which theatre company) 3) Lighting Board operation. There were also other duties including working on the Flyfloor, working 'practical' things like 'live' sound off-stage i.e. doorslams, gunshots, glass crashes as well as dresser, paging such things as microphone leads and looking after animals that were used on stage (i.e. dogs, cats etc.)

I have discussed 'The Book' on an earlier post, whereby whoever does this is responsible for keeping the 'Prompt Copy' of the play's script up to date with the actor's moves given in the early stages of blocking the play in the rehearsal room, so that actors can refer to this if there is any sort of dispute with the director or other actors. Another member of the stage management team will sit in all the early rehearsals and note any props that will be needed. If a play has been produced before elsewhere there is a good chance that the printed script will have a props list at the back and a setting list, which shows in details where the props should be set on the stage and off stage, as well as personal props which the actors themselves will need, such as cigarettes, glasses, umbrellas etc. which they bring on and use themselves. Once the play is at the performance stage whoever is in charge of props (and, if it is a particularly prop-heavy show.) there may be more than one stage management member running props. During rehearsals stage management will probably have to provide 'stand-in' props for the actors to use, such as teasers, kettles, wine bottles, which may well need water in if they are to pour out drinks as well as some stand-in furniture. I say 'stand-in' because at the early stage of rehearsals all the actual props may not have been acquired by stage management. Some props would be very difficult to find and would need to be hired from a prop company. Such things that you would never manage to find in the average antique shop, such as a stuffed bear, which we needed for a show at Liverpool Playhouse called 'What Every Woman Knows.' There again, if it's something like period grocer items which we needed for another show at Liverpool Playhouse called 'June Evening' which had a corner shop on stage and needed grocer items for the period it was set, 1920's-30's we had to contact a company which specialised in period grocery items and gave us a whole shop-load of things from bars of soap to tea packets. It was in that show that we needed a bulls heart which had to be cooked and eaten! So a specific number were ordered from a local butcher and then we had to cook it and have it ready for the actors to use and eat on stage! Not actually as bad as it sounds as it tasted very much like roast beef! In another show at Ipswich Theatre when we did 'Roots' which is one of the Arnold Wesker trilogy plays, the show called for a cake to be made and then cooked on stag so we had to provide a working oven on stage. The cake was never seen to come out of the oven but for one performance the actress who made the cake actually cooked it and we ate it! It wasn't brilliant, but it proved that she had actually made the whole cake during the action of the play, which can't have been that easy, concentrating on her lines as well as getting all the ingredients of the cake and then baking it!

For all the other props we would need we had to beg, borrow and very nearly steal, whatever items were needed on stage. Looking back some forty or so years it seems amazing that we would go to the various shops around the towns where the theatres were and ask shopkeepers if they would lend certain items. I had to find a samovar for a show at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, for a show called "The Farmer's Wife." I spent a good two weeks trekking around the antiques shops in the town and almost gave up but then found one in an antique centre and managed to persuade the owner of the shop to lend it. I can't imagine what would have happened if it had been stolen or lost and whether the theatre had all these items covered on some sort of insurance policy. In most cases the shows were produced on extremely tight budgets so I suppose the only way they could be staged was to borrow these items from the good people of the town. Some items which did cause problems were drinks bottles and in particular those for shows which were set in, for example, America, where you needed a specific brand of beer or some obscure bottle of spirit such as vodka or whiskey. We would have to traipse around all the bars, pubs and restaurants and ask the managers and bar personnel if they could keep any empty bottles of whatever drink it was and then we had to create the actual liquid part to go inside the bottle with food colouring, gravy browning or even cold tea! I sometimes wonder, looking back, how any actor could be expected to drink those awful mocked-up drinks, be it whiskey, gin and tonic or whatever, when the colouring in the water we used was so foul to taste! As for food on stage, well, that can cause some problems, particularly when you are on a very tight budget. I mentioned earlier the cake that was made and baked on stage, but when you have to create something that looks edible, and often is eaten by your actors, that can be a different matter. We did an Alan Aykbourne play when I worked at Century Theatre in Keswick in the early 1970's, "How The Other Half Loves". There is a dinner party scene where the hostess produces a fancy casserole. We couldn't use meat as it would be too expensive, and wouldn't be seen as such so the concoction was made using bread, gravy browning and water but it did look quit convincing when it was served up. At Watford Palace Theatre I worked on "The Three Sisters" and we had to produce something to look like caviar and we used blackberry jam which did convince and the dining table was set far enough up stage so the audience couldn't see precisely what the actors were spreading on their toast!
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