Once a stage manager…

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Once a stage manager…

National Stage Management Conference March 2013
Keynote speech: “Once a stage manager….”

Good morning. I am delighted to be here – I have to say there are not many things that would get me away from listening to The Archers on a Sunday morning without substantial remuneration!

So, why am I here this morning? Although I no longer run venues I still think like a venue manager, and although I haven’t stage managed for – I won’t tell you how many years – I am still at heart a stage manager. I am someone who always thinks about the consequence of every action, and the consequences of those consequences. I carry an umbrella and sunglasses at all times – along with several kinds of painkillers – and not because I am a hypochondriac, but because I can’t bear being unprepared for any eventuality. I only stopped carrying a small screwdriver a few years ago. And even today I can’t watch a show without wondering how long the Tech took.

Anyway, the title of this conference is Taking Control, which is something that stage managers do all the time – making sense out of chaos. It is a frequent topic when I am coaching. Taking control is empowering – we all want to be in the driving seat as far as our careers and work/life balance go, even if there are times when it might seem a remote possibility. I hope you find lots of helpful suggestions in the day ahead to help you get into the driving seat.

But Taking Control doesn’t always mean a career travels in the direction you expected. Mine certainly didn’t. I ended up in places I didn’t know existed when I started out. I have tried to use each experience to open up new opportunities – even if at the time I had no idea what they might be. And I guess I’ve been open- minded.

I decided to work in the theatre at a time when the only alternative to studying acting was training as a teacher or a stage manager. I had no interest in teaching, so stage management it was. I pored over the flimsy brochures offered by drama schools and chose Central. These days Central’s prospectus is a very substantial glossy tome offering dozens of specialised courses and I wonder if I’d have chosen stage management if I’d had the choice available today. That would have been my loss, as my stage management training and experience have been invaluable in every job I’ve done since.

What I learnt from my teachers and my peers was self-discipline, the value of team working, the importance of rigorous preparation, the need to be empathetic, how to take responsibility for my own and other people’s mistakes, and how theatre works.

My training emphasised the management in stage management, so perhaps it wasn’t surprising that I should be attracted to more general management. I only worked in stage management for two years after leaving college, but apart from making lifelong friends, I was fortunate to have packed an enormous amount into that short time. At the grand old age of 22 I was stage managing (and virtually company managing) the first London production of The Norman Conquests, a trilogy featuring a starry cast including Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon, Felicity Kendal, Penelope Keith and Penelope Wilton. After Greenwich a contract for an open-ended run in the West End was on offer, but I decided to call it a day.

So if I was having such a good time why did I leave stage management? The short answer is “directors” – not all, but definitely some.

The medium answer is I fancied a job front of house, where I thought I’d get to wear better clothes and work shorter hours. I was right about the clothes, but wrong about the hours.

The long answer is I felt I’d gone as far
 as I wanted to in stage management
 and was after a new challenge; I
 wanted to find out how the rest of 
theatre worked. I was very fortunate that I fell into publicity, long before it was called marketing, and I found I had an aptitude for it and a passion for communicating with audiences. Starting at the bottom again, I got promoted quickly. Stage management experience made me a very organised and focused publicist. Having spent a lot of time in the rehearsal room or out and about propping in the days before the web, campaign planning for split week touring to venues the length and breadth of the country with a little known Benjamin Britten piece came naturally to me – as did the need to take the director’s view into account when commissioning the poster design for a new show and knowing the best time to ask a performer to do a radio interview.

I was lucky – there is more competition for jobs now than there was when I started. In my first five years out of college I’d been employed by (not interned for) three repertory companies spread across 400 miles, a national opera company in London and a touring opera company – and had a period as a freelance press rep.

When the company I was working for had its grant withdrawn and I ended up in the Touring Department of the Arts Council of Great Britain as it was then called, I gritted my teeth and gave it a year, assuming the pattern of frequent job change would continue.

However, it turned out to be a really fascinating place to work, full of interesting challenges and opportunities to make things happen, and great colleagues, not to mention a regular salary, and actually it took me 13 years to leave. And then only because, as had happened on a previous occasion when I was encouraged to leave a secure job for a huge challenge, my boss said, “there’s this job I think you should go for…”. So much for being in control.

I had never thought about running a venue, and certainly not moving to Coventry. But Warwick Arts Centre fitted like a glove. And I am sure I couldn’t have done it without stage management experience – how else could I run a 1500 seat concert hall, a 550 seat theatre, a black box studio, a cinema, a large art gallery, a lecture theatre and a construction workshop and paint-frame? I needed to be extraordinarily well organised and a terrific delegator, capable of multi-tasking and working ridiculously long hours. Does that sound familiar?

The same skills came in useful during my time at the South Bank Centre, where each year my department was responsible for producing or presenting up to 1,000 ticketed events (music, dance and performance, literature) in three halls, a further 300 free events in the foyers, 500 education activities and 400 Gamelan sessions, as well as managing 23,000 visits to The Poetry Library – not forgetting around 50 commercial lettings, such as graduation ceremonies, AGMs, conferences and filming.

Oh yes, we were also planning a major renovation of the RFH. The ability to see the big picture certainly came in useful, especially when it came to allocating time for maintenance. As a consultant, even though I have no-one to delegate to these days, organisational skills, the ability to work under pressure, to prioritise and to deploy diplomatic skills are essential.

I am not for a moment suggesting that stage management is only valuable as a route into other areas of work, but if people do want to move out, the skills learnt are definitely transferable – although it isn’t always easy to persuade employers.

Whether stage managers want to stay in the field or move into something else, there are two things I’d always encourage them to find time for. One easier than the other as you can do it here – network. Networking is vital – you must ensure people are aware of your talents, and not just within your organisation, but also in your sector. Keep your contacts going – as well as other stage managers and suppliers, there’s assistant directors, designers, marketing and front of house staff – you never know when they might come in useful for advice, references or employment.

We all know stage managers are shy, retiring types, but networking isn’t about performing. Networking helps you build a profile, or a personal brand. As Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, said, “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”

And secondly, whenever you can, see as much work as possible. Of course, I am aware this presents a challenge to both wallets and diaries, but I think it is vital to stay current, to know what your industry is doing and to be able to reflect on it in conversations with your colleagues – and potential employers.

I know the next session is going to look forward 10 years – if I could make a wish for your sector in 2023, it would be that stage management will be an attractive career for more people from culturally diverse backgrounds, and there will be more opportunities for stage managers who have a disability to train and to earn a living.

I look forward to continuing to enjoy Cueline – it really is a good read. Thank you for inviting me to spend time with you. Have a great conference.

This speech was reproduced in Cueline in Spring 2013