Wow, what can I say? Thirty years in the business and this is the first time I’ve ever heard of something like this – a day to honour and celebrate all those who work backstage! Several fellow stage managers as well as performers have quipped over the last few days: “It’s long overdue!”
The initiative started in the UK last year with Stage Management Day, and this year the rest of the world thought “Why not?” and rallied to the cause in a way that only a bunch of theatre techies could. Stage managers and techies are tweeting and sharing on other social media, roping in performers and producers alike, to turn the spotlight onto what happens backstage, encouraging people to acknowledge the unseen creators and maintainers of the magic.
I am so impressed and feel proud to be part of this wider group.
This makes me think back to all the stage managers I have worked with in 33 years. I am tempted to list here the names of those great stage managers who taught me the tricks of the trade, but frankly I’m worried about leaving out a single name by accident, and I don’t want to risk offending any of them. Especially not on a day that is specifically dedicated to them.
So I’ve decided to write instead about those who did their jobs backstage when I was a chorus-singer and a ballet-kid in amateur pantomimes. They unwittingly led me into this business by nurturing in me the belief that it is more fun to be backstage than to be onstage. As a teenager in the mid-seventies I took part in four local pantomimes. On the first two of those productions, the sets were moved around in the scene changes by a dedicated team led by a man called Tony Facey.
If there was the slightest noise backstage, Tony was there in an instant, spitting ire and threatening to decapitate dancers and chorus alike. He was a great stage manager, did the most awesome transformation scene in Cinderella and no one dared to cross him.
Tempering his aggression was Sybil Curtis, who sat in the SM corner, her eyes on the book while simultaneously marshalling people into place and calling the cues. Efficient, unflappable, and never deviating from the job in front of her no matter what fell out of the sky, Sybil was the epitome of calm and control backstage. Tony was the hot and Sybil was the cold; together they made a formidable stage management team, and enjoyed the well-deserved respect of everyone in the show.
Working backstage on one of the later productions was a more relaxed, usually smiling lady called Beth Wenke, who diligently set out all the props, and made sure they went into the correct places during the scene changes. I was terrified of Tony and in awe of Sybil, but it was Beth whom I probably related to the most, and chatted to whenever neither of us was busy.
Somehow she seemed to have such fun doing her job that I quickly went from pitying her for not appearing with us on stage, to envying her for being able to run her little empire in the wings. One night I helped her to get some fallen props out of the way of the giant’s entrance in Puss in Boots, and that incident remains the most memorable part of that production for me.
A few years later, as a disillusioned second year drama student, I did my first backstage credit, painting and sorting out props. The memory of Beth’s enjoyment of her props and backstage kingdom came flooding back, and it’s never left me since. With encouragement from Peter Mitchell (who was one of my tutors and today runs the Hexagon Theatre) it began to dawn on me that I just might have found my niche. There have been a few hiccups along the way, but in the nearly thirty-five years since then I’ve never regretted my career choice.
So to all those other stage managers, techies and crew across the world who make the magic happen from behind the scenes, I wish you all a Happy Stage Management Day!