Observing the Calling of “Company” in London

Sharon Hobden – DSM of Company at the Gielgud Theatre

Reaching out to the Stage Management Association of the UK (UK SMA), I inquired if they had any observation opportunities from their members. Andy Rowley (Executive Director) kindly put a call out and Sharon Hobden, who is currently the DSM for Company, sent me an invite. This production has been noted for the gender swapping of the lead character Bobby and some other roles plus the storyline has been updated thereby bringing it into the 21st century with a natural ease that had I not known its origins, I would have thought it was a new musical written for today. Patti LuPone stars in the role originated by Elaine Strich. With a bit of tongue in cheek (given her history of admonishing patrons about cell phone use at the theatre), the recorded curtain speech is her voice firmly but good naturedly telling the audience to switch off their mobiles.

I checked in at the stage door of the Gielgud Theatre where Sharon came out to meet me. Sharon is warm and friendly with an air of trust and calmness emanating about her. She took me through the backstage area which is small and can barely hold the several moving box units (5 plus 1 in the trap) whose borders light up by way of battery and are controlled wirelessly. Two of the boxes are wireless the others have cables. The largest unit is automated and lives the farthest upstage rolling downstage when required. This unit changes from being a living room to a kitchen to a bedroom and finally to a night club. The other units are smaller and live either offstage right or left and are operated by the crew. A bit of Tetris has to be played when a couple of these units move off the same direction and because the backstage wings are just wide enough to hold one unit, the first one off has to move upstage after it is out of sight in order for the other to get offstage. And while these units live offstage, crew and cast have to move through them to get anywhere. Props are placed wherever room can be found. Costume quick change stations are also in improvised areas – one being in a disused box seat at stall level but out of audience sightline.

View of front of Company stage – the calling station is the top box house right

Sharon led me out of the backstage area after noting that the safety curtain had been brought in and out once the house was open so that it was witnessed as working by whoever in the general public happened to be taking their seats. It’s a law that this must be done which answered why I would sometimes see the safety curtain randomly come in and out during the half hour leading up to the start of show. We continued up to the calling station – out of backstage left and into the audience area, up some stairs and into a box house right which is hidden from the audience by black curtains. There is a view of the stage from above but most of the show is watched through monitors. There are the usual shots of the front of stage in colour, infrared, video of the musical director, shot of looking stage left from stage right, shot of the trap area, and a monitor feed that allows Sharon to pan in/out from the front of the stage as well as have a view of the audience if needed. Also there are the usual coms station and cue lights set up.

Company rehearsed 6 weeks then had 1.5 weeks of tech before playing to the public – the shortest tech period Sharon has experienced since working in regional rep theatre. To those of us who work regionally, 1.5 weeks sounds like a very long time but West End products – like Broadway – generally have longer. During the course of tech, Sharon could rely on the SM and ASMs to troubleshoot the scene shifts. In practice, the SM who leads the backstage will call the holds to cast and crew which allows Sharon/the DSM, who is in the house, to concentrate on other things with the director and designers. In the meantime, the SM will get everything ready to go again once it is known where they will continue from and let the DSM know once they are ready. In addition, Sharon will discuss any changes with Automation, Flys, Sound and Lights and liaise with the SM as to the physical changes that have to be made onstage before they being a sequence again. Normally the SM and DSM have mapped out the scene changes but on this occasion, the Designer (Bunny Christie) had produced a very detailed storyboard and the Production Manager assisted with the process which was not unwelcome. Sharon noted that everyone on the team is lovely to work with – they have an easy going camaraderie which echoes over the coms even with the simple “standing by” confirmations.

Originally, the SM team* (see end of article for job titles and descriptions) consisted of the CM, DSM, SM, and 2 ASMs then they found the need to have a third ASM who came on board once they had opened. The other members of the stage crew apart from wardrobe consist of 3 crew, 1 stage electrician, 1 automation crew, and 2 flies along with 2 spot ops, the lights, and sound. All of these members are on coms. Not everyone hears each other but Sharon (and I) hear them all. Some of the scene changes require all hands on deck which means one of the flymen even step in if nothing needs to be flown in. There is a backstage union called BECTU** which represents all backstage staff apart from Stage Management, however there is no closed shop in the UK so as with Equity, you do not need to be a member of a union to work. So as a result, there are no territorial boundaries to worry about crossing and protecting in the backstage arena amongst Stage Management and the rest of the crew. The boundaries are more blurred or less strict, if you will.

Top of Act 2 from Company calling script

The calling of Company has sections of intense cues and then lulls of quiet especially during the dialogue scenes. Everyone but Lights gets standbys as including Lights would cause more chatter on the coms than necessary. Lights are stood by at the top of each Act for the whole Act. Looking at Sharon’s beautifully typed up calling book (each act is in a separate binder – and there is the separate blocking script), I ooo’ed and aahh’ed over the well placed text boxes and color coding. On the opposite of each script page is a list of the cues (LX, SND, Fly, etc) that are called with a description of what each cue does. Sharon does this for all her shows and it’s a process that is streamlined now that she’s used to what needs to be done.

At this performance, there was a newly trained person operating the lights and though the show has many bump cues often in a matter of seconds, Sharon had a calm confidence that it would go smoothly and it did. Sharon loves to DSM and it’s rare for those in stage management to stay in the position as long as she has. The ladder progression tends to lead up to CSM/CM then over to Production Management.  But I could understand why Sharon enjoys her job. Hearing her call the show was an art form. My favorite moment of the calling was listening to Sharon keep count of the music over headset for the crew during a lengthy number where the crew was constantly moving around backstage prepping and activating scene shifts. I found the choreography of this (viewed by monitor) more fascinating than what was happening in front of the audience.

Page 2 of Act 2 from Company calling script

The opening of Act 2 is a 9.5 minute number that just never stopped. Sharon commented afterwards “imagine how long that took us to rehearse” to which I responded that it must be difficult to rehearse this number with the covers/understudies and she confirmed that it was. One of the cast covers Bobbie, there are five other covers who cover 2-3 parts each. They are in two scenes of the show and can easily be cut if they need to go on for their cover. But to rehearse the whole show with just the covers/understudies is nigh on impossible. They can only do chunks. And if someone does go on, they will rehearse certain challenging parts with that person and the cast prior to the performance.

Prior to every performance, there is a fight call and mandatory warm up session. So for a 7:30p curtain, cast is in at 6:15p. As I was touring backstage prior to the show, Sharon pointed out that the crew even did physical warm ups to be ready to move the units. Call times always lead up to “Beginners” (Places) call which is 5 minutes before the show is set to begin. “The cast doesn’t mind waiting around past 7:30p if the house hasn’t given you the all clear to begin?”, I ask – Sharon replied that this is how it’s done and everyone works with it. I thought about some of the actors that I work with who would be whining if they were kept waiting backstage longer than a couple minutes before the curtain speech begins. Front of house calls also happen to be the DSM’s responsibility. Sharon rings the bell and announces to the audience to take their seats “the performance will begin in 3 minutes” and so on – think “Noises Off”. Some venues don’t need the SM to make these calls – their FOH personnel will make the calls which makes the DSM’s life less complicated.

As far as the SM’s duties post opening are concerned, there is very little involvement with maintaining a show from the directorial vantage. Productions tend to have an Associate Director drop by every so often to watch a show and give notes to actors. Sharon will keep an eye on that aspect just in case something morphs that affects the technical elements of the show but will always relay her actor related notes to the Associate Director to give as it’s best on this production that there is one voice. The CM sometimes will be able to watch the show from the house if needed as well. In the case of Company, this person does have to lead cast members through the house for entrances to the stage from that area so they are already there to see how the audience is reacting and make note of it in their report – Sharon is not in an ideal position to make much note of audience reaction.

The facade of the Gielgud Theatre

As I listened to Sharon and watched the monitors, I reflected about the mindset of stage management in the UK versus the USA not to mention the pros and cons of Equity in both countries. Sharon reinforced much of what Andy Rowley chatted about when I met with him earlier in the week to discuss the state of stage management in the UK. When the show ended, Sharon packed up her bags and we both wended our way down to the backstage area taking a moment to look at the set in work light and noting all the entourage outside Ms. LuPone’s dressing room. I thanked Sharon profusely for her time and willingness to host me and watch her work then departed so that she could do her report and call an end to the long two show day that she had.

One final thing to note – and it’s a rather frustrating practice towards Stage Managers in the UK: bios of Stage Managers are not listed in programs. I remarked on this when I met with Andy and he hung his head sighing because it is something you’d think productions would easily include. At the very least, names are listed under production staff but how often does your average theatre goer read that far? In any case, I asked Sharon for her bio so that I could include it with this article and here it is:

Sharon studied Stage Management and Technical Theatre at LAMDA. The early part of her career was spent gaining experience touring the UK and working in Regional Rep, but Sharon soon realised that her interests lay in becoming a career DSM. She has spent most of the last 23 years opening new large scale musicals in the West End. Her West End credits as DSM include, Jolson, Kat and the Kings, Annie, Lautrec, Secret Garden, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Mary Poppins, Oliver!, Ghost and Groundhog Day. Sharon has also worked for the RSC and spent 2 years as DSM at The National Theatre.  She has been lucky enough to work on productions, which have taken her to Canada and Australia.  Sharon is currently DSM on Company at The Gielgud Theatre, London.

* Stage Management Positions in the UK (as described by the UK SMA):

Assistant Stage Manager (ASM – also Tech ASM, ‘show crew’) The junior grade. ASMs assist DSM’s and stage managers in rehearsal, are involved in prop sourcing and making and running a show plot during the show. ASM’s will normally be supervised by a more senior SM. ASM’s often ‘cover’ the book and can run a show from the prompt desk after training.

Deputy Stage Manager (DSM – also Showcaller, live event SM, Script supervisor, Tech DSM) Typically runs the rehearsals for the director, and runs the show ‘on the book’ once the production is on stage, or for a live or corporate event.

Stage Manager (SM – Tech SM, C&SM, Production stage manager) Manages and runs the SM team and the production in rehearsal and on stage.  Has responsibility for efficient scheduling, bringing the show to previews and press night to the director’s and producer’s requirements, and for the smooth and safe running of the show during the run and on tour.

Company Stage Manager (CSM – C&SM, CSM on the book) Like the SM but also has responsibility for the safety, morale, good performance and professional behaviour of the acting company as well as stage management and other technicians. May act ‘in loco for the producer or director during rehearsals, show runs and tours. CSM’s often relight shows on tour and also take responsibility for the fit ups at new venues and the high visual and performance standards of the production on tour, giving notes to the company and running additional rehearsals where necessary.  On very small cast and set productions a CSM ‘on the book’ may work alone or with support from other technicians.

Company Manager Generally a management job working to the producer(s) or general manager(s) and responsible for all aspects of company and backstage crew employment, welfare, morale and administration on a large west end or commercial, opera, ballet, sub-rep or touring show. Duties often include many of the responsibilities of a CSM.

** BECTU stands for Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union. More info about this union can be found at bectu.org.uk

Inside Look: Weston Playhouse Stage Management Internship

The following article continues a series devoted to stage management training programs (undergrad, grad, internships, etc.) across the country from the perspective of working stage managers who attended them. – Hope Rose Kelly (Editor-in-Chief)

Weston Playhouse Theatre Company – Weston, VT

Stage Management Internship – 2014

By Kyle P. Gillikin and Nicki Berger

This program takes place during the summer stock season and the length of the position was from the end of May until middle August. I interviewed for this position in person at SETC with the Production Manager and Associate Production Manager and then filled out an application following the interview and sent recommendation letters by email. This was a very quick process, due to the nature of  SETC. The position was compensated at $100.00 a week and housing was provided

The duties involved supporting the Stage Management team on 2 or 3 productions throughout the season during pre-production, rehearsal, tech, and performance weeks. Assisting with all rehearsal needs, creation of necessary paperwork, schedules, inter-departmental communications, attending production meetings, taking notes, and sometimes serving on show run crew backstage as needed.  In reality you act as an ASM on the children’s musical at their smaller venue and a second ASM for the mainstage musical under the Equity ASM and PSM. You also assist in the upkeep, cleanup and maintenance of work areas, rehearsal and performance spaces, office equipment, assist in other departments as assigned, attend intern meetings, provide support for special events or company projects as needed. There is an intern company of 24, two of which are Stage Management Interns.

Both of the productions I (Kyle) worked on were musicals. A smaller children’s musical with Weston’s young company (Schoolhouse Rock Live!) and on a mainstage musical (Mamma Mia!). However I was also able to work on a reunion concert they put on that season as part of their 80th anniversary. We rehearsed six days a week with one day off most weeks as well as attending any production and intern meetings as needed. The tech process involved two 10 of 12’s followed by two days of morning rehearsals and a preview performance later that day and the second day the rehearsal was followed by the opening performance. Both productions did eight shows a week.

This program offered a great opportunity to dive right in and start working with professionals in the industry while having the large teaching emphasis put into their intern program. You are able to go right into rehearsals for these productions, start working with the rest of the stage management team and learn from them. You can also earn EMC points for some of the work. This program also requires you to attend a weekly intern meeting, where we sit down with one or more of the artists that came in to work on a particular project and speak to them about their lives and/or a particular topic.

Highlights of the experience included living in the housing with a great group of people, a lot of which we are still friends with; being in beautiful Vermont, enjoying the views and being able to disconnect for a little bit; the close community the stage managers make among themselves – we had multiple nights of getting together, sharing a drink and talking for hours listening to everyone’s stories; they also offered a stage management round table to anyone who wished to participate; and getting to work with some great people, some of which will let you be in their infamous cabaret. Being around for the 80th celebration was amazing. There are so few theaters in America that have been running that long. We threw a parade, invited past performers out for a cabaret, and had a community celebration. The community and history of Weston is a big part of the experience and it was never celebrated more than at the 80th anniversary.

This program helped me (Kyle) learn how to be a better manager and how translatable all of my skills. Since leaving Weston I have been working as a stage manager for Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia – starting out there as an event operations stage manager and continuing on to be a show operations stage manager and area supervisor for the park. Almost every theater I have worked at since leaving Weston I have met another technician or performer who is part of the Weston family and it has created great conversations, instant bonding and networking. I’m (Nikki) currently working as a PA at Hartford Stage through connections I made at Weston.

We could recommend this program to anyone looking for more experience working at a professional Equity theatre. Mostly undergrad and grad students, due to the educational nature of this internship and how the people you work with want you to learn and succeed.

Inside Look: Ithaca College Stage Management

The following article continues a series devoted to stage management training programs (undergrad, grad, internships, etc.) across the country from the perspective of working stage managers who attended them. – Hope Rose Kelly (Editor-in-Chief)

Ithaca College – Ithaca, NY

B.A. Theatre Studies – Concentration in Stage Management – 2013-2016

By Liza Miller

As a graduate of Ithaca College’s Theatre Arts Department I regularly implement my education in my work. Before I chose Ithaca, determined to become a stage manager, the only thing I had stage managed was my high school’s talent show. My high school was small and there was no theatre department, only a drama club. There were only two backstage crew and everyone else was an actor. I chose Ithaca College because it is located in Ithaca, New York – one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. The city feels like the middle of nowhere but the mountains and the lake are breath taking and there is plenty of hiking. I chose the Department of Theatre Arts because everyone I met was friendly and bright and honestly in love with their school. So…lacking all knowledge of actual stage management ICTA accepted me with open arms and gave me the fundamental skills and practical experience required to succeed after graduation.

Ithaca Theatre Department has five majors. All of them are undergraduate degrees and when I went there (2013 – 2016) if you primarily focused on stage management you were a B.A. Theatre Studies major. You don’t graduate with a degree in stage management but there were unofficial paths within the major that a student could choose to follow or not; Stage Management being one. The B.A took four years to complete and you must interview to be accepted into the major. When I applied I had to submit a resume, and a letter explaining why I wanted to be a B.A. I was then contacted by the department to set up an interview. One of the B.A. professors met with me, looked over what I submitted with my application and then asked me a few questions. I was very nervous (which was completely unnecessary) so I honestly don’t remember it very well.

Most class years have three to five stage managers but in my year there were ten by graduation. Ithaca has 2 main stage theaters and 5 studios, one of which is a small 50 seat theater. There are 6 main stage productions and an unbelievable amount of student produced productions every year. There are also productions and presentations connected to the directing, play writing and performance classes. The main stages include 3 plays, 2 musicals and 1 opera. Every other year a play was replaced by a dance show. As a stage manager you would be assigned to a production in addition to your daily classes. If you entered the program as a freshman you would shadow an SM team during the fall semester and be a Production Assistant in the Spring. As a sophomore you would be assigned as a PA again or you may become an Assistant Stage Manager depending on your abilities and skills. Junior year you would usually be an ASM or a Production Stage Manager for one of the smaller shows in the studio theaters. Senior year most Stage Managers will PSM a mainstage show.

None of the assignments were guaranteed. Other than the initial shadow assignment all positions were based on merit and performance. At Ithaca there is an Instructor called the Stage Management Production Mentor. They would teach the class “Stage Management I” held every fall semester and also be responsible for reviewing your performance at the end of the show. The reviews were important but fairly relaxed. Everyone you interacted with, student and professor, would be able to submit an evaluation of your skills to the SM Mentor anonymously and then the mentor shared the evaluations in the student’s review in a constructive and educational way with a focus on how to improve on mistakes.

One of the amazing things about Ithaca’s Theatre Department was that every rehearsal, tech and performance was run like an Equity level production. When I was a PA on my first Off-Broadway production I was happily surprised to find that everything I did as a PA in college was the same as what I needed to do in a professional production. The paperwork was the same, the breaks were the same and the responsibilities were the same. This goes for the ASM and PSM duties at Ithaca as well.

Ithaca College holds classes Monday to Friday so rehearsals would be held 7pm – 10pm, Monday to Friday with a 5 hour rehearsal on either Saturday or Sunday. Tech usually started on a Thursday and went from 7pm – 11pm, Friday was 7pm – 11pm and then there was usually a 10 out of 12 on Saturday or Sunday and then Monday was 7pm-11pm with First preview on Tuesday night.

I felt that the Ithaca College SM program required you to be self-motivated. They give you all the tools and experience you need to start and then they expect you to run with it. The SM mentor was always there to answer questions and supervised tech but you were also expected to be independent and hold your own. You must run the rehearsal room and production meetings and the performances were all on the stage managers. Though competitive, Ithaca was never hostile. I always felt that students had healthy respect for each other even in stressful situations. Professors were always rooting for their students and ready with an encouraging word or constructive criticism. I feel that the program was equal parts education and experience and students had the freedom to make mistakes in a professional setting.

Since graduation, Liza has worked in NYC at Classic Stage Company and Signature Theatre. As of 2018, she gained her card with Actors’ Equity Association.

Trust Your Stage Manager

I was passing off a show during the tech process in which the incoming SM was working on establishing relationships with the 3 person cast. Halfway through the first day of tech, the lead actor approached me with a flushed face, chills, shakes, and a high fever. We sent him home and canceled the rest of the day after assessing that his temperature wasn’t high to be a danger and he refused to go get himself checked out – which would have been at the ER as it was in the evening. Next day, it was clear he wasn’t well still and he didn’t refuse the idea of seeing a doctor who determined that it was a stomach virus. Bed rest was ordered for 2 days which meant cancelling the first preview. This actor woke up the next day insistent that he was well enough to proceed forward and finish teching along with doing the first preview. After a couple hours of rehearsal, the incoming SM saw how unwell he still was even though he insisted he was fine. She sat him down and said “I need to trust that I can safely send you out on the stage without you falling over. Can you honestly tell me that you will make it?” The Actor took a moment, realized the seriousness of the situation and the care this new SM had for him and answered that he needed more rest. Preview was cancelled and after another day of rest, the Actor was well again to perform at the next scheduled preview.

Stage Managers have your back and want you to be safe and well!