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

Big Wish Comes True with “The Lion King”

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Zeke with his mother and Matt Shiner

My sister, Julie Johnson, works for some very special clients. One night she called to ask, “Do you know anyone who works with The Lion King?”  It turns out that she had been in communication with a family from Ohio whose young son, Zeke, had a BIG WISH: to be able to go and see The Lion King.

I thought of Zoya Kachadurian, a stage manager who had sent me a “headshot shot” taken backstage at The Lion King I emailed her and she sent me contact information for the tour stage manager, Matt Shiner. It just so happened that the tour was going to be performing very nearby where Zeke and his family lived so I put the two in touch and frankly, I forgot about it: in this business it is just what you do.

A couple of months later, my sister called a second time. Matt had contacted Zeke and made arrangements with him to attend the show.  Zeke has a condition that makes necessary special accommodations for him to attend this sort of public experience but Matt was on it; he met the family before the show, gave Zeke a sort of a preview of what he was going to experience and gave Zeke his biggest wish.

I received this note written by Julie and photos from the family:

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Zeke with his mother

This was a fantastic experience and we could not thank you enough for introducing us to this wonderfully accommodating man!

Zeke has wanted to do something like this for a very long time – really his dream! With his challenges related to his disability, the over stimulation issues; any change in a routine schedule can be very difficult for him to overcome.  He needs to prepare and be made comfortable with any change to allow him to participate without a great deal of anxiety.  The way he was treated, helped to transition and know what was coming was an amazing experience that we have not had before. We were not only amazed by what a wonderful person he is (Matt Shiner) but the show was incredible.  This was a life moment that will never be forgotten.

Thank you to everyone who helped to make this happen created an amazing memory for Zeke and our family that we would have never had without you.

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Zeke with his father

This is the truth about show folks. A person in Minnesota finds out someone in Ohio needs help, people from NYC make it possible. There is no folk like show folk, they are some of the best people in the world, willing to share the great fortune we have to work in this special business.  Thank you to Matt, to the Company of The Lion King and to Zoya for making this possible.

Shadowing “Finding Neverland”

finding-neverlandThe following piece is written by SMA member Michael Ghysels who had the wonderful opportunity of observing Matthew Stern call the production of “Finding Neverland” on Broadway.

I have been an SMA member for a year and I’ll say it until the cows come home, no organization has helped me or been more beneficial as a young stage manager. As a member, the networking is endless and there are opportunities you can’t get anywhere else. Case in point, Matthew Stern was gracious enough to let me shadow him at “Finding Neverland”. I first met him at the Holiday party last year and since my colleague shadowed him last year, I jumped at the opportunity and asked him. I felt shadowing a Broadway stage manager was exactly what I needed at this point in my career. The experience did not disappoint.

I felt blessed to shadow Matt. He has the stamina and the “it” factor a stage manager needs in order to be successful in this business. By that I mean he has a great personality, strong people skills, and all the other skills necessary to be an exceptional stage manager. He was very active during the show and conversed with me a lot instead of sitting silent for two and a half hours. And like any organized stage manager he was prepared for me. The entire crew knew I was coming and there was a chair already set up in the area where he called the show, which was above orchestra left about 25 feet up. He and the SM team welcomed me the second I walked into the Lunt-Fontanne. I got to hang out in the office pre-show with the PSM and other SM.

During the show I took a lot of mental notes. Matt was showing me all the equipment used to call the show. I asked a lot of questions and really studied the four monitors in front of me as Matt called the cues. I took note of his script and how the cues were written, especially cues that required counting in beats for big dance numbers. Since I saw the show last year I was very curious to see how a tech heavy show like “Finding Neverland” is called. I learned it’s not so much how many light cues there are in a big musical number but all the safety precautions a stage manager has to consider as well. This was the case with the finale for Act One. In the number “Stronger” the lead James M. Barrie is provoked by his alter ego which happens to be the inspiration for Captain Hook. Act One ends in the discovery that Peter Pan is about to take off. So there is a pirate ship that has to be presented on stage. I learned that confirming with the backstage crew that the mast set piece is ready to be lifted (can’t call the cue until they are ready), wait until all clear and confirm with the fly master to bring in the drape for the mainsail is key to pull off a number like this successfully.

Another moment I thought was done differently when watching from the audience was near the finale where (SPOILER ALERT) the mother dies. The company is singing this beautiful song and she is lifted up in the air, but there are magical sparkles flying around her. How they actually did it is that there is a circle of fans center stage coming from the orchestra pit and the actress who plays Peter Pan in the play (and starts the show) throws this glitter material at Laura Michelle Kelly (who plays the mother) and the fans go on. The moment is the show is very emotional and watching this from behind the scenes was even more powerful.

I know other Broadway stage managers, whom I’ve asked to shadow them and they have declined due to reasons like I’m not a student anymore. You’d be hard pressed to find another organization for stage managers who are more willing to provide someone with the experience described above. This is one of the many benefits of being an SMA member. The SMA really cares about their members with the intention to open the gates for young stage managers.

ADD A NEW OBSERVATION OPPORTUNITY

USITT SMMP Experience – Part 2: From the Mentoree Perspective

Brittany M. McMahon wrote the following article about her experience with the USITT Stage Management Mentoring Program. You can read Tom Kelly’s account from his perspective here: https://www.stagemanagers.org/2014/09/24/usitt-stage-management-mentoring-experience/ I asked Brittany how she got this opportunity and she responded:

While attending USITT, I stumbled upon a booth offering an event called the Find A Fellow Mentorship Program. I discovered that as a Student or Early Career registered attendee, you could complete a worksheet to submit for a drawing to win the grand prize: A two-day all expense paid trip to mentor with an experienced professional in your field of theatrical work; if possible, a fellow of the institute. The entire program was developed to help the younger generation of up and coming professionals to realize the importance of networking. For two lucky individuals, it would also be a chance to win the grand prize. 

The worksheet was actually a collection of 6 photos from 6 USITT Fellows’ pasts. The idea was that you were to speak with a number of USITT fellows and then guess if one of the photos was the Fellow you were speaking with. If you guessed correctly, they would sign their name down on the worksheet. With all 6 signatures you could turn in the worksheet and enter the drawing. My name was picked out of the stack and thus began my great adventure to The Berkshires and studying from Thomas Kelly himself!
Here is Brittany’s account of her time in the Berkshires this summer:
            My time spent in the Berkshires with Tom Kelly can best be described as enlightening, eye opening, and ultimately an inspiring experience. During my time, I was able to enjoy countless conversations with Tom, ranging from personal experiences, to unions, developing relationships with cast/crew, scheduling, paperwork, and beyond. Over the course of two jam-packed days I was able to fully immerse myself into one of the many worlds of professional theatre and have the rare opportunity to view the processes of shows I was not intimately involved in.

On the first day I enjoyed breakfast and theatrical conversation with Tom Kelly. Our first stop was Shakespeare and Co. for a guided tour, which is offered to the general public as an educational experience. It provided me with a background of the company, as well as a view into their extensive facilities. I was able to shadow and work with the stage management team here, where I was welcome to view fight call and music rehearsals, observe the set up and preshow duties, and ultimately view the show from the booth while listening in via headset. I had the pleasure of watching first, an adaptation of Henry IV and second, an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While both shows offered their own challenges and rewards, I really enjoyed the way Midsummer seamlessly adapted into the warm night and music of New Orleans in the 20’s/30’s. Being very familiar with Southern traditions after growing up in the Baton Rouge/New Orleans area, this show was a real treat.

On the second day, I was able to travel to the Berkshire Theatre Festival and meet with their production manager and his assistant, as well as receive a tour of their operations. This provided me with a view of a more traditional set up, rather than the facilities at Shakespeare & Co. being more attuned to the classical works. After our tour of BTF, I was able to spend the day immersed in the productions at the Bernstein Stage at Shakespeare & Co. This day ran much like the one before, where I was able to view the inner workings for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike as well as a unique and wonderfully executed adaptation of Julius Caesar.

Overall, this was an incredibly rewarding experience that has taught me much about the professional world. I was able to make connections with real people who are working in the real world. The knowledge I’ve gained over those two days is invaluable and I have no doubt I will be utilizing it for the rest of my life.

I would like to say how thankful I am to the cast and crew of each production as well as the entirety of Shakespeare and Co. for letting me, a stranger, come into their world and view their work from the inside. I was granted access to every corner of the company including facility tours, fight calls, warm ups, and post show chats. This insider access allowed me to have a feeling of full immersion and for an instant; it allowed me to be a part of them. Thank you.

I would finally like to thank USITT for their help in making this trip a reality. Having the opportunity to view all of these productions and their different management teams, who all have different styles, ultimately helped to further reinforce that there is no one way to accomplish things as a stage manager. You have to be willing to adapt yourself to the needs of your show and ultimately to the personalities of those you are working with.

I look forward to exploring what my future holds!

With Sincerest Thanks, Brittany M. McMahon

Currently, Brittany is working as a stage management intern for the B Street Theatre in Sacramento, CA until June 2015. Working as a PA on Equity shows, running rehearsals, and of course making coffee are among her many duties. She looks forward to learning all that  she can and to eventually become an Equity stage manager. She is very excited for what the future holds with B Street and beyond!

USITT Stage Management Mentoring Experience – Part 1

Successful Mentoring experience provided by SMA Lifetime Member and Del Hughes honoree, Thomas Kelly

Thomas Kellywell known expert and author on the subject of theatrical stage management, spent two days in August with Brittany McMahon, one of the winners of the 2014 Find-A-Fellow contest. This USITT Fellows-sponsored initiative provided Ms. McMahon with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a one-on-one mentoring experience with one of the industries’ leaders. The following report from Tom provides some insight into what was an information-and interest-packed two days. This project is another strong testament to the critical work USITT’s Fellows continue to provide. Thanks to Tim Kelly, USITT Fellow for his leadership at the helm of this program.

 

Seldom have I had an experience turn out so well. Brittany was wonderful…she embodies the best of what I look for in a young stage manager. She was attentive to a wide variety of stage managers she met, polite, bright and personable…not in the cloying “network” type way, but honestly listening and getting what she could learn from all of us and applying it to some of her own background. The first day she spent with the stage managers and shows at the Tina Packer Playhouse Mainstage at Shakespeare & Company. The SMs were Hope Rose Kelly and Diane Healy, both of whom have been there a long time and who enjoy sharing the theatre and its workings with interested student/intern/mentees. Before the shows Brittany got to watch the stage managers run their fight and music rehearsals and then observe the half-hour backstage seeing the prep and preset and meet the actors, etc., and then be on headset for the shows (Henry IV and Midsummer Nights Dream). In the morning of that day, we did the “guided tour” which was given by the general manager of the company and included much history of the company as well as real backstage visits to rehearsals, shops, stages, and the overall facility. The second day we had a tour and opportunity to meet with the production manager and his assistant at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, shops, and backstage providing the opportunity to gain a bit of history and insight into a less classical and more “mainstream” type of theatre operation.

 

The rest of the day she spent at performances in the Bernstein Theatre at the Shakespeare & Company where she saw Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike, Durang’s new wonderfully funny play directed by Matthew Penn who was in attendance. Again she experienced it from the booth on headset and listened to the SM notes and thoughts on the show as well as watching the running of it. In the evening she saw a wildly inventive production of Julius Caesar, directed by Tina Packer who she got to meet, etc. The production was performed by seven actors switching roles (and, in the case of the lone female who played both Calpurnia and Portia, sexes, as she reappeared as various soldiers and servants throughout the play).

 

Between all these experiences, over meals and driving her around, we had ample time to discuss, listen, teach, advise, reminisce, etc., about being a stage manager and what she could look forward to in choosing it as a career. We talked about everything from cue lights to personal relationships with cast, crew, etc…unions, rules, paperwork, team building, creative scheduling, relationships, and communication with directors, management and designers and crew, etc., etc. Throughout, her questions and discussions gave me great hope that this particular in depth immersion was a great way to teach and mentor. I would love to continue being involved in future seasons. And Hope (Rose Kelly), the PSM, also liked the mentoring and sees it as a great idea for the future. We have both been active with the SMA over the years, and we agreed that this particular schedule and immersion was a fine-tuned version of what we have tried with SMA as “Operation Observation”…similarly allowing backstage access and shadowing opportunities but not nearly as much time for discussion and reflection on what has been observed.

 

Editors Capsule Note:   Report from Thomas Kelly and USITT about his mentoring weekend experience sponsored by the Fellows of USITT.  This summer he was matched up with Brittany McMahon, a winner of the 2014 Find A Fellow Contest. Winners of this contest have the opportunity to select a mentor and then have an all expenses paid trip to participate. Thomas Kelly is the second SMA member to do this, Chair Elynmarie Kazle participated with Kristen Sutter in December 2012.