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Sunday, 23 February 2014

New Experience Challenge Week 7: Being a Stage Manager

I was involved in a play for this year's Adelaide Fringe Festival! What was I doing? Well, it's debatable. I was brought in to run the lighting for the stage production Square Peg. It was a great show about forging your own path through life. It featured a live band that played snippets of songs in between scenes and at important moments in the play. I hadn't had much experience in lighting - basically all I've ever done is turn up at the Crown & Anchor hotel every second Tuesday and turn the house lights on and off for the comedy show they do there. But one day I got a call from Andrew Cooper - one of the play's directors - who said 'We found your profile on StarNow. We'd love to have you on our team.' So they gave me their script to read over. That was exciting to begin with, but then we had a meeting with the professional lighting technician I was to work with on play nights. He was a large man named Stephen who'd been working in the business for decades. As we discussed the layout of the lights at the Royalty Theatre, it became clear that my job was kind of redundant - you don't need two people to work a lighting desk. But I didn't want to lose my spot in the play, so when I took Andrew aside, here's what I said...
'I'm thinking that you don't need me to run the lighting as well. I'd just get in Stephens way.'
'Ok.'
'So I'm thinking I should be in charge of creating the layout of the lights and then Stephen can run them on the night.'
'Yeah I agree. That would probably mean more money too.'
'More than the $100 a night I'm getting now?'
'Yeah.'
'Well, if that's what it takes...'

So that became my new role. I spent the next few weeks pouring over the script with a bottle of soda water with lemon and lime juice by my side, figuring out the best lighting to use in each moment of the play. I knew I shouldn't do too much, because otherwise the lights would be too distracting. But then too little and it would be like performing in a high school auditorium. Stephen had given me a bit of an introduction into what was available - spot lights, shaft lights, corners, washes, dappling... and he showed me what's now become my favourite thing in lighting - chasers. That's when all the lights go off and start flashing in a sort of chaotic explosion. In my first draft of the lighting layout, I had about six scenes that involved chasers. I reluctantly had to cut them down to two. But no matter, because I've started incorporating them into the comedy show at the Crown and Anchor. So that's where I get my fix.

I ended up grouping most of the scenes of the play into six lighting scenes. There was an indoor scene, a night-time scene, an outdoor scene, an outdoor scene on a bright, sunny day, a bar scene and a restaurant scene. Then there were other once-off lighting effects that we needed to intersperse here and there. There wasn't much I could do beyond that, so once we'd sat down with Stephen to create those scenes, I kind of put the script aside and forgot about it. It wasn't until two days before opening night that we finally got more time with Stephen to work out the rest of the scenes. At that stage the whole crew was going through their only full dress rehearsal at the venue and had to compete with the lights constantly brightening, fading, flashing and occasionally switching off altogether. We didn't even have time to try running the lights in sync with the acting. As it turned out, we would have one more opportunity to run the lighting, band and actors all at the same time... six hours before opening night. Imagine that, trying to bring it all together for the first time on the same day as the world premier. Stephen and I had worked out a code that he uses for all his shows and I went downstairs, grabbed a headset and used it to communicate with him up in the lighting box. As each scene progressed, I would whisper cues into the headset such as "standby LX7", which meant "get ready to activate the seventh lighting effect of the play."

This was interesting, because up until that moment I wasn't sure what I would be doing once the play started. My job would be done then, right? All I would need to do is join the audience and watch my plans in action. But with this new job, I suddenly had purpose during game-time. And here's where my actual role in the play gets a little murky. With the headset on, not only could I communicate with Stephen in the lighting box, but I could also talk to Matt, who was up at the sound desk. He had a lot to deal with, having a five-piece band to look after as well as all the stage mics that the actors had to wear and swap with each other when they weren't on stage. So I started having to handle requests from him to make sure people's mics were turned on and working and relay messages to him from the band. And the rest of the actors started looking to me for directions too, such as when to start the two halves of the play and where we were up to in the script. I sort of became the guy to come to with problems if you couldn't find the directors around. So I think by the the time opening night came around, I'd become the stage manager. Nerves were high because our run-through still had a lot of problems. We'd have to get them right this time. I made a big mistake right off the bat by turning off a spotlight too early and cutting off an important line by the main character. And I had a big disagreement with Andrew over how quickly to raise the lights to begin each scene. I wanted to wait until the stagehands had finished moving the props and gotten out of view. He thought that too long a pause would put the audience to sleep. The result was a kind of compromise, with the lights coming up very quickly at each scene, sometimes missing the stagehands, sometimes catching them scampering off the stage and sometimes half way through picking up a couch to take it away. Other than that, the play went wonderfully smooth. We got great reviews and audience reception. We would have loved to stick around and soak it up, meet the audience, muck around etc, but we had to pack up the whole stage and clear out in 15 minutes so Puppetry of the Penis could begin. There were 600 rabid horny women waiting outside to charge in and we'd already made them wait.

The next two performances went smoother and smoother as we got into a groove. After the final one we all went down to the Fringe Aritist's club to celebrate and Andrew and Karen (the other director) announced the interest they were getting from Edinburgh and San Diego to bring the play on tour. I wonder if they need a stage manager over there?


Setting up for opening night. The band took up the whole left side of the stage.

A lot of the action centered around three doors labelled 'Learn', 'Love' and 'Law', through which the characters would enter and exit.

Second night. It was much more relaxed and we thought we'd take advantage of the empty theatre.

Turns out an aussie rules ball is easier to get a good spiral on than a gridiron ball.

We experimented with the space.

A present for the directors after the final night.

Chilling out in the Artist's Club afterwards. I started acting up.

One of the stage hands, Phil. What a specimen.

From left to right: Pete (Mr Russell), Dave (Father Jack), Cooper (Son Ash), Kirsty (Policewoman), Andrew (director), Karen (director), Janine (stage mics), Mijo (Rascal) and Lachie (dancer)

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