From actor to stage manager

 4 February 2011

Currently the Deputy Stage Manager (DSM) for a new play heading for the West End, Felix D didn't take the usual road into theatre stage management. He originally planned to be an actor.

Felix D was Company Stage Manager for Around the World in Eighty Days at The Theatre Royal Bath.
Felix D was Company Stage Manager for Around the World in Eighty Days at The Theatre Royal Bath.

As a child, Felix was part of a children’s circus. He acted in plays throughout his English and Theatre degree at Leeds University. An early role in ‘Then Again’ at the 2004 Edinburgh festival was so successful he was taken up by an agent and offered the understudy role in a touring production of the ‘The Play What I Wrote’. 

As understudy, he was expected to work as Assistant Stage Manager (ASM). That led to the offer of another ASM role on ‘Hayfever’ with Dame Judi Dench. Felix discovered he preferred the stage management side of theatre, and never went back to acting.

From acting to ASM

When he starts a new show, Felix rarely tells people he used to be in front of the curtains rather than behind them. "It's an unusual path to take. It confuses people. Actors think that I still secretly want to be an actor. Everyone else assumes I'm not serious about stage management."

"The theatre is great because you work with intelligent, creative people. You make art."

But it was arguably easier, he says, to get experience as an assistant stage manager as an actor, than as someone who’d actually trained for the job.

"Productions save money by asking an understudy to also take on the Assistant Stage Manager's role. Understudies are young and desperate to work, so they will agree to do both roles.

"Outside of big-budget West End productions, hardly any producers are prepared to pay for an additional ASM. That limits the number of entry-level roles available for people who graduate proper stage-management courses.”

The role of stage manager

Felix’s work as a DSM, and that of stage managers at any level, has two distinct parts. The role during rehearsals and the job during the run.

A stage manager during rehearsal

“We’re currently in rehearsals for ‘Hedda Gabler’. As Deputy Stage Manager, my job is to work with the director making sure the production is cohesive. I get the rehearsal room ready before everyone arrives, setting up props and the furniture.

“Then I take notes through the rehearsal, sitting with the director. Where and when do the actors move?  What other props do we need? When are sound cues required? “I also have to make sure we stick to Actors’ Equity rules. The actors have to have a 15 minute break every three hours.

“My notes have to be accurate. The director or cast sometimes decide they want to return to an earlier version of a scene. My notes tell them how they performed a scene yesterday, or last week.

“Each night I summarise everything and feed the notes to the Sound Designer, Lighting Designer, Props Buyer, the workshop, the Production Manager, the Producers, the actors, the Director, the Costume Designer. During ‘tech week’ – the week before dress rehearsal – I keep track of the cues for the curtains, the lights and sound.

A stage manager during the show's run

“From the dress rehearsal, I have the same role I have during the show. I check all the sound equipment is working, and that the ASM has set all the props correctly.  I’m then ready to cue the show.

"Volunteer to do work.  It's a small industry. If you do a good job, you'll get offered more work."

“I do the tannoy announcements for backstage.  I call the actors to get ready as they need to be called onstage, and I also do the front of house announcements, ‘Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen, and welcome to the Theatre Royal. This evening’s performance of ... Will begin in 3 minutes, 3 minutes Ladies and Gentlemen, please take your seats. Thank you’

“During the show, I am in charge of the prompt copy, a book that has all the cues for sound, lighting, and curtains in and out.

“When the show is on, I follow what is written in the prompt copy and use a two-way headset to talk to the lighting operator and cue lighting changes.  I have my own computer to trigger sound cues. And if actors forget their lines, it’s down to me to shout the line onto the stage. That’s very rare, thankfully.

“If a cue is missed, it’s my job to make sure the play continues. For instance, if a light cue is missed, can the same lighting be faded slowly in a way that doesn’t look false to the audience?”

How to become a stage manager

Felix offers two pieces of advice to up-and-coming stage managers trying to get their first break.

"First, volunteer to do work, including amateur dramatics or speaking to theatres directly. It's a small industry. Most roles are taken via word of mouth. If you do a good job, you'll get offered more work.

"I'm still offered jobs today by people who I worked with on The Play What I Wrote, or Hayfever six years ago.

"Second, you've got to have the right attitude.  No job should be too small to do. You can't behave badly and expect to get work in future.

It's important to be prepared for the difficult side of theatre work.

"You work six nights a week and a lot of the afternoons too. I work freelance from one production to another.  Freelancing means I can't be sure I can go to friends' weddings, or even be around for Christmas or holidays.

"It doesn't get easier as you go up the ladder. The position above a DSM is Company Stage Manager. They aren’t paid much more, but are responsible for a lot.

"The next step up from Company Stage Manager roles is Production Manager: in charge of budgets, costs, and getting the set built and working. That’s more of a normal life, it’s a mainly 9-to-5 role."

The benefits of being a stage manager

There is a great side to theatre work as well, says Felix. "I don't regret becoming a stage manager rather than an actor.”

“I was never formally taught the technical side of theatre in my English and Theatre degree. But at age 22, I was being offered regular, freelance ASM work.  I felt rewarded doing the work.”

"The theatre is great because you work with intelligent, creative people. You make art. I love the job. Everyone works in theatre because they love the job – the money’s not good enough to keep you otherwise!”

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