Black Lives Matter in the Theatre Too

Working in the theatre is like having another family. You become inextricably connected as you share each other’s laughter and joy but also their pain. As an only child, being part of the theatre surrounded me with a chosen family, a big group of rambunctious brothers and sisters I had always craved. Finding these people was like coming home.

Twenty years ago, as a junior member of a theatre company, I was working with the most talented people I had ever met. I was in awe of them. The actors were household names, most of them on television, but we all instantly clicked, and became a big happy, dysfunctional family.

One of the actors was an Aboriginal man from the Northern Territory of Australia. We’ll call him Will for anonymity’s sake. He appeared tall and strong on television, but in real life he was a six foot version of a 10 year old boy. Mischievous, witty and the big brother I never had. He had been cast in a role traditionally been played by a white actor. We were preparing ourselves for pushback from traditionalists who wouldn’t like an Aboriginal perspective to the role and how it would change some long-held assumptions within the play.

After a long day of rehearsals had ended three weeks before opening night, Will received some devastating news. One of his family had passed away. Young. Too young. Will was heartbroken. And we, his theatre family, were ready to rally around him to share his pain.

Taking time off from rehearsals is a hard thing. Four weeks is never enough, it’s intensive and not being there would make him feel less prepared, but Will knew he needed to be with his family. He rang the director, who granted him permission to take some time off without question, and told him to take all the time he needed to grieve and mourn a life lost too soon.

He left the next day, we didn’t see him before he left. In rehearsals the next day we shared his pain from afar, and were comforted knowing he was with his real family. We wondered if he was okay, knowing he was uncontactable, out of phone range, until he returned.

The day after he left, I arrived at rehearsals early. The morning newspapers had been delivered to Stage Door there was a headline that caught my eye.

‘Will abandons rehearsals for walkabout’

My stomach churned. I left the paper there, too afraid of what the article would say. I didn’t want anyone else to see it, but how could I hide it? The morning tea break chatter always revolved around the morning’s news.

How did they know he wasn’t here? Why did they think he ‘abandoned’ rehearsals’? The mistrust in the headline was evident.

I changed my mind. Maybe the article wasn’t as bad in my mind as I had made it out. Nope. Reading the article was worse. The words ‘just didn’t turn up’ and ‘without permission’ felt like arrows. The tone was clear. Between the lines they were saying you can’t trust Aboriginal people.

Glad Will was out of range and wouldn’t see the article until he returned, I went to see the publicist who assured me she would sent a retraction request to the newspaper editor.

The theatre family were furious. But I felt powerless. How could I make any difference? Knowing the publicist had sent an email made me feel like something was being done. The theme of conversation in our breaks that day – How could they write something like that about him?

Will returned to rehearsals the next week. Still obviously grieving but ready to let out his usual chuckles. We didn’t mention the article. Did he know if it existed? It felt better to not tell him. It would only hurt him.

Rehearsals returned to normal. We never talked about the article again. But for me something didn’t sit right. How can he be my brother if I don’t stick up for him? How can we be a family if we sit by while they say these things? None of the others said any more about it, so how could I as the youngest member of our family?

Over the last 20 years this story re-awakens every time I witness the same. Taxis coming to pick up Aboriginal actors leaving the theatre after the show refuse to take them. Shopping with an Aboriginal actor who has her credit card checked. Why don’t they check mine?

I’ve seen more of the world now. I’m one of the more senior people in the room. It’s time for me to speak up in honour of my theatre family.

I’d always rather regret the things that I have done, rather than those I haven’t. And this is a big ‘haven’t’ that has lived with me all this time. Shame of my inaction has prevented me from telling this story until now. But surely my shame is nothing compared to the daily hate and prejudice that others are subjected to.

Telling this story is hard. It forces me to face that shame and hurt head on. But Will’s constant pain is greater than my shame and for that reason, I stand with him, lending my voice to him and the hurt he receives.

Saying Yes

I’m currently working on a show with a great group of people. Positive people, people who know each other intimately and can have a good time whilst being intensely creative.

Sounds perfect.

In the room – yes it is.

However outside the room, we’re constantly being blocked by a thick wall of ‘no’. In these cases, the reasons given for not doing something could be easily solved. We’ve all heard it before.

‘It would take too many people to lift an item that big’ – when there’s plenty of people on call to lift it.

‘We can’t afford that item’ – when the director or designer is happy to do without something else.

These are just excuses to not do things that are difficult, time consuming, or require effort.

Sometimes a request from a director or designer feels so difficult that it is easier to say ‘no, it can’t be done’. Over the years, I’ve watched what happens when people are constantly told ‘no’. The more you say no, the more people push for unreasonable requests. Saying ‘yes’ demonstrates your commitment to trying ideas that initially appear crazy – but may turn out to be the highlight of a show. As a tutor once said to me once ‘Say ‘yes’ for as long as you can, so when you have to say ’no’, people know that you mean it.’

Consider this: some of the most creative and highly regarded theatre, music and art only exist because people said ‘yes’. Imagine if someone told Wagner that he couldn’t write such a long opera because the crew would need a break. Imagine if someone told Matthew Warchus (Director of Matilda the Musical) that he couldn’t have kids on swings because of the WHS risk. Imagine if someone told Shakespeare he couldn’t have a ghost in Hamlet because it wasn’t possible to make someone or something look like a ghost.

Come to think of it, I’m sure those people heard plenty of ‘no’s throughout their careers. But their ideas only got across the line because enough people were willing to give it a try.

Directors and their creative teams want to know that you’re going to try everything you can to make their idea work. Blocking ideas too early loses respect (rightfully so) and creates a culture of having to push against each other.

I’m not saying we need to ignore constraints. It’s important to stick to budget and make sure you have the resources to make things happen. What is important is exploring all options in a positive way before we turn and say ‘it can’t be done’.

Creativity often pushes boundaries. It should push boundaries. And that might push the boundaries of what we believe to be possible. We need to be ready to go on that journey by saying ‘yes’.

No Harm in Asking

I’ve just finished reading The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer and for me, this book has been a series of life-changing light-bulb moments. Asking is something I find difficult.  Just the idea of asking for help makes me sweaty and nervous. I’ve always felt like asking someone to help me personally was a demonstration of inability, incapacity or failure. I’m happy to be the one who is asked, I love giving, but I have always perceived the act of asking as a negative reflection on me. I’m less worried about a negative response than the idea that someone might think I couldn’t do something myself. I’ve carried this into my stage management, and I’ve seen it in other stage managers too.

The opening of the Palmer’s book describes the practice of giving of a tampon to someone in need:

The unspoken universal understanding is, ‘today it is my turn to take the tampon, tomorrow it shall be yours’. There’s a constant comic tampon circle. It also exists, I’ve found, with Kleenex, cigarettes and ballpoint pens. I’ve often wondered, are there women who are just too embarrassed to ask, women who would rather just roll up a huge wad of toilet paper into their underwear rather than dare to ask a room full of strangers for a favour?

-Amanda Palmer

I’m the person who has always made sure I had plenty of tampons, tissues and ballpoint pens at the ready. That way I’ve got enough to give everyone else (so I can enjoy the giving), but never have to ask (and I can avoid the fear that comes with asking). Stage managers often like to be the go-to person. The one who has the tools, the stationary, the answers, the ability to make things happen, the sensitivity, the up-to-date paperwork. But how often do we ask for help when we really need it?

After reading this book, I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t often enough. People have always told me I should ask for help more often, but I just dismiss them, ‘I don’t need help, I can do it myself!’. This has caused me problems both major and minor. I’ve severely injured my back by not asking someone to help me lift a giant prop as a young 20 year old student and I’ve missed opportunities by not putting my hand up and asking, when someone else did.

I can see my hypocrisy. I’m always telling my kids to ask for something when they need it. And I’ve spent many hours on the telephone asking companies to donate goods as props for a show in exchange for tickets, but to ask for something specifically because I need it, personally, is something I don’t do. I’d rather suffer by going the long way around. It’s like I don’t believe I’m worthy of the gift if I have to ask for it.

Regardless of the fact Palmer’s book is a spirited education about creative artists and their struggles and sacrifices (essential reading for SMs on this front), it expresses how asking has enriched her life both as a performer and in her personal life. She’s asked for meals in exchange for show tickets, slept on people’s couches in exchange for her music, and held one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns, raising over a million dollars to record an album.

So how does this relate to stage management?

When she was little, my daughter asked me if I had done some good hiding at work that day. ‘What do you mean?’, I asked. Her reply, ‘Because you’re a stage manager and your job is to hide from the audience’. Although this was a cute response to my explanation earlier that week about why I wear black, it reminds me that often as stage managers, we try to not be seen – an old adage is that stage management is at its best when you don’t notice it. However I’m a firm believer that being unnoticeable isn’t a reason to avoid offering opinions, ideas and ask for something when we need it.

There are so many instances where a stage manager can ask for something that might make things better for them. Ask for a higher stool – it might stop your neck from hurting. Ask for a headset with the left ear covered – then you can hear the stage better from prompt corner. Ask for the director to explain a decision to you – you will be better able to understand why the decision is important and help them achieve their vision. Ask for extra crew – it might make the show seamless. Ask a cast member to return their props to the props table instead of leaving them on the floor – you might have more time to enjoy a drink with them after the show. Ask for help if you are swamped or overwhelmed – there are plenty of people who can take some of the load, you only need to ask.

As Amanda Palmer reflects throughout her book – if you ask with respect, vulnerability, trust and the understanding that the gift keeps moving, people are more than willing to give, leaving you more time to give also. It is something I’m working on, at home and at work, and I know it’s going to continue to be a work-in-progress. I’m good at asking for others, I need to practice asking for me.

So since there is no harm in asking, I want to ask something of you. This week, I ask you to notice when you could have asked for help. Just notice. And see how many times you could have given someone the chance to help you or to give you something. Also notice the joy it gives people when they have the chance to provide what someone has asked for. Then if you notice something interesting, please come back here and leave a comment. I am very grateful for everyone who reads and engages with this blog. Creating a conversation about stage management is what I’m really interested in, and by leaving a comment below we can keep the conversation flowing.

Dealing with the fallout of a bad review

Bad reviews can be really damaging to a show. They can completely derail weeks of performances. I’ve seen actors fall to pieces over a comment by a reviewer. I’ve seen whole dynamics shift amongst the cast when a review praises one while criticising another. I’ve seen people who were performing well start to second guess all decisions made in the rehearsal room under the careful guidance of the director. Anything can happen as the result of a bad review. As Stage Managers, we are usually the first to notice the changes to performance. And the ASMs are usually the first to notice the changes to the atmosphere amongst the cast. We can’t take completely prevent these situations, but we can take measures to mitigate the damage to the show. Over the years I’ve followed some basic rules to pre-empt the damage a bad review can have.

1. Don’t talk about the reviews

Good or bad – don’t mention reviews at all. I usually ask cast and crew to respect this rule too. It is everyone’s personal choice whether to read reviews or not, and it’s very difficult to avoid them with social media constantly shoving them in our faces. However, we don’t need to discuss them amongst ourselves. A casual mention can make someone go looking for a review when they wouldn’t usually read them. That can start a chain reaction that leads to it impacting the show. It’s not worth it. By not talking about either the good or bad reviews, we are not giving them any airtime, and we can be left with doing the business of putting on a great show. Also, I always make the crew aware that it is not acceptable to talk about reviews anywhere in the building. A number of times I’ve witnessed a crew member talk about a bad review for it to be heard by the entire cast over stage-sound.

2. Read every review

By knowing exactly what every reviewer has said, you can prepare for whatever may come as a result. It gives you a running start. If you have a vulnerable actor who is slammed in a review, and you read it as soon as it comes out, you can watch for any signs of anxiety or depression and be ready to support the actor. I always make it my business to read every review and I encourage all SMs to do the same.

3. Tackle them head on

If you discover an actor has read a review, talk to them about it right away. Even if it hasn’t affected their performance yet. Find somewhere private (so you can respect rule 1) and ask them how they feel about it. Usually talking about it makes people realise that it isn’t as important as it once seemed. A review is just one person’s opinion and it isn’t necessarily the opinion of all those dedicated, paying theatregoers who are really getting something out of the show. Facing the problem means that you are able to get in the way before an actor’s thoughts start spiralling down into a festering bubble of self-evaluation.

4. Be available

Sometimes all actors need is to discuss how they are feeling after reading a review. If they know they can trust you and come to you at any time, they’ll seek you out when they read a bad review. I’m more than happy for someone to call me during the day and discuss a review they have read. Many of the actors I work with regularly know that I read all the reviews but never discuss them in the theatre. These actors will call me and tell me how they are feeling. Sometimes all they need is some encouragement that the decisions made in the rehearsal room are good ones. Sometimes they just need to you say that the reviewer in question never writes good reviews for anyone (which is true of some cheeky reviewers). Sometimes they just need to talk through their thoughts out aloud. I don’t mind. I would rather they did that than start making changes in their performance that will flow-on to disrupt everyone else.

5. Deal with the fallout

Once a bad review has started to influence the performance, it is much harder to rein it in, but must be dealt with immediately. I usually warn the Director or Assistant Director with a phone call, and tell them how I intend to deal with it. Some directors are happy for me to deal with it, but some directors like to come soon after bad reviews to give the actors a fresh set of notes and keep them on the right path. Start by talking to the actor about how their changed performance is affecting the show and the other cast members. If it is having wider implications for the whole cast, talk to them as a whole group (I know this seems to break rule 1, but you can actually do this without talking about the review itself). Sometimes having the whole cast together can diffuse the problem.

Over the years, these five rules have enabled me to mitigate the negative impacts of a bad review on a show. If you are clear with cast and crew about what your expectations regarding reviews, and how you intend to deal with them, everyone can work together to minimise the fallout.

If you have any other suggestions for dealing with bad reviews, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.

What #Timesup means for Stage Managers

With the allegations of more sexual misconduct within the Australian live performance industry, there’s a new conversation to be had. In my response to #MeToo, I discussed the existing culture that we’ve all witnessed in our industry, but now we need to turn our focus to have a look at how we deal with it as Stage Managers.

In the 7:30 report on Monday, Chloe Dallimore and Amy Maiden both highlighted the need to create a space to have real and difficult conversations, and both raised the point that people initially turn to Stage Management and Company Management when a problem arises. On the Stage Management Network of Australia facebook group there has been a lot of discussion about how Stage Managers can support cast and crew members when they come to us with issues of harassment, bullying, intimidation and assault. How do we best deal with it when it comes up?

Many years ago, before the #metoo and the #timesup movements, a female cast member I was working with was a victim of bullying, harassment and misogyny. As the SM, she came to me and I felt completely powerless to do anything about the source of the problem. I knew that if we took it to upper management, nothing would be done – the perpetrator was highly valued by the company and there was a culture of this sort of behaviour. I discussed the issue with my production manager and the company manager, but they didn’t want to take it further either. It was a complex situation with many layers, but ultimately my strategy to help the cast member was to provide an environment to support her through it, rather than make the perpetrator accountable for his actions. This was by no means an isolated incident in my career. However, looking back now within the current context, I wonder if I could have done more, if I could have fought harder for that female cast member. I know it is still something that troubles her to this day, and to her, I’m sorry.

Moving forward, I want to deal with these issues better. I want to support the victims in a way that makes them know they are being seen and heard. Thankfully I now feel that there’s a climate where we can have these discussions, but I call on producers and management to support Stage Managers and Company Managers who are the gatekeepers for these issues.

Freelance Stage Managers don’t want to risk their own careers by taking these allegations to producers who don’t care. One of the reasons SMs exist is to deal with problems at a grass roots level so upper management can concentrate on other things. Many SMs feel like bringing these sorts of issues to producers makes the SM look incompetent at dealing with issues.

So what do SMs need from upper management?

Stage Managers need to feel like they are supported. If we file an incident report with claims of bullying, harassment or inappropriate behaviour, we need to feel like it will be followed up, not shut down. SMs are mostly happy to have tough conversations (we’re a tough lot), but we’re usually only wiling to go there if we feel supported.

We need more training. We need training in Mental Health First Aid. We need training in how to respond to bullying and harassment. We need to be relying on more than our instincts.

And what do SMs need to do?

We need to recognise when the rehearsal room or the theatre no longer feels safe for someone. Contrary to the article by Neil Pigot and Julian Meyrick, I disagree with their assertion that “The theatre is a place of profound vulnerability, a place where overstepping the lines of normal behaviour is unavoidable, and sometimes encouraged.” I’ve worked in plenty of rehearsal rooms where vulnerability is achieved without overstepping any lines. All it takes is a culture of trust and respect. It is up to us to notice when trust and respect is being corroded.

We need to keep ourselves accountable. We need to keep appropriate documentation about what has been reported and when. We need to file an incident report in a discreet manner. We need to share the documentation with the victim. That way they can see that something is being done, and there is concrete evidence that can be referred to down the track.

We need to keep listening. To our casts, our crews and our instincts. Pay attention to the jokes that have a hint of truth. Pay attention to the relationships within the casts. We need to address issues early, rather than letting them smoulder.

We need to look after our own mental health and we need to look out for each other. We need to keep the conversation going. Most of all we need to work together towards an industry where every individual feels safe, validated, trusted and respected.