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Who Does What in the Theatre

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A photograph of a theatre bill.

Nothing spells sophistication like a night out at the theatre. You and a loved one dress up in your finery, take a trip down to the Cornmarket1 and bask in a delicious murder mystery, farce or courtroom drama, with perhaps a brief interval for a fine Merlot or Cabernet during the interval. Afterwards, with all due bonhomie, you bid farewell to the dinner-jacketed Theatre Manager and wend your way home on misty streets while discussing the nuances of characterisation and foreshadowing in the prior performance.

It's all very well for the paying public, but for months beforehand, the diligent men and women of theatre have sweated blood to get that show onto stage. And if you'd turned up for the final week of rehearsals seven days previously, there would have been less characterisation and foreshadowing than blind panic and shouting. So who are they, these gallant men and women who propagate the mystery of theatre?

The Producer

The Producer's role is somewhat akin to an Office Manager. They are in charge of co-ordinating all the various personages involved in your typical production. They will rarely be seen by anyone else involved, preferring to conduct most of their work via recondite phone calls and emails. The Producer is also responsible for bringing the play in at a reasonable budget (in independent or touring theatre companies, he or she may even have to finance the show from scratch), and will consequently be the target of much scorn as the Director is informed that he positively cannot hire Joseph Fiennes for the Grinstead Amateurs' production of 'Seasons Greetings', or the Sound Technician is denied funding for a new pair of 8kW stacks in order to produce better resonance for the thunderclap that opens the show.

Is it Easy?

Running a budget and a multi-stranded project is well within most people's scope, although a great deal of tact is required as you will have to deal with people having a wide range of talent, professionalism and pretension.

Their Ideal Play?

A one-man show, preferably where the One Man also constructs all the set and does all the technical design. For free.

The Director

Often, deservedly or otherwise, the lynchpin of a play, it is the Director's job to interpret the written word of the script and ensure that his or her interpretation is what appears in front of the audience. The Director should have full control of where the actors stand, the tones and mannerisms that the characters adopt, the appearance of the set and pretty much anything else that they want2. They tend to personify the theatre stereotype more than most, frequently being camp, flamboyant and the most frightful name-droppers.

Is It Easy?

Frankly? Yes. You can get away with pretty much anything as a Director and claim that it's a valid technique pioneered by Stanislavski or Gielgud. In reality, it helps to have an eye for detail and some exceptional communication skills: getting what you want to see onto the stage can be surprisingly difficult. An ability to be incredibly patient with over-hysterical actors appears – surprisingly – to be optional.

Their Ideal Play

Shakespeare. For Directors, it's always Shakespeare. This is little, note, to do with the quality and richness of language and imagery. Rather it's because the Director can get away with some awful 'interpretation' of the material, such as setting Hamlet among a pride of lions or Macbeth in a 1970s disco3, and claim full credit for their novel take on the source material.

The Musical Director

More of a musician than an artist, it is a veritable certainty that the end of the rehearsal run will see the MD and Director fall out to the extent of never again speaking, over such trifles as choreography; changing the key of songs to suit the actors; and perhaps even the motivation of actors during songs4. An MD will invariably be seen as self-important and overblown, no matter how timid an individual they are. Only seen in the genre of musical theatre, they are often accompanied by their crony, the Choreographer.

Is It Easy?

Not in the slightest. Can you simultaneously play the piano, sing loudly and demonstratively, and shout at a cowering cast to whom 'pitch' is somewhere that rugby is played? If you're going to be pompous and aggrandising, it's always best to do it in a role that's hard to replace.

Their Ideal Play

Don't mention Lloyd-Webber within earshot of the MD! The more discerning ones might even turn their noses up at Rodgers and Hammerstein. If you're not sure whether your MD is discerning or not, try asking them what they think of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Like all musicians, the more obscure the better for the Musical Director. When a Producer finds a stylised piece of street theatre, orchestrated for harpsichord and lute, written in the 18th Century and not performed since before Victoria acceded to the throne, then their MD's cup runneth over.

The Author

Positively encouraged never to have any input into the production process beyond delivering a script and beating a hasty retreat, the Author is probably the only theatre resident more maligned than the Producer. Every line in the script will be mangled by the joint efforts of the Director and the cast. If the Author is known to them (and in some cases even if the Author isn't), then he or she will receive phone calls in the small hours querying the precise meaning of Lady Hatherly's line 'What?' on page 62. And woe betide an Author who tries to have creative input: their worst crime is turning up to a rehearsal two weeks before opening night and timidly saying: 'Um... that wasn't quite what I had in mind...'

Is It Easy?

Getting good, believable dialogue onto paper is a difficult art indeed, and either you have the knack or you don't. In many ways, a play (although containing maybe a tenth of the words) is much more difficult to write than a novel. Beware the play that is advertised under the banner of a 'local Author' who is otherwise unknown.

Their Ideal Play

One they wrote, obviously, starring Kenneth Branagh and Dame Judi Dench.

The Lighting Technician

The Lighting Techie's work will begin with a production meeting, usually prior to rehearsals beginning, where they will listen in bemusement to the Director's requirements for 'pools of light' and 'colour gradients'. They will then invariably rig up their standard lamps for a production, watch a rehearsal or two and tweak the set-up according to what looks best. It's not that Lighting Technicians aren't artistic souls, for many of them are, but they do tend to have a remarkably practical mindset and will arrive at something satisfactory to the Director by completely different means. There are two sorts of Lighting Technicians: those who like to 'play by ear' with their faders and slide them up and down 'live'; and those who prefer to set up an entire show in advance and proceed to each lighting cue with a nonchalant click of a mouse button. It is best for the sanity of any third parties that the two types are not allowed to debate on their preference.

Is It Easy?

Not particularly. You'll want a good understanding of three-phase electric power supply, and you'll be working with potentially the most hazardous aspects of the theatre, at height, so good Health & Safety is a must. You have to learn the difference between Fresnels, Parcans, and Cycs, and be prepared to endlessly fiddle with barn-doors, gobos and gels. An over-riding belief in the sanctity of gaffer tape is a prerequisite. If none of that fazes you, then you're probably ideal material.

Their Ideal Play

During the run of the show itself, the Lighting Tech's biggest enemy is boredom. They'd much rather have something with lots of intricate cues and settings than a play set entirely in a drawing room where there's nothing to do other than remember to turn the house lights off at the beginning.

Lighting Minions

For the rare Lighting Tech who has difficulty working up a ladder, a rigger is often useful, a skill which requires little more complex than unfolding a step ladder and fastening the cleat on a safety chain. But even riggers are superior to follow-spot operators, the veritable Baldricks of theatre-land, who sit in boredom for 99% of the time before springing briefly to life for the big solo number and invariably missing the leading lady thanks to her inconvenient habit of positioning herself somewhere different to yesterday. Do not try to instil imagination into a follow-spot operator; it is akin to trying to instil heroic decency into a cauliflower.

The Sound Technician

Probably no other role has changed so much in theatre over the last ten years. Gone are the days of trolling into a recording studio with coconut shells, bulbous car horns and watermelons. No more tapes to cue up or minidiscs to find inconveniently corrupt. Vast sprawling exchanges of (free, legal) mp3 files are legion on the internet, and it's not unusual for a Sound Technician to compile an entire show's sound effects in a couple of hours with his laptop and some free audio-editing software. That's not to say that there's no skill in the job – a good Soundie will have a thorough grasp of the auditorium's acoustics and how different they are with an inconvenient audience sitting in the seats. Often perfectionists, they will spend hours clipping and trimming sound envelopes, even during the show itself. They treat requests for offstage noise as a perverse challenge to place speakers where as many people as possible will fall over them.

Is It Easy?

Easier than it used to be, Sound Teching suits the introspective listener. It's a shame there are so few of those in the average theatre company.

Their Ideal Play

Anything without a telephone or a doorbell. Sound Techies hate telephones and doorbells.

The Set Designer

Invariably an ancient, creaking gentleman who has been putting up theatre sets since World War II, the Set Designer is completely immune to instruction or criticism. If he doesn't receive a stage plan from the Director, he'll use the one in the back of the script, and if there isn't one in the script, he won't put a set up. The Set Designer takes great delight, inasmuch as delight is ever expressed, in wandering around during rehearsals, banging in nails noisily and passing disparaging remarks about all and sundry.

Is It Easy?

Nominally, banging and sawing bits of wood into the designated shape and slapping a bit of paint on them isn't particularly difficult. However there appears to be a minimum of 25 years' worth of cynicism as an entry requirement.

Their Ideal Play

Contrary to popular belief, Set Designers don't mind a bit of a challenge, and are generally happy to try and knock up some castle battlements or the interior of a submarine. They also don't mind your standard 'box set with four doors and a bay window' because they've still got all the flats leftover from the last time someone wanted that. There'll still be plenty of reason to grumble and mutter indiscriminately one way or another.

The Stage Manager

Once the Director has finished his obtuse mangling of the printed word, responsibility will be passed over to the Stage Manager, who is nominally in charge of the production from the Technical Rehearsal onwards. The Stage Manager's responsibilities are many and various. They need to make sure the actors all arrive on time and get them on and offstage at the right time. They are responsible for the raising of the curtain on time and making sure the play runs to a reasonable length. They need to be in constant communication with the sound and lighting operators, even if the replies consist of surly silence and/or verbal abuse. A Stage Manager is invariably seen cuddling, with a precious affection only previously afforded to their first-born, a script which has been scrawled all over in their own unique code. Fractious beings, much of a Stage Manager's frustration stems from the fact that their job isn't actually over when the curtain comes down. They have to set the stage for the next day's performance, meaning they invariably miss the first round at the bar.

Is It Easy?

The ability to handle mini-crises with calm confidence is probably the first weapon in a Stage Manager's armoury, which is slightly ironic given how many of them tend to run around like Benny Hill on Red Bull. The combined fears of ruining the Director's production or upsetting the techies are probably their primary antagonists. It is the SM's primary responsibility to take the blame.

Their Ideal Play

Something with two acts which are each thirty minutes long, with a forty-minute interval. Basically, nothing ever suits a Stage Manager. Either there's too much to do, or too little.

The Deputy Stage Manager

Dogsbody and stress-ball for the Stage Manager, without a doubt the highlight of a DSM's career comes when a play requires pyrotechnics, and they can operate the box that sets off all the flashbangs. This is most definitely a job for the man who hasn't quite grown out of throwing Lynx cans on the bonfire. If there are no bursts of light and fire, the DSM is generally relegated to trotting back and forth to the dressing rooms, trying to roust lethargic actors. They will probably take charge of set changes and other trifling matters, too.

Is It Easy?

Usually a preliminary to being a fully-blown Stage Manager, this is a pretty junior role ideal for the theatre novice.

Their Ideal Play

Not a play as such, but Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture needs a cannon at the end. A CANNON!!!

The Assistant Stage Manager

A grandiose title for those young men and women taking their first steps into theatre-land. Yes, these are the ghostly forms that appear during blackouts and spend 90 seconds making a God-awful din under the pretence of clearing some cutlery and moving a table against the side wall. Lighting Technicians take great delight in bringing up the lights for the next scene before ASMs have fully exited the stage, leading to a scene not dissimilar to that when you open the lid of a hutch full of guinea pigs   – namely a desperate and terrified scramble for any available cover. There are legendary tales of ASMs who have spent entire scenes trying to hide behind a standard lamp or under a coffee table.

Is It Easy?

If you can lift heavy things and own lots of black clothes, you're a shoe-in. If you also have a removal van, expect a professional company to come calling.

Their Ideal Play

One with a big scene change at half-time, and then nothing, allowing them to slope off and flirt with the girl who sells the ice-creams.

Stage Hands

Big sweaty men with grubby vests and the capacity to carry at least six stage weights at once are often required for the more demanding shows. If they're lucky, they might get upgraded to the role of ASM, or get to stand in the flies5 and help Tinkerbell fly. More often than not, they're just called scene shifters.

The Properties Master

Props is a refined art, generally carried out by someone with lots of time and enthusiasm to go rummaging through junk shops and plead with local furniture stores to lend a chaise longue in exchange for a free advertisement in the programme. The Props Manager is in charge of all the bits and pieces that are too small to be considered part of the set: ornaments, chairs, pocket watches and the like. It's a job that tends to appeal to tax accountants and PAs because of all Props Managers' obsessive need to know exactly where everything is at all times. Props Managers, perhaps more so than anyone else, tend to really hate actors, who have the annoying habit of walking off stage with items and taking them back to the dressing room, rather than depositing them on the Props Table according to 'the system'.

Is It Easy?

If you've ever said 'Don't touch THAT!' in a shrill voice while slapping someone's hand away, then you're probably well qualified. In seriousness, an eye for space and decoration do help, as does a good working knowledge of what style of telephone was used in various decades of the 20th Century. Being able to make 'whisky' (cold tea) and 'gin' (tap water) are probably going to be your most-exercised skills in any case.

Their Ideal Play

One in which the entire cast remain on stage at all times and therefore cannot lose things or fiddle nervously with them backstage.

The Continuity Person

The 'Prompt' as he or she is often known, is an oft-tormented soul, mandated to pay attention to every single performance and work out whether actors have forgotten their lines or are pausing for overly-dramatic effect, or possibly choking on the cucumber   sandwich that they have imprudently bitten into before giving a gasp of surprise. A good Prompt will be familiar enough with the actors' memories to know whether they just need a single word in cue, or whether it would be easier to deliver the whole line. In crisis situations, Prompts have been known to deliver entire pages of dialogue while signalling desperately for someone to bring the curtain down.

Is It Easy?

A great deal of patience helps, as does the ability to 'get inside the actors' heads' and work out whether their absurd posturing is real acting or a blind funk caused by forgetting half their lines.

Their Ideal Play

Prompts hate long exchanges made up of very short sentences, and equally drifts of huge monologue which are often forgotten. A Prompt's ideal play would be one where each actor says exactly two sentences in every line, and there are no scripted injunctions like 'Huh?' or 'You know...'

The Wardrobe Mistress

With her underlings, the Make-Up girls, a pocketful of pins and the ability to tuck a sewing machine under one arm while adjusting a man's crotch with the other, there is no one so easy to get on with as the Wardrobe Mistress (it does seem to be a predominately female role, for reasons that are best not speculated upon). She is capable of turning out fifteen school uniforms from whole cloth in less time than it takes the Director to decide what colour he wants the set painting6, and longs for panto season, when she can whisk up dragons, Santa outfits, tabards for heralds and the like.

Is It Easy?

Well, you've got to like sewing. And being able to get on well with people helps; most Wardrobe Mistresses are proficient in telling filthy jokes and making lewd comment while measuring embarrassing bits of your anatomy.

Their Ideal Play

Well, panto, obviously. But if a play is ever written that requires all the men to wear baggy yellow corduroy trousers, and all the women to wear shapeless grass-green dresses with bustles, then many theatre companies' wardrobes will be amply equipped.

The Publicity Officer

The theatre's marketing man (or lady), the Publicity Officer has responsibility for production of posters and programmes, newspaper releases, TV and radio promotional work and – more recently – spreading the word via social media. Male publicity officers tend to wear sports jackets in horrible pastel shades, and females have outsize glasses with hair to match. It helps to be fully conversant with the cast and crew, in order to provide an informed synopsis for local journalists who have failed to attend the show and need to write something before their copy deadline.

Is It Easy?

Some skill with documentation and published documents is pretty essential, although some Publicity Officers have made a career out of producing exactly the same poster and programme cover for every production, changing only the key details.

Their Ideal Play

Something so innately popular that it will draw an audience regardless of how little effort they make. A Catherine Cookson play in Newcastle, or Dylan Thomas in Swansea would fit the bill.

The Front-of-House Staff

You know what these people do. They show you to your seats and sell you ice-creams halfway through. They also have the slightly more important role of emergency/fire officers during the performance. FoH people tend to fall into two categories: either they are amateur 'dramaticians7' who are looking to get in for free to see a professional performance, or they are professionals being punished for previous inept performances.

Is It Easy?

Could you find seat D16 if supplied with a helpful chart? Could you work out the change for two Orange Mivvies and a Magnum from a £20 note? Yes, it's easy.

Their Ideal Play

Anything but a two-week run, with matinee performances, of War And Peace8.

The Theatre Manager

Probably the only individual inside the building wearing a tie (the really suave ones wear tuxedos), the Theatre Manager is responsible for the nitty-gritty legal bits of the night: making sure that public areas are not filled above capacity; ensuring the fire exits are unblocked and accessible; checking the toilets are working; and changing light bulbs in public areas9. Above all, they are there to make sure you've had a good time. If you have, always thank your Theatre Manager.

Is It Easy?

As long as you're happy to shoulder the responsibility and can think quickly in a crisis, it's generally undemanding and uneventful.

Their Ideal Play

Anything that doesn't involve the cast dashing through the foyer every ten minutes to enter from the back of the auditorium.

The Bar Staff

We're into the realms of the obvious now. Yes, the Bar Staff are there to serve you drinks and take orders for the interval. Good bar staff will take pride in having all these drinks ready to go the minute the curtain comes down on Act I, in order that the lager isn't warmer than the red wine (or, God forbid, the coffee).

Is It Easy?

It tends to be the sort of role people either love doing or hate. It's not all that different from working behind any other bar, except for the hour-long stretch of Act II when you will be required to do absolutely nothing. Take a book.

Their Ideal Play

One which has a loud gunshot or rumble of thunder precisely fifteen minutes before the interval. Sometimes it's not just those backstage who need a cue.

The Box Office

Again, rather obviously, these are the people who sell you tickets and check you in when you've arrived. The modern breed of Box Office staff will be conversant with online booking systems, although there are still a reassuring quotient who like crossing off seats on a little chart with red pen. Struggling theatre companies will sometimes have the Box Office phone the audience to check that they are still attending!

Is It Easy?

Depends largely on whether you're using the 'new' system or the old-fashioned one. Being responsible with money, and probably taking a trip to the bank's night deposit, is the norm.

Their Ideal Play

They don't care; they'll be at home by 8:30.

So, next time you visit the theatre, be sure to bear in mind the vast array of men and women who have helped produce the fine art before you. And make sure...

What? There's someone missing, you say? Hmmm... no one important, surely?

Well, if you insist...

The Actors

They don't know the lines, they won't stand where they're asked to, and some of them are so wrapped up in themselves they don't understand the difference between 'upstage'10 and 'downstage'11. They'll believe that staring vacantly into the lighting bar makes them look noble and that anyone ranked below a baron has to walk with a limp and a hunch. Even the best ones don't always know what to do with their arms and either end up in rigid fright or perpetually fiddling with props, set or their facial hair12. The perpetrators of by far the worst mistakes in the entire theatre, they will nevertheless congratulate themselves enormously on making it through a week's performance without wetting themselves or lacerating their wrists while trying to operate a soda siphon onstage.

Is It Easy?

Easy? If you've ever explained to your wife where the black frilly knickers in the glove compartment came from, or had to defend spending a week's food budget on a pair of heels, then you can act.

Their Ideal Play

Well, dahhlling, I adore Potter's vision, and the subtexts of Dostoyevsky's later work. Beckett was such a gorgeous little man; I met him while we were with Cameron Mackintosh, don't you know? But really, my sweetie, any play will do. As long as I'm in it. And not a bit part; it's got to be a lead, my luv. Really, there's no one else in the company who's suitable but me. Me, me, me, me, me.

1Why are all provincial theatres in Britain called the Cornmarket? Almost certainly because that's what was there before a theatre.2Often to the extent of having an artistic tantrum if they don't get it.3Don't laugh – both of these have actually happened.4That's the motivation of characters, strictly speaking. The motivation of the actors is to get to the end of the number without cracking a top note or losing their voice.5The loft-space directly above the stage; not anyone's trouser zip.6In truth, most Directors never decide this, and the Set Designer simply paints it in the colour of which he has the most leftover paint.7We know there is no such word, but there should be.8This Researcher has sat through the painful torment of exactly that: a cumulative 48 hours of Tolstoy, including one performance which attracted fewer audience members (two) than the number of FoH staff (three).9No mean feat while dressed in a dinner jacket.10Towards the back; away from the audience.11Towards the front; near to the audience.12Less so in the case of ladies, unless they're in Macbeth.

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