BEHIND THE MAGIC: “I like theatres because they’re a bit like churches – they give sanctuary”

 I like theatres because they’re a bit like churches, in as much as they’re always open – proper ones, with a stage door – you can get in at any time and they give sanctuary. It’s yours to an extent.

I meet Felix Dunning, Company Stage Manager (CSM) of the touring production Caroline’s Kitchen, immediately after the Saturday matinee in Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre. He is full of energy and begins showing me around the set straight away, whilst simultaneously clearing the stage after a particularly chaotic final scene.

As CSM, Felix heads up the backstage crew of Caroline’s Kitchen, a play about family, conflict, and a TV chef called Caroline. As Felix shows me the smoke machine propped behind the kitchen island set piece and the sink hooked up to a pressurised pump, he jokes about the banality of backstage life. There’s a cookbook whose pages are glued back in by Assistant Stage Manager Jenny after every performance, and some ordinary-looking burnt potatoes which, upon closer inspection, are made of foam – a creation of Deputy Stage Manager Chloe. Perhaps my favourite detail of all is the origins of the paintings hung in the faux-corridors to the edge of the stage: they are actually photographs of real paintings that Felix has at home, printed and framed. It is amazing to see just how much of a presence the backstage team has on stage and how they leave their stamp on a production.

Set of Caroline’s Kitchen

I ask Felix about the role of CSM and how it differs from SM. He told me that originally it would have been two people, the SM and the Company Manager. Company Manager “would have a dickie bow and would look after tickets and look after guests, actors, stage management team, and make sure everyone was happy.” They would also organise press and publicity, payroll, and occasionally appear front of house. The SM “would manage the SM team and everything that goes on stage.”  Combining the two into CSM is becoming more common in commercial theatre, Felix explains, especially on touring productions where budgets are tight.

A lot of Felix’s duties take place outside of the performance time, like (ironically) arranging interviews and liaising with tour venues. In fact, he says that “what you try to do as CSM is to have as few queues on the deck as possible [during performance].”

The biggest stage-specific part of his job is overseeing the get-in and get-out from each theatre on the tour. On a get-in day, he will arrive at 8am; the theatre will provide six stage hands and four electricians to help build the set and fix the lights. The electricians put the lamps on the right bars, but it is part of Felix’s job to relight the show, making sure the lights are positioned at the correct angle “so we hang the lights in exactly the same relation to where the set is.” This means the lighting can be completely pre-set and operated by an in-house electrician at each venue, rather than having an extra crew member on tour. After several hours, the stage is transformed into Caroline’s kitchen and ready for the evening performance.

Most big productions will have a crew member specifically to relight the show as well as a carpenter to help build the set at each venue. On smaller productions though, it is often necessary to compound roles and this is very much the case with the Caroline’s Kitchen crew. There are only three backstage crew members on tour with the production: ASM, DSM and CSM. Not only does Felix relight and CSM this show, he also appears on stage at the beginning of the performance: alongside ASM Jenny, the two play TV crew members, which is more than a little ironic.

“Lovely Jenny is playing both Mrs Minto and the boom operator, she’s doing all the props and the ASM duties, and she’s also the wardrobe mistress”, Felix tells me. And still, once the tour moves to New York, Felix will take on both Jenny’s offstage responsibilities and Chloe’s DSM job of “running the show” (e.g. operating the sound and queuing the lighting). In short, by the time Caroline’s Kitchen gets to New York, Felix will be a one-man stage management team.

Felix Dunning, CSM

Felix exhibits a lot of the personality traits that he says he looks for when interviewing for stage management: “keen”, “amenable”, and “not afraid of hard work, but also not too serious.” I asked him how he got into the business and was surprised to learn that stage management was not what he initially set out to do. Instead, Felix began by pursuing acting, after graduating in English and Theatre Studies. “I was quite a good actor but I didn’t really want it with a passion”, he admits. He managed to get a job as an understudy on a big touring production: “they needed an understudy by law, to get their insurance, but they effectively hired me as an ASM. I was a terrible understudy. I think if I had gone on, it would have been disastrous.” Fortunately, he never did have to take to the stage but he did discover a passion for stage management.

Felix acknowledges that his trajectory into the industry is not a typical one nowadays. “I didn’t train at all, I just worked really, really hard and I got lucky with the first job”, he says. The rise in graduates taking technical theatre courses makes the competition much harder now, “I think what the drama schools do more than anything, is you get these placements at a great theatre like the Young Vic or somewhere and if you’re half good then they will try and give you some work when you come out.” Nonetheless, he says it does not all come down to formal training. “So much of it is about personality […] you have to be reliable. I always look on a CV and see where people have been reemployed by the same people.”

The rapport between the SM team, especially Felix and Chloe, is plain to see. Felix says that it is possibly his favourite thing about the industry, “it’s incredible small and everybody knows everybody and it’s really nice because it doesn’t pay you enough money to stay in it for any other reason than you enjoy it.” Friendships form quickly, especially on tour, “You do create these funny little families and incredibly intense relationships form and then dissipate very quickly as well.” It’s difficult to maintain friendships, with a busy touring schedule and new colleagues on every job. “A lot of the big shows that are touring will open on a Monday. So you imagine you finish taking down the set at 12.30/1am, then you would drive on Sunday to the next venue and you’re back in the new venue at 8 o’clock on the Monday. That can get really tiring.”

Set of Caroline’s Kitchen

That said, it is clear that Felix’s love for his job far outweighs the gruelling schedule. He revels in the history of theatre and the origins of various stage superstitions. For example, he explains to me that the reason the half-hour call is actually 35 minutes before show starts (and all the other calls are also five minutes early) is that before intercom the call was relayed by a young boy. “In big theatres, the chorus dressing room is at the top of the theatre and the number one star dressing room is at stage level. And it would take the call boy five minutes to run from the chorus dressing room […] by the time they got to the star’s door it would be time.” Another great theatre tradition is to avoid whistling: “It’s bad luck to whistle in a theatre […] because, traditionally, all the people doing the flying were sailors and sailors used to communicate by whistling. So if you were to whistle, someone – one of these sailors in the grid – could drop a rope or something on your head.”

Whilst SMs don’t have to look out for falling ropes anymore, stage management is still all about foreseeing and fixing problems. Felix recalls a touring production of ‘Dora the Explorer’ in Saudi Arabia: “if [the show] overlapped with call to prayer, I would get a message over the radio saying ‘the religious priest is still praying, you can’t start’ […] And on that same show we would have to cut the show early if the call to prayer was about to sound.” On the subject of performances being cut short, Chloe chimes in with the rather morbid fact that sometimes a death in the audience stops a show in its tracks. “That happens a lot”, Felix attests, “because of the age of the British theatre-going public.”

Theatre audiences are often dominated by seniors and that is largely due to the price. The financial strains on commercial theatre is a topic that resurfaces several times throughout our interview. “Commercial theatre is so squeezed in order to put tours out, because there’s so little money in it, that you’ll find more and more people doing more and more jobs in one person”, Felix reflects. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t put him off. “I think it’s an amazing industry. It’s a brilliant thing to be able to do, to work in theatre. I think one of the biggest things is that you have to really enjoy it. And you’re working with really talented people on all sides. It’s fascinating to work with people who are driven by their passion.”

More information on Caroline’s Kitchen and touring dates here.

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Claudia Graham

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