~An Interview with Stage Manager, Jen Raith [Bat Out of Hell]~
On a cold and rainy Saturday morning, I show up wet-haired at the stage door of the Dominion Theatre, ready to meet Jen Raith, the Stage Manager of the rebellious rock ‘n’ roll musical Bat Out Of Hell. Having seen the show a week before, perhaps I can blame its overriding spirit of anarchy for my ramshackle tardiness. Then again, perhaps that’s a stretch. The musical itself is a total sensory overload: there’s live video, an underwater quick change, an exploding bike, and about the same amount of pyrotechnics in one night that other shows would use in a month. As Jen put it: “We’ve got earth, air, fire and water. You don’t get all of those elements in one show, you normally get a couple, but you don’t get all of them.”
The show really is one of a kind and its staging is central to its uniqueness as a production. “It’s nothing like I’ve worked on before”, Jen told me in her beautiful Scottish accent, “I’ve worked on some big shows but nothing of this scale: it’s right up to the roof and right across the stage.” Looking around on stage, I saw exactly what she meant – the set felt even more expansive here than it had done from my seat in the audience. The set consists of a huge tunnel and two raised platforms that make up the wider structure of the performance space, and a built-up rocky area at the front of the stage. The rocks are actually quite springy and not at all hard in reality – it’s a fantastic illusion.
So back to that quick change. It all happens in a mere 12 seconds, mid-song, and the performer (Rob Fowler) begins singing again only moments after resurfacing. I asked Jen how on earth a Stage Manager goes about keeping tabs on a dangerous stunt like that. “That sort of trick took a couple of weeks of refinement: we knew what we had to do, we knew what we wanted to achieve, so we just had to tweak and make sure we had all the safeties in place.” Safety is a key component of stage management and Jen explained to me her philosophy when it comes to stage mishaps: “The main disasters for me would be people disasters […] things like bits and pieces of scenery stopping or not working, that’s not necessarily a disaster, I would say that’s just something you have to deal with for the show.”
Jen is one of a stage management team of six on Bat Out Of Hell. There is also a Deputy Stage Manager, two Assistant Stage Managers (during the performance, one is stage left, the other stage right), a tech ASM and a swing ASM, who covers any of the others when needed. The ASMs, she explained to me, are mainly responsible for things like props: keeping tabs on where they are so nothing gets lost but also, during the rehearsal process, organising the logistics – “so if they [the performers] put a chair down, how do they get that off stage, how do they get than onstage.” The DSM and SM are more involved with scene changes, “the bigger picture, where things move, where cast would be entering and exiting.”
Bat Out of Hell began in Manchester before making its way to London and I was curious about the rehearsal process. Jen told me that there were seven weeks of rehearsals before getting into the space, and then six more weeks of technical rehearsals, in the theatre and with the set, before opening night. But with a show as technically complex as this one, it seems amazing that the production could run so smoothly with only a month and a half in the venue. Jen showed me that a lot of the bulkier elements on stage are automated scenery, something which she says has “really come to fruition in the last 10 years.” For example, the Strat bike, which is placed into a moving spade in the track, then the operator has total control over the conveyor belt system via their computer. Nonetheless, things do go wrong, it’s just “when things are going wrong, 90% of the time it’s happening without the audience knowing”!
In terms of the daily tasks of a Stage Manager, it seems like a role which revolves around communication, organisation and problem solving. There’s a fair amount of practical, hands-on work involved: the stage has to been swept, mopped and set before every show, and painting, sewing and reupholstering all come in handy. It’s the people management aspect that is the most integral though. Sometimes it’s as simple as being a “speaking clock”, making sure things run to time during pre-show setup, but it’s also about “being that liaison” when things go wrong. So if a lamp doesn’t work when the lighting team do their check, then the Stage Manager is the go-to for rescheduling the rest of the pre-show and resolving any issues as swiftly as possible. “Stage management tend to be the fairies of production”, she tells me, in the eyes of other people “things just happen.”
There must be some magic involved when managing a cast and crew of 90+, and it’s no wonder that being a “people person” is key to success. “Every stage has a backstage ballet […] there’s an entirely different show happening here”, Jen describes. Stage management is about “making sure that choreography happens backstage and it’s not just about everything on there [the stage].” She doesn’t think there is any one type of person suited to being an SM: “it takes all sorts […] our team, for example, we are all very different characters, very different skillsets: and that works.” For anyone looking to get into the profession, she says “it’s always worth getting in touch with a theatre.” Work experience is invaluable, “even for a night”, and she added that the same is true for adults looking to change careers. In fact, she doesn’t think it is harder to enter into stage management later in life “because actually you have life experience as well.” She highlighted that those who have worked in management in a different context – such as an office job – will have some of the tools and skills already… as long as they can also bring creativity, the transition is “absolutely not” as difficult as it might appear.
Just walking from stage door to stage with Jen, I get a sense of the jack-of-all-trades nature of stage management. She lends her lighter to another crew member ready for a birthday cake, stops to talk logistics of charity collection buckets with two of the show’s leads, and has a “hiya love” on the tip of her tongue as we pass other techies setting up ready for the matinee. She says she still gets a buzz during performances and it never gets repetitive, especially with such a technically exciting show. “I never have a dull day”, she tells me cheerfully. From what Jen showed me, variety is at the essence of stage management and it’s impossible to know what each performance will bring.