Theatre is both collaborative and live, making it a unique medium. While it’s true that a playwright, like a poet or novelist, may—though not often these days—craft a text in blissful isolation, by the time it reaches the stage that text has passed through many hands to bring it to life. This is also the case in film and television, yet unlike these recorded media, there’s only one chance (per performance) for everyone to get everything right, and they all have to get it right at the same time.
This takes, as one might imagine, a great deal of co-ordination.
This daunting task—of making sure actors are where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be, that a light is on them (so that everyone can see that they are, indeed, where they are supposed to be), and that their entrance is accompanied by the appropriate swell of music and requisite burst of kerosene fog—is overseen by the shadowy figure known as the stage manager.
There aren’t that many stage managers to go around, compared to the other, more visible, theatre disciplines. Anyone with a pen, paper, and sufficient self-confidence not to burn their first draft can claim to be a playwright. Actors, too, are rarely in short supply; everyone who wants to be seen on stage is an actor until someone informs them otherwise, and even that doesn’t stop some people. All a director really needs to do is communicate their vision, however nebulous it might be, to the cast, a set designer, lighting designer, sound designer, costume designer—and the stage manager will take care of the rest.
A stage manager needs to know a little of every job, and be a master of most of them. It takes a particular personality (organized, calm, firm, agreeable) to be a stage manager. You may never discover that you are not an actor, but you will find out in short order if you are not a stage manager.
The oft-invisible crew is the AV club of the theatre community, which means that nobody’s going to throw them a party unless they do it themselves. Otherwise, who would even be able to organize it?
Thus, the Ottawa Stage Manager Battle, conceived and organized by (stage manager, naturally) Christine Hecker. Three local theatre companies were each invited to create a short (twenty-minute) play with heavy technical requirements. After a brief rehearsal period, they handed over their prompt book—the script marked up with all the technical cues for lighting and sound—prepared by their rehearsal stage manager (if indeed they had a rehearsal stage manager) to one of each of three competing stage managers (Anna Lindgren, Ashley Proulx, and Jessica Preece), an hour before the competition. The shows were then staged one after the other, each with its appointed stage manager in the tech booth calling the shots. Their performances were scrutinized by an intimidating panel of veteran theatre professionals—Natalie Joy Quesnel, Tania Levy, and Kevin Waghorn.
The three shows (Guard Duty by Glassiano Productions, Strips by Slattery Theatre, and Les Animaux by May Can Theatre) were obviously designed primarily to test the stage managers, with a borderline ridiculous number of technical cues. They were entertaining for just this reason, and although Guard Duty won its share of laughs and Strips was pleasantly campy and visually interesting, only Les Animaux would be a complete, coherent play outside of the context of the event. But that wasn’t the point. These weren’t meant to be plays for a general audience (although with one or two modifications the Ottawa Stage Manager Battle could definitely be made to appeal to the public). The point—with convoluted cues, hieroglyphic prompt books, and performer/creators liable to improvise liberally—was to give the stage managers a real challenge.
The trouble is, almost anyone can spt a typo, but it’s much harder to pick up on a missed cue. Although it was quite obvious when certain cues were missed, even seasoned theatre professionals in the audience had a hard time catching all of them. The judges were in a better position to, well, judge: Kevin Waghorn got to sit in the booth (arguably the best seat in the house) throughout the competition, and the entire panel was provided with the prompt books—freshly decorated with highlighter and Post-It notes—for their deliberations.
How serious was this competition? Each of the plays presented significant challenges, but the specific challenges were so different that I don’t know if it’s entirely fair to compare one to the other. In any case it was fun, and put the contestants through their paces.
There are, again, not that many stage managers to go around. It may not, then, come as a surprise that the trophy—a hand grasping an assortment of writing utensils rising out of a base of rolls of tape—Jess Preece took home was one she had crafted herself.