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Backstage: Clare Whitfield

Published 8 February 2010

Clare Whitfield worked on West End shows including Aspects Of Love and Grease before stage managing the premiere production of Mamma Mia! more than 10 years ago. She tells OLT about the nitty gritty of her job and the joy of recreating the ABBA musical all over the world.

Clare Whitfield, 46, Production Stage Manager

On a normal day I probably arrive at the theatre at quarter to six. We set up all the props and furniture, check everything is as it should be, as the designer wants it to be, check the stage, make sure it is in good repair.

In the stage management team you have a Stage Manager, Deputy Stage Manger and three Assistant Stage Managers, but you only need two ASMs to run the show. So one person is either spare or covering another department or on holiday. To actually do the show you need the Stage Manager who has their plot, stage right has their plot and stage left has their plot. A plot is a list of cues where you have to be for each part of the show. So for instance for my plot, most of my cues are watching the scene changes, for safety, because as you know when the trucks [which move the scenery] move they are quite fast and heavy, and if anyone is in the wrong place at the wrong time… So you’re watching for those things and making sure everything is where it should be. Whereas if you were doing one of the wing plots, you would mainly be moving furniture, setting up the furniture, moving props, collecting props, more of that type of thing.

With this show the actors actually set the furniture on stage and bring it off, so mainly for us it’s setting it in the wing ready for them to collect, and then when it comes off we obviously collect it from them and then put it somewhere safe out of the way. We don’t actually ever go on stage, unless something’s gone wrong.

Because it’s a long running show, all the stage management team cover each other’s plots, so you don’t end up doing exactly the same thing every single night. So for example tonight I’m calling the show. Yesterday I was doing stage right wing, tomorrow I’ll probably be doing the Stage Manager’s plot. We have a rota for the whole week so you don’t do exactly the same thing.

Calling the show means being up on the perches with the prompt copy; you call all the lighting cues and all the scene changes, following the score and the script. The set here is completely automated, so we have automation cues all the way through. The automation operator sits up on the perch with the show caller as well.

Reporting back

At the end of the show the only other thing I do as a Stage Manager is the show report, which we produce for every single performance, where we have a record of the show number, the date, who was operating, who was calling the show, who was doing the lighting, the sound, operating the automation. Then all the times – up times and down times – and then if anyone was off sick or on holiday or injured, the reason and who was covering them. If anything happens in the show that needs to be noted. The show report is used for doing the wages at the end of the week, so it is very important that it is precise, because people don’t want to not be paid for what they are doing. If anything happens in the show you need a reference back to who was doing what on the night.

I do a rota at the end of the week so I know what’s happening the following week. If there’s any rehearsals happening, I do a rota for who is going to be doing what and share it out between us. It’s coming up to a busy-ish time because we are doing auditions and we’ve also got a couple of ladies in the company who have become pregnant, so one of those is leaving so we’re doing a put-in for her at the moment. So there’s a few extra rehearsals happening for that, and the auditions.

We take it in turns to cover the auditions, which don’t always take place at the theatre, they sometimes take place in studios. We are there to meet people, look after them, bring them in for the audition, check them off a list, take them out again; just be there really to monitor it.

Travelling with Mamma

So far I haven’t got sick of the show and I’ve been on it since the beginning, which is probably a bit of a record in itself! I still enjoy doing it very much. But I do have to say I have the added bonus that I’ve been able to go abroad and set it up in a lot of foreign countries where it’s been on, and obviously that has made a huge difference, the opportunity of going to places that I would never dream of going to. We did it in Japan, South Korea, Russia, all over Europe. It’s done in the language of that country, which makes it even more interesting. I think that’s the best way to do it, you have to personalise it to where you are otherwise it won’t mean anything to that audience. So it’s a complete translation of the songs and all the script. Over the course of the 11 years I’ve been on this show I think I’ve done about 15 or 16 worldwide productions. That has kept my interest shall we say!

The original designer, Mark Thompson, has an associate who does all the designs and drawings for wherever we’re going to be going. I get a copy of the ground plans from him and then once we go abroad into the rehearsal room, it’s basically the same as we do in this country. We have four to five weeks rehearsal period in a rehearsal studio and then the creative team come over. What I do is liaise with the stage management there and help them set it up; doing the mark up, running the rehearsal room, giving them all the information I have about how the show works and the props and the furniture, and handing that all over to them, not in one lump, but gradually through the rehearsal period. Once we get into the theatre, we do usually two weeks technical time and then a week of previews, something like that. During that period of time I’d then teach the book and the calling of the show to that person. I sadly don’t speak any other languages. Most people do have a basic knowledge of English, which is fantastic. But if not, if you have to do it through a translator, then it does become somewhat frustrating, or slightly harder work, but still very rewarding at the end. I think in Japan and Korea we did everything through translators.

I’ve got five productions to do abroad this year, so I’ll probably be away from here for about four and a half months in total. I’m going back to South Korea in April, and then South Africa – Capetown – and then Paris, Milan and Copenhagen. I’m particularly looking forward to going back to Korea.

You usually get at least one day off a week and because you are in a foreign country I’ve always had lovely experiences. People have always been so welcoming and they go out of their way to show you around and take you to places of interest.

Starting out

I come from Bournemouth originally and I started working in the local theatre when I’d just finished school, just doing crewing. Then I went to Guildford School of Acting and did a two-year stage management course there. I was lucky enough to go straight away from there to Salisbury Rep, which was really good, because obviously with rep theatre you’re doing different things all the time, from musicals to Shakespeare to JB Priestley. Then I got my first West End job here at this theatre, funnily enough, which was Aspects Of Love back in 1991, a long time ago. That brought me into the West End and then I did several West End shows, went out on tour with a couple of things, and then was lucky enough to get this.

I was very lucky I got taken to the theatre [as a child]. I had a cousin who worked at the Royal Festival Ballet and we used to go and see a lot of ballet up in London and I think that probably started me off. Because she worked there she could take us backstage and I remember watching the ballet thinking, ‘oh this is ok’, and then we went backstage and there was a mechanical swan from Swan Lake that someone was inside, driving, and I was like, ‘oh wow how does that work?’ I was much more excited about that.

I have driven the car in Grease; that was quite complicated. You have to lie inside the car looking out through the grill at the front, with the control panel. That was quite nervewracking.

Trouble-shooting

The automation is the thing that goes wrong and when it goes wrong it’s a showstopper. Those two big trucks, if they don’t work and are in the wrong place, you can’t carry on, you have to stop the show. Sometimes it’s the software, sometimes it’s the actual mechanics of it. We’ve never lost a show because of it, we’ve always managed to fix the problem, and we do have the option of doing what we call an emergency show, where we put the trucks into one position manually and then we can leave them in that position for the whole show. When there’s a new company they are rehearsed into knowing what the emergency show is. So we’ve never lost a show through automation.

We know this show so well, all of us. I don’t think there’s probably any scenario we haven’t gone through with something breaking just before it’s about to go on stage and trying to improvise.

Eye for detail

I think you need to have a good eye for making sure everything looks as it should look from the designer’s point of view. You need to be able to get on well with people, you need to be able to communicate with people if there’s a problem or something’s not quite right. You need to be able to approach people, be able to talk to them, be quite a people person, I think that’s very important. And be strong enough to tell people off if they are not doing what they should be doing. 

I think it’s probably harder than it was [to get into it]. I started out on the crew and then went and did the course. I only had a couple of O Levels, whereas now if you want to go to drama school you have to have A Levels, so it worries me slightly that people who are not so academic but more technical or hands-on aren’t getting the same opportunities that I had when I started.

Unsung hero

From our point of view, when you see the audience at the end of the show going crazy and they are all stood up and they are having the most fantastic time, and obviously the actors on stage are getting all the applause, I always think that’s how it should be. If the audience haven’t thought about what’s been going on in the wings or anything else, all they have done is just enjoy the show, then we’ve done our job properly. They only notice us when something goes wrong, and in a way that’s how it should be. I don’t want the applause, I’m quite happy to stay in the dark of the wings and just see the audience having a nice time. Especially on a show like this when almost every night you get a standing ovation. It is nice.

CB

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