What does a career in stage management look like for emerging professionals working in the theatre? From the rise of intimacy directors spurred by the #MeToo movement who specialise in facilitating consensual sex scenes to the increasing casualisation of Australia’s workforces, it’s never been a more thrilling, turbulent, and challenging time to work behind the scenes.
Georgina Pead is one young Australian woman approaching these shifts unflinchingly, wearing her love for stage management on her sleeve. In her four years working in the field, the Canberra-born, Gold Coast-raised stage manager has worked across diverse platforms – from physical and experimental pieces curated by independent companies like Melbourne’s The Danger Ensemble and all the way to the West End alongside Sir Ian McKellen (X-Men, The Lord of the Rings) to work on the Shakespearian tragedy King Lear.
“I have gone from Shakespearian tragedies where I’m bloodying daggers in the wings, to literally making three different kinds of fake poo that can be eaten on stage six nights a week [for a Soho Theatre comedy] – everyone in my building knew me as the poo girl,” she laughs, explaining the diversity of the role.
Throughout the interview, Pead often describes a stage management crew as living nervous system. These specialist technicians communicate between directors, producers, performers and technical staff, maintaining the show’s artistic integrity by sending messages across the staff to make sure the show goes off without a hitch. While directors and actors lean into the limelight, management go unseen.
“It’s a job that’s done in the shadows and some people don’t know it exists or what exactly we do,” says Pead. For her, theatre’s intrigue lies in what the audience doesn’t see. “The show happening on stage is completely different to the show happening behind the scenes.”
The audience could be in tears watching McKellen make a moving speech while holding the limp body of his character’s daughter. “But at that same moment, I’m backstage soaking two actresses in fake blood. We’re giggling in the wings while this deep moment is happening on stage,” she says.
One time she had to prep an actor’s understudy in the midst of a show after the lead broke his ankle when he came down from a lift. “He ran off stage and into the change room and screamed into a pillow,” she explains.
Simple, seemingly minor things can completely change the ebb and flow of a show – from actors who take a tad too long to a deliver line or decide that they want to change their entrance time or mistake their cue-light. “For a three and a half hour Shakespeare, all you need is those little things to happen and then seven minutes cut off show,” she says.
Pead got her start in school plays and went on to study Contemporary and Applied Theatre at Griffith University. Her professional credits include working as an Assistant Stage Manager on the stage adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s film Strictly Ballroom in Brisbane, including in its premier season in North America alongside Australian production company Global Creatures. She’s worked at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and closer to home in a number of works at the Sydney Festival.
“I think there’s a misconception that stage managers are failed actors, when the reality is, while we love the theatre and the thrill of putting on a show, we are much happier to be backstage,” she explains. “During a creative process, actors and directors can be in vulnerable positions and I like working to create trust and a comfortable and safe environment with them.”
A part of creating that safe environment means that thecast and crew are looked after – that includes making sure that the theatre is a sexism-free space. “Saying, ‘Oh, that’s the theatre darling’ is not an excuse anymore – that’s not how it is,” she explains. “As a stage manager, being in that room, I definitely want to be a person who is a point of call, which what I feel stage management is: we are a point of call for safety, both personal and physical. If someone’s not happy with something, we’re there – that’s our role.”
Since the #Metoo movement exposed the discomfort and actresses and actor’s resentment about boundaries being crossed in sex scenes, there’s been a growing conversation in stage management communities around the world on how to facilitate change. “By bringing on a third party to explore this material, we hope to avoid the potential discomfort of navigating power dynamics with the director, which are known to cloud consent,”Canadian intimacy director Siobhan Richardson told TheatreArtLife.
“I think it’s all evolving and that’s an important evolution for the industry,” explains Pead of her own thoughts on the topic. “It’s brilliant to be a part of that change. I’m not lying when I say so much of this was before my time, and you can still see trails of it. But people are so aware and they’re fighting for change. I think no one wants the theatre to have a reputation of that, because theatre is so important: what it gives – the art of being able to stand on the stage and share an idea or a point of view, and give commentary on the world – is what theatre has done since it was invented. It needs to be there. And things like this don’t serve it.
The role of stage management comes with plenty of demands. “We’re the first ones in, last ones out,” Peadsays. “We’re often working at home as well. It’s with us all the time. I have friends in stage management who’ve missed weddings and funerals and birthdays, and I have as well. And it’s just something that you have to do. That impacts personal relationships. I’ve had girlfriends say to me, ‘You know, I don’t know if I can do this forever if I want to have kids.’
“It’s not glittery, it does come with sacrifices – whether that’s having to have that café job well into your thirties or having something else. No one is a stranger to that in our generation,” she continues.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the hard slog. Peadhas starting working at the Belvoir St Theatre, the Surry Hills company known for bolstering Australia’s most acclaimed directors, actors and actresses, and designersover the past 30 years. In her spare time, Pead hopes to bring together other artists to work on productions that stimulate change and lift marginalised voices. “I don’t think voices are being heard in government. It’s like everybody is screaming out and they’re just not listening. So I would love to get some creative people I know together and see what happens,” she says, excitedly.
Despite the challenges of stage management, with energetic, generous and impassioned young crewmembers like Pead behind the scenes, the industry’s future is looking bright.