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Stage Managers: Moving from Theatre to Ceremonies

By Gareth Hulance

My first experience of a ceremony was in 2008 when I was an Assistant Stage Manager for the London Handover in Beijing – (the big red bus with Leona Lewis singing and Beckham kicking a football from it!)  Originally out in Beijing as Stage Manager for the National Youth Theatre (who were singing the UK National Anthem), I threw myself at the handover stage management team for the 10 days we were out there and offered myself up in any way that could make me even the tiniest bit useful.

Tasked with the setting of a bus stop and gaffer taping a zebra crossing to the field in front of 80,000 people, I did this with so much enthusiasm during rehearsals that I scraped both my knees and legs on the tarmac floor of the disused airfield we were rehearsing at; I had to pop to the waiting ambulance for a clean-up!  However, besides embarrassing myself with that incident, working on this show really was a career changing moment that opened my eyes to the world of ceremonies and became the catalyst for me working on many ceremonies over the proceeding 10 years predominantly as a Show Caller or Production Stage Manager.  But prior to this, my career had been very much based around 8 shows a week in the West End.

Unlike theatre where you may have several weeks of previews before press night which then follows with a long run of 8 shows a week – in ceremonies you are working towards just one night, one performance, one time only and the 2,000 people in the theatre audience increases to an audience of 80,000 in the stadium and potentially a global audience in the hundreds of millions. But fundamentally, the stage management skills you have from theatre are all put into practice – the scale is really what changes as the budgets and scale of an Olympic Ceremony are so vast that they can make even the largest grandiose musical look like a fringe show in a telephone box on the back streets of Edinburgh.

This can be very daunting to even the most experienced stage manager for their first experience, indeed it was for me.  But the important thing to realise is that when the show gets bigger, the teams get bigger.

From a theatre stage management team of 6 or 7, scale this up to an Olympics, and the team size can be as large as 30 stage managers (including Senior SMs) and 20 ASMs, so the pressure is not on one small team.

With these large shows come large casts and your rationale of dealing with cast sizes in your head changes dramatically.  Where once a cast size of 40 in a musical may have seemed big, when you are dealing with casts numbers that may reach 7,000, 500 people in a rehearsal suddenly seems rather easy and is deemed a ‘small’ rehearsal!  In ceremonies the traditional theatrical roles of casting director and company manager are replaced by a casting department, which can equal and even surpass the size of the stage management team.

The casting department not only casts the shows but looks after the cast from arrival to departure and many other things in between.  With cast numbers hitting 4 digits and beyond, the theatre norm of one of the ASMs ticking in the cast for rehearsal becomes slightly impractical when dealing with casts in their thousands – so technology comes into play here to assist with this process, often with each cast member having a barcode and access pass to swipe into rehearsals and this is again managed by the casting team.  Stage Management works very closely with the casting team throughout the process – from checking to see how many cast are missing for rehearsals, liaising with the transport team for arrivals and departures and to dealing with the huge task of cast movement during rehearsals and show.

Dressing rooms are not going to be backstage where you would traditionally find them in a theatre.  For example, during London 2012, one of the main holding areas for the cast was a 40 minute walk away from the stadium – so the logistics and execution for cast movement is like another show in itself that is happening backstage, in the holding areas and lining all the routes to and from the stadium whilst the actual show is happening inside the stadium.

Rehearsals do have some differences with the majority of rehearsals being taken by the Mass Choreography team.  Often known as the ‘pink team’ on some shows (they always manage to get the best hi-viz vests – Stage Managers are often left in orange or if lucky, a nice navy blue) they are an army of choreographers who create the magic of the ceremonies –choreographing several thousand people to create the incredible shapes and patterns that Olympic Ceremonies are famed for. Huge amounts of charts, cones and bibs accompany these rehearsals and the stage management team run these rehearsals alongside the ‘mass choreo’ team, making sure they have everything they need from spiking the field and setting the cones to keeping the rehearsal to time, liaising with the props and costume teams and everything else that comes with running rehearsals – exactly as they would do in theatre.  However, getting 2,000 people back from a 15 minute tea break does have its own unique challenges!

Unlike theatre, no cast enter the field of play or stage without being cued by the show caller via the stage managers and holding thousands of people backstage is very different – cast are stacked up in the order they need to enter the field, and this is co-ordinated by both stage managers and mass choreo teams.

This certainly adds an exciting and busy element to the role as the stage managers work out the logistics of stacking hundreds of performers and large scenic items into one Vom (entrance onto the field).  The cast movement team get the cast to the Vom at the right time, but how you organise and run your Vom is down to you – but break it down and really it is the same as running a wing in the theatre – cast, set pieces, props and costume all need to fit – only difference is that once again you are dealing with greater numbers.

With these bigger shows, it naturally becomes a much bigger rehearsal schedule in terms of locations, time and physically the amount of rehearsals all happening at the same time.  The theatre 6 week rehearsal period becomes 4 months.  The 3 rehearsal rooms become a scale outdoor and indoor rehearsal 1:1, an aerial flying rig room, several dance studios, and several off-site rehearsal locations spread across the city you are in.  And a day can be filled with 3 different rehearsal sessions in each of those locations.  Oh, and the Sunday you used to enjoy with friends and family and doing your washing after an 8 show week – becomes another working day.  No one can say it is not tiring working long hours and with no day off for many weeks, it is certainly a long process, but the payoff is working on an incredible show that is being watched live around the world seen by millions, if not billions of people.

It is very hard to put into words the feeling that working on a ceremony creates – but it is certainly an experience that you will remember for a lifetime, and if lucky enough, one that you get to repeat on different shows around the world.

Ceremonies bring with it, not only the chance to work on huge shows, but also the chance to meet and work with people from all around the world.  Ceremonies by their nature are very international and many people move from one ceremony to another, each time potentially taking some locals they worked with on a previous ceremony on to the next.  Earlier this year, having just finished work on the MENA Special Olympics Opening Ceremony in Abu Dhabi, myself and the stage management team all had a day off before starting on this year’s Dubai World Cup and so we headed to Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi for some serious rollercoaster riding.  Amongst the day  of running around like over active children who had eaten far too much sugar – there was a moment when I looked at all of us in the queue for a ride and realised that amongst us, we came from the UK, Spain, Poland, Lebanon, Syria, UAE, Jordan and Canada – all of us coming together to work on a show doing the job we love – and that to me is pretty amazing and will always be one of the most special parts about working on Ceremonies.

Each country we work in has its own ways of working and different challenges, and having that opportunity to learn and adapt is incredibly exciting.

And that’s what we do as stage managers, we adapt to the new theatre, the new show, the new venue, the new stadium, the new creative team, the new culture and work out how best to do our job.  We learn from our colleagues around us and adapt our skills.

So, in terms of scale, working on a ceremony is very different from theatre and there are new and bigger teams to work with, but fundamentally what we do as stage managers is the same – we just adapt our skills accordingly.  We rehearse, we tech, we dress, we do the show and then if there is one, we head to the party.

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