The stage managers who keep Julius Caesar’s crowds controlled at the Bridge
When the audience becomes a part of the production, how do you avoid chaos? The crew responsible for running Nicholas Hytner’s promenade staging tells Fergus Morgan how it’s done
The Bridge theatre’s promenade staging of Julius Caesar thrusts its audience into the heart of the raging Roman mob. Yet spectators can enjoy the drama with no fear of injury from warring soldiers and rogue stage furniture, or of accidentally wiping out Ben Whishaw’s Brutus as he navigates the throng; the whole thing is tightly managed by a team of stage managers brought in because of their expertise in crowd control.
Nicholas Hytner’s immersive production, which opened at the east London venue in January, is staged in-the-round and in modern dress. The cast performs at ground level or on a series of rising and falling platforms.
Audience members either sit on the tiered seats around the perimeter or stand in the central space at the heart of the action – the pit – and they need tight marshalling by the stage management team.
Those standing become part of the show. They are transformed into the mob, shaking hands with a triumphant Caesar heading to the senate and cheering Mark Antony first as he cranks up the atmosphere with a band pre-show, and later whips them into a frenzy of retribution after the assassination.
But this opportunity to get within arm’s reach of the production’s acclaimed cast is only possible thanks to the hard work of the show’s backstage team.
“We have eight core staff who run the theatre space,” says the theatre’s technical manager Katrina Gilroy, who also worked with Hytner during his time as director of London’s National Theatre. “They’re very adaptable. They can run around and do many aspects of the staging. Everyone else we hire production by production according to their specialities. They all bring different ingredients.”
Company stage manager Hetti Curtis, deputy stage manager Laura Wilson and assistant stage managers Chloe Turner and David Putman were all hired for Julius Caesar because of their experience handling crowds. Curtis has experience working with immersive theatre group Punchdrunk, Wilson has been involved in large-scale musicals and Putman has marshalled huge casts working in opera.
But none of them has done anything quite like this. Throughout the show, the standing spectators are encouraged to shout, waive placards and heckle – and they also have to be nimble to avoid the rising platforms or getting in the way of the action. All of which provides a unique challenge to Curtis and her colleagues.
“For each show, there’s four stage managers, four techs, who help with all the scene changes, and a team of five hosts, who are there to move the audience around the pit,” Curtis says. All but Wilson stay in the pit for the duration of the show, marshalling up to 400 audience members.
No one wants a sheepish punter to be stranded on a rising platform next to David Morrissey’s fired-up Mark Antony
The 12 that stay in the pit have a lot to do. They bring on stage furniture, hand out flyers, placards and posters, and shepherd the audience, making sure they don’t get in the way of the actors, the scenery, or the shifting set. No one wants a sheepish punter to be stranded on a rising platform next to David Morrissey’s fired-up Mark Antony.
Thorough preparation was the key, according to Curtis. “All of us did a lot of planning before we got on to stage, because everyone was a bit unsure of how it would all work and where the audience would go,” she says.
Q&A: Hetti Curtis
What was your first professional theatre job? Glyndebourne Opera House.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? To put aside money for my tax bill.
Who or what was your biggest influence? I love the work and design that goes into the Punchdrunk productions. It is great theatre and great people.
If you hadn’t been a stage manager, what would you have been? A teacher.
Born: London, 1988
Training: Theatre studies at University of the West of England, stage management and technical theatre
Landmark productions: 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Ceremonies, assistant stage manager, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, Punchdrunk, assistant stage manager
To imitate the automated lifts that rise and fall throughout the production, a set of fixed platforms were used in rehearsals, to make sure the actors were used to performing from a height and to allow Curtis and her team the chance to figure out where they would need the audience to be throughout the show.
The stage management team’s involvement throughout this five-week rehearsal period was essential. “Nick [Hytner] knew what he wanted in each scene from the start and built on that,” Curtis says. “That constant framework meant we were able, really early on, to make detailed plans that then only needed tweaking rather than completely changing. We actually really enjoyed mapping out all the scene changes.”
Curtis says that much of the changes work through distraction techniques, similar to those a conjuror would use. “We play with the audience’s focus,” she says. “While something is happening in show over here, we’ll be doing a scene change in the dark over there. Most audience members don’t even notice it happening.”
Despite the meticulous planning, the show’s stage management has evolved over time. Now, in its seventh week, it runs like clockwork. “We’ve just done our 40th show, so we are now really comfortable with the way that it runs,” says Curtis.
“The unpredictable nature of the audience is now pretty minimal, because most situations have come up. Now we know how they will react and move, so we’ve been able to alter things accordingly. We all know exactly where we need to be, who we’re moving and when we need to move them.
“We’re always very respectful,” adds Curtis. “We are all very good at judging how to be forceful yet polite. If we ever shout at people, it’s because that’s the nature of the world they’ve been brought into. You want them to feel as though they’re part of a rally.”
Standing in the pit next to the audience also offers the team the perfect vantage point to see how involved the viewers are. “Some people love it and as soon as there’s a chant to join in with, they fully go for it,” Curtis says. “But it’s really nice when you see the slightly quieter people, when it gets to the funeral scene, start shouting too.”
Paul Arditti’s sound design is crafted to encourage that involvement. “We did a lot of crowd recordings that are played at the appropriate moments,” says Curtis. “There are very carefully positioned speakers, so it sounds as though there is already a crowd responding. There’s that body of noise so you feel quite safe to join in.”
Apparently, some people feel so safe that they’ve started mini mosh pits while the band is playing pre-show. “When you get groups of young people, they love it,” says Wilson. “They’re right at the front, jumping along and the performers get a real buzz from that.”
Although stage management clearly love an enthusiastic audience member, they emphasise that there’s no obligation to participate. The stage is clear around the edge of the pit, where there’s room for shyer spectators. “It’s breathing space, if you want it,” says Curtis.
Julius Caesar is only the second production of Hytner’s £12 million theatre, which he opened with Nick Starr, formerly his executive director at the National, last October.
For their first show, Young Marx, the theatre was arranged in classic proscenium-arch format. For Julius Caesar, it’s been reconfigured in-the-round with space for a standing audience in the pit. The next show, Barney Norris’ Nightfall, will see the auditorium reconfigured again with a thrust stage.
This production – the rejigged seating, the moving platforms, the space for a standing audience – is made possible by the theatre’s unique, totally flexible design. The theatre’s technical team had to remove the stage and stalls used for Young Marx, add in a bank of temporary seating and raise the theatre floor by several metres, allowing room to install hydraulic lifts to create the shifting set.
“We can reconfigure it however we want,” explains Gilroy. “All of this will disappear for our next show. Everything we’re doing right now is a first. Everything is an entirely new experience.”
That’s the driving idea behind the Bridge – to reconstruct the theatre show by show. It’s an approach that the management also applies to personnel. “To choose stage management according to the flavour of each project is essential,” concludes Gilroy. “It gives us that flexibility, all the way through.”
Julius Caesar is running at the Bridge, London until April 15