The National Theatre production is a technical tour de force, with a TV studio and restaurant operating live as the action unfolds. Its stage managers tell Nick Clark how they make sure it runs like clockwork
When Bryan Cranston was named best actor at the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards last month, his acceptance speech included an unusual shout-out. Cranston, honoured for his role as Howard Beale in the National Theatre production Network, had brought the stage management team, headed by Sarah Alford-Smith, with him to the ceremony. From the winner’s podium, he praised them as the “backbone” of the show.
“They not only keep the trains running on time, but they do so with such enthusiasm and aplomb that we all look forward to going into work,” he added as applause rang out from the assorted journalists and creatives in the audience.
It was a welcome acknowledgement for a group that largely remains in the shadows, and a reminder that rarely does it occur to any award-winners to praise the crucial work the backstage team carries out.
Alford-Smith, a freelance stage manager whose credits include The Red Barn  at the NT, Hamlet  at the Almeida and The Vote at the Donmar Warehouse, recalls: “We all had big smiles when Bryan said it, then quickly looked at our feet in embarrassment. We were touched, as those things – even going to awards ceremonies – just don’t happen to us normally.”
She continues: “It says a lot about Bryan as a person and as a company member. He was always aware of the technical aspects of the show. I think he really respects how much has gone into making it and he notices everything.”
The deputy stage manager on Network is Nik Haffenden, who works at the National full-time. “We’re used to silently patting ourselves on the back in the dark,” he says. “So when someone decides to do it publicly in an awards ceremony, it’s thrilling and exciting – and a little bit mortifying.”
The production, adapted from Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film, directed by Ivo van Hove and designed by Jan Versweyveld, is extraordinarily ambitious. Alford-Smith is running the stage, an outdoor broadcast, a working TV studio with technicians and camera operators and an onstage restaurant.
There are four in the stage management team – which is about average for the National – with two assistant stage managers alongside Alford-Smith and Haffenden. There are two camera operators, the vision mixer doing live cuts of the show, an onstage sound mixer and someone who mixes the live band.
“There’s a surprising number of real technicians [rather than actors playing technicians] on the stage,” the DSM says. “There are probably more real technicians than not.”
Hair and make-up is done by professionals at the back of the set at the 1970s-style make-up station and, five minutes before curtain up, they swap out for the actors playing hair and make-up professionals on the fictional TV network UBS’ set.
Alford-Smith appears at the beginning, as part of the general UBS studio hubbub, but runs the rest of the show from backstage. “The joy is that I can just walk on stage in costume at any time, so I can talk to the operators if there are any issues.”
Haffenden, on the other hand, is in the limelight for the first time in his professional career, on stage throughout in full view of the Lyttelton Theatre audience.
Normally, as DSM, he would be operating from the back of the auditorium, behind the audience and out of view. Here he is stationed in ‘the box’, the TV studio’s glass control room, and he cues the show from there, made up to look like the technician in a 1970s news room.
“It’s all the same equipment as normal. I’m still calling the show. I’m in control of the lighting, sound and moving scenery; the traditional parts of the job,” he says. “The difference for this show is that I do it in costume, in a pair of period spectacles under the alter ego of Keith.”
Haffenden admits that, as the run has continued, his character Keith has become more elaborate and even interacts with the actors at times, to keep the air of an authentic control room. Not bad for someone whose last performance was aged 11, as Badger in his school production of Toad of Toad Hall.
“There were days on Network when this felt so unbelievably far from what I felt comfortable doing,” he says. “Then there were days when I thought, ‘Please don’t stop this because I’m having the time of my life.’ ”
But operating from the box also brings problems. It is soundproof, and the position means there are some blind spots on stage, especially where the lights bounce off the glass. “There’s a lot going on – it’s like cueing a show on the top deck of a busy bus. There is background noise the entire time. That’s to give the box life, but it’s constant.”
Preparations to stage-manage such a complicated show started in the rehearsal room. Unusually, the company was in costume with props from the first day.
“The rehearsal process was unique. It became obvious quite early on that Ivo was going to run a room that none of us had experienced before,” Haffenden says. “It was sink or swim. I was thrust into the middle of the action on day one.”
Alford-Smith adds: “We’ve been doing it so long – that’s why it looks so slick. It looks like a company that has been working together for a long time, because we have.” Between them, the stage manager and her deputy had to run the rehearsal room like an extended tech.
The restaurant, Foodwork, is part of that slick operation, with 42 audience members a night served a five-course meal on stage. The rehearsals included sessions with the waiting staff about not disrupting the flow of the actors or pulling focus.
Clearing the dishes and serving new courses are timed to appropriate moments in the action, and the tablecloths are padded to muffle the noise of plates being put down. All of this was thought through during rehearsals.
Alford-Smith was undaunted when the National first sounded her out about the show, because she had seen Van Hove’s production Roman Tragedies, which had onstage catering. “So I wasn’t as flummoxed as I might have been had I not seen that. I knew it had worked,” she says.
Then there are the outside broadcasts – in a scene where actors Douglas Henshall and Michelle Dockery walk down Theatre Avenue next to the building – which are filmed live for every performance.
Alford-Smith has had to deal with drunks shouting off the bridge above and a running club with 200 members. On one occasion she even had to stop a police car to ensure everything went ahead without a hitch. She is proud that the production has only had to use a pre-record once, and that was down to a bout of extreme weather.
The unusually public role for Haffenden has changed how, as DSM, he interacts with the company over the course of a run.
“Normally I spend six weeks in a very close relationship with the actors in rehearsals, then I disappear into the auditorium for the technical rehearsals and then move out into the control room. It’s hard to maintain a relationship on a daily basis. It’s the first time in a long time I’ve had such a bond with the company. That’s worth it alone.”
The only problem is it may prove difficult going back to calling shows in a more traditional way. “The fourth wall has been removed and it’s very freeing,” Haffenden says. “I think it will be terribly difficult when we move on to our next shows to not just walk on stage.”
CV: Sarah Alford-Smith
Job: Freelance company and stage manager
Training: Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (1995-97)
Landmark productions: Black Watch, National Theatre of Scotland (2006-08), deputy stage manager, Hamlet, Uncle Vanya and The Merchant of Venice, Almeida Theatre (2014-17), company stage manager, The Vote, Donmar Warehouse (2015), company stage manager, The Red Barn, National Theatre (2016), stage manager
CV: Nik Haffenden
Job: Deputy stage manager, National Theatre
Training: LAMDA (1993-95)
Landmark productions: One Man, Two Guvnors (2011), Treasure Island (2014), Peter Pan (2016), Angels in America (201
Network runs at the National Theatre  until March 24