As resident company manager at London’s Royal Court, Joni Carter offers pastoral care and practical solutions to cast, crew and occasional live animals. She tells Tim Bano why diplomacy and flexibility are key skills backstage
During a long career as a stage and company manager, Joni Carter has had some unusual experiences. Although mostly working in theatre, she has also stage-managed big events such as the Victoria’s Secret catwalk fashion shows in London and Paris, where she had to step in when a superstar fell victim to her high heels. “Lady Gaga fell over and I had to pick her up,” she says. “None of her bouncers were around… But she was very nice about it.”
For the past four years, Carter has been company manager at the Royal Court in London, shaping a role that had been dormant for a while. When budget cuts began to bite at the Sloane Square venue, it lost the resident company manager role. It carried on for a few years without one, until Vicky Featherstone took over as artistic director in 2013 and she brought the role back. That’s when the Court hired Carter.
The role of a company manager varies from venue to venue, and from production to production, but Carter explains that she is in charge of employing all the freelance stage managers that work on the various productions, as well as workshops, readings and international work.
‘People are becoming more open about mental health, especially in productions’
“It’s about problem-solving, being flexible, getting on with people. And being a good diplomat,” she says. As each production comes along, she talks to the director about which stage managers they want to work with, where they want to rehearse, and when.
“That’s the main bulk of my job, organising the stage managers. Then there’s day-to-day running, booking physio for actors, dealing with any pastoral care. I’m also the first mental health first-aider for the building. So it’s providing support if people are suffering from anxiety or depression or if they’ve been affected by bereavement, anything like that, I support them.”
Are people good at talking about their mental health? “They have been quite forthcoming. I think people are becoming more open about it, especially in productions. There are posters around the building, and people from other departments come to me, too, and ask for advice. It has given me the confidence to say when people might need a bit of extra help, and to deal with it openly.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working in retail at Boots the chemist
What was your first professional theatre job?
Prop maker at Soho Theatre
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Not sure, but my advice now would be to tour the UK, work in regional theatre in as many venues and cities as possible.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Frantic Assembly. I loved being in the rehearsal room with Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett.
If you hadn’t been a company and stage manager, what would you have been?
I wanted to be a camera operator when I was a teenager. Now I would like to work as a food travel writer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Carter didn’t train as a stage manager, but learned on the job, starting as a volunteer at the Tower Theatre, an amateur company in Islington. “Then I worked at 3 Mills Film Studios, I used to be the receptionist and did all the location and rehearsal room bookings. That’s when I met a lot of theatre companies in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Through the contacts I made at 3 Mills, I started doing bits of theatre. Then Soho Theatre were the first that gave me an assistant stage manager job. And it built from there.”
She freelanced for 17 years before applying for the new company manager job at the Royal Court. “This is the first building-based, permanent job I’ve ever had. It’s a bit of a change,” she says. That’s partly to do with the turnover of the work: with so many productions each year, across two spaces, and no show running for more than eight weeks, there is always enough to keep Carter extremely busy.
One of her jobs is calling actors before rehearsals start to introduce herself and let them know the drill. With some A-list stars at the Royal Court, that means picking up the phone to the likes of Carey Mulligan. But Carter insists she doesn’t find it nerve-racking. In fact, it’s the opposite: “What you have to remember is that on day one, they’re more nervous than me. On day one of rehearsal, it doesn’t really matter who they are. You think just because somebody’s an actor or because somebody’s famous they don’t get nervous, but they do. They might not have worked here before, they might not have done theatre before. Paddy Considine had never done a play before, Danny Huston never had. I always just treat people as people.”
‘The fox in Anthony Neilson’s Unreachable had his own dressing room’
Some companies need more looking after than others, and Carter sings the praises of directors who foster a sense of community among their cast and crew. Recently, that was true of Debbie Tucker Green, directing her play Ear for Eye last year: “Debbie did such a good job before the company got into the theatre, making them feel like a family, that there wasn’t much for me to do. People like Debbie and James Macdonald [who directed Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone] are very nurturing. They’re always going to cast brilliant people.”
The workload changes depending on the size of the cast and the length of the run, whether in terms of pastoral care or finding enough dressing rooms. Then there are the trickier customers. In recent years, the Royal Court’s relish for productions with real animals has meant Carter has had to think carefully about where to put them.
“They need to be somewhere they’re not going to be heard before they go on stage, that they’re not going to set anybody’s allergies off. The fox in Anthony Neilson’s Unreachable had his own dressing room. The goose and the rabbit in The Ferryman had their own special area below the stage.”
Carter watches each show four times: first full run in rehearsal, dress rehearsal, first preview and press night. And there are plenty of shows, Carter says, that she would gladly watch four more times. She cites Escaped Alone as an example: “That was special.”
In her day-to-day work, the requests can sometimes be a bit repetitive – “Can I have some physio? Can I have another rehearsal session? Can we have some animals?” – but the Royal Court has been good about letting Carter take time off. “When I was interviewed, I said I would get itchy feet, I’d want to do other things, sometimes leave the building, and they’ve always been really supportive of that.” Last year that meant taking Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles on tour to New Zealand as a stage manager.
Carter thinks it’s still important to stage-manage every so often, “so I don’t forget what it’s like”. That’s partly so that she can better relate to the stage managers she employs, and understand their needs and concerns. But it’s also because she is the cover if a stage manager is sick or can’t make a show.
“I don’t want to leave it 10 or 15 years without having stage-managed a show or show-called anything, and then someone gets ill and I’ve got to cover. It’s about keeping my hand in and still remembering how it works.”
The skills she has acquired as a stage manager, and now as a company manager, can be used in so many different ways, she says. It could be doing a music gig, or TV, or fashion. That’s why Carter’s experiences have been so varied, from dealing with the logistics of goat-herding for 2017’s Royal Court show Goats, to drawing black dots on a man in a thong for a performance art piece at Tate Modern. For Carter, it’s all in a day’s work.
Born: London, 1974
• Three Dark Tales, Pit, Barbican, London (2001)
• Generations, Young Vic, London (2007)
• Stockholm, UK tour (2007)
• Cock, Royal Court, London (2009)
• Vernon God Little, Young Vic, London (2011)
• Dr Dee, Palace Theatre, Manchester (2011)
• Ear for Eye, Royal Court (2018)