Backstage: What does a stage door keeper do?
Nobody sets out to be a stage door keeper, yet it is one of those theatre jobs that attracts a dogged and enduring commitment from those who do it and great affection from those they serve.
Nearly all the people I spoke to for this article have been in their jobs longer than 20 years and each one attests to the love of what they do, despite the unsocial hours and, in many cases, the dingy and cupboard-like working environments.
“If you want to know what’s going on, ask the stage doorkeeper,” one top theatre PR told me, and there is no doubt they are often privy to a backstage world of gossip, indiscretion, insecurity and back-stabbing.
They are also called upon, as one of them put it, to fulfil the role of “angst sponge” at times.
By the same token, many spoke of the family atmosphere, especially in the regional theatres, which often seem to inspire extraordinary loyalty from their backstage and front-of-house staff.
So here are five of the best, in their own words…
Ned Seago, Old Vic
“There have been four or five artistic directors since then but it hasn’t really impinged on my job, which is to let people in and out.
“It is a dead-end job unless you happen to love it, which I do. The actors share their doubts and fears, some more than others. On occasion, you have to act as an angst sponge for their woes and worries.
“I treat everybody the same whether it’s the cleaner or a top Hollywood star. Only a few think the sun shines you know where.
“How many people can say they’ve had Kevin Spacey, Minnie Driver and Jack Lemmon sitting outside their office, waiting for a cab?
“The only thing I don’t like is being kept out of the information loop, not being told what I’m supposed to know. I once learnt from a London cabbie that the place was up for sale.
“I’ve been the theatre’s tour guide for many years, taking the public on prearranged tours of this incredible old building. I’ve done about 250 tours. I was an actor for 20-odd years so I suppose it appeals to that side of my character.
“I don’t intend to retire. I shall probably drop off the perch at work.”
Rita Stott, Bradford Alhambra
“I came to the Alhambra as a dresser for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat 20 years ago, after the travel company I was working for went bust. I’d always had a passion for the theatre since I was little. Then they asked if they could train me up for stage door.
“I enjoyed it from the start because you never get two days alike.
“Stage door is the point of contact for most people working in the theatre, the hub of its activity, so I think of myself as a kind of receptionist. Even after the show starts, and you’d think it’d be quiet, I’m busy taking bookings for the Alhambra restaurant.
“I just love talking to people and meeting different folk. It doesn’t help to be star struck. You need someone who will take it all in their stride. You do hear a lot of things at stage door, but nothing ever passes my lips. You need to be discreet and professional in this job.
“I’m renowned for my Ken Dodd buffet. Ken does a show at St George’s Hall next door every season, just before Christmas. It’s always a long night for the techies because Ken does tend to over-run, so every year, I set up a basic buffet of pates, cheeses, breads and mince pies in the scene dock of St George’s Hall. All the techies come over from the Alhambra too. There have been occasions when Ken is doing his show when I haven’t left the theatre before two o’clock in the morning.
“I’m in touch with other depart- ments throughout the day, we all help each other and we all get along. A lot of the front-of-house staff have been here even longer than me. I’d like to carry on doing the job until I’m 100.”
Linda Tolhurst, National Theatre
“I started at the National in 1975, just before they moved from the Old Vic to the South Bank. I was appointed stage door supervisor in 1984 and it’s a well known fact that I run the National Theatre.
“I’m the proverbial swan – calm and collected on the surface, knees knocking under the desk. The most nerve-wracking experience was welcoming the Queen to the newly-refurbished stage door reception. I didn’t even have a chair. I stood behind my desk, shaking. I’ve no idea what I said or what she said.
“The stage door is quite accessible to the public and you do get unauthorised people trying to sneak in. You have to have your wits about you. I’m not fierce but I can do a good stern look. We’re there to protect the actors. We’re their mothers and fathers while they are in the building.
“Albert Finney was the first famous person I ever met. He’d buy everyone drinks at the bar. He said to me, ‘Don’t call me Albert, call me Albie.’ They’re no different from you and me, except they’ve got the guts to get up on stage in front of 1,000 people.
“We had a staff panto once and I played Dick Whittington’s Cat. I needed six straight vodkas and they still had to push me on stage.”
Tommy Flaherty, Royal Exchange, Manchester
“I’d never set foot inside the Royal Exchange before I came to work here. Now I never miss a show. I’m a total convert to live theatre. I always thought theatre was for posh people, but that’s rubbish. The stuff we do with young people’s theatre is incredible and really worthwhile.
“I’ve been doing the job 11 years, having joined the staff after I was made redundant from Manchester Airport. It’s a lovely place to work. We all have a good laugh and there is a good social side. I was really star struck when I first started. I couldn’t believe it when Antonio Fargas from Starsky and Hutch walked through the stage door.
“You’ve got to be good with people to do this job. I love meeting all the new cast members and reuniting with people who have worked here in the past.
“You also have to be prepared to deal with all types. We had a guy who came in a few weeks ago, demanding to see the general manager because he said he’d written a play and he wanted to know when we were going to produce it. He said to me, “I want my play on now.”
“I’m 65 this year but I can’t see myself retiring until they ask me to go. I’m Manchester-born and bred and it gives me great pride to be part of one of the city’s great cultural centres.”
Joan Neil, King’s Theatre, Glasgow
“I’ve worked at the King’s for 40 years, half of that time as an usherette and half at the stage door. I still work as an usherette in the evening, so that I get to see the shows. I used to prefer the cinema but I’m a convert to the theatre.
“I spend half my life here. I think I must be a workaholic.
“If I’d been doing the job when I was young, I probably would have been star struck, but not now.
“I worry sometimes that I won’t recognise someone I’m supposed to know. We had Paul O’Grady booked to do a show and I was afraid I wouldn’t know who he was because I’d only ever seen him as Lily Savage. But the minute I saw him, I knew who he was.
“You need to get on with people to do this job. Actors and musicians who work here like to know what’s going on in the city, so one of my jobs is to provide information about what’s happening in Glasgow at any given time.
“I was given a special community award in September for my work at the King’s. They told me I had to go up and collect this award on behalf of the King’s, and I had no idea it was just for me. I never expected to receive an award for a job I love so much.”
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