Meet company manager Ruth Morgan – the beating heart of Birmingham Rep
Birmingham Rep’s company manager is a vital link between the production department, creatives and performers, while also managing the venue’s community shows. She tells Nick Smurthwaite why inclusivity is her passion
No one is indispensable, the old adage runs, especially in business. But Birmingham Rep’s long-serving company manager Ruth Morgan comes as close as possible to disproving the rule. Her boss, artistic director Roxana Silbert, says the venue “simply wouldn’t function without her”.
Silbert continues: “Ruth is the nexus that connects the production department with the creative vision and the welfare of all the actors. Anyone can call her night or day for questions or support. She is a woman who gets things done with an unending supply of good humour and home-baked cakes.”
In her two decades at the Rep, it seems Morgan has become its beating heart, the person everyone turns to for advice, information, comfort and nourishment.
“You have to know everything that’s going on,” she says when asked what her role entails. “To do what I do, you need to be a control freak in the best possible sense.”
Though her job title is ‘company manager’, Morgan’s role at the Rep is, in fact, a lot more fluid. She says: “To some extent they’ve allowed me to create my own job description, which might include production management, training and, in the case of The Snowman, which we put on every Christmas, associate producer. It’s never boring and I’ve never felt stuck in a rut.”
Morgan grew up in rural Staffordshire, perhaps not the usual launchpad for an aspiring backstage star. An academic misfit, she had the good fortune to be guided by her English teacher to a mixed professional and amateur open-air production of Henry V at nearby Stafford Castle one summer.
“They were looking for volunteers, so aged 17 I got involved in helping out with wardrobe,” she explains. “Straight away I loved the atmosphere and the people. I just felt completely at home. I’d never really fitted in at school, so it was a revelation. A historical re-enactment group, the Marcher Lords, were part of the production, and they were living in caravans in the grounds of the castle. I looked at them and thought: ‘That would suit me.’ I knew I never wanted to do a nine-to-five routine.”
In 1993, Morgan did a year-long diploma in performing arts at Newark College before applying to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama to be one of the first entrants on its stage management degree course. “I got in but unfortunately I couldn’t afford the fees so they agreed to defer my place for a year while I went off to earn enough money to see me through the course. I became a matron at a boarding school for a year.”
By the end of her first year at Guildhall, Morgan had decided she wanted to become a stage manager, and by the third year in 1996 she had a work placement as a sound technician at Birmingham Rep. She says: “I saw myself as a career deputy stage manager, but the then production manager John Pitt advised me to get some experience elsewhere first.”
She went to the Mill at Sonning as a deputy stage manager and returned to the Rep as an assistant stage manager in 1997.
After the turn of the century, Morgan took time off to do a two-year teaching course to broaden her skills. While still working at the Rep, she went on to teach B-tech in stage management at Birmingham Academy of Performing Arts, and then professional studies in the stage management degree course at Birmingham School of Acting. She still assists with graduate interviews at Bristol Old Vic when time allows. Through her teaching, Morgan came across students that she subsequently took on as trainees at the Rep.
“One of the things I was keen to help my students with was prepping for interviews – how to sell yourself, how to build up confidence, how to write a good CV,” she says.
“So many students interview badly and don’t know how to present a good CV. I know what it’s like because I was never any good at interviews. Unlike actors, who have the benefit of agents to guide them, stage management entrants are very much on their own when they go for jobs. Interviews can be hugely intimidating.”
At present Morgan is overseeing the Rep’s community show, Leo Butler’s new version of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck, which is directed by Silbert and features nearly 100 participants of varying experience.
Morgan has been involved in all the Rep’s community shows, except one, since 1998. It meant she was perfect to oversee the organisation and planning of a nationwide community project in 2016, We’re Here Because We’re Here, involving 1,400 participants, commemorating the Battle of the Somme. It was a piece devised by Turner Prize-winner Jeremy Deller and done in collaboration with the National Theatre.
Q&A: Ruth Morgan
What was your first non-theatre job?
Chamber maid in a hotel in Rugeley.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Costume assistant on panto at Newark Theatre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To take more risks.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My tutor at Newark College, Carolyn Drury.
What’s your best advice for rehearsals?
Be yourself and don’t try too hard.
If you hadn’t been a company manager, what would you have been?
Personal assistant – organising people again.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Putting wine in the fridge for after the show.
Running a community show is very different from a more conventional production; for a start the cast is a lot bigger, such in Woyzeck. “It’s my job to make sure they all feel part of the show and not an afterthought,” Morgan says. “It comes down to communication and being in touch with them all.”
She started a Facebook group with photo and video updates in case any of the participants missed a rehearsal and needed to catch up.
“We started rehearsing in January, and until recently rehearsals had to be at weekends and on Friday evenings because of people’s work commitments. It’s a real mix – doctors, teachers, construction workers, retirees and people with disabilities. Some are theatregoers, others have never been to the theatre. Their commitment to the project is amazing.”
I’m the person they come to if they have a problem
Some pick things up quicker than others, she says. “I’m the person they come to if they have a problem. You mustn’t make assumptions about what they know and what they don’t know, and I try never to sound patronising. I think back to what I was like when I went to join the professional-amateur company at Stafford Castle all those years ago, and how little I knew about the process.”
Silbert is full of admiration for Morgan’s ability to walk the line between amateur and professional. She says: “Woyzeck is a demanding project and Ruth makes it possible for them all to be included and to make our theatre the inclusive place we aspire it to be.”
Some community volunteers come back year after year. “We have our loyal regulars,” says Morgan. “For them it’s not just about putting on a show, it’s also about the social side, and getting out of the house. One lady said to me: ‘I made up my mind at the beginning of the year to say ‘Yes’ to things more often, and this was one of the first things I said ‘Yes’ to.’”
Working a 13-hour day is not unusual for Morgan, which can be tough on her family. “Luckily my husband Andy also works in the business [as a freelance wig maker and make-up artist], and our son Ben, who attends the Young Rep, knows that we both love what we do. Obviously, it’s an ongoing juggling act but when neither of us is working we can have quality time with Ben and each other. I’m not good at relaxing. Unless I’m actually away from the theatre I do tend to fret about the job.”
She adds: “They say you can become cynical and jaded if you stay in the same workplace for a long time but I’m sure that won’t happen to me because the job changes all the time and there are always new actors and creatives coming in to the Rep. I’d hate to be deskbound all day so I make sure I’m flitting around the building taking care of everyone.”
CV: Ruth Morgan
Born: 1974, Staffordshire
Training: Newark College; Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Career: Deputy stage manager, the Mill at Sonning; DSM, Birmingham Rep (1997-2005); company manager, Birmingham Rep (2005-present); teaching stage management at Birmingham Academy of Performing Arts and Birmingham School of Acting.
Woyzeck runs at Birmingham Rep until June 23