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National Theatre production manager Tariq Rifaat: ‘It’s about not just what you know, but who you are’

Tariq Rifaat on the set of Translations. Photo: Catherine Ashmore Tariq Rifaat on the set of Translations. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
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The National Theatre’s production manager Tariq Rifaat has been getting his hands dirty, literally, while working on the set for Brian Friel’s Translations. He discusses peat, among other things, with Tim Bano

Tariq Rifaat sticks his hand into a large bin and pulls out a handful of crumbling soil. “This was wet when we received it from the Young Vic.” For the past few weeks he has been overseeing the construction of a flat, sloping structure, a couple of metres high and 15 metres wide, plastered across its entirety with mud. It’s the set for Brian Friel’s Translations, set in a 19th-century Donegal village (hence the mud) and about to be revived at London’s National Theatre.

Rifaat is one of three full-time production managers at the NT, responsible for realising the visions of the creative team. Once the director and the designers have decided what they want the show to look like, Rifaat turns theory into reality.

On a grand scale, that means overseeing the set building, ensuring it’s done safely, on time and to budget. It also means sourcing every element, no matter how small, from doorknobs to entire buildings or, in this case for Rae Smith’s design, several tonnes of sanitised peat.

Read our interview with Rae Smith

Standing in the paint frame, a huge workshop where the set is constructed for each production, he points to little clusters of turf. “Some of those are real peat, and some we made ourselves.” With no idea where to find cheap peat, Rifaat started asking around. He found another theatre had managed to find some in Germany, but the costs were looking too high to ship it over. He asked his deputy to look into sourcing it more locally and “eventually we got it off eBay”.

After getting involved with theatre at school and “quite quickly working out I didn’t want to be an actor”, Rifaat began his career as a stage manager, studying at Guildford School of Acting. “When I was at college,” Rifaat notes, “there was no training for production managers.”

This also meant there was no established route for becoming a production manager. “We’ve had production managers in our team who were actors, someone started out on stage door.” What’s important, he insists, is attitude. “You rely on the relationships you build, particularly as a freelancer. ‘Who you know’ is not quite right, but it’s a lot about personality – calm, firm, communicative. Not just what you know, but who you are.”

After a couple of years at Leatherhead’s Thorndike Theatre, Peter Hall’s company pinched Rifaat and he stage-managed productions including Hall’s Hamlet with Stephen Dillane in 1994. A big break came when he was asked to stage-manage the international tour of Riverdance. Then he worked at the Royal Court, freelancing at Shakespeare’s Globe at the same time. “After flipping between the Court and the Globe I got to the point where I didn’t want to be a stage manager anymore and I was going to give up theatre. A production manager job came up at the Court so I applied for it, even though I didn’t really have any experience as a production manager. But I knew the theatre really well and got it.”

Katherine Parkinson, Paul Jesson and Ben Whishaw in Cock at the Royal Court (2009). Photo: Tristram Kenton
Katherine Parkinson, Paul Jesson and Ben Whishaw in Cock at the Royal Court (2009). Photo: Tristram Kenton

That was in 2008, and three years ago Rifaat joined the team at the NT managing productions such as Angels in America and Young Chekhov. Work for Angels started in August 2016 – almost a year before it opened. “It was massive. My deputy and I worked on it what felt like 24/7.” Even before rehearsals started, Rifaat had built the Act I set, made of three revolves, for a week of workshopping with director Marianne Elliott. “It was great that we built it because we had lots of problems. So we rebuilt it and brought it back in for eight weeks of rehearsals.”

Then, still several months before Angels was due to open, he started preparing the Lyttelton auditorium. The show that preceded it, Ugly Lies the Bone, was built on a palette so that it could be driven off the stage and Rifaat and his team would come in on Sundays to paint the floor and install trapdoors. “Our workshops were flat out, we must have engaged at least five other contractors externally and that was just one half of one element of one show.”

Ugly Lies the Bone review at National Theatre, London – ‘spectacular visuals’

Young Chekhov was another colossus, a trilogy of plays and “supposedly a transfer from Chichester. But we effectively had to rebuild it. It was mammoth and every orifice in this building was shoved full of the set. We worked long, long hours”.

The set even featured a huge lake. “Water is always fun because it always finds a way to leak,” Rifaat smiles. “It did leak into the drum under the Olivier stage a couple of times, there were buckets everywhere.”

Translations is simple by comparison. A couple of painters are putting finishing touches to the bog. Soon the whole structure, as well as the barn being built next door, the several staircases in the carpentry workshop, and the metal grilles and staircases from the metal workshop, will all be unbuilt and moved into the Olivier.

Walking through the various departments behind the scenes Rifaat greets everyone by name, speaking softly and calmly and with a smile. These backstage offices are where everything is broken down into its tiniest parts. In the draughtsperson’s office a grey cylinder fills Janet Williamson’s screen.

“Janet is working on the handrail for one of the staircases,” Rifaat explains. She zooms out and the grey cylinder gets smaller as first the individual stairs, then the staircase, then the play’s entire set start to occupy the screen in incredibly detailed 3D miniatures. These designs will get sent down to the workshops, where the builders will work out how to craft them.

Q&A: Tariq Rifaat

What was your first non-theatre job?
Working in a bakery and for a marquee company.

What was your first professional theatre job?
Stage manager at Thorndike Theatre, Leatherhead.

What’s your next job?
Exit the King, adapted by Patrick Marber, at London’s National Theatre.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Don’t be afraid to ask people for advice. They’re all there to help and most people are nice. It’s hard work and long hours, but it’s a really great industry to work in.

If you hadn’t been a stage manager, what would you have been?
I like architecture, so maybe an architect.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I’ve adopted some from working in theatre, but only because they’re convention. It’s all silly really.

Meanwhile, Rifaat will regularly check in with the project draughtsperson, the heads of workshop, head of wigs, head of costume, head of rigging, head of automation, head of props – and just about everyone else who works backstage.

Being a production manager, Rifaat says, is often about compromise. The initial design put together by the draughtspeople for a lamppost went back and forth between Rifaat, Smith, lighting designer Neil Austin and the draughtspeople. Eventually it ended up 10mm thinner.

But that’s part of the job: “You’ve got to be able to listen to people and not dismiss ideas out of hand. It’s about having an openness and a certain calmness in the face of problems. You have to be able to talk to people and communicate. Communication is key.”

Tariq Rifaat on the set of Translations. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
Tariq Rifaat creating the set for Translations. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

Where he can, he aims to reuse bits of old productions. The cloth on to which the Ballybeg bog is being painted came from a previous show, cut up and recovered with paint and bits of rubber crumb to give it the texture of mud. When a production reaches its last performance Rifaat, who oversees the get out, has to think what should be kept and what is trashed, whether it’s having a second life afterwards or going into storage. “It happens all the time that just as you’ve got rid of something a show comes up and you think ‘we should have kept that’.”

And when something isn’t available from a previous production, the prop store doesn’t have it or it falls between the stalls of various departments, Rifaat sorts it himself. Which is why he seems quite proud to point out his galvanised steel farm trough bought from a farming supply company.

It’s got to be about teamwork. You can’t hold everything yourself

“You can kind of be a jack of all trades, but only in a very subtle manner. You rely on your teams to inform you. Some of us are trained as carpenters or electricians, so they’ll have a better knowledge of certain elements. It’s got to be about teamwork. You can’t hold everything yourself.”

What’s extraordinary about Rifaat’s job is the ever-shifting scale on which he works, from big picture one minute to minuscule detail the next, ordering tonnes of sanitised peat from eBay one day and negotiating over millimetres another.

The hundreds of people at their desks, clambering over huge timber frames, welding lengths of metal, hoisting barbed wire frames into the sky and sticking clods of mud to canvas are all incredibly skilled, and highly specialised, but ultimately disparate. Rifaat is their glue, binding those teams together, just as he brings the physical elements of this show to fruition.

CV: Tariq Rifaat

Born: London, 1971
Training: Higher national diploma in stage management, Guildford School of Acting
Landmark productions:
• Hamlet, Gielgud Theatre, London (1994)

• Riverdance, international tour (2000)
• Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Globe (2002)
• Cock by Mike Bartlett, Royal Court, London (2009)
• Young Chekhov, National Theatre (2016)
• Angels in America, National Theatre (2017)

Translations is at the National Theatre from May 22 to August 11

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