Lee Gower-Drinkwater has built a 22-year career in stage management, with half that time spent at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. He speaks to Chris Bartlett about his special connection to the theatre
Lee Gower-Drinkwater doesn’t like the word ‘hierarchy’. This is because, for the Royal Exchange’s company manager, one of the things that makes the renowned Manchester producing house so successful is its collaborative spirit. “It’s about working together,” he says. “We’re all on the same bus and heading for the same stop. We’ve all got the same goals.”
Technically, the company manager sits within the programming team, reporting to the senior producer Ric Watts and employing the Exchange’s stage management team. But Gower-Drinkwater says his role is much more expansive. “I suppose I plug a few gaps and fill a few holes where there are bits missing. That flexibility is part of my job.”
I’m on call 24 hours a day – I’m the actors’ mother or father figure while they’re here
He also looks after all of the artists who come into the theatre, a responsibility he takes very seriously. “I look after the pastoral care of everybody that walks through the door, because there is no one person to do that.”
This means he always has to be contactable. “I tell actors I’m on call 24 hours a day. For some of them, it’s the first time they’ve been to Manchester or even left their home towns. So I’m like their mother or father figure while they’re here. Somebody they can turn to.”
During the 11 years he’s been company manager, he’s moulded the role around him: “It’s very different to how a commercial company manager works. It’s building-based, so you’re responding to the building’s needs.”
For example, because of the Exchange’s layout, with a backstage area outside the main, circular auditorium, it’s difficult for the stage manager to stay across technical rehearsals and what’s happening offstage. So, since 2008, Gower-Drinkwater – who, in a 22-year career has done “literally every backstage job” – also runs tech rehearsals for the larger shows, working alongside the creative team and directors. When we talk, they’re in the final week of preparations for the Exchange’s current production, Gypsy, and he’s been attending rehearsals.
“It’s a chance for me to really get to know the production so that next week, when we’re doing the tech, I’ll know it like the back of my hand,” he says. “I can be responsive to the director’s needs and react to what they’re looking for. You probably wouldn’t have a company manager in the West End doing that.”
Born in Salford, he got the theatre bug from being taken as a child to see shows around Greater Manchester by his mother. Early ambitions of being an airline pilot were soon dispelled by one particularly formative visit to Oldham Coliseum’s panto.
“I saw the front curtain rise by about a foot and this row of feet tap dancing,” he says. “It seemed like a thousand people on that stage, when it was probably only five. It was so electrifying. And from then on I wanted to know the workings and how they made that happen. Finding out how it all operated was what really excited me.”
After studying at Salford College [now Salford University], a stint working on the stage door of Manchester’s Opera House led to a role as a dresser on a Cameron Mackintosh tour of Oliver! and his first stage management job as an assistant stage manager for Oxford Stage Company [now Headlong]. Then, after a variety of freelance stage management roles and a brief sojourn in television, working as an art director for Mersey TV, in 2005 a role in the Actors Touring Company brought him to the Exchange for the first time.
A coffee with then company manager Katie Vine led to the offer of work as a stage manager on the studio’s production of Electra. After two more studio productions, he moved into stage-managing the main house, and gigs for other companies followed.
Then in 2008, while he was in Bath working on a touring version of Exchange show The Glass Menagerie, the position of company manager became available. It was an opportunity he jumped at: “I’ve never been so hungry for a role. I’d loved and adored working here. But it also meant being back home here in Manchester.” He was driving back to Bath after the interview when then artistic director Braham Murray rang to offer him the job, a call he describes as “absolutely amazing”.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Washing pots in the kitchen of a pub in Swinton, Manchester.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I worked on the stage door of the Opera House in Manchester.
What’s your next job?
We’re always working extremely far ahead. So after the Gypsy preparations are done, we’ll be going straight into rehearsals for Cutting It in the studio. After Christmas, it’s rehearsals for Wuthering Heights. And I’m already trying to staff next season, so the conveyor belt is always going.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Probably that you’ll never be able to switch your phone off…
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My mentor was Eddie Davison, who was stage manager on Les Mis and on the first UK tour of Saturday Night Fever. He sadly passed away a few years ago. Not having any formal training in stage management, I needed someone to look up to and see how they operated, so he was a massive inspiration.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
It always bugs me when people whistle in the theatre. It makes me very nervy when someone whistles as they’re walking in.
In the decade since, Gower-Drinkwater says the biggest changes he’s witnessed has been in what’s on the stage. The scale and variety of the shows the Exchange produces, and what its audiences expect, has altered markedly over the years.
The theatre traditionally put on a comedy or farce during the festive period rather than a traditional Christmas show – what Gower-Drinkwater calls its version of “Channel 4’s alternative Queen’s speech”. But in recent years this has given way to what has arguably become the venue’s stock in trade – revivals of beloved musicals given a unique Exchange spin.
“We have to put our stamp on it,” he agrees. “It’s a unique space. Our way of operating is to think outside the box and break boundaries, and our audiences have become hungry for that.”
A good example is 2014’s Little Shop of Horrors, featuring a fully operational Audrey II that be could moved anywhere in the theatre. This gargantuan, intergalactic menace now resides on display in the theatre’s foyer.
And as the shows – and audience expectations – have grown, so too have the challenges. Which is what the production team has been wrestling with on Gypsy. “You’ve got to put a large company on stage and go seamlessly from one scene to another. All while giving the audience an equal, 360-degree experience. Not just in visibility but where the performances are directed, so nobody feels short-changed.”
Audience immersion is the aim. “That space is very much a shared experience. It’s about all being part of that production and part of that world. It’s the same with any production we do. And it’s a real challenge to uphold that.”
The Exchange’s layout means that, production-wise, there is little room to hide. “That’s the most exciting thing about it. It’s how the theatre was constructed. We don’t try to hide the inner workings. We leave it extremely exposed. Everything is on show. And that exposure adds another element to that immersive experience.”
Gower-Drinkwater cites two productions, Rats’ Tales in 2012 and Victoria Wood musical That Day We Sang in 2013, as being the most challenging – and rewarding – to work on, as both involved marshalling 96 children (and their parents and carers). “The thing with me is that I thrive on the care and attention of the artists. That’s what really floats my boat, looking after people,” he says.
And he has the credentials. He is the theatre’s only mental health first aider, a position he sought out and trained for, and thinks should be rolled out across the industry. “It’s absolutely crucial that people have someone safe in the workplace that they can talk to. You need to be aware of people’s needs. It’s huge.”
And this capacity for caring extends beyond the theatre, with Gower-Drinkwater having also recently trained as a North West Ambulance Service first responder. It’s something he says has quite a few parallels with being a company manager.
“You have to be responsive and able to deal with anything. When you walk into the building every day you never know what you’re going to get. You have to think on your feet. You might be paddling like mad under the water, but on the surface you’ve got to stay calm.”
Born: Salford, 1978
Training: BTEC National Diploma in Media, Design and Communication Techniques, University of Salford
• Les Misérables, UK arena tour (1999)
• Haunted, Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, 59E59 Theaters in New York and Sydney Opera House (2009-11)
• Rats’ Tales, Royal Exchange Theatre (2012-13)
• Sweeney Todd, Royal Exchange Theatre (2013)
• That Day We Sang, Royal Exchange Theatre (2013-14)
Gypsy runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, from November 30 to January 25, 2020. Full details: royalexchange.co.uk