With a background in engineering, Marty Moore worked his way up via a training placement at the National Theatre and freelance work to become production manager at London’s Royal Court. He tells Nick Clark that he relishes the challenge of helping to make the seemingly impossible happen on stage
What makes a good production manager? According to Marty Moore, who holds the position at London’s Royal Court Theatre, it’s “keeping your head”. It could be 3am, in the pouring rain, with 12 crew members asking what to do now the truck is full but with half the scenery still on stage. A large piece of the set could break 40 minutes before curtain up in the West End. Or there could just be an unusual request from a designer like: ‘How about two petrol-driven tanks on stage?’
“Usually people are coming to you for solutions,” Moore says. “So, if you panic, everyone else will too.”
The most recent production he worked on was the one with the tanks: Rory Mullarkey’s absurdist comedy-drama Pity. As an idyllic town square becomes a dystopian battleground, the set needed serious pyrotechnics, a rain machine and the stage to split. “In terms of safety, and the diverse things the show needed, that was the most complicated one to figure out properly,” he says. “But I like the challenge of it.”
As a production manager you’re kind of in the middle of the spider’s web
“As a production manager you’re kind of in the middle of the spider’s web,” Moore says. “You’re having to take in information from the creative team, the directors, the designers, the lighting designer but also your head of stage, head of costume, the producers, front of house and marketing. We’re in the middle joining up all those roles with a raw view of the show.”
To put it another way: “If stage managers look after all the warm things like the actors, we look after all the cold things like the set and lighting.” At the Royal Court, he splits the task of production-managing shows with the head of production Marius Ronning. It normally means they take seven each across the two stages: the main auditorium – the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs – and the smaller Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.
The production manager comes in after the play is chosen and the director and designer have come up with a vision. “The set can be the most expensive bit of a production, so it’s good to give a guideline early on,” he says.
After the design and budgeting phases – “It always comes in on budget every time,” he grins – there’s the fit-up, which Moore calls the “fun bit when you start putting stuff in the theatre”. That’s the first key moment when the show starts taking physical shape. The second is the day of technical rehearsal, he says, when all aspects of the production from different departments come together. Finally, he adds, comes the first preview in front of an audience: “I really enjoy that, but I’m sure if you’re the writer or director it’s terrifying.” Moore’s work on a production ends on press night.
As well as keeping calm, a good production manager needs to be personable and “know a little about everything” but not in detail, Moore explains: “Be a jack of all trades. I don’t know the specifics of video design, but I know who to ask and how much it costs.”
Moore did not come from a theatre background – he first walked into a theatre aged 22. At Trinity College Dublin, he studied engineering and became involved in the drama society there, building sets. “It was a bit of a hobby and I liked the people. It was always a bit of a laugh.”
After graduating, he quickly realised that working as a fund manager at Citibank was not for him. Many of his friends from the drama society were, by then, working in theatre professionally. He says: “I thought I should pack finance in and hang out with those guys.”
Working as a stage technician introduced him to the role of the production manager. “I liked the look of that job,” Moore says. “They seemed to be in charge.” He landed a place on Irish theatre company Rough Magic’s Seeds mentorship programme, working with its production manager. During that time he met the Royal Court’s deputy artistic director Jeremy Herrin. “I asked him for a job. He said: ‘No.’ ”
Instead, he landed a placement at the National Theatre and was offered a job after six months, moving to London in 2011. “The National made me realise what a production management job is,” he says. “My standard just went up and up. And that was also because of the designers and directors you work with: Nick Hytner, Bunny Christie, Marianne Elliott, Rae Smith and Vicki Mortimer.”
At the NT, Moore was paired with Tariq Hussain, now a production manager at the Royal Opera House. “He taught me the real nuts and bolts of production management. He said you had to know every single inch of every piece of scenery you’re bringing in. In a fit-up, he would stand downstage centre and not move for 12 hours and watch it come together. People would come to him.”
It was there that he learned a production manager can’t get bogged down just looking after a set, but that the job always needs to accommodate the lighting designer and the sound designer as well as establishing where the quick changes will go. “You can’t just build the scenery and fill the whole room if you have 100 costumes in the wing and 10 cast running on and off,” he says. “Where do the video racks go, for example? You need a broader view – you can’t get drawn in.”
Moore was in a strong production team at the NT, led by Mark Dakin – now at the Royal Opera House – with Hussain, Jim Leaver, who is still there, Sacha Milroy – now at Mark Rubinstein Ltd – Diane Willmott, now a freelance, and Mark Davies, now at Stage One Creative Services.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Packing painkillers in a pharmaceutical company in Sussex when I was 16.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I did a set turnaround for €60 at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin – for the Seed Project before joined.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Lynn Parker, now artistic director of Rough Magic, and Cian O’Brien, now artistic director at Project Arts Centre, influenced my career the most as they gave me the opportunity to come over.
What’s your best advice for prospective production managers?
Get out there and do it. Keep doing shows, keep making mistakes as it’s the only way you learn. Except for the health and safety ones.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I like to walk around the empty stage and check everything and look at stuff during the previews.
Production managers don’t tend to work with other production managers. “You don’t see how others work, they don’t tend to have assistants,” Moore says, but he keeps in touch with some of those he worked with at the National. “We’ve got a geeky production managers WhatsApp group. It started as a drinking thing but has turned into a work advice thing.”
Moore left the National in 2014 to go freelance, including work with the English Touring Opera for a year, but by the time the Royal Court job came up he was keen to go back in-house – he joined last March. It is different from the NT, as, being a smaller theatre, “you can effect change quicker” and the relationships are a lot closer, Moore says.
Among the shows he loved working on at the Court was his first, Nuclear War by Simon Stephens, and Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide. “That was incredible,” he says. “It was a really complicated Katie Mitchell show.”
Another was Girls and Boys, written by Dennis Kelly and starring Carey Mulligan. “Working with director Lyndsey Turner and designer Es Devlin was brilliant. An Es Devlin show is quite a thing,” Moore says. It was the other end of the scale from Pity, with subtle set design and the use of video by Luke Halls. “There was a lot of money spent on 15 seconds of video,” Moore says. “It was used 12 times and it was a really effective tool.”
Asked for a memorable moment as production manager, Moore points to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. As assistant production manager at the National, he worked on the show at the Cottesloe and then the transfer to the West End. “It was brilliant, but the scale and engineering at the Apollo was something else. There was a much bigger build, more lighting design and a huge amount of video design.”
The show produced the biggest drama behind the scenes for Moore. The Apollo set had a raked, six-tonne wall on a tow motor, which, during one scene, was trucked downstage as star Luke Treadaway walked down the steps coming out of it.
After four or five previews had gone without a hitch, Moore and associate director Katy Rudd were left in charge. And during the pre-show checks, the wall broke. “Not only did it break,” Moore says, “it broke halfway down the stage at 6.55pm. I started phoning people up.”
In the end, Moore had to unclip the system, going through the floor, then the sub floor, and, with a large group of colleagues, push the wall upstage and strap it off. “That was pretty hairy. But we got through it – you always get through it,” he says. “A mate of mine saw that show and said he didn’t notice anything. It was dicey, though.”
Born: 1983, Derry/Londonderry
Training: Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, Trinity College Dublin; Rough Magic’s Seeds programme
• Collaborators, National Theatre (2011)
• Juno and the Paycock, National Theatre (2011)
• The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, National Theatre (2012); Apollo Theatre (2013)
• Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, Abbey Theatre, Dublin/Headlong (2016)
• Light Princess, National Theatre (2014)
• Nuclear War, Royal Court (2017)
• Girls and Boys, Royal Court (2018)