With a stage management career spanning more than two decades, Diane Norburn knows what it takes to be at the heart of theatre production. She tells Anna James about her most recent work on Come from Away, how it’s message is more relevant then ever in the Covid-19 crisis and what makes a good stage manager
Diane Norburn had just carried out the preset for Come from Away at the West End’s Phoenix Theatre when Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised the public against going to pubs, clubs and theatres. The experienced stage manager was with the whole company and technical team as John Brant, one of the shows producers, told them that the Society of London Theatre had decided to close all of its venues under government advice.
“It was such a heartfelt speech and we were all emotional. The theatre motto is ‘the show must go on’ and everyone had continued to turn up to work and showed their commitment to the show, it was alien to think we had to stop.”
After the announcement, those still on stage sung Welcome to the Rock, the show’s opening number. “It was an incredibly special moment of solidarity,” Norburn says.
Come from Away is about the best of human nature in times of crisis. “It is already a special show but the message of kindness to others and caring for each other in the face of adversity is more relevant now than ever,” the stage manager says.
“There are so many people who will be isolated, won’t be able to get out and get provisions, and we all need to be more like those from Gander [where the musical is set],” she says, before adding: “At the end of this, to quote Claude the mayor, we will ‘honour what was lost, but we will commemorate what we found’.”
The smash-hit show on Broadway had also been proving a hit in the UK and was six weeks into its first major cast change. A week or so before the shutdown the new company members were “screeched in”.
‘You have information at your fingertips now, but I’m old-school, I still love getting out and about and having one-to-one contact’
The very real ceremony that initiates “come from aways” as honorary Newfoundlanders involves a shot of screech (a Newfoundland 40% rum), a call and response, and kissing a cod. When it takes place on stage as part of the show, the cod is plastic, but for the cast and crew it was real.
“It’s not the nicest thing I’ve ever done,” says Norburn, who was stage manager for the show from its UK debut at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and by the time of the closure was the only original technical person left. Already “screeched in”, she only observed the latest ceremony, as did Brian Mosher and Bonnie Harris, two of the real-life people who inspired the story of Come from Away.
The 100-minute straight-through musical that transferred from Broadway last year is inspired by the real story of what happened when 38 planes were diverted from New York to Gander airport, Newfoundland, following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and how the tiny community banded together to look after the “plane people”. It has captured hearts and minds on both sides of the Atlantic and took home four Olivier Awards in 2019 – including best new musical.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked in a shoe shop when I was 15, and I’ve temped a bit occasionally, but that’s been rare, luckily.
What was your first theatre job?
I worked front of house on Starlight Express to earn money when I was going through college. I did a lot of fringe as soon as I left college. As a stage manager, you did get paid nominally, compared to the cast, but it was like £50 a week. I don’t know how I managed it, how I survived.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To be open to learning anything new. In my career I’ve done a bit of costume, a bit of lighting, a bit of automation, and I’ve learned new things as I’ve gone along, which has made me a better stage manager. Also, when you’re an ASM you get the chance to look and see what other people do, see what works and what doesn’t. So yes, take everything on board, and always be watching. To this day, I still learn; I’m always learning.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
I was incredibly lucky to have two amazing drama teachers, Midge Adams and Jamie Crawford, who were a big influence on my life. They gave me confidence to believe that I could pursue my love of theatre and make my career in it. And Val Fraser is a TV floor manager who started her career as a theatre stage manager. I worked with her on the BBC Proms, and she is ultra-organised and so efficient, she runs an
event like clockwork.
For Norburn, who has worked on several iconic West End musicals, it was the job – and the challenge – of a lifetime. “This show is completely different to any other musical I’ve worked on,” she explains. “The cast [members] are on stage the whole time – if they come off, it’s very quickly – a minute, a couple of minutes. It’s been a big learning curve for us all.”
The intensity of the show – no interval, barely any beats even for applause after songs – added a level of drama to the simplest things: a loo break, a painkiller, a costume tweak.
“It sounds silly, but you have to be able to work out when you’ve got someone off,” Norburn says. “We have an entrance and exit plot that is literally scene by scene, timed even more minutely than it usually would be. When I first started, I had to note down when I had time to turn my cans off and have a drink of water, it’s that full on.”
Norburn’s official title was stage manager on the book, but she also covered the deputy stage manager role. The intensity of the book – which has more than 500 cues – also meant that teaching it to her three assistant stage managers required a strategy of its own where it was broken down into 20-minute chunks, but teaching is something Norburn relishes. In 2018, her guide to stage management was published by Crowood Press (“I’m really proud of it, but I don’t talk about it very often. I don’t think the producers even know I’ve written a book.”) She taught stage management at RADA on and off between 2007 and 2009 and was the senior stage management tutor at LAMDA for nine years, only leaving to take the job on Come from Away.
“It’s great to work with new ASMs who are so excited and enthusiastic,” she says. “It keeps you fresh and reminds you why you love the job so much. But there is a real difference in the generations – and a lot of that has to do with technology. You have information at your fingertips now, but I’m old-school, I still love getting out and about and having one-to-one contact with people and using pencils and paper to write our prompts. I’m sure someone will invent a clever way to make a book with technology, but I think I’ll always favour the old-fashioned methods.”
‘Come from Away’s message of kindness to others in the face of adversity is more relevant now than ever’
To Norburn, part of the old-fashioned mindset is embracing the caring element of her job: “I think that some new stage managers do find it odd that we do so much for everyone – but stage management is there to look after everyone and help them achieve their best. We are absolutely skilled and creative in our [own] right, and integral to the smooth running of the show, but making a cup of tea, or listening to someone – it’s all in a day’s work.”
Norburn’s approach to stage management was shaped by the diploma she studied at Mountview Theatre School between 1989 and 1991, and her tutor John Birger: “I loved learning my craft from him, and he was the reason I decided to move into stage management rather than going into costume.”
She had acted at school but, realising it wasn’t for her, she moved behind the scenes. After training, Norburn went straight into fringe work and then to the Old Red Lion: “I was almost resident stage manager there, without having the title. They kept employing me, show after show, and I loved it there – the people, the whole vibe of the theatre – that’s where I fell in love with it.”
When asked what makes a good stage manager, Norburn says: “Be adaptable, listen really carefully, be patient, and be calm. If a show stops, it’s you that has to think about what to do.”
She has put these skills to the test across the board, from calling the last show of Cats, which was also broadcast live in Covent Garden, to helping plan an emergency exit for the Queen for her televised Golden Jubilee celebrations: “I was really brand new to TV and they said to wear smart blacks, so I went out and bought a black suit. But, of course, nobody else was quite as smart, and so when the royal family came on stage, I got all these head nods because I was in a suit and everyone thought I was really important. I’ll never forget that.”
From evacuating Brian May from the roof of Buckingham Palace, to a near miss involving a flaming flambee prop, Norburn takes it all in her stride, even stepping on stage for Blood Brothers herself after one of the actors hurt her ankle. “When the show was finished, I was told that Dustin Hoffman had been in the audience,” she says.
The stage manager loves musicals and has become known for her work on them. She knew about Come from Away before taking the role but hadn’t seen it. And as well as being a technically demanding production, its subject matter means it’s an emotionally intense one as well. “I was still crying during rehearsals,” Norburn remembers. “We were all in tears after the first run. I’d sit there hoping no one was going to call for a line because I was blubbing.”
Norburn adds: “It’s a privilege to tell this story, an absolute privilege. To say it’s the show of my career feels a bit much, but I think it probably is.”
Born: 1971, Kent
Training: Mountview Theatre School
• Blood Brothers (2001)
• Cats (2001-02)
• Come from Away (2019-20)
• BBC Proms (2005-17)
Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, performances of Come from Away at London’s Phoenix Theatre have been suspended until further notice. Visit: thephoenixtheatre.co.uk