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Katie Jackson: For stage managers, a show-stopper is our worst nightmare

Stage-Manager-generic-backstage Photo: Melodist/Shutterstock
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There comes a time in every stage manager’s career when the one thing we work to avoid becomes necessary. We check lights, sound, AV, automation – anything and everything that could negatively affect the performance. And yet, while we try not to think about it ever becoming a reality, when it does, all eyes turn to us. The show stops.

It’s a terrifying moment, and certainly not one to be taken lightly, when the familiar voice of your stage manager says down comms: “We’re going to have to stop the show.”

This is the acid test for a good stage management team. We must, together, provide the shelter from the storm. We are the only people who can never afford to panic. No matter what personal inner terror you experience in those moments, it is your responsibility to the cast and audience to hold tightly on to your self control, especially when it’s an emergency show-stop.

There is a procedure to be followed. In theatre, there is always a procedure to be followed. The deputy stage manager communicates a stopping point to sound and lighting and then informs front of house over the radio that we will be pausing the performance.

Meanwhile, the stage manager and assistant stage manager are informing cast members in the wings and preparing for the moment. Then, it happens: everything grinds to a halt. The thing that was supposed to move the action on doesn’t happen (a phone rings, an actor enters, etc). And instead, the lights change to a neutral state and the house lights go to half. What follows is what makes me fear show-stops more than anything.

Ask any stage manager what they hate most about this procedure and they will often, sometimes sheepishly, admit that making the announcement to the audience is the hardest part. There’s a reason why we have chosen to work backstage. Having 850 pairs of eyes looking at you expectantly and uncertainly does not appeal to us.

We must stay straight-faced and steady-voiced; the audience must believe that we have the situation under control. They must not be given room to panic en masse. The stage management team works quickly, efficiently and safely to rectify the problem. They stay in constant communication with each other and front of house; how much time will it take to fix the problem? Do we need to bring the house lights to full and allow the audience a bonus interval or, worse yet, do we need to abandon the performance entirely? Once everything is safe and ready, where will the performance be picked up?

The deputy stage manager will need to get the lighting and sound operators to go from that point and prepare front of house to continue. The stage manager will need to find the actor whose line kicks it all off and tell them, and all others in the scene, what the plan is. Only then can we continue the show and collectively go back to pretending these things never happen.

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