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Rob Halliday: Stage managers channel chaos into order and creative freedom

Detail from the cover of Stage Managing Chaos
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Proof, if it were needed, that the world would be a calmer place if stage managers were appointed as presidents and prime ministers comes in the form of the brilliantly titled Stage Managing Chaos by Jackie Harvey.

Organising apparent chaos is, of course, part of the job of stage management. It involves letting the free-flowing process of creating a show happen, while invisibly providing a structure and organisation to support that process – and getting information to everyone that will ultimately help deliver the production on stage. It turns out, though, that there are degrees of chaos.

Stage Managing Chaos is about the production of a play, The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria, staged by the National Theatre at the Old Vic in 1971. It had a cast of just two, but quite a two: Jim Dale and Anthony Hopkins. And it was directed by Victor Garcia, an Argentinian director who was regarded as one of the enfants terribles of avant-garde theatre, brought to the National by the company’s literary manager, Kenneth Tynan.

Harvey, one of the National’s two staff stage managers, fought against the regular rota to work on the show. She quickly found herself in the middle of a spectacular level of chaos as Garcia failed to show up, presented nothing in the way of a design direction other than clearing away everything from the Old Vic stage (including, in his view, ideally, the proscenium), and rejected every rehearsal space offered.

Sensing trouble ahead, Laurence Olivier asked Harvey to keep a diary of the rehearsal process. After the opening, Tynan decreed it be kept hidden until the dust had settled. Nearly half a century later, Harvey has decided it has. We should be grateful her words have survived all that time, because they make entertaining, fascinating reading on many levels.

Part of the enjoyment is watching the chaos unfold from the safe distance of time. Productions running out of control are always fascinating to behold and in this case stage management discipline ultimately brought enough order for the show to open. But in an age when we all sort of know the established routine for getting shows on, it’s a useful reminder that there are other ways to make shows – and of what adding a little madness and total freedom to the mix can bring.

One story running through the book is of young lighting designer David Hersey, who was invited by Garcia to rediscover light on stage. He spent a month in the rehearsal room with a crew of electricians exploring any new light source he could find. Hersey’s summary of his experience on the show? “It taught me how to see.” His subsequent career gives testament to the power of being given the freedom to experiment. If only we were all given such a chance.

Could any of this happen now? Read the book: I think you’d ultimately hope it could. Though perhaps you’d also hope you weren’t the stage manager.

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