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Stage manager Katie Jackson: ‘Most lessons are learned on the job – not at drama school’

The work of stage managers is often unseen by the public. Photo: Vladimir Gramagin/Shutterstock Photo: Vladimir Gramagin/Shutterstock
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I recently watched a drama school production put on by the acting and technical students due to graduate this academic year. It was a bold production of a difficult play. The performances were strong and the technical aspects were carried out to a high standard.

However, after the show, I was talking to some of the students involved. The way they spoke about the experience reminded me, and the industry friends I went with, of our training.

These young students, so close to graduation and yet so far from being ready for the industry, regaled us with anecdotes of the process. Their eyes lit up as they told us the highs and lows of working together as students, with industry creatives, to make what we had just watched. The hours in the rehearsal room, in the scenery workshops, running their first production week.

This was, of course, only the beginning of their graduating year, they still have two terms of training before they are thrust into the real world. But still, I felt they had much left to learn, as I did in their position.

I will be forever grateful for my time at drama school. I learned a lot about my industry, about the real world and myself. I made dear friends, who I get the rare treat of working with when our paths occasionally cross. But, looking back on my career to date, I have learned more doing my job than any drama school or university could ever teach.

I have learned what happens when an actor haemorrhages their vocal cords on press night. I have called show stops for fear of a cast member’s life. I have dealt with rowdy audiences and cast members screaming at each other backstage during a performance. I have arranged rehearsal rooms for more read-throughs and model box showings than I can remember and stressed over bigger deadlines than I ever dreamed I would have to face.

I was talking to one of the technical students who had a run in with the external director they had brought in to work on the show. In a moment of extreme pressure, the director had said some unkind words to her, which she had taken to heart.

Of course, I remember being in the same position when I was 19 years old and wishing that the ground would swallow me up so I would never have to look my tutors or fellow students in the eye again.

Unfortunately, due to the high-stress nature of the job, I have had directors, producers and creatives snap at me countless times. Usually this is apologised for later over a well-earned bottle of Merlot.

It is a difficult lesson to learn but a necessary one. The only way to develop the thick skin you need to survive in the world of stage management is to work in it.

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