It is a well-known and widely accepted fact that performers are subject to nerves. I have worked with a couple of actors in the past whose stage fright was so severe they vomited before shows, especially if they knew they had agents, casting directors or family watching.
However, it is a less considered, but equally frequent, reality that stage managers get nervous before and during shows too. I find this most particularly when I am the deputy stage manager on shows.
When I was training, I got the opportunity at the end of my first year to deputy stage-manage for the first time. I was a week or two shy of my 19th birthday and was excited (terrified) to step up to the challenge. The rehearsal process led to the technical and dress rehearsals, which led, inevitably, to the opening night performance. I had endured horrible anxiety dreams the night before and was not feeling my sharpest.
‘Calling a show feels like chasing a boulder down a mountain’
The moment I was most terrified for was making the announcement to the audience that the house was open. I knew that once I opened the house the audience would take their seats, and once they took their seats the show would start, and once the show started I would have to keep going as best I could. Sometimes, calling a show feels like chasing after a boulder that is rolling full pelt down a mountain, and all you can do is desperately try to steer it away from inhabited areas.
Back to the opening night, and waiting to open the house. I had called the half and stepped away from the prompt desk to collect myself. A cast member walked past and noticed I had turned a peculiar shade of petrified.
The actors we were working with were not from the drama school. They were professionals who had been brought in for the project and were older and more experienced. When this actor saw my ashen face she laughed a little, saying: “Christ, I thought I was nervous”, then hugged me and told me I would be okay. She was right, but I don’t think my heart rate dropped below 160 until a quarter of an hour after the curtain call.
That show came and went, as have many others since then. Nevertheless, I still get nervous calling a new show. It takes about 20 performances for me to settle into a fresh prompt copy and feel like I am in control of the show I’m calling. In my mind, I’m constantly thinking ahead, flicking a few pages forward to make sure I know what’s coming next and that I am ready for it. That boulder rolls and I try to keep up.
A production manager I toured with gave me some of the best advice for comforting those show-calling nerves. He said to me: “Nothing starts until you, the DSM, say it does. Take a breath, give yourself those few seconds to feel comfortable, and then say: ‘Go’.”
Katie Jackson is a freelance stage manager. Read more of her columns at: thestage.co.uk/author/katie-jackson