( JANE SUFFLING, STAGE MANAGER )
My name is Jane Suffling and I am a stage manager here at the Royal National Theatre.
I first became inspired by theatre at school, when my English teacher took me to a poetry reading. I loved it and started going back every week. I think the lady who ran the readings felt a bit sorry for me, so I ended up running the box office, and that meant I could get in for nothing.
At this pub theatre, where the poetry readings took place, they also did theatre. The stage manager had dropped out of a show and so the lady who had asked me to run the box office asked if I would help with the stage management. I didn’t know what stage management was, but I helped anyway; it involved stealing things from my mum and dad’s house, like my dad’s binoculars and my mum’s toaster.
"I first came to work, we didn’t have computers; we had typewriters. At the end of the show, I had to do a show report. The show report had five different sheets of paper – different colours, with a sheet of carbon paper in between. You had to type really hard to make sure that the typeface went through to the seventh copy! Now, of course, it’s all done via email. I can do the show report from home, if I like, after the show’s finished."
I stage-managed my first show by accident, really, at the Three Horseshoes pub in Hampstead. Later, I was accepted onto a stage management course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), then went to work at various theatre companies: Half Moon; Monstrous Regiment; 7:84. I did a lot of quite left-wing fringe theatre.
I ended up at the Half Moon in the East End. We were about to build a big theatre, then it was decided that people should try to work in [an established] theatre so they knew how it worked. I applied for a job at the National and never went back to the Half Moon! It doesn’t feel like it, but that was 33 years ago now. The thing my mum was most thrilled about was that I was now working in a theatre that had chairs with backs to them! She was used to seeing me working in theatres where there were benches that hurt her back, so she was thrilled that I got here.
What was the atmosphere and ambience of the National Theatre like 33 years ago? What were your impressions of it in those days?
I was pretty scared of the National Theatre. People used to call it “The Factory”; maybe they still do now. It always seemed a huge organisation and I thought that it was just amazing. In my sixth form, I came to see Jumpers, a Tom Stoppard play, with a group from school. Then in the summer holidays, I came back with a boyfriend. It was the first thing I’d ever been to the National Theatre by myself. I remember that very clearly, because I live in north London and it was the first time this boyfriend had driven into town. We crossed the Thames about five times in order to get to the National because we couldn’t work out where it was! We kept crossing Waterloo Bridge thinking, “How do we get there?” So it was a big, daunting place.
I remember my first day very clearly. I was terribly nervous about going into the canteen – a lot of famous people were around and I wasn’t used to that at all. I wasn’t used to a theatre where they had a tannoy! My first lunchtime going into the canteen was terrifying. I got my food, looked around at the tables and thought, “Oh, I don’t know anybody here!”
"There was a fantastic man called Harry Henderson, the housekeeper, who had also been housekeeper at the Old Vic. Now, housekeeping is a huge organisation with an army of people, but in those days it just seemed to be Harry; he polished every single thing. Even outside the building, where the floor meets the wall, was spotless!"
I’m a sociable, gregarious person and it seems like that [at the National Theatre]. As you walk around the corridors, you get little glimpses of fights, or songs being rehearsed, or speeches, and people in different accents… It’s just a buzzy, lovely place to work, you know?
Did your parents have a theatrical background?
No theatrical background whatsoever, no. My mum was a teacher; my dad was a bookie. Actually, an awful lot of people in the theatre turn out to have parents who are bookies – I’m not sure why! Albert Finney’s dad was a bookie; Frances Barber’s dad was, too… Loads of people [in the theatre] have bookies in their family!
What can you remember of other ‘characters’ and famous names? Did you ever bump into Laurence Olivier, for example, or John Mills?
Yes! I stage-managed Olivier’s 80th birthday party, when his daughter jumped out of the cake – she was very old by then, but not frail at all. There was a fantastic man called Harry Henderson, the housekeeper, who had also been housekeeper at the Old Vic. Now, housekeeping is a huge organisation with an army of people, but in those days it just seemed to be Harry; he polished every single thing. Even outside the building, where the floor meets the wall, was spotless! He was an absolute tyrant and a stickler for keeping everything clean. He also had a little gymnasium – wrestling stuff, weights and things. He taught Olivier how to train to put on weight and put on muscle for different parts. So he was – unofficially – ‘the gym’ at the National Theatre! Even when I first started, we used Harry to train people up for things.
How would you sum up the reputation of the South Bank area back then?
In those days, the National had a road that went right around it; now, you can’t drive along the riverside of it. You have to go into the car park and get around. But in those days, it was just like a little island. We were so cut off from everywhere, because there was no London Eye, there was no Tate Modern; nobody walked along the South Bank past us. And on a matinee day, between shows, you’d have to go over the river, as there was nothing else to do; we’d run over the river to get something to eat and run back for the show! It was really desolate outside.
When I first came to work here, it was considered quite a dangerous place at night. Where the skateboarders are now, that was “cardboard city” – in the evenings, [homeless] people would be arriving there, setting up for the night. You couldn’t work here without becoming aware of the homeless problem. Luckily, I’ve had quite a few occasions to get to know some of them and to work alongside them, doing shows with them.
What does the role of stage manager involve? How does the job now compare to when you first started?
I’m an old woman now, not much can faze me! Most [theatre] crises that can happen have happened to me. It is a slog, but it doesn’t seem like a slog. Every project is about six weeks rehearsal, building up to opening night. Once you get into the performance, you go into a different mode, working in the daytime. Generally, rehearsals will start at ten; I’ll be in the building from about 9am to set up the room as nicely as possible, to make it homely and cosy for [the actors]. But sometimes, a director won’t like it to be homely and cosy, they want it to be stark and cold. You get the vibe of what a director is looking for.
Although I work for the National, each time a new director arrives, I’m really working for them. It might be their first time directing a show here, and they might never direct a show here ever again. So it’s my job to make sure that precious cargo gets through for them, and that it’s happening in the way they want it; they’re running their rehearsal room their way. Every single show is different, so every single show is exciting, because it’s a whole new world.
My last show was set in the Philippines, so I became a real expert in Philippine history, the revolution, and Imelda Marcos.
What opportunities were there for stage managers when you first started?
I think being a woman helps, stage management-wise. It is a job that suits women well: women are very good at multitasking, doing one thing while eavesdropping on other things. Certainly when I first started, and I think it is still the same, there are more women than men. I was very lucky – I applied for it and got it. I came from a tiny theatre into this great big one.
You must have just seen some incredible changes with digital and technology being introduced?
Yes, there are changes all the time. I just have to do my hardest to keep up with them! When I first came to work, we didn’t have computers; we had typewriters. At the end of the show, I had to do a show report. The show report had five different sheets of paper – different colours, with a sheet of carbon paper in between. You had to type really hard to make sure that the typeface went through to the seventh copy, then we’d give those copies out around the building. Now, of course, it’s all done via email. I can do the show report from home, if I like, after the show’s finished.
What goes into the show report?
Oh, everything: curtain up, curtain down; anything that happened during the show that wasn’t supposed to happen; audience response; if anything breaks, so they know to fix it the next day; if a light or sound went wrong. It notifies the creative team as to what kind of shape the show is in.
Have you ever had anything that’s gone majorly wrong?
Millions of things go wrong! I was the stage manager for War Horse, which is a wonderful project from beginning to end. We workshopped that for three or four summers in a row before doing the show. Then, of course, in the running, there were things that went wrong. There was a night when the head of Joey [the puppet horse] came off! I had to stop the show. That’s the worst thing, when the stage manager has to stop the show, because they have to go on stage: the actors aren’t expecting you to come on, the lighting is on and everything is in ‘show mode’. Then you’re walking on to say, “Something’s gone wrong and we have to stop.”
Quite recently, we did a show called The Silver Tassie that had a lot of pyrotechnics in it. We had two nights when we had a fire. We’re not allowed to say fire in the building, because you’re not allowed to alarm the audience. So if you see a fire in the building, you use the code words “Mister Jet” – “Mister Jet is in the stage left corner” or “Mister Jet is in the dressing room block” – so that people don’t panic. On this particular show, a bombing sequence started, and the pyrotechnic went off. It was my job to watch that everything was going smoothly. I had a fireman next to me, just in case anything went wrong. At the end of the scene change, I got back to my position and the fireman said to me, “Oh, isn’t it realistic that the curtain caught fire.” I looked up to the grid and a curtain was on fire! A huge, great singing number was happening on stage, the fire was up and the audience was blissfully unaware…
A few years ago, I did a show with an actor who’s an expert in flying. He had to jump off the top of the fly tower in the Olivier Theatre and swing across the stage and over the audience. Every time before that jump, my heart would be racing. I think that’s what made my hair go grey – when I came to work here, I wasn’t!
Are you one of the longer-serving stage managers? Do people tend to stay?
They have done in the past, but they don’t want them to stay anymore. It’s the new system. In fact, they would like to be able to get new people. Nowadays, you have to go to college. But when I first started, a lot of people hadn’t been to college; they just got into it through a love of it or working in local theatres. In my day, when you started you did a lot of stuff for nothing or on a profit-share. Now, people don’t do that so much. When I tell my nephews that when I first worked I didn’t get paid, they’re astounded! I’m very proud of it.
As I said, when I first came to work here, people used to call it “The Factory”. But for me, it’s just full of dedicated people who really enjoy and love their work. Stage management is traditionally a freelance job: you do a job, then you apply for another job. I’m really lucky that I’ve been here for 33 years. But just as you think, “Oh, I should move on now,” the next project comes along and it starts getting your juices flowing, like, “Oh, sounds great, I can’t wait to do this.” And maybe the next show isn’t really your thing, but [you will be working] with top directors, top designers and the best actors around. So even if it’s not really your cup of tea as a show, you know it’s going to be good quality.