Monday, December 12, 2011

Stage Manager addenda

In an effort to publish my latest blog post quickly I forgot the most important parallel between stage managers and pilots.

When something beyond your control goes wrong, and it will, you need to come up with a solution. This may be required within a few minutes, or it may need to be resolved within seconds. Regardless of the time frame, you live or die (again, literally in the pilot's case but metaphorically in the stage manager's case) by the decision you make. A top pilot and a top stage manager will take such deviations from the expected in his or her stride. Again, perfection is the expected result, so getting it right will not bring praise, but making an incorrect decision will bring at the very least severe complaints, and will be on the record forever.

I would be remiss if I didn't illustrate by example. At our latest production the curtain mechanism failed. That meant that instead of being raised and lowered, it needed to be opened and closed from side to side. From my stage manager's point of view this changed the timing of the curtain movements because (for example) at the start of one act there was only one character on stage and she was way off to one side. With a vertically raised curtain it could start its movement three seconds before she started to move and she would still be seen. However with a side moving curtain I needed to guess (because we obviously hadn't rehearsed it) how many seconds to call the curtain call before she started to move.

I still need to review the DVD, but provisionally I am happy with the decisions I made. Whether others agree with my assessment remains to be seen.

[I also had an extreme example as a pilot. I was flying an unfamiliar aircraft type and messed up a landing on a fairly short country town runway. Once that happened I retracted the flaps and put on full power. I looked at my air speed indicator to see that I was flying below stall speed, meaning that it was only ground effect keeping me afloat. I was nearing the end of the runway with trees lurking beyond. I put my hand on the electric flap deployment switch and spent a few seconds trying to recall my physics and aerodynamics training to decide whether it would be better to lower the flaps or keep them retracted. Having made my decision I pushed down on the switch to lower the flaps, and still with full power I gradually gained altitude and cleared the trees. I belatedly achieved the required result and avoided the alternative, which would have been total blame for an accident.]

Perfection means nobody notices. Anything less means you have not achieved the required result.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

On being a Stage Manager

My wife runs a ballet school. Each year the school has end of year performances at one of the major theatre venues in Canberra. I am the Stage Manager for these productions. I very much enjoy the role, but I have been unable until recently to explain exactly why. I now realise it's part of my psyche.

Although the connection will not be immediately obvious, I need to explain that when I was 19 (and an ANU graduate) I was a trainee commercial pilot. I also need to explain that I left the pilot training academy to pursue a career in IT, but I later obtained my Private Pilot's Licence.

I have only just in the past week realised the connection between enjoying being a Pilot and enjoying being a Stage Manager.

Here are the dot points:

  • Both roles involve most of the time doing nothing other than keeping a monitoring eye on what is going on. This requires quite a lot of attention because it is easy to let the mind drift and lose focus on the important tasks. This is the "boring" bit, although it is vital in its own right.

  • Apart from the "boring" bits, both roles need (in very short bursts of time) a lot of precise and complex actions to be undertaken quickly and accurately.

  • If everything goes smoothly nobody comments, because perfection is the assumed level of performance. Pilots and Stage Managers never expect thanks. Basically not being noticed and the lack of complaints are the highest compliments there are.

  • If anything goes wrong, no matter how minor, there will be many complaints and the Pilot or Stage Manager is automatically assumed to be responsible.

  • To disprove the previous point, the Pilot or Stage Manager needs to build an unassailable defence.
(Of course a Stage Manager making a mistake will almost never lead to people dying, unlike a Pilot.)

Yet at the end of the day, the satisfaction when I responded to the final Air Traffic Control communication as I left the active runway with my callsign, and the satisfaction I now feel when my final call of "House curtain 'go'" is enacted in a timely manner, are very similar. It's over, and I've done the best I can do to assist with the big picture.

Moreover, I hope no-one has noticed my involvement at all, because that means I have done the perfect job.

Anonymity may seem like a dubious goal, but it means I have performed perfectly. Nobody will give me a Christmas present for my involvement, but as long as they don't complain or curse me then I'm happy.