Hello there, how the devil are you? I’m ever so pleased you’ve dropped by to see how things are going here at Branching Out, let me make you a cuppa and we can crack on. First things first though, I should introduce myself: Hello, my name is Laura and I’m an aspiring stage manager in the festival industry. I’m also a very happily divorced mother to two daughters, who I embarrass on a regular basis, and an obnoxious optimist. I hope you enjoy scrolling around the inner workings of my brain, as we both try to make some sense of the hive of activity that is my head. Whilst I created this blog as an academic requirement for my BA (Hons) in Technical Theatre & Production, I’m already feeling optimistic about the possible uses of it long after I graduate next year. I openly admit to being easily distracted, especially by shiny things, but blogging has given me the perfect tool for redirection of those thoughts and ideas which might otherwise be forgotten. As a stage manager, communication and organisation are of course vital for efficient working, and my mobile phone is never far from my reach. I can now log in, blog my thoughts as they appear and relax that I’m not going to miss that all important, life changing inspirational moment that decides to come to me while I’m waiting for the number 66 bus to arrive or for the bagging area to recognise the last item scanned.
So, now we’ve been introduced, let me explain myself in a little more detail. As I explained earlier, I’m very new to this blogging lark, but I’m excited about the possibilities and it’s always nice to have an outlet. Please feel comfortable to comment on any parts you feel need improvement, or if it’s just to give a virtual thumbs up, I promise I won’t be offended and I’m always grateful for positive input. With that said, make yourself comfortable, have another custard cream, and let me take you back, way back in time, to when I was a moody teenager…..
When I was 15, my eldest sister, Maria, was working backstage at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre in York, as volunteer backstage crew. I think she fell into it because my mother worked with people who were involved with the amateur productions there, I’m not honestly sure. After accompanying my mother to pick Maria up from the theatre one night, I had my first experience of the inner workings of a real theatre, and I was fascinated. The vast complexity of the fly tower, the maze of cables everywhere and the general sense of something magical hanging in the air had me hooked. After many months of nagging my sister, who was naturally opposed to her annoying kid sister muscling in on her hobby, and finally turning 16, for insurance purposes, I was able to take my place as a member of the backstage crew at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre. I still have my name badge in a box under my bed, along with all the programmes of shows I worked on. The credit of Stage Manager in the programme for the production of ‘Out of sight, Out of murder’ one year going to Laura Beech has become one of my most treasured items. In modern terms, I was more of a DSM really, but don’t tell anyone I told you. Whilst a part of the crew at Rowntree’s Theatre, I was never left to deal with anything particularly technical, as it was clearly beyond my knowledge at the time. Dave, the theatre and resident Stage Manager would rig, focus, and programme all of the lights, whilst the sound engineering was usually split between Dave and any number of budding sound engineers called Phil. However, I learned how to operate the manual counter-weighted fly system and I loved it, especially when the weights in the cradle weren’t quite enough and you took off from the ground a little. The adrenaline rush that begins with the standby and peaks as the piece is flown into/out of position to transport the audience to a new time or place was a feeling I quickly grew to love. Myself and Julie ‘Banana Head’ Harrison, became the dream team of follow spotters, spending countless hours sweating in the roof space, waffling nonsense over coms and singing along with every musical. Despite having a gap of over 20 years between those happy days and the present, nothing has changed; I still love the atmosphere backstage during productions, I still sing along to every number, and it still sounds awful. But it keeps the performers entertained and relaxed, so it’s all good.
My time spent working at the theatre, be it flying, follow spotting, set building, getting out, front of house, or just hanging around with nothing much to do, were the happiest of my youth and I was naturally keen to continue on the path I had found myself on. A levels were proving to be unsuitable for me and I transferred to a course in Harrogate-a BTEC National Diploma in Performing Arts. My lasting memories of the 6 months I spent there will forever make me shudder: move around the room as an orange, we were instructed. Err, no, that’s silly. I was the only person on the course with no interest in performance, but production based courses simply didn’t exist in those days. With hindsight, I now realise I should have stuck it out in order to progress onto the next level of education, which would have been more production based, but I was young and impatient, so I left the course and went to London to work as a CSV-Community Service Volunteer, instead.
Fast forward 20 years and I found myself hurtling towards 40 with a failed marriage, two kids, and no idea what to do with myself. I was only in London for 7 months, due to the way the CSV programme worked, and I returned home to York when my placement was over and began working for an employment agency. It was at this low point that I met the man who was to eventually become my ex husband. The rollercoaster that followed took us from Yorkshire to Devon and back again, several times, via the Midlands on a few occasions. For the next 8 years I worked extensively as an industrial temp in various manufacturing industries, making anything from automotive components to washing up bowls, picking, packing and producing all manner of things in a series of mindless and soul destroying positions. I knew there had to be more to life than this, but times were far from easy or straightforward and the bills still needed to be paid. We were living in Exeter in 2000, still working fairly mindless jobs, but I felt settled. I’d always loved Devon and Exeter felt like home to me, on a deeper level. I finally felt that the time was right to start a family, and my oldest daughter, Emma, joined us less than a year later. Abigail was much more reluctant to join us, but in 2008 she did just that. My family was complete, but my marriage was in pieces.
Back in Yorkshire after the recession hit and my life was in free-fall. The husband had been made redundant after the company he was working for went under, and he slid into an alcohol fuelled depression. I had returned to working in the care sector, at a small residential home for the elderly I had previously worked in when Emma was a baby. I enjoyed my job, but I knew I wanted more. I’d been wanting to return to education for many years but it was never a viable option, given my situation at the time. However, that situation was changing and I started to make enquiries. I attended an open day at the nearest college to me and found myself stumbling into the costume department at Scarborough College’s Westwood campus. Looking at the beautiful costumes that had been created by students took my breath away. I had no experience of dress making or designing but was assured by the tutors that it wouldn’t be an issue and that I could still produce something wonderful. I went home, signed up and looked forward to an exciting new journey into historical costume for stage and screen.
My lack of experience and knowledge was very much an issue, and I fell further and further behind until the pressure of the workload, combined with the struggles I was now facing as a single parent, were too much for me to handle alone and I left the course. I now have a partially constructed Victorian mourning dress, complete with underpinnings and hat, awaiting completion, when I find someone with the skill to assist me. My confidence was at an all time low but I wasn’t ready to give up just yet.
I went back to the internet to search for more suitable avenues of learning, and found myself at an open event here in sunny Hull. I was shown around the facilities and spoke at length to the tutor about my previous love of backstage work and my desire to make a life for myself and my children that I could be proud of. I still remember the first time I walked into the theatre space here: I felt instantly at home. I knew then that I had taken the first step towards the life I should have started living 20 years ago and I went straight back home to Scarborough and completed the UCAS application.
Life begins at 40 it’s claimed, and as I enrolled onto the BA (Hons) Technical Theatre & Production course in the week I turned 40, I was full of excitement and plans for the future. Music has always been my greatest love in life and with no definitive direction for my studies, I entered the course wanting to focus on sound engineering. I loved the idea of being an integral part of the musical enjoyment of others in a live setting and threw everything I could into the course. It was at this point that my technical abilities, or lack thereof, became clear. I understood the mechanics of sound with surprising ease, but the practical application let me down. Surrounded by the rest of my year group, none of whom were even born when I last worked in theatre, I felt like an old dog, and the new tricks I was expected to turn seemed beyond me. I didn’t let this fact upset me too badly though, as by this time, second semester in the 1st year, I was tasked with being the stage manager for the end of year production of Little Shop of Horrors.
The sound the penny made as it dropped was almost deafening. As I busied myself with props lists, risk assessments, endless lists and settling the nerves of the performers and director alike, I realised I had found my raison d’etre. Everything suddenly felt very natural and I knew then, I was a stage manager.
I’m now at the start of my final year and still believe my destiny lies in stage management, although I plan to move into festivals after graduation. I’m slowly starting to build up my professional contacts database and am looking forward to further opportunities in the coming year, as Hull takes centre stage as the UK City of Culture 2017. I’m a member of the crew responsible for setting up and taking down of a mobile training centre used for City of Culture volunteers and am firmly on the list of freelancers available for other projects throughout the year. The opportunity to shadow the PM on the production of Place des Anges, by the French company Gratte ciel, came up through the college’s association with Hull City Council and the City of Culture people, on a truly magical and awe inspiring project which will make me smile for many years to come. Despite the weather, and there was a lot of it, I loved experiencing production management of a live event and the confirmation once again that I was finally on the right road in life.