Meet Tara Thompson, Technician, Stage Manager, and fixer of everything with superglue and LX tape!
As we celebrate International Stage Management Day, we talk to Tara about her training, day-to-day duties, and the most important lessons she has learned along the way. Oh, and her obsession with Wicked!
Written by Kelly Scotney.
You studied Stage Management at University, where was that and what did the course involve?
I studied Stage Management at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and recently graduated with a DipHE. Birmingham is a great city to study theatre as it has so many different venues of varying sizes and types. Over the two years I was there (not three unfortunately due to the pandemic), I put on productions in seven different venues across the city, working in a variety of roles.
The course was well structured and taught me a lot of different disciplines. During the first year, you act as an Assistant Stage Manager who helps with the running of the shows, making sure people have the right props, furniture is set in the right place, and assisting with scene and quick changes. As well as this you act as a Technical Operator on both sound and lighting, working with professional designers. There is also a unit that teaches you about set, scale drawing and working to a tight budget.
In the second year, you move on to Deputy Stage Manager (DSM). This is the role that I undertake the most as I find it the most satisfying. The DSM is with the show from beginning to end. They sit through the rehearsal process noting the blocking (movements) of all the actors, as well as any choreography. During the show, they call all of the lighting, sound, flys, stage management and pyro cues to make sure they all happen at the same time. As well as this, in the second year, you can choose either props, costume or set allocation. I’ll let you into a secret, there isn’t anything a bit of super glue and LX tape can’t fix!
The third year (that I missed) would have seen me become Stage Manager for a full-scale show, as well as undertake a project where the year group works together as a production company, and carry out a placement in industry.
I loved my time in Birmingham, but you don’t have to go to university to be a Stage Manager. I know lots of people who started as a Tech Swing (somebody who can cover ASM, lighting, stage, or sound), who worked their way up through the ranks.
What lesson learned at University has proved most useful moving into your career?
The most useful set of lessons I learnt was how to read music and how to call to music as a DSM; prior to this I had absolutely zero knowledge. We were taught by a DSM who had toured with The Lion King and Jersey Boys which was helpful as she knew little tips and tricks to make it easier. I still can’t tell you the difference between a G and a C, but I can follow music really well now, especially after working on Beauty and The Beast: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Panto and Imaginary which both had some challenging time signatures. I’m still trying to get my head around 5 / 4 and 6 / 4!
What does a typical day in the life of a Stage Manager entail?
The phrase most associated with working backstage is ‘first in/last out’, and let me tell you, that couldn’t be truer! A typical day also changes depending on what period of the show you are in, so a tech weekday is a lot longer and more stressful than a day when the show is up and running!
As an example, during tech week, I usually arrive at the theatre at 8:30am to get myself and the space ready for when the cast arrive at 9am. The cast will then get their mics and costumes on before starting the technical rehearsal at 9:30am. During the tech rehearsal, the Stage Manager runs around trying to make sure props and microphones are in the right place, as well as doing the cues which might include quick changes or set changes. The DSM sits with the director and lighting team to get all the cues in the book. More often than we care to admit, the Technical and Stage Management team will probably work through most of their breaks, stopping only for a sip of coffee and a bite of whatever sandwich is left at Tesco! The day ends at 10pm when the cast and creatives go home, leaving Technical and Stage Management to ensure the venue is ready to start again the next day at 9:30am.
Life advice for a Stage Manager during tech week, set at least five alarms. Trust me, you will sleep through at least three of them! Also, prepare for the worst. If I’m stage managing, I will usually be wearing a tool belt or bum bag full of safety pins, super glue, tape, plasters, sweets, you name it!
You have acted as Stage Manager for The Good Old Days and as Deputy Stage Manager for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Panto at The Varieties, what is the most challenging aspect of managing a production at the world-famous music hall? And what is the most rewarding?
City Varieties is one of the most beautiful venues I know; she has so much character. So even just working in the venue is rewarding. Also being able to say I work on The Good Old Days is amazing – it’s such a prestigious show with such incredible history.
One of the challenges is, because the venue is so small, it’s hard to get large pieces of set into the building. If you ever see a group of people outside The Varieties hoisting a glittery tree into the building through some tiny doors high in the wall, we are probably loading in the Panto set!
You recently stage managed our Youth Theatre’s production of Imaginary, how important do you think it is for young people to have experience of appearing in or working on full-scale productions?
I think it is so important for young people to be involved in the arts in general, be it a smaller showcase or a full-scale show. Your younger years can be so hard as you change and become who you want to be, and I feel like, without the arts, drama, and dance etc, you wouldn’t have anywhere to experiment or express who you are without judgment from your peers.
Being involved in any production gives everyone, especially young people, a massive sense of achievement and accomplishment which really aids their development, self-confidence, and self-awareness.
If you could stage manage any production, big or small, what would it be, and why?
Wicked. No doubt in my mind. It was the first musical I ever saw and from then on the goal has always been to work on Wicked – it was the show that made me fall in love with theatre. I was lucky enough to be a Follow-Spot Operator for the 2018 tour whilst it was in Leeds, but I would love to have the chance to be more involved, specifically within the Stage Management team.
If you weren’t doing this, what other career would you choose and why?
This is quite tough as there are two jobs that I would love to do. During the pandemic, as there was no work in theatre, I trained as a Care Assistant in a home for people living with Dementia. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a hard, challenging, and emotional job, but I absolutely loved it. Having a room full of people living with Dementia singing along with me to Que Sera Sera was a highlight of my time there and I would go back to care in a heartbeat.
I would also love to set up a programme for children of prisoners. It would be like any other dance or drama class that you go to on a Saturday but so much more. There isn’t a lot of support for children of prisoners so I would aim to create a space where they could explore different careers within the arts, be it dance, drama, screenwriting, design etc. It would culminate in a show or exhibition for parents to attend, and works or recordings of works could be sent to their parent in prison. That’s the dream.
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