What it Takes to be a Cabaret Stage Manager (Stage Hand or Stage Kitten)

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Longtime friend of Burlexe, Cynthia Franklin gives her eight top tips on what it’s like (and what it takes) to be a stage manager for a cabaret, burlesque or drag show.

The job of a stage manager

There’s a difference between stagehand and stage manager, of course. But in burlesque, drag and cabaret, very often you’re hired as a stagehand and inevitably the role develops into stage management.

The difference is that as a stagehand you’re employed to support on the evening or night of the event, but stage management involves event management on the night, as well as pre and post event support too. This can involve rehearsal support, prop sourcing and management, costume care, liaising with the artists and venue, risk assessment and now managing staff and crew’s COVID PCR tests.

1. The pressure 

It’s a high pressure job. What I didn’t realise about it was that it also has a knock-on effect on me being able to manage my own anxiety outside too. In this job, I can visualise and work towards the end goal and that’s allowed me to understand the anxiety I experience on a daily basis. Still, stage management is exhausting work both mentally and physically, meaning if I can, I try to rest the next day after an intense event.

2. AS a stage manager, you wear many hats  

Nobody talks about the safeguarding aspect of the job. It’s a job where you’re looking after people, performers and producers alike. You’re making sure the costumes are there, cues are followed and sometimes you’re dealing with new performers who have different types of anxiety about their performance. They need a friend on hand to make them feel at ease. So you end up being a backstage mum: yes, you’re focusing on the timings but you’re also there for the people – from scissors and duct tape when they need them to a shoulder to cry on.

3. Expect the unexpected 

You can also be dealing with unique scenarios from involvement with the performance during an emergency, to dealing with difficult audience members, for example I feel like my job includes being a bit of a “buffer bouncer” creating a barrier between drunk audience members wanting to flirt and harrass burlesque performers, or drunk hen-dos being a bit grabby with the drag artists.

You may also be interested in what it takes how to run an online burlesque show.

4. The magic of a stage manager

I live for performers’ transformations. As a stage manager or stage hand, you see them in ‘muggle’ mode and how they transform into a performer for stage. It can be like dealing with two different people, depending on their relationship with their art and why and how they got into it.

5. Be aware of every eventuality 

I’ve learnt from experience as a stage manager that when someone is using champagne in their act, that a little pour is never just a little pour. And you need to be ready for that.

When someone brings a cake for someone to jump on, you should’ve made sure it wasn’t a HUGE cake, and if so make sure you have enough materials in your kit for the clean up.

But also, sometimes you also have to be able to step on stage to support any artist if things aren’t going right. I was working with a drag queen who was creating a piece using a mannequin, halfway through it collapsed, so I went on, helped pick it up and lip-synced along. People thought it was part of the act. In that moment, the drag queen looked at me in a way that said, “I appreciate you”.

6. Be bulletproof 

Not everyone is nice, of course. And it’s easy to blame the stage hand or stage manager if things go wrong, so you always have to be on your A-game, take notes on conversations and stay strong.

When you do tech and you see someone perform, that’s when you get an idea of what they’re going to really be like. 

7. A route to performance 

Do I want to be on stage myself? Sometimes you’re inevitably drawn into the performance aspect of a show and obviously, you regularly see what it takes, so … maybe one day.

If this is something you’re interested in finding out more about, check out The Stage’s list of industry courses.

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