Being a West End Assistant Stage Manager - Industry Insights
By Sam Wightman
What exactly does it take to be a top ASM in London's West End? We caught up with Simon Batho to learn about the tricks of the trade and how to keep everything running smoothly. Simon is currently working on The Philanthropist, Christopher Hampton's classic hit comedy playing at Trafalgar Studios, starring Matt Berry, Simon Bird, Lily Cole, Charlotte Ritchie and Tom Rosenthal.
ATG's Industry Insights is a new series that aims to offer a glimpse into the important behind-the-scenes roles that help bring the biggest shows to life. We venture backstage with the latest plays and musicals in Theatreland to meet the production and technical team members that make the magic happen.
Simon on the set of The Philanthropist at Trafalgar Studios.
Can you tell us a bit about what you do as Assistant Stage Manager on The Philanthropist?
My main role is the responsibility for all the props and furniture required for each performance and making sure that they are all set in their correct place. It's my responsibility to make sure everything is maintained and running well.
Prior to the show commencing, I make sure the cast are standing by ready for the performance. I'm there to assist throughout the show by handing the company props and assisting by cueing them on stage along with the general smooth running of the show.
How does the stage management team work together on a West End show like this?
On The Philanthropist, we have a Company Stage Manager, who is involved from early on in the production process, usually the first production meeting pre-rehearsals. As an ASM, I'll come in from the first day of rehearsals. We also have our Deputy Stage Manager, who would compile the book for the show and normally sit either stage-left or stage-right at a prompt desk. The desk has certain controls, for example cue lights, which triggers a green and red (stand by and go) light that tell a cast member when to go on stage or open a door. On this production, due to the venue and set design the DSM is actually in one of the boxes in the auditorium.
He is our eyes. If anything goes wrong, he is the one who communicates any issues to stage management on the stage. We communicate any issues via headset, commonly referred to as cans.
Lily Cole in The Philanthropist
Do you find yourself having to fix things mid-show?
Typically, anything could break at a moment's notice. Luckily I haven't had anything major happen, but when you do you have to deal with it live. You have to think on your feet, communicate efficiently and move fast. If you need to, go onstage and fix it. In extreme cases it may become necessary to stop the show, but this is something we all hope never has to happen.
Being set in the 1970's, what are the other props you have to look after for The Philanthropist?
In terms of props, it's very domestic. On the set, we have large bookcases and they're all full with genuine books. There's some excellent classics in there. When we first came into the theatre and saw the set for the first time, Simon Callow certainly had his eye on a few and gave me a couple of recommendations to read.
We've also got a lot of consumable food items on the show, such as chocolates and cornflakes, along with lots of drinks... I make the whisky and brandy out of something called 'Sarson's Gravy Brownings'. It's a trick of the trade and just tastes of water, but looks very authentic.
A selection of alcohol bottles prepared by Simon for the show
Speaking of the cast, you're working with a lot of famous names night after night. How have you found that?
Before starting rehearsals for the The Philanthropist, I was aware of who they all were and had seen them on the TV many times. But at the end of the day, they're just people and that's how I work with them. I treat them with all the respect they deserve and I build my own professional relationships with them.
There are times when you can have a laugh with the cast, although we are their management and can't always be their pals. We must do our jobs as much as they do theirs. They see that we work hard and we are the first ones to arrive and the last people to leave, and we see the pressure of having to stand in front of hundreds of people and perform. Of course, the show could not happen with out each other.
Simon Bird, Lowenna Melrose, Matt Berry, Lily Cole, Tom Rosenthal and Charlotte Ritchie in The Philanthropist
How does the experience of working on this show compare to everything you've done before?
One of my recent jobs was Big the Musical which was a large scale production with many moving scenic elements, which, of course, came with its own challenges. The Philanthropist is a self contained set which doesn't move, however it doesn't mean that it's any easier. Every show, no matter of size, has its own merit in quality. On this production, I've worked a lot harder than I have on some other jobs because of the detail - through the small things I have to prepare every day.
What attracted to you to becoming a stage manager?
For me, working within live theatre, there's not a lot of things in the world that compare to it. Being someone who thrives in a stressful and fast paced environment, it's perfect! I don't ever have a day where I don't want to come to work, and that does depend on your team and the show. With most gigs I've done so far though, I've really, really enjoyed it and I continue to enjoy doing it.
The props table for The Philanthropist backstage
Would you say the people you work with make a production for you?
Absolutely - when I've been on a long run or on tour, which can get very claustrophobic and tiring, it is certainly the people who pull you through. We have a duty of care to the company, that when we're on a production, we try to ensure that everyone is getting along, are happy and supported by stage management.
What would say to anybody who is thinking about getting into stage management?
I would say go for it. I am someone who has learnt on the job, I didnt train in stage management. When starting out I think you do need a good knowledge of what is expected of you and once in the role always go that extra mile. You will always be thanked for going above and beyond.
I do support training and I would encourage anyone thinking about doing stage management to go to drama school. I also really encourage someone that might be fresh out of drama school to look into doing touring and fringe work to broaden your knowledge on the whole picture of a production.
And finally, what's the best show you've ever seen?
It's got to be Harry Potter. It's one of the best productions I've seen in a long time!
Simon in position at the stage-left entrance into the set
Simon's 5 tips for being a successful Assistant Stage Manager:
1. Have a sense of humour
2. Be organised
3. Be diplomatic
4. Stay calm under pressure
5. Arrive early!
The Philanthropist runs at Trafalgar Studios until 22nd July 2017.