Keeping You In Check!
by Ian Nathaniel
Any managerial position is a tough one; it’s no different in the arts scene but of course, we artists find ways to have fun with our jobs. A ‘Stage Manager’ is commonly referred to in the industry as ‘SM’; there’s also ‘Assistant Stage Manager’ (ASM), and ‘Deputy Stage Manager’ (DSM).
Bebe Chan started off working as stage crew in the year 2002. “That’s how old I am. Oops!” laughed Bebe. “I started stage-managing in the year 2003.” Now, in 2016, she has developed herself and freelances as a professional ‘Stage Manager’. Being a well sought-after stage manager, we just had to catch hold of Bebe to learn the ins and outs of stage-managing, and to find out some interesting facts about Bebe Chan herself.
What does a stage manager do? Break it down for us.
In Malaysia, the director will first engage me; the next step would usually be the rehearsal schedule. Sometimes the director will draft the schedule with the stage manager, but more often than not, the directors will already have had their schedule depending on the actors’ bad dates. It’s pointless for the director to pass the job to me because I will just have to go back and forth to confirm it.
During the rehearsal process, I’ve to make sure the actors are punctual. Put out the necessary tables, chairs, props, etc.; prepare the space. When not in rehearsal, the SMs will usually coordinate with the director on the technical aspects. We have to liaise with the lighting designers, sets & props designers, and so on. We also have to arrange production meetings, chase for drafts and designs. Sometimes the director is so busy that the SMs will have to attend them and present to the director afterwards.
During the production, SMs will usually “call the show.” To call the show means to cue all the technicians on the sound cues, special effects cues, lighting cues, fly cues, and whatever you have in the play. Being an SM in Malaysia, you have to know some technical aspects because you would need to liaise with the tech person if something messes up.
In overseas productions, however, the production will usually have a technical manager; like the namesake, he or she will settle everything technical. But in Malaysia, because of small budgets, the SMs settle everything. Sometimes the SMs also act as backstage crew, wardrobe person, and more.
How did you get into this line and why did you choose it?
I was always interested in the performing arts. While I was in high school in Penang, I was involved in plays. When I came to KL, I was with an amateur dramatic arts group called ‘Dramatic Art Society.’ It’s a Chinese language drama society, and one of the oldest in KL- about 60 years. I started with their training course and then I moved into Akademi Seni Kebangsaan (ASK).
I studied Performing Arts part time in ASK. This was before Aswara was formed. Unfortunately, at that time, there was no college or universities that offered a stage management course. So I took a part time course before I gradually moved into stage management.
“I was never really keen on performing,
so I felt like I belonged backstage.”
Bebe Chan tells us that when she’s not stage managing, she sometimes works as a wardrobe mistress on commercial shoots. Bebe studied costume designing but later dropped out to pursue this line of passion instead. Bebe is currently her own boss, and if she needs a crew, she will engage her external sources if the producers and directors don’t already have a set of people in mind.
What is one unforgettable thing that happened while you were stage-managing?
There was a show in the previous Actors Studio in Bangsar. In the middle of the show, there was a blackout. The theatre management liaised with TNB but the power didn’t come on even after waiting for half an hour. So we had to cancel the show and refund the audience. There was nothing we could do about it; it was not in our hands.
What are the skills necessary to become an SM?
Patience, a lot of patience. Of course, you need to have foresight to predict what’s going to happen next. It’s tough, but onstage anything can happen.
What is your favourite part and least favourite part of the production process?
Favourite – opening night! When it’s opening night, you know you’ve been through your tech and dress, and now your baby is gonna be born. Then again, it’s not my baby; I’m just the nanny. Everybody is tired but pumped with adrenaline and the overall spirit is on the high.
Least favourite – cast party. Because we’re always staying back to pack up and we end up going to the party late and really exhausted.
What would you say is the biggest challenge you’ve faced until today?
Liaising with everybody; from actors to crew, to generally everyone. Dealing with people. With different people, you have to adapt differently. When you work with new directors, or new designers, and of course, new actors, it needs a lot of attention and you have to be very careful.
Do you and the director have the same views on things? How do you settle the differences?
When the director envisions something, sometimes they don’t see the practicality in it. People like me know the theatre in and out. We know the possibilities, the money’s worth, and all that. So, I have to liaise with the designers and tweak things. I would know whether something is achievable or not. It’s a lot of give and take; the directors and producers usually make the call. But sometimes, the stage manager must step in and give their two cents. Experience is very important, I learnt it the hard way.
” I didn’t choose it. It chose me.”
Is your line of work physically dangerous?
One of the things I do as a stage manager is always check if the lights have a safety chain when they’re rigged. Accidents happen, so we need to take extra precaution. Backstage is a very dangerous environment for everyone. I had a freak accident once; one of the curtain rollers got loose and hit my head from the ceiling. There’s a reason why SMs tells you to wear covered toe shoes and when to evacuate the stage and backstage. We all have a reason. It’s like a construction site. I always do a routine check.
How do you organize your prompt book? Your “bible”?
Coloured pens. I love coloured pens. I always make my book as simple as possible, because if something should happen, you can just pass the book to someone else and that other person will understand your workflow.
Do you have any pet peeves when working for shows?
Rule breakers. Latecomers. Drinking [alcohol] during shows or rehearsals- yes, that happens.
Unfortunately, I’m the rule enforcer. I don’t just manage one person, I manage the whole team. If I break the rule for one person, I have to make an exemption for everyone.
What is the dream show you’d like to stage-manage for?
“Phantom of the Opera” and “Wicked”. Both of them have a lot of technical aspects. If you’re involved in either show, there’s a lot to learn. I’ve worked backstage for Mama Mia, they have specific teams for wardrobe, for wigs, and even dressers for each actor. That was interesting.
Your advice for budding stage managers.
Work hard. Play smart. Take care of yourself.