Edinburgh Fringe People

The Stage Manager: Gemma Scott

Published on Sunday 22 July 2018

We’re talking to people who perform or work at the Edinburgh Festival each year to get their perspectives on what performing or producing at the world’s biggest cultural event involves, and top tips on how to get the most out of the experience. This week, we return to the production side of the Festival to talk stage management with Gemma Scott.

Gemma has undertaken a number of roles at the Edinburgh Fringe over the years, including reviewing for and sub-editing at ThreeWeeks. Though it was when a friend asked her to stage manage an Edinburgh show that those multifarious Fringe projects actually morphed into a new full-time career.

We spoke to Gemma about what being a stage manager involves, the specific challenges of stage managing a show at the Fringe, and what tips she’s got for those doing stage management at the Festival for the first time.

TW: How did you first start working in stage management?
GS: It was through the festival. I’d been working at the Fringe for about ten years in various roles like front of house and marketing, as well as reviewing for ThreeWeeks. I always saw it as my summer holiday, since I worked a very ordinary job the rest of the year. Then a friend who is a writer/director asked me to stage manage her Edinburgh show. I was lucky that she was willing to support me throughout the project. It was pretty intimidating to start with, but I loved it! So I just kept working at it until I was able to leave my “real life” job and do this full time.

TW: Talk us through some of the shows you have worked on at the Fringe.
GS: I’ve worked on everything from children’s theatre to burlesque. Early on I did a show called ‘Our Island’, which was a wordless physical theatre piece about xenophobia aimed at the under-twos. Since then I’ve worked on a musical about Jane Austen, a comedy show about mermaids allergic to raisins and I’ve just started rehearsals for a one-man show about the #metoo movement.

TW: You have now stage managed for lots of different companies. How do you get the work?
GS: At this point it’s often through word of mouth. The industry’s quite small really, so if you make a good impression then that can really impact on the work you’ll get to do in the future. Then there are a few companies I’ve worked with on a number of different projects, because we work so well together. Outside of the Fringe, I often get work through Mandy.com – what was StageJobsPro – as well as the Stage Management Association freelist and relevant Facebook groups like Bossy.

TW: When do you usually get involved in an Edinburgh show as stage manager?
GS: I tend to start working on Edinburgh projects around early July. Quite when I start depends on how complicated the show is, so whether it needs lots of props sourcing or has complicated cue sequences that I need to learn. I’ve also worked on shows where the first time I saw the cast was at the tech rehearsal in Edinburgh itself! Sometimes you just have to be prepared to dive in and learn quickly.

TW: What does stage managing at the Fringe actually involve? How does it compare to the role of stage manager outside the Festival?
GS: My main job will often be operating lights and sound – unless we’ve requested someone from the venue to do that – and setting props, set and costumes each day. Those latter tasks are a little different at the Fringe simply because you can’t leave anything on the stage between performances. The Fringe also tends to involve looking after the performers’ wellbeing more closely as well, as they’re away from their homes, friends and normal routines.

TW: You have stage managed theatre shows, comedy shows and kids shows. Do they differ in anyway?
GS: The basics of the job don’t actually change much. With comedy you often have to be more flexible, as things get improvised onstage. One year a group that I work with made small changes to their show every single day of the Fringe, so there was never a chance to get relaxed or complacent. And kids’ shows can involve thinking on your feet as well. For example, you might end up missing a cue line because a child has loudly announced that they’re bored!

TW: You’ve already alluded to this, but obviously the big thing about Edinburgh is how many shows perform in the same space and the speedy changeovers. This presumably creates quite a few challenges for the stage manager?
GS: Changeovers between shows can be as little as five minutes, so they can be quite intense. Within a few days you’ll have a system that runs smoothly, but it can be pretty chaotic to start with! I find that, like with almost every aspect of stage management, lists can make the whole thing run much smoother. Sometimes I think 90% of this job is writing lists!

TW: As someone who has stage managed lots of shows at the Fringe, what is your advice to someone designing a set or planning lights and sound for an Edinburgh show?
GS: Be ambitious, but please be realistic. It doesn’t matter how big your budget is or how elaborate your ideas are, there is a limit to what can be achieved with a three hour tech before opening and ten minute changeovers before every performance. Your audiences are willing to use their imaginations, so they’ll believe that an actor is in a cafe if they’re holding a cup and saucer – they don’t always need to see the rest.

TW: What would your advice be for someone stage managing at the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time?
GS: Most importantly, and this is absolutely essential – make friends with your venue tech. They are working harder than you and they’re dealing with grumpy people far more often than they should. So buy them cake, smile, say thank you, and they’ll be much more willing to help you when something goes wrong – and it will! I’d also recommend seeing as many shows as you can when you’re not working. Look out for how the props have been made, how they’ve created certain lighting effects: the Fringe is a great opportunity to learn from people with more experience than you.

TW: Any top tips for last minute set, prop or tech requirements in Edinburgh?
GS: My main advice is to be as organised as possible before you get there. Bring spares, and bring tape and glue to fix props and a sewing kit to fix costumes. Shops like Edinburgh Bargain Stores on St Patrick Square are great if you ever need something a little bit unusual, and Armstrongs on the Grassmarket do lots of vintage and unusual clothes. Also, knowing where to find your nearest DIY shop and printers is always a good idea.

TW: What are the best and worst bits about being a stage manager at the Fringe?
GS: Reviews can be great or terrible, and it’s hard not to let yourself be caught up in that. But the best bits are a great audience reaction, still enjoying your show after the 30th performance, and meeting strangers in a bar who will become great friends after years of repeated Fringe meet ups! In terms of the worst bits, having to set up from scratch every day can be frustrating, and it’s hard not to feel disheartened if and when you’re playing to three people.

TW: And finally, what has been your personal high and low as a Fringe stage manager?
GS: Watching my fourteen-month-old niece absolutely engrossed in a show that I’d helped to create was pretty special! The low was probably when the set of one show I was working on got stuck in customs on its way from Singapore. We had to cancel our first show and then tech at a ridiculous time of night once we finally got it back. But I have to say, after all these years I’ve never had an experience so bad that it’s made me stop wanting to come back.