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Jessica Lawes | 37 | Musical Theatre Stage Manager

Black and white portrait of musical theatre stage manager Jessical Lawes, sitting on a step stool.

Speciality time: 12 years

Inspiration for starting: I have always loved theatre, we used to get theatre tickets as kids and it was always a big excursion going into the city to see a show. I trained as an actor and a singer, and kind of fell into it. I didn’t really know stage management was a thing until I was doing bits and pieces and gradually kind of worked my way up.

Full time, part time or hobby: Full time

Claim to fame to date?
I have been lucky enough to work on quite a lot of high profile shows such as Les Misérables, Jersey Boys, and Kinky Boots. I’ll be working on Hamilton as well. I did Les Mis for about 2½ years here and then went over to Mexico City to play it over there in another language. It was amazing.

Can you share a bit about your training?
I didn’t train in Stage Management. I was doing more bits and pieces at Uni to help out in the show backstage. From that, I assisted one of my teachers who needed help for Catholic Schools Performing Arts. Then I ended up working for an events company called Great Big Events which does large scale school productions and sporting stuff, and for a little while I worked as a stage manager for them.

At Uni I studied a Bachelor of Music theatre voice. Then to earn some money I worked for Playbill, which sells merchandise for all the shows etc. I got to know a lot of people working on the shows and one of the stage managers kind of knew me through that. They needed a stage manager swing which is basically a cover for a couple of days a week and I got the job. Totally right place, right time. I learnt through asking questions as I knew I had no idea what I was doing. On the job training really. It’s a lot of on the job training and a lot of stage management is having the right personality and the right skills.

What does a Stage Manager do?
Coordinates everything that happens backstage. You are the communication hub. You coordinate the director, choreographer, the cast and the crew. During the show one of the stage managers calls the show so all the lighting cues and automation, and as the show is going you are following the script and the score. You’re directing cues as you go along and making actor moves. And then there are stage managers in either wing doing whatever is needed for the show such as watching the automation move, paving the way for actors such as torching in dark spots. It’s a good industry to be in.

Is there an accomplishment you are most proud of?
I did Muriel’s Wedding and came in late to the process to replace someone leaving. Instead of going through the whole rehearsal process I came straight in when we were going live in the theatre, and running all the technical elements for the first time. Having not gone through the rehearsal process, I am most proud of getting through that and thinking on my feet.

Any memorable moments?
There is always something that goes wrong. It keeps us on our toes and keeps it interesting, and the stage manager is there for that. We always look at the show and work out what may go wrong like if a piece of machinery doesn’t come on, there are contingency plans for that on whether to stop or keep going. Sometimes actors blank on what they’re saying, and this can have a follow-on effect because sometimes there are lighting cues within their monologue, and when it stops so does all the lights etc. Could be costumes flying off, like in Aladdin actors would get their arms stuck in the costume, and strings of beads would break onto the floor and there are dancers in heels and you are saying “don’t slip on the beads”. Sometimes there is water on the stage and you need to warn the actors.

To stop a show completely, it might be a piece of machinery that doesn’t go on stage. There is a sick actor who can’t continue and there is no cover in time to replace.

How has COVID-19 has affected your ability to do your craft?
I was in Melbourne on Come From Away and Scott Morrison did a press conference on the Friday that pretty much said ‘from Monday gatherings were going to be cut’. We kind of knew it was coming, and the producers sat us down on the Saturday and said we have made the decision that tomorrow will be our last show in Melbourne. We were shut down at that point and we all went home. We were then supposed to do a 2½ month tour of China, which at that point from mid-Feb we knew it wasn’t happening and we were quite relieved. But we were meant to pick up again at the end of July 2020 for a season in Sydney and that has been postponed to mid-way through 2021. I have not really worked for months. It affects so many and even if we were going to try and be COVID-19 safe it's challenging. There are so many people helping backstage and only so many change rooms etc, so you can wear masks but it's hard to be completely COVID-19 safe. Sometimes it takes 4 people to change a principal between sets.

Office staff have been cut. There would be 100 people to put on a show, so it’s a lot of out of work. I’m freelance, I sign a contract with a show and most are run of play, so the stage manager moves with the show when it moves city to city. Now I’m not sure if I can go back to Come From Away or go straight to Hamilton, I could have done my last show on Come From Away and not even know it. Which is sad.

At the same time in Melbourne, Billy Elliot and Shrek were playing, their producers had not yet made the call on the Sunday morning. After their Sunday night show they just said “that was your last show and the show is done now, we have stopped the tour” and so all those actors are now just out of work. JobKeeper doesn’t apply because they are not on contract anymore. They could get JobSeeker. It’s tough.

How do you feel now you have not been able to work?
It's so frustrating. It’s the not knowing that is so frustrating. There is no end in sight. We thought when we closed in Melbourne we were in a good position because we had four months, but it’s crawled further and further and it’s a cumulative effect. It’s all unknown.

What do you think the effect to society as a whole would be without performing Arts?
It makes me really sad. Theatre has been going since ancient Greek and Roman times. There has always been theatre and entertainment in various forms. Some are saying it can’t get back to normal until there is a vaccine, that’s a long time to deny society. You work to make money so you can go and see shows or watch movies or see a concert. It's part of who we are.

Have you had any positives through lockdown?
I really like to draw, and paint and I have done more of that which is nice. Working 8 shows a week can become a bit of a slog sometimes, so it's been nice to have a break and have time to pursue other things. It forces you to evaluate your whole life.

If you could ask the politicians to help the future of performing arts what would it be?
Stop cutting the funding for one! Australia values sporting events so much more than the arts. I love sport too, and watching the cricket, but it needs to be a level playing field. There has been so much focus on getting the AFL and all the other sports back in play, but nobody is talking about getting theatre back up and running.

What could we use Funding for if we got it?
Even when the government announced all the funding and grants, when people who actually worked in the arts looked at those, they couldn’t apply for them, so it was more of a grand gesture.

There needs to be grants in collaboration with everyone so that they actually help those who need it. It's pretty much always been that way that the arts don't get any respect from politicians. Even the Arts department is lumped in with railways right now.

When we have a disaster like the bushfires, it is the arts that step up to raise money and get funding for others. The politicians are the first to come to shows and concerts and get photos with the casts and post on social media. The other thing is the Arts is so wide ranging, so what helps theatre won't necessarily help those in film etc but as a whole the arts raises a lot of money for Australia. People travel to Melbourne to see Harry Potter, they need hotels and flights etc so it is an industry that needs to be supported.

The industry will lose a lot of talent because they will either train in something else or go and get a job because they need money and not want to risk going back into performing arts. That’s sad if we lose a lot of the existing talent in Australia.

Do you have a favourite show?
That’s like trying to pick a favourite child!! I have great memories of working on Kinky Boots because it was playing around the time of the marriage equality talks. It felt like it tied into what the show was about, so it made an impact. It was a beautiful company of people.

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