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Theatre Production: A Look Behind the Scenes

by Ann Cernek

Montréal has a vibrant theatre scene. Whether through the Fringe Fest or McGill’s Tuesday Night Cafe Theatre, involved friends have always encouraged me to attend productions. There are constantly new opportunities to break into the Montréal theatre community, and like many other students, Claire Bourdin did so while studying English Literature at McGill. 

Claire was exposed to theatre and acting as a little kid, but she dropped the weekend activity as she entered her teenage years. Years later, however, Claire fell in love with the production atmosphere when she volunteered to help a friend working as a stage manager. After graduating from McGill, Claire applied to the National Theatre School (NTS) in Montréal, where she began her studies this fall. 

Last weekend I saw a NTS production of “Much Ado”, a present-day adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, written and directed by Philip McKee. The play used Shakespeare’s tale of false rumors to expose the process of putting on a play: the stage crew was visible to the audience and a long scene where the actors played themselves exposed the rehearsal process. I took the opportunity to ask Claire, who worked as assistant stage manager, a few questions about her role in the production, “Much Ado” and her studies in Montréal. 

The assistant stage managers changing the set in between scenes of “Much Ado”

Ann Cernek: What exactly are you studying at the National Theatre School? 

Claire Bourdin: I am in the production program, which encapsulates all the technical aspects of theatre. Everything from lighting design to sound design to video design. There are more administrative things too, like production management and stage management. I am studying all of those things at the same time, but I’m there for stage management specifically. 

AC: So what is the role of the stage manager in a production? 

CB: The stage manager is kind of known as the backbone of a production. While the director does all the creative work to put a play together, the stage manager is in charge of all the logistical things. They’re in charge of communication between all the different design departments. They have to be the contact person for the actors. In rehearsals, the stage manager notes down everything the director says that pertains to production. Like putting in a new prop or taking down all the blocking. When the show is on its feet, the stage manager is also responsible for calling cues. They will be on headset with operators of the soundboard and lighting board and with the assistant stage managers, who work backstage. 

AC: How much creativity is involved in stage managing? 

CB: Well everyone finds creativity in different ways, right? So yes, as stage manager you can contribute to discussions with the director, especially since you work so closely with him or her. But also, when it comes to setting cues or working with the sound and lighting designer, you inevitably assign meaning to different words or movements in the play. In stage management class at NTS, they tell us “when you read the play you should analyse it. Dont just look at it from a logistical point of view. Analyse it for its motifs, for its themes; research its historical context, research the playwright. You really should know this.” 

AC: So they want you to be prepared to think back upon that research when you’re making decisions in the theatre. You have a BA from McGill in English Literature. Has that influenced your experience with stage managing? 

CB: I didn’t read that much theatre in the English department at McGill but the concepts of symbols, character, themes and motifs, and being able to discern the plot structure are very important in theatre. And knowing when a play is well written because of how the structure flows and has been conceived is very, very important.

Claire Bourdin

AC: At McGill, you started off in cultural studies, which offers a lot of film courses. Does your knowledge of framing film sets apply to setting up a scene in theatre? 

CB: There are a lot of differences between film and theatre. One of the biggest issues in theatre is that of sightline. In theatre, the idea that you need to be sure audience members can see and hear no matter where they are sitting affects lighting and the movements and placements of each actor on stage. Productions rely on stage managers to watch rehearsals with an outsider’s perspective and notice inconsistencies and little mistakes that would trouble the whole production. This doesn’t apply to film, where actors can improvise their movements and the camera will follow them. 

AC: Alright, let’s talk about “Much Ado”. The first thing I noticed as I looked out for you on stage in between scenes, was that the assistant stage managers were visible while on stage. The stage didn’t go black, you weren’t dressed in black, and that was pretty surprising. The second was that both the assistant stage managers’ outfits and movements were in uniform. The set changes were choreographed! 

CB: I think the idea was that the audience would be able to see the transitions between scenes. This helped highlight the fact that the production was something that was in process, constantly in flux. If you want the set transitions to be visible, the assistant stage managers have to be visible. With khaki pants, black polos, and baseball caps, our uniforms made us characters in the play. We were a part of the play.

AC: You chose to stay in Montréal to study theatre. What is your impression of the theatre scene here? 

CB: It’s really interesting because there are two theatre communities in Montréal: the francophone and the anglophone. They’re quite separate. But the National Theatre School is working to combine the two, offering French courses to anglophone students. 

AC: So what is that like for someone studying theatre? 

CB: The anglophone community is small. So it’s a great place to start off. You get to know people really quickly. It’s a really great community and small enough that you can jump from thing to thing. I don’t think it would be as easy to start off in Toronto. And I’m really interested in this distance between the French side and the English side. I hope that I can see more of a melding of the two sides in the future. 

Headshot provided by Claire Bourdin, photo of stage by Ann Cernek.

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