What it’s like working behind the scenes at the theatre

Katie Hennessy is props store coordinator at the Chichester Festival Theatre in Sussex.

I have worked at Chichester Festival Theatre for ten years now, running the props and furniture store. Before that, I worked as a stage manager in theatre throughout England and Wales, and overseas.

No one in my family is in the slightest bit theatrical. I went to youth theatre for some much-needed excitement from my staid all-girls grammar school. My best friend persuaded me to go. I wasn’t comfortable acting but enjoyed going so started doing stage management on the shows (incidentally my best friend went on to become an actress).

Read more: What it’s like to work for a theatre

I realised that I really enjoyed it and wanted to pursue it. I applied to several drama schools to study a stage management degree and was lucky enough to get a place at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

I had a fantastic three years and learnt so much about all backstage disciplines but had my heart firmly set on a career in stage management.

Getting a job

I landed my first job at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. It was quite a baptism of fire as I was the only assistant stage manager (ASM) on the season of five shows. I had to source the props for them all and work the shows in the evening. I learnt many things whilst I was there but I’m most proud of my blood recipe I had to devise for a production of Macbeth. We got through gallons of the stuff for each performance. 

I was fortunate enough to be promoted whilst there to the role of deputy stage manager (DSM). This role is quite different – a DSM sits in rehearsals making notes and marking all the actions the actors make. Then in during a performance, they are in charge of running the show and calling the cues on all the lighting, sound, automation.

Moving on

I left The Crucible and worked at various repertory theatres throughout the country, learning all the way.

One of my most character-building jobs was a UK tour of the Young Vic’s production of Arabian Nights. I was company manager, in charge of all the actors and technical team on the road. I was also responsible for the set going in and coming out of the theatre. I was only 24 and getting the local, usually all-male, crew to listen to me was sometimes quite a challenge. I must admit I was daunted at first but found if I appeared confident and in charge (even if I didn’t feel it)  that went a long way.

Working in the West End

I had always wanted to work in the West End and I finally got the chance to work on a brand new musical about the life of the artist Lautrec. I had to go back to being an ASM, such is the way the West End hierarchy works. It was a great experience but unfortunately a short-lived one. I had looked forward to the security of a long West End run but the show received terrible reviews and closed after 12 weeks! The one good thing to come out of it was I met my now-husband, he was master carpenter on the show.

I stayed in London and worked at the Young Vic. I loved working there. They always strived to produce new and innovative work and I felt proud to have worked on several of their groundbreaking productions.

As I was still a freelancer I worked in the summer at Shakespeare’s Globe. A totally different experience, but just as rewarding. Mark Rylance was the artistic director at the time and his absolute passion for Shakespeare rubbed off on everyone. And it was so nice working outdoors in the summer, instead of a dark theatre.

Touring

I was lucky enough to tour with both of these companies. With the Young Vic, I went to New York, Taiwan, Hong long and Brazil. With the Globe, I toured across America for six weeks. Touring is a fantastic experience. You get to work with the local crew and see all the parts of the country that are off the tourist trail. I’m still in touch with some of them now.

I had been at the Globe for four seasons and was senior stage manager when my husband and I decided to start a family. Unfortunately, I felt the hours required to work in stage management and motherhood don’t mix well, especially as my husband works in theatre too. I effectively “retired” after 11 years.

Moving to Sussex

Fast forward to 2012 when we moved to Chichester. I was still doing some one-off jobs in stage management on the side but felt the time was right to work more, and I was keen to be involved with the theatre on my doorstep.

When I took on the job as props store coordinator the theatre had only just taken on the building. I decided to try and turn it into a hires business, as well as facilitating the theatre when they are producing their season. My job is two-fold – I assist all the stage management on our shows, they rehearse in London so need to take all rehearsal props and furniture with them.

We have props supervisors to source the actual props. I also now have a wide range of people I hire to. Every village here seems to have an amateur dramatic group, and I also work with the college and uni and prop all their productions. And I get used by freelance props supervisors who know the store so I have props on national tours and West End shows.

I love the variety of people I meet and they are always after something different. I feel fortunate that I have a flexible part-time job in the field I know and love.

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