Ever wondered where we find our props, who makes our fake blood and just how we got Rumpelstiltskin to conjure up gold? It’s all down to the Assistant Stage Manager, Judith Volk, who’s back with us this summer working on Swallows and Amazons.
How did you get into stage management?
I started off stage managing shows with a drama society whilst studying at University. I soon found that I was enjoying working on shows as much as studying my actual degree, so when I graduated I decided to get some more experience before going for my MA in Stage Management at RWCMD (Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama).
What does an ASM do? How is it different from a DSM?
ASMs are there to help the DSM (Deputy Stage Manager) with whatever they need to get the show up and running. Specifically ASMs are responsible for sourcing all the props and looking after them during the run of the show. They also help with set and costume changes.
DSMs instead focus on helping run rehearsals and compiling ‘the book’. This is a master copy of the script which includes all the lighting, sound, AV and stage cues and any other relevant information. They create this during rehearsals and then use it to cue (and sometimes operate) the show.
Once you’ve got a props list, how do you go about sourcing them?
This depends very much on what type of props are required, the style of the show and the budget. If it’s quite a modern show propping will involve mainly shopping (especially through charity shops, eBay and my new favourite- Shpock!). If the show is set during a particular period or has quite specialist prop requests we might rather need to look at hiring, borrowing or making the props. Theatres will often allow other companies to borrow from their prop stores, so that can be quite a useful starting point. It’s also surprising the amount of props I’ve been able to beg and borrow from friends and family members!
This is your second summer in the Parks, which is a lot different from a traditional theatre – how does working in the Parks affect your job?
For starters there is obviously no specific backstage area so you have to be a bit more inventive about how props will be stored and laid out for the actors to use – last year for Alice we were able to use some old trunks which the props could be packed up into and taken with a wheelbarrow back to our storage container! There is also the weather to deal with – it’s important that props and furniture are chosen/made to withstand rain, as the likelihood is they will get rained upon at some point during the run. Being outdoors can also make the ASM’s show duties rather different- my most memorable cue last year was standing in some bushes pulling on ropes to make some trees shake!
It seems that being an ASM, you end up with a lot of hands-on jobs to do as the show is in – do you ever end up in the show?
I have so far managed to avoid donning a full costume, though I did have to put on a bonnet and cardigan to be the past ghost double in Creation’s A Christmas Carol last winter! Thankfully otherwise I’ve largely managed to remain hidden behind the scenes, although there have been one or two scurries on stage when props or set have misbehaved!
What’s the weirdest prop you’ve ever had to make?
There have certainly been some odd requests (amongst them a pituitary gland in a jar). Possibly one of my favourite makes was a whole bucket of fake blood for a production of Macbeth. We didn’t have the budget for the shop bought kind and we couldn’t get away with paint as the blood had to be edible and washable (from white costumes none the less!) so I spent three days in my kitchen cooking up and testing an assortment of recipes. My housemates were rather bemused to say the least!
Is there any advice you’d give to people looking to work as a stage manager?
Try and get as much experience backstage as possible, whether that’s shadowing professional stage managers or getting stuck in yourself with am-dram companies. It’s definitely important to know what is involved with this job and that you think you’d be able to handle the long hours and sometimes quite physical work. That being said, I couldn’t imagine a better way to earn a living – the amazing thing about theatre is that every show is completely different so you will likely never have a dull day. Plus its great fun!