The stage manager who looks like a star
GRANIA MORTIMER’S svelte glamour doesn’t show on stage —she’s in the wings unsnarling the traffic with a confident ease that’s won her rating as Canada’s best backstage boss
A stage manager is commonly supposed to be a practical sort of bloke who can wield a hammer, use a T-square, manhandle bulky flats, rig lights and deal with all the prosier facts of backstage life. He is tactfully kept out of sight of the theatregoers because he is not very glamorous.
The average theatregoer therefore thinks of a stage manager—it he thinks of one at all—as a brawny backstage straw' boss with galluses, calluses and a good-natured bellow.
The average theatrical director, for his part, thinks of a stage manager as his regimental sergeant major — the tough, competent guy who licks the troops into proper shape to carry out his. the director's, inspired strategy.
The average actor thinks stage managers eat actors for breakfast.
None of them is apt to think of an SM—as a stage manager is known in the trade—in terms of a striking dark-browed beauty in her twenties, with a quiet boarding-school drawl and well-kept tapering lingers adorned with barbaric dinner rings. Yet (irania Geraldine Maclvor Mortimer, who is kept out of sight of the theatregoers. is not only as glamorous as many stars onstage front and centre; she is also ranked by many experts as the best stage manager in Canada.
On the face of it. Miss Mortimer is an unlikely candidate for the honor. In the gaudy, backstage world of the theatre she is an anomaly not only as a woman in a man’s job but as a cool, grave school-prefect figure amid a great ileal of mascara and sweat.
In a notoriously tempestuous arena she so seldom raises her voice that a single "damn” when she barks a shin is enough to turn every head in the vicinity. In a business built, above all. on bold emphasis. Miss Mortimer for years camouflaged her five feel eight inches in bunchy jeans, a thick sweater and a self-conscious stoop. Away from the theatre she wears town-andcountry suits and adds prim gloves and a hat if she lunches in public.
In fact the only hint of flamboyance is tha fierce brow, the straight-bridged nose and the short upper lip that suggest her admixture of eastern blood. Her maternal grandmother was Hindu.
Otherwise her background is as remote from the theatrical as her manner. The fourth of five children of a wealthy Toronto lawyer and socialite, the late Arthur Berestord Mortimer, she went to private schools, spent her spare time riding horses from the family stable and left a pass course at the University of Toronto after a bare year and a half. She might easily have become the kind of dilettante debutante who thinks people become stagehands because they're just not good enough to act. But Miss Mortimer, who first became a prop girl because she wasn't good enough to act. is now so thorough a professional that she says crisply. "The only good stage manager is one who doesn't want to be anything but a good stage manager.”
And she is so good a stage manager that, since she first took out her union, card, in 1951. she has held most of the top SNi's jobs in C anada, or had the refusal of them.
In 1951 she was an overweight, stolid, shy tw'enty-two-ycar-old. so stagestruck that she hung around the dressing rooms just to watch the stars putting on make-up. Hven so. Leighton Brill, a shrewd U. S. showman who was producing summer theatre-in-the-round in Toronto, said flatly, “She's one of the best.”
Today, at twenty-nine, she is svelte, self-possessed—and considerably less starry eyed about the theatre. “I'm a workman,” she says matterot-factly. And she has stage-managed top productions ranging from the first Canadian musical to play Toronto's Royal Ale\. Sunshine Town, to the St rat tord Music Festival, and from the McGill spoof-that-snowballed. My Fur Lady, to the National Ballet. In fact she is seldom without an assignment for more than a week or so. When she /v at liberty she puts on weight again; but at the moment she is earning as much as many well-known Canadian actresses—about seven thousand dollars a year and is staying slim.
Of all the jobs in the theatre, the one at which Miss Mortimer excels is perhaps the most plaguy •—and indispensable.
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On opening night the director belongs in the audience. Miss Mortimer has to carry the show
Some notion of what a stage manager can do to make or break a production is suggested by a recent calamity in London’s West End. The occasion was the premiere ol a new Agatha Christie thriller, The Verdict, with a series of plot reversals at the very end. The final curtain, unfortunately, got cued one reversal too soon, leaving critics and firstnighters alike still adrift in the mystery. It’s obvious Miss Mortimer, whose work as SM includes cueing all curtains, is in a position, single-handed, to beach a play in a careless moment.
Besides a foolproof countdown system, an SM needs an utterly cool head in a crisis. During one production for Toronto's New Play Society, a flight of stairs that was vital to the action began to fall apart. Miss Mortimer, taking instant stock of the situation, sent a stagehand to wriggle underneath and bolster the step on his back while the players trod thereon.
Miss Mortimer can invent a stand-in for a stairway or the power supply with equal insouciance. When the lights failed during the third act of a summer-theatre performance at Vineland. Ont., she fixed candles in whisky bottles, set them along the footlights and then supplemented the effect by sitting through the rest of the play in the front row with her pocket torch trained onstage.
She once, in an emergency on the road, improvised the famous, fantastical "Canadian Flag" curtain for My Fur Lady from a bolt of flannelette, sitting up all night to help punch the needle through the fabric with a finger she’d just broken in a tumble down a backstage stairwell. She has contrived eleventhhour substitutes for stage, scenery, costumes. props, and even her own crew. On tour, local stagehands sometimes prove unreliable; Miss Mortimer is adept at recruiting any able body in sight, from one of the company's own actors to a teen-ager on his way to basketball practice.
To aid her, she achieves the air of erisp self-confidence of. say, a Junior Leaguer selling her friends tickets to a charity ball.
Oddly enough, her cool, faintly British country-club tones seem as effective in her work as a barrack-room bellow. A stagehand who has often worked for her reported wonderingly. not long ago. "I don't even swear backstage any more."
As SM. Miss Mortimer is completely responsible for the discipline of the crew hired for a production, and for the professional etiquette of the actors. If a stagehand is persistently late or sloppy: if a prop letter proves to have a different, and private, and naughty message each night to the actor who has to pretend to read it aloud: if a comedian decides to scratch himself during one of the star's important speeches. Miss'Mortimer has what she calls, good-humoredly, "a long serious talk" with the offender. She has never yet had to resort to reporting a stagehand to his union or an actor to the front office, a move that in either case could get the culprit the sack.
In addition to discipline and improvisation. Miss Mortimer’s duties include mastery of a staggering series of skills, including elementary wiring, lighting, carpentry and painting. She works with the show’s producer, director and designer right from the beginning, translating their strategy into tactics, and the tactics into action.
Though production strength usually includes a master electrician, a master propertyman and a master carpenter, she must assign their work, oversee and occasionally fill in for them. She has a vast amount of lore at her service. For example, she is expert at liberating propN from shopkeepers in exchange for a line of credit in the program. "I hate doing it." she says cordially. The prop list for a single production may include such outre items as a Trolger pole with ribbons, a fiddle, a flask of whisky with a cork, five autograph books and pencils, a set of foot warmers, two unopened boxes of chocolates, a pony of brandy, a lady’s riding crop and a pair of rubbers.
She knows that colored water can double for almost any beverage except beer, for which there is no visual substitute: that boiling water poured over bread and milk, at the last minute, can suggest a hot stage meal; and that no actor should depend on a cigarette lighter's working on cue.
She is prepared to reproduce punctually any sound effect that a script calls for up to and including the sound, required in a Maeterlinck play, of "nightbirds exulting." She was recently requested to tunc a set of four telephone buzzers so she could render The Star Spangled Banner on them for a special effect.
These are all technical problems, to be settled in the planning phase. One of Miss Mortimer’s chief responsibilities, however, doesn’t start until after dress rehearsal. On opening night the director belongs in the audience and from then on Miss Mortimer has to carry the show
to the end of the run without spilling a minute or slopping a production detail. Above all she must keep the performers from shrugging too cosily into their roles, or loosening them to allow extra romps.
Paul Kligman, one of the most experienced actors in Toronto, remarked recently, “It’s a truism that actors think every SM is an old bear. After all, this is the boss. But, boy! A good one makes a difference.” He added, “Grania’s the best in the country.” Kligman has worked under Miss Mortimer in a number of productions, including half a dozen Spring Thaws, the annual revues produced by Toronto’s New Play Society.
This midsummer Miss Mortimer was finishing her stint as SM of the 1958 edition of Spring Thaw, which had opened on April 8 and settled down for a long run. On a fairly typical Friday, in late afternoon, she drove her olive-drab Volkswagen to the converted cinema in west-central Toronto that housed the revue. There was to be a matinee at six and an evening show at nine. Miss Mortimer arrived half an hour before curtain time. During the pre-opening period she often works fourteen hours a day, and if she is stage-managing a tour she's on call day and night.
She chatted with the actors and crew as they arrived; took their orders for supper, to be fetched from a nearby restaurant; called a standby to the actors; peeked at the house from the wings; glanced at the heavy watch strapped to her wrist; sent in the orchestra; spoke quietly into the intercom set in a cramped corner of the shallow wing:
“Stand by house-out.” T he master electrician was working from a converted projection booth above the lobby.
“House out, please.”
"Open up, please.” The curtains swung apart.
Miss Mortimer propped herself on an ancient piano stool wedged into a corner by the intercom.
She’s never seen the whole show from out front. She sees only the underside of the fabric, with the pattern reversed. From backstage the theatre is a dark pit when the actors arc on; the stage is bright and normal only when the curtain doses it off from the audience and the stagehands go about their business. There is stillness when the actors are on; bustle and life only when they crowd into the wings. Sound comes on the off-beat—not when the actors are acting but after they have stopped, when the crowd makes its noise.
“Stand by seventeen. Warning eighteen."
“Go eighteen.” Every lighting change is numbered consecutively through the show, but Miss Mortimer must cue it with split-second accuracy.
Miss Mortimer glanced around quickly to check hand props for the next scene; got up smoothly to help an actor make a quick change; reached suddenly but deftly to buzz the prop telephonebuzzer, releasing it at the precise instant the actor picked up the receiver onstage.
“Close in, please.”
A performer wandered out into the back lane for a moment, leaving the outer door ajar. She went over and pulled the door shut. Another performer came to ask if she had any aspirin. He called her “Grannie,” as do most of the players.
She said. "No. Sorry," and added, “Ssshh.” automatically.
After intermission she pulled out a packet of homemade sandwiches and started to eat them, between low-voiced rapid-fire orders to the electrician on the intercom. She checked to see that the
performers’ supper had arrived in order. She tweaked back the curtain to give her a view downstage; she gave a sharp rip to a frayed sheet of sandpaper precisely as the actor onstage tore the false back off a companion's suit jacket. Then she went on with her sandwich.
In the break before the evening show she superintended the distribution of sandwiches and coffee to the performers lounging out in the front rows of the empty house. She produced aspirin, hastily bought at a drugstore, for the ailing actor. She soothed the comedienne who was complaining testily of noise backstage during her solo.
Miss Mortimer recently commented, “Actors’ temperaments—their idiocies— can get awfully in the way sometimes.”
At the evening performance the pause before the start of the overture was a shade too long and she was down at the side-aisle curtain in a Hash to find out the reason. An actor, entering from the opposite wing, missed his cue and came on
late. He was a seasoned professional and skipped across right after his exit to apologize to her. She accepted it curtly, adding "Ssshh.” After intermission she slipped out into the house during a choral number to watch one member who seemed to be padding his part with pantomime. She made a note in her book.
At the close of the showshe gauged the applause and allowed three curtain calls, said a final, "All right, warm up the house, please,” into the intercom and dismissed the east with a friendly but formal. “Thank you very much.”
Then she drove home to the comfortable studio couches and mellow colonial pine of her basement bachelor fiat in North Toronto, poured out a beer and curled up for a while with a mystery. She read for a couple of hours — long enough to sink into someone else’s problems, intuitions, crises and decisions, long enough to relax and forget the whole hectic business of being a backstage mastermind. ★