A Day in the life: John Duncan, Stage Manager at Scottish Opera

A Day in the life: John Duncan, Stage Manager at Scottish Opera

Anush Hovhannisyan as Violetta and Peter Gijsbertsen. Scottish Opera 2017. Credit Jane Hobson
Anush Hovhannisyan as Violetta and Peter Gijsbertsen. Scottish Opera 2017. Photo: Jane Hobson
Date Published: 21 September 2018
John Duncan -  Stage Manager Der Rosenkavalier Unwrapped - Scottish Opera - Credit Mark Hamilton
John Duncan. Photo: Mark Hamilton

John Duncan, Stage Manager at Scottish Opera, tells us about a day in his life.

There is no typical day in the life of a Stage Manager – my time is mostly split between Scottish Opera’s Production Studio in Glasgow, and theatres that we tour to across the country. I joined Scottish Opera in 2006 and I’ve never looked back.

I’ve always loved telling people about what a stage manager does – it’s very common for people to be surprised that it’s a real job! When we are in a theatre, I typically lead a backstage team of five people. Between us, we cue all of the scenery changes, lighting effects, singers coming to the stage and so on; we ensure that all the props are where they ought to be, in good condition and ready for use; and keep the backstage area safe, free of trip hazards and fire risks.

Most of my job, though, happens long before we get anywhere near a theatre. Part of my responsibility is to ensure that we complete everything we need to during the rehearsal period. This means keeping the creative team, singers, musicians and stage crew on track, ensuring that we have enough time to bring everything together.

I didn’t know too much about opera when I started; I had done a bit, but this was different. The main difference is simply the sheer number of people involved – on stage, in the chorus, in the orchestra – and the logistical challenges that brings.

My first opera at Scottish Opera was Sir David McVicar’s Der Rosenkavalier, which was something of a baptism of fire! David is so exciting to work with and I learnt from him that it’s vital to listen to your gut when making decisions about what should happen on stage.

In the rehearsal room, one of the things I often have to do is work out the logistics of sets: if a designer wants us to bring a large piece of furniture on stage, it has to fit through the spaces left by the set in the wings – or it has to be dismantled and then reassembled on stage. We have had to come up with some interesting solutions in the past to ensure that beds, wardrobes and other large items can be handled safely. It feels like trying to work out how to get a series of camels through the eye of an oddly-shaped needle – and it usually has to happen in under 90 seconds and in complete silence.

We have recently finished our run of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and it’s been a total pleasure to work on. In a first for Scottish Opera, this production featured George, a 15.5 hand horse and it’s been fantastic! Having George on stage posed a number of challenges, as part of the set had to be structurally strengthened to take his weight. The area around the stage is on steel deck which becomes very echoey, so we had to come up with a way to reduce the noise – we used layers and layers of black carpet to deaden the sound of George’s hooves while he walked around backstage. One of the hardest things he had to do was step down through a French window on to the stage. It took quite a few attempts for him to work out what he was doing with his feet, but it was amazing to watch an animal learn like that!

For a performance at 7.15pm, George arrived in his trailer at the theatre at 6pm. Lorraine (his handler) got into costume as she appeared on stage alongside him then, from 6.30pm to 7pm, she walked him about in the car park area. He then entered the theatre and Sam, who played Onegin, mounted him at 7.10pm and waited on stage out of view from the audience from curtain up until he’s first revealed 20 minutes later! He’s so placid, what sounded like quite a challenge has actually been quite simple. However, it also meant Sam couldn’t be in his dressing room warming up, instead he had to do everything early!

George the Horse in Eugene Onegin. With Samuel Dale Johnson as Onegin and Natalya Romaniw. Scottish Opera 2018. Credit James Glossop.
George the Horse in Eugene Onegin. Samuel Dale Johnson as Onegin and Natalya Romaniw. Scottish Opera 2018. Photo: James Glossop.

We can be away for up to four weeks at a time when we are touring with a show. We tend to share self-catering flats (it really helps to have a washing machine!) and whilst it’s a lot of hard work, it’s fun. I’m always really impressed at the new generations of singers we are working with. It seems as if they can do anything: they can sing, they can act, they can dance … We ask a lot of our artists and I feel very lucky to be working with such talented people.

I briefly considered studying accountancy at university; I’m sure that would have had its moments, but I am so grateful every day to be in the profession I’m in. I work with such creative, interesting people, creating such timeless, beautiful music and stories. Who could possibly ask for more?!

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