The Royal Shakespeare Company doesn't travel light. Nine large trucks preceded the company's arrival in Washington, carrying such things as Plexiglas drops, three enormous chandeliers, two impressionistic trees, 228 light dimmers, scores of costumes and props and both mirrored and plain black walls. Thirteen stagehands travel with the company, as well as several stage managers, and 18 stagehands were hired locally to help with the installation of the sets for "Cyrano de Bergerac" and "Much Ado About Nothing." The man who supervises all of them is Alan Hall, an expatriate Englishman who is considered one of the premier stage managers in show business.
"It's a bit of a challenge," he said in what remains of his English accent. Hall took a leave from "The Real Thing" on Broadway to do the five-month RSC tour, which ends here. The main challenge for him and his crew is the changeovers, particularly on the days, like last Saturday, when they have 90 minutes to change the chandeliers and black walls of "Cyrano" to the mirrored floor and Plexiglas of "Much Ado." They had a total of eight shows last week, which is "a killer," he said.
Hall came to the United States in 1962 as the stage manager for "Beyond the Fringe" and never went back. He has barely stopped working since, including a long stint with the road company of "Hello, Dolly!" and the Broadway production of "Sweeney Todd," two of his favorite shows.
He is partial to musicals, preferably big, lavish productions with as many sets, costumes and people as possible. That's one reason the RSC tour appealed to him. "With the two shows, it's the size of a musical, although there's not much singing," he said during a break recently while stagehands and electricians were busy installing and focusing lights.
Another reason he was the right man for the job is that he can be a liaison between the British and the American theater systems, translating jargon and customs and giving directions to the nearest pub. Under the company's arrangement with Actors' Equity, a number of Americans were hired in backstage capacities, but our stage management system is not the same as the British.
For example, the British have an overall stage manager who takes care of the company, a deputy who sits in the back of the theater and calls the light cues, and an assistant stage manager who is in charge of all the props, whereas an American theater would have a production stage manager who would supervise everything, including giving the actors notes on their performances once the show has opened. In England, this would be done by an assistant director.
Hall, 49, is not one of those stage managers with secret yearnings to direct, nor is he a former actor. He got a degree in engineering, but aside from that aberration he has always been a stage manager and, as far as he's concerned, always will be. "The great thing about being a stage manager is to be patient," he said. "Because everyone has a problem, and everyone wants to tell you about it. And they'll all get solved."