PAULA VARJACK & SYLVIA DARKWA-OHEMENGIn Conversation
Paula Varjack: You recently worked on the Royal Court production online of My White Best Friend. How was your experience of working as an Stage manager on an online production? What are your thoughts on theatre online now and in the near future?
Sylvia Darkwa-Ohemeng: I had worked on the very first show of My White Best Friend (And other letters left unsaid) at the bunker, so when I was asked to do a live version on Zoom, I first thought, is this what theatre is going to be now? It was a new learning experience for me, and that is what being an SM is all about. I literally had a crash course on the Monday of the show at the Royal Court, and practiced all afternoon with Robert Smael (Bar and Kitchen Manager also IT King!) and Milli Bhatia (Director) which was a great support. Then it was show time!
The buzz was the same as I usually have running shows, but I was sweating a little more than usual. It felt like running live TV. I had three screens in front of me, cueing actors, sound and the live captioner. It was great being able to see everyone in their homes watching this live show collectively. It shows we can still be a community no matter the circumstance. The only thing different is that we had done the biggest show the Royal Court had ever done, over 800 people watching on the last day of the festival!
I think the theatre industry is already adapting to entertainment online, there is a lot of content out there made via Zoom, or shows already archived shown on Youtube.There may also be an increase of outdoor theatres opening, or being made with limited audience members watching at a safe distance. We have proved that we can mould into anything, and use our imaginations even more than before when pushed. Our industry is finding ways to survive and it will.
PV: What brought you into a career in stage management?
SD-O: I discovered stage management when I was sixteen when I joined Dreamarts, youth organisation for performing arts. I did my first show with them on a programme they produced called street-to-stage, where we did shows every summer at the Cochrane Theatre, at Holborn at the time. I was fifteen and played the alto saxophone in the band. I then came back the following year wanting to do something else backstage.
I became the Deputy Stage Manager which meant running the show. I knew nothing then, but I had an amazing Stage Manager who told me I would be good at it, trained me that summer and I absolutely loved it. We all had made this amazing show from scratch and showcased it to the world. I have been working in stage management for over ten years. I still find the process of theatre fulfilling, from the set design presentation to the reading to rehearsals to tech, it is all important. The hard work from the whole team that goes into making this baby so-to-speak is a special bond that you have with everyone in every show you do because you remember what it took to get from A to B.
PV: Have you ever considered performing?
SD-O: Hahaha never! I grew up on music and playing in bands so that is my performance side but I prefer playing in a band and not doing solos, unless it was in a band lol. There’s a saying that “You don’t choose stage management, stage management chooses you” which I definitely believe.
PV: You are always so busy and working on such interesting shows! How do you decide what projects to take on?
SD-O: These shows find me! Hive City Legacy with Hot Brown Honey at Roundhouse, Halfbreed which took me on a tour to India with Soho Theatre, Fairview at the Young Vic, Nine Night at the National Theatre (Dorfman), Barbershop Chronicles which took me on a tour of America and Canada, Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner at the Royal Court, Richard II the first all-female of colour version done at the Globe (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse), Rockets and Blue Lights at The Royal Exchange which was sadly cut short because of Covid and many more. I am so grateful that I was able to work on these amazing shows that are forever relevant, not only that but expanding my theatre family and watching talented like-minded people work their magic and tell a story.
PV: I know you are passionate about bringing more people of colour into technical theatre roles, what is your work on that currently?
SD-O: Lockdown has made me reflect more on an old concept I had years ago during and after drama school. I am currently working on a new company called Backstage Niche, (website in construction). One of the focus points is to showcase freelancers from diverse ethnic backgrounds who work in technical theatre.
I think it’s important that theatre companies no longer say the phrases, “I didn’t know where to look?”, “I did ask one person but they weren’t available”, I am trying to build a platform for ethnic minorities who work within backstage theatre to be seen more widely. We are out there and working, but not everyone knows where we are or where to find us. It is vital that we diverse our creative team and not just stick to the same archaic structure of what backstage looks like now. It’s not about ticking a box, it is about reflecting the multi- cultural society we live in, and this should be represented as much as possible.
Another focus point is providing workshops and panel talks in schools for young people from various ethnic backgrounds , who are not only already involved in theatre, to educate about technical theatre. I understand that most ethnic minorities do not see theatre as a career (unless you act). It is up to us to prove that theory wrong, and give a chance to those from these communities, to see if technical theatre is something they would flourish in. I believe we start with the young generation, workshopping and informing them about what goes on behind the curtain. Concepts like street-to-stage (Dreamarts) are great opportunities for young people to be involved in the theatre sector and therefore, plants a seed about their future within it.
Sylvia Darkwa- Ohemeng
Sylvia Darkwa- Ohemeng is a Rose Bruford Graduate in Stage Management. Her recent productions include Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner Royal Court Upstairs Theatre, Fairview Young Vic, Rockets and Blue Lights Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre and My White Best Friend (And other letters left unsaid) Royal Court Theatre via Zoom.