Stage manager/ Boss Lady
Sylvia and I spent an afternoon strolling the south bank in the sunshine before chatting over coffee in the National Theatre foyer.
Ellie: Ok, so, Sylvia. I’m super excited. My first question to you is simply: what do you love? Nice and broad to start us off.
Sylvia: It’s important to have self-love first of all.
Ellie: I’m so glad that that’s the first thing you said.
Sylvia: Self-love is important. I think as you get older you learn to love yourself. You get to know who you are a bit more, what you like, what you enjoy and you start not caring. I’m starting to take out all the weeds, know what I mean? Take out the weeds, so as you get older, if you’re not benefiting me on my journey… you know after a while you just start dropping people off. I’m not saying I’ll end up with two friends, I still have a healthy amount of friends but I think when you get older you start knowing what you wanna do and loving what you wanna do and getting a little bit more opinionated. I love being social, I love meeting new people, I love working different places hence why I freelance and stuff like that, but I think as I got older I’m loving me more. I’m learning to love me, my body, who I am… and stuff.
Ellie: Teach me!
Sylvia: (laughs) I think definitely I am a different person from a few years ago when I was younger and I think it has, you know it’s changed me. And especially like now I’m in a relationship, it’s boosted me up now more. Yeah it’s opened my eyes and I think it’s a good thing. Yeah.
Ellie: This is just amazing because the second question is what do you love about yourself?
Sylvia: (laughs) Next!
Sylvia: What do I love about myself? I don’t know? I don’t know. I… I just… what do I love about myself? I think I like the way my parents raised me…
Ellie: (laughing) that’s what you love about them!
Sylvia: Yeah, so… it is a little bit awkward talking about myself, I’m still getting used to that.
Ellie: I know, it’s so hard. I think that you’re so right – everything you’ve said about fostering self-love. I can’t tell you how much I’m drowning in self-improvement books all the time and trying body positivity but then if someone asked me ‘what do you love about yourself’ I’d be like…nooo. It’s very hard for all of us to put it into practice; I think we all really have the impetus and so A for Effort for all of us. But then of course it’s very difficult for us to talk about what we love because no part of our society is fostering that bit of us, or trying to encourage us that we need it more. Also there’s a lot of shame for women around the idea of arrogance. But I’m gonna keep pushing you to think… I could tell you a million things I love about you but that wouldn’t be the point.
Sylvia: Ummm, I like that I’m open… I’ll just pluck these words from the sky… Yeah I think that I’m open to, you know, different people, different personalities, and understanding why a certain person is a certain way and not disregarding who they are.
Ellie: Like emotional intelligence?
Sylvia: Yeah that’s what it is. I think you know, it’s weird – I have a thing of feeling or knowing when someone’s feeling either insecure, not liking something or they’re feeling a certain way, you know when you just get that aura of someone? You know you could be in the group and someone says something and they’re like, oblivious but then I can look around and be like ‘shoot, she’s not happy with that’ or ‘ok, he’s just looked at her’ you know what I mean? A bit more…
Sylvia: Yeah, aware, observant in terms of how people are and I think that comes with being a stage manager as well – making sure your cast are cool and they’re cool with each other and that they’re okay. Sometimes if the process is quite hard then I will be that buffer. Sometimes they need that outside eye – they wouldn’t go directly to the director and usually if I’m the director’s right-hand woman then they’ll come to me and be like ‘what did you think?’ ‘Cause I’m a different eye and a different kind of status if you know what I mean. Which is nice to be involved in that.
Ellie: When you said about self love, you said about your body… I would love to know if you were able to love things about yourself physically? Or if not, if that’s something you find really difficult?
Sylvia: I dunno, I guess I’m lucky in that I’ve kinda had the same body shape since I was younger and so I’ve always been tall and thin but then I think, as I’ve got older I’ve been like ‘why am I so thin? I wanna have curves’ but you know it’s that ‘careful what you wish for’, ‘grass is greener’ kind of thing….
Ellie: Talking about being careful what you wish for, when I was thirteen years old, it’s one of my clearest memories, I was sat crying in the bath because I was completely flat-chested and I sobbed to my mum about it. I remember she said ‘darling I’m sorry, I feel like I’ve let you down but you will never have curves, you will never have big breasts because I’ve got a really boyish figure. You will never be busty, that is just never going to happen’ and it was literally as though my body was like ‘challenge accepted!’ And now I have a 32HH bra.
Sylvia: What’s that…HH? Oh my days!
Ellie: And I hate them – that’s the important part in this is that I sat there wishing for them, because when I was younger at school and all the girls were starting to have breasts that was such an important thing.
Sylvia: Yeah I had none. I had nothing.
Ellie: Suddenly getting them should have felt great, but what I hadn’t realised is fashions change and now I feel I don’t fit the fashion, and haven’t for a while. It feels like the last fifteen years the fashion has been all about the tomboyish, masculine, tailored look for girls and it’s all about being flat-chested, and I feel so much shame when I go shopping because I don’t fit in to anything around the bust. It’s hard for me not to feel really ashamed of the thing that’s sort of meant to make me really womanly!
Sylvia: But then, on the other hand, I’ve got little tatas, and I’m like, well if I had bigger tatas I could fill this out. I can look at certain things and look at my friends and be like ‘you can fill that out’ you know, ‘that would look good on you because you could fill that out’.
Ellie: I never think about that.
Sylvia: They’re like ‘no, you would look good because you’ve got a small chest and you could wear no bra and be out’ and I’m like ‘why would I wear no bra I’d be cold!’ (Lots of laughter) But that’s just me, I’d be like ‘why am I wearing no bra?! I’m cold!’ Usually the bra’s the thing that makes me warm, then I’d put a vest on top. I’m a bit like that. erm…physically… I think my height. IS that a physical thing?
Ellie: Yes, absolutely, it’s really cool to embrace that.
Sylvia: I think my height because I’ve always been really tall… my height’s cool. I have a friend who’s way taller than me, I think she’s like 6’4’’ or something and she wears heels and she is like a skyscraper and she is bossing it, like ‘I don’t care’.
Ellie: As a fellow tall woman, I think that’s it’s really empowering to get to a point where you take up your space and you fill that space. I reckon that it must really change when you walk in a room how people perceive you if you’re bold enough to just take up that space and just own it. I spent a lot of time stooping and trying to shrink out of my height, and trying to pretend that I was shorter than I was, and I feel like I’m starting to own my height. And wearing heels and loving being amazingly tall.
Sylvia: Wearing heels and having them long gazelle legs just walking, loving it.
Ellie: What is the biggest challenge that you’re facing in your life right now?
Sylvia: In terms of career?
Sylvia: Probably just finding a theatre home. I’ve been freelancing for suuuuch a long time. It would be nice to be like settled in one place. But then also the fear of getting bored and being like ‘ugh I’ve been here for six months’, starting to get bored of people’s faces and the same thing. I guess it does change in terms of who you’re working with and what you’re working on so we’ll see.
Ellie: It’s funny with this industry that you so crave stability and, I can only speak as an actor, we want to know what we’re doing next but you give someone a year-long contract and it’s like ‘ohhh, I’m scared I’ll get bored doing that for a year’. We don’t want too much stability because we’re not used to it.
Sylvia: That’s very true.
Ellie: Some people are in the same job for like ten years, but as an actor six months freaks me out a bit. Which women inspire you and why?
Sylvia: There are two women – they’re no one famous, they’re from when I started out in my career. So Anne-Marie; I was part of Dream Arts which is like a youth theatre organisation when I was like sixteen. I was in the band the first year – I played the sax, and then I came back the next year and then Anne-Marie actually pushed me and kinda nurtured me when she realised I actually quite liked doing stage management a lot, and when I went to drama school and stuff. She knows there’s a business idea that I’m thinking of that I wanna do and she’s still pushing me. I’m 28, still ain’t done it and she’s like ‘what’s going on with that business…?’ So yes… and when I started out she is like the only woman of colour that I knew working backstage and she’s also a stage manager, she just felt like a boss to me. I remember she had silver boots on, that was amazing. We were in rehearsals one time and she had long silver boots with this heel and she was rocking it and I was like, ‘I want to be her’. She was lovely, and she had this sweet voice. She was smart and she was very encouraging so I really love Anne-Marie for that. Yeah, I actually love her. And Deidre. Deidre Malynn. She was the artistic director of the Cochrane Theatre before it moved, where it was in Holborn, and she was the one who pushed me to go to drama school. She was like ‘what are you doing, you’ve been here for like two years, what are you doing? It’s close to drama school time, like uni application time, what do you wanna do?’ And I was like ‘that’s a good point.’ She was like ‘do you like stage management? Do you wanna go to drama school with it?’ At the time I was just, I was liking it. It was summer and there was a job there and Dream Arts kinda hired me throughout the year to do some events and stuff so I really liked it and she was like ‘just apply, there’s some drama schools – apply.’ So I did. I applied to Central and Bruford and the other three were like unis for tv production I chose Bruford because I liked the grounds and I liked my interview and stuff so that was cool and it was nice ‘cause she was the one who ushered me… so the Cochrane, before I went to drama school that’s where I started all my training. I learned from professionals who worked with us and trained us at the Cochrane which was really cool.
Ellie: Amazing. They both sound fab.
Sylvia: Yeah, they are really cool.
Ellie: What assumptions to you find that you tend to make about other women?
Sylvia: In general or in theatre?
Sylvia: It depends. When I meet new women I become really observant, especially in theatre, once we start rehearsals or something. I’m quite quiet and I just kind of observe, see how they are, see how they interact with other people, things like that. I don’t know if I assume anything straight away. I assume a lot with eye contact, so if I feel like there’s not enough, like if you’re new or I’ve seen you and we’ve met and there’s not enough eye contact when we’re talking I wonder why. I feel eye contact is important and I don’t know why, I’ve only realised that now as I’ve got older and I’m meeting new people.
Ellie: Well eye contact, a lot of it’s about.. it’s so funny because I’m really good at eye contact until I start talking about eye contact with someone and I get really awkward. It’s like talking about yawning and then not being able to stop yawning. I used to not be able to do eye contact at all and what’s interesting, with all the therapy I did, was the realisation that a lot of the time the fear about eye contact is a fear of being seen and a real fear of people seeing your shame and seeing your insecurity and letting people in. A lot of people in theatre – in particular first days and first weeks and things like – that there’s so much going on and there’s so much insecurity that actors feel, I think everyone gets very bad with eye contact at the beginning of rehearsals.
Sylvia: It’s true; it’s weird, I’ve had a lot of women or girls after a while, once rehearsal is halfway through or we get to a show, at the end I always get girls telling me like ‘oh my gosh, when I first met you I thought you were gonna be rude but you’re actually alright you know’ and I’m like, what!
Ellie: That’s really interesting – assumptions people make about you!
Sylvia: And I’m like what? Do I look this way? But yeah, it’s weird. I’ve had that a few times. And I used to ask my best friend like ‘what is it? When you met me, what did you think?’ Sometimes people are… uncomfortable or insecure about other women. My best friend’s really opened my eyes to things like that; because I have brothers, so the whole women thing’s a bit, you know…I had a lot of male friends when I was growing up and Lisa was like my best female friend that I could relate to, ‘cause we’re from the same area, we like the same things, our parents are from the same country. We kinda bonded a lot over that ‘cause I always felt like I didn’t have an amazing time with girls in general in secondary school. It was like, I was living my life, I didn’t really care about people ever. I always had different groups of friends, I always moved around and maybe girls saw that I was just living my life; I was happy doing my thing. My whole concentration wasn’t about being popular or wanting to be in their group.
Ellie: There’s something very scary to people about someone that doesn’t care – about someone not buying into a world which others are buying into. I’ve just been reading an amazing book called Sapiens and it talks about how culture and religion and all the rules of society we live by, we’ve made them all up, it’s all imagined. And in a way if you look at the structure of a school or whatever and all these ideas of popularity there’s nothing scarier than someone choosing not to buy into it, we all have to believe in it for it to matter. In life it’s very frightening to people if someone turns round and says: ‘well I’m choosing not to believe in your imagined structure’. If you’re moving around a lot and saying: ‘well it doesn’t really matter to me’ then that’s terrifying for people who rely on that structure.
Sylvia: I sometimes felt that I had to prove I was nice. As I get older I still feel that sometimes, that I have to prove that I AM nice!
Ellie: Well it’s also interesting, like what you were saying about growing up with brothers and stuff; having had the experience of meeting you on a first day, apart from thinking you were one of the most strikingly beautiful people I’ve ever seen – and that in itself is very intimidating – I’m sure to a lot of people you do have a very strong energy that I imagine is associated with a kind of masculine energy. I’m not using ‘masculine’ in the sense of girls and boys; I think we all can posses masculine energies and feminine energies. I think that some women find it hard when they come up against a masculine energy in another girl. I wonder whether having grown up with brothers and things like that you have a sort of a strength to you on meeting that I don’t think all women have naturally.
Sylvia: That’s so interesting.
Ellie: You have an unapologetic quality. I think that a lot of women nowadays walk into rooms apologising for being there because I think that’s what we’ve been taught to do and I wonder if that’s what’s been misinterpreted on first days is people being like ‘oh I didn’t think you were gonna be nice’ or whatever. Because you’re amazing and lovely and I’ve had the best time with you and one thing you don’t do is apologise for being there which is brilliant. I’ve been told off a lot, especially with auditions, because I walk in with such an energy of like apologising, people have told me you can feel my own disappointment with myself before I’ve even started. Anyway I’ve got way off track!
Sylvia: I blame you!
Ellie: For you is there a certain stigma around women that you’d like to see go?
Sylvia: The idea that we can’t do something? Ugh, every time. Yeah, I think it’s just the instant idea that we can’t, that we’re not capable of something that a man thinks we can’t do. So before I was at East 15 I went on tour to India for five weeks with a show called ‘Half Breed’. It was at Soho and it went to Edinburgh and I didn’t do those two because I was working and they were like ‘can you do the India tour?’ and I was like YES! So I did the India tour and that was a very big cultural shock. But in all venues they were so confused when we all rocked up because our team is made up of four women: the director, the actress, me as the company stage manager or the stage manager on book and the technical stage manager.
Ellie: What an incredible thing, to tour just as four women – that is amazing.
Sylvia: It was a really empowering thing – every time we went to a space, we walked in and you’d see all these men just like, looking at us, like ‘oh’. So we would tell them ‘this is what we need, this is what we want’ and there were a lot of men who would be suggesting things or saying we should do it like this and the TSM was like ‘no, we’ve been touring the show for a while, we know what we’re doing, can we just have this, can we just do this?’ It just felt a lot like they wanted to take over because we just knew too much, we knew what we were doing – we didn’t need them.
Ellie: The assumption that women need help.
Sylvia: Yeah, that’s what it is. When we need help we’ll ask you. Let us do our job and then you can muscle in if you need to.
Ellie: I was watching ‘I’m a Celebrity: Get Me Out of Here’ – I’m embarrassed to say – this year and there was a moment when Kesia Dugdale was trying to light a fire. Not trying to, she was succeeding in lighting a fire, she was just doing it, and bloody Amir Khan wouldn’t leave her alone for trying to help her; and it was brilliant, there was a moment when she turned round and she was like ‘I don’t want your help’. She wasn’t being rude she was just like ‘don’t need it, I’m doing it’. One thing I find really interesting is the assumption that women don’t feel patronised like men do. This is a massive generalisation, but the number of times that I’ve tried to help a man with something, or suggest something, or in some way try and aid them and I’ve been told that I’m… I’ve been made to feel that I’m patronising them or being condescending. There’s such an assumption as if we just don’t feel it the other way round – do you not think it’s patronising when we’re made to feel we can’t do things? But it’s made as if it’s only patronising when doing that to a man.
Sylvia: Yeah ‘cause of your male ego. I tried to help a guy once with a get-in or something and he looked like he was having trouble with the ladder you know, he had the lock at the bottom that you have to pull up and out or whatever and I saw him struggling. And everybody else was doing their thing and I wasn’t really doing much and I wanted to help him so I tried to help him and then I was like ‘oh you have to pull this thing out’ and he was like ‘I know what to do, I’ve been working with ladders for years’, and I was like ‘well you clearly were struggling’. So I just walked away. You didn’t have to bite my head off. I was just helping because you were struggling for a good while – I was watching you. I was leaving you to your own devices but you were there for a while and you were by yourself so I thought I would come and help you. Yeah ‘I’ve been working with ladders for years’ well, congratulations I hope you got a certificate for it.
Ellie: That leads really nicely into the next question – what you were just saying about get-ins: how, for you, has gender affected you at work as a stage manager?
Sylvia: Yeah, I think just lifting stuff you know, just normal things like – let me do my job. I can do a get-in, I can lift steel deck, I can lift the weights, it’s fine, I’m good, know what I mean, like… I’m a slim girl so I look weedy, so I assume that people just look at me and think ‘oh she can’t hold shit’. I pick things up and they’re like ‘oh’ – I’ve been picking these things up for years so I’m able to know how to pick them up and I know how much I can hold.
Ellie: Do you ever feel less heard in this industry as a woman? Or perhaps a better way of putting it is are there any ways in which you feel you have to overcompensate?
Sylvia: I think just going back to filling the space and looking like you are supposed to be there. So that’s where I go back to being like ‘no, this is my job, I’ve been doing this for a long time and I know what I’m doing’. I think you just have to instigate that otherwise you can be overthrown a little bit. Or if someone asks a certain question that should be directed at you and they’ll go above you. You know what I mean? It’s weird. And I always make it known, so if I don’t know about a certain thing I’m like ‘what happened there? How come I wasn’t told about that? When did you have that conversation? It’s important that I know that.’ It’s certain things where people feel they can have a talk or meetings elsewhere and then we’re in the production meeting and I don’t know about it and I’m like ‘oh, so what’s going on there, oh, I didn’t know that, when did you have that meeting?’ So I’m trying to be less aggressive because it’s easy for me to be seen as the young woman who’s black, who’s angry… you know what I mean?
Ellie: I was listening to the Guilty Feminist the other day – to Lolly Adefope talking about how she feels as a young black woman that whenever she gets angry she feels she has to qualify it by being like ‘I’m aware of the stereotype of the angry young black woman and I’m not that, but I am angry…’
Sylvia: I have feelings and I’m allowed to be angry but I don’t have to be stereotyped about the way I’m angry.
Ellie: Well as women in general, words like ‘bossy’ are only used with women and it’s so difficult in jobs like yours to assert yourself and not be met with a reaction of – to not be seen as bossy or not be seen as…
Sylvia: That’s what they do. They’re always like that. They’re like ‘okay, let’s relax’ – you pissed me off and I’m angry.
Ellie: In general it’s a part of this industry; the dichotomy of women trying to assert themselves whilst also feeling that you have to be nice as a woman. So the fact that you were saying you have to prove that you’re nice but you also have to assert yourself and stand your ground to be taken seriously and that’s a really difficult line to tread that I just don’t think a lot of guys have to think about. I think that, of course guys have to think about being nice, and they probably have to think about asserting themselves, but they’re able to do both but think of them as separate, they don’t have to balance them in the same way.
Sylvia: No one’s gonna look at a guy and think he’s throwing a hissy fit or something.
Ellie: I think when a guy asserts himself people aren’t like, ‘oh he must not be nice’ – when you have a male director asserting himself I don’t think it has an impact on whether you think they’re a nice person or not, and I think when you have a female director asserting themselves, they either have to qualify that they’re also nice, or it’s an assumption that they’re a hard-arse. That they’re cold.
Sylvia: It’s like you want to be respected but not feared. When I do my job and my work I don’t want you to be scared of me. I want you to respect what my job is so when I do tell you something you respect that and you do it, and vice versa – if you have a complaint or want me to do something or get something I will respect that and see what I can do.
Ellie: That’s it, isn’t it, is that there’s a confusion often that women are looking for more power, but it’s a question of respect and it’s about having your opinion respected equally and your time respected equally, and respect is sort of at the root of the problem.
Sylvia: But times have changed in terms of what is happening in the world and people are talking more about race so now with me – a black woman in theatre who’s walking around the space, certain conversations in terms of, you know, how people talk or what people are talking about, your ears are more pringed. So sometimes if someone’s saying a certain thing or they are reacting to you like they think they should, like they’re spudding me and I’m like ‘what are you doing, I haven’t come to you spudding, I’ve never spudded…’
Ellie: What’s spudding?
Sylvia: Like fist pumping me… like I have never done that to you so you don’t have to come to me and think that you have to culturally appropriate a fist pump – you don’t have to do that. It’s little things like that that you see in people; they feel they need to change their attitude towards you because all they see is this. Usually they don’t see a woman – they see my skin colour and then they see a woman. It’s in that order. So I’m walking through life with people seeing my race before they see a woman. SO in theatre I’m a bit more aware, you know my ears are a bit more pringed. I dunno if that makes sense. Working in an industry from when I was younger to now you never think about that. You just think oh, women are stage managers, oh that’s pretty cool. And then you start working a bit more and you’re like, oh, there’s not enough people of colour backstage, this is interesting, and then you keep going so I did it for my dissertation about why there weren’t enough ethnic minorities backstage and culturally why is that? As you get older you walk through life and you see theatre in a different way so yes I see it from being a woman but I see it from colour as well. I realise certain people’s attitudes where they feel they have to speak a certain slang to me or like do something… it’s so cringy it’s like, you don’t have to do that. But yeah you don’t realise it until you start working a bit more. I think I realise it in young people. Young caucasian people who are like oh yeah you know ‘sister!’ And I’m like ‘what are you doing? Oh no! We’re not doing that. No. No one told you to do that.’ But it’s funny, it’s interesting. We understand why it’s done, to like, do the whole relation thing but you know, relate to me with something else, I like music…
Ellie: Exactly, like you wouldn’t go up to a woman and be like, so periods…
Sylvia: Oh my boobs hurt all the time!
Ellie: Yes absolutely. What’s one bit of advice that you wish you’d been given, or that you could give to your younger self?
Sylvia: Hmm. I don’t know, probably like, keep going. Trust in yourself. Trust in yourself and keep going. Yeah. I think so. That you’re beautiful and you will get to know that! You will get to know that.
Ellie: I’d like to tell my younger self to learn how to do taxes sooner.
Sylvia: Oh my Lord have mercy!
Ellie: So part of this project has been about trying to get women to communicate with each other and so I have a question for you from the last girl I interviewed, the amazing Lucie Shorthouse, and her question was: can you describe the moment/s when you felt or feel most comfortable in yourself?
Sylvia: I think two things – when I have my close friends and my family around me and we’re like having fun, we’re laughing and like making memories, that’s good. No one needs to pretend to be anyone because we’re all ourselves. And two is when I’m like loving a show, a company, and I’m running the show and I’m in my element and I’m loving it and you get that buzz. Whenever I run a show I wanna make sure the cast trust what I’m doing, they trust that I’m gonna do that cue on time, they trust that the light’s gonna come up they trust that that sound cue is gonna be there. The same thing that I trust my cast members that they’re gonna give me that cue line, I’m gonna trust my cast member’s are gonna come in on time so I feel like everyone’s trusting each other and we’re like, yes we’ve got this, this show is amazing, and yeah. So I feel like those two things…
Ellie: I also totally agree, if I had to answer that question I think I would say like, on stage. Performing. Not any moment but when you’re doing it, especially when you get a show when you’re just like flying with it and you’re not thinking, the best moments are the ones when you can’t remember what you did because you know you were just having the best time. But also like you said, with friends and family, laughing and having fun, the best moments – the moments where I’ve felt the most comfortable in myself, have all been that childish joy, and it’s much harder to keep up as adults, where you forget to be self-conscious. So on my second week of therapy I was in the South of France with this group and they were trying to encourage that unfiltered joy we felt as children and we were playing tug of war over a swimming pool. Now, I have dysmorphia, being in a swimming costume in front of twenty other people in itself is like an incredibly stressful experience. And I was having so much fun and there was a point where my team members let go but I was still holding on which meant that I got pulled into the swimming pool and in that moment of being in mid air just before I was about to hit the water I was laughing so hard that I totally forgot to care. When we’re children we don’t worry about how we are in our bodies and things, we just ARE, and I think you’re so right that with friends and family it’s about getting back to that. So the last thing is: what’s your question that you feel needs to be asked, or a question that you would just like to be asked to the next person? It can be quite a large-scale question or it can be quite specific.
Sylvia: Who were you and who are you now?
Ellie: That is amazing. Oh my god I love that question so much. Thank you so much Sylvia.