(1,400 words, 5-minute read)
I’m Pat Gui and I’ve been in the art industry for 29 years. I feel very old. On my business card, it says that I’m a director, because I’m the company director of my own company. But I’m actually in production and stage management. My company is called PH7 Production Management, and I started it 14 years ago.
I was in the Arts Stream and studied literature at the Methodist Girls’ School in Kuala Lumpur from 1986 to 1990. The O-level text for Literature was Romeo and Juliet and during that time, the Liberal Arts Society staged the production of the same title. I went for the stage show and to cut a long story short, I got hooked… badly. It was 1989, and I was a mere 16-year-old and very impressionable.
I started out acting first, can you believe that? I was in Kamikasih’s Caught in the Middle Part Two (1991), directed by Mano Maniam and Thor Kah Hoong. I still remember going for the audition at the British Council KL. The story is about people living in Malaysia, so we were an ensemble group and we played many characters. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy the acting bit. It was veteran production designer Mervin Peters who introduced me to backstage work. I just got stuck. I worked as a freelancer on productions by Liberal Arts Society, The Actors Studio and The Instant Café Theatre Company in the early 1990s. I just loved it. I loved being backstage, all the craziness that happens and the adrenaline surge one gets before curtains, so I stuck to it. Oh and I absolutely loved my wardrobe – black all the time.
When people outside of the arts, like extended family members, ask me what I do, I usually say that I do theatre or if they don’t understand, then I just say I do events. And they say, ‘Oh, like TV?’ ‘No, no, live events with people coming into the auditorium.’ Then they ask, ‘Can make money or not?’ That’s a famous question, right?
My degree is in writing and publishing, because, like with a lot of Asian families, you say you want to do a degree in theatre? No such thing! The day after I got back from the UK after completing my degree, I got a call to do a production. It was Dramalab and Five Arts Centre’s production of Jit Murad’s The Storyteller (1996). And I thought, it’s meant to be, let’s just continue this journey.
Now, I do more production management work but I actually prefer to work as a stage manager. To tell you the truth, it’s very hard being the producer of a show because you have to raise funds and I’m so terrible at finding sponsors. I think that as a stage manager or SM, you concentrate more on the show itself. So the stage manager will read the script to the actors, and sort out the creative aspects. Whereas a production manager tends to see the bigger picture, in the sense that you start to liaise with the suppliers. You liaise with the set and props people and lights, sound and AV equipment suppliers. You inform them of the timeline, remind them of what the budget is and to stick with it. Throughout the whole production period, the production manager will set production schedules and get updated news from each department to ensure that everything is ready for the time when we move into the theatre. The production managers have a bigger job scope, working with a budget, whereas a stage manager just concentrates on the show. Which is very nice.
What does a stage manager do? You’d be very surprised how a lot of people really do not know what a stage manager is. The daily routine includes making sure the rehearsal space is clean and set up for the scene that is being scheduled for the day (before the performers arrive), taking attendance and collecting fines when performers are late for rehearsals, going through lines and blocking with the performers. Basically the stage manager is the director’s right hand person. The stage manager is always prepared for anything and will most likely have everything on hand, like a first aid kit (very important), nail clipper, lots of stationery (performers keep borrowing pens and pencils which we will never get back), emergency rations like chocolate (in case performers feel faint), sanitary pads (yes, that too) and the list goes on. In a production, if you see a person carrying more than two bags, carrying files, walking as if he/she is preoccupied… that person is the stage manager.
One of the most stressful moments for a stage manager is tech week. That is the week where my motto is ‘don’t talk to me unless you HAVE to’. Tech rehearsal sees each scene meticulously run through, including all technical cues from music to lighting to effects to visuals. Patience is of the utmost necessity. Tempers will flare, tears will fall but all in all, the stage manager MUST remain calm and collected.
To stay on this journey, you really have to have a passion for it, because stage management is, I think, the least appreciated job. You work really hard, you’re the first person there, the last person out. I have a lot of people who say they want to become a stage manager, but once they actually do the job, they find it very stressful and leave. To be a stage manager you need to have organisational skills, and discipline of course. It’s a tough job.
I’ve seen stage managers get bossed around – you have actors who try to take advantage, or people who are rude (I have a blacklist!). So you have to be stern and firm, yet friendly. You can’t let people walk all over you, because then work will not get done. Either you want to be a friend, or you want to do your job. Which is it?
I’ve lasted 29 years, so I guess I can say that I’m a sucker for punishment (laughs). It’s the adrenaline. I mean, the journey in every production is different and it can be painful. But at the end of the day, despite all the fights, and the screaming and shouting, you see it all come together – I think that’s what makes it worthwhile.
In 2016, after years of being in the industry, I got to produce my very own show. It was The Language Archive by Julia Cho. It is my proudest achievement. I was able to choose the people I wanted to work with, I was able to control the whole experience, so it was very enjoyable. Even though we lost money (that’s another story), I am still glad that I did it. For my first produced production, we managed to win three awards at the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards. I felt really proud. At the awards ceremony, I was thinking, I started out a mere fledgling, working as a crew, working my way up and here I am now, standing shoulder to shoulder with theatre veterans. It was such a surreal experience.
I lived through 9-11, but we didn’t really feel the impact. People were scared, but it didn’t stop things from happening. Jobs still went on. I never expected to live through a moment like this, with COVID-19. It has impacted so much, with shows I’m supposed to work on now either cancelled or postponed, and salaries not coming in. It’s very worrying and scary.
It’s hard to predict what the future holds. Ideally, of course I hope the virus and the whole situation will subside, and we just go back to normal. That’s what we are all hoping for. But for now, we just need to brace for what is coming. I’m already preparing myself that we might not be able to do any productions for the next six months at least. Now would be a time where we can actually start to focus on the creative aspects of our work, of how you want to do what you do. Now the directors, the creative people will have the time to really focus on how they want their shows to be.
I think the arts is important because it gives people a sense of peace. That is very needed right now.
The above is a transcript of an interview prepared by Kathy Rowland.
About the author(s)
Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.