Behind the scenes with stage manager Alice Barnett

Once the director gives their final words of encouragement to the actors and moves on to their next project, each Lighthouse show is entrusted to the stage manager for the duration of the run.

Along with cueing the lights and sound effects, the stage manager makes sure the show is running on time, reminds actors of dialogue, blocking and motivation, and generally ensures that the each performance is true to the director’s vision.

For two productions this season, that stage manager has been newly minted Port Dover resident Alice Barnett.

“I love it. It’s so much fun,” Barnett said of her first season at Lighthouse. “You walk in and it’s such a family vibe here already, and that’s always really comforting coming to.”

Barnett was raised in Newmarket but visited Norfolk County often as a child to see relatives in Wilsonville. When she moved to Port Dover last year with 11 years of professional stage management experience under her belt, she had high hopes that she could continue her career at Lighthouse.

“It’s a really friendly atmosphere,” Barnett said of her first impressions of the theatre. “Everyone knows how everyone works and how they like to work, so I find it makes the process that much easier and smoother. You hit the ground running.”

She was also delightfully surprised by the rehearsal hall on Main Street.

“It’s so new!” she said. “Normally you think it’s going to be a church hall or something like that, but this is a beautiful facility that Derek has got us.”

Having air conditioning on a hot summer’s day or being able to leave props and furniture where they are – rather than having to put them away each night because someone else is using the space – is a big help during three weeks of rehearsals.

“For the actors, having a simple, clean space makes all the difference,” she said. “You’re not distracted, it’s temperature controlled. It’s so funny how the simplest things make the biggest difference.”

Barnett was stage manager for the first show of the season and is now hard at work on the fourth show. But she didn’t get much of a break, only enjoying a three-day breather between the close of Sexy Laundry at Lighthouse’s sister theatre, Showboat Festival Theatre in Port Colborne, and the start of her preparation for Prairie Nurse one week before the actors began rehearsing.

For Sexy Laundry, Barnett worked with a pair of veteran Lighthouse actors, Melodee Finlay and Ralph Small, in a show directed by Artistic Director Derek Ritschel. Now she’s supporting director Audrey Dwyer and seven actors new to Lighthouse in Prairie Nurse.

“For Sexy Laundry, everything was very straightforward. No one’s coming in and out (on stage), there aren’t props flying everywhere. With Prairie Nurse, which is a farce, there are doors opening and closing, people whizzing in an out, props everywhere. So in that regard it’s very different,” Barnett explained. 

“With Ralph and Mel, I think everyone in the room knew everyone’s strengths so it was easy to play towards those. Whereas with Prairie Nurse, everyone’s new, so there’s more experimentation. ‘How do we make this work? What should we do? Let’s try it a couple of different ways.’ Both approaches are very different, very useful, but they get the results that each company needs.”

Barnett has long known she wanted to work in theatre, and in particular as a stage manager, a job that requires knowing a little about every element of stagecraft and remaining focused for every moment of each performance.

She was a self-described “drama kid” at Huron Heights Secondary School, a specialty arts high school in Newmarket, where she gravitated to working behind the scenes rather than wanting to be on stage.

“(Being a stage manager) was a lot of fun, and really engaging. It was the most appealing to me because I was doing the most possible,” Barnett said.

“You were there for everything from the beginning right through to the end. Whereas other departments, once they create something and hand it off to you, they get to step away, but I liked being a part of it all the way through.”

She continued her studies in technical production at Sheridan College, graduating with a solid grounding in lighting, sound, props, wardrobe and stage management, as well as benefitting from crucial real-world experience running shows.

Her time at Sheridan confirmed her hunch that stage management was what she wanted to do for a living.

“There was never any doubt,” Barnett said. “I’ve always wanted to love to go to work, and I do.”

As a stage manager, Barnett might be called upon to fix props and costumes, motivate actors, negotiate with venue staff, strategize with the director, and even make coffee – sometimes all on the same day.

“It’s all-encompassing,” she said. “You have to know how to do a little bit of everything, and you have to be willing to learn.”

One of the stage manager’s most delicate tasks is approaching an actor after they’ve flubbed a line or changed their blocking during a performance to find out what went wrong and what stage management can do to smooth out what’s happening on stage.

“It’s situational. You have to read the room and read the people that you’re working with,” Barnett said.

“Everyone understands you don’t like to be told you made a mistake. That’s hard. So it’s just being sensitive to how people receive information. You just get better at it with practice.

“Everyone’s very understanding and knows that you’re doing it for the best interest of the show, and it’s not personal. We’re really here to support them. It’s all about making sure that they’re comfortable in the room and they have what they need so they can do their jobs. If their job is going well, then our job is going well.”

Even after 11 years in the business, Barnett says she’s still honing her craft.

“I’m still young in my career. You learn every day, in every theatre and every rehearsal space. They’re all different,” she said.

It’s the feeling of working in live theatre that keeps her coming back.

“I think every theatre you go to, you kind of create a new family,” she said. “So when you go into a rehearsal space, it’s a safe space and there’s a lot of compassion and support. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t enjoy that.”

Now that she knows her way around Lighthouse, Barnett hopes to be a fixture at her hometown theatre for years to come.

“I’d love to continue working with the company and seeing what they produce and what Derek comes up with next,” she said. “It’s always exciting.”