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Nora Polley never imagined she could earn a living in theatre

As published in The Stratford Beacon Herald, Tuesday, September 2, 2014.

By Donal O'Connor, The Beacon Herald

The limelight tends to shine on the leading actors and the director, designer and choreographer, leaving the backstage folks in the dark.

But Nora Polley has no lament about the unsung off-stage role she played at the Stratford Festival for almost four decades.

"Good stage management is invisible," says Polley, who stage-managed around 70 plays at the Festival during a theatre career that began with a Canada Council apprenticeship in 1969.

Now 66 --and still with the Festival but in a different role --Polley's roots in Stratford and with the theatre go deep.

Her father Victor Polley was the Festival's bookkeeper in 1954 and 17 years later was administrative director. Her grandfather Francis Patrick Polley coached the choir that performed in the Festival inaugural season for Richard III in 1953.

A machinist with the Canadian National Railway, music was his passion.

Not surprisingly, Nora Polley's interest in theatre was sparked by her father but at first she never imagined there was something in theatre she could do to earn a living.

That changed following a successful university production of a play by Vaclav Havel called The Memorandum in which she had been involved as producer.

With Havel at the time in internal exile in Czechoslovakia the production garnered media attention that included a review by then Toronto Telegram critic Nathan Cohen.

Jean Gascon, artistic director at the Festival starting in 1968, had a word with Polley's father about her success with the Havel play and the Festival took her on board.

Polley was an assistant stage director in 1970 and stage managed her first Festival play in 1972, in which Bill Hutt was the leading actor. It was a play she had good reason to never forget, especially the student performance that was on when Canada and Russia were facing off in a world hockey final.

Since then, Polley missed just three Stratford Festival seasons. That was when John Hirsch, artistic director 1981-1985, cleared out some of the theatre people who had been associated with the previous artistic director Robin Phillips.

"I was too closely identified with Robin Phillips," recalled Polley. "There were some of us not invited back for that three-year period."

She returned as a stage manager when John Neville became artistic director in 1986.

"The thing that I loved about stage management was the actors. I love working with actors. I think they are extraordinary beings who sort of bare their souls on the stage in front of thousands of strangers night after night."

"Those of us who work backstage, I think that we have a very important role to support them, to help them to do the best they can."

For Polley, the most fascinating aspect of the job was being present during rehearsals.

"You're there when the penny drops and someone says I know what this play is about' or somebody does something so extraordinary and instinctual that is brilliant."

Many times the only people in the room apart from herself would be the actors and the directors and she cherished those moments.

As stage manager she was responsible for keeping record of all stage movements as determined by the director and actors and for noting sound and lighting cues as those were worked out.

Adapting to a spectrum of director approaches was naturally part of the job and a key task was disseminating all of the staging instructions to everybody else -in props, wardrobe, sound and lighting. One vital challenge right from the beginning was to establish an atmosphere of trust.

"Actors have to feel free to make mistakes and not feel they'll be judged by anybody, that we're all on their side," said Polley. "It's a hard thing to do, acting. There's no safety net. There's no promise of things to come. It's all in the moment."

Polley recalled, too, that she was told very early on in her career that if someone notices that you're doing your job as stage manager "it's because you just made a mistake."

It's something she has always believed, she said.

As one might expect, there were some extraordinary situations that cropped up from time to time and probably the most notable for her was when in the 1972 production the leading actor, knowing that the audience was preoccupied with a hockey game, said on stage that Canada won and Henderson had scored. Polley has stated her surprise publicly before now. "It was extraordinary. Terrifying. Absolutely terrifying," she said in an interview Saturday. "There's nothing in the stage management manual that tells me what I'm supposed to do when my leading actor announces the hockey score from the stage." The play went fine, with good audience attention, after Hutt's announcement.

One important aspect of the stage manager's role is to keep the production to script. Another extraordinary, but quite different, situation was precipitated during the province-wide power blackout of Aug. 14, 2003. The power loss occurred in the middle of a performance of The King and I at the Festival Theatre. The emergency lighting that's designed to allow the audience to exit came on but stage manager Cindy Toushan (Polley was assistant stage manager for that show) conferred with musical director Bert Carriere and they decided to continue the show with just the low lighting. The show continued but a lot had been changed backstage. All of the electronic amplification for actors and orchestra was gone, as was the lighting in dressing rooms. Polley recalled that anyone backstage with a flashlight was pressed into action and that actors had to change outfits in the hallways where there was more light. But something else happened that was magical. "Because of that (loss of amplification) everybody was listening really carefully and we continued the show and the audience loved it," recalled Polley. "They loved it." No one would have immediately known the extent of the blackout. The only part of the play that became problematic was at the end when the king dies and the stage was supposed to fade to black. With that not possible with the emergency lighting, the actors stood still for just enough time for the audience to realize the play was over.

"Then the king got up and walked off and we did the curtain call."

"It was quite extraordinary," said Polley.

After the show Antoni Cimolino informed the audience of the province-wide blackout. For Polley the experience was a reminder of what's at the centre of theatre.

"It's an interesting thing that, when you get right down to it, all that the theatre needs are actors and a good story. That's all that's required. All the rest of it is helpful and supportive but not necessary."

In 1987 after what she describes as a troubled production of Othello, Polley was considering "taking a break" from the theatre but she credits former artistic director Richard Monette for pulling her "back from the edge" when he asked her to manage The Taming of the Shrew, his first production on the Festival stage. The play featured Colm Feore and Goldie Semple. Monette --and Phillips earlier on --were very appreciative of her work, said Polley. After close to 40 years as a stage manager, Polley decided it was time to retire from the job and she did just that about five years ago. The Festival Archives, however, offered a welcome career shift and currently she is working on identifying people in scores of photographs that are included in the theatre's extensive photo collection.

"All the things that I know and remember are actually of use here. Every day in the Archives they bring in something that has no label and say What is this?'"

Many of the early photos, notes Polley, just identify the leading actors, labelling the others in the picture as, "The supporting Canadian cast."

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