Johanna Adams Farley 2022
- Cesar Corrales
- Edward Watson
- Gemma Bond
- Gina Storm-Jensen
- Johanna Adams Farley
- Kevin O'Hare
- Leticia Dias
- Luca Acri
- Mariko Sasaki
- Mayara Magri
- Ricardo Cervera
- Steven McRae
- William Bracewell
Johanna Adams Farley
Senior Stage Manager, The Royal Ballet Ballet
Interviewed by David Bain
American International Church, Tue 22nd February, 2022
David welcomed Johanna who had last been our guest nearly 15 years ago. She began by telling us about her role of Senior Stage Manager. Johanna said they are a team of four - herself, a deputy and two assistant stage managers (ASMs). Two are away on maternity leave at present so she is training two new ASMs and they are busy with Swan Lake and the new Triple Bill, but the team is working well together having finished Nutcracker and about to finish Romeo and Juliet.She finds it hard to describe her job, which seems so natural to her, but it involves being in charge of rehearsal studios, organising props, rehearsal costumes, marking out elements of the set on the studio floor so for example in Nutcrackerthey can see where the clock shop is at the beginning, stair-cases are at the back, entrances and exits and where important items of furniture and scenery go on stage. She liaises closely with choreographers, designers and lighting designers. A ballet is ‘called’ - all the cues are given from the musical score. Johanna had brought her Covid version of the Nutcracker score to show us. Because of Covid, there were no students from the School in the battle scene which was completely re-choreographed on the Company by Will Tuckett who added many more lighting cues so a new score was needed for this version. She hopes to return to the original next Christmas. The person who is going to call the show is sometimes Johanna herself or her deputy or her new ASM, who will call Swan Lake, and is doing a fantastic job in the stage rehearsals. ‘Calling’ means on one side of the book (score) you have a page divided into three columns, and on the other side normally a piano version but very occasionally, as with Wayne’s Chroma, an orchestral score. The first column gives moves which are happening on stage, dancers’ exits and entrances, maybe something with a prop. In the middle are the follow spot cues. At the Opera House the follow spot operators would feel indignant if they felt they were being cued for a well-known ballet so Johanna tends to leave that column blank unless it’s a new production or she feels a particular follow spot cue is necessary. The third column concerns cues for sound, scenery, flies, lighting or stage. For example, in Nutcracker you have Transformation Part I, with some elements moving, and Part II a lot of things moving at the same time and you have very little time to get the words out, speaking on a head-set so everyone can hear it, talking to the flies above, the lighting at the back of the auditorium and all members of the stage crew, as well as her stage management team. That’s what is ‘calling a show’ and the book is known as a prompt book or prompt score.
They liaise very closely with choreographers and designers, putting cues into the score in the rehearsal studio. Then there is the transfer from studio to stage which they’re very involved in. They have different technical crews and there’s recently been a somewhat unhappy restructuring and they’ve lost a lot of the old hands who knew the job inside out. Now on lighting the newcomers may not really know how to focus a lamp, positioning it down onto the stage as asked by the lighting supervisor so it takes a longer time at the moment while they are being trained. It’s been tricky but they’re very willing and they will get there. This has come about through Covid but people in the hierarchy wanted a change. Then there are the first rehearsals on stage, as they have now with Swan Lake which is tight on three hours, they’re lucky if they get 3¼ hours, and yesterday they were18 minutes late but were lucky to have an extra half hour of rehearsal time, much needed because sadly they had electricians who don’t know how to focus so it took longer. By the time they reach the end of the week they have to get it back to three hours. Then they’re on the stage, asking flies if they know their cues and what they have to do, props know where they’re setting and striking and getting things out of the way. There’s the technical running plot and every move is marked on the piece of paper which Johanna puts together and it tells them how many minutes into the ballet something happens, what happens on each cue, when the intervals will be and how long. When they reach an actual performance it becomes Johanna’s area of responsibility, working closely with head of stage and head of electrics. It’s her job at 6.55 to give the half hour call for a 7.30 curtain up and from then it’s known as the Senior Stage Manager’s stage.
For a new ballet the Stage Manager is involved in production meetings with the choreographer, designer, lighting designer before they start working with the dancers. For a big production it’s vital that they are part of that conversation, and often Kevin O’Hare wants it to go on tour so sets have to be checked for size. They probably couldn’t take this Swan Lakeproduction to Tokyo where the theatre they use is too small for the wonderful sets so these meetings are very important. They then continue to work very closely with the choreographer, elements of the sets are marked out in the studio where they sit in on rehearsals during the creation of a new ballet, marking up moves on the score so when they’re in the auditorium with the lighting designer and putting in the lighting cues they know where things are happening that he needs to know about. For ballet and opera all stage managers need to be able to read music though you can do them on visuals. Johanna recalled when she first did Anastasia Act III, the very eminent John B Read was lighting it and wanted it all as visuals rather than using the Martinu score. It also has historic film which has to be visuals as several cues happen during it.
Johanna then described the various sheets of paper she’d brought along to show us. The running score is what happens on each cue. On each side of the stage there is a member of stage management who make their own running list. They have different ways of describing the plots which is quite interesting but one of the team has to be able to pick it up if someone else goes off. Johanna got Covid five weeks ago on the day before the last Saturday matinee of Romeo and Juliet before mid-season break, and her deputy had to come in and call the show. Not only does the plot have to be good, prompt score also has to be good. Johanna’s deputy is Jackie whose score reading is so good and she was able to pick it up with no problem. In fact, Romeo and Juliet is fairly straightforward, unlike Nutcracker.
Stage left is prompt side, stage right is OP and this never changes although when Johanna first came to the Opera House the prompt side was where the prompt corner was. Since the reopening in 1999 it’s on the OP side, which is also known as the bastard prompt. She showed an OP plot for the props guys for Nutcracker because there are lots of props. For wardrobe they do an entries and exits plot so they are aware of quick changes for dancers and when principals are coming on and off so they can meet them with water etc. Jo showed us the prop Plot. Every prop is marked as to where it starts off, where it is in the wings before being brought on and sometimes they include little photos such as the base of the tree before it grows showing some of the props and where they’re set.
The bane of Johanna’s life is Risk Assessments which are hugely important and take hours to complete. They have to think of everything which takes time and it has to be updated constantly. There’s now a Covid version of Nutcracker since the students were taken out, and the boy no longer flies - that probably won’t come back. Every night at the end of a performance Johanna writes a show report which takes ages and is like a book, unlike the opera stage manager who nearly always says ‘clean show’! Kevin is always watching out front along with other ballet staff so you can’t get away with anything. If a follow spot isn’t bright enough on a dancer Kevin gets it on the show report. There were problems with the bridges in one of the last Nutcrackers. Johanna was told at 5.30pm that Bridge 5, which should be raised with 2 little staircases and from where Drosselmeyer comes down, was stuck four inches proud of the stage, and Bridge 6 which sits behind with the complete tree was stuck all the way down so a massive health and safety risk as it was open for anyone to fall down. Kevin was out but she found Gary Avis to discuss how they could get round it and not lose the show. By the time he arrived they’d managed to get Bridge 6 all the way up and they worked with the tree fully grown from the top of the show. With Gary and the technical crew, and help from front of house who delayed opening the auditorium, they came up with a conclusion. Kevin arrived and came up with some ideas and miraculously they didn’t lose the show. They couldn’t get the large house and fort on so had to adapt and explain to the dancers about changes to their entrances and exits, and the same with the snowflakes. In Act II they couldn’t set the Kingdom of Sweets or the journey through the grotto but the dancers were amazing and Kevin went out front and explained to the audience who were amazingly accepting of the situation. By the time of the Saturday shows, Bridge 5 was down and flush though couldn’t be moved within the action but at least they were able to set Act II correctly. Why did it happen? Johanna said they’ve been back in the building over 20 years since the last update and apparently it’s to do with the hydraulic cabling on that bridge. The engineers had worked frantically hard night and day on the cabling and nearly had to change Tosca because they couldn’t use the bridge but fortunately that didn’t happen.
Philip Mosley organises all the rehearsal schedules and must send any revisions by midday for the following day’s rehearsals which is part of the dancers’ Equity agreement. Johanna scribbles on which props are to be where. There’s also a stage rehearsal schedule for the week listing change-overs between the opera and ballet.
Communicating between everyone involved is done on a radio. Johanna is normally on Channel 1 and so is the person who’s calling the show as everyone needs to hear the cues. You have to be careful not to interrupt someone who’s ‘on the book’ as they’re extremely busy, particularly as today with Swan Lake which has so many cues, and there’s never a good time to ask a question. The flies have their own channel. There’s a little box which you press on one side for the flies and on the other side for the lighting board so you have a lot of people to control, to say nothing of all the dancers and some of the actors! As stage manager Johanna also inherited the job of engaging and contracting all the actors for the ballet productions but when she leaves that task will go to the ballet office. For Romeo and Juliet there are 32 contracts for the actors which is a lot of work. The opera stage management have nothing to do with contracts. Asked how many of them are on the stage at the same time, Johanna said rehearsing Swan Lake on stage all four are involved, and once they open she’ll try to cut down to three with herself, Anna on the book and alternating the assistants to give them a night off. One of the ASMs is busy working on the next triple bill in the rehearsal studio. How much time in advance of moves do you give people? There is a standby cue for lights of 25 seconds, for the Transformation scene it would be longer as there are so many things to say, and then you say ‘go’ and they immediately hit their button. In Nutcracker you are talking continuously from the start of the Transformation scene to the end of the battle. When there is limited stage time you have to fit everything in even though the technical crews are not as experienced and are therefore slower than previously. In this version of Swan Lake it’s tricky as they are moving out of the palace grounds to the lakeside while Siegfried is dancing a solo. There was no time to rehearse it on technical Sunday or before Act II, so Johanna suggested they set up Act I, go from the end of Act I, Siegfried do his solo, they rehearse the change and end up in the lake in Act II and this is what happened as they could have no more time on stage. A member suggested you have to be a diplomat and Johanna agreed that was a very good word for a stage manager. You have to be very diplomatic with your dancers, principals, choreographer and conductor who are all waiting for their moment. You understand the pressure on the lighting and stage workers so you’re trying not to get them into trouble. Having been there so long and knowing how they work, Johanna says they have an incredible working relationship as they know each other so well. Kevin is always pushing, understandably, to get his dancers rehearsed but the schedules are a challenge for available stage time. In the restructuring of the technical department, there were pay cuts and reduced hours from a 48 hour week to the current 42½ hour week. She now has to put all her team hours into an app called PARiM so although she can go over time if necessary one week, the next week the hours have to be reduced to even it up. But you can be in danger of working too many hours. The upcoming Like Water for Chocolatewill require a huge amount of studio time before they reach the stage and people say they’ll run out of hours so Johanna is doctoring her hours which would get her into trouble but otherwise it simply won’t work. David mentioned seeing her come out at 11.15 to which Johanna commented that could be early. The show report has to go out at the end of the night especially if, say, something as gone wrong with the bridges. In Romeo and Juliet recently she gave the cue to take the tabs (house curtain) out on Act II with the conductor’s up beat and they didn’t move and it took five minutes to reset. Another hairy moment last week was when the updated fly system was having teething problems. She called in the chapel after the market scene in Act II but saw on her screen that nothing was moving. Then it suddenly started to move, and they speeded up the cue on the computer so the lights didn’t come up too late. Those moments are pretty scary.
Talking of the stage schedule, an audience member asked why matinées seem to start earlier while the evening performances remain at the same time. This is another change which comes from the wardrobe department insisting on a bigger gap between performances and getting their break. Usually this means a great gap in between, with matinees getting earlier, understandable if it’s ballet going in to opera which is a big turnaround. What are the characteristics of a perfect stage manager? Diplomacy, sang froid, patience? Johanna comes from a theatrical family and her mother was an actress. She was worried about Johanna going into stage management as she knew how they were treated by actors and she herself always treated them so well. Johanna appreciates that dancers get nervous and have to take it out on someone but she can’t bear to hear them taking it out on her team and says to take it out on her as she understands why nerves cause them to behave in that way. You have to work with so many different people, choreographers, lighting designers and some are great, others tricky but it’s her life and she loves it. She’s married to an ex-principal dancer of the company (Richard Farley) who is older than she but sadly suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and though mentally so brilliant is very frail. He was a beautiful dancer and also a wonderful photographer who worked before digital photography came along. He stopped dancing in 1968 and worked for a lot of magazines, being sent on difficult assignments because he was very diplomatic and could get the photos. Johanna recalled an occasion when he was sent to take photos of Richard Burton who was playing Tito at his villa in Yugoslavia. After three days waiting, eventually he was summoned to the villa in the early hours of the morning but after four frames, Burton said that’s it. Richard asked to be given more time to do justice to Burton and himself. His tact worked and he was fabulous in the way he dealt with them. He was invited to stay for lunch, and Liz Taylor appeared looking beautiful though he wasn’t allowed to photograph her.
In 2002 she and Richard went to a small medieval village called Lagrasse in SW France and by the end of the week they’d bought a medieval pile of stone. She thought it would be wonderful to bring some dancers to perform in the Abbey grounds and in 2009 village friends said why not? At the start of the next season Johanna approached Marianela Nunez asking if she and Thiago Soares would come – she said of course and many of the dancers were keen to join. Harlequin loaned the floor and agreed to transport it for free and have done it ever since. A lighting rig came from a French company and they also put up seating. Johanna brought along an advertising poster for 2018 featuring Ed Watson who, along with Marianela, Thiago, Sergei Polunin, Yuhui Choe, Matt Ball, Frankie Hayward, Marcelino Sambe, Gary Avis, and Mara Galleazi, put on two shows, this time on the rugby pitch! This was their last show before the pandemic brought them to a halt but they’re determined to go back in 2023. Some people who had given a lot of financial support in 2018 asked if Johanna would put on a show for their friends and they did a matinee in not very good weather but they loved it. It is different in France because they start at 10pm after the heat of the day. Last year again they couldn’t go to Lagrasse and a friend, Judith Batchelor, arranged for them to perform at Yeo Valley where they did two shows last summer and had an incredible time. In France the villagers accommodate the dancers in their homes, they’re only paid a small fee but they have a great time as they’re wined and dined and there are pool parties with dinner and swimming in the river. They’re begging to come back! They normally put it on at the end of July, first time in 2010 they’d finished their tour in Barcelona so hired a coach to take them to Lagrasse. In 2018 their tour finished in Madrid so they went by train and coach. Timing also depends on what else is happening in the village where they have a big book festival and a lot of bands performing.
Asked how she became Stage Manager for the ballet, Johanna said her parents were actors, she was always going to be an actress and was always going to be better than Liz Taylor till the age of 15 when she broke her arm in a riding accident which shattered her confidence. By then her father had gone to outside broadcast stage management and she thought maybe behind the scenes would be more for her. Her godfather who was an actor had taken her and her siblings from the age of two to Covent Garden, to every play, musical and film, an incredible upbringing. At the age of 15 he took her to see Fonteyn and Nureyev in Romeo and Julietwhich left her absolutely speechless. The next season she began sleeping on the pavement every night to get standing tickets for every performance. She bunked off school but with her parents’ agreement she got an unconditional place at the Central School of Speech and Drama to study stage management which meant she didn’t need ‘A’ levels though looking back it’s sad but she was never working as she should. She always had a great love of dance but when she came out of Central she joined the incredible The Actors’ Company which was led by Ian McKellen and spent 18 months on the road with them which was fantastic. She worked in the theatre and musicals for the next six years. She then tried TV at the BBC where her father had been but sadly he died far too young and it became a horrible place and not right for her. She also felt going into Television Centre was like going into a factory, just churning out programmes, and it wasn’t creative as she wanted to be. Her mother was making a TV series there and the floor manager, a former deputy stage manager at the Opera House who knew from her mother how much she loved ballet, said he would teach her to read a score to run a ballet. She worked on Petrushka which is one of the most difficult scores and then in February 1979 the job of Assistant Stage Manager came up at London Festival Ballet which she got and has never looked back. Within eight weeks of joining she went with the company on tour to Peking and Shanghai, an incredible experience, when Beryl Grey was still Director. She was succeeded by John Field. Johanna spent ten years with them and then spent a year with Michael Clark arranging and managing his first tour to Japan. After John, Peter Schaufuss took over the re-named English National Ballet and when he left for Berlin he asked her to go as well which she did and spent 3½ wonderful years there, despite a terrible accident, returning to the UK in 1994 to put her son Tom into the English school system. Jay Jolley, a principal at Festival Ballet in Johanna’s time there, was invited by Anthony Dowell to join the Royal, and when they were looking for a senior stage manager he said Johanna was back from Berlin, and she got the job and has been there ever since. Referring to her accident in Berlin, Johanna said it happened as she was crossing a six lane highway, having had lunch with the technical director at an Italian restaurant opposite the theatre which was like their canteen. She’d collected Tom from the playground and while waiting to cross the road to the central reservation she was stung by a wasp which distracted her and thinking she could get across to the other side as the traffic wasn’t moving and started to cross when suddenly a car came from nowhere and hit her. She’d managed to push Tom out of the way and was fortunate that her head wasn’t hit, otherwise she’d not have survived. The dancers all saw it as they were returning for the rehearsal and ran to help her and Tom. At first they thought she wouldn’t live or if so wouldn’t walk again but, being a determined person, after three months she was walking and back at work.
She adored Nureyev. Festival Ballet supported his summer season with Romeo and Julietand Sleeping Beauty. He was completely vile to the stage manager whom Johanna replaced but was never unpleasant to her and they got on very well, maybe because he was close to her husband. In 1961 when he first came here he always stood behind Richard in class as Richard was very beautiful! Richard broke his ankle badly in Pineapple Poll – now you’d bring the curtain down but he just carried on dancing and took 11 months to recover and during that time Rudolf had him to stay in his Sheen house to look after him. Johanna has worked with some of the best dancers, choreographers, designers and musicians so counts herself very lucky. Reverting to the dance in Legrasse, she said in 2010 they worked to recorded music but for the past couple of times Kate Shipway and Rob Clark, pianists at the Royal Ballet, came along once with Vasko Vassilev on the violin and then one of the cellists so she’s had incredible support.
David said it was wonderful to have Johanna with us after a 15 year gap and invited the audience to look at her array of scores and documents which made fascinating reading. She said she will work for another 18 months until her deputy who is having a baby comes back as she’s keen for her to take over. Also, they were due to tour Manonand Giselle in Japan this year, two of her favourite ballets in one of her favourite places, but that has been postponed until 2023 so she’ll wait until then. David commented that the Royal Ballet have been so fortunate to have her and she’ll be much missed.
In conclusion Johanna mentioned Bejart. In Berlin they put on his five hour masterpiece, Ring um de Ring,based on The Ring. It was a challenge as she was conducting, cueing orchestral pieces and piano but considers calling that work one of the highlights of her career. It was performed at the Edinburgh Festival where it didn’t go down well but she did mention it to Alina Cojacaru before she left the Royal, and it’s still her dream to put it on here though they may not get permission to use the recordings. Her son Tom was about 8 when he saw it and sat through it all without moving, despite there only being one 25 minute interval!
Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Johanna Adams-Farley and David Bain.
© The Ballet Association 2022