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Photo of Nora Polley
Nora Polley. Photo by Ann Baggley

60 Seconds With Nora Polley

As Stratford’s long-time stage manager, her job was not to be noticed

After more than 50 years at the Stratford Festival, Nora Polley (BA 1969 Trinity) is the distinguished summer theatre’s longest-serving employee. Currently working in the archives, Polley spent 37 seasons as a stage manager. Her memoir, Whenever You’re Ready (written by Shawn DeSouza-Coelho and out in May), recounts a life spent running shows with razor-sharp precision. Here, she calls the cues with Cynthia Macdonald.

Not much is known about stage managers. But they’re said to be the glue of any production.
Good stage management is invisible: an audience should never be aware that there’s a “man behind the curtain.” In the theatre, all you need is a good story and good actors. For any production though, the stage manager is probably the biggest cheerleader.

It doesn’t seem fair! You quote former Stratford stage manager Thomas Bohdanetzky who said, “If you want a pat on the back, grow your arm.”
True. He also said, “If anyone notices you are doing your job, it will be because you just made a mistake.”

Still, you got to see some of the great moments in Stratford history. Is it true that William Hutt actually announced Paul Henderson’s goal in the 1972 Canada-­Russia Summit Series – from the stage?
It was a matinee full of kids, and the audience was not particularly attentive. I mean, their minds were not exactly on King Lear! So he stopped the show and gave them what they wanted. Naturally, they gave him a standing ovation at the end.

One of your favourite memories was watching Martha Henry rehearsing Measure for Measure.
Her character was a nun, who’s told she can have her brother’s death sentence commuted if she sleeps with an official, played by Brian Bedford. For this particular rehearsal, the director had put a pitcher of water on the desk where she was sitting. After Brian exited, Martha sat looking at it for a long time. Then she got out her handkerchief, plunged her arm into the pitcher and mopped her face and hands, as if she’d been violated. It was absolutely mesmerizing. Martha is a great actor. She would repeat that moment at every performance, but it would never again be the first time – and I was there. That’s what I miss about stage managing: I miss actors.

There’s a lot of talk now in the theatre (and elsewhere) about abuse. Early in your career, a director asked you to tie an actor to a chair during rehearsal: he thought this unorthodox technique would improve the actor’s performance.
Obviously it was the wrong thing to do, and if the actor had said to me, “Please don’t do that,” I like to think I wouldn’t have done it. The director is the most important person in that room. I’ve been in rehearsals where they’ve screamed, told off-colour jokes, behaved in a vulgar fashion. You want genius; unfortunately you sometimes get those other things, too.

Shakespeare wrote almost 40 plays, yet audiences seem to want the same ones over and over (I’m looking at you, A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
When he was artistic director, Richard Monette announced at a company meeting that he wanted to stage all of Shakespeare’s plays. I was the only one who applauded. Festival executive Antoni Cimolino’s response was: “You try selling tickets to Troilus and Cressida!” But now, Antoni’s the artistic director. He’s in the same boat, because he’s announced his intention to film them all. And I think that would be fantastic.

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  1. One Response to “ 60 Seconds With Nora Polley ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I was a lawyer, law professor and judge, but would have loved to have worked in the theatre. Last summer, during a trip to Stratford, Ontario, I decided to kill some time between shows by doing some backstage tours. When I posed a question to our young tour guide, she thought she had better “call Nora.” Ms. Polley then proceeded to regale us with anecdotes and enthrall us with her backstage knowledge. In particular, I was fascinated to see an example of a stage manager’s annotated script, which she produced to answer one of my many questions. I wish I had known her during my days at Trinity College.

    J. David Murphy
    BA 1971 Trinity, JD 1975
    Barrie, Ontario