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Professional Armour

So again I’ve been reminded that I’m ‘scary’.

In theatre I can be very scary indeed in the face of inadequacy and incompetence, and this is fine and I will not apologise for it.  If you do your job badly, and you are threatening to break the show, then do not expect my sunny face to emerge.  Not if there’s a solution to the problem; if there’s a solution, you’d better get your arse in gear.  If not then I might not bother with scary, since frankly, what the the hell is the point?  May as well smile through the pain…

However, even before a show has begun, technical managers and programmers sometimes assume I’m ‘scary’.  To a degree, I think this is a problem with how professionalism itself is defined.  Walking into an unknown venue for the first time, there’s about a three-minute window of opportunity in which to establish yourself as a Firm Yet Fair lighting designer who knows what she wants without being unreasonable, who is going to be easy to work for without being a pushover.  As a mostly-posh, still-sorta-young and almost-certainly female LD, this task is never as simple as saying ‘hello, this theatre looks fun!’  90% of the time I am greeted by a gruff male aged anywhere between 35-60, hands in pockets, chest out, shoulders back, chin down, whose every atom screams ‘Christ, not another one…’ as I walk through stage door.

“Last LD we had wasn’t any good… yeah that show was shit… people try to puts lights there, don’t know why…” is the quietly-nagging monologue I get as we walk towards the lighting gallery.  “Do you know how to handle this sorta venue?” they ask.  “We’ve had lots of LDs who say they know the desk and don’t, and we can’t help you if that happens.  Sometimes people struggle with positions but you’ve only got a day for fit-up so you’ll just have to get it right first time.”

“Oh really?” I exclaim, all smiles.  “I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.”

A lot of the time this ramble from the tech manager is justified; LDs cut corners, make mistakes, give promises they shouldn’t have, and stuff goes wrong.  The failure of a tiny minority of my species brands me by association, and so I have to be even more professional to get my job done.  It’s okay, I try to say with my confident smile and carefully-drafted questions.  I’m not like them – I’m a professional.

Sometimes – 10% of the time – I walk into the venue and the tech manager or HoD LX is actually pleased to see me.  (Medals of pure gold should be given to Riverside Studios and the Arcola for sheer loveliness, professionalism and willingness to help of its tech teams.)  You can instantly sense it – people are interested in you, in what you’re going to do, in the show, you’re not just another fucking LD come to fucking muck around with the rig.

Under such circumstances I’m about as scary as candy floss, because theatre is exciting.  I’m excited to be there, you’re excited to be there, we’re excited to be making theatre; what’s not to love?  You’re professional, I’m professional, but professionalism doesn’t mean we have to be cold, stand-offish and brisk.  Efficiency does not equal curt; knowledge does not require jargon-battles.  The most professional I ever am, is when I am being nice to people, and people who work with me are having fun.  We all work better when happy, and surely the pinnacle of professionalism is someone who can laugh and design all at the same time?

My ‘scary’ professionalism is therefore a reflexive, defensive armour I sometimes don, to guard both me from you, but also you from me.  It allows every jibe and thoughtless stupidity to slide off me without any ill-effect, but it is also the force that restrains me from saying something pithy in reply which we might all regret.  My being scary is a service to everyone in the room, but I would also argue is a dishonour upon us all.

From a feminine standpoint, is there not a danger that where men in my field are ‘confident’ I’m ‘scary’?  The attitude I manifest is the same as a male; the things I require are the same as any man, and yet up and down the country people whisper, ‘you’re scary, Cat’.  Are my male contemporaries, who are behaving exactly as I am, also ‘scary’, or are they merely professional?

When being ‘professional’ it does seem that warmth, openness and enthusiasm are qualities which have to be very, very slowly built up to if you’re lucky.  (Here I think of a running battle I have with a noise boy.  There is no real getting round the fact that after two years working together we are friends; yet having established very early on that we would be professionally stand-offish and communicate only through banter and piss-taking, it’s now borderline impossible for either of us to express any kind of genuine, friendly concern or interest in the other’s well-being.)

Yet as a writer, the complete opposite holds true!  Meeting people as a writer, it’s part of your professionalism to be warm, open, interested, it’s in the very job description, and it is infinitely, vastly better.  Writers are requested and required to be human, and rejoice, hallelujah for that!  This too is professional; and if anything the word that people would use to describe me when I’ve got my writerly hat on, is ‘silly’, not ‘scary’.

So am I scary?

Perhaps.  Or perhaps I’m merely professional, and the definition of professionalism, particularly as it applies to women in technical theatre, is what we need to take a good, hard look at.