Among the many essential backstage roles that are not often talked about, is the role of the Event Manager. From making sure that the artists have all they need in their dressing room to checking that everything is running smoothly on and off the stage, this professional figure is essential to a successful performance. To find out more, we asked Rebecca Millward, Event Manager at Southbank Centre, London, to bring us along on a typical working day. Here is what she told us:

Rebecca Millward in front of the Royal Festival Hall's stage © Pete Woodhead
Rebecca Millward in front of the Royal Festival Hall's stage
© Pete Woodhead

“On a typical event day I leave the house around 7am, often doing a spot of food shopping on my way into Southbank Centre. Whilst food and drink may not be the key to everyone’s happiness, I do feel it helps when artists are well fed and watered. We provide tea, coffee, water and fruit to performers but sometimes they have special requests and I try to sort this before the day really gets going. Today it’s pretty simple: sparkling water and a stash of ginger ale.

I arrive at the Royal Festival Hall and immediately head backstage, checking that the twenty dressing rooms are clean and tidy. Then it’s on to the auditorium. Smooth running usually stems from careful planning, and I typically work on arrangements for a concert over several months. The job scope is really wide: contracts, artist payments, arranging accommodation, booking and arranging travel, checking artist requirements, being across the guest list, sourcing props, liaising with production and technical teams, receptions and open rehearsals, and the all-important schedule. If you want to know what's happening in any part of the building today, I’m your woman. And it’s a busy one: the Royal Festival Hall is a sell out due to Philip Glass’ Bowie Symphonies, performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO). Philip Glass has flown over from New York to attend the European premiere of his Symphony no. 12.

I’ve been liaising with the LCO concerts and orchestra manager, Amy Hinds, and the soloists for several months: everything from arranging scores, obtaining any technical requirements, booking travel and hotels for the soloists, to agreeing stage plans (it helps to read music and understand orchestral layouts) and finalising rehearsal schedules. Before Amy and the orchestra arrive in the building, I double check with my colleagues in the Production team that the plans have been put into action and that there are no last minute problems. The job requires this balance between careful planning – I’m the kind of person who creates a spreadsheet for my holidays – and being able to think on your feet.

Rebecca Millward backstage at the Royal Festival Hall © Pete Woodhead
Rebecca Millward backstage at the Royal Festival Hall
© Pete Woodhead

The nature of live performance, especially when it involves a big orchestra, soloists and conductors – not to mention the vagaries of London traffic – is that things can change. If Plan A doesn’t work out, you have to think of Plan B, and if that also goes to the wall, then be happy to move onto Plan C. There’s a certain kind of stress which you have to love – and I do. Before the rehearsal begins, I head down to the artists' entrance to meet and take conductors and soloists to their dressing rooms. Glass asks to go straight into the hall for the start of the rehearsal. During the rehearsal I try to be in the hall in case any practical questions arise (maybe a discussion about lighting or stage set-up) and I act as the liaison between the visiting artists and Southbank Centre’s production team.

Getting on with people is key, and you have to enjoy being part of a team. Today I will be speaking to upwards of fifty different people, including, several times throughout the day, the Duty Manager and their team – who will be looking after the 2,850 audience members – and the Production Manager, who is in charge of translating concert plans from page to stage, including lighting, staging, and, in the case of tonight’s concert, swinging open the doors to the mighty Royal Festival Hall organ. Fun fact: if the organ’s pipes were stacked end to end they’d be over 30,000 feet tall! Then there are photographers, film crews (we have one of each in tonight), security, cleaners, catering, press office, marketing and our ticket office. Questions come thick and fast; answers hopefully keep up.

Rebecca Millward backstage at the Royal Festival Hall © Pete Woodhead
Rebecca Millward backstage at the Royal Festival Hall
© Pete Woodhead

Once rehearsals are complete, it’s a question of preparing the hall for the evening performance. At 6pm, I team up with the Duty Manager to brief the evening’s hosts – who are at the doors, taking tickets, helping audience members find their seats, offering advice, directions, information and dealing with any difficulties. I started life at Southbank Centre as a host, so I know how important these briefings are. My role is to remind them of any specific elements that may impact audience members, such as strobe or unusual lighting effects, or any part of the production that spills offstage into the auditorium (though there’s nothing particularly unusual to report tonight).

Doors open for the show at 7pm, half an hour before the start of the performance. At this point the staging needs to be fully set, with performers backstage, pianos and harps tuned and any photographers in position. Final checks complete, I head out into our open foyers. Philip Glass has just completed a free pre-concert talk on the majestic ballroom floor of the Royal Festival Hall, and it was packed. This venue has a particularly dynamic atmosphere, with over 2.4 million people coming through the doors each year. When the foyers are very busy, as they are tonight, there’s a knack of keeping track of who is where (and a radio to make the job just that little bit easier).

I’m responsible for making sure that performers’ guests have found their way to the ticket office and that arrangements for picking up their tickets go smoothly. You’d be surprised how much time this can take. I’m often found loitering around the ticket office a few minutes before the performance begins, nervously checking that everyone who is expecting a ticket has got one (and hoping I haven’t missed anyone off the list – which, of course, never happens!) Tonight, as well as these guests, we also have reviewers (there’s a press desk where they collect their tickets) and several receptions to be across. Once ticketing has calmed down, I nip backstage for a final check and to say “good luck” to the performers. The Duty Manager is in charge of giving clearance to start the show. At 7.30pm, the doors close and the music begins.

James McVinnie, Philip Glass, Angelique Kidjo, Robert Ames and the LCO © Southbank Centre | Mark Allan
James McVinnie, Philip Glass, Angelique Kidjo, Robert Ames and the LCO
© Southbank Centre | Mark Allan

Sometimes I watch the performance from the auditorium. It’s always lovely to be able to do this, but the reality is that as an Event Manager for over seventy events a year, including all the concerts by Southbank Centre Resident Orchestra, the Philharmonia, I never have an empty inbox. I receive hundreds of emails a day, and have to use my time efficiently to make sure that I’m up to speed on all the events I work on. I am currently working on a big one: the first staging in the UK for almost 35 years of Stockhausen’s Donnerstag aus Licht. It is a huge project: 200 performers, four ensembles, singers, actors and a full-size bathtub to source (thankfully without plumbing). We’ve had to change some of our transport plans: with the impending Brexit deadline at the end of March, we made contingency plans in case of delays to freight transport from France, but these aren’t needed now. There’s a definite art to deciding which order to tackle things.

Tonight there are two intervals, and I’m on the back stage door for each and post-show checking in artists’ guests who wish to say “hello” behind the scenes; sometimes you have to disappoint and turn away people who aren’t on the list, which is quite hard. Being pleasant, calm and friendly does make a difference, even in the most difficult of circumstances. After the show, about fifty people come back stage to congratulate the performers and Philip Glass. It’s a late night all round.

There are so many aspects to my job, but at its heart is a very simple principle: to create the right environment for musicians and performers to do their best. To do this you need to be sensitive to how people act under pressure or when they’re nervous, and not take personally any criticism or moments of tetchiness. A smile is amazingly effective in diffusing tense moments. And for me, nothing beats seeing a happy artist come off stage after a concert. To do this role, you have to love music, you must like people and see last minute challenges as something to overcome rather than be defeated by. I get huge satisfaction when things go well, and when they don’t… well, there’s always Plan C.”