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Whenever You’re Ready: Nora Polley on Life as a Stratford Festival Stage Manager

by Shawn DeSouza-Coelho

Shawn DeSouza-Coelho’s new book about life backstage at what is arguably Canada’s premiere repertory company – Ontario’s Stratford Festival – provides a unique, albeit superficial, glimpse into a little-known and often unheralded part of the theatre profession. The author’s narrative choice to relate veteran stage manager Nora Polley’s career in the first person, using diary-like entries, allows an intimate glance into an interesting life. The book traces Polley’s rise from apprentice stage manager in 1969 (at $65 per week) to her status as one of the most accomplished professionals in her field.

Polley’s love for the theatre came to her honestly. Her father, Victor Polley, the festival’s long-time bookkeeper (starting in 1954), later served as administrative director. Her grandfather, Francis Patrick Polley, coached the choir that performed in the inaugural 1953 season. Although her father’s retirement was tainted by the (perhaps inevitable) politics swirling within a theatre company that had become a national institution – an aspect of the story that is barely touched upon in the book – it is clear the Polley family’s devotion to the festival was enduring and has passed on through the generations.

The seasons Polley spent working with legendary artistic directors Robin Phillips and Richard Monette comprise career high points in this retelling. The respect and close working relationships she shared with the pair resulted in lifelong friendships that Polley understandably treasures; her accounts of their respective funerals provide some of the most affecting parts of the narrative.

Regrettably, the insider nature of the stories and some inexplicable name-dropping may be of little interest to a general readership. There is little real content about the art and craft of stage management, nor any in-depth analysis of the inner workings of Canada’s largest theatre company. The book only alludes to intriguing snippets (such as the experience of working with artistic director John Hirsch) that remain frustratingly out of reach.

While elements of the book leave a reader wanting more, it nevertheless stands as a tribute to the astonishing career of a dedicated and consummate professional. Notwithstanding its defects and drawbacks, what it does provide is sufficient to recommend it to aficionados of Canadian theatre.