How the Professionals Stage Manage

by Tom Provenzano | December 20, 2011

“A Stage manager under Actors’ Equity Contract:

Shall work with the Director and the heads of all other departments, during rehearsal and after opening, and schedule outside calls in accordance with Equity regulations. Assume active responsibility for the form and discipline of rehearsal and performance, and be the executive instrument on the technical running of each performance. Maintain the artistic intentions of the Director and the Producer after opening, to the best of his/her ability, including calling correctional rehearsals of the company when necessary… Maintain discipline as provided in the Equity Constitution.”

““excerpt from Actors’ Equity website

An unfortunate stereotype emerges from some college and amateur theater programs that stage managers must rule with iron fists, must essentially act like jerks to keep the childish actors in line. But in a recent series of telephone conversations with some of LA’s top stage managers, it becomes clear that intimidation and rudeness are the antithesis of successful theatrical collaboration.

In six interviews with stage managers whose experience ranges from one year to more than four decades, each individual stresses the importance of remaining calm and acting as a non-emotional intermediary between the disparate human elements of theatrical production. Even when pushed for a juicy horror story (the kind actors and producers can recount with great relish) the stage managers remain quite tempered… and they NEVER name names.

During the weeks before Christmas, most of these stage managers are either not working or are in the generally quiet zone of just maintaining production, so they feel a bit of leisure as they recount their experiences in major Equity theaters. Michelle Blair, who spends the bulk of her professional life with the Mark Taper Forum, recently finished Poor Behavior and Vigil. She extols the pleasure of working in varied productions. “I love it. It is all about relationships along the way. Getting to work with so many different people over the course of a year is an experience you can’t replicate in many other jobs. Working with new artists all the time is an amazing experience.   I also like what the job is.  I like figuring things out. We did The Lieutenant of Inishmore not long ago, which had some really crazy technical elements to it — a lot of blood and 136 different gunshots live on stage.

“It is also about helping the director in a very precise way. A lot of them are first-timers at the Taper.  So it is pretty common to have to help them understand about the thrust [stage].  Also it’s totally union, and even directors who work all the time aren’t necessarily used to a full union house where everything is specialized as to who can do what ““ so during transition a prop person can’t pick up a wardrobe piece. I love calling the shows.  It also helps that I am the worst actor in the history of theater.  I really have a hard time doing it, even during understudy rehearsals. If the understudy situation is that we can’t cover everybody and I have to go on, I get really nervous and awkward. I don’t even try to act. That would be much more painful.  That’s the worst part of the job.”

Other than the occasional forced understudy rehearsal, her only unhappy moments are when she must take any kind of corrective action. She explains, “The hardest part is intervening.  You want everyone to be comfortable and well taken care of by stage management and fellow actors.  But there are times when it doesn’t happen.  I feel the need to talk to all the actors involved –  still,  it sometimes doesn’t work out.  You can be working on the most amazing play ever written, but if anyone on it is a jerk, then it is not a fun project.  If everyone is really collaborating and wants to work together to make it a great show, then it’s amazing.”

From a veteran of a long established theater, we moved to a new stage manager who had the enviable job of being the first to run a show for A Noise Within’s new Pasadena theater. Angela Fong, a recent graduate from UC Irvine, ran a few shows at Pacific Resident Theatre Ensemble before heading to Pasadena. Though she was well trained, being part of the opening of a new theater had some unexpected surprises. The new theater is quite vast and was not quite ready for production when she first arrived. “A lot of room means space for large productions, but it was difficult, because we had to set up some communication within the space like head sets and monitors.  We had to work around ongoing construction.  The learning curve was steep, but the Equity deputy and I worked to develop a system that worked for the actors and for me.”

One difficult task was dealing with two directors, Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, on the opening production of Twelfth Night.  “That was a challenge for me at first. But soon I realized that they had been working together for more than 20 years and they trusted me to take care of my end of business.  When one would make a suggestion, the actors know that they were in complete sync.” The joy of the job was experiencing the company’s experience of the new space.  “There was a lot of excitement about them having a permanent home.  That affected me in that we had something huge to look forward to, something monumental.  There was no negative energy at all.”  But it was not all smooth going. “During our first rain storm the scene shop flooded with a few feet of water. I walked in and saw filth and dirt everywhere.  My jaw dropped and eyes popped.  Oh my god! There was a general panic. The first couple days of getting things cleaned up was frantic, but we were able to salvage almost everything.”

Unfortunately not every theatrical disaster is so easily cleaned up. It seems one of the most common horror stories for stage managers occurs when they bring the lights up and a central character is not where he is supposed to be. Hethyr Verhoef has spent most of her theatrical life at Pasadena Playhouse, through both its fat and lean periods including the recent restructuring. Blues for an Alabama Sky was her latest show. She came up through the ranks, working as flyman and rigger before training as a stage manager and landing her Equity card. But through her many travails in Pasadena, one moment stands out as the most frightening. It was during a 2006 partnership production with Cornerstone Theater of As You Like It.


“We called her and she was down the street shopping.  For about two minutes that felt like hours, there was this ridiculous ad-libbing going on.  Finally we threw our ASM on with her book and headset and she started reading the lines.  The audience ate it up, but the rest of us were mortified.” The missing actress “came running, in shock. We waited for a black-out moment, then yanked our ASM off and pushed her on stage right and suddenly she was there.  She was certainly compliant for the rest of the run.  All of us learned a lesson too.  First you don’t sign for two shows at the same time, because when you have a big cast you really rely on the sign-up sheet.”

Ed DeShae, one of the country’s most prominent stage managers, with extensive credits on Broadway and with the Negro Ensemble Company and Pasadena Playhouse, has been through countless mini and maxi dramas in his career.  But still, it is that moment of a missing actor that sticks most clearly in his mind. “You do everything you can in proactive, preemptive fashion so nothing does go wrong.  But the gremlins do come to visit.”

” I was on the road with A Soldier’s Play.  The second act opens in very low light, and we see someone sneak into the barracks and plant something. Then he goes out and the lights come up and Sergeant Waters comes in to wake up the soldiers and reports there has been a shooting. Actually it’s a frame-up — the sergeant doesn’t like this young soldier CJ Memphis…So I bring the lights up and Sergeant Waters comes in to wake them up, but CJ Memphis is not on stage. We’re scrambling. Then you hear banging on metal steps as he comes running down from the dressing rooms upstairs.  The soldiers in the barracks are all in skivvies and tank tops.  So from stage right past me, as I am calling from my console stage right, comes CJ Memphis ““ from the rear of his skivvies is a four-foot tail of toilet paper.

“During intermission he’d gone into the bathroom and was sitting in there playing harmonica ““ the sound system did not go into the bathroom. He did not hear the call for places, so subsequently he was not on stage.  Fortunately Adolph Caesar was playing Sergeant Waters, and he filled the moment.  As CJ comes trippingly on from stage right and you see this trail of toilet paper, nothing else had to be said.  All that was left was for the actors to control themselves, because the actors almost lost it. As it happened, it kind of put an exclamation mark on the moment.  It resolved itself.

“There are all kinds of nightmares.  The more sophisticated the show, the more elements you have to go wrong.  Once we were on tour and didn’t have understudies.  We got a call from one of the actors who had been diagnosed with walking pneumonia and was put on bed rest. The show must go on, so it became necessary for me to go on in one of the roles.  We had been touring enough that we had costume pieces, and I knew the scene fairly well.  We thought it wouldn’t be a problem.  We all came together.  It wasn’t until walking towards the stage that I remembered ………. butterflies.  I started on the boards, so I have a respect and love for all the different aspects of theater.”

These kinds of problems become enjoyable anecdotes for cocktail parties. But there are moments in a stage manager’s life that never become fond memories. Stage managers pride themselves on being calm and keeping others calm, but occasionally a personal conflict arises that is simply not solvable. Leesa Freed is a consummate professional — attorney by day and master stage manager for Colony Theatre by night. She has been around the block for years, and thought nothing could throw her.  But she was wrong.

“For a while I called myself the queen of benefits.  I was doing a musical benefit, and the musical director and I got along really well through the rehearsal process and the coordinating process.  Then we got into the theater ““ we were in sound checks and tech and what-not.  We needed to do something to get him out of the pit, and I needed the crew to take a wall off the pit for him to walk upstairs to a piano, where he would just do a one-on-one with a performer.  He starts to pull the wall out himself, but I said, `Wait, I have crew to do this.’  I wasn’t yelling and screaming, but I was a bit stressed because time was limited, and I am sure we were running behind.  Out of nowhere he started calling me a “c–t!”

“Nobody came to my rescue.  On stage the singer’s jaw hit the floor.  The other tech people were just appalled, and a guy on staff at the theater pulled me out to just get me away from this guy. The director said, “just don’t talk to him.”  We then moved to the end of the day “I have an orchestra who are paid by the hour. The musical director was talking to a choreographer, and I went up to him and asked if I could release the orchestra.  Again he starts calling me a “c–t!”  The choreographer thought he was joking.

“I had made a promise of something I would get back to his studio.  I told the director I wouldn’t do it, gave it to the director.  I contacted head of stage managers on West Coast.  It wasn’t a union gig, so I couldn’t complain to his or mine.  I called my mentor in stage managing, Jimmie McDermott, and he said, “Don’t ever work with the guy again and tell anybody the story who will listen.’”

Freed is no shrinking violet, but she was shaken by the incident. Like other stage managers, she feels her job is to keep things from getting ugly. “I will pull somebody aside and have the “Come to Jesus meeting,’ [but] I refuse to be nasty. I have reached the point that I can treat everyone with respect and discuss things so we can all get our jobs done.  I had a sound board operator once that the Colony wanted to fire because she made too many mistakes.  I pretty much sat down with her and laid it out.  “˜The producers want to get rid of you, I think you can do it, it is not a difficult job.’  She was a smart kid, a college student.  She never made another mistake.”

Part of her insistence on helping that young sound operator came from her memories of McDermott’s mentorship. A stage manager since 1972, McDermott teaches on the faculty of CalArts and acts as Equity’s chair of the Western Regional Stage Managers Committee. In 2001 he was the first stage manager to be named as the outstanding professional stage manager in whose name the USITT Outstanding Stage Manager Award was given. He considers the role of stage manager to be “the computer of the production. You take all the information in and wrap it around in a computer and disseminate it to who has to receive what.  I like the connection we have with the actors.  The whole point is to mediate and facilitate.  Being a dictator is a style I don’t agree with.  I absolutely don’t agree with that at all. Part of being a team is working together with everybody.”

But even the most pre-eminent of stage managers occasionally comes across a problem that had never happened. McDermott’s came during the Taper’s 1990 production of Miss Evers’ Boys, which includes a simulated spinal tap.  “After a week of performing, we realized that this affected certain audience members.  We actually had to have a nurse and house manager in the house watching the audience five minutes before the spinal tap took place and ten minutes after, because each week there would be at least four people who would faint. One had an actual heart attack.  We had to stop the show twice.”

Through all the horror stories, the stage managers maintain their calm.  They are professionals whose job is to make the theater run smoothly so the other artists can do their work and, frankly, so the producers can keep the doors open. Ed DeShae laughs, “Of course you have to have a love of the art and craft.  When you’re young and idealistic, it is all about that.  But there is a quote by Oscar Wilde: “˜Amateurs talk about art, artists talk about money.’  It’s about working in a very competitive field. Too often ego gets in the way, and everybody in the arena has his own persona and mantle.  From a stage management standpoint, I like the word Samurai, which means to serve.  From the producers to the director to the designers to the actors you are serving and supporting.”

Freed clearly restates the responsibility to remain calm and steady. “As long as you know what the rules are, you can make it happen.  I have seen the Jimmy McDermotts of the world.  They are not yelling and screaming. There is no reason to have to be so harsh.  You talk, you laugh, you joke, you manage.”

Originally published in the LA Stage Times 2011

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