14 January 2014

Stage Hands

[In recent months, the stage actors’ union has run articles about some of the work its members do in production other than playing characters on stage.  Equity News published a profile of the indispensable backstage professional, the stage manager, the company’s drill sergeant.  Following that, the newsletter ran an article about the work of rhe dance captain, an important member of the company for musicals.  Since most people, especially if you don’t actually work in the theater, don’t know what these pros do (or, I suspect in some instances, even that they exist), I decided to post them on ROT for everyone’s edification.  If Equity News runs more such pieces as time goes on—along with actors, Actors’ Equity represents chorus dancers and stage managers—I’ll keep posting them as well because not only is it useful to know about these backstage workers, but it’s really interesting to learn what they do during rehearsals and performance.]

“Stage Managers Wear Many Different Hats”
by Michael Sommers

[On Monday, 20 May 2013, Court Theatre stage managers give a tour of the Court Theatre facilities to AEA members. This is the first of the Central Stage Manager Committee’s new event, “The Booth Series.” AEA stage managers across the city of Chicago are opening up their facilities for tours to other local stage managers. The stage managers are welcomed into the stage manager booths, walk the stage, peek backstage, and visit the different shops and offices of Equity theatres. Another Booth Series took place in late June or early July.  Michael Sommers is an actor, acting teacher, and acting coach who works on stage and in TV and film.. This article ran in the June 2013 issue Equity News [Actors’ Equity Association] (volume 98, issue number 5).]

Stage managers agree that their job encompasses far more than just running the show.

Parent, psychologist, interpreter, scheduler, documentarian, communicator, enforcer, collaborator, administrator, diplomat and problem-solver are among the many different hats that stage managers wear in their constantly shape-shifting role as the theatre’s ultimate character performer.

“You are the one backstage that people depend upon to address whatever their immediate issues may be,” says Malcolm D. Ewen, a resident stage manager for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre who is the First Vice Chair of AEA’s Central Regional Board. “Boil it all down, you are the main one there to support the actor,” says Ira Mont, production stage manager of Broadway’s Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella and Third Vice President of Equity.

Depending upon the particular theatre situation, stage managers also assign dressing room berths, coordinate increasingly advanced automation systems, supervise safe and sanitary procedures, and, among many other duties, in some cases sweep the stage. “Equity does not define the role of the stage manager because the job varies so much from theatre to theatre,” notes Ewen.

Stage managers’ responsibilities include handling a never-ending blizzard of paperwork, starting with developing a production’s “bible” and other documentary references during the rehearsal period and continuing all the way through a show’s run with maintaining a daily log and filing various reports on every performance. Then there are the hurried pre-show conferences with dance captains and other department heads to make certain that everything and everybody is in place when the curtain rises.

And, oh yes, they also call the show cue by cue with assistants or sometimes alone. Should an accident occur, they are the arbiters responsible for “making the proper decision about what to do – without ever panicking,” says Ewen.

It is a complex job. “Stage managers need to be facile in all the different disciplines that it takes to make a show happen and to have a significant vocabulary in order to communicate with everybody involved,” says Mont, who teaches graduate courses in stage management at Columbia University. “You are usually the first person in the building and the last one to leave,” remarks Gary Mickelson, a stage manager who is now readying the pre-production aspects for First Date, a new Broadway musical. “You really have to be a total multi-tasker,” asserts Hethyr Verhoef, resident stage manager for the Pasadena Playhouse, who adds, “I especially like the give-and-take of doing it all.”

Nobody knows how far back stage managers go in theatre history, although it can be assumed that for the original Medea in 431 BC somebody cued the entrance of the chorus while signaling the crane for the deus-ex-machina. Historically, stage managers have been members of Equity since its founding. In those 1913 days of stock companies, actors often performed stage manager duties while stage managers played small parts so it seemed a natural fit that they would join forces together in a union.

For more than 60 years, however, stage managers were employed under a standard actor’s contract. Then an ugly dispute over Mass Appeal – a 1980 showcase production that intended to transfer to Broadway without compensating or taking along its original stage manager — led to the development of contracts specifically designated for stage managers.

During the same period, increasing internal demands for greater representation in the union resulted in the establishment of two Council seats for stage managers in 1982. A decade later, when Equity reorganized into its present decentralized governance system, stage managers were duly represented on its regional boards and Council. A stage managers’ committee, which addresses needs and concerns, is operative in every region. According to the union’s latest statistics, some 5.6 % of all Equity jobs relate to stage management.

Although stage managers usually conduct brush-up rehearsals and direct players who join long-running shows, that traditional task – particularly on the Production Contract – has been increasingly assumed by resident directors or other management supervisors. Yet the stage manager still remains “the eyes and ears on a nightly basis,” as Ewen puts it, whose responsibility is to keep the production on its toes. “Even the best performers need input for the maintenance of their show,” says Ewen, who believes in offering the artists “gentle guidance.”

Dealing effectively with the actors, crew and backstage personnel can be tricky. “We are there to protect union rules and members,” says Zoya Kachadurian, a veteran currently preparing a revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Two-Character Play for Off-Broadway. “It is always a challenging tightrope for us to walk.” By the nature of the job, patience also is necessary. “You have to check your ego at the stage door because when people need to vent you are going to be their first stop,” says Alexis Shorter, a Cinderella stage manager.

Calling the production cue-by-cue can be an art in itself. “You have to ride that extremely fine line of being a drill sergeant and letting the show breathe,” observes Gary Mickelson. “It is exhilarating when you understand how to make everything work onstage and backstage in concert,” says Verhof.

It all makes for a long work week. “I think that stage managers have an affinity for going that extra mile and accept to a certain degree that we are not being compensated for every hour spent on the job,” says Mont, who believes that producers often are unaware of stage managers’ multiple responsibilities. “Although we don’t view it as a burden, they should realize everyone believes we are 24/7 on call,” he adds. “You have to do a lot of work on your own time because it simply has to be done,” explains Shorter, a view that the other stage managers share.

The flexibility inherent to being a stage manager is helpful as they currently adapt their personable craft to the theatre’s growing reliance upon automation and complex technology. “We are learning all this on our feet,” says Mont, who contended last year with the astonishing stagecraft for the Broadway musical Ghost. “Stage managers have to reinvent themselves for every show they do,” says Kachadurian. “Just like the actors, we are professionals who constantly evolve.”

*  *  *  *
“A Day in the Life of a Dance Captain”
By Jennie Ford, Equity Councillor

[This article appeared in volume 98, issue number 7 of Equity News (September 2013).  Jennie Ford is a dancer and choreographer whose last Broadway show was the 2012-13 revival of Evita for which she served as dance captain.  Ford was assistant choreographer for Dance of the Vampires (2002-03) and dance captain for All Shook Up (2005) and The Music Man (2000-01)]

It’s almost impossible to write about “a day in the life of the dance captain.” It wouldn’t capture the full scope of what we do to write about one day. Every day is different from next. It might be simpler to ask, “What doesn’t a dance captain do?” Not only do you have to dance, but you also have to be a clear communicator, a teacher, a mediator, an organizer, a quick thinker, a problem-solver, a confidante, a multi-tasker and a good listener.

Here are some typical expectations ranging from rehearsal to after opening:

Making a Show Bible: You find some stage diagrams to start notating the staging and choreography so you don’t forget the details. You try to learn everyone’s names quickly to notate where each actor is placed at all times. This can take weeks or months to perfect.

Tech rehearsal: The choreographer is working on a number and some actors don’t remember where they go. You are asked where people were in the studio. You look at your bible and tell Sally she was “stage right 7 with heels on the track.” The choreographer decides it could be pictured differently so every actor gets moved to a different place on the stage. You quickly notate those changes.

An actor has to go for a costume fitting during the afternoon and the swing has to step in for the first time. You work with the swing to make sure he or she is comfortable. You make sure they know where to go and grab their partner to help them work together for the first time.

Rehearsals during previews: The creative team tried a new number for three days and now thinks it doesn’t work. They want to go back to the way it was but the actors don’t remember. You are glad you didn’t throw out your old notes, because you are asked to remind them what they did before.

“Noting” the show: The creative team has left. Now it’s time to make sure their vision is maintained and every audience gets to see it as if it was opening night. You watch the show and notate what needs to be fixed. At intermission, Beth tells you Greg keeps kicking her in one number but she doesn’t know why. You write it all down on your note pad for tomorrow.

Giving out notes: You arrive an hour and a half before the show because you have 25 notes to give out. You tell Steve that he could turn his head a little quicker to match the others. You tell Sally her extra head movements look great on her, but she is now the only thing you watch onstage. Judy rushes in and although you have five things that she could work on, you give her one for her performance for tonight. (Then praise her tomorrow for doing it and give her the next.) As you go from room to room, Lilla tells you that she doesn’t feel safe in a lift. The rest of the notes wait while this becomes priority. You find her partner and rehearse the lift until both are happy. You look at your bible to see why Jim is out of the light. He is on the correct number but has migrated downstage. You tell him that if he took a big step upstage, he would be lit and all his terrific acting would not be lost. The rest of the notes will have to wait.

Don’t be shy about giving out the good notes! It goes a long way. There are endless notes of improvement that go out daily but it’s important for the morale of the company to remind them what they are doing right and how amazing they are!

Running auditions: You go to the studio from 10 am-6 pm to audition 300 actors who want to be in the show. You teach the combination and then dance with each group to help give them the best chance of remembering it. You dance full out many times to “save face” and then you go home and take an epsom salt bath before the evening show.

Cut-shows: The stage manager calls you two hours before the show and says four people are out sick tonight adjustments to make. You grab your bible and see who could be cut in each number, who manages what props and how you can get through the show. You let the stage manager know what you need to rehearse before the show to make it work. You go to the show early to tell everyone what their alterations will be for that show. because the flu is going around. There aren’t enough actors to cover the show so you have to figure out what adjustments to make. You grab your bible and see who could be cut in each number, who manages what props and how you can get through the show. You let the stage manager know what you need to rehearse before the show to make it work. You go to the show early to tell everyone what their alterations will be for that show.

Scheduling: To create a weekly schedule, you look at what the understudies need to learn, what the swings need help with, who is going on vacation and how to be prepared for that, and if you need to rehearse specific areas of the show that can’t be fixed with notes.

Teaching replacements: You go to the theatre for five hours and teach Tiffany’s replacement. You teach where she enters and exits the stage, where to grab props, where to change, where to stand onstage, traffic patterns, director and choreographer’s intentions and other tips. There will just be you, the pianist and her. You find yourself singing and dancing all the parts to help her. It makes for a lot of knowledge to be stored in your head or easily referenced in your show bible. It helps to look at every actor as a multi-alented person who is always trying to do his or her best. It’s hard to get a note when you are trying your best, so it’s important to be kind and never let your ego get in the way. A dance captain’s day is never dull!

“One of my favorite things is working with all ranges of people: 8 to 68 years old, sensitive to tough. To make a company happy you must learn the details early, stick to the integrity of the piece and listen to all sides of the story when dealing with a situation. Being a dance captain is a big job, so the extra effort to get details is crucial for the success you have with your company.”  — Antoinette DiPietropolo (dancer, actor, and choreographer in regional theater, upstate New York)

“Someone took me aside and said he was really upset that I noted him on his ‘attitude’ and he hoped he never gave off bad energy. It took me a second to realize what he was talking about and then I couldn’t stop laughing. He misunderstood my note on his ‘(leg) attitude.’”  — Sarah O’Gleby (dance captain for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 2011-12; Promises, Promises, 2010-11)

“The most interesting part is figuring out what the choreographer wants from you. Some don’t want to be bothered by small details and want you to clean the choreography and make decisions. Some want you to note any questions and check in with them before locking things in. Talk to your choreographer; if you’ve never worked with them before, and find out what they want from their dance captain.  — Ariane Dolan (dancer, actor, and choreographer in regional theater, Illinois and Pennsylvania)

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