30 January 2017

Stage Managers

[As I recounted in my two-part article “Actors’ Equity at 100” (19 and 22 June 2013), the Actors’ Equity Association, the union that represents professional stage actors and stage managers, was established in 1913.  Many people who follow theater know that AEA represents actors who work on the live stage (SAG-AFTRA represents those who perform in the big and small screens), but I wonder how many outside the profession are aware that the same union also represents stage managers, the theater pros who keep the productions running smoothly from back stage.  (I published an article from an earlier issue of Equity News, “Stage Managers Wear Many Different Hats” by Michael Sommers, that addresses the question of what a stage manager does.  It’s part of a post called “Stage Hands” [14 January 2014].)  AEA used to represent directors, too, until 1959 (when they split off and formed what is now the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, known as  SDC), but why didn’t the SM’s follow them or form their own guild?  Surely, what SM’s do is more akin to what directors do than it is to actors, right?  Indeed, it’s the responsibility of the stage manager to keep the show stage-worthy in the absence of the director, say after opening, and to rehearse understudies and replacements. 

[First, many SM’s are also actors—as you’ll read below—and continue to work in both capacities.  Second,  unlike directors, whose jobs are essentially done when the play opens, stage managers are often called upon to play small roles, especially in touring productions and at small rep companies where cast size is a serious consideration.  This puts them squarely in Equity’s wheelhouse, and so they remain part of the same union as their performing brothers and sisters.  The Winter 2017 issue of Equity News is devoted to paying tribute to he union’s stage manager members, and so I’ve collected the six articles from the union’s house magazine for republishing on ROT.  I hope readers find them edifying.  ~Rick]

From The Executive Director
by Mary McColl

Every performer loves stage managers. Stage managers are the artists who maintain the production. They keep time, keep the schedule, keep everyone on stage and on their mark. If you follow us [i.e., Actors’ Equity Association] on social media, you know that we have spent the past couple of months celebrating and highlighting Equity’s stage managers with #LoveMySMs. We asked members to submit photos of themselves, or stage mangers they have worked work with, for us to celebrate. The result has been inspiring. We have heard from and showcased many of our stage managers who work across the country. We encourage you to continue sending us photos (send to jaustin@actorsequity.org) so that we can keep #LoveMySMs going.

While working at Actors’ Equity I’ve had the opportunity to interact with many of the stage managers featured in this month’s magazine. One conversation that stands out for me was with a stage manager who works Off-Broadway. She spoke about how stage managers are artists who “conduct” each performance. She said that every call she makes brings the show to life. That conversation helped give me a new perspective on how stage managers work and further solidified why they are so important to this industry.

Performers in a company depend in so many ways on their stage manager. Not only are they a wealth of information when it comes to your contract, rules and breaks, but he or she helps ensure your safety. Your stage manager is often the first line of defense in your workplace. (Make sure you talk to your Deputy as well if you encounter any issues. He or she is there to help and will make sure we know what is going on.) The fact that we represent stage managers as well as actors is good for the production and good for the industry.

This issue brings us stories of stage managers across the country. We hear from two stage managers who have disabilities, stage managers who have the added pressure of awards season, a stage manager who works full-time as a resident stage manager and another who is often working at various houses.

2016 was a big year for Equity. Not only did we implement the new format of Equity News, we introduced the Equity News Center and ECC [Equity Chorus Call] and EPA [Equity Principal Audition] online sign-ups in the Member Portal, we negotiated strong contracts across the country. We also strengthened our commitment to diversity and inclusion within our industry (look for more news and statistics in my next column).

As 2017 begins, we stand with our brothers and sisters in the labor community. Together, we will face challenges. As a union, we will work to protect your rights.

Now, more than ever, we need to stand together because we are stronger together.

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by Ira Mont

A stage manager is a vital role that I view as the central hub of both the production and the company. We are responsible for facilitation, communication, collation, collaboration and administration. We are the protector, the sounding board and disciplinarian of the company. The stage manager is the eyes, ears and, I believe, the heart and mind of the producer and director when they aren’t in the room.

I thought I was going to be an actor. I joined the union in the spring of 1987. I scored my first contract at the Theater Factory St. Louis, an SPT [Small Professional Theatre] company. Having done some stage management work, I was hired for the company’s summer season to not only perform in several shows, but to also stage manage several others.

Stage managing came naturally to me; one, because I like to know everything that’s going on and two, in addition to being organized, I like to make things work. When I was a student at Circle in the Square, I spent a lot of time watching Present Laughter [1982-83] from the booth with PSM [Production Stage Manager] Michael Ritchie. I became the friend who could help light a cabaret or assist in stage managing a showcase. Between ’87 and ’88, I started getting calls and job offers for stage management. Without looking for it or realizing it, I transitioned from actor to stage manager. It was and is a perfect fit.

Getting to be on both sides of the curtain has helped shape my union tenure. I currently serve as the 3rd Vice President of Equity. I believe that many of the qualities that make me a good stage manager make me a good union leader. I thoroughly enjoy all of the intricacies of how our union works. I joined my first committee (Developing Theatre) the minute I returned home from St. Louis in 1987. Since then I have served on and chaired several committees, represented our members at organizations like the AFL-CIO, among others, and have continued to advocate and fight for members on contract negotiations. My role with the union is not much different than my role in the theater.

Having been a performer, I believe stage managers and actors serve each other well as members of the same union. If you view the life of a show as first rehearsal to closing night, only two groups are there in the room every day from beginning to end—actors and stage managers. We bring out the best in each other.

I am proud to have made a career as a stage manager. I’m even more proud to serve all of you, my fellow brothers and sisters. I’m thrilled to celebrate our stage managers and to acknowledge their tireless work and dedication to the production. I love my fellow SMs!

[Ira Mont is 3rd Vice President of Actors’ Equity. He’s currently PSM on Broadway’s Cats, before which he stage-managed 18 Broadway shows, including all three of the Norman Conquest trilogy revivals (2011), the stage première of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (2013-15), The Producers (2001-07), Smokey Joe’s Café (1995-2000), and Love! Valour! Compassion! (1995). Mont’s also worked Off-Broadway on Full Gallop (1996-97), I Do! I Do! (1996), and Manhattan Class Company’s Class 1 Acts: '91-'92 (1992).]

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by Josh Austin

Members Philip B. Richard and Elizabeth Salisch share what it’s like working with a disability in this industry

When Philip B. Richard II had his worst epileptic seizure to date, he was at work. He fell, landing hard on his chin. He broke both sides of his jaw and lost two teeth. After visiting the hospital and leaving with a wired-shut mouth, he returned to work that day.

“I was told I couldn’t do my job with my mouth wired shut, and I couldn’t get workers’ comp since my epilepsy was pre-existing,” he said. “But just like with everything else, I told them I could do my job and I was back to work that same day—blending my food and eating from a turkey baster.”

That was prior to becoming an Equity member. Richard has been a union stage manager for just under one year—and is flourishing. He was born with epilepsy, a neurological disability that affects over 3 million Americans, and causes unpredictable seizures. For Richard, his longest span without an episode has been 12 years. But, like anyone with a disability, and in particular working as a stage manager, there have been a lot of “figure it out for yourself” moments.

“The theatre has always been a place that I felt that I fit in and belong,” he said. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else.” That’s meant, for Richard, figuring out bus rides or walking routes (he’s not allowed to drive a car; though, he noted, Equity doesn’t allow that to affect the hiring of a stage manager) and working effectively with strobe lighting (which can trigger a seizure). “I always make sure that my disability never stops me from doing what I want.”

Elizabeth Salisch was born orthopedically impaired. Between the ages of one to six years old, she went through 15 surgeries to make her hands functional.

And though Salisch said that she is unable to operate a drill gun, “I am highly adaptable to finding ways to do what I need to do, whether it’s finding another way or by knowing how to find the right person to help me. This is very useful as a stage manager.”

Salisch saw her first Broadway show when she was just five years old. Immediately, she knew she wanted in. Attending the University of Pittsburgh as a Theatre Arts major, she found stage management from asking how she could be involved. “I fell in love with stage management because it not only fits my personality, but is one of the few positions that sees the journey of the production from the very beginning to the very end.”

Though both Salisch and Richard admit that Equity has made their lives easier (for Salisch, it’s saving for a pension and health benefits; Richard is grateful that the union has taken major strides to protect those with disabilities and to ensure they are not discriminated against), Richard acknowledged that those in the industry might have preconceived notions about workers with disabilities. Perhaps, he said, people believe those with a disability can’t handle the stress of the job. “Stage managers have so much that we do on a daily basis and a lot of that is last-minute along with being fast-paced,” he said. “That is the normal level—for those with disabilities, it adds another layer, but it’s not impossible.”

Salisch has stage managed many young audience productions. She noted that the students most often ask her what happened to her hands. “My response to them, and to anyone who perceived people with a physical disability as being different, is that we are the same and I can do the same things as you, but I look different just like some people have brown hair and some may have blonde.”

Richard also pointed out that those with a disability tend to have a preconceived notion about themselves: They assume they can’t do something when all they have to do is find another path.

And for those with disabilities thinking of entering the world of stage management, both Salisch and Richard would say “follow your dreams.”

“For someone with a disability, it can be harder, but don’t let it stop you,” Richard said. “Never, never let your disability stop you. Work with it. Think outside the box. I’ve never let anything stop me.”

I would tell someone else who may have a disability if they want to stage manage, or do anything else in the theater, they should go for it.  —Elizabeth Salisch

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“To be an SM is to run an adult daycare at times. Colleen Nielsen knows that a balanced amount of respect while maintaining an organized and safe environment to explore the human condition is its own art. You are so essential to the success of our storytelling. Thank you!”  —Iris Elton

Jill Gold is always a class act. She’s a family woman with kids my age, so I can relate. She always has a smile on her face and kind words for everyone, and she seems to truly love actors. My last Equity job was Empire with McCoy Rigby [Entertainment; La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, La Mirada, California; 2016] and I was very excited to hear she was helping steer the ship.”  —Richard A. Bulda

“There is no better SM around than long time stage manager Pat Adams at the Wilma Theater—and I think she has been there almost 20 years. Another wonderful Philadelphia SM who is now at Delaware Theater Company is Marguerite Price. These are two exceptional women, devoted union SMs and the backbone of theatre in the Philadelphia area.”  —Nancy Boykin

“Before the last show of the week, Stephen Milosevich (production stage manager for Hir [by Taylor Mac, Playwrights Horizons; 2015]) would play disco over the monitor at our places call. He is the most organized, most professional goofball I’ve ever met.”  —Tom Phelan

Bryan Rodney Bauer is one of the most inspiring young stage managers I have met. While juggling a main stage production at Playwrights Horizons, he facilitated an organized, warm room for us to create Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop [by Michael R. Jackson; Feinstein's/54 Below; 2016]; I cannot wait to work with him again!”  —Larry Owens

“I have to give a shout out to the amazing Kate Bartels. Kate is always professional, always smiling and she always gets the job done! There’s nothing better as an actor than knowing that the stage manager is on top of everything, and with Kate, there’s never a question!”  —Amy Alvarez

Craig Horness is the PSM at Ford’s Theater [Washington, D.C.], and I was lucky to do five seasons of A Christmas Carol with him. He keeps the show in shape and keeps the company in great spirits, and is a fantastic human.”  —Vishal Vaidya

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by Stephanie Masucci

Two stage managers talk about starting their careers and mentoring those who are up-and-coming in the industry

Cheryl G. Mintz, the current Resident Production Stage Manager for McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., knew in high school that she wanted to be a stage manager. “In 11th grade I had the opportunity to stage manage The Crucible, and that opened up my theatrical world and changed my direction. I had very positive undergraduate theatre experiences at SUNY [State University of New York] Stony Brook and University of Loughborough in England, all of which led me to the Directing & Stage Management MFA at the Yale School of Drama.”

Yale proved to be a definitive experience for Mintz. Over the course of three years, she worked with over 300 passionate students and was able to network (a very different [sic] in the 1980s, she noted). After graduation she began her professional career with the National Theatre’s production of Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C. [1987], and then returned to New York City with a new production of the play [Promenade Theatre, 1988], in her first Equity Production Contract as a PSM.

On the flipside, becoming a stage manager was a career member Hope Villanueva accidentally fell into. “It was under one of the first directors that I worked for in Los Angeles that I realized this job appeals to both my desire to be around and create art, as well as my organizational sensibilities,” she said. “Becoming an Equity member wasn’t easy, though. “Since I started as a PSM and fell into job after job, I couldn't get into an EMC [Equity Membership Candidate] program when I wanted to join the union because I was ‘overqualified.’ Thankfully, a production manager in D.C. was willing to take a chance on me and offer me my first Equity contract as a PSM. I’ve been doing the D.C. thing ever since and even get to pick up an NYC project once a year or so.”

In 1984, Mintz first observed Susie Cordon backstage when she was the production stage manager for Noises Off on Broadway. Fast forward to 1991, when Cordon brought her in to be the rehearsal stage manager for Artistic Director Emily Mann’s production of The Three Sisters [McCarter Theater, Princeton, New Jersey]. “She remembered me, and seven years later that networking paid off. A perfect example of ‘you never know where you might get a job from.’ The McCarter was having a challenging time mounting its then-new production of A Christmas Carol, and Susie had to focus her energies upstairs, thus bringing me in for the next production that was in rehearsal. I was 29 years old, and Susie was an impeccable role model. There were few first-class female production stage managers in the ’80s and early ’90s, and Susie was one of them.” Mintz has since built a deep collaborative relationship with Mann, having done 31 productions together at McCarter and the Kennedy Center and on Broadway.

While Villanueva also believes networking is a key tool for success in this business, when it comes to job searching, she uses Equity’s Casting Call and other resources, even when she has a job. “I’m grateful that in the last year or so, I’m starting to get directors or companies to ask for me.” She also offers advice to those who may be just starting on this path: “Be flexible and be nice. Anyone can learn to be organized or do the paperwork or call a show with enough practice. The hardest thing will be being gracious and efficient, even when you’re being treated badly. You help set the tone for the whole production, and if you can keep a lightness and kindness to you, I believe the show ends up being a healthier place for everyone.”

The success of her staff is something Mintz takes great pride in, “and the 40 interns that have passed through the McCarter Stage Management Internship inspire me to no end. Last year, during my 25th season, I decided to step back and evaluate what my interns don’t learn while at McCarter. I contacted two dozen past interns asking that question. Out of that feedback I have created some master classes, which I conduct with the current interns, such as Opera Stage Management Boot Camp, and the Business of the Business. I definitely have my systems for doing things, but the interns shake things up, and keep me fresh and constantly re-evaluating things.”

For Villanueva, the “post show glow” is her favorite part of being a stage manager. “When everyone knows it came off great and the audience loved it or were moved, it feels like a job well done. I also enjoy tech more than most, I think. Unless there’s a crazy hurdle, I feel like it’s the time when I actually learn to do my job on the show instead of just supporting the learning of everyone else.”

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The road to the Tony Awards as told by stage managers

Councillor and stage manager Marjorie Horne sat down with three Equity stage managers—Peter Hanson, Bess Marie and Michael Passaro—to talk about getting their casts and productions ready for the Tony Awards.

Marjorie Horne: What are your experiences from the time nominations are announced to getting into the theater for that week?

Peter Hanson: It’s complicated if your show opens late in the season. You barely get a chance to catch your breath— you’re trying to think about understudy rehearsal, bringing the swings up to speed—and you’re immediately having to figure out your number for the Tony Awards, rehearse it, show it to the Tony producers, and all those things that happen in the run-up.

Bess Marie: What’s unfortunate is the performers are running on empty, especially those who are nominated. It’s also difficult when you have stars in your show who are not nominated, or when your show doesn’t get any nominations and you’re asked to perform.

Michael Passaro: When we did How to Succeed [in Business Without Really Trying; 2011 Best Revival of a Musical nominee] and Dan [Radcliffe] wasn’t nominated for Best Actor in a Musical, everyone was tiptoeing around this. To his credit, he pulled the company together and said, “Listen, I’m so proud of the show and what we’ve all done here. We should celebrate the fact that John Laroquette [Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical winner] and Tammy Blanchard [Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical nominee] and the show and all these things are nominated. Don’t worry about me. I know the people are coming to see this show because of the movies I’ve been in, and if I can have one person develop a lifetime of theatregoing because they came to see us in this show, then my job is done.” That was the greatest thing to turn that whole situation around because it can be so fraught with pressure and jealousy.

Horne: What’s your relationship to the creatives in building the number for the awards show?

Passaro: With Bright Star [2016 Best Musical nominee], once the producers decided to do the opening number, we had to determine how many of the cast we’d bring; would we include the swings, were we bringing all the musicians or just the ones that were visible in the house? Were they going to bring the scenic unit from the theater, were they going to build a separate one or bring a modified one?

Hanson: To take an eight-minute-long number and reduce it to three and a half minutes means work for the creatives, the musical team and the choreographer before we even show it to the actors. You have a number in your bones that you’ve been doing for a couple months, and now we’re asking you to do a surgical snip here in musical time and then go to this 15 bars and then go to this, and it gets complicated. When the producers of the Tonys are out in the house with their video cameras, you want them to look good.

Marie: There’s nothing like it.

Passaro: Particularly at the dress rehearsal, you get to see a lot of people you haven’t seen in a while. It’s a small industry, but we all have our shows and we all have our lives—we don’t ever see each other that much. It’s a wacky day, and many of my most cherished memories of doing Tony Awards are the morning rehearsals.

Hanson: One of my great memories from Evita [2012 Best Revival of a Musical nominee] was that we were coming on stage, and as we headed up with Elena Roger in front, coming off stage was Patti LuPone, who originated the role of Evita. Those two women jumped into each other’s arms and had this incredible introduction to each other. [NB: There seems to be some error here: Michael Passaro stage-managed the 2012 revival of Evita. ~Rick]

Marie: It’s fun, too, when they do the backstage stuff. During Once [2012 Best Musical winner], they wanted to do outtakes when going to commercial break, so they were showing some of my cast members warming up, and I just happened to be there because Cristin Milioti [2012 Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical nominee] needed her spray for her throat. I was there giving Ricola out, and next thing I know my phone is blowing up in the middle of the night with, “Oh my God, oh my God, you were just on TV!”

Passaro: I became interested in theatre because of the Tony Awards, in the days when the only Broadway we got to see in upstate New York was the Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Tony Awards. My mother was watching television one Sunday night the year that A Chorus Line [1976 Best Musical winner; 2007 Best Revival of a Musical nominee] opened the awards with that incredible number, and I said, “I want to do that.” To be able to participate at this level is such a thrill and an honor, I can’t even describe it.

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