What do stage managers want? As the new year begins, I asked a random sampling of professional stage managers just that—their wishes for 2005. Their answers, in a nutshell: Continued work. Peace. The health of the nonprofit theatre. But they were also eager to discuss their role in the theatre community and why they love it.
"Stage managers need to be organized, artistic, and have people skills," declares Vernon Willet. Luckily, Willet has all those qualities, because what started out as an acting career at age 11—and segued into a ballet career—got derailed when a chiropractor adjusted his neck, resulting in damage to the brain stem so that he couldn't continue to perform. "But I've always been very organized in my personal life, so stage managing was the natural way to go," he says. This month he starts work on Steve Martin's The Underpants at Laguna Playhouse.
"In Los Angeles, as long as you're working for a theatre that stays open, you stay," observes Willet, citing theatres that have closed down recently. His wish: to work someday at the new Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. "I just hope we don't see any other closings," he adds.
Like Willet, others are aware of economic realities that affect theatre. "My wish is that the tech end of things, which supports the whole creative endeavor, doesn't get shortchanged," comments Risa Aratyr. With a degree in drama from U.C. Berkeley, Aratyr started stage managing young, realizing that organization was her "superpower" and that she communicates well. She has stage managed at Los Angeles Actors Theatre, Theatre West, and most recently in the Bay Area. "It's so hard to maintain productions on every level," she acknowledges. "People are getting by on minimum crews. I wish for enormous amounts of windfall that would allow us to do quality productions from top to bottom."
"The more stage managers I meet, the more I see that it's hard to have stage managing as your principal income," notes Young Ji, a newcomer to the field who is currently working at Antaeus Theatre in North Hollywood. "I'm trying to make the push into bigger regional theatres," he explains. His wish at the moment is for Antaeus to have a successful season.
Similarly, Shona Mitchell hopes for "regional theatre to come out of the slump that it's in." With a degree in stage management, Mitchell has been working in theatre since age 15 and recently closed A Christmas Carol at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where she freelances. "There's so little money going around that theatre is suffering in a lot of ways," laments Mitchell. "When I was young, production values were grand; productions were put together exquisitely in terms of acting, director's vision, etc. So many corners are having to get trimmed now because of the state of the economy. In contrast, on Broadway there are big, spectacular shows, and artistic integrity can suffer—it becomes all about spectacle, and how big an effect you can have onstage. There are few places where I see the middle ground—like Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphosis, which came from an artistic vision that had to be realized. It wasn't a particularly big budget or incredibly complicated show in terms of technicality, but it was so beautiful, so well-designed and well-directed and well thought out…."
Along with her hope for the financial health of regional theatre, Mitchell also wishes for more support for theatre education, especially in the schools.
June Palladino, currently looking for her next gig, supplements her stage management income by doing medical transcription. "Actors do a lot of teaching between shows, or waiting tables," she points out. "I don't think you'd find many stage managers waiting tables. We're not predisposed to serving customers. I don't have the mindset for that; I need to be in charge."
Palladino, who works mostly at Bay Area theatres such as American Conservatory Theater, came to her calling from a career as a military police officer and fraud investigator. She eventually realized she loved theatre but had no acting talent. Ten years ago, when a director invited her to stage manage a show, Palladino bought a guide to stage management and, as she says, "Slid right into it—ah, this is what I'm supposed to be doing. I'd stage manage for free. But I never have. I feel I am worth being paid."
Her wish: "Peace, first and foremost. And for myself, more challenges in my work. There's a level of comfort when you work with the same actors and directors. But I love doing something new every three months. I'd like to work with playwrights and directors I've never worked with before."
"Peace on earth for everyone" is also the first wish of Leesa Freed, a freelancer currently working at the Colony Theatre Company. A child actor who went on to do summer stock, she ended up practicing law but, as she says, "didn't love it." When, seven or eight years ago, a producer friend invited her to help out backstage at a Theatre West production, Freed found she loved the work. "You use both sides of your brain—the business and creative sides," she says. Her additional wishes: health, happiness, and success for loved ones, continued work—and, someday, a gig on a Broadway show.
Christina Burck's New Year's wish has already come true. She hoped to move on from her six-year stint at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble to a larger Equity theatre where she could focus primarily on stage managing while working closely with a company of actors and directors. The day we spoke, she'd just signed a contract to be the new production manager and stage manager at Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura. "My hope was to create a community for myself up there with actors and designers, and it just happened," she says.
Sammie Wayne, too, had at least one New Year's wish come true. He'd been an actor for many years, but about five years ago jobs started petering out. A friend offered him a stage managing gig, and he has continued at that work ever since, most recently working at the Matrix for four months. As a result of the Matrix job, Wayne booked a role on Judging Amy; Matrix owner Joseph Stern is also the producer of that TV series.
But the recent Matrix stage managing job was wonderful for other reasons: team spirit among cast and everyone else affiliated with the production; challenges met with a positive, courteous, can-do attitude; full houses; on-time paychecks. "My wish is that all stage managers and actors could have the experience I just had at the Matrix," says a contented Wayne.
Michael Suenkel, longtime production stage manager at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, pointed to Equity's endangered health-care system. "It's becoming more and more difficult for freelance actors and stage managers to get enough work weeks to meet the health-care minimum," he observes. Suenkel's own health care is assured; he works 52 weeks a year. His wish is that the system can be saved for his colleagues.
Jenny R. Friend started out as an actor before realizing that wasn't the career path for her. Resident stage manager at San José Repertory Company for more than five years, she just took a job as production stage manager at the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis.
Friend longs to strike that delicate balance between "listening to each other and challenging each other." She says, "We're all artists to a certain extent. If we can find that balance, it would lead to a mutual respect among all of us. If we really listen and at the same time push each other to new heights—that's the key to a positive environment. As a stage manager, you can get caught up in the big picture but lose track of smaller issues that may be very significant to [others]." Stage managers sometimes hide behind the job when confronted with a personal problem that needs solving: "I'm very busy calling the show, doing this, doing that." But if you persist in avoiding that dialogue with an actor, she says, you're missing a key component of the job: talking to actors about what's going on onstage every night.
"My goal is to give actors and all the artists in the collaboration that sense of safety so they can do what they do with confidence," she concludes.
Suenkel echoes many of his colleagues in hoping for world peace, but ratchets his wish up a notch. "I was disappointed by events in our country this past year and hope that all of us who work in the arts can undo some of the damage," he says. "I hope we can use whatever civilizing effect we have. I think we're at a crisis stage and need to fight the intolerance and aggression that our society is embracing. I think the theatre can contribute in a small way to civilizing us again." BSW