PLACES, PLEASE: The Stage Manager's Job in the Theatre

When a performance goes well it all looks so easy to the audience. Even in the most elaborate Broadway musical, scenery whirls out of view, the lighting changes, performers make their entrances and exits, oh so "effortlessly." No one knows that fact better than the people in charge of making certain that all those details flow along correctly, the people who "call the cues"‹the stage managers. Asked what it is they do, all of the stage managers we spoke with laughed and barely knew where to begin. But once they did begin, they had plenty to say‹because they do so much.

In a sense, stage managers are the central "control tower," the nerve center of all that goes on, as they sit with their headsets on, calling out instructions and watching every detail with the heightened alertness required of their enormous responsibilities. They literally cannot miss a beat. Costumes, props, music cues, actors' standing on their marks, safety issues‹with huge pieces of scenery floating over performers' heads split seconds after they enter, exit, or change positions‹it's all the stage manager's responsibility, at each and every show.

"You're the person in the middle," says Robert Cohen, who has done this work for some 30 years and was production stage manager of Broadway's just-closed "Electra." "You're answerable to the producer and the director, but everything flows through you‹everything the artists and the technical people face. You're the shoulder everyone cries on. You're the one who has to make fast decisions on ways to solve problems as they arise."

Bernita Robinson is a stage manager for "Ragtime" on Broadway. She has worked on everything from small Off-Off-Broadway "black box" plays to huge productions such as Broadway's "Showboat." "I remember performing in a Girl Scouts' chorus as a young girl, and seeing a man named Ivan Curry, who was the show's stage manager, sitting there with his headphones calling all the cues, keeping things going. I knew from that moment that that is what I wanted to do. In a way it was the power, but also the satisfaction of pulling the whole thing together‹the lighting, the music, everything."

But for all the emphasis on coordinating the show's technical aspects, stage managers are not, as many people think, "chief techie," so to speak. When Annie Keefe, resident stage director of the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., received the Del Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award for regional theatre work from the Stage Managers' Association, she spoke of "people skills."

"A stage manager has to be a mind reader," she commented to Back Stage, following the March 24 award presentation at Sardi's. "That's the art of it. You have to be very intuitive. Working as a resident stage manager, I've gotten to know most of the directors and the crew people I work with, but we do get in guest directors and different actors regularly. I have to watch closely to pick up on what their priorities are. My job is to serve the production."

"You have to know where everything and everyone is at all times," says Shelli Aderman, who has done a great deal of Off-Broadway work. "During rehearsals, if a director says, "Let's go to page 37,' you have to get those performers out there instantly."

After the play goes up, the director usually moves on and it is up to the stage manager to, as Robert Cohen puts it, "maintain the directors' vision of the show." A new development in Broadway theatre‹at "Ragtime" and at "The Scarlet Pimpernel"‹"resident directors" who take over after the director leaves, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Maintaining the director's vision can mean rehearsing understudies and replacements, plus watching for changes in regular cast members' performances‹lags in pace, all sorts of things. So stage managers as well are creative central nerve centers.

On tour, the stage manager copes with a variety of space problems, making quick decisions and adjustments‹sometimes daily‹to meet the demands of each venue's architecture.

The more one learns about just how much stage managers do, the more apparent it becomes that they are among the most vital members of any production. Yet stage managers don't get the "glamour credit" that directors, producers, and actors do. In a sense, they are unsung heroes.

"Nobody knows what we do except us," Ira Mont, current chair of the SMA, commented at that organization's recent dinner. Mont is production stage manager (PSM)‹the head stage manager‹for Broadway's "The Sound of Music."

"You have to want to do this because you just plain want to," says Joe Drummond, senior resident stage manager at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. "Your satisfaction comes from seeing the production turn out well." He brought the Goodman's 50th-anniversary production of "Death of a Salesman," to New York and worked closely with Martin Gold, who took over as production supervisor of the current Broadway production.

Drummond observes, "When I became involved with the theatre professionally in the '60s, I didn't even know there was such a thing as a stage manager who was responsible for the running of a show. I don't think stage managers were even mentioned during the two years I spent in acting school." Now many university theatre departments offer majors in this area.

Who's in Charge?

How can one person possibly do all of these things? Well, first of all, on large-scale, complex productions there is a team at work‹it's not just one person. There are the PSM, usually two or three additional stage managers, ASMs (assistant stage managers), and PAs (production assistants). "When you are the PSM on a smaller production, even with a team," says Robert Cohen, "it's up to you to get that show up every night, and you have to have a sense of leadership and of responsibility in order to do that."

Back Stage spoke to several stage managers‹Broadway PSMs and their stage-management team members; people working in smaller Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway settings; long-time resident stage managers at regional theatres, who have been "staffers" for many years at particular houses, and people who have worked on tour. The majority of theatrical stage managers are freelancers who go from show to show‹usually working with a given show from preproduction through rehearsal and on through the end of the run, then moving on to another. For instance, Ira Mont has been PSM for many Off-Broadway shows, and has stage-managed Broadway's "Beauty and the Beast" and "Love! Valour! Compassion!" On tour his credits include "M. Butterfly" and his breakthrough job as ASM for "Fame: The Musical."

As with acting, non-union stage-management work is most often done during the earlier part of your career, when you are first breaking in. Most professional stage managers belong to Actors' Equity Association. Just as an actor may play the lead in one show and a supporting role in another, a stage manager may be PSM on one show and ASM on another.

"An ASM typically works with prompting, taking line notes, organizing lists of props, set changes, scenery, costumes. A lot of scheduling is involved," explains stage manager Richard Costabile.

" "PSM' is not a contractual job title," explains Robert Bruyr, executive assistant, Communications and Education at Equity, and that union's liaison to stage managers. Contractually, there are stage managers and there are assistant stage managers. But the term "PSM" is routinely used to describe the head of the team.

Bruyr, himself a stage manager for many years, notes, "The minimum requirement on a large production is that there be one stage manager and two assistants, but many productions hire more, for safety reasons. As to contracts, there are many different stage-management contracts, varying according to type of theatre‹regional, stock, LORT [League of Resident Theatres]‹etc. and type of production."

Most top regional theatres have in-house resident stage managers. Cheryl Mintz heads the Stage Management Department at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J. She studied stage management at Yale University School of Drama, where her role model was Annie Keefe‹not directly, but through Keefe's work, as Mintz often attended Long Wharf productions during her Yale days. "I always felt that the stage manager is in the middle of everything creatively, and that that is enormously exciting and important," Mintz says.

She worked with "Me and My Girl" on Broadway and spent a year as stage manager of that show on tour, but she prefers having a home base. Mintz feels she now has the "perfect job" working with McCarter Artistic Director Emily Mann, because they are in sync and Mintz's work is steady. Like Keefe, she enjoys the family feeling of having ongoing work with an in-house team and the security of having "a steady, well-paid job doing what I love."

Keefe observes, "When you've been a long-time resident stage manager at a theatre, you have the authority to ask for many things‹from almost everyone, the costume designers, the crew, plus, of course, the director‹that you don't when you're "jobbed in.' " But being "jobbed in" as a freelancer is the norm‹and is preferred by many because of the variety of creative challenges.

There is also life on the road. "You've got to make very fast decisions when you're touring," says Bernita Robinson. "The scenery can be rolled out that morning. You may have to cut a piece out because it won't fit in that theatre. A lot of adjustments have to be made."

What It Takes

What traits are called for in a good stage manager? Everyone we interviewed mentioned the same characteristics: excellent organizational skills, the ability to prioritize, flexibility (meaning the facility to make decisions on the spot when an unexpected problem arises) a thorough knowledge of every aspect of the show, and the ability to focus absolutely totally on everything going on throughout every performance. All that and people skills too‹what Keefe called "intuition." "You have to be a caretaker," says Robinson. "You are watching out for the show in every way."

On large, long-running Broadway musicals, usually one stage manager works each side of the proscenium, one calling the cues and one sitting out in the audience taking notes. "Those notes may be about performances," says Mont, "but they might also be about paint chipping on a piece of scenery. You observe everything." The entire team reports to the PSM, who reports to the director and general manager.

"Every stage manager has to have safety on his or her mind first and foremost at all times," says Cohen. "Before you call the cue to move any scenery you have to make sure no one is slightly out of position. I've heard of terrible injuries occurring." Cohen has worked on very elaborate productions. He was entertainment operations manager at the Tropicana in Atlantic City for 10 years and spent four years on the road with "Beatlemania" (in addition to stage-managing the Broadway version), among many other Broadway, industrial and spectacle productions. He has worked with dancers, singers, musicians, and special effects.

Mont notes that in terms of people skills, "If you have trouble being in the background and wish you were really center stage, this is not the career for you. I know that even though I started out as an actor I was always fascinated by the way things worked backstage, and I still am. But if you're secretly hoping to edge your way out there for the applause, it won't work for you or for anybody in the production."

Rich Costabile agrees. He has been PSM for national tours of "Death of a Salesman" and Hal Holbrook's "Mark Twain Tonight," and was resident PSM at Cleveland's Great Lakes Theater Festival for many years. Currently he is working on the Playwrights Horizons' "Good Night Children Everywhere," with PSM Marjorie Horne.

"Stage-managing used to be seen as a step towards becoming a director," Costabile observes. "For some people it still is, since once the director leaves, or when a show goes on the road, the stage manager carries out a lot of directorial functions. But if you are the stage manager of a given show it is your job to keep it going the way the director and the actors agreed it would be interpreted when they worked things out in rehearsals.

"You do not start to make your own directorial, creative changes. If you do, the cast may rebel and would be right to. I've heard of that happening. You have to know what your job is. You're maintaining the director's vision, not creating your own."

So stage management means combining the ability to be in the background in terms of not imposing one's creative vision. At the same time, it means being highly assertive in taking a leadership role in coordinating every aspect of the production, making certain everything gets done on time, correctly and smoothly. A tough combination‹yet it's done every day.

The field has changed in many ways over the years. Cohen and Costabile note the biggest change to be computerization. Lighting plots and so many other aspects of productions are computerized. And so are the inventories the stage management staff keeps of costumes, props, and everything else needed. Costabile has found this to be a boon. He can fit in work as a well-paid computer consultant with entirely flexible hours around his theatre work, and use his computer knowledge to keep tabs on all aspects of the productions he's working on.

"Laptops are present all the time when we work," says Cheryl Mintz. "My blocking notes go into them, inventories, schedules, creative observations, everything. "

How to Break in and Get Work

Many people wanted to stage-manage right from the beginning. It used to be the norm that stage managers had been actors or crew members first and drifted in this direction. That still happens, but people now often major in stage management in college. In fact, that's a common route into the field.

Step one is usually getting an internship while still a student, or a production assistant job‹usually in a small theatre first and gradually working up to the larger, more prestigious houses. Bernita Robinson, who studied at State University of New York-Purchase, believes, "We all start out thinking we want to go to Broadway, but you learn more starting in a smaller place because you have to do almost everything. I think it's better to do that first and head for the more specialized big-time later. I got my first jobs through Back Stage ads, and usually in small houses. I learned lighting, costuming, keeping an eye on everything at once.

"Networking is the key thing and getting as much hands-on experience as you can," says Shelli Aderman. "I started out volunteering, then doing PA and stage-managing work on showcases, in theatre in Israel for a year. You can look in Back Stage and in ArtSearch, which is a publication specializing in production jobs, and you can check Equity's on-line listings." Aderman is very active in the Stage Managers' Association. She has been PSM on several Off-Broadway productions, most recently "Inappropriate" at Theatre Row Theatre, as well as Off-Off-Broadway. She has also worked as PSM on such one-night galas as the Drama League's Benefit Tribute to Rosie O'Donnell at the Hotel Pierre.

Cheryl Mintz gets applications at McCarter for PA work and for internships from students from highly prestigious schools. Other stage managers recall getting their starts in small "black box" theatres.

"In general, production assistants are "go-fers," explains Costabile. "They get the coffee, they put down the duct tape for people's marks and take notes, but the important thing is that they are there. They see everything that's going on first-hand and within the real world."

PAs are not unionized. The next step up the ladder is to become an assistant stage manager; this position may or may not be an Equity job, depending on the production. Many stage managers are not union members‹but with only one minor exception, no Equity contracts allow a nonunion person to stage-manage a union production.

Jobs are gotten the way they often are in show business‹through word-of-mouth. One stage manager after another urged those interested in this area to volunteer, to attend meetings (see box TK!!!), to answer ads in Back Stage. Mintz mentioned the SMA's Operation Observation. Through this program people can request to observe a stage manager calling the cues from backstage‹to see for themselves whether stage-managing is "for them" or what they may have to learn.

Aderman points out, "Once you've worked well with a director, he or she may request you. Sometimes they can do that; sometimes the general manager will insist on a particular person. But getting your name and your work known is the most important thing. People will sometimes show up a long time later, remembering having worked with you or having seen something you did. It all comes back to networking."

The world of stage management is a small one and many of the people Back Stage spoke with had worked with one another on various productions over the years in different capacities. Several recommended sending a note to general managers and to directors simply saying, "Hello, I'm stage-managing such and such a show." Everyone agreed that doing this while working is always best. But if you're not working, you plow on ahead, keeping active and visible to those who might hire or recommend you.

Just as with doing the jobs that come along for stage managers, getting the jobs boils down to the fact that you plan everything as carefully as possible‹but the unexpected can, and does, happen all the time. The main thing is to be prepared and to be quick enough to rise to the occasion. Stage managers always do‹and the show does go on.