Farewell An American In Paris

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For the Company of An American In Paris
                             With Love: Julia

I wrap my arms around you trodders of the boards
while you kick and resist determined to go beyond
One art
One life
One story

You transcend the imagination of a single man’s dream
creating your own life
One art
One life
One story

The story you tell is of unity splintered by individualism
still closing up gaps in hopes of regaining
One art
One life
One story

On glorious occasion your entire being grows to trust
that you can succeed in portraying
One art
One life
One story

As this opportunity parts and fades know that you have left an indelible mark
Upon so many hearts
One art
One life
One Story

An American In Paris Company,
I enjoyed sharing your art with you. Your secret world of dancing rounded out with the glorious music and vocals that swirl up the Gershwin in any girl all strung together with the titanium thread of acting. A solid crew packed with integrity that you may never fully realize and sublime managers that take such pride in their work they are relentless in their pursuits.

Thank you for the laughs and the learning. Until we meet again I wish you all the very best each and every day.

Respectfully,
Julia

* Please note that this old lesbian uses Company in the global sense. All the people who make this shit happen nightly!

#BestDayEver

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I recently had the pleasure of being involved in the cast recording of The SpongeBob Musical and was wrapped up in the simple and rather infectious phrase, “its the best day ever”, other wise known as the SpongeBob theme. Its not the cloyingly annoying phrase you might think. I mean I can remember hearing the joy of the “happiest company on earth”, Kinky Boots, and being driven mad by the variety of zippy hashtags, like #youchangetheworldwhenyouchangeyourmind #justbe #werkkween. I felt super left out of that joy, it was another person’s celebration. Please note, I was a little miserable at the time Kinky Boots opened on broadway as I was working on a show that maybe was not the happiest place on earth, but that’s not this story. In fact this SpongeBob phrase as sung by our extraordinary cast is simple and genuine, when you hear it you actually think its possible that it might just be the best day ever and that’s a pretty super feeling. We were several hours into the night session when the cast started singing Best Day Ever and the Producers, Creatives & Technicians in the control booth were clicking away on devices and pushing the clock to not incur too much overtime and as we worked through the song there were in fact involuntary smiles that came across faces. They didn’t even know it, they were grinning, tapping their feet, glancing up from their screens as this beautiful phrase repeated. As the day wound down I became very sad watching this company part ways unsure of our next step in this world of Broadway real-estate where you feel as in control as a extreme liberal on the Senate floor. It’s a cast that never deserts one another, they all look at each other in the eye and make the moment true and vibrant. I know, I know, who’s cloying and annoying now?  As a stage manager you get to see the best and worst of everyone, so this feeling of company that came with The SpongeBob Musical felt unique and our time together zoomed by way too fast during the show’s out-of-town Chicago premier this summer. It did come with a lesson however, a lesson that has taken me a time and a couple glasses of rosé to formulate.  In my future endeavors I am going to try to be the very human being who stage manages and meets the demands of the *company instead of being that Stage Manager who has a solution for everything before anything occurs. I’m just not a by rote kind of a girl. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I have major quirks and I like things done a certain way but I am not going to let those things interfere with me having the best day ever in this stand alone world of Broadway Theatre.

*A company by my definition is the entire group of cast, crew, creatives, musicians, managers… It is not just the cast as is often referred to on postings & notes.

Devotion at work, to a fault

1753_Traversi_Operation_anagoria.JPG“Its not brain surgery” this is an anthem often heard in the theatre, but I’d like to argue that there is a quality of caring among professionals in the theatre that makes this work our brain surgery. Lets face it, most of we theatre professionals never wanted to be brain surgeons nor did we likely have the passion for biology to consider this life or death profession. So while I am not going to trust the inimitable Jack O’Brien to wield a scalpel near any of my vital organs, I am going to trust that this master of the boards will make every attempt to see that a play is directed with absolute precision and heart. I believe the exchange for science is emotion and the delicate hand it takes to navigate around the emotional beings of the theatre takes absolute concentration and skill. When I go to work I am managing complex groups of people not governed by a code of ethics or trained for a very specific task repeated multiple times daily. These are people who invest in a living breathing entity called theatre. So to the dilemma I find myself facing; How do we as Stage Managers not let our devotion take us on every rollercoaster ride we are presented with in the theatre? How do we put breaks on our give-a-shitter?

There are no jobs backstage in the theatre, that I know of, that are total punch in/punch out professions. There are a few people who get to hide in high places like front light operators or flymen, but they are still invested thoroughly in the product. The Stage Hand is not a man or woman who punches in does their job and goes home uninvolved. Their contributions vary from the local stage hand who has a task that must be complete correctly day after day, to the sound engineer who must have the technical knowledge and the artistic sensibility to see that you as an audience hears the show as it was intended. Beyond their job they are interacting with actors, dancers, singers on a personal level, (after 28 years professionally in this business I can honestly say that there is no way to not be involved with performers on a personal level, they simply will not allow it), and providing a safe and confident work environment. The Wardrobe and Hair crew… they see people in little to no clothing and make sure they look they’re best or worst (as designed of course). They hear dressing room talk which is the professional equivalant to pillow talk. They are on their feet running about with laundry baskets and providing the performer with confidence that they don’t need to worry… about their clothes anyway. The actor; the well sung hero of our profession, everything is very high stakes for this often creative ball of vulnerability who puts themselves front and center for the audiences entertainment.

So I have a great idea, says a Producer, lets put all of these people (give or take musicians if it is a musical) in the same and often cramped (in the case of Broadway) building to perform what is ultimately a singular task that a brilliant creative team has built… but before we walk away to continue the task of building an audience, lets throw a couple of managers at them to run the thing day to day. Now Stage Managers are not on an island by any means… nope, its not that romantic! We work hand in hand with a true unsung hero, the Company Manager; the conduit between General Managers and Producers. The Company Manager is undoubtedly the Stage Managers best friend and ally, but I digress. The point is how do we, as Stage Managers, step back from this wildly diverse bunch of professionals (and occasionally un-professionals) and focus on the business and not the latest emotion. When I assist I have more time to ponder this question than when I am the lead stage manager (Production Stage Manager). I get to watch the lead stage manager either soar with great success through the storm like an Eagle with his eye on a doomed mouse or I sometimes I see him back into a corner like a Chihuahua caught in an ice storm. I once had the opportunity to work with a well respected stage manager called Beverley Randolph, whom I thought I disagreed with completely. Beverley was a force of nature and did everything by the Book of Beverley and insisted that those around her do the same. She felt that the Stage Manager should be “beyond reproach”; I still disagree with her on that point because I’m just not that gal. As it turns out there were several things that I took from the Book-of-Bev and one very important thing and while I may apply it differently it helps me to manage creativity without developing an ulcer “rise above it”. Sometimes, often times, things in our business do not go according to plan and rather than getting mired in the mix of right and wrong if you rise above it all you just may be able to look down and see the clear path.

Please note: Everything I mention about Beverley Randolph is with great respect. She was a female stage manager who paved the way for so many of us. She was taken from the American Theatre and the world too soon when she passed away in 2011. Rest In Peace Bev.

To achieve greatness through respect

respectAs a parent and a working professional I am constantly struggling to be awesome in my work and home. We owe it to ourselves to be brilliant whenever possible, right? I mean that is what you do right? Strive for brilliants. I have recently achieved catastrophic failure in my family life, when seen through the lens of this “brilliant” filter that is. My son Cooper, who has God’s special touch in the form of autism, was so upset with me recently he attempted to “run away” via New Jersey Transit after I left for work. Now, I must preface this story with the fact that my son has a penchant for train travel with or without me and has an internal compass and a memory for directions that defies odds. In fact over the Thanksgiving Holiday he showed up at my stage door in the heart of Times Square to surprise me. This was a tremendous surprise since his journey into New York City required riding the New Jersey Transit train from our town in Maplewood NJ into Pennsylvania station NYC where he then he hoped a subway to 50th Street station on the red line and backtracked on foot to our stage door on 47th street. So the fact that Cooper retreated to the trains to run away was not the shocker. The fact that he openly defied his mom’s rules that he was never to ride the trains without an adult was bad, but still not the sting that made me evaluate my “brilliants”. The failure came from my internal pressure to deal with my son’s behaviors earlier that day  with good old fashion “normal” discipline when he was being very badly behaved and not listening to anyone. I was very stern in tone, attitude and threat. I told him I hated his not listening and that this wasn’t how my boy behaves. Then I gave him a cold shoulder when he tried to turn things around just before I left for work. I was bound and determined to let him know I was the boss. This superiority shouldn’t seem so outrageous, right? After all, I didn’t beat him. However this was the reason Cooper ran away without his phone after I left for work. My wife Doreen had the wherewithal to reach out to a group of friends to help find him and reported our son to the Transit Authority who did find him in Newark Penn Station while he waited for his connecting train to Long Branch NJ. Cooper later revealed to me that he was planning on running away to our friends house in Red Bank NJ right after he finished visiting Bay Head NJ. Again proving that his compass was fully in tact since Red Bank is a stop on the train line on the Jersey Coast which terminates in his beloved Bay Head.

I mentioned that my son has special needs so traditional discipline is not at all effective, in fact, later that night as I was coming home from work Cooper spared no pains to tell me that he ran away because I said I hated him (translated from “I hate your behavior”) and I was mean to him, so he said he didn’t like me anymore. Okay, I don’t need my son to like me all the time, but I do need his respect and I felt that is what I was loosing by dealing with him in a petty manner. So the next day, after I licked my parental wounds, I took my son for Pancakes and leveled the playing field. We reached a reasonable compromise, that did in fact include an escorted train journey in exchange for his hard work on how he behaved at home and respected his family. I also told him I had some work to do, but most of my being angry comes out of fear. Oh, the blank stare I received in response to that statement was priceless and resulted in him asking me to help him cut up his pancakes.

This exchange with my son made me think a little more deeply about other interactions I have in life and the fact that respect is always creeping in as a factor. I recently heard a stage hand say to an actor who was struggling with his performance that day and expressed how tired he was, “never talk about being tired in front of a stage hand.” I completely understood this stage hands point, he started working at 8:00 that morning doing physical labor and has a young family who makes a full nights sleep difficult. His average work week runs from 50-60 hrs or more depending on how many jobs he is working at any given time. The average cast member at our show is at work 24-30 hours a week and has access to multiple forms of body work from gym memberships to PT and massage. However, the problem in this communication is a lack of respect. This dancer looks at this stage hand carrying some props  or pushing some scenery, looking at his phone and sitting around at work while this performer is running around changing clothes, dancing and singing for nearly 2 1/2 hours. The stage hand doesn’t know the work the dancer puts into maintaining his body and training his instruments. Not to mention the vulnerability of putting yourself in front of an audience 8 times a week. So that conversation, given mutual respect could have gone; “oh my God, I’m so tired today.” and the response could have been “I hear you brother, I feel the same way.”

Is true mutual respect even possible when you mix together such different people? I started thinking about respect and how as a manager and as a human being this one word “respect” and its action of being “respectful” is way under utilized. Will I be a more effective manager if I truly start from a place of respect? Not insisting on everyone toeing a perfectly straight line, but building a mutual respect for for the line each individual toes? In the theatre we are mixing so many disciplines that it is easy to loose sight over what everyone contributes, but I think we must always try everyday or we may end up with people trying to run away from us as managers instead of being a part of the process together.

a few thoughts for young stage managers

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What would happen if we put down the screens in rehearsal
If our young stage managers were able to absorb “the room”
soak up its magic… energy… urgency?

Try, the masters of our future, to let your
imagination dance among the interest of others
as they live and as they reveal.
Take a step back from building and bettering.

What would happen if the line weren’t always perfect
if the column didn’t add up but you knew the why of it?
What if Instead of dotting the “i” you watched a flower grow?

What would happen if you let go of perfection
and let respect guide your decisions?
What would happen if the power went dim
and only your light was available to hold the room?

I am inspired to write this blog not as a chastisement to our future stage managers and certainly not as an affront to all of my friends and colleagues grooming these very efficient managers in Universities across the country. I am writing it as a reminder to young stage managers that our business allows us to be a unique part of a creative process through the support of actors, directors, designers and a production team. In this age of technology: computers, instant communication, instant information and beautiful paperwork so many young stage managers have become machines and don’t recognize that they are a part of a magical journey.  Don’t get me wrong, I love good paperwork and when I have a choice I love working with a certain Stage Manager who does some of the best paperwork I’ve ever seen. My question to these flashlight clad knights of the future is beyond the paperwork do you know how to communicate with a stage hand with as much respect for their knowledge as you do with  a director or an actor? Do you take the time to understand why the same step, song or moment is worked and re-worked beyond comprehension? Are you okay with being seen and seeing everything and not being involved with the decision, but still willing to understand and uphold that decision? Ours is a curious part of the artistic process but no less a part and if you burrow behind your smart this and i-that you miss so much of what is happening. Lift your eyes and see how an actor digests information, how the story is being told, how the blocking evolves. See what a designer sees so you can maintain their vision, see how a prop is being used so you can make sure the right item is manufactured, see how a costume, that is yet to be worn, could change what is being asked of the person wearing it. I promise you this information will change how you write that report, how you communicate that need, how you enjoy your day.

Please note: I am authoring this blog as a working Stage Manager for the past 27 years and while I work in a commercial theatre setting now and so much of what I do day-to-day is completely mechanical I do try to practice these principles whenever possible. I am  using as my inspiration young stage managers that I have worked with over the last ten years or so, many of which have wildly successful careers, so I am not trying to be an arbiter for what will bring you success. I am suggesting that as you start working in this business don’t forget that it is an ART and you are an artists.

Notes, notes, notes… always notes

UnknownOne part of my job as a Production Stage Manager is to help maintain the artistic integrity of the show on behalf of the creative team. While doing this job I have to make decisions on whether to address certain  notes. You would think “what’s the decision”, it’s my job so I should go in pursuit of everything, be your best and see that the show is it’s best! But sometimes, in my job, my best decision is not to go down that slippery slope that shoots off in a million creative avenues. Giving actors notes, that go beyond the technical realm, requires you to know what is intended  by the director in a specific moment of the show and being able to help an actor find the right way to express that intention that best suits their approach to the material. Confused? You don’t know the half of it. Then you have to factor in who, said actor, is playing opposite of because inevitably the reason a particular moment has slid away from its center is because the two or more people in the scene have forgotten why something was originally constructed. Then there is the audience, the life blood of Broadway, they may be responding incredibly well to something they love that has absolutely nothing to do with that moment that you are trying to address. Never underestimate the power of an audience’s reaction…an odd laugh has crushed hours of sensitive direction and crippled sentences so carefully constructed that Mr Shakespeare himself would be in envy. I have known amazing actors to resist playing to the most base laugh through an entire preview period only to spiral rapidly after TONY nominations are announced. So even the most carefully thought out suggestion of a note can go on an endless adventure down a rabbit hole and strike you right between the, “well the stage manager told me to do that” eyes.

Please allow me to breakdown the creative process using the beautiful and often dysfunctional family tree. You have the roots of our sapling; the play, the music, a sensitive opus. The story itself wielded by the pen of the Playwright (or in the case of a musical, the Book Writer, Composer & Lyricist). You have got the trunk of our tree; the creative team lead by the Director who devises the best possible way to tell the tale and is aided by a slew of other creatives such as: the Designers, Choreographer, Musical Director, Orchestrators & Dramaturge. This trunk is often formed, nurtured and fed by the Producer(s). The branches both thick and strong and branching off into beautiful spindly shapes are the Actors, Singers, Dancers. It is the creative spark of all these parts that creates the beautiful, colorful, wispy leaves that people, our patrons, come and admire.

So, back to my point about sometimes a note is better left alone… not every branch tolerates being cut back without sprouting back out in the completely wrong direction and then you get yourself in a position where you need the help of your trunk to make sense of the pruning… This is all only in play if a very cold frost doesn’t come along sending your tree into a sudden autumn.