“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.