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.
One 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.