Production stage managers are at the center of a theater nervous system
The quandary was as vexing as it was exotic for the theater’s tech crew: how to get a cute but easily distracted bunny to perform on cue.
“It took several days of trying different things, but we finally came up with something that worked,” said Jenny Friend, production stage manager at the Children’s Theatre, which was putting on the play “Animal Dance” in 2016. “Cilantro — rabbits just love cilantro. Who knew?”
In figuring out what greenery to use to bribe a bunny, Friend aced the troubleshooting aspect of a job that is little known and less seen but is critical to any show.
Production stage managers are like air traffic controllers for theater, sitting at the technical nerve centers of productions. Wearing headsets and poring over scripts in discreetly lit control booths, they call cues, manage traffic flows and make sure that everything runs smoothly in plays, dramas and musicals.
In a field known for big egos and explosive emotions, stage managers combine calm, nimbleness and competence that balances left- and right-brain attributes. They have to have an eye for detail, drillmaster-like discipline, psychological finesse and artistic flair.
In short, nothing gets off the ground without them. And when snafus inevitably arise, given the complex mix of people, machinery and the occasional animal involved in shows, they are creative problem solvers. They have to be.
“A play or musical is not something that’s fixed and remains static,” said Tree O’Halloran, who has been production stage manager at the Guthrie Theater since 2012. “It is a living, breathing thing.”
Their work is critical in all three phases of a production. During the rehearsal period, stage managers run schedules and coordinate crews and people.
Their focus tightens during technical rehearsals, when discrete elements from acting to design and choreography all come together for the first time as cues are set. Tech rehearsals last for a short time with a lot of ground to cover before a show welcomes the public in for previews. The stage managers — usually two of them on a play and up to three on a musical — drive the process, harmonizing creative and technical notes that will be used for the third part of their job.
Once the show opens, the stage manager keeps it up.
“A play is not meant to be frozen — actors continue to breathe life into it,” said O’Halloran, who has been a stage manager for 35 years and is one of the deans of the field. “It’s up to the stage manager to keep it sharp, so that the 50th performance is as fresh as the first.”
In the Twin Cities, the shows with the longest runs usually are at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, where “I Do! I Do!” famously ran for 22 years. Broadway has a number of marathon shows, including “The Lion King,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “The Book of Mormon.”
The stage managers’ jobs are even more challenging with long-run shows because they, too, can lose focus. And whatever the length of the run, stage managers maintain a balance between actors having the leeway to find new things in a role vs. going way off script.
“Theoretically, our job is to keep the river in the banks,” O’Halloran said. “You don’t want the ideas to flood out until we can’t do anything about them.”
Actors, in turn, appreciate their work.
“We rely on them to be our eyes and ears and to take care of us,” said actor Dame-Jasmine Hughes, who recently was in the premiere of “Floyd’s” at the Guthrie, stage managed by O’Halloran. “They have to be like expert psychiatrists dealing with the most sensitive, vulnerable pieces of people’s lives. Tree is amazing at it, managing human fragility.”
Stand by, go
As they sit in their booths, stage managers follow the script line by line, setting up and releasing cues — telling one to stand by, another to go — even as they’re watching the performance to make sure everything is going according to plan. But there’s always something, most of them small and unnoticed by the audience.
The sound system conked out during a performance of the musical “Five Points” at the Ritz Theater in spring 2018, causing a 45-minute delay. But Tiffany K. Orr and her team figured out a fix: wheeling in a piano for music director Denise Prosek. They adjusted lights and cues and ran the show.
“We only lost four patrons that night, a Thursday,” Orr said.
Some shows seem simple, but even those have involved booth and backstage work. Orr, who has been at Latté Da for 10 years, is stage managing “Chicago,” which has 750 cues. It’s one of the most complicated shows she’s ever done.
“Two hours, no intermission,” Orr said. “It’s kind of bonkers.”
Sometimes, a mistake is viewed as a choice by the audience. A drape failed to come down during “The Cocoanuts,” the Marx Brothers-inflected comedy that played the Guthrie in 2015.
“Folks saw the whole scene shift happening, and it was completely fine,” O’Halloran said. “You’re doing a show and it’s already an odd world. People in the audience [just] think it’s a weird choice.”
A more serious mishap happened during a run of Joe Dowling’s 2015 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Guthrie, when a large clam shell failed to open, trapping actors inside of it.
Thankfully, such snafus and foul-ups are relatively mild, particularly in light of more tragic things that happened onstage nationally. In March 2018, Cirque du Soleil aerialist Yann Arnaud fell during a Tampa performance of “Volta.” He died at a hospital.
In fact, Cirque has had several fatal accidents with performers and crew, most famously aerialist Sarah Guyard-Guillot falling 94 feet in 2013 in Las Vegas.
To the booth born?
Stage managers take different paths to the control booth.
New York native O’Halloran, who won a small theater scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wanted to be a director or playwright but found that her talents lay elsewhere. She fell into theater in college and stage managed her way through school. She became professional immediately after graduation.
Orr, who grew up in the small Oklahoma town of Holdenville, first wanted to act. She remembered that when she went to ask her college adviser about stage management her freshman year, the adviser immediately signed her up for an upcoming production.
“I talked to her about being an assistant stage manager, because I wanted to learn, but when they posted the cast list for my first show, ‘Best Little Christmas Pageant,’ which had 52 children, I was listed as the stage manager. She said I would be great at it.”
Elizabeth R. MacNally, a Coon Rapids native who has been production stage manager at Pillsbury House Theatre since 2011, has never wanted to be anything else.
She first worked on a stage crew at 8 when her mother, actor Janet MacNally, was cast in a community theater production of “Annie.”
The 8-year-old was put in charge of the pooch playing Sandy.
“It was an Irish wolfhound, and my job was to make sure Sandy made the entrances and exits,” MacNally said. “It was superfun plus my brother and I got to spend more time with my mom.”
At around 12, MacNally was cast in “Bye, Bye Birdie” in Elk River and, in her words, “hated it. I asked my mom if I could quit and join the crew. She said no.”
The only other audition that MacNally had done since then was once after losing a bet.
“There was nothing else for me,” MacNally said. “I get to be artsy and creative and support the creative process. For a long time, I didn’t think that stage managers were artists, just there to support art. But we are artists. It takes an art form to create space and hold space the way we do.”
Friend, who grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., intended to become an actor until she saw the leaf pattern of a production of “Under Milk Wood” during a visit to Stephens College in Missouri.
“It was so beautiful, I wanted to know how it happened,” Friend said. “It kicked off an inquiry into all these career paths.”
And world travels. Friend, who completed her graduate degree at Yale, has taken shows to Japan and has stage managed for the likes of Ralph Lemon, Diahann Carroll and Marilyn McCoo.
O’Halloran recalls working with the avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson atop a hill in some olive groves in Italy.
“It’s a wondrous, wonderful life,” Friend said.
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390