Stage Managers in the Starting Blocks

We’re recruiting at the School of Dramatic Arts. The BFA Audition Tour.

For the past two weekends, we’ve met with aspiring applicants to the School of Dramatic Arts BFA programs in acting, stage management, technical direction, design and sound design.

We’re led by our fearless leader, the indomitable Lori Ray Fisher, our Asst. Dean of Academic Affairs, and her intrepid “touring company” staff, Meghan Laughlin and Ramón Valdez. Over the past two weekends, in classrooms all over the McClintock Theatre building, aspiring applicants to the School of Dramatic Arts arrived with their best materials and selves to show the acting and production faculty. Lori, Meghan and Ramón met with every one of them, briefing them on curricular and logistical details of becoming a USC student while the faculty put them through their paces in auditions and portfolio reviews.

The tour dates fell earlier in this year’s calendar, landing with a thud just after the school’s own casting audition cycle ended. In the first week of classes, in rehearsal halls across the campus, we cast nine shows.

Lacking a stage manager for one of the shows, I stepped in to administer the auditions for one of the New Works plays, and sat in the hallway of PED watching the actors pace hither and yon in anticipation of their auditions, the gracious and welcoming stage managers at their tidy tables outside those audition rooms.

I listened intently to the sweet sounds of musical auditions seeping through the walls of PED 207 from Evita. I listened to stage managers shushing over-excited actors who shared their audition battle stories with their friends sometimes a little too enthusiastically.

I peered into PED 208, where forty-plus young men and women, eyes fixed eagerly, desperately as they replicated the choreographer’s dance sequences. Some of them floundered  with the novelty of the moves, working the sequences over and over until their brows were shiny and their arms graceful, their smiles confident. You have to love casting week.

Usually a stranger to these hallways, I saw many of my THTR 130 students, most of whom are out of their element 8:00AM on Tuesday mornings in a technical theatre class. Now, I was there, in their zone, and they relished the chance to show me their true actor colors.

These are the stakes for the aspiring applicants we met last week in the auditions for the freshman class. The chance to participate in casting week, to land a part in the spring musical, or in a brand new play by a graduate student in the Dramatic Writing program. Or a design position on a future spring musical. Or the chance to sit in the hall outside the audition room to support the casting process. The stakes are high.

The school is also in the process of searching to hire a newly named Chair of the Stage Management Program, the first named chair in stage management in the country, due to a generous gift. I serve on the search committee, and can’t divulge anything about the process or the people who have applied. But this weekend, after considering who might become the Director of the program, followed by a weekend of meeting the students some of whom will join the program next fall, I’ve thought a lot about stage management skills and training.

What makes a good stage manager? There are dozens if not hundreds of books about the practice of stage management. They detail the importance of clear and detailed paperwork, good communication skills, an organized approach to the chronology of a play’s rehearsals, technical rehearsals and performances. Other qualities include the support of the director’s vision, good time management skills, a good sense of humor, etc. But I think the most important aspect of excellence in stage management is less measurable, certainly less systematic. It parallels the qualities and skills that make an actor or designer or technician good:

Listening

A good actor listens and responds truthfully and with the appropriate emotions and lines as rehearsed.

A good stage manager listens and processes, then, after separating the logistical consequences from the emotional underlying message, responds. Unemotionally whenever possible. A good stage manager does not take any information personally, and whenever possible, removes his or her ego from the room/process.

Being Present

A good actor remains in the moment, responding with truth to what he or she receives from the other actor.

A good stage manager similarly responds to information, not being thrown by unexpected events on stage or off.

  • Lamp burned out? Check the magic sheet and come up with an alternative to add to the cue, or text the theatre manager to be standing by at intermission with the appropriate lamp and a ladder.
  • Actor in tears in front of you? Wrap your arms around them and just let them cry. Kleenex and a cookie works pretty well, too, but only after that initial human response that lets them know you can see their humanness, too.
  • Actors refusing to perform until conditions have been improved? Contact the technical director and discuss a timeline for doing the work necessary to make them feel safe again.

I remember back in 1992 when we were in tech at the Los Angeles Theatre Center with Boogeyman,hollywood-squares Reza Abdoh’s wildly exuberant rant against corporate America’s response (or lack thereof) to the Aids epidemic. Timion Alsacker’s set was a nightmarish iteration of the Hollywood Squares set. Paul Lynde’s uppermost left square instead sported a tank of water over which a winch suspended an actor upside down and submerged him head first into the water. Another square had a shower, another an upside down hospital bed where an actor was strapped in for a scene. Another was a submarine room. All of these rooms were joined by a series of steps leading to doors. Reza’s pace was inhumanly demanding, and the actors were sprinting up and down the stairs, in and out of the rooms; at a certain point in the tech rehearsals, Tom Fitzpatrick, the Equity Deputy, came to me to say that the cast was refusing to go on until certain things were fixed related to the set and safety. And so, I took the list and went to visit David Mac in the production office, and he quickly resolved the issues so that we could proceed with the tech process.

boogeyman

This picture doesn’t do the Boogeyman set justice.

I once had a very esteemed actor stand in his dressing room and tell me that I sided with the management too often – didn’t side with the actors enough. Sometimes as stage managers, we have to hear things we don’t want to hear or don’t know how to solve, but we have to listen and proceed with our next steps as best we can.

Our interviews with prospective stage management students go like this; first we ask them what they like about stage management/design/technical direction. We ask them to show us what they’ve brought, and then we share with them the curriculum, emphasizing features of the program like “20 shows, no waiting.” “Professional directors to work with.” They bring a range of experiences into the interview – some of them have just stumbled on stage management as the tonic to rectify what is difficult for them in their personal lives. Some admit proudly that they like to be “in control.”  Others describe their roles as stage managers as supporting the production. Their essays are vulnerable and heartfelt. So many of them have such outstanding grades now that it’s hard to judge them on their academics. More relevant is their passion for the theatre, or eagerness to learn. How well do they listen? What questions do they ask to understand? Tidy contact sheets or blocking notation are swell, but why are they in this room looking at this program in the first place?

I don’t know that the soft skills of stage management are even teachable. But I sure enjoy giving it a try.

Writing with my best friend -Black and White

This is the coda to an earlier blog entitled Writing with my best friend – Royalties? Er….No.

After disengaging from the process thinking that we’d never be able to recoup on the book, another writer in our family, Jen, encouraged me, saying that according to her writer friends, publishing the book again in black and white shouldn’t be too hard. So back into Createspace I went, and began what I hoped would be a simple process.

Continue reading

Gordon Did That

I’m sitting this morning watching the welcome mists of rain obscuring the reach of the downtown skyline and thinking about Monday night’s Celebration of Gordon Davidson at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Gordon’s tribute was staged on David Zinn’s set of Amelie, on the production’s dark night. Twinkle lights framed the proscenium, and the scenery upstage was lit with soft purples and blues, presumably repurposed from Jane Cox and Mark Barton’s lighting design by Tom Ontiveros. A ginormous projection screen hung over the stage. A 9′ grand piano, DSR,  pointed its formidable bow up left. A lecturn graced the DSL corner of the stage.

As the audience entered the theatre, Gordon’s beaming face, halo-framed by his white hair, arms akimbo over his head, fingers laced behind his neck, lay saucily on a bed of programs. His warm, intelligent eyes focus on the camera (and hence on all of us), his wry awareness of the photo set up as ego trip invited us to relax and celebrate his accomplishments with him. Splayed behind his head were programs for Angels in America, The Wedding at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, its opening production in 2004, just two of so many accomplishments. A photo posed like this of anyone other than Gordon might have seemed inflated. Throughout the evening, we were treated to a series of shots of Gordon looking directly out at us across the span of more than fifty years. We had time with each image to look deeply into Gordon’s eyes at every phase of his life. The sense of seeing Gordon and in a funny way being seen by Gordon for the last time was elegantly accomplished with the curation of these images from Gordon’s Los Angeles Theatre family album.

I hadn’t thought I’d be able to attend the event – in fact, I barely knew it was happening. Somehow, my connection has dimmed over the past decade. Had I not decided to take a hike on New Year’s Eve, I wouldn’t have known about it at all.  Besides, things are hopping at “the factory,” as I like to call my job; in the first week of the spring semester,  we’re casting eight shows- four more already in rehearsal. I didn’t think I’d be able to get there, and convinced myself that Gordon would understand given the nature of the conflict.

But then I had a dream on Saturday night that I was there when Gordon was felled, like the Sequoia tunnel tree last week by the monsoonal northern California rsequoiaains. In the dream, for some inexplicable reason, I was dangling by my finger tips from a ledge about 15 feet over the ground -in the Annex, (where we all know that the ceiling height doesn’t exceed 7′) when Gordon passed beneath me. I said something that caused him to fall to the ground, beseeching eyes looking up at me for assistance, and I, unable to release my fingers without plunging to death, failed him. It was a horrible dream, but enough to make me rearrange my schedule to be there on Monday. Gordon did that.

Gordon did that.

That was the powerful theme on Monday. Speakers, performers, singers, family members, both by blood and by practice, testified through song and poetry and performance about Gordon’s profound reach and impact on all of our lives. Playwright and performer Charlayne Woodard told about spotting Gordon’s white halo out amidst a student performance of  her first show, Pretty Fire, for a student matinee of 70 seven-year-olds and cringing that he was seeing the show in that context. Andrea Marcovicci sang a haunting song from Ghetto, with a projected image of herself thirty years prior on stage singing the same song. Echoes of our growing up with Gordon. Groener shared Gordon’s generosity in opening three rehearsal rooms in the Annex to the young Anteaus company, effectively underwriting the formation of a successful company of actors. Gordon did that.

Luis Alfaro performed a poem crafted for the CTG 35th anniversary. Luis Valdez, currently in rehearsals next door at the Annex for a revival of his 1978 hit, Zoot Suit,  recalled his early Teatro Campesino work and Gordon’s faith in its relevance to the Los Angeles audience, his invocation to write a play about the 1972 Zoot Suit riots.

When the character of El Pachuco, memorably played by Edward James Olmos, swaggered onto the Taper stage, Chicano theatre became American theatre,” explained writer/director Luis Valdez.

CTG website Article

Gordon did that.

Throughout the evening, the live testimonials were punctuated with video testimonials filmed at a New York theatre; Jack O’Brien, Robert Egan, Terrance McNally, Tony Kushner, Kathleen Chalfant and others sharing stories about collaborations with Gordon, failures and successes, but always funny, heartbreaking, quirky, goading, human, encouraging, powerful – reminding us what Gordon’s legacy to us was. Ringing through the evening was Gordon’s passion for the work, his belief in the capacity of each of us to bring our best and unique selves into the room, the artistic endeavor, the play, the theatre, the city – wherever he called upon us to go.

Several years ago, USC School of Dramatic Arts Dean Madeline Puzo brought Gordon to USC, or as we jokingly referred to ourselves, CTG South, as an uber-dramaturge to our second year MFA students in Dramatic Writing. These productions, some of my favorite in our season, are workshop productions of plays written by the students in their second of three years of the program. The production budgets are purposefully lean, to focus our attention on the development of the words rather than the technical framework for the plays. Gordon was sitting in the theatre during one of the dress rehearsals. I was there in my capacity as production manager, and felt self-conscious having Gordon in the room – found myself wanting to make sure no time was wasted. I had gotten up to intervene in a scene change to see if there might not be a more efficient way to do it, and when I came back to my seat, Gordon leaned over and said something to the effect of “It’s so great to watch you working with the students, Els.”

I don’t think any praise could have been more welcome than Gordon’s recognition of my new place of practice. That he was taking note of how I had grown up from the ASM who worked on Unfinished Stories back in 1993. Gordon did that. He had that galvanizing nurturing effect on all of us.

My favorite speaker Monday night was Mark Taper Forum Production Manager, Jonathan Lee, who spoke as a representative of the CTG Staff. Jonathan brought a prop – a thirty-year-old T-shirt from back in the day, under TD Bobby Routolo, the back of which was emblazoned with “Where the Hell is Gus!” in huge letters. Gus, as Jonathan explained, was the driver who they would commonly be waiting for during load in days. On the front breast of the T-shirt were letters so tiny that the audience had to trust Jonathan when he told us they were a quote from Gordon.

How could this have happened?

Jonathan’s reading of this quote elicited a loud laugh of recognition from many in the audience. He described how Gordon looked at you intently when he said that, and we all knew it was code for “You fucked up.” But more importantly, it was Gordon really wanting to know how it had happened, and even more crucially, wanting you to really want to know how it had happened. I remembered it keenly and personally from the reopening of the Kirk Douglas Theatre when Jonathan and I were on the roof of the theatre trying to figure out how to time the Culver City sign’s most beautiful and complete cycle exactly with the reveal of the marquee.

Gordon did that. He made us all hungry to know the better way to have done things, the better way to do things in the future. Jonathan’s speech moved me to tears – probably because he spoke of the behind-the-scenes collaborations, but also about the compassionate rigor that Gordon taught us all to bring to our practice.

The evening was capped with moving speeches from Gordon’s blood family members, his daughter Rachel speaking about how she shared her father with us, and how her father shared artistic opportunities with her as she grew up. Finally, Gordon’s widow, Judy thanked us all for coming and shared that though Gordon felt forgotten at the end, this evening had proven that he had not been forgotten.

Far from it, Judy. Gordon and his legacy live on in all of us who were in that theatre, as well as thousands who were not. When we were leaving the Ahmanson on Monday, I ran into Jim Freydberg, the producer of The Vagina Monologues, someone whom I had been thinking of earlier in the week in spite of not having seen him regularly since the show closed in late fall of 2001. I’d been thinking about Jim’s practice of having the stage manager phone him after each performance to report how the show had gone. I appreciated the intimacy of that trust bestowed on me to critically watch each show, taking note of how each moment was executed, how the audience had responded, and spend the time to recount it to him. When Jim walked up as we were about to leave the building, I told him I’d been thinking of him. Dramatically, he recoiled, saying “That can’t be good!” I laughed, then thanked him for that relationship that he’d formed with me during the show via that practice of nightly phone calls, and for his trust. Jim, in his typically modest way, eyes twinkling, said,

You know, Gordon did that.

img_7529