“We Wrangle Crazy People for a Living”

Spring 2017 brought along with the rain we so desperately needed, a hearty serving of teaching practice for our BFA Stage Management cohort. The recently endowed Alice M. Pollitt Professorship in Stage Management, the first in the nation’s endowed professorship in Stage Management, kicked off an international search for the best candidate. In the past several weeks, four outstanding finalists have visited the campus, each teaching a class to our stage management cohort.

In the interest of full disclosure. I like stage managers. In fact, some of my favorite people are stage managers. Stage managers have the ability to put things into perspective almost instantly. It’s like radar or something. It’s the way our brains have been trained, though I suspect it’s a hard-wiring feature as well. So to observe the students eagerly listening and avidly taking notes while some of the country’s best stage managers have shared their eclectic practices with them has been positively galvanizing. All in all, it’s been an incredibly exciting three weeks.

Before these bonus classes happened, I received an email from one of our recent Spotlight@SDA guests, stage manager C. Randall White, Broadway’s foremost master of huge technical shows, most infamously, the Production Stage Manager (PSM) of the 2010 production, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. This show set many records – longest preview period in history (182 previews), and was once described as “the most technically complex show ever on Broadway with twenty-seven complex aerial sequences of characters flying” Previews began on November 28, 2010, and the show opened on June 14, 2011, but what White shared with us when he visited was that the show had begun techs in March of 2010. Got that? Nine months of rehearsal and tech before a single ticket was purchased. Throughout it all, C. Randall White was at the helm. I remember as the news stories unfolded throughout the previews thinking to myself, “Lord, I wonder who the PSM of that show is? He or she must be made of steel.” So when the email pinged in my inbox one afternoon, I leapt at the opportunity to meet Randall and have him share his story with our students.

Randall’s resume is impressive, Spider-Man aside, with Finding Neverland, and 9 to 5 (PSM NY Tech).  Seeing the great hole in the center of the stage with an elevator ferrying furniture and people up and down was enough to chill the heart of any stage manager. Other shows included Starlight Express, where thirty cast members zipped around John Napier’s set, a set of complex tracks, and which is still running at a theatre exclusively built for it in Germany, since 1988.

Randall, a fit, taller-than-average man sporting camo pants, white t-shirt and sneakers, bounded into the Massman Theatre on Friday about forty minutes before the Spotlight Event started. We connected his iPhone to the television monitor so he could share some video of flight rehearsals with the students.thumb_IMG_5706_1024 Members of the student production cohort arrived; stage managers, designers, and a lone acting student who unabashedly professed an interest in technical theatre. They were rapt as White took us through his modest beginnings as a self-described high school misfit in Dayton, Ohio, where as a sixteen-year-old, he got his first gig delivering spot lights to arenas for concerts, a job with inappropriately late hours for a sixteen-year-old, but which introduced him to his love of the backstage technical life, and of rock n’ roll.

White attended the University of Cincinnati, College Conservatory of Music, where his all-nighter rehearsals strung together with all-day techs set the stage for an abysmal academic performance and eventual failure. (He later went back to school to complete his degree).

White moved to New York “as the Cats Marquee was being hung on the Winter Garden Theatre,” getting his Actors Equity card on an Ann Reinking show. Perry Cline, a Broadway PSM, had hired White to assist him, as so many stage managers have learned their craft and eventually their art – through a series of mentors and observing experts “wrangle crazy people.” White learned early to demonstrate hard work and anticipate others’ needs. By doing so, he was able to keep jobs, get the next one and build a fertile career. He was also quick to qualify “crazy” as crazily creative folks whose energy and collaborative force requires special attention. These are generally not cray-crays.

White spent 1983-1991 in New York, working on a series of shows, including Starlight Express, where he saw the need and volunteered to be the ASM in charge of skates. White described spending weeks sneaking into the theatre every morning, bribing the doorman with coffee and donuts. For ten weeks, he strapped on his skates, and skated the complex set of tracks; something the producers had forbidden him to do due to liability issues.

His secret homework paid off. When it came time to put replacements into the show, White took the job of assistant skate coach to Michael Fraley, the skate coach, helping to train the singers and dancers how to skate the set, taking the replacements down the 9’ steep slope for the first time, each of them harnessed to his back.

thumb_IMG_5708_1024Throughout his talk, White reiterated what makes a good stage manager employable – the ability to determine what is needed and arrive with those skills deployed or at least in development. Picture something as simple as anticipating the exact time to pour a director’s coffee and add the two creamers as they are coming into the rehearsal room. When the 1988 German company of Starlight Express was planned, White graduated to  PSM, ultimately cementing his reputation as a technically adept stage manager.

White cautioned that a stage manager’s survival depends on one’s ability to save. The numbers of PSMs on Broadway are small – yes, each show might have up to four to five assistants –Spider-Man had seven– but income can fluctuate wildly from year to year, and he encouraged the students to save six months of money to cover rent, food, etc. at any given time to plan for the event of a fallow year.

White discussed the necessity of modifying a show when it hits the road to tour. He PSM-ed the National tour of The Who’s Tommy, which originated at the La Jolla Playhouse with a 42’ deep set, not built for touring, and subsequently toured theatres, some of which had only a stage depth of 26’. This show, which traveled in twelve trucks, had a thirty-six hour put in, and a twelve hour take out, required frequent modifications to accommodate the show in smaller venues. Occasionally he needed to make the call to cut automation tracks, and he and his assistants had a written protocol for alternative shows, “A,B,C,D,E,F,G,” said White. Eventually, White convinced the producers that closing on Sunday night and opening in a new city on Tuesday was a safety issue and with their agreement, got the schedule modified for a Wednesday opening. This didn’t mean fewer shows in the week, just two on Thursday instead of one.

White toured for thirteen years, a period he said which then defined him as a touring stage manager, making his return to New York difficult. He received the call about Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark while he was mounting a show with Bette Midler in Las Vegas. For two years, from 2008-2010, White worked as a consultant during the planning and fund raising for what may well go down in history as Broadway’s biggest musical.

IMG_1595White shared fascinating information about the flight rigging designed and executed by Scott Fisher of Fisher Technical Services (now TAIT) for Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. Beginning in March 2010, the creative team began programming scenery and flights in the Foxwoods Theatre, utilizing a complex system of winches and bushings attached to the usual four-point flying system which allowed the aerial cast members to fly all around the theatre, alighting in aisles no wider than the width of our Massman aisles. Here, White shared a brief video of himself in the Green Goblin flying rig, the control of which required the actor to steer by punching with his left or right fist.

Cueing for the show was so complex that two callers were needed. White called the aerial automation autofly cues, labeled Navigator cues, as well as the automated deck cues. His colleague, a second Production Stage Manager, Kathy Purvis, whom White had anticipated needing back in those two planning years, called lighting and LED Panel cues from another booth in the house. Again, awareness of the big picture and what will be needed to accomplish it is integral to the success of any show, but particularly one with the technical complexity of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark.

The students asked questions throughout White’s talk; he was generous and open with his responses. He spoke of assessing what his assistant stage managers are good at, and then deploying them to handle those areas at which they excel. He encouraged the current students to learn automation terminology, suggesting internships with Hudson Scenic or PRG, and counseled them to keep their cover letters brief, and to take their resumes to the theatres in New York when they are there.

He advised that they keep comments on social media positive about shows they work on, sharing that the Spider-Man producers had hired two people whose job it was to exclusively monitor social media and twitter feeds of the cast and crew. This vividly demonstrates that discretion and remaining positive is critical to one’s longevity in the business.

All in all, it’s been an exciting month for Stage Managers at SDA. We are so grateful to Randall for his visit and to the Pollitt family for the ability to enhance our program with the excellent mentorship which our students need to succeed.

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