A Hero of Stage Managers

A hero of Stage Managers is defined as a group of stage managers.

I just made up a new collective noun. Feel free to use it. Incidentally, the collective noun for a group of heroes is a frailty of heroes (according to a questionable link which I will not attach here.) That’s kind of lovely in a mathematical stage manager sort of equation.

Hero=Stage Managers x 3

Frailty = Heroes x 3

9 Stage Managers = A Heroic frailty

But I digress. A Hero of stage managers. I can’t think of a better description. Stage managers, who, in the face of danger, combat adversity through impressive feats. I think it’s perfect. It’s also exquisitely apt for a description of the event I hosted last Monday night to celebrate the twenty years of teaching of stage managers by my colleague at USC, Mary K Klinger, who has continued to maintain a fruitful professional career as a stage manager while she taught and sent out into the world a hero of stage managers a very few of them who are depicted below.

Stage management is a rarified profession, and Los Angeles had limited professional venues for stage managers who sought to make a living. I met Mary early on when we moved to LA in 1986. She was one of four top-dog SMs who rotated through their shows at the Mark Taper Forum and the ones we upstart stage managers strove to unseat – er, I mean learn from.

Stage management is a competitive sport, and I looked up to this hero of stage managers with reverence and also extreme envy. We all studied at the elbow of former stage manager Gordon Davidson, who was a stern yet loving taskmaster. I invited all four of them to come on Monday and it was a testament to Mary that they all came to celebrate her accomplishments as a teacher and former colleague.

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L to R. Jonathan Barlow Lee, Mary K Klinger, Neila Lee, Michele Miner, Jimmie McDermott

Jonathan Lee, still the PM at the Taper, was the SM of the first show I PAed, a musical called Roza, directed by Hal Prince, starring Georgia Brown in May, 1987 in its pre-Broadway tryout. As PA, my main duty was to drive Georgia Brown, this torch singer with a gravelly voice, described in the Roza review as “ground cigarettes and glass” from her home in Beverly Hills, to the rehearsals downtown. At the time, Jimmie and I were newly married, I was twenty-seven, and trying unsuccessfully to conceive a child. I shudder at the chutzpah of the young PA confessing such an inappropriate thing to the actor she’s driving, but won’t ever forget how Georgia told me to solve this “conceptual” problem.

Honey, put the legs of the bed up on a pile of bricks, drink a bottle of champagne and just fuck your brains out.

Mary straightened me out as to appropriate PA behavior on the next show where I met her and Jimmie McDermott on two Joe Orton Plays they did in Rep opening that July. The director, Joey Tillinger, was an extremely prolific NY director and a generally friendly fellow. One day I was talking with him during a break, and Mary called me over to the stage management table and reminded me to not distract the director during breaks. Later when I was a stage manager (like ten years later), I realized the import of what she had said. Mary occasionally still teaches with a delayed punchline, or Aha moment, but is always kind and very direct.

I marveled at how she and Jimmie McDermott organized that rehearsal room, at how they effortlessly managed the rules while providing creative safety to the cast and director. After rehearsals ended, we sat another hour or so while they took turns typing the report, which I was sent to Xerox, and file the copies neatly into the cardboard cubby slots in Rehearsal Room A. There was no email distribution at the time. On the sturdy black landline phone in the room (which we silenced during rehearsals to only flash it’s light when there was an incoming call,) they called the designers with notes, and then later recorded the rehearsal schedule for everyone to call, using the number on their wallet cards. All the while, with an easy camaraderie that revealed their deep affection for each other and for the process we were engaged in. These folks taught me everything I know about the soft skills of stage management. And many of the hard.

That’s how we learn as stage managers. By observing and doing. Succeeding and failing. For the past twenty years at USC, we’ve been fortunate to have a skilled and patient spirit guide in Mary K Klinger. When I started at USC in 2005, Mary was already well into her teaching career. I watched Mary train the next generation of stage managers, by informally and patiently explaining the practical steps of stage management, answering their questions, demonstrating best practices in creating paperwork, and discussing with them how they might deal with artists of all persuasions. They adored her.

Some of Mary’s former students sent comments which I was able to read at the party. A few are below. This one from a current executive in a large entertainment project management firm:

…I was in one of Mary’s first stage management classes at USC. Mary was one of the first teachers I remember being an active working professional in the field she was teaching, and I think that was very important for me to see. Up until taking that class, I had started to question my major choice, but I credit Mary with helping give me the support, guidance, and real world examples I needed to have confidence in my path. Two random things have stuck in my head from my stage management class are: 1) we should always be happy if we are working on a holiday, as that means we are employed, and 2) when making coffee backstage or in the rehearsal room, never re-use the coffee filter! I think these things have stuck with me because, beyond just teaching stage management tools and techniques, we were taught how to develop our work ethic, be ready to work hard and jump on opportunities and generally how to be employable. And while I have ultimately pursued other avenues of production, I often credit my strong stage management foundations from USC as a reason for my career success.

Mary’s students have always recognized that she had their backs and there was probably not much that they could tell her that would surprise her. Many of our graduates have gone on to illustrious careers as stage managers, and branched out in other directions as well as prominent lighting designers, managers in theme parks and project-based work, things that Mary allowed them to explore in her Stage Management II Class.

Another former student, now a television producer, wrote:

I had the great opportunity to work with Mary in one of my first professional experiences. As her PA on the Taper production of Expecting Isabel I watched her implement so many of the lessons we had learned in class. She was a great example to me of a strong leader whose guidance and support allowed the creative process to thrive. I use so many of the skills I learned from Mary and the incredible Stage Management professors of the SOT still to this day. Congrats Mary on 20 years of teaching! We are very lucky to have learned from you.

Mary has taught us all so much about living and facing challenges with grace. She faced her frailty of heroes in the past few years with grace and fortitude, then strode back to teaching and her professional work sporting a new bobbed silvery mane.

What will the next chapter bring? I’m hoping it will bring the next chapter as Mary’s talked about writing a book on stage management for years.IMG_7897 I slipped a dharma doll into her gift bag to help the process along.

For now, on behalf of the School of Dramatic Arts, I want to thank you, Mary for the legacy of learning and excellence and perseverance you will leave behind at USC, and thank you for twenty years of teaching.

Current and former students spoke at the party, and current and former colleagues as well, because as Mary has always told her students, if you are no longer my student, you are my colleague. You are under the watchful and loving eye of the hero of stage managers.

Would love to hear what you are thinking!

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