Stage Managers and Scary Things

There’ve been several times as a stage manager, when I received invitations to do jobs that scared me. Scared me for different reasons, but mostly due to my normal fear of the unknown. And yet every job is unknown, because stage management is virtually 100% freelance gigs. Sometimes, though you are still working contract to contract, you get lucky enough to have an artistic home, as I did for several years several times in Los Angeles over the twenty-five years that I freelanced.

I spent four years at the Geffen Playhouse and the same at Center Theatre Group. I grew to love each of the staffs of those theaters, as well as the many actors, directors and designers with whom I collaborated on dozens of shows.

I’ll always associate becoming a mother with the Los Angeles Theatre Center, where I was stage managing Reza Abdoh’s Bogeyman, when the call came from our social worker at the Department of Children’s Services that they had a toddler for us to fost/adopt. My colleagues, led by the ASM, Sandy Cleary, hosted the baby shower. Even considering the complexity of the show I was doing at the time, suddenly becoming a mother of a two year old used many more brain cells and was more physically challenging.

Four years at the Pasadena Playhouse. My crew and I grew so accustomed to being at the theatre, so at home there that once we walked to the nearby Target on a two show day and bought Little Debbie’s cakes, and Twinkies, then retired to the office during the dinner break and practically made ourselves sick and giddy and ridiculous there on the floor between the stained couch and the desk. I’ll always associate Tin Pan Alley Rag with losing my Mom. In the stage management office off upstage right, I took a call one night just before half-hour from Jimmie, who was holding down the caretaker fort with my mom as she progressed through the final weeks of her life. Metastatic lung cancer, proof of which manifested itself in several very surreal episodes.

Hi, Els, can you talk? Your mother would like to speak with you. (some rustling as the phone is passed to her)

Hello, Elsbeth? (breathing heavily, and sounding frantic)

Yes, hi, Mom, how are you? What’s going on?

Elsbeth! You need to call the UN immediately. They need you to negotiate. I just heard it on McNeill-Lehrer.

Well, uh, Mom, I’m pretty sure the UN will be fine without my negotiating skills… Besides, we’re at half hour.

What a brat I was.

Stage/Production Managers have extraordinary skills of compartmentalization. It’s what made it possible for me last year to organize the home care for my husband, then go to work and focus on details that the job demanded. The occupational hazard of Stage Management is megalomania – we begin to believe that we’re the only one who can do the job. I only have one regret about last fall. That I didn’t walk away from work to be at home before it became acutely necessary for me to be there. Take away this.

Yes, the show will go on, but it can go on without you when your life calls you urgently to live it.

Opening night, she came to the theatre to watch the play with Jimmie, and afterwards, at the opening night party, clad in a new Missoni floor length gown, she mingled alongside me, with the cast and crew. I introduced her to the actor who played the lead character, Ira Gershwin. It was a day or two after the fashion designer Gianni Versace had been murdered in Florida. Ever the reporter, Mom looked at my lead actor, turned to me and hissed, “He’s the one who killed Versace!”

No, Mom, I promise you, it wasn’t David. He’s been in tech and dress rehearsals for more than a week. He wouldn’t have had time to get back and forth to Florida between rehearsals.

I am fortunate to have spent my entire life (so far) working in the theatre – a life in the theatre is a life well spent. I’ve had the opportunity to share important life markers: falling in love, marriage, parenthood, illness and even death with other theatre artists who understood how to work and live with intimacy, depth and candor. All while doing work on stage which illuminates many of those same life markers.

Sometimes a job will come along that shakes you out of your artistic home. Calls upon you to maybe move household, or take a big step back or a huge step forward. An invitation to go to Sicily to Stage Manage for Robert Wilson; or to go to Montana for the summer with the Alpine Theatre Project; or to apply for the job as Production Manager at USC School of Theatre.

Your inner scaredy-cat says

“What? Go to Italy and work with international artists? My language skills aren’t strong enough!”

“What? Move to Montana for the summer? What if my family doesn’t want to come?”

“What? Production Manage? I don’t know how to do that?”

But your strong center and your hunger for new and interesting collaborations calms down the fearful voice and says, “You lived for a year in Italy and will regain fluency and for crying out loud, it’s Robert Wilson!”

“Maybe that’s just what you need to go to Montana to shake things up. Plus you can hike and get out of the city. Your family can come join you there for vacation.”

Or maybe you are just lucky enough, as I have been, to have friends who encourage you to try something new when you are at an emotional or professional crossroads. Like the Production Management opportunity. “Els, you’ll know how to do it. It’s just like stage management but on steroids.”

And so you take the steps forward to meet the challenge. To do the work. To build the life.

I’ve shared that the loss of my husband last fall was a devastating blow. Even now, nine months later, I still tear up and some days feel unmoored, untethered from the very life we had worked so hard to build. How fortunate I am to have a strong artistic family and friends that have gathered around me in my time of need.

I haven’t felt like writing lately. I’ve been hunkered down in my post apocalyptic emotional bunker, occasionally poking my head up like those adorable prairie dogs at the zoo. I’m on watch for the next tragedy. Grief is distracting. More distracting than anything I’ve ever experienced.

In stage management a project starts and it ends. There are frequently good days and bad day no matter how illustrious a project it is. There’s a thing nothing short of magic that happens in a rehearsal room as the alchemy of playwright, director and actors is forged through the vehicle of a new and exciting script. Life’s the same as that. Except it’s a devised work. No script. You’re the producer who brings all the facets together to create your own magical alchemy. If you take the chances, the risks, to step outside the normal boundaries of your existence, you meet new people, form new experiences, participate in new adventures. And yes, it’s frequently scary, but usually okay or way better than okay in the end.

All the good days, all the bad, the pain, the heartache, the joy you feel through every phase of your life makes you who you are. You are strong and vibrant and capable. You may not be able to write about something important every day, but if you pay attention to the call, you may find pop out of your prairie hole and find something to keep you entertained and alive.

8 Replies to “Stage Managers and Scary Things”

    1. Hey, Jeremiah,
      Thanks for checking out my blog and I just read your “Don’t be a Donkey” post. Loved it. After teaching for 15 years, I’m realizing something had changed with the current expectations of Student Crews. I’m sure I have a post in me about it, but I’m really delighted to find your blog and will read much more. Thanks again!

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