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. Continue reading
First, let me reconcile for a moment that what I’m about to do breaks every code of ethics in the theatre for stage managers. Spilling the dirt is verboten. Stage managers are privy to all, witness to much that is shocking and transformative, and sworn to silence except what is necessary to tell a producer should the production be in danger of flaming up. If there were a Hippocratic oath for stage managers, it might read something like this:
I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:
I will respect the hard-won artistic gains of those artists in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
I will apply, for the benefit of the cast, crew and creative team, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of coddling and artistic nihilism.
I will remember that there is art to theatrical creation as well as physical reality, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the director’s note or the producer’s decision.
I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a production’s recovery.
I will respect the privacy of my actors, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.
I will remember that I do not treat a poor behavior, a toxic exchange, but a passionate human being, whose behavior may affect the person’s company and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the overburdened.
I will prevent toxicity whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.
I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as those crazy ass actors who cross my path.
If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of helping those who seek my aid.
Modified by Els Collins, Stage Manager, from the Modern Hippocratic Oath
Written in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University,
and used in many medical schools today.
I am fully aware of the severity of my breach by sharing this tale with you. I don’t share it to dissuade you from going into this esteemed profession, but merely as instruction in how to navigate its rocky shoals. For now, while the memory of these weeks’ challenges is strong, I want you to know; whatever the challenges your production brings forth are surmountable and most of the time with pleasing and astonishing revelations in the process. And you rubberneckers out there, don’t get too excited. I do have boundaries.
We had two weeks with the actors to put the show back together again. This would be a snap, right? Same cast, same band, same set, lights, sound, projections, costumes. The two new factors were the insertion of a new sound engineer, (which struck terror in my heart and, I can only presume, in the heart of Musical Director Abdul Hamid Royal), and the replacement of the stage left PA, completely new to the show.
To quote Sound Designer Philip G. Allen, what sound engineer Patrick Hoyny was asked to do this week
…was like taking a leading role in the show with only three rehearsals.
I can say with certitude at this point, and only with the healthy advantage of hindsight, the re-opening of Colonus in my rear view mirror, this process was as pain-free as it could have been, in the skilled hands of the new sound engineer Patrick Hoyny, and with the gentle guidance of Sound Designer, Philip G. Allen. I can also say that the show rocked last night.
A remounted production falls under the aegis of the stage manager. I have never remounted a show before, so it was with some small amount of sorrow that I came to grips with this before stepping back into rehearsal mode. After ten years away from the PSM role, my director’s chops are a bit dulled. I flattered myself to think that my directorial abilities were quite keen at one point; my notes were on point and helpful for those actors learning the roles to be prepared should anything happen requiring them to go on. With weekly rehearsals scheduled under most LORT contracts, I had, over the years, refined my approach to the delicate task of putting different human beings into roles where they have little time to do anything other than observe another actor do their role. Usually these rehearsals are limited to 4-5 hours per week, and they don’t have the benefit many times of working with the set parts as they might be in show mode. They most likely will have access to the props, but certainly not the lighting conditions or sound cues of the regular performance.
In the case of the Colonus Remount, we had our Musical Director, Abdul Hamid Royal on the keyboards, and we did our rehearsals in the evenings to accommodate both my schedule as the Production Manager at USC’s School of Dramatic Arts and those of the musicians. Scheduled from 6-10PM, we worked about 5 days the first week, then jumped into dress rehearsals the second week. There was rarely a night when every single person was on stage to perform his/her role, because it is difficult to assemble 45 people, most of whom are busy musical professionals. However, we had been through this scenario in the past – we had several acceptable work-arounds, or short-hands for what we needed to do according to the various scenario. They ranged in severity of challenge from easiest to hardest to solve listed below:
- What do we do with 1 usher, not the usual quota of 2?
- Producer Wren Brown’s son, Brandon, had quite gracefully stepped in in the role of the second usher on several occasions, as had one of the theatre’s staff members.
- What do we do without all the members of the Ismene Quartet?
- In fairness, we (knock wood) never had to deal with this issue in performance. Do it with the members who are there and rehearse vocally when all are back. They are all solid professionals.
- What do we do without the actor playing the role of Choragos?
- Quintet member Ricke Vermont, whom I had also affectionately dubbed our dance captain, had performed twice in this role and had done a beautiful job, in the case where a family emergency called away our regular Choragos.
- What do we do without the Soloist who sings “Lift Him Up?”
- We found an extremely good alternate in cast member Sharetta Morgan-Harmon, who plays the Singer Antigone. It required some modification in blocking because she begins downstage rather than stepping out from the choir. The changes in blocking necessitated jumping over two light cues and required a change in the microphone used by her for the number.
You can see, we had worked out a number of quite challenging scenarios already in the course of previous rehearsals and performances. This time, however, there were some even more challenging scenarios awaiting us.
One of the Colonus performers, William Allen Young, who plays the Pastor in the show, has been shooting a new CBS primetime show called “CODE BLACK.” He had started to do this during the first run of Colonus, but by the time we began these refresher rehearsals, they were in full shooting mode for the episodes for the upcoming season. As anyone doing theatre in Los Angeles knows, in the battle between a TV gig and a theatrical gig, TV wins. It is pure economics. This is one of the most challenging factors in making live theatre in LA. Having said that, Will, ever the consummate professional, had communicated with me and with producer Wren T. Brown clearly what days were potentially problematic and had also arranged a few Fridays off from shooting completely so that the performance schedule was clear. How he can manage the work load of two full time gigs is another issue. But he’s an extremely dedicated actor and he has powered through both assignments. I can’t wait to see his show, which airs Wednesday, September 30th.
During the rehearsals, we rolled with the absences caused by work, family emergencies, etc. There were a few last-minute announcements from cast members about absences I didn’t know about, but as we had before, we accommodated them, and as per the SM Hippocratic oath above, no one died, and I didn’t need to take any lives. I feel pretty good about that part.
There were two rather challenging rehearsals, this past Tuesday, and Thursday’s final dress. I want to share the specific issues that arose and the ingenuity of the cast members and creative team in the results of the absences even though I am clearly breaking the oath. It was emotionally powerful to see the resiliency of the remaining cast as well as the teflon nature of this production – the will power that holds the fabric together and keeps the show unified.
On Tuesday, one of the leads suffered a medical issue that prevented him from coming to the theatre and even notifying me about his absence. The emotional rollercoaster of emotions that I went through was typical of any stage manager. I know, because of the 5 years of really good therapy I’ve had, that feelings are just that. Feelings. Surmountable. For a stage manager, nothing can be taken personally; coloring the facts with emotional baggage of expectation or history isn’t helpful to getting the work done on stage. But in the interest of teaching, I’ll share my emotions:
- Anger – “Where can he be? Who does he think he is putting 45 other people out and not calling? He better be dead if he didn’t call.”
- Embarrassment – “Did I not communicate the call to him? I know some people don’t follow the email. Should I have texted him to make sure he had the call?”
- Worry – “Why haven’t we heard from him by the 8pm start? Is he all right?”
- Fear – “Can someone please go check on him? What could have happened to him?”
- Relief – “Thank goodness he is alive.”
- Fear – “Is he going to be all right to do the show?” (I’m not proud of this coming so quickly on the heels of #5, but any stage manager who tells you this isn’t their first thought after the relief phase is lying.
- Worry – “What adjustments do we need to make to his blocking when he comes back while he recovers from this situation?”
- Relief – “We came up with some really good adjustments that can even work in performance if need be.” Again, these involved adding lighting instruments and creating alternative blocking options some of which we employed on the Wednesday night following his return.
So, you see, anything is possible in the theatre. That night, as Abdul Hamid sang the missing actor’s role while also playing the guitar part on his synth, I watched in awe as Dorian Holley appeared at the pivotal moment to walk Singer Oedipus up the stairs to begin his “descent.” He dropped him off then returned to his position on the stairs upstage right.
Remember, we are making it up. Creative minds will create elegant solutions to artistic problems. Theatre is just a never ending string of gifts like this.
The second scenario involved planning for the potential absence of Will due to his shooting schedule on Thursday. In addition, one of the ushers, Jonathan, was going to be out on Wednesday and Thursday due to another work commitment. The remaining usher, Sedale Threatt, Jr., had performed a lot of step-in assignments for actors missing in the rehearsal process. A recent graduate of USC School of Dramatic Arts’ three year MFA in Acting, Sedale is a quick study, committed to the work, and an extremely hard worker. When it became clear on Wednesday evening that Will might be held late at CBS on Thursday, Sedale offered to walk the role of The Pastor.
On Thursday, when I came into the theatre, I found him preparing to walk the part, with script in hand, while lead actor and Tony Award winner, Roger Robinson, coached him from the front row of the theatre. Watching from the booth as I readied the projector for the dress rehearsal, I could see that Sedale had a pretty good mastery of the blocking and was confident with his words. Lulled into a sense of security that things were handled, I went about my pre-show tasks. Rookie mistake. You’ve got to think it through step by step…
At 15, the PA from stage left notified me
Els, the ladies want to talk to you downstairs in the dressing room.
I quickly made my way backstage, after making the 15 minute call to the choir, and when I entered, they all turned their heads expectantly toward me. Sharetta spoke first:
Els, who is going to kidnap us if Sedale (the only remaining usher) is playing the Pastor?
Els: Crap. I’ll be right back.
I know many of you are thinking less highly of my anticipatory skills, but a quick hallway conversation with Sedale determined that he could both play the Pastor and then exit in time to re-enter with Creon as a henchman, kidnap the girls, then exit only to re-enter moments later to deliver the speech that ends Act I, echoed shortly after by the Ismene Quartet in “Numberless.”
And, believe it or not, that’s exactly what happened.
There were about 50 invited guests in the audience, and while I had to turn my face away because of the severity of the compromises we had made to get the show up that night, the audience was still completely engaged in the story and enthusiastic in their response.
So, with apologies to Hippocrates
Life is short, the art long.
You have eight performances left to get to see this amazing show. I can’t promise, and only pray you won’t see what I’ve written about here, but you do deserve to come check it out. Ebony Repertory Theatre – Buy Your Tickets here!