Theatre Jobs: What Does It Take to Be a Broadway Stage Manager

Interview   Theatre Jobs: What Does It Take to Be a Broadway Stage Manager
 
The three recipients of the Del Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in the Art of Stage Management share advice and anecdotes from their decades working with titans like Cynthia Nixon, Wendy Wasserstein, Ted Shawn, and more.
The stage manager’s desk backstage.
The stage manager’s desk backstage.

“Stage manager’s work is the least seen of anybody’s on a show,” says Roy Harris, a stage manager for the past 36 years—31 of them on Broadway. On September 17, Harris, along with regional stage manager Lyle Raper and stage manager Maxine Glorsky, who specializes in dance, will all be honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards at the Stage Managers’ Association’s annual Del Hughes Award. Chosen for their demonstration of the key attributes of stage management (“patience, diplomacy, organization, and a sense of humor” as noted by the organization), Harris, Raper, and Glorsky have collectively served offstage for over a century with hundreds of productions. Still, aside from their peers, “nobody knows what a stage manager does and how crucial they are,” Harris says. “In a way, maybe that’s good.”

Though the trademark of a great stage manager may be their invisible work, Playbill sought to uncover the demands of the job. What we learned: It’s intense.

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The stage manager typically comes on one week before rehearsals (or only two days before opening with dance, Glorsky notes) and is essentially the Chief Organizing Officer throughout the rehearsal process. From contact sheets and company member health forms to scene breakdowns and prop lists to taping out the rehearsal room floor, the stage manager is the keeper of all of the information on a production and serves as the go-between for all departments. As such, stage managers keep copious notes to distribute post-rehearsal each day.

“Your job is to maintain the purpose of each designer,” says Harris. For example, during rehearsals for director Daniel Sullivan’s The Little Foxes starring Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternating the leading female roles, Harris might note, “‘Dan and Laura were talking today about Scene 2, and they feel her dress should probably be light blue.’ The costume designer needs to know that because she might think it needs to be dark green. The set designer needs to know that, having to do with the color of the walls.” Items like these create a laundry list of FYIs and to-dos.

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Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Once a production moves into the theatre the stage manager wrangles house staff—the house electrician, the theatre’s props masters, the house manager—and the needs of the creative team and company.

Back in the day, there were stage managers and assistant stage managers, but audiences may be familiar with the credit “Production Stage Manager.” “The production stage manager is the chief stage manager in charge,” Harris explains. “The assistant stage manager usually does props, works out the furniture in the room. The production stage manager calls the show every night.” (Though Harris likes for his assistant to call the show twice a week so that he can watch the show from the audience and to keep his ASM sharp should he have to miss a performance.)

Calling a show means readying and cuing all of the sound effects, lighting, and more that happen throughout a performance. “The Heidi Chronicles [in one transition] had 23 cues in 20 seconds,” Harris remembers. “I had four different cue lights, and meanwhile I was saying ‘Lights 23 and sound 14 go.”

READ: Shepherding the Show: A Day in the Life of Hamilton’s Stage Manager

The Heidi Chronicles_Off Broadway_Production_Photo_1988_Ellen Parker_Sarah Jessica Parker_Joan Allen_HR_Gerry Goodstein.jpg
Ellen Parker, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Joan Allen Gerry Goodstein

For those who think stage management is all technicalities and calling cues, a stage manager must also have an innate sense of artistry. “You have to maintain the show,” says Harris. “A show opens and a couple of weeks after it opens, some things may change, and you have to decide: Are these good changes? Does this new laugh in this place help tell the story of the play or does it interfere?”

And actors look to the best in the profession as trusted advisors. “John [Lithgow] is a person who is open to suggestions,” Harris says of the actor, with whom he’s worked four times. “John will frequently come off, after the first act, and say [to me], ‘Was I OK? How was that scene?’ And I would say, ‘You know, this scene here, this was better than last night.’ You have to watch so that you are able to give the right information as an actor.

“If a stage manager doesn’t have an artistic feeling about a play or about the production he’s doing, there’s something wrong,”

In addition to that artistic bent, Harris touts organization, efficiency, a good sense of humor, and the ability to diffuse difficult situations as necessary skills of the job. Glorsky adds intuition, observation, caring, practical decision-making, and being a team player within your production team as key traits.

And they should know. While Harris has been working since 1982, Glorsky has been stage-managing since she was 18 years old, when she began with a Flamenco Company at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 1960; she’s freelanced for nearly 50 years. Their co-honoree Raper began in 1969 at Pacific Conservatory Theatre and eventually made her way to the Denver Center Theatre Company, where she worked for 27 years and called 99 shows with her resident staff. But one of her proudest moments was when the theatre received the Tony Award for Best Regional Theatre in 1998. “Over 200 people lined up from the parking area where Donald Seawell and Donovan Marley, our artistic director, arrived to the lobby of the theatre,” Raper remembers. “Each one of us held the Tony in our hands and passed it along to our neighbor. Donovan said we had all earned it.”

Our digs here at The Denver Center Theatre Company are pretty fantastic!
Our digs here at The Denver Center Theatre Company are pretty fantastic!

Harris looks back on his career with two favorite bookend memories: “One: The Heidi Chronicles because it was my first show I did that moved to a Broadway theatre. It won the Tony, it won the Pulitzer Prize. It ran for 720 performances. The other one is, strangely enough, The Little Foxes because it was such a thrilling experience to watch those two actors work—and with all the other actors. When Laura’s Regina is angry or upset, she moves, she can’t stop. When Cynthia’s Regina gets lit, she’s almost immobile. It very much [affected] the playing of the scene.”

One of Glorsky’s cherished times is small one: “A young Japanese dancer was at the Pillow stage door. She had come ahead of the Alvin Ailey company who she was working with,” Glorsky says. “She looked forlorn and a little sad. I invited her in, turned on the work lights, then on turned on music. She took to the stage and danced her heart out. It was a magical moment.”

Therein lies the commonality between all stage managers: Their love for the performers. They are the chief caregiver on the premises. Stage managers deliver feedback and keep their performances in check; they determine if a performer is too sick to go on and calls in the understudy. They literally make the lights come on.

And while the Del Hughes Award doesn’t mark complete retirement for any of these professionals, it has prompted them to take stock of their careers. Says Harris, “I hope they’ll remember that I did everything in my power to have the rehearsal room and the tech rehearsals and the backstage during performances as wonderful as it could be.”

Want to learn more about stage management? Harris’ upcoming book Places, Please, Cameos from a Stage Manager's Life with Theater Folk will be published by Broadway Cares this winter, and Glorsky is working with the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library to archive her Martha Graham papers.

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