Fiona Robert and Zoe Levin in fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life (© Steppenwolf Theatre Company)
Greetings from Colorado! Spring Break has finally started and while I soak in the sun, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to follow-up my last article about stage management with my experience shadowing a professional stage manager at Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
I was fortunate to sit in the booth with Cassie Wolgamott at Steppenwolf for Young Adults' production of fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life. This production follows Jo, a lesbian high school student, and her connection to the novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as she searches for acceptance and understanding, and in true teenage fashion, employs the use of texting and the visuals of a graphic novel to illustrate her story. Through my shadowing, I picked up a few more tips and tricks to managing a successful production.
The show instantly reminded me of my experience as stage manager for Recent Tragic Events. The small ensemble cast, the multitude of props and the overall rapid-fire pace of the show were very familiar to me, but it is always interesting to watch and observe how other stage managers actually handle their own production. Assistant stage manager Brianna Perry was also on hand to show me how her process works and the variety of tasks she also tackles during the production. Brianna also effectively served as run crew for the show.
The first piece of advice I was given was to always double check your tasks. Not only will it give your mind reassurance that everything is in place, it also combats that inevitable complacency that can happen. It never fails that the moment you get settled into a production, certain things start to get overlooked. However, it is the stage management team that stays on their toes that has fewer problems during the run.
That said, issues are going to arise for even the most prepared stage management team. Cassie provided me with another crucial tip: Know what you know, and admit what you don't. The texting and graphic novel elements I mentioned were projections across four screens on stage. The effect in performance was entertaining and very engaging as it embraces the combination of technology and storytelling. However, the blessing and the curse of live theater is its ability to change in an instant, and when a projector issue came up, Cassie remained calm and collected and was able to contact members of the production team who were able to give assistance in a flash. This lines up with my own tip from my last article: saying "I don't know" is not a bad thing in the theater; it's how you gained the answer that can make or break a show.
The final tip I gained out of my time at Steppenwolf is essentially the key word to effective stage managing, and for any profession in the performing arts: communication. I do not think the importance of this word can be stressed enough, and Cassie and Brianna were beyond successful with their ability to communicate. Overall, I think the biggest revelation is that communication is built out of trust and the reason why professional shows can run smoothly is that their management team has developed an understanding of what they and their production team are expecting of each other. Such respect allows them to correct mistakes, give advice and always support each other, and I firmly believe that putting people first in a creative process will lead to the best results.
So do you think you have it what it takes to stage manage? The easy way I can define this ever important job is that a stage manager is a people manager, a person who is in charge of respecting the best interests of all involved with the show. As I learned at Steppenwolf, it doesn't matter what show you are working on, be it professional or not, the combination of respect, patience, and communication will always separate the good stage managers from the great ones.
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