COHORT REPORT: What does a Stage Manager do?

Rehearsal picture (9/15/2018) house left to house right: Gabriel Marin (Pablo Del Valle), Brendan Conroy (Prop Manager), Vivia Font (Tania Del Valle), Maegan Alyse Passafume (SM), Navida Stein (Virginia Butley).

This article provides first an overview of Stage Management followed by a Q&A with Maegan Alyse Passafume, Production Stage Manager for the Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MRT) production of Native Gardens by Karen Zacarías.

The credits page in the playbill lists the playwright, actors, designers, director, producer, and someone called a Stage Manager or Production Stage Manager. If you’re like me, you wonder what a stage manager does and why they are listed in the credits, but not enough to actually look into it.

Truth be told, I didn’t actually look into it until I attended rehearsals for Native Gardens and observed the Stage Manager (SM) and Production Assistant (PA) in action. It turns out the SM is that cool-headed problem solver with foresight and all the right knowledge, supplies, and connections that you want to have around when you’re heading into an adventure. They function as both the navigator and the journalist of your travels. A theater production of any complexity would be a chaotic comedy of errors without them. Sean Daniels notes, “a bad stage manager can sink a show.” He also noted that for a musical, the SM “has to have rhythm.” Sean Daniels is the Artistic Director at MRT.

Before we continue, let’s look at what is meant by “stage.” During a performance, the theater is split into two areas: the house and the stage. The “house” encompasses all aspects of the performance space used by the audience. The “stage” encompasses the rest of the performance space, including the actors, scenery, costumes, props, lights, sound, crews, dressing rooms, etc.; all managed by . . . the SM.

The SM officially starts work on the production the week before the first rehearsal and remains involved with the production until the show closes, following the final performance.

One of the most important jobs of the SM is to compile and use the official record of the production, called the prompt book or calling script. The prompt book will be discussed in a separate article. For now, suffice it to say the prompt book contains the script of the play marked up with the movements of the actors; lighting, sound, video/projection, and special effect cues; and cues for the movement of scenery.

The SM is also responsible for:
• Scheduling pre-production meetings, rehearsals, costume fittings, calls
• Running meetings and rehearsals
• Reading the script and making lists of needs (props, costumes, sound, lighting, etc.)
• Setting up the rehearsal space
• Marking out the set footprint in the rehearsal space
• Publishing and circulating schedules
• Keeping track of refinements in the director’s vision and anticipating needs
• Alerting the proper departments of changes and needs
• Recording and publishing rehearsal/performance reports
• Recording rehearsal/performance notes and giving them to the appropriate person(s)
• Advising the director
• Ensuring the director’s version of the play is recorded and maintained during performance
• Making sure everything is ready for opening night, and all other performances
• Maintaining a congenial environment
• Cuing the performance
• Crisis management

As you can see, this job is a critically important one and it is a shame more people don’t appreciate what it entails when watching a performance.
Now for the Q&A with Maegan Alyse Passafume, Production Stage Manager for Native Gardens at MRT:

Q: What is the difference between a Stage Manager and a Production Stage Manager?

A: There actually isn’t a difference at all. While they are two different titles, the refer to the same position and person. I’ve definitely been called both!

Q: What does the Production Assistant do at MRT?

A: While we are in rehearsal the production assistant (PA) is responsible for helping maintain a clean rehearsal room, being on book and taking line notes as the actors stop relying on looking at their scripts, setting up props and rehearsal costumes in the rehearsal room for the actors, and generating tracking paperwork – where props and scenic elements enter from, exit to, and which actor is using them. When we get into tech and performances, the PA is in charge of the backstage area. They take the tracking paperwork they created in rehearsal and use it to arrange props backstage. They make sure the SM knows when the actors are in their places and ready to start the show. They help the SM troubleshoot any issues that arise while the show is going without letting the show stop. And in addition to all that they have to be at the theatre about an hour before the show starts making sure everything onstage is ready for the beginning of the show, and about an hour after the show is over cleaning everything up. It’s a big job!

[Note: “Being on book” means following the script in the prompt book; in this case, to prompt the actors. “Taking line notes” means making a note for each flubbed line. Paul Smith was the PA for Native Gardens. He is a member of the MRT staff (listed together in the playbill).]

Q: You were Stage Manager at MRT for The Royale and Chill in previous seasons. How did the three productions differ from a stage management perspective?

A: When I worked on Chill, I was taking over for the original stage manager who had to move on to the next show she was working on. It was crucial that I maintain the artistic integrity of the show that she had worked with the director to build, learn the cueing sequences quickly and correctly, and make sure the cast and crew trusted me and knew I that I was there to support them without changing anything.

The Royale was my first full show at MRT, and it was very special to me. It terms of the purely technical, it was very straightforward – not a lot of moving parts or tricky sequences. But it won’t come as a surprise to anyone who saw the show that the playwright is a drummer; those boxing scenes are really percussive, and they have a rhythm that I had to become very familiar with to be able to call the show. And while the show takes place a century ago, there are overarching themes that are still so relevant today, and I wanted to make sure my cast felt supported so they could do the great work they do. And on a purely personal note, The Royale was also special to me because my fiancé proposed onstage after one of the shows!

And now here we are with Native Gardens, which has a little bit of everything! I always enjoy working on a production that stretches multiple stage management muscles, and I wasn’t disappointed here. Relevant content, special effects, intricate cue sequences, and lovely personalities. Before we had an audience I had to hone my timing, especially on the vignettes. The majority of the cues are called to music, so I have to count. And we wanted one door closing on one yard at the same time a door was opening on the other, so I have to know the rhythm of my actors. My director and designers have given me a true gem of a show to take care of, and I absolutely love it.

Q: You got your BFA in Stage Management. What excited you about stage management as a profession?

A: As with many people, I found my way to theatre through acting; I got all the way to college without knowing a lot about what a stage manager does. But when I started working as my friend’s PA on a student production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, there was something about the job that made me infinitely happier than acting did. I enjoyed the paperwork and running around backstage. I loved the collaboration with my team, and my team’s collaboration with the cast, designers, and director. As a professional it makes me feel like the conductor of an orchestra or an airplane pilot – shepherding a group of people on a journey through time, space, and feeling. I wouldn’t dream of doing anything else!

Q: What did you like about working with Director Giovanna Sardelli?

A: Giovanna and I discovered really quickly that we had the same sense of humor! And she sets a super friendly tone in the rehearsal room. She was also willing to take input from me and my team when it was time to problem solve in rehearsal. Where does the hose come from? How should we set the acorns so they don’t all roll away before the fight? What else can we give the landscapers to do in this vignette so an actor has more time to finish a costume change? If we had thoughts she would listen and being able to help your director brainstorm is such a great feeling.

Q: Is there an aspect of the MRT ‘Native Gardens’ production the audience should savor?

A: All of it! Seeing a show is such a different experience from person to person that everyone who sees it is going to focus on or take away something that the person next to them didn’t even notice. Savor the whole thing; everyone who worked on it did an amazing job of telling a cohesive story that’s meant to be taken in as one.

Q: For what other plays will you be Stage Manager during the 2018-2019 season at MRT?

A: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, The Heath, and Cry It Out

Q: Have you worked with any of those directors before?

A: Not as a stage manager. Of course Sean and I know each other, but we haven’t worked together yet. And I was the PA on Muckrakers at New Rep, which Bridget Kathleen O’Leary directed.

[Note: Sean Daniels is directing The Heath by Lauren Gunderson. Bridget Kathleen O’Leary is directing Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon.]

Q: Do you have a favorite stage management war story?

A: Oh man, it’s so hard to pick just one and they’re all too long for this. Here’s what I will say: every good stage management war story is absolutely not funny as it’s happening. You only learn to appreciate the humor after the event has passed and everyone made it through. But that’s what makes it a good story.

–Backstage with Local Drama Club Geek

 

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Native Gardens runs September 12 – October 7

mrt.org/nativegardens

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Q&A: Karen Zacarías (Playwright)

Karen Zacarias headshotKaren Zacarías’ plays include the recent, critically acclaimed Destiny of DesireA Brechtian Telenovela, Mariela in the Desert (Susan Smith Blackburn finalist, Francesca Primus Award), The Sins of Sor Juana (Helen Hayes Award, Outstanding Play), The Book Club Play, Just Like Us, Legacy of Light, and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.

Founder of Washington, D.C.’s Young Playwrights’ Theatre, she regularly writes musicals (Jane of the Jungle, Cinderella Eats Rice and Beans) for young audiences with composer Debbie Wicks la Puma. Her musical Chasing George Washington at The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts toured nationally, and when published, included a foreword by First Lady Michelle Obama.

Recent projects include a new stage adaptation of The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the libretto for the Washington Ballet’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and a Brazilian-themed musical version of the Oliver Twist story. She resides in D.C. with her husband and three children.

You tackle a lot of dark issues with outright hilarity. Why is humor an important part of your storytelling? 

I think humor can be “disarming”. Especially if it’s not mean . . . and it brings light to personal foibles.  If you laugh, you usually have to uncross your arms . . . and open up . . . and that allows other ideas and perspectives to come in.  What people have told me about Native Gardens is that even though you side with different sides of the fence in different scenes, the person you end up judging is yourself.

Did a specific incident prompt you to write Native Gardens? 

I was at a dinner party looking for an idea for a play, and someone suggested I write about the fight they were having with a neighbor.  Then someone else recounted a neighbor story and so on. I was struck by how common, how primal, and poetic, and somewhat absurd all these epic battles can be and decided to explore the thorny issues of feuds through a biting comedic play.

Are you a gardener yourself?

No.  But I learned a lot about gardening researching this play. Who would have known that plants could be so political?!

What has most shaped your perspective?  

Being born in Mexico has shaped my perspective. Moving from Mexico to Boston when I was 10 shaped my perspective. Being an immigrant with immigrant parents shaped my perspective, and writing and art is the way I reconciled the bridges . . . and walls that I’ve encountered in my path. Art is a map for navigating the world, and a tool for making sense of the insensible.

What does Native Gardensmean to you personally? 

I think there are over 12 productions of Native Gardens scheduled for this next year.  I am so grateful that a play written by a Latinx artist, giving voice to characters we don’t often see on stage, is getting to interact with so many people from across the country.  It means to me that plays like this are part of the American cannon, and our stories are part of the mainstage of the American story.

 

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Native Gardens runs September 12 – October 7, 2018.

mrt.org/nativegardens

COHORT REPORT: ‘Native Gardens’ Tech Rehearsal

Chainsaw won’t turn on
Is it the outlet? Safety?
…Time to just move on.

The desks everyone were working from are those specially designed tables with different height legs, very nifty! It was really cool to have each of the tables set up for stage manager, director, lights, sound, etc… and to see the costume designer and other props people pop up on stage.

I really envy their jobs. Sure, the long hours and late nights, but I greatly admire creatives who are putting their crafts to work. Growing up, I had many creative ambitions but ultimately chose what I thought would be a more respected career in the sciences. Seeing these professionals and performers re-ignites my creative energy, reminding me that I should let my inner artist shine some way, some how.

–Audra Martin, Cohort

 

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Native Gardens runs September 12 – October 7

mrt.org/nativegardens

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COHORT REPORT: How does it work?

I’m a newly minted member of the MRT Cohort Club. 

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about subscribing to MRT for many years is seeing a variety of plays; plays I might not have chosen to see otherwise. Plays capture a life experience from the perspective of the playwright, director, actors, and the rest of the production team. Watching a play presents an opportunity to experience another world for a short while, to learn something about ourselves and others, to set aside our own lives for a time.

As a cohort, it is possible to see how this world of the play is brought into existence in a professional theatre. In future write-ups, I’ll focus on a particular aspect of the development of theater in the context of a specific play.
This time around, I’ll provide some info on the 2018-2019 season, how plays are selected, and the nominal production timeline.

If you are a subscriber who doesn’t want to any advance knowledge about the plays this season, skip this paragraph.

The first of seven plays for this season is the widely produced comedy, Native Gardens by Karen Zacarías. It features one very pregnant actor playing a very pregnant new homeowner and gardener.

This season also includes three world premieres:
Slow Food by Wendy MacLeod, The Heath by Lauren Gunderson, the most produced playwrights of the 2017-2018 season, and The Haunted Life by Jack Kerouac adapted for the stage by Sean Daniels, Artistic Director at MRT.

The Christmas show this year is an eight-actor extravaganza, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly, with characters from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

At the other end of the spectrum, Murder for Two has two actors playing thirteen characters. The last play of the season, Cry It Out, is a comedy featuring at least one new mom (Veronica Duerr) coincidentally playing a new mom.

The plays for this season were discussed a year ago and selected around the beginning of 2018. Season planning starts with reading plays during the summer. Internal discussions about the 2019-2020 season has already began in August. Sean Daniels says, “It’s a process that is ongoing and our internal goal is to have the [planning] done by Dec. 31st for the next season. So right now we are in the thick of planning for the 19-20 Season.”

When asked how plays are selected, Sean Daniels said“We look to put together a season that serves the multiple constituencies and goals of the organizations.” He provided the following as examples of things MRT looks at when making a new season:

• What do we think our audience is excited by?
• What are we excited by?
• Do we have gender parity?
• Are we accurately reflecting the diversity of our community?
• Which artists do we want to support and say they were here before the[y] broke large?
• Which shows can we get the rights to?
• What we feel is topical and necessary at this moment
• What is the reponsibility of a new play theatre, or a theatre in Massachusetts?
• What do we think will have a life afterwards?
• What’s the strain on the staff?
• How big are these shows outside of actors?

He finished up with “Then we pull all that together with what we can afford and what do we think will sell enough.”

At MRT, the design team for a play is chosen 6-12 months before opening night by the director, and approved by MRT Artistic Director and staff. The production of a play starts about 3-6 months before the first rehearsal with a conference call to discuss the design concepts for the set, costumes, lighting, and sound. Actors are selected about two months before first rehearsal; they rehearse for three weeks. Nominally, about two weeks before opening night, the set is loaded into the theater; lighting, sound, and video are added in later that week; dress rehearsal is on the Tuesday of the following week; previews are Wednesday through Friday; and opening night is on Saturday. From opening night on, the play runs for 3 weeks. The set is removed following the final performance on the last Sunday; the set for the next play is loaded in the following day.

As you can see, there are multiple productions in the pipeline at the same time.

Previews are essentially dress rehearsals with an audience. Adjustments may be made to the production based on the audience reaction. That is particularly true for world premieres. For that reason, tickets for previews are discounted. MRT encourages teachers to attend the first preview on Wednesday evenings. Student matinees are offered for age appropriate productions.

–Cindy McLain, Cohort

 

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Native Gardens runs September 12 – October 7

mrt.org/nativegardens

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COHORT REPORT: Native Gardens

I knew I missed being a Cohort, I returned last week and loved every minute of watching the Native Gardens rehearsal. Exciting, vibrant, laugh out loud funny, energetic and fun.With an enthusiastic, “energizing rabbit”as a director, and a cast willing to make changes on the go, this process of perfecting orchestrated chaos was pure delight.

–Nancy Weber, Cohort

 

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Native Gardens runs September 12 – October 7

mrt.org/nativegardens

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COHORT REPORT: What’s that old saying about fences?

Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s first play of the season, Native Gardens, is a fine antidote to the end-of-summer blues, for Karen Zacarías’ timely new comedy involves two sets of neighbors with diametrically opposed ideas about nature and our need to control it.

As I watched the read-through – the first time the actors read the play aloud in the presence of the director, designers and, in this case, landscaping extras – and chuckled along with the rest of the assembled audience at the MRT rehearsal hall. I couldn’t help but wonder where I stood on the horticultural spectrum. Due to temperament and location – situated between neighbors Mr. Fastidious (no leaf remains un-blown) and “Anything Goes” Annie – I decided upon a Switzerland-style neutral.

Differences – of opinion, race, sex and gardening styles – color everything in Native Gardens. Set in an uber-suburb of Washington, D.C., those of us with postcard-size yards will sympathize with the plight of the homeowners and their tight quarters, where every foot of space is precious and privacy paramount.

But the play is not just about competitive gardening and poorly-timed barbecues. As the characters resort to ever more elaborate schemes to buttress their cause, the refrain of “old neighborhood, new neighbors” leads to an examination of what it means to belong – or not – and what happens when the old ways – and the old people – give way to something new, something – well – different, and those differences become hard to ignore.

Where do our boundaries lie – and what gets us to cross them? How do we deal with conflict – logically or emotionally? How can we see ourselves as others perceive us? And can we disagree and still co-exist peacefully? Native Gardens will make you laugh – and think.

–Karla Sorenson, Cohort

 

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Native Gardens runs September 12 – October 7

mrt.org/nativegardens

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COHORT REPORT: Adventures with ‘Native Gardens’

Paul, the Native Gardens Production Assitant, walked me through the hallway leading to the rehearsal hall. The space is one large room with a wood floor, tall ceilings, and sun streaming through the windows. It’s in one of Lowell’s many old, converted mill buildings.

As I entered, Tania (Vivia Font) and Virginia (Navida Stein) were getting director’s notes on Vignette 10. How exciting and unexpected that the actress playing Tania is actually pregnant, as is her character. There was an open, back and forth discussion between the director and two actors as they figured out the progression and where the characters are at this point–both on their own and in relation to one another. One comment from the director is where you’re pointing the energy in, is how a word or line is said. This is a keen observation to think about in real life everyday conversations. Overall, to echo their own notes, it’s “great fun!”

We had a short break before starting Vignette 11 that featured chocolate, yellow watermelon (my favorite!!), talks of temperature in the artists’ housing, and Vivia’s earlier visit to the hospital.

The next scene started with a table read. They ran through the scene several times to work through blocking. They’re not off book yet, but already there’s such great energy. It’s a wonderful treat to see creative professionals in the midst of their process. I love seeing what the actors come up with organically, with additions from the creative vision of the director and her perspective from seeing the entire scene. Such intricate work is required to get the balanced back and forth as the conversation switches from one backyard to another. I’m so excited to see where their creative energy takes them between now and first curtain.

–Cohort

 

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Native Gardens runs September 12 – October 7

mrt.org/nativegardens

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