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.