'Difficult to have a family when you work six nights a week'
Stage manager: 'Never been the same'
David J. McGraw
I'm a production stage manager for Geva Theatre in Rochester, New York. (The name is pronounced "JEE-vah.")
Geva, now entering its 29 season, is a member of the League of Resident Theatres. There are approximately 70 of these nonprofit regional theaters serving their individual communities in the United States. With its new second stage, Geva is one of the largest and most fiscally stable theaters outside New York City.
Stage management is a field that requires you to wear many hats and be a jack of all trades. As a member of Actors' Equity Association -- the AFL-CIO labor union for stage actors -- I need to enforce all the regulations agreed on by the union and producer. But the theater also hires me to oversee the daily operations of a show and to serve as the clearinghouse for all information that needs to go designers, technicians and theater staff, including the publicity and education departments.
In addition to those duties, I personally assist the director in every rehearsal and will take over the director's role once we open for an audience. During performances, I monitor the cast's performance, manage the backstage crew and call all the lighting and sound effects in a show -- often 200 to 500 cues in a full-scale production. So I need to make things run smoothly, from everyone's perspective.
Years in position
I have eight years in the field, six years in the union and I'm entering my third season at Geva Theatre.
I have a bachelor's degree in theater and classics from the College of the Holy Cross. And I did one year of training in the stage management master of fine arts degree program at the Yale School of Drama.
How did you get your current job?
Often you find a theater job by networking, but in this case I answered an advertisement in ArtSEARCH, an industry employment bulletin. I was the first new stage manager for Geva in six years and I had to beat out nearly 100 other candidates. It is an extremely competitive career, but once you establish yourself, you have a lot more flexibility to move around.
How many hours do you work per week? And what are your hours -- as in, what time of day or night?
During rehearsals, which typically run three to six weeks, I normally work 60 to 75 hours per week. During the tech period -- when all of the show's technical elements including scenery, props, costumes, lighting, and sound are worked out and set -- I'll work as much as 70 to 85 hours. Then after a week of preview performances (50 to 65 hours) I drop down to 40 to 50 hours per week for the run of the show. All this is based on a six-day workweek with Monday as the day off.
What's the first thing you do when you get to work in the morning?
I check the rehearsal hotline for any emergencies that weren't called in to my home phone or cell phone. I read e-mail responses to my reports from the previous day. I start coffee for the cast -- somehow I've managed to stay caffeine-free for three years now.
What time do you have lunch? What do you usually eat?
I try to take at least a 30- to 45-minute break for lunch. Since I won't see dinner until 8 or 9 p.m., I try to pack a series of snacks for our five-minute breaks. I also always have at least two liters of water at my rehearsal table to get me through the day.
What time do things get tense around the office? What makes it that way?
The tech period is when everything is assembled in a three- or four-day period. Depending on how technically complicated the show is, there are often artists and technicians working in the theater 12 to 16 hours a day. Everyone has to be very flexible because entire design concepts might be altered or abandoned once we see the whole picture. Tempers can flare when we discover too late that an expensive prop or costume item has to be cut or that the actors will be performing on a section of the stage that has no lighting focused on it.
If you're having a good day at work, what is it that makes it good?
It's a good rehearsal day if I keeping things flowing and meet all of the needs of the director and cast. It is a great day if I anticipate their needs before they even voice them. And a stage manager can have a fantastic show if she or he can find the "zone" and nail all of the lighting and sound and effects cues on a tough show.
How much work, if any, do you take home?
None. I don't leave work until I'm done for the day (or convince myself to come in extra early the next morning to finish my reports). The only exception is if I'm working on a ground plan or something that will run faster on my home computer.
What does your work contribute to society?
My job is to enable the other theater artists to reach their greatest creative potential. I'm the stabilizing force that allows them to experiment and dream. As an art form, theater cannot change anyone's mind. But if you are open to change, theater can help you discover our common humanity.
Do you expect to finish your working life in this career?
Sadly, no. Although some stage managers can find the balance, it's extremely difficult to have a family when you work six nights a week. And the hours can really wear you down. But I truly enjoy the work and will savor every day until I change careers.
If you could have two more careers, what would they be?
Voice-over artist and college professor. Voice-overs appeal to me because they also require a precise voice and a mind that can adapt new information to existing patterns very quickly. And I've always wanted to share my knowledge and experience in a classroom setting. Managing theater can help you develop the skills needed for any creative process or job collaboration.
What's an unforgivable trait in a colleague?
Tardiness. You can adapt to tempers and egos in the arts, but time is extremely precious and lateness is the ultimate insult to everyone else's work. A late stage manager is an out-of-work stage manager.
What do you do to relieve stress?
Exercise for the body and video games for the mind. It's amazing how much relief you can get from naming your computer opponents after your least-favorite artists.
What have you been reading lately?
I've been reading a number of voice-over books, including Elaine A. Clark's "There's Money Where Your Mouth Is" (Back Stage Books, 1995). When I change careers, I want to be prepared.
When you have one of those days on which you don't think you can face the job again, what is it that gets you out the door in the morning and off to work?
Knowing that our next performance may be the one that changes an audience member's life. For me, it was a production of "Hamlet" in Cleveland when I was a teen-ager. It may have been just another day's work for the artists, but since then my life has never been the same.
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College of the Holy Cross
Geva Theatre, Rochester, New York
League of Resident Theatres
Actors Equity Association
Theatre Communications Group - ArtSEARCH
Yale School of Drama
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