The Most Important, Invisible Person in the Theater: The Stage Manager
PHOTO BY AMANDA LOPEZ
On a Sunday afternoon in March, one lean and one muscular actor — Donal Thoms-Cappello and Chris L. McKenna, respectively — are in rehearsal for Benjamin Brand's new play, Taste. They're doing stretching exercises on the bare stage of Sacred Fools Theater Company in East Hollywood, where the play is in previews, but they're not alone. They're in a group that includes producer/assistant director/sound and video designer Ben Rock, fight coordinator Mike Mahaffey, understudy Yuri Lowenthal and the show's producer-director, Stuart Gordon — a veteran stage and film director who revamped his 1985 horror film Re-Animator into a hit 2011 stage production. The actors twist their torsos and do articulation exercises in unison; then Lowenthal jumps up and down in place to get the blood flowing.
Easy to ignore is the one player who should never be ignored — the woman ever so quietly pushing a table into place on the stage and setting on the table a few props, rubber representations of knives, a bowl. And, at some distance from the table, setting up a video camera, which will be pivotal to the play's action. That player is Megan Crockett, the stage manager.
During rehearsals, the stage manager is the one responsible for seeing that the actors show up on time, that the props and, later, the costumes are in place. The stage manager is the one responsible for holding the text and feeding lines to actors who are in the process of memorizing them. The stage manager is the person who must utter the correction when the phrase isn't quite accurate, when a word or two is out of place, and then must patiently endure the exasperated expression of the actor who might react with a look that asks, "Is the exact line really that important?" The stage manager must log all of the actors' movements, as staged by the director, so that if the actor forgets where he or she is supposed to be, there's an official log of the director's intent.
It's the stage manager who records all of the lighting and sound cues, as designated by the lighting and sound designers. It's the stage manager who loads those cues into the computer for the lighting and sound operators to execute.
During performances in smaller theaters, such as Sacred Fools, sometimes the stage manager is also the lighting and sound operator, running those boards from a cubicle tucked into some corner behind the audience and above the stage. Sometimes, during a show, when the theater has sound and light operators, the stage manager is backstage setting props and helping actors get into and out of costumes — because the stage manager knows all aspects of the show more than any other participant.
Taste is a tart, two-character drama about a pair of men who meet online and go on a date, which for some perverse reason is videotaped by the fastidious Terry, played by the slender Thoms-Cappello. The guy Terry invited to his home, Vic (McKenna), is a lumbering fellow who uses expressions such as "pretty unique," which sets Terry on edge. The word unique, by definition, cannot be qualified. Something either is or isn't unique, Terry lectures Vic, who can't quite understand what Terry is so upset about.
These kinds of tensions are part of what is a strategically excruciating and pathetic date scene, and they eventually lead to a fight in which Terry attacks Vic. That scene is being rehearsed with fight coordinator Mahaffey, leading Terry to hold Vic in a neck lock, and later to fling Vic to the ground, over and over, until the fight coordinator and director are satisfied.
Director Gordon notes that McKenna's hands are too relaxed for someone being choked. McKenna adjusts. They replay the attack.
McKenna catches his breath. "That's fucking tiring, being choked five times."
"Do you need a hug?" Crockett asks.
Crockett, 32, equates the skills of a stage manager to those of being a parent.
She enrolled at Cal State Northridge as a vocal studies major but found herself wooed into stage management early on. Pleasant and fastidious, she was good at it, despite some early hiccups.
Crockett's first assignment as a stage manager was for a college opera. "I was a raving bitch," she admits in an interview before the rehearsal. "Actors don't take well to that. I thought I had to be a bitch, had to make myself big. My guess is that, since the opera had so many people involved, they probably weren't listening to the director, but the more I yelled, the actors would roll their eyes, and that would make me more angry. Then they just stopped paying attention, and I would yell more."
Crockett says she tried to compensate in her second show by being "as sweet as can be, and I got stepped on all over, with people constantly calling that they were going to be late. 'OK,' I'd answer. 'I'll just tell the director, don't worry.'
"I was trying so hard to be their friend, and I was being a bad stage manager. I didn't get the results I needed; the actors were preplanning their own tardiness to rehearsals, knowing they could get away with it.
"The key is to find a balance, somewhere in the middle," she says. "I'm really quite nice, and I want the actors to succeed and feel comfortable, but I will raise my voice if needed, and when I do, they know they need to calm down."
Sacred Fools company member Terry Tocantins says, "Megan runs a tight ship. And it's a fair and chill ship because you don't want to see her 'you just let me down' face. That is a frightening sight. If they sold stock in her, I would buy 51 percent."
Idyllwild-based actor Christopher Pennock, a veteran of Broadway, off-Broadway, film and TV, recalls how a stage manager turned his life around.
By his own admission, Pennock's relations with stage managers had been tempestuous. Pennock says he was fired from his first theater in Jackson Hole, Wyo., "by a stage manager who was afraid I'd report him to the producers for molesting young Mormon male cast members." He says he also was fired by a stage manager from his second stage job, "carrying a spear and understudying at Stratford Shakespeare Festival" in Canada, for reasons he didn't elaborate on.
When Los Angeles Theatre Center opened in 1985, Pennock was cast in a Mabou Mines production of It's a Man's World, directed by David Schweizer, with actor Roger Guenveur Smith.
"I was a full-blown alcoholic by that time," Pennock admits, "and I'd go next door to a bar and get drunk between matinees and evening performance. No one had ever minded my drinking, but a lot of my performance would show up on the big TV screens. One night, the stage manager came up and told me I had better watch the drinking. I was obviously drunk onstage and you could really see it on the TV monitors. Shock and awe! A stage manager got me sober! The next week, I had my last drink, went to AA, and I've been sober for 30 years."
Crockett never grew up dreaming of being a stage manager. She was born and reared in Thousand Oaks, and has mostly stayed close to home, with ambitions of being a professional singer. Since fees for performing are so paltry, and for a non-union stage manager they're not much better (from $100 to $1,000 per production), during the day she currently works for an accounts payable rep and as an executive assistant for a souvenir company.
Crockett clearly is good at stage managing, which raises the question of why she doesn't try to get paid to do it full-time. This would require her joining the actors union, Actors' Equity, as a professional stage manager, and thus becoming part of the freelance hiring pool used by our institutional theaters, such as Center Theatre Group. (Often, the director of a show at CTG's Mark Taper Forum or Kirk Douglas Theatre recommends his or her own stage manager.)
Crockett says she has considered joining the union, but at the smaller theaters where she works, she gets to appear onstage, either as an understudy or an actress, which has always been one of her ambitions; that wouldn't be possible were she to be a stage manager for a larger theater. It's even tricky in the smaller theaters.
"Oddly enough, Taste is only the second time I've stage managed here," she says. "I was trying to keep it quiet that I was a stage manager, because as in any 99-seat venue, if you get pegged as a stage manager, you're always a stage manager."
Yet stage managing has helped her find a theater to call home.
"After college, I started doing stage management with companies I hadn't been familiar with: Rogue Artists Ensemble, Ilium Entertainment," she recalls. "In 2007 I had kind of decided I wanted to go back to acting, so I came to audition for The Mystery of Edwin Drood at Sacred Fools. I didn't get cast, but I stayed around, enjoyed the theater's vibe, so I became a company member, and I've been here ever since."
At Sacred Fools, she met her fiancé, Hans Gelpke, who was an associate producer then and has since left the company. They're getting married in October.
The ultimate purpose of a stage manager is to keep chaos at bay, and that takes a person who loves to be organized. "In theory, I am organized," Crockett says. "If you walked into my office at home, my desk is piled with crap. It takes a while before I go on a cleaning binge. But when it comes to stage management, I know how important organization is, so I will forgo my home organization for the organization of the show."
And chaos can intervene in the most unexpected ways. Stage manager Benjamin Scuglia remembers running the board in a tiny, closet-sized tech booth. It was midway through the show, "when a humongous spider lowered itself from the gloom above me and dangled itself in front of my face. As I frantically waved it away, the actress onstage thought I was gesturing at her and stepped sideways, right into her key light, which she had missed. All's well that ends well."
Terri Roberts, the stage manager for Rockers at Theatre West in 2006, says toward the end of one show, during a rainstorm, water started leaking into her booth through a wall.
"I grabbed the small booth trash can, threw it under the flow of water, then snuck out the door and grabbed another trash can from the lobby," she says. "I spent the last 10 to 15 minutes of the show doing my own little super-speedy solo bucket brigade between the booth and the lobby bathrooms, carrying and dumping trash cans full of water to keep the booth from flooding, while simultaneously trying to not disturb the audience sitting 5 feet in front of me (or the actors onstage)."
One particular moment of chaos thrust Crockett onto the stage in the most unexpected way. As stage manager for a production of The Victorian Hotel with Rogue Artists at the Powerhouse Theatre in Santa Monica, Crockett was running lights. "It was a Saturday. The lead actress called me and said, 'I've been in a car accident, my neck hurts, I can't do the show.' I said, 'I understand, I'm on it.' "
After canceling the performance, Crockett called all audience members who had reserved for that show, "offering them tickets for an alternative night. Some people were super nice. Some I couldn't get ahold of."
So Crockett and a colleague stood outside the theater for hours, so anybody who showed up could get her phone number to reschedule.
The following week, the actor still couldn't perform, but since the L.A. Weekly critic was coming, the show had to go on.
Crockett learned the lines as fast as she could. The costume designer whipped her up a costume.
"And it's me on the stage. In the show there were projections synced perfectly with the action, so I carried a notebook onstage tilted perfectly so the audiences couldn't see," she says.
Ultimately, the critic praised "the plucky understudy, Megan Crockett."
"I was so happy," Crockett recalls. "That was so great. I will gladly accept 'plucky.' That's still my favorite story from that theater."
Director Stuart Gordon is now working the top of the play. Thoms-Cappello, as Terry, mimes chopping onions while waiting for his guest. Somebody shouts out the sound of a door buzzer, and Thoms-Cappello crosses to speak into an intercom near the door. He returns to chop more onions, turns his back to the audience, washes his hands, wipes them and pushes the video camera's on button. The sequence is run four times, and variations are discussed. Crockett sits in the front row, script in one hand, notepad in the other, recording the final decisions. She gently shouts out line corrections to the actors, who nod. There's no sarcasm here, only professional amiability. They're working as a unified machine.
Crockett slips away backstage. She noticed McKenna struggling with the temporary prop knife and is headed to find him a replacement prop.
Actors tend to seize the audience's focus; it's what they do. If you weren't paying attention, you wouldn't even notice Crockett leave.
Rigor and intensity fill the room — the director's attention to detail, the blazing talent of the actors. But if this play is going to shine, as it appears it will, then both figuratively and literally, it's Crockett who will be shining the light on it.
Taste plays at Sacred Fools Theater Company from April 11-May 17, with previews April 4-10.
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