"Around here, however, we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things...and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths."
---Walter Elias Disney

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Director Jen made up that word, hat-crobatics, to describe a part of The 39 Steps wherein two actors switch between six characters during one short scene mostly by changing accents and hats. The scene is a great representation of this show in particular. Four actors not only portray dozens of characters and undergo numerous costume changes, but they also often act as their own stage crew, clearing and setting sets during the show. That's not to say the stage hands themselves are sitting on their hands letting the actors do all the work. The three of us also set and clear most of the scenes while also performing shadow puppets and running a fog machine. This is a very small operation. It includes only Jen the director, four actors, three stage hands, a dresser, a light board operator and a sound board operator. That's ten people handling the show in total while it's in performance, not counting Jen in the audience taking notes on ways we can improve. We all wear a lot of hats, if the truth is to be told.

But it seems to me in my very limited experience that wearing lots of hats is the name of the game in community theater. Maybe it's not so usual to have the actors play multiple roles or participate so much in the handling of sets during the performance, but it certainly seems to always involve a lot of multitasking. My model for this is Jen. Watching her create a show, because that's what it is, creating, is a lesson on multitasking. I was amazed both during Wizard of Oz and this show at how much the woman manages to keep in her head. She knows the script frontwards and backwards, knows her blocking, develops a vision for a set and keeps track of prop needs all at once. At the same time she's thinking about rehearsal schedules and cast parties and publicity and sound and light cues and finding tech help and creating special effects. I've seen her keeping a notebook full of lists and things getting added and crossed off all the time, but ask her and usually she can pull any tidbit in those notes straight out of her head. I don't know how she does it.

My job on her shows has been as stage manager. I'll admit, when Jen asked me to help her on Wizard as one, I had to come home and Google it. This is what I found on the interwebs:

Stage managers typically provide practical and organizational support to the director, actors, designers, stage crew and technicians throughout the production process....... Once the show opens, the director's work is essentially complete. Now it's the stage manager's job to make sure that every aspect of the production runs just as the director intended time after time, until the production closes. 

There was a whole page of stuff in the middle that made little sense to me. Another website offered the advice that a stage manager shouldn't show too much cleavage. I got that one covered.  Basically, a stage manager wears lots of hats as well.

Jen is a very hands on director, she delegates as little as she has to, I think. Stage managing for another director might be different, but for Jen it's mostly being there when she needs a hand and helping make what she wants to happen happen. During Wizard, I was one of three stage managers. I didn't call the show (more on that later) and another guy was largely responsible for organizing the set changes. I was primarily there to fix problems that arose with the cast and help any way I could. It was a great learning experience as I got to participate in lots of stage manager things without having all of it on my shoulders. Almost like Jen planned it that way....

This time, I'm all she's got. But while it's a complicated show, it's a small cast and crew, so it works perfectly as another step up my learning ladder. I rarely see the cast during this show. The babysitting aspect of Wizard is almost completely absent this time. Now I'm focusing on the set changes and technical aspects of stage managing during the show. It's a challenge that I'll write about after the whole run is over. I'm sure I'll have more and better stories after another three more performances.

The two months of preparing this show saw me wearing a few hats as well. Jen told me at the outset that she'd be asking more from me in terms of time at rehearsals than she ever has of a stage manager before. I ended up at the majority of them doing something of varying usefulness. When an actor was missing, I read his lines, and once even tried acting his part, which in hindsight was probably a mistake. When everyone was there, I was "on book" which meant feeding lines to the actors when they couldn't bring one forth. That's not as easy as it would seem. It's hard unless an actor is well-trained and knows to ask for a line when he or she needs one. We only have one actor of that sort in this show. The others tended to stand there for varying amounts of time struggling until either they bust out with SOMETHING or someone fed the line to them. It was tricky finding a rhythm, jump in too early and you interrupt the flow and step in on the actor's character, but wait too long and it gets the actor frustrated and everyone else feels really awkward. I got better at it, I think, as I got some more practice.

Between rehearsals I got to play at set dresser and prop man. I spent a day searching through thrift stores and consignment shops for just the right armchair. I sent lots of pictures to Jen, anyone who looks at the photo gallery in my phone is going to wonder what the Hell I was doing.  I finally found a good one and talked the seller down a decent bit, which is totally out of character for me. I also created a small prop, a fake newspaper page. That was great fun as Jen only had a couple instructions and let me play with the rest. I helped with a few more things, acquiring a big piece of paper for a map prop and finding fake, throw-able snowflakes.

When we moved into the Amuzu theatre, I got to put my lighting tech hat on.  I had learned the basics of
Scary Ladder. This photo only shows the top half...
lighting during our rock and roll show in the park, so when lights needed to be hung (using the scariest ladder EVER) I was the guy. I got to change gels and hang and focus lights and string extension cords and such. It was fun. Everyone pitches in during load-in, so we all had lots of hats. We painted props and built a screen to project our shadow puppets and installed a curtain to create some small little "backstage" area to work the puppets and store props. We managed to work the wiring so there's been no blackouts and the building hasn't caught fire. As we moved into tech week, we sorted cues and the smoke machine and the puppets and figured out how to (and whether or not to in some cases) move props on and off stage

Aside from my various stage manager duties, I was busy at home between rehearsals with publicity and keeping up the website and managing ticket sales. This is the first show we've used PayPal to sell tickets on our own website, and there have been a few glitches and some second guessing that really annoyed me and complicated things needlessly. Before shows, I have been closing out that day's ticket sales online and printing the ticket buyer lists, contacting the local newspaper editor to beg for space, and stopping for last minute supplies of duct tape and glow rings and batteries and art supplies and such. Nights after rehearsals and shows, I'd find myself downloading and editing pictures, sending photos and writing cutlines to the same local paper and checking sales and putting buyers on lists for future shows.

It's a lot of hats for sure, but it's been fun. I can't wait to do it again.

Hat-crobat. Wonder if I can put that on a resume?