AFTER WORKING on four plays last season, busy stage manager Nicole Gladwin is taking a little breather to, as she puts it, "focus on being an audience member." Before she plunges back into the stage-managing fray this spring for Shaking the Tree Theatre's Suddenly Last Summer, she offered some perspective on the Person Behind the Curtain.
AGENDA: What do people tend to think a stage manager does, and what do you actually do?
NICOLE GLADWIN: Often, people who aren't in theater can't remember what my job is even called, and introduce me as a director or a designer. I've started comparing stage management to conducting a piece of music, because civilians totally understand "helps coordinate the musicians so they're all playing together, but doesn't play one of the instruments themselves."
During the actual performance of a play, I'm "calling the show," which means I'm controlling the timing of the lighting and sound cues. I'm also in charge of keeping everyone on schedule, making sure the show we're performing conforms to what we rehearsed, letting the designers and production staff know if things are broken, emergency-fixing things that break five minutes before the show... basically keeping things functioning day-to-day.
After opening night, the director and designers aren't showing up every night; the active part of their work is done. The production gets turned over to the stage manager, actors, and crew, and we're the ones who execute the performances. Without a stage manager, you'd have no coordination between lights, sound, backstage crewmembers, and the actors. Stage managers work with all the departments, and having one person who's informed about what everyone is up to can help prevent weird schedule overlaps, duplication of efforts, and things being forgotten.
What's the typical timeline of your involvement in a play?
Anytime the actors are in the room, so am I. The smaller theaters I work with typically start rehearsing five or six weeks before opening, 15 to 20 hours a week. During rehearsals, I'm writing down blocking and choreography, I'm taking notes on lines as the actors are memorizing them, I'm maintaining the rehearsal calendar and making sure everyone knows what scenes we're rehearsing when, and I'm keeping the designers in the loop if anything happens in rehearsal that will affect them, like, "They're no longer going to be eating cookies in scene four. The blue dress in scene two needs to have pockets big enough to fit a brick in." Things like that.
I also attend production meetings with the director and the designers, because once we move into tech and dress rehearsals, I work more closely with the designers to get their work implemented. Tech rehearsals are when we start layering in the light and sound cues, costumes, and props—so that's when I start to get really busy. The week leading up to opening is the most work of the whole process. I love tech week, but now one of my favorite things is settling into the run of the show, falling into our pre-show and post-show routines, and just having fun performing.
What's the worst situation an actor ever put you in?
The actor who simply never learned his lines. Ever. Like, not even by closing night. The other actors knew their lines, but they were forced to mangle their lines into something that responded to what Unnamed Actor actually had said, and he was so comfortable paraphrasing his way through scenes, it seemed to the audience that the other actors were the ones who were shaky on their lines. Sitting in the booth—and I'm sure being onstage—with him was terrifying; you just never knew what was going to come out of that guy's mouth. Maybe he'd end the scene four pages early! Maybe I'd need to be ready to make the phone ring right now instead of in the next scene! Maybe he'd skip that part, so DEAR GOD DON'T PLAY THE PHONE RING CUE! Every night was a horrible adventure, and it never got better.
Worst problem you've ever had to solve in a theater space?
All of the theater buildings have their own quirks. At the CoHo, there's no direct access to the bathroom from the dressing room, so after the audience is seated, you have to give the actors a pee break before you can start the show.
At the Shoebox, if you want the actors to make their first entrance from the east end of the stage, you have to hide them backstage the whole time the audience is being seated.
And then every show presents its own unique challenges, independent of the space you're in. When I did Hunter Gatherers with Theatre Vertigo, our problem was that the show ends with this huge, super-messy fight, and the set ends up covered with [fake] wine, [fake] blood, and [fake] semen. I needed an assistant whose whole job was turning up at the end of the show to help me clean up before anything stained the set. We affectionately referred to him as my "spooge assistant." I really hope that's included on his theater résumé.
Most complicated staging you've ever "pulled off"... with or without a hitch?
Maybe the fight in Action/Adventure's Disassembly, where the character wasn't pregnant, but the actor was. We brought in Kristen Mun, who is a CRAZY talented fight choreographer, and she staged an incredibly violent fight that was perfectly safe.
But you'd also be surprised: Sometimes things get really complicated backstage and it's not apparent to the audience, so some of my most complicated sequences are things you'd never know were hard. And sometimes we have tricks up our sleeves that make things look hard from your side, but they're easy breezy on our end. Hitches are inevitable. Something is gonna go wrong, and it's about making it work in the moment. Isn't that what live performance is all about?
For me, when something goes off the rails, time seems to slow down, and I feel like I can assess, make a choice, and proceed somehow. Hopefully I'm on the same page as whoever else is confronted with the problem, and we all try to deal with it in sort of the same way.
Actors and theater people sometimes get a bad rap as being flaky or somehow unreliable workers, because we keep weird hours and goof off professionally, but I have repeatedly found most of my theater coworkers to be some of the hardest-working, most focused, most invested-in-the-job people I've ever been around. Couple that with the fact that as an industry, we have a remarkable on-time delivery rate (opening night almost never gets delayed no matter how much work still needs to be done), and we should be eminently hireable.
Civilian employers: We're awesome at working independently and in teams, we deal well with shifting priorities and stressful looming deadlines, we get along with difficult personality types, we are everything you want in a worker. Please HIRE US FOR A DAY JOB, let us have a little schedule flexibility for auditions, interviews, and tech week, and everyone will win.