What, exactly, is a stage manager?
Even people who regularly attend theater productions have no clear picture of that occupation.
Heather Fields Stern ’95 has been the stage manager for four Broadway musicals and many “straight plays” (non-musicals) in regional theaters. She says that a stage manager is:
• a switchboard operator: “I’m the person who gets information from point A to point B.” Throughout rehearsals and production meetings the director gives instructions — where an actor is to stand, how a costume should be altered, when a trap door opens — to Stern, who conveys them to appropriate cast and crew members.
• a train driver: “Once a play opens, the stage manager has control of anything that happens on stage.” That includes everything from monitoring actors’ line delivery to signaling when sets and lights change. Stern is responsible for making sure the play unfolds as the director intended.
• a mother hen: “Stage managers are the ones who figure out how to handle the inevitable fireworks that happen when theater types are closed up together in a dark room for long hours.” Stern also maintains schedules and calendars for everyone in a show and makes sure they have pillows and yoga mats and first-aid kits and office supplies and … .
To accomplish all this, Stern has become a woman of meticulous lists. “If you’re well organized,” she said, “it’s a breeze.”
What is sometimes hard, though, is “doing without the accolades that go to the cast and designers. Sometimes a production goes so smoothly that you feel like confetti should fall from the sky. But no one knows it’s because of your hard work.”
The reward comes, Stern said, “when a respected director says, ‘You’re so trustworthy. Let’s work together again.’ He means that he can trust me with his artistic product.”
That happened early on in her career when the actor/director Lonny Price asked Stern to come from the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego to New York City to manage a special production of Sweeney Todd at Lincoln Center in celebration of Stephen Sondheim’s 70th birthday. The production, which was broadcast on PBS, won an Emmy Award.
Word in the New York theater world spread, and from that time on Stern hasn’t wanted for work. The secret, she said, besides having a knack for organization, is simple: “It all has to do with respect. You show human kindness and practice impeccable honesty and integrity toward everyone, from the person who sweeps the floors to the director who hired you.”
There’s another essential quality of a stage manager that Stern has had put to the test in the past two years. During the national tour of the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, Stern and her husband, the conductor Eric Stern, had their first child, Zachary. After the birth, Stern and son were simply along for the ride through the rest of Millie’s 58-city tour, though Stern did step in as stage manager when a substitute was unexpectedly needed.
“A stage manager has to be able to deal with surprises without panicking and find a way through,” Stern said. “The ability to do that has proved to be very helpful.”
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