Stage Managers: You Can't See Them, But Couldn't See A Show Without Them

Jun 11, 2017

On Sunday night the spotlight will be on Broadway stars at the 71st annual Tony Awards. The evening also includes honors for some people behind the scenes — writers, directors and designers, for example — but there are many more, working backstage, who aren't eligible for Broadway's highest honor.

If you peek into the wings at a Broadway show, you're likely to find a stage manager, sitting at a desk with video monitors and lots of buttons and switches. He or she will be wearing a headset — sometimes called "the God mic" — to communicate with the cast and crew.

"I like to think of a stage manager as the chief operations officer of the corporation that is the show," says Ira Mont, stage manager of Cats.

Donald Fried, stage manager of the Tony-nominated play, Sweat, says stage managers are kind of "the Captain of the Enterprise."

"I would call us the hub of the wheel," says Karyn Meek, production stage manager for the Tony-nominated musical Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. "We are ... in charge of communication across all departments. ... During the show, we are in charge of making sure the lights happen, the set moves, sound happens, all the things ... we are the person who's controlling all of that."

Long before a show starts its run, the stage manager is an integral part of the rehearsal process, explains Fried. "Everything begins and ends with the script," he says. "I've got to read the script, read it several times. Once, just to read it as a person, not as a stage manager or an artist or anything. Just to have an initial emotional feeling for it. Then, I go back and read [the writer's] stage directions, so that I know what would happen light-wise, how she envisions the props, how she envisions the set moving, people entering and exiting, whether or not they're changing costumes."

Once a show is up and running, Meek says stage managers and their teams put in long hours. Her day begins at 9:30 a.m. with cast members telling her whether they'd be in or out of that day's shows, due to injuries or illness. Depending on the day, she'll arrive at the theater around 12:30 for a matinee or rehearsal. There's a dinner break around 5:00 or 5:30, and then everyone's back at the theater for the evening show.

Shows that feature complicated choreography or simulated fight scenes require daily rehearsals. Sweat manager Donald Fried says they do a fight rehearsal before every show. "We want to make sure everyone is safe and limber, and that the props are working," he explains.

In the half hour before each performance, the stage manager walks through a beehive of activity, making sure everyone's ready for curtain.

Meek climbs a ladder to her perch, high above stage left at Great Comet. Actors perform throughout the theater and Meek can keep an eye on them all. Once the show starts, she follows a musical score, with sticky notes showing all of the lighting and tech cues.

Through one of her video monitors, she can see Josh Groban, who plays Pierre, standing at the back of the stage. By the time the opening number really gets going, Meek is calling cues to the lighting technician every other beat. She literally calls hundreds of sound and tech cues for each performance.

All the stage managers I spoke with started out doing other things — Meek was a costume designer, Fried was a dancer. As a former actor, Cats manager Ira Mont was used to getting applause — but not anymore.

"I don't expect or look for praise or acknowledgement," he says. "I am here to support the shows I work on and the actors who do them and that's what gives me the joy. And I'm very fortunate to have had a 30-year career in a profession that is not easy to get into and is not easy to stay in. I'm a lucky guy."

He's got lucky co-workers, too. Even as Mont juggles countless cues that go into a Broadway performance of Cats, over the headset he reminds the cast and crew of one more detail: to gather for a cast member's birthday toast at the end of the show.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Time now for a bit of our summer series Backstage Pass, and perfect timing because the Tonys are tonight, the 71st annual Tony Awards, Broadway's highest honor. This evening at Radio City Music Hall, the marquee names will collect their awards as well as lots of people who work behind the scenes - writers, directors, designers. But it takes scores to put on a show, and there are many key players who aren't even eligible for Tonys like stage managers. Jeff Lunden talked to some of them about what they do.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: They're usually in the wings, sitting at a desk covered with video monitors and lots of buttons and switches. And they're wearing a headset to communicate with the cast and crew.

IRA MONT: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome back from dinner. The call is half hour, half hour please. This is your half-hour call.

LUNDEN: There's a reason the stage manager speaks into what's called the God mic. Ira Mont has it now at "Cats."

MONT: I like to think of a stage manager as the chief operations officer of the corporation that is the show.

LUNDEN: Donald Fried is behind the God mic for the Tony-nominated play "Sweat."

DONALD FRIED: I also like to think of the stage manager as the captain of the Enterprise.

LUNDEN: And Karyn Meek is production stage manager for another Tony-nominated work, the musical "Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812."

KARYN MEEK: I would call us the hub of the wheel. We are the person in charge of communication across all departments and management and to the cast as well. During the show, we are in charge of making sure the lights happen, the set moves, sound happens. We are the person who's controlling all of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812")

JOSH GROBAN: (As Pierre) There's a war going on out there somewhere and Andrey isn't here.

LUNDEN: Long before a show starts its run, the stage manager is an integral part of the rehearsal process says Donald Fried with Lynn Nottage’s "Sweat."

FRIED: Everything begins and ends with the script. I got to read the script, read it several times, once just to read it as a person, not as a stage manager or an artist or anything, just to have an initial emotional feeling for it. Then I go back in and I read Lynn's stage direction so that I know what's happening light-wise, how she envisions the props, how she envisions the set moving, people entering and exiting, whether or not they're changing costumes.

LUNDEN: Once a show is up and running, Karyn Meek says stage managers and their teams put in long hours.

MEEK: My day started today at 9:30 with cast beginning to tell me that they were going to in or out of the show based on injuries or sicknesses or things like that. And then depending on the day, I will either go to a matinee performance and be here at about 12:30 or to rehearsal and be here about 12:30. Matinee or rehearsal ends at about 5, 5:30, have a dinner break and then come back and do it again.

LUNDEN: Shows that feature complicated choreography or simulated fight scenes require daily rehearsals.

FRIED: We'll do a fight call before every show because there's a big fight. We want to make sure everyone is safe and limber and that the props are working.

LUNDEN: Over at "Sweat," Donald Fried is supervising one of them.

FRIED: Here we go, folks. Whenever you're ready, Jimmy.

LUNDEN: The half hour before each performance, the stage manager walks through a beehive of activity making sure everyone's ready for curtain.

MEEK: Five minutes till the top of the show. Five minutes, please.

LUNDEN: Karyn Meek climbs a ladder to her perch high above stage left at "Great Comet." Actors perform throughout the theater, and Meek can keep an eye on them all.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Over radio) Stage managers, lobby is clear. House is yours, over.

MEEK: Copy that. Thank you.

LUNDEN: Once the show starts, she follows a musical score with Post-It notes showing all of the lighting and tech cues.

MEEK: Warning on the chains. Warning on the deck - 115 on red, 120 on green.

LUNDEN: Through one of her video monitors, she can see Josh Groban, who plays Pierre, standing at the back of the stage.

MEEK: Alex (ph), 25 - go. And we're off.

LUNDEN: And by the time the opening number really gets going, Meek is calling cues to the lighting technician every other beat.

MEEK: Go. Go. Go. Go. Go. Alex, 68. Go.

LUNDEN: Meek literally calls hundreds of sound and tech cues for each performance.

MEEK: And that's the end of the act.

LUNDEN: All the stage managers I spoke with started out doing other things. Karyn Meek was a costume designer, Donald Fried a dancer, Ira Mont an actor, so he was used to getting applause. Even though he doesn't get any now, he wouldn't want to do anything else.

MONT: I am here to support the shows I work on and the actors who do them. And that's what gives me the joy. And I'm very fortunate to have had a 30-year career in a profession that is not easy to get into and is not easy to stay in. I'm a lucky guy.

LUNDEN: And so are his co-workers, especially when the COO remembers their birthday.

MONT: And it's Jessica Hendy’s birthday, so gather for Jessica Hendy’s birthday toast at the end of the show.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.