Stage Manager Stories: Julie Devore, DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA

Julie's Broadway credits include King Kong, School Of Rock, On The Town, Wicked, The Motherf**ker With the Hat and Nice Work If You Can Get It.

By: Jan. 30, 2022
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David Byrne's American Utopia

Need a cue? Call a stage manager. Need a line? Call a stage manager. Need a day off? Call a stage manager. Need a call time, a schedule, an inspection, a to-do list, a floor plan, a script, or just a pep talk? Call a stage manager!

When it comes to the hardworking folks behind the scenes of your favorite shows, perhaps no one works harder than the stage manager. Acting as the liason from the crew to the creatives and from the creatives to the company, the title "stage manager" is an umbrella term for the numerous roles these individuals play that bring order to the chaos of putting up a production.

Each month, BroadwayWorld is spotlighting stage managers from across the theatrical spectrum, shedding a much-deserved light on the breadth of responsibilities these theatrical jacks-of-all-trades take on and the heart, hope, and humor they bring to their work as Broadway returns from its lengthy shutdown.

This month, we're chatting with Julie Devore, Production Stage Manager for one of Broadway's most exciting productions, David Byrne's American Utopia.

Julie is a seasoned Broadway veteran with numerous credits to her name including King Kong, School Of Rock, On The Town, Wicked, The Motherf**ker With the Hat and Nice Work If You Can Get It and the national tours of Once, The Addams Family, and Wicked. Julie is a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. When she's not managing mammoth productions, Julie also teaches stage managing at SUNY Purchase College.

Many of the stage managers I've spoken with seem to universally agree that our present circumstances have changed their priorities when it comes to their productions. It seems that over the past two years, the human element and the emotional well being of the personnel has really taken precedent. Is that something you've noticed as well?

One hundred percent. And I think also for me, I became a production stage manager during the pandemic doing virtual things. Then I came back in person, promoted to production stage manager for American Utopia. I had been an assistant stage manager for a long time, so I was excited to have the opportunity to be a production stage manager in this new world and put that foot first, the caring heart, and to make decisions based on what's best for the people we work with and not always just what's best for the production.

That's always been important to me. I think the pandemic just gave a path for stage managers who found that important to lean into it and to really lead with it. I've been lucky in that I have found management offices and producers to really support that agenda, which is just so helpful and hopeful and restores a little bit of faith in humanity.

What was your relationship to David Byrne and his music before joining the American Utopia company?

I did not know many David Byrne songs when I got hired originally on the show. I knew a few of the big ones, but I didn't know all of them. (laughs) Then I got hired on the show and I started to fall in love with these songs and I was working with all these amazing musicians and then the pandemic hit, there was no work, and things got very bleak. I remember being in my car, driving home to my family in North Carolina to spend a few months because I had no money to afford life here, and I put on a song from the show called, "Road to Nowhere." I listened to that song as I drove out of the city and that music changed me in a way that I'll never be able to put into words without tears. Then over the next four months in North Carolina I did nothing but listen to our album. I just missed theatre and I missed being home because to me, backstage is where I'm home. So, all of those songs just took a special role and I was really lucky that this music came into my life in such a hard moment.

So, having used this music as a boon for your spirit throughout such a tough time, what were the emotions like upon returning and seeing the company again and hearing it live after so much time?

Well, for one thing, I knew all the music so much better. I knew every little inch of it this time. Whereas last time I was crazily trying to memorize the music and the set list to memorize the order. Now I knew it in my soul, and it was hopeful and so joyful to hear that music again. I remember walking into the room and everybody saying hello, and everybody having to put on their masks and not sure if they should hug or not, and filling out their forms and showing their vaccination cards. After about 30 minutes of testing and doing all of that, you heard the music and it just filled every inch of me with happiness and joy. And there are moments that are hard and stressful, and whenever we reach those moments, I just close my eyes and listen to the music because I feel so lucky that this is my job. My job is to sit in the room and listen to David Byrne and his amazing musicians play music. I'm just so grateful to be there every day, moreso than I was before. Before I think I was jaded and tired and run down, then the pandemic hit, and we lost it all. I'll never not feel grateful again.

You guys did something in the last few weeks that is pretty unusual for Broadway; you altered the production entirely for the "Unchained" performances at the height of the Omicron surge. How did that idea come about and what was the process like?

I was feeling very defeated in the moment as we were having to face closing our show the day before Christmas Eve. We were supposed to do two shows and we weren't going to be able to do it because we didn't have enough people. I went into a theater where I thought I would have to tell everybody that we're canceled. But this magical thing happened where David had gotten there early, tested early, he and I had had phone calls so he knew the shows were not going to happen, and he went down and told everybody like the true leader that he is. And then somebody said, "Well, maybe we should just put you on stage with a guitar." Then everyone starts chiming in with ideas and you saw David get excited. And then all of a sudden, he's gone.

So I go to his dressing room and I find him and Mauro [Refosco], our percussionist, coming up with a set list. Then we all go home and in the back of my head I'm thinking this is never going to happen. I wake up Christmas Eve and I have an email from David that's a set list. Then [bassist] Bobby Wooten had started making vocal charts and was adding them to a Dropbox, so we start putting a score together. By the end of Christmas Day, we had a plan.

Then the question becomes, "How do we actually accomplish this?"

As a stage manager, people often ask you questions. Like, Is this possible? Could we make this work? And so as I started going through my brain, I started to see the path and I said, "You know what? Actually, I think we could do this."

Then I called general management and they're wondering how we would do this at the box office, and they started doing kind of the same thing I did. Then they started to see the path. Every department had to find their path through this crazy idea. Then it felt like I blinked and we had an audience in on Tuesday. We were doing a totally different show.

What sorts of adjustments did you have to make on a technical level for the physical production?

We have an amazing crew that were able to take light cues that already existed in our show and string them together in a way that worked for this. David wanted it to be as honest as we were being. The band had learned like 12 new songs or something crazy. So they wanted it to feel like a rehearsal. Guitar and keys were a tricky thing to figure out because we didn't have a keyboard in this show. So that put a lot of extra work on the guitar and the other instruments and the band to sort of fill that void. So everybody took a little bit of the keyboard action. So figuring out all of that took us about two full days.

On the 26th, we came in, rehearsed all day and then went home. Monday was supposed to be our day off, but everyone was working across the board and we were all on Zoom and phone calls and text messages and emails. Then we came in on Tuesday, we had a rehearsal and then we were ready. We did the show with music stands and white light. It was really simple.

One thing that was tricky was that almost all of my stage management team was out except myself. So I actually had to bring in an assistant stage manager that knew nothing about the show, Jason DePinto, who did a fabulous job. I had him call the show and I stayed backstage and oversaw all of the guitar handoffs and curtain pagings, etc. I also had a microphone with me, so as we did the show, I could talk to the band and keep them on track. We needed to communicate with them, to keep them knowing what was going on in this brand new show we had created in less than two days.

What is it like to collaborate with a living legend like David Byrne?

David is very serious about his work, but he is the nicest human, and what I like about his collaboration is he gets his point across without being rude. He has this light about him. He has such a sense of humor and a really big heart. There was a cold going through the building in 2019 before COVID and he brought in soup for everybody. He's wonderful in that way. And when it comes to collaborating about the art, he's always very clear and direct about what he wants, what he likes, what he doesn't like, but he is always so approachable. I find it very wonderful to work with him. He's one of the only bosses that could call you on Christmas and your family isn't mad at you. They actually think it is really cool. (laughs) And he's calling for two reasons. He's calling to say, "Happy Holidays and I'm so sorry to bother you on the holiday," but he's also calling to say, "We've got a building full of people wanting to come to work and continue to do shows. How can we keep the show open so people can have work?" That, to me, was the most admirable thing about the Unchained shows."

What is your favorite thing about being a stage manager?

What I love the most about my job is that I get to work with musicians, then dancers, then crew, then press people, and then managers like myself. I get such an array of personalities, and they're all such unique, interesting people. So I just find it all fascinating and I just love to be around it. Whether it's with somebody that's easy or difficult [to work with], I like finding where people are and helping them succeed no matter the challenge. That's what I thrive on.

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