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Interview: R. Christopher Maxwell of GUYS & DOLLS Perform Theatre Magic at Arkansas Repertory Theatre

BWW's Theresa Bertram gets to know Stage Manager Christopher Maxwell

Interview: R. Christopher Maxwell of GUYS & DOLLS Perform Theatre Magic at Arkansas Repertory Theatre

When a major production is being performed, we love to see all of our favorite characters grace the stage. We love to watch them fall in love, we love to hear them sing the impressive notes, and we love to feel like the "real" world melts away, even if it is for just a couple of hours. What we don't always realize is that it takes a village to make the magic happen. We get familiar with the beautiful faces in front of us, but there is an army of talent backstage making the talent on stage look good.

Broadway World gets excited when we can have one-on-one time with the brilliant minds that create entire worlds for our enjoyment. We are even more elated with our local artists who go out into the world and create amazing lives for themselves, and then bring it home to share with us. So, imagine my joy when I discovered that Arkansas Repertory Theatre's Production Stage Manager Robert Christopher Maxwell (C. Max) was a local boy from Little Rock. Here is my interview with this amazing Arkansan highlighting his journey in the entertainment field and the role he plays in GUYS & DOLLS, which is playing now through December 30.

BWW: Tell us about yourself.

R. Christopher Maxwell: I was born and raised here in Little Rock. I started doing drama at Fulbright Elementary School. I became part of the choir and started performing there in different pageants and things like that, and then I went to drama camp when I was in junior high. Also, about that time, I started playing in the marching band, and once I started learning how to play the alto saxophone, I got into performance and sort of loved the whole entertainment industry. So, when I was in high school, I noticed that they were doing the play in the auditorium, and I decided to poke my head in and see what was going on. They were doing a musical called ONCE UPON A MATTRESS, which is basically the Princess and the Pea, and it was fascinating to watch them put it all together-- the set was exciting to me, the lights, and that they were putting on the costumes were really, really cool. I just fell in love with it, and kept skipping band rehearsal to go and watch play rehearsal.

One of his debate directors noticed Maxwell's interest in the play and encouraged him to be in the production. From there he took debate and drama at Central High until he graduated.

Maxwell: I graduated in 2001, which was an amazing year to graduate from high school, and then I went to the College of Wooster. I was there for a while, but then 9/11 happened, which caused a little bit of chaos, and also my mother passed away at the beginning of the year right before I graduated, so I was going through a bunch of stuff. I made it about two years and got homesick.

Though Maxwell got his first taste of stage managing at Wooster, he decided to come home and go to the University of Arkansas to finish his degree. While there he minored in dance, but also decided to have a fallback major.

Maxwell: I was trying to be safe and studied sociology as well, so I finished school with a degree in theater, sociology, and a minor in dance.

BWW: How was the job hunt after graduation?

Maxwell: I could not find a job in theater at the time, so I was working at the mall. I was not happy with any of that, so I applied for a job at this theater that we're standing in right now (Arkansas Repertory Theatre), and they told me that I needed to get out of Arkansas and see the world a little bit and sort of, you know, try to get work in other places.

BWW: How did that make you feel?

Maxwell: It was devastating for me not to get the job at that moment, but it motivated me to move to Chicago. So with a little bit of money that my parents gave me, a car, and a hope and a prayer, I went to Chicago. I had friends from school (College of Wooster) that lived in Chicago, friends from Little Rock Central High that lived in Chicago, and I also had family that mainly lived on the south side of Chicago, so I had a nice little safety net up there that I could go and sort of make mistakes- as I did- and it wasn't the end of the world.

Maxwell spent about six years freelancing for a company called Hell In a Handbag- handbagproductions.org.

Maxwell: They took me in almost immediately. They're an amazing queer camp theater company that does all kinds of musical camps and plays, which are based on all kinds of old Hollywood stories and different things. David Cerda is an amazing writer, and that company sort of taught me what it was to do theater as a profession. They were the first theater that really saw me as a stage manager, hired me, and continued to hire me to where I became the unofficial resident stage manager with his company.

After his time at Hell in A Handbag, Maxwell worked for Navy Pier Entertainment for three years as Special Events Supervisor.

Maxwell: My job as a special events supervisor was to work on events- from the fireworks that go on all summer long, to the Winter Wonderfest and New Year's Celebration, and events like giant carnivals and the Easter Bunny. Then, I decided I wanted to get out of the Chicago cold and was looking for how I keep moving forward.

With a few years of experience, Maxwell decided he needed to get a Master's Degree.

Maxwell: I got into Columbia University the same year that Trump got elected. Literally, during the fall of 2016, I got into grad school, which was supposed to be the most amazing part of my life, and then Trump got elected, so it was like, oh God, here we are on another roller coaster. But I spent three years in New York City, which was the most important time of my life learning from other professional stage managers.

Grad school served Maxwell well during this part of his life.

Maxwell: I learned what it means to be in the union, what it means to work professionally freelance, and I was able to see almost hundreds of Broadway shows on Columbia University's dime because of their connection with the Broadway league. I was able to do a bunch of shows inside their institution, which kind of taught me about leadership and having an emotional intelligence when dealing with difficult issues. I learned about directing for stage management and how to stage manage for TV, film, and dance.

However, school did not prepare Maxwell for what happened next.

Maxwell: I graduated in 2019 right before my entire industry collapsed, which is sort of hilarious. So imagine me- it's 2019, and I was one of the last few people who had a full in-person, no-mask graduation. Then, the world collapsed. It's a similar story for me, you know, every time I graduate from school, some kind of world event happens.

BWW: How did the world shutting down due to COVID affect your career?

Maxwell: I got to build a really, really great network of stage managers, because we were all forced online. So, I got more involved in the stage managers association, I got more involved in equity, and then I started a nonprofit organization called The Black Theater Caucus, where it's one of my jobs to promote visibility of African American artists. With this program I started a campaign for stage managers called "101 Stage Managers." I found about 86 other black stage managers out in the US and created a connection so that there's a network of them. So, if there are jobs that are coming up that are specifically looking for these kinds of stage managers, or there's a job that someone brings me that I can't take, I can send it off to other people. I created this little bit of network where people have more resources and that sort of the thing.

Once the pandemic lifted its hold on the world, Maxwell worked in theatre a little longer before he switched gears.

Maxwell: I got into teaching, because teaching is one of those things that happens when you have an MFA. I was teaching online during that whole pandemic as well.

When the theatre community opened back up, Maxwell went to work for Theater for a New Audience.

Maxwell: At the beginning of 2022, I started working for MERCHANT OF VENICE at Theater for a New Audience. Then I got a call from Trinity Rep in Providence, Rhode Island, and they asked me to be an ASM (assistant stage manager) on a show, and then I did a PSM (production stage manager) for THE INHERITANCE, which is a massive show. It is a massive two-part play by Matthew Lopez about what queer men and women inherit from each other, and the legacy that we leave to each other.

After time in Rhode Island, Maxwell got the call from the Arkansas Repertory Theatre to work on GUYS & DOLLS.

Maxwell: I took a shot and applied for the job, and they were like 'we would love to have you down,' and so here I am. Interview: R. Christopher Maxwell of GUYS & DOLLS Perform Theatre Magic at Arkansas Repertory Theatre

BWW: What are the perks about coming home to work?

Maxwell: Right now I'm living at home with my parents, which is hilarious. I have an apartment in Manhattan, but living at home with my parents, I'm waking up with them, and am able to spend time with them, while I'm doing what I love. It's kind of a dream for me. It's really wonderful to be able to be here in my hometown where I grew up, you know what I mean, and do what I love to do. All of my high school friends all have kids and have moved on with their lives. They do different things, and it's been very wonderful to come back home and do what I love to do, especially since this theater has undergone a lot of changes and is much more welcoming, whereas when I was younger it probably wasn't the best place for me. Now, I can actually be a leader, instead of taking some sort of lower position. It's been kind of exciting, honestly.

BWW: For those that are unfamiliar with GUYS & DOLLS, tell us about it.

Maxwell: GUYS & DOLLS is a typical love story between two different couples that have a different approach to love and marriage. You have this lifelong couple that has been together forever, but the man (Nathan Detroit-Carlos Lopez) doesn't want to take the

Interview: R. Christopher Maxwell of GUYS & DOLLS Perform Theatre Magic at Arkansas Repertory Theatre
Photo Courtesy of Stephen B. Thornton Photography

plunge with his girlfriend (Miss Adelaide-Stephanie Gibson). Then you have a confirmed bachelor who doesn't believe in love (Sky Masterson-Christian McQueen), until he finds the kind of right woman (Sarah Brown-Kim Onah) to sort of change his ways. So I guess the moral of this story is that most men do the things that they do for the love of a woman, because women are basically the smarter sex and are the ones who are responsible for cleaning men up and making them into decent civilized human beings. So GUYS & DOLLS kind of makes fun of that, but really when you find a good relationship and find that certain someone who makes you want to change for the better and become a better person, that's also one of the messages that you can take away from it.

BWWL What is your role in GUYS & DOLLS?

Maxwell: I am the production stage manager, so I coordinate basically everything. I call all of the lights, but then I also make sure that the actors are on stage when they need to be, but I also queue the musicians in the band when to start playing, and I kind of put it all together. As the show is sort of tracking forward, I'm the one calling all of the lights, but then also making sure that the show is moving smoothly. I like to call myself air traffic control of theater.

BWW: How long have you been stage managing?

Maxwell: I've been doing it now for almost 20 years, and it's been a wonderful journey. Honestly, I think what I enjoy is the storytelling. I think I've always loved storytelling since I was a kid. I think all of that pageantry and what storytelling does and how transformative those stories are, and being a part of the art is so much fun for me. It's a little bit like performing magic- like being the Wizard of Oz. I like that it's my job to put smiles on people's faces by being able to do a good show and tell them a story that makes them feel something. I enjoy being a part of that process.

BWW: Besides stage managing, what realm would you like to pursue?

Maxwell: I think now I'm in a place where education is something that I want to do a lot more of. I think I have reached a good place where I have a good story to tell. Also, I'm noticing a drop in the amount of stage managers that are out there, and I want to be able to help revive the crew. However, if I get a bunch of money, I'd like to be producing my own theater, like producing stories and things like that, or finding stories and helping them get funded, and moving into administration.

BWW: Is there anything else you would like to accomplish as a stage manager?

Maxwell: I haven't gotten to go and be on Broadway yet, so that is still a goal. After I've done my fifth Broadway show, then I might think about doing something else.

BWW: What kind of advice would you give someone who is wanting to get into your field?

Maxwell: Do your research. Join the stage managers association, because you can find a network of people in your area like that. Join groups. Investigate. If you're ever curious about it in your hometown, go to the stage door, ask for the stage manager and ask to shadow a show. Ask questions. They will give you advice on how to get into things. It's possible you might get an internship out of it, or you can volunteer. There are always opportunities out there, and I found that the best way that I have been able to find jobs is talking, networking, and building a community with other people. They have to know that you exist.

BWW: Tell us more about the Stage Managers Association.

Maxwell: Their website is stagemanagers.org. I think one of the best things about the stage managers association is that you can talk to other states and different generations of stage managers. They have professional stage managers that have dealt with everything and can tell you about how they deal with things, but then the younger stage managers, who are facing newer issues that maybe not everybody knows about, can tell you about how they handle things. It's a really, really great melting pot of different generations of stage management that I recommend that people join.

To watch Maxwell do his magic behind the scenes with GUYS & DOLLS at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, visit their website at therep.org for tickets.



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