Thank You, Places...Production Stage Manager DEBORAH RHODUS ARVIN
What's a stage manager? What do they do? What's their job? Seriously. Perhaps no job in the theater is as hard to define as that of a production stage manager and it's that blend of mystery, fear and total dependence that makes actors, directors, crew members, producers - you name it! - hold a really great stage manager in total awe and to revile someone who is (how do you say it, without offending anyone?) less than stellar in their position?
According to Wikipedia, "Stage management is the practice of organizing and coordinating a theatrical production. It encompasses a variety of activities, including organizing the production and coordinating communications between various personnel (e.g., between director and backstage crew, or actors and production management)." And that's a pretty good definition, to be sure.
However, it doesn't quite do justice to the amazing stage managers who can make a good production a great one. As they ride herd over everyone connected to a show, while maintaining the integrity of what has been created, the stage manager's responsibilities are many and varied, and by the wave of a hand or the pointed gesticulation of a colored marker or highlighter, they can work miracles that oftentimes save a production from certain failure.
Yet despite their magical powers and all the wizardry they can summon at any particular moment, stage managers seldom get the attention, the adulation or the respect they so richly deserve...because they are simply so good at their job that they seamlessly move from one task to the next, one project to the next that they don't call attention to their awesomeness.
With this - our latest regular feature - we hope to rectify that and shine the spotlight on the individuals who make the shows run with the precision of a Swiss timepiece. Thank You, Places... is our opportunity to edify the theater-goer by introducing you to some of the best production stage managers to be found on the planet.
Today, we introduce you to PSM Deborah Rhodus Arvin, one of Tennessee's finest:
What was your first SM gig and your most recent assignment? My first SM gig was working The Miss Firecracker Contest five years ago at Theatre Workshop of Owensboro, (TWO) in Owensboro, Kentucky. My most recent was working with Vickie Bailey at The Arts Center of Cannon County doing Southern Hospitality, this past winter. And I'm about to start my next project of reprising Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill at a venue which is new to me, the Town Centre Theatre in Brentwood.
How did you get into it in the first place? I had already established myself at TWO with acting and assisting the director, and the Production Manager had heard that I wanted to learn more about the production side of theatre and asked me I'd be willing to learn if she trained me. I said yes and fell in love with it. It's been a very good fit for me because I'm a detail person.
What is the biggest misconception most people have about stage managers? Well, I'm certainly not "most people" but I can tell you what I thought they did. I thought Stage Managers worked in all black clothing with a crew doing set changes. Until I started training, I had no earthly idea the amount of work, commitment and responsibility that they really had.
What is your favorite show must go on moment? I've never done a show that didn't have at least one, so it's hard to decide but personally I'd have to say it was when I was working up in the tech booth during The Miss Firecracker Contest. It was early in the first act that I noticed I was developing a rather full bladder. I promised myself I would get some relief right after the very complicated 20-minute total set change that we did during intermission. Well, never count on anything in live theatre working out exactly according to plan. There was a glitch in the set and it took six of us working frantically to get it just right before calling places. We finally got it just the way we needed it to be so I raced off stage right and headed for the restroom. However, there was still a very long queue of patrons and I just didn't have the time to wait, so I ran back up to the booth without relief just in time to call Act II. I learned that night to never fill up on liquids just before a performance!
How do you prepare for a new production? The first thing I do depends on whether I've worked with the director before or not. If I have, then I acquire the script just as soon as I can to scour it for every conceivable prompt whether it's light, sound, props, scene changes, and noting which actors are in each scene and what they'll be doing as well as assigning them (for personal shorthand purposes in the script) a signature code letter. If I have never worked with that director before I want to meet with them to hear their vision for the production and discover just exactly what they will expect from me. It's amazing to me how different that is with each director I've worked with, some want me to have hands on for every aspect of the auditions, rehearsals and run; while still others don't want me to even show up until a week or two before tech begins. Stage Managers, if anything, must remain flexible and amiable.
What's the most outlandish thing ever asked of you as a stage manager? The most outlandish thing ever asked of me to do as a stage manager was during rehearsals of my very first show as a SM, The Miss Firecracker Contest. I quickly discovered that the director I was working with preferred directing musicals. If it wasn't a musical, he'd find a way to make it one. He had found out that I had had some dance training and wanted me to choreograph a few numbers in the show. The very first one as soon as curtain opened was the principle doing a tap dance to "The Star-Spangled Banner." I took a brief pause and then with great trepidation and a little hesitation said okay. So, I designed a dance number for our national anthem. Who can say they've ever done that as a SM? Some days I still pinch myself that I managed to pull that off, but the director loved it and so did the audience! Nothing in the theatre process has ever brought me as much pleasure (and challenges) as stage managing. I found my niche!