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Interview: Theatre Life with Lauren Pekel

The seasoned Production Stage Manager on calling a tech heavy show with limited view of the stage and more.

Interview: Theatre Life with Lauren Pekel
Lauren Pekel

Today's subject Lauren Pekel is currently living her theatre life as the Production Stage Manager for what is easily one of the more technically complex productions running in DC theatre right now. Nightly (with two matinees) at Studio Theatre, Lauren calls over 300 light cues and close to 100 sound cues for People, Places and Things. The show runs through December 11th in Studio Theatre's recently open new space known as the Victor Shargai Theatre. Did I mention her only view of the stage is through two ten-inch TV screens? Read on to see how that all works.

This is not Lauren's first time working at Studio theatre. Previous credits include Doubt, Cry It Out, Vietgone, P.Y.G. or the Misedumacation of Dorian Belle, Skeleton Crew, The Father, and No Sisters.

Her DC theatre credits include productions with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Theater J, Mosaic Theater Company, Theater Alliance, and The Kennedy Center. She also worked for two summers at Capital Fringe as one of their best venue managers.... trust me on this one.

Regionally, she has worked with the San Francisco Opera's Merola Opera Program, the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, and Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee, among others.

Lauren is an alumna of the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee's Theatre Program, with a BFA in Stage Management.

The job of a Production Stage Manager is one of the hardest in theatre. The person must have an inordinate amount of patience, be able to deal with all kinds of personalities, and of course have a clear calling process for all of the cues in any given production. I should know. I sit just to the right of her in the booth running lights for People, Places and Things and can attest to the fact that Lauren has all of that and more.

It drives me crazy when I go to a show at any given theatre and I hear patrons say things like "Wow, does that happen magically?" Or better yet "I could do that. It looks easy." It is not easy!!! People like Lauren Pekel are greatly underappreciated by the general theatre going public. Nothing happens on People, Places and Things unless Lauren utters the most glorious word in the theatrical language GO!!

Please consider grabbing some tickets to People, Places and Things at Studio Theatre. The acting is off the charts and the crew is always at the top of their game. No really, they are.

Lauren Pekel is truly living her theatre life to the fullest. I hope this piece gives you some appreciation of her artistry so next time when you watch a production you can say "Wow, everything was in perfect sync! The stage manager calls a great show!!"

At what age were you bitten by the theatre bug?

I was always involved in some sort of arts related activity since I was a child, mostly dance and music. After not getting cast in a show during High School, I still wanted to be involved in the production, so I started working backstage. Surprisingly, I had way more fun being behind the curtain than I did in front of it.

Where did you receive your training?

I went to the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. There I received a very hands-on and mentorship driven BFA in Stage Management. A big shout out to all the UWM theatre professors who really poured so much of their knowledge and experience into us in a way that really set us up for success in the "real" world.

What was your first professional job working in the theatre?

I spent a season, post college graduation, as the Stage Management Apprentice at Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee, WI.

Interview: Theatre Life with Lauren Pekel
Lauren Pekel at work.
Notice the totally organized call script on the desk.
Photo courtesy of Lauren's crazy light board op.

For those that don't know, can you please give us an overview what the job of a Production Stage Manager is?

The simplest version of explaining what a Production Stage Manager does is to talk about the performance process. During which, the Production Stage Manager (PSM) helps ensure the continuity of the artistic vision of the director and designers by calling the show. The PSM calls the show from their calling script, which the PSM creates during the Technical Rehearsal process. This script has all the show's cues (where they go / when they are taken, and sometimes what they do) written into it. The show call by the PSM helps ensure that each light cue, sound cue, set move, etc. happens in the same place and at the same time every performance.

But Stage Managers don't just call cues, we also do a lot of less visible, but very necessary work, regarding communicating different needs for the production. Stage Managers are responsible for the scheduling of rehearsals and cast and crew call times for each performance, as well as for sending out reports both during the rehearsal and performance processes. During rehearsal these reports focus on what was learned in the rehearsal room that day, and things we would like to change or try in the room; while during performances, this report focuses on how each show went, as well as on anything we need to support the production, such as we are running low on a consumable prop and need more, or someone's costume needs repair, etc. Stage Managers also take actor blocking, which means we have written documentation of every single move an actor makes while on stage. This documentation is used to help with things such as understudy rehearsals and help with cue calling. I could go on for hours about all the things Stage Managers are responsible for, as the above list only scratches the surface. This list also doesn't include the important and necessary work of the Assistant Stage Managers, and how their job duties differ from the PSM.

To sum it all up, my favorite stage management analogy is, "is that a show is like a "wheel." I think of the production as the "tire" and the Stage Management Team as the "hub." The hub helps hold the "spokes" (the cast, the designers, the schedule, the communication between the rehearsal room with the production shops, etc.), that support the tire, together. Each part of the wheel is necessary for the wheel / production to successfully move forward.

Can you please tell us a little about your current project People, Places and Things?

People, Places & Things is a play about an individual (Emma) experiencing addiction, withdrawal, and the recovery process while in a Rehab Facility. What makes this play unique is that the play is told from (as much as possible in a theatrical production) the first-person perspective of Emma. The production is built to have the audience experience the symptoms of addiction, withdrawal, and recovery as Emma is experiencing them. This leads us to some pretty fun, and highly technical, moments in the show in order to achieve that parallel first-person experience for the audience.

Interview: Theatre Life with Lauren Pekel
Lauren Pekel's only view of the stage for Studio Theatre's production of
People, Places and Things.
Please note the set wall obstructing the view outside of the booth window.
Photo courtesy of Lauren's crazy light board op.

People, Places and Things at Studio Theatre presents some interesting challenges for you as the PSM. The biggest being that you are calling the show through two 10-inch TV monitors due to the set design. Would you say this show qualifies as your most challenging to call thus far?

Calling-wise this is absolutely the most challenging show call I have ever experienced, simply because I cannot see the stage except on those two little monitors. I have one regular camera, and one infrared camera (that allows me to see the stage when there is low or no light on stage). A lot of the show call is based off of the actors or crew movement versus text. So, depending on the scene I may be bouncing my focus from the IR camera screen to the regular camera screen and back to make sure I can see the movement(s) that tell me trigger the next cue.

People, Places and Things is an intense play to be sure. After calling over 300 light cues and close to 100 sound cues nightly, how do you decompress from the intensity of the show?

I'd love to say I go home and do yoga or have some ritual I utilize to leave work at the door to the theatre, but that's just not me. Though, I will admit that I have been watching a lot of Criminal Minds as late when I get home from the show. But finding a moment to laugh with the cast and the crew post show always helps make shaking off the show a bit easier. So, I always try and find some humor in our workday.

What does 2023 hold in store for you workwise?

Some highlights in the coming months for me are that I will be working with Signature Theatre as the Stage Manager on Selling Kabul, and I'll be back at Studio later this season, this time as the Assistant Stage Manager, for Fun Home.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.



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