Stage managers work long hours for rich rewards

Behind-the-scenes with Christopher Michael Borg, production stage manager at Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Being a stage manager of a theater production brings challenging, yet too often unheralded responsibilities that begin long before an audience steps into a theater to take a seat.

Christopher Michael Borg. Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.

As the production journeys to opening night, a stage manager can work 60-75 hours per week during rehearsals, tech, and previews. No show is simple or on auto-pilot. Once a show opens, the stage manager is in a booth with headsets on, following the script line by line, setting up and releasing sometimes hundreds of cues. The stage manager is responsible for the safety of the actors and all concerned. The stage manager also makes sure all the performers and tech crew are in places and ready to go.

Christopher Michael Borg, production stage manager at Shakespeare Theatre Company, spoke to DCMTA about his professional experience. But this interview also attests to the work of all stage managers. Those who in theater lingo, “call the show” (lighting, sound, music and other cues, costumes at the ready, along with having actors at their places every night). Those who toil from the moment a play or musical is selected by a theater artistic director to be part of a season of productions. 

My conversation with Borg focused on two STC productions as examples of a stage manager’s work and for which Borg was the overall production stage manager. One was Richard III and the other Everybody. These are two very different productions. In the case of Everybody, Borg has a small staff including Assistant Stage Manager Christi B. Spann, Production Assistant Chevonne Baylor, and Stage Management Fellow Heather Janay Ogden.

David Siegel: How would you describe the general responsibilities of a stage manager?

Christopher Michael Borg: The stage manager’s duties vary depending on the part of the process we’re in. The more quantifiable items on our to-do list include: preparing the rehearsal room (taping the floor, coordinating props/costumes for rehearsal), scheduling rehearsals and fittings, recording blocking (the movement of the actors onstage), daily reporting on the progress of rehearsals/performances to the rest of the company, and ensuring all union rules are followed. 

The more intangible items include: maintaining a safe workplace–both physical and emotional safety, anticipating issues that might slow us down in the future (i.e. Is that costume going to allow for that movement? Is the cast capable of doing that action 8 times per week without injuring themselves? Will a lighting unit get in the way of that scene change?)

You said one of your key responsibilities is to “maintain the Director’s artistic choices.” 

In general, the director and designers leave after the opening performance. Once that happens, it’s the stage manager’s job to give notes to the cast and crew so that the show remains as close to the original product as possible. Some things inevitably evolve during a production–and sometimes that’s OK. But the goal is to keep the integrity of the original concept. Sometimes a change has to be made for safety or to prevent injury, and then it’s the stage manager’s job to find a solution that adheres as closely to the directed version as possible. Sometimes notes are easy, like if an actor walks out of their light. Other notes are more subjective, like the energy of a scene. Either way, it’s the stage manager’s job to address these types of changes that occur over time.

You call yourself “the in between person.” What did you mean?

The stage manager channels information from rehearsal/performance to the other interested parties: the director, designers, artisans, and theater staff who might not be present for that rehearsal/performance. I like to think of it as helping to minimize surprises. If you can relay all information that might be pertinent to all of those people, they hopefully can prepare and respond effectively and efficiently. 

What were you most proud of as stage manager for Richard III?

I was really proud of my stage management team, especially during understudy rehearsals and performances. The team really came together to act quickly and respond to the rapid changes that we needed to make in order to have understudies step in. I’m proud of how the sound designer/composer, Lindsay Jones; the Movement Director, Steph Paul; and I all worked together to develop consistent cues from the actors and the music without having a conductor. 

Nancy Robinette (Death) with Kelli Simpkins, Alina Collins Maldonado, Ayana Workman, Elan Zafir, and Avi Roque (Somebodies) in ‘Everybody.’ Photo by DJ Corey.

How does a play like Everybody in which the actors’ characters are selected by lottery before each performance affect the responsibilities of the stage manager?

Well, it would be slightly easier if the lottery were done before each performance. The difficulty is that the lottery happens mid-show! But regardless, there are two issues that stand out as different in this process than most others. First, it is very hard to get into a rhythm with the cast when five of the roles change each performance. It’s very challenging to call cues (telling the lighting & sound operators and stage crew when to change lights, sound, or sets) when it’s a different person giving you the cue each time. Each actor has their own rhythm, and those individual rhythms also have some variation depending on who is playing opposite them. So, there are many combinations of timings that I have to anticipate in order for the cues to land in the desired places. For example, there are a series of lighting/sound cues when the actors slam a door. Each actor has a different physicality upon exiting and uses a different level of force to close the door. So if I want the slam of the door to coincide with the light/sound shift, I have to factor in these minute differences when I call the cues.

What are you most proud of as stage manager for Everybody?

I’m most proud of how flexible the cast and production team was during the tech process. We made frequent and significant changes during preview rehearsals and they incorporated those changes swiftly and without complaint. We really didn’t have much time to rehearse the changes so we were frequently trying out new choices in front of an audience for the first time. It’s an incredible testament to the skills of the actors and staff that STC employs.

Running time: Ninety minutes with no intermission.

Everybody plays through November 17, 2019, at Shakespeare Theater Company, Michael R. Klein Theatre, 450 7th St NW, Washington, DC. Tickets can be purchased online.


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