Broadway’s highest honor – the Tony Awards – were presented Sunday night in New York. The big winner was Dear Evan Hansen, about a lonely high school student who pretends to have been a friend of a classmate who committed suicide. It took home six awards, including best musical, best leading actor and featured actress in a musical.
Recognition also went to a lot of people who work behind the scenes – writers, directors and designers. But there are some – just as important – who were not even eligible … like stage managers.
Stage managers are usually in the wings, sitting at a desk covered with video monitors and lots of buttons and switches, wearing a headset — known as the "God mike" — to communicate with the cast and crew.
“I like to think of a stage manager as the chief operations officer of the corporation that is the show," says Ira Mont, stage manager of the long-running musical Cats.
Donald Fried has a different image of his job for the Tony-nominated play Sweat. “I also like to think of the stage manager as the captain of the Enterprise."
Karyn Meek, production stage manager for another Tony-nominated work, the musical Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, calls the position 'the hub of the wheel.'
"We are the person in charge of communication across all departments and also management and to the cast as well," Meek says. "During the show, we are in charge of making sure the lights happen, the set moves, sound happens, all the things that we are the person who’s controlling all of that as well as somebody who's backstage supervising the crew. So, it is a multifaceted, multilayered job and sort of a jack-of-all-trades."
Involved from before the run to final curtain
Long before a show starts its run, the stage manager is an integral part of the rehearsal process, says Fried – in his case, with Lynn Nottage’s Sweat.
“Everything begins and ends with the script," he says. "I gotta read the script, read it several times. Once, just to read it as a person, not as a stage manager or an artist or anything. Just to have an initial emotional feeling for it. Then, I go back and read Lynn’s stage directions so that I know what would happen light-wise, how she envisions the props, how she envisions the set moving, people entering and exiting, whether or not they're changing costumes."
Once a show is up and running, Karyn Meek says stage managers and their teams put in long hours. “Well, my day started today at 9:30 with the cast beginning to tell me that they were going to be in or out of the show based on injuries or sicknesses or things like that. ... And then we have a matinee or rehearsal ends at about 5 or 5:30, have a dinner break, and then come back and do it again."
Shows that feature complicated choreography or simulated fight scenes require daily rehearsals. Over at Sweat, Donald Fried is supervising one of them. "We'll do a fight call before every show, because there's a big fight," he explains. "We want to make sure everyone is safe and limber, and that the props are working."
In the half hour before each performance, the stage manager walks through a beehive of activity, making sure everyone’s ready for curtain. And as actors vocalize and stretch backstage and orchestra members tune up, Karyn Meek climbs a ladder to her perch, high above stage left at Great Comet. Actors perform throughout the theater and from up there, she can keep an eye on them all. Once the show starts, Meek follows a musical score, with post-it notes showing the hundreds of lighting, sound and tech cues she'll call for during each performance.
From the front of the stage to backstage
Many stage managers started out doing other things. Karyn Meek was a costume designer; Donald Fried, a dancer; Ira Mont, an actor. So, Mont was used to getting applause. Even though he does not get any now, he would not want to do anything else.
“I don't expect or look for praise or acknowledgement," he admits. "I am here to support the shows I work on and the actors who do them, and that's what gives me the joy. And I'm very fortunate to have had a 30-year career in a profession that is not easy to get into and is not easy to stay in. I'm a lucky guy."