In early March, things were normal.
Clarissa Ligon was production stage manager on Vineyard Theatre’s Dana H., which had four weeks remaining in its acclaimed, twice-extended run.
Hannah Woodward was two days from closing a production of Jane Eyre at Hartford Stage.
Katherine Nelson was about to open One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at Flint Repertory Theatre, while prepping two other projects at the same time.
All three are freelance stage managers. As live theater abruptly shut down due to the pandemic, they scattered to the winds like so many theatrical artists suddenly out of work. Each had had multiple projects lined up – now all were gone.
Stage management is an unstable career path at the best of times, with freelancers relying on multiple and sometimes overlapping gigs to stay afloat. Now, an uncertain future lay ahead.
So no-one was more surprised than Ligon when she got the call from Vineyard Theatre just three weeks after New York City’s shutdown to stage manage a developmental reading. “Yeah, it was very quick,” says Ligon of the private zoom reading, a workshop of Michael R. Jackson’s new musical White Girl In Danger. It was the height of a “sad, painful time,” she recalls, and “being able to have a project and still work, even in this small capacity, was very helpful.”
Before long, theaters opened up their Zooms to the public, bringing even more complexities to manage. For a live public reading of Ryan Spahn’s Inspired by True Events, which kicked off Vineyard’s reading series on May 11th, director Michael Urie enlisted Hannah Woodward. They knew each other from live productions of Buyer & Cellar and The Government Inspector, where Urie starred and Woodward was production stage manager. This time, Woodward’s job was a little different.
“We spent the first forty-five minutes of our first rehearsal just talking about technical aspects – this is how you turn your camera on and off, this is how you mute and unmute yourself,” laughs Woodward. Actors were shown how to change usernames on Zoom to their character names, and the best screen layout for keeping a script open alongside a Zoom window. Urie and Spahn were already familiar with the technical aspects from Urie’s successful live-streamed pandemic performance of Buyer & Cellar, which helped as Woodward eased into the new format.
Once technical questions were out of the way, though, Woodward found that the job wasn’t so different from before times. She tracked hours and ensured proper breaks; set up a run sheet for her own reference; and coordinated with actors on their cues. Sure, some entrances and exits involved hitting ‘on’ and off’ on an actor’s video – but precise timing is nothing new to a stage manager.
Figuring out how to incorporate the setting of the sun, though – that was a new challenge. “And then we had one actor who was on the west coast who had an entirely different relationship with natural light,” says Woodward. An evening light test was conducted to figure out best placement of lamps and ring lights, and which actors should include or block out natural light.
Then props got involved. “There is stuff you would never normally introduce in a reading, [but] it would have felt odd to not acknowledge the different medium we were in,” says Woodward. “If someone is meant to drink a cup of coffee, and the actor had a cup of coffee sitting in front of them anyway, then they might as well drink out of it.”
Over the course of the week, small touches like that developed into a more elaborate staging. True Events is itself set backstage at a play, and includes scenes of the onstage show that, in a production, would play on a video monitor. Instead, actors created their own makeshift lighting set-ups, switching over when they were ‘on-stage.’ Spahn’s play also itself features an assistant stage manager in a voice-only role. On Zoom, the actor pressed their mouth up to the camera and yelled into it.
“She showed us a few options,” says Woodward of that process. Should we see the stage manager’s face? Should the actor cover the camera with her finger? “The mouth thing is what we landed on. It was the most fun.”
As actors became more involved in logistics from their own homes, some control had to be surrendered. Spahn and Woodward noted cues throughout the script PDF – turn off your camera here, etc. But when you’re not in the room together, one can only control so much. “All of our actors were incredibly game,” says Woodward, “because they felt, like everyone else: ‘Oh my God, we get to create something again!’”
“It’s hard to have [the usual] level of control in that situation,” agrees Ligon, who stage managed a reading of Sandblasted by Charly Evon Simpson. When technical elements were awry, pushing forward was the only option. At one point, Vineyard artistic director Sarah Stern accidentally and briefly joined the cast, when she re-entered the Zoom after being kicked out. Later, an actor’s screen froze with only one line left in the scene. “Everyone was waiting in anticipation,” laughs Ligon of the moment. Eventually the unfrozen actor “just said ‘Okay!’ and we moved on.”
Technical tasks proved more involved for Katherine Nelson who, following the shutdown of Cuckoo’s Nest, was enlisted to stage manage a 12-hour live, marathon Q&A session for Actors’ Equity Eastern Regional Vice President candidate Sid Solomon. Zoom was used as the platform, though the Q&A was livestreamed on Facebook. “Organizing it was very much like stage managing a tech day,” says Nelson. “That one day is the culmination of everything, and you do so, so much ground work to prepare for that.”
Nelson and a second stage manager created a detailed schedule of every segment, divided up by topics and allowing breaks for the candidate “to get a drink of water.” The breaks were filled by yet more stage manager friends joining the broadcast and conducting Q&As with each other. Scheduled guests dropped by throughout the day to ask questions, waiting first in Zoom’s ‘waiting room’ feature as the team prepared for their entrance.
“We’d have one person giving them a warning that it was almost time, then one of us would turn their video on and the other one would turn the microphone on,” explains Nelson. “So very much like cuing an actor.” Since your voice still comes through on Facebook when only audio is on on Zoom, Nelson even got to keep her ‘God Mic,’ joining the stream in voice-only to make announcements. “That made it feel a lot like a true tech day.”
Zoom chat was used to send questions to participants, along with several private iMessage threads and a separate team watching social media to feed questions from the public in real time. Nelson watched “something like five different windows of different people I was talking to in order to transmit information clearly to [the candidate] in one window.”
And as with a play, there was no stopping. “It’s hard to anticipate what might happen,” says Woodward. True Events had a contingency plan, just in case, of turning off all the actor’s cameras and calling a hold. But for minor technical bumps, the plan was just: “power through.”
Despite the success of these events, Ligon, Woodward and Nelson have not seen an explosion of online stage management work. Ligon offered feedback for other readings, while Nelson has been approached about managing some masterclasses. (Nelson was also herself voted Central Region Stage Manager Councilor in the June 18th Equity election.) Nor did this limited work make up for their financial losses: the Q&A was a volunteer effort, while Ligon and Woodward’s readings paid Equity’s standard 29-Hour Reading rate, which provides a minimal stipend.
Being in these ‘rooms’ together didn’t rescue anyone financially. The space to create, and be together, mostly proved the comfort. “I don’t know what the actors or the director or the playwright is going through in their life unless they share, but we are all going through craziness right now,” reflects Ligon. “So being able to be in this room together, even though we’re not in this room together, and create and share a laugh, share a tear if it’s appropriate – it’s really nice to have those moments.”
“Every day of doing these readings, the consensus always becomes – it’s just nice to be able to do this with you.”