The wonderful production director at Minnesota Opera told me on day 2 that I would look around about 3 months in and wonder what in the world had just happened and how we could possibly already be so far into the season.
Finally, the 38th season of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival is completely open. It's been a whirlwind summer, and it's really nice to finally get to a place of reprieve now that all the shows are open. It's funny to think back on last summer and how busy I thought I was then. This season has definitely been packed full! It includes three mainstage shows:
Love's Labour's Lost - directed by Curt Tofteland
Q Gents - an adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona - written, directed, and performed by the Q Brothers
Richard II - directed by Robert Quinlan
There's also a 4th show on our indoor stage - Love's Labor's Won by Scott Kaiser, directed by Sara Becker - a continuation of LLL, taking on the stories of the 4 sets of lovers, Costard, and Jaquenetta.
Add in 5 green shows a week, Improvised Shakespeare Company every Saturday, and a theatre for young audiences version of As You Like It twice a week, and I think it's fair to say there's a lot happening at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival this summer.
I had someone ask me the other day how we did it all. I don't know the answer, but I know the smile on my face has an awful lot to do with the amazing people I get to work with. Rarely have I gotten to be part of a company who is just so darn happy to be doing what they love.
So that's the familiar - getting to be back with a company of people I love and respect, at one of my favorite places in the world.
The completely new comes in the 'what's next?' category (It's possible I've been watching a lot of West Wing).
In less than a month, I will be moving to Minnesota. This is interesting as I've never been to Minnesota before, so that will be an adventure in itself. I've been referring to my move as an expedition to the frigid North, while my PSM at ISF has been referring to it as 'the land of big coats.'
Also an adventure is, with one year of intense opera experience behind me, I was hired as an ASM for Minnesota Opera's 15-16 season. The fact that such a prestigious company took a chance on someone so new to the opera world is incredibly exciting...and a little scary. I've been trying to find the words to express how grateful I am for this chance to learn from such impressive experts, but I keep falling flat.
So, instead, I'm humming 'I Know Things Now' a lot and listening to music from our upcoming season as much as possible.
Also, there's a line from the Michelle Branch song 'Goodbye to You' that I can't seem to get out of my head as I look toward truly starting my career as a professional stage manger:
"It feels like I'm starting all over again
The last three years were just pretend."
Here we go.
Two weeks ago, I graduated with my MFA in stage management from the University of Illinois. A walk across the Playhouse stage signified the end of three years of incredibly hard work, huge lessons, and a complete transformation of who I am as a stage manager and a person.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been trying to put words to that chapter being done. How much I appreciate the lessons, skills, challenges, successes, and failures of the past three years. But no matter how many times I’ve tried to quantify how grateful I am for the education I’ve been given, I kept coming back to the same theme. That for three years, the real education - the real reason to be grateful wasn’t the classes, the jobs, the shows, or even the skills I walked away with.
It was the people.
It was my fellow stage managers who gave me a chance. Gave me space to make mistakes and were there with ideas as to how to improve and a quick joke when things got difficult. Teammates, coworkers, partners in crime, roommates, role models, and lifelong friends for whom I will always be grateful.
It was the advisors who challenged us - sometimes more than we thought we could handle - with equal parts toughness and confidence in who we could become.
It was my peers - designers, technicians, actors, singers, musicians, and dancers - who let me into their lives and let me be part of the amazing stories they were working to bring to life through their incredible talents. Who encouraged and challenged, brought joy and anger, shared laughter and tears, and always ended a performance with kind words and celebration. The people who will form the next generation of theatre professionals, and who I cannot believe I get to call friends.
It was the directors who taught me how to work with and care for shows, but more importantly, casts. Who trusted me to do my job and challenged me with high expectations and demands of quality. Who built relationships with me throughout the rehearsal process, and then handed off their shows on opening night, believing I would take care of them.
It was the faculty members who explained lighting lingo, vocal support, sound gear, Italian pronunciation, winch physics, opera history and safety procedures with grace and patience. Who treated us as peers instead of students - who stopped by the production office to tell a funny story just as often as ask for help. Who instilled confidence through their trust in us and shared their talents as readily as they shared jokes.
It was my mentors - the people I didn’t see coming, but to whom I owe so much for the space they made for me in their lives. For sharing drinks and meals, successes and challenges, stories and memories, and letting me be the beneficiary of their wisdom, patience, and time.
So sure, I will miss working and playing in Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. I will miss being part of Level21 and collaborating with Lyric Theatre at Illinois, Illinois Theatre, and Dance at Illinois. I will miss leading the production office. I will probably even miss attending classes…eventually. But, what I will miss the most is not seeing my KCPA family every day. And although I am looking forward to working with many of them in the professional world, I will always be grateful for the time we spent together in the windowless halls of Krannert Center’s level 2, making mistakes in a safe place, and figuring out who we wanted to be as professional artists.
So thanks, U of I, for an amazing three years. I’ll try to make you proud.
There's something great about revisiting a show after so many years away. I first worked on Into the Woods in 2000 with River Valley Players. It was my first interaction with Sondheim and I walked away from that production completely in love with the intricate music and beautiful story. Spending this semester assistant stage managing Into the Woods for Lyric Theatre @ Illinois was like coming home again.
I could gush about the stunning design, the impressive singing, or the fun of putting on a show with so much joy and emotion. But all of that pales in comparison how delightful it was to work with this group of people. The company of actors, singers, musicians, designers, directors, and technicians is one of the most talented I have had the privilege to work with. Daily, they would surprise me with their instincts, creativity, and generosity as we worked to put this beautiful show onstage.
I regularly say that caring for people is at the heart of what we do as stage managers. For my last show at U of I to be filled with such lovely, caring, and talented people is something for which I will forever be grateful.
Credits for the photos below:
Into the Woods, Lyric Theatre @ Illinois, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts; Directed by Jessi D. Hill; Conducted by Louis Bergonzi; Scenic Design by Joe C. Klug; Costume Design by Kim Curtis; Lighting & Projection Design by Joseph A. Burke; Hair & Makeup Designed by David Mounce; Photos by Darrell Hoemann
Cast: Nora Benedict (Cinderella), Maggie Blackburn (Rapunzel), Ed Brennan (Rapunzel’s Prince), Ellen Denham (Stepmother), Amber Farish (Baker’s Wife’s Cover), Ellen Fred (Witch), Sara Freedland (Little Red Ridinghood), Aaron Godwin (Jack), Dawn Harris (Cinderella’s Mother), Amanda Kasem (Lucinda), Dawn McDaniel (Jack’s Mother), Marla Moore (Rapunzel), Michael Patterson (Steward), Caitlin Powell (Florinda), Mariel Saavedra (Granny), Adrian Sanchez (Baker), Mindy Shore (Baker’s Wife), Jerold Siena (Narrator/Mysterious Man), Claire Swale (Cinderella), & Anson Woodin (Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince)
What a semester it has been already! February Dance: The Virtuosic with Dance @ Illinois has come and gone. As February Dance 2013 was my first stage management assignment in the program, it seemed apropos to end with it as well. It was quite a beautiful concert, and a great first experience as PSM.
Due to a crew member conflict, I unexpectedly found myself on the crew for The Merry Widow with Lyric Theatre @ Illinois and greatly enjoyed spending more time working with a department I adore.
Into the Woods with Lyric Theatre @ Illinois is in full swing and I’m having all sorts of fun assistant stage managing. I fully believe a life filled with Sondheim, fake cows, and talented musicians is a life well-lived.
Design meetings for Illinois Shakespeare Festival’s Love’s Labour’s Lost have completed and it’s going to be another fantastic summer. I’m so looking forward to returning!
And that's not even getting into the amazing concerts (Renee Fleming!), operas (The Passenger at Lyric Opera of Chicago!), shows (I'm still reeling from Oh What a Lovely War and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore), outings, celebrations, and events that have somehow fit in the last two months.
Yet, the most exciting thing on the horizon is that, in 24 hours, my roommates and I are flying to NYC for a week. We are spending Spring Break seeing shows, meeting stage managers, and enjoying the city. As I’ve never been to the city, I’m quite excited for my first Broadway show on Sunday. I’ll see A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder on Sunday, then, due to a friend’s unexpected connection, I’ll shadow it on Tuesday. We also have plans to see Verdi’s Ernani at the Met, Cabaret, Clinton the Musical, Drunk Shakespeare, and Churchill (because how could I go to NYC and not support the wonderful, talented Ron Keaton?).
In other words, a great semester is about to get better!
During the third performance of Champaign-Urbana Ballet's 2014 run of The Nutcracker, it was declared that this was the year of the dragon.
For the Tea section, a group of dancers control a Chinese dragon. It's adorable and quite impressive. Yet, that dragon had to fly by my calling table backstage every night, and the tail regularly had trouble walking straight.
Performance one, that meant I got hip-checked by the dragon and was chuckling as I called the light cues.
Performance two, however, the dragon listed to the right and my maestro monitor and com base station tried to go onstage with them. Thankfully, the dancers were fine and I managed to grab both items before they hit the ground, but it definitely changed out backstage patterns.
From that night forward, my events SM (usually only in charge of front of house communication and performer calls), guarded me from the dragon. He stood next to my table, held on to the monitor and base station while I held on to my front of house monitor (which also tried to tip during the dragon attack) and we braced ourselves. The volunteers backstage (many of whom were added as extra guides to the dragon after performance 2) told us we were hilarious to watch as we hunkered down for the dragon attack each night.
As the crew was deciding which element of the show they would take their photo with this year, there was really only one choice they could have made.
When the Champaign-Urbana Ballet's stage manager moved to Minnesota at the beginning of September, she contacted me to see if I would be interested in taking on their annual run of The Nutcracker. I automatically said yes.
Between the former stage manager's book, the fact they were remounting the show from the previous year, and the DVD I was provided, I was definitely set up for success.
I was officially brought in for first - and only - tech rehearsal. Even though I knew I had prepped well, reviewed the book, visited rehearsals, and watched the DVD obsessively, there are few feelings like walking into a show I've never done and jumping straight into teching the entire thing.
This could have disastrous. Instead, it was some of the most fun I've ever had.
Without a doubt, this enjoyment was due to three things: the crew, the company, and, funnily enough, technical difficulties.
Crew: My experience at Krannert before Nutcracker put me in the path of a few of the IATSE crew members. 2 of them were my spot ops for L'Elisir, and we had a blast, while I adored every moment one of them worked on wardrobe crew for David Auburn's Lost Lake as part of the first iteration of The Sullivan Project. Walking into the theatre and being introduced to my IA crew of 10, most of whom had been working this show for 7-10 years, was amazing.
Not only did they know the show backwards and forward, but they welcomed me into the fold with open arms and enthusiasm, and were ready with institutional knowledge and incredible ingenuity for every challenge. If I could work with these 10 people on every show for the rest of my career, I would be nothing but happy.
If you're familiar with The Nutcracker, a lot of the magic happens in the Battle scene. For CU Ballet, this includes a battery of light cues, spot cues, fog, projections, disappearing furniture, and a flying tree. The sequence is amazing! Calling this for the first time, however, is terrifying. And yet, the crew - who would know very well if I was messing up - stuck with me through every call and we wowed the creative team. It should be said that the team was justifiably nervous at the prospect of having a new stage manager on the show, and I can never thank my crew enough for making everyone breathe easier in first tech because, if we could get it all together that well the first time around, everything was going to be just fine.
Also, any crew that hears me call a standby for upstage frog and chooses to laugh with me instead of deciding I'm hopeless will forever be some of my favorite people.
Company: the CU Ballet is a tight-knit group of incredibly talented people. We had 117 impressive dancers from age 4 to 55, a creative and production team of ridiculously talented professionals, and an army of volunteers that were constantly on their game. A show this big could have been disastrous and chaotic, but I was constantly taken aback by the professionalism, respect, and good naturedness of everyone involved. I told my colleagues that if CU Ballet ever calls, the answer is yes. Don't think about it; just work with them and love your life for those weeks. They are phenomenal.
Technical difficulties: it's weird to think that technical difficulties saved the day, but there are times when you're wearing 2 headsets, and realizing you have a little over 2 hours left to tech the full run, and suddenly nothing seems insurmountable.
Here's the story. When we checked the headsets over an hour before tech started, they were fine. When we went to go start tech, not only had an incredibly loud buzz appeared, but the wired sets were no longer talking to the wireless sets. This meant that my 4 crew members on deck in charge of pretty much everything that moved couldn't hear me. Which is a bit of a problem.
Our sound guru was paged and on his way, but time was ticking down quickly and this was the only night we had to tech.
And then, as the crew, the building's TD, the Ballet's TD, and I were pow-wowing backstage about options, one of the deck crew mentioned he didn't really need his headset for the first half because he was always within earshot of someone on headset.
Everyone looked at me and I exclaimed, 'Perfect! Let's do this!' He handed over his headset, I scampered back to the tech table, and, wearing 2 headsets with 3 different channels of com, we dove into the first Act. And it worked.
There was a moment at the end of the night where our sound guy jumped on headset and said something along the lines of, 'So Jamie, I don't know you. But I walked into the theatre in the middle of that to find you wearing two headsets and calling the battle like you've done this a million times. Was that as much fun as it looked?' And it really, really was.
Even though the crew heard my every communication with the designers and creative team (as unhooking all 3 buttons on various consoles between calls wasn't going to happen), everyone across the board was excited and energetic about what we had accomplished. I've sat through a lot of techs, but it isn't a stretch to say this was my favorite.
I know there are a lot of Nutcrackers, and I know the odds are high that I will do at least one more in my career, but I don't think it's a stretch to say this one will be hard to top.
Somehow, it's already November. Somehow, we have rehearsed, teched, opened, and closed L'Elisir d'Amore. Somehow, I'm sitting here on the other side of stage managing my first opera.
L'Elisir d'Amore for Lyric Theatre @ Illinois was everything I could have hoped for my first opera stage management experience: beautiful, funny, challenging, and including some of the loveliest people I've ever had the privilege of working with.
There are stories that I will write about later, but for now, have a quick list of good things.
Our director had a really neat idea for preshow of Much Ado About Nothing. 10 minutes after house opens, the actors start taking the stage to warm up, bring on furniture, put their makeup on, or just talk to the audience. By the time the full 30 minutes of house open has passed, all 16 actors, 3 musicians , and 6 crew members have taken the stage, 4 men are completely decked out as women, a giant chandelier has been lit (via ‘clapper’) and hoisted, and the cast has led the audience in the wave. It has a very organic feel to it, as if the actors suddenly decide it’s time to walk onto the balcony with their script and wave at the musicians in the heavens, or bring on a chair and then heckle whomever is in the front row.
And yet, it is all scripted down to the minute. At 2 minutes in, Timo and Wigasi enter Vom 2 with the table. At 5 minutes, Megan brings the flowered topiary from one vom to another while Gianna and Katherine check in with the cast already onstage. At 6 minutes, Phil and Robert enter and start working the crowd, while at 11 minutes it’s time for the crew to hand out swords to all the soldiers.
On and on it goes, minute by minute, until it’s time for the curtain speech to start. And of course, every person walking onstage, every prop moved from one entrance to the next, the musicians tuning, the chandelier lights turning on as Beatrice claps, and said chandelier starting to rise are all cued by me.
This is where it gets fun. Due to the complicated nature of preshow, one headset isn’t enough. Sure, I have the traditional headset connecting me to three different crew members at various stage entrances. Yet, I also have a walkie to talk with our lovely House Manager, Lathanial, and the rest of the front of house crew. Then, I have a different walkie with an earpiece that’s connected to my ASM, Gianna, who spends most of preshow onstage where the headset cables can’t reach. Oh, and lets not forget about the god mic on which I’m calling time and announcing when the chandelier is moving so the cast clears the area (our illustrious director loved the idea that the audience could be a part of the cast receiving all this information). AND, the cast likes to ask me questions from stage that need to be answered over the mic as well….or in a series of nods and hand signals.
The photo to the right was taken in the midst of preshow on Tuesday night. I turned to my light board op, hands full of devices for people to talk to me, and declared ‘Too many buttons!’
I’d like to say that after doing this preshow extravaganza over and over again, I no longer say information into the wrong device. That would be a lie, though. Just 2 shows ago, I accidentally asked Gianna a question for front of house, which made her laugh incredibly hard.
Yet, no matter how many buttons and devices it takes, preshow is, without a doubt, my favorite part of the show. I will greatly miss the organized chaos of those 20 minutes when the Festival closes on Saturday and getting to watch the company play with the audience nightly. Here’s to 2 more audiences doing the wave.
Much Ado at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival is going well. We’ve teched in the outdoor space and are moving quickly toward dress rehearsals, preview, and indoor space tech. Working in a repertory company for the first time has presented new challenges - like having a week between third tech and first dress so the other shows can tech.
Yet, the most interesting situations continue to come from doing Much Ado twice in a row with two different companies. There have been moments where one of my ASMs asks a question in passing about when a character enters, or the number of a certain scene, and I have to step back and rethink the automatic answer that has clearly come from a different production. I must say, the looks on my ASMs' faces during an early team meeting as I started talking about scene 4.1 when our version ends at 2.9 were pretty funny.
I’ve also been very grateful for a team that proofreads carefully so I can be confident that nowhere in a report has my memory sneaked Cassie into a mention of Margaret instead of Jack (in case you haven’t heard - ISF is doing an original practices, all male cast for Much Ado).
On the fun side, I did find myself smiling during tech whenever I would use a familiar line in the script as a standby marker.
Yet, nothing has made me so grateful for the Much Ado doubling as what happened yesterday.
Due to the time war of primary rehearsals, secondary rehearsals, and transportation schedules, I found myself in the main rehearsal hall, with most of the cast, on my own. At one point during scene work, I was updating new blocking, solidifying the schedule for the next day, and answering a question from my boss.
And then, an actor called line.
Without thinking about it, without looking at the script, without missing a beat, I gave the line, word for word, from memory. And the scene moved forward.
True, I was concerned afterward as I checked that I had indeed given the correct line. And true, memory is in no way my preferred source for prompting. Yet, any moment I can continue to push a rehearsal forward instead of stalling the process is a good day in my book.
Plus, the look I got from one of the actors not currently in the scene was priceless.
May 28 - June 1, 2019
Flint Hills Family Festival
Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
July 12 - 25, 2019
Cosi fan tutte
Mill City Summer Opera
October 5-13, 2019
November 9-16, 2019
Barber of Seville
January 25-February 2, 2020
March 21 - 28, 2020
May 2 - 12, 2020