As a small child I was exposed to Broadway shows every few years. My first show was Song and Dance. I remember very little of it, besides Bernadette's big red hair. When I was in 3rd grade I saw The Sound of Music with Debbie Boone which I believe was a City Opera production. That stayed with me for a while, and I carried the Playbill around with me for weeks or months, reading it over and over for reasons I don't think I even understood at the time. There was still not even a hint of the fact that this might be something I'd want to be when I grew up. By that time I was determined to be a film director and live in LA and drive a red Ferrari Testarossa.
That desire continued into my double-digit years as I ran around my neighborhood with a camcorder making movies with my friends.
When I was 12, something really cliche happened: my dad got comps to Phantom through work (he was in advertising so he had some connections with Playbill).
Somewhat against my will, I was brought to the Majestic Theatre when I no doubt wanted to be doing something else with my Saturday night (probably involving a Super Nintendo).
What I saw on stage opened my eyes to things I guess I had not been mature enough to realize when I was nine -- the power of live theatre, musical theatre in particular, to tell a story more powerfully with fewer elements than the stark reality of film or TV. I thought it was really cool, but I still don't think I "got it" when I left the theatre.
After that weekend I was back at school where we were rehearsing our Grandparents' Day spectacular on the "stage" of the church parish hall. It was a stage. It didn't have a fly system but I think there may have been some strip lights that I had never actually seen turn on. Most of the lighting consisted of a few faders that controlled front light and overhead light coming from standard track lighting.
I was standing on stage, probably getting ready to sing a choral version of "The Greatest Love of All" or something, when I looked up and suddenly the experience of that weekend fell into place. I had never considered theatre as something that people do for a living. It just never occurred to me in my search of what I might want to be when I grew up.
Immediately I realized that I didn't want to direct films, I wanted to direct musicals. Within a short time I figured out that I didn't want to go to UCLA and live in a mansion in LA with lots of Oscars and drive a Ferrari. I wanted to go to NYU, to Playwrights Horizons studio, and live in a condo with lots of Tonys on the shelf (more than Hal Prince!) and a handful of subway tokens in my pocket.
I will plant one piece of foreshadowing: at my 8th grade science fair we had to sit all day long in the cafeteria while waiting for the judges to come hear our presentation. The book I brought to pass the time: The Backstage Guide to Stage Management. I read it cover-to-cover two or three times that day.
Little needs to be said about the following years. I applied to one college, NYU, and attended Playwrights Horizons Theatre School, where I studied directing. My education is in directing, with only a semester of stage management class that was a requirement of the directing major. Throughout my directing training, I had a lot of trouble staying motivated with the format of the program there. I'm not saying it was a bad education, it just wasn't what I needed. The combination of the insanely busy workload, the lack of a real collaborative process, and the inability to work on material that I was passionate about directing (namely, musicals) made me rush through every project just to get it done for my 8AM class without having the slightest artistic interest in it, and naturally that made me a pretty terrible directing student.
Whether because of my own failings or the bad fit of the program I was in, it was clear to me that I was not going to pop out in four years and ever grow up to have more Tonys than Hal Prince. I saw myself at best being a third-rate regional theatre director who would feel like a total failure and probably work some other job while pretending to actually be a director.
The one silver lining was that although I had been set firmly on the path I had laid out for myself since the age of 12, there was exactly one other thing in the universe that I could tolerate as an alternative to that life: being a Broadway stage manager. It was something I had done often in high school, and a little bit in college, because that's what you do when you want to direct and they don't let you. I enjoyed it enough to read a book about it three times in one day, and I was good at it. Most of all, I was certain that I could be a Broadway PSM. I had immense doubts that I would ever be a Broadway director, much less Hal Prince.
What the decision came down to was: do I pursue a career that I will probably never succeed in to my definition of success, or do I take the path that is a lesser goal but that I know I can reach to the fullest level? I chose the latter.
I made this decision at least by my second year of college, but I decided that since I had gotten all this way to the finest undergrad directing program in the country, I should at least wait and see what they had to teach me, and maybe I could turn it around. In the second semester of my third year, I actually cancelled my show in a deal with the school in which I would use a production of Tommy that I happened to be stage managing on the side as my practical training for the semester, while still completing all the academic requirements of the directing program. I'm sure they already thought I was the biggest failure in the history of directing, but their flexibility in that situation was the best thing that happened to me in my education. I didn't waste anyone's time with a production I didn't care about, and I still came out of it with a full education in directing, which is what I wanted, in case I ever got myself together enough to do something with it in the future.
I had no desire to go backwards in school and actually study stage management. I felt that while directing is something you can learn in a classroom, stage management is something much better learned by doing, and I had gained a good amount of stage management experience and connections on my own, enough that I didn't feel like wasting two or three more years in school. There are some things I missed out on with that path, but I don't regret it at all, and should the mood ever strike me, I have a complete undergraduate education in directing. Which is maybe a little bit of overkill for a stage manager, but certainly useful. Oh, and P.S., I do have a single professional directing credit: Completely by accident, through a series of events involving a reality dating show, I was co-director (and PSM) of Rock Show at the 2003 Fringe Festival.
My career path took a very strange route, and I never recommend it to anyone who is looking to know how to go about starting as a stage manager. All I can say is, "this is not the way you do it, but it happened to work OK for me." I'm hesitant to even explain it, but it kind of requires an explanation.
I had been working at Phantom since I was 16, selling merchandise. I was involved in the social life of the show (softball team, Broadway Cares fundraising, Easter Bonnet, that kind of thing) so I knew a lot of people, among them the stage managers. Of course at the time I wanted to be a director, so it was sort of unimportant. When I was 19 I started to really shift to thinking of stage management as a career, and they were very supportive. I assisted on a benefit, and during one summer of my college years, I trained on the deck and ran a few performances myself, with supervision. I got a teensy bit of calling training, but as I wasn't Equity, there wasn't much they could do with me. This whole experience set in motion two things for my early career: I met a lot of stage managers more experienced than myself, at various levels; and it became of the utmost importance to get my Equity card, as I basically had a guaranteed subbing job on Broadway.
The earliest jobs I had were through friends who were just a little bit more experienced than me (which is the first thing I recommend as a tactic that works for anybody). Your best connections are not Broadway PSMs, they're people who are just one step above you. When somebody calls and offers them a job that's a little bit beneath them, they say, "Sorry, I already have a job, but I have a friend who might be
that desperate interested." In this manner I picked up some showcases that paid a small stipend, and I started building my resume and meeting people.
I had a few brushes with my Equity card. I was "this close" to being the ASM on the original production of Zanna Don't, but due to a technicality they couldn't hire me (too many people were already getting their card in the cast). In all, it was four long years from the time I trained at Phantom until I got my card.
So everyone wants to know, "how did you get your card?" Prepare for the story. It was completely unexpected. I had done a bunch of shows at HERE Arts Center in SoHo, all in one summer. Two were with Lincoln Center Director's Lab, and the last one was an emergency replacement for a show that had lost their stage manager right before tech. They were all festival shows with just a couple performances each. During this time, I had some basic contact with the venue's tech director, no more than normal. If she had my number at all, I would have assumed it was on a post-it that was thrown in the trash when each show closed.
Cut to a year later. The Working Theatre is looking for a PSM for a tour. They call the artistic director of HERE, who asks her tech director. WHO GIVES THEM MY NAME. I swear I never in a million years would have expected her to remember my name, much less have saved my number, much less to have thought to give it out a year later. So I interviewed, and got the job, and my card. And I hung up the phone and grabbed my keys and went to the Apple Store to buy a Powerbook, which was an equally life-changing event (not my first Mac, but my PowerMac had been a total lemon). And yes, I got my card as a PSM, which is another thing on the list of "don't try this at home" caveats about my path to mediocre success.
One thing I will say on this subject is that almost all of my early jobs were as PSM on small shows. Some people start out ASMing bigger shows. I'm sure there are advantages to both. I would guess ASMing is easier because you learn by being shown rather than the sink-or-swim method. However, the way it happened for me has made me a very confident PSM.
The Broad Way
The next step in the tale of "this doesn't happen in real life" is that as soon as my tour was over, I came back to New York and a week later resumed my training at Phantom, Equity card in hand. Four days later I was soloing on the deck, and beginning to learn to call the show. I made my official Broadway debut on March 27, 2004. I worked a lot that year. In more recent years, I've been lucky enough to be working steadily on my own shows, but that often keeps me away from subbing, either physically, or by pushing me down the list in favor of other, more regularly available, people. Nevertheless, I've been a sub there now for more than five years, have done hundreds of performances of the very show that inspired me to do theatre in the first place, and have had some really great experiences. Every time I call the show I consider it a chance to kind of recallibrate my outlook on my life and career. Whatever's going on, whatever I'm happy or not happy about, I am, for however brief a period of time, doing exactly what I have wanted to do since I was 12.
Unfortunately, to date it's my only Broadway credit (though I was hired for a show that never quite made it into rehearsals).
In addition to my subbing duties, I have had two other recurring jobs in recent years. Through friends in Phantom I wound up as PSM of The Reagle Players, a summer stock theatre in Massachusetts. The quality of their productions, stars and casts is great and I spent six summers there, for a total of 18 shows. The other, more recent job is as PSM of The Acting Company, who, in a complete antithesis of Reagle, take a company of young actors around the country performing Shakespeare and other classics for communities where access to classical theatre is often very limited. The first year I did it for the money and because I was tired of not getting national tours because I don't have enough touring experience. The second and third years I did it because I had a great time.
In between all that, I've done a large handful of Off-Broadway shows. I finally got my first Off-Broadway PSM credit when assisting on a show, and on opening night the PSM received a call as an emergency replacement on a national tour. Thankfully he already had a personal day scheduled, so I had called the show in a rehearsal during previews in preparation for that. So a few days after opening I became the PSM. Not exactly how I expected it to happen, but the same can be said of most of my career (or anyone's, probably).
The best thing I can say about my life is that for the last several years I have been able to make my living exclusively from stage management. I don't sell tee shirts at Broadway shows. I don't take other backstage jobs to make ends meet. I just do exactly what I love to do, and somehow every month the bills get paid -- sometimes with a little help from the Visa Fairy, until the next rent-paying job rolls around. I am envied among my friends as "the one who doesn't need the health weeks." Although I can't help but compare myself to the most successful of my friends and peers, who work constantly on production contracts, I'm happy to be making ends meet and working on and around Broadway while waiting to be in the right place at the right time.