December 30, 2014

Calling from Backstage

I call this: theatre — Posted by KP @ 6:15 pm

IMG_4899This is sort of an addendum to my recent post on how I chose my calling position on Mary Poppins. I was going to go into detail about the advantages I experienced calling from backstage, and eventually realized I had so much to say about it that it could really be its own post.

The most basic and practical advantage to calling from backstage is that you don’t have to walk far to get there. First of all, the stairs to the balcony were particularly exhausting in this venue, and the whole path went through the audience, so the travel time could be seriously delayed to get through the crowd. I’ve definitely started shows late because of a crowded front-of-house. Once situated in a booth, there are plenty of things that I might want or need from backstage that I would forego because it would take too long, or too much effort, to go back. And you don’t have to compete with the line at the ladies’ room if you can go backstage. I mean you still have to compete, but there are less potential pee-ers, and they will generally let you go ahead if they see you waiting.

But the most important thing to me about calling from backstage is that I think it’s better for morale because I get to spend quality time with the cast and crew as we work together to make a performance. Often when in a run I feel like I don’t see the cast enough. If they keep to their dressing rooms before the show, and I’m in the booth the entire show (maybe not even coming down at intermission if it would take too long to fight the crowds), then we never really see each other and it can feel a little distant. I always expect the ASM to get closer to the cast than I am, but I also don’t want to be a shadowy figure sitting behind glass who is only accessible by passing messages through someone else. Especially when I have such a fondness for a cast as I did on this show, I wanted to have easy access to them, and for them to feel like I was around if they needed to talk.

The Check-In

I made it a point — before every act, and at the end of the day or show — to set aside at least two minutes to make a pass through the 2nd-floor crossover where all the principals and most of the Equity chorus had their rooms. I usually made it to the ensemble rooms in a dead-end tunnel of the sub-basement, about once a day. I didn’t bother people if their doors were closed (unless I specifically needed to talk to them), but I made sure everyone knew I was passing through if they had anything to say, and our Mary and Bert generally got some kind of direct contact of at least a quick “Everything good?”, “How did your flight feel?” etc.

Sometimes it was nice just to say hi, and participate in the social life of backstage. There was one room in particular that I often stopped in not because I expected the occupants needed anything, but because I knew they’d probably have something interesting to chat about.

During one performance I was having a really frustrating first act dealing with technical issues, and found a gaggle of actors and musicians gathered in the hall, and joined in on their conversation with an “is everybody having a better show than I am?” This was a good opportunity to explain what the hell was going on and that it was fixed, and have a laugh about what the actors were thinking onstage, and totally unexpectedly I got a very good backrub through most of the conversation. I absolutely delayed places because I was getting a backrub and being entertained out of my frustration, so I was glad when I finally got to the calling desk to hear the house was requesting a 20-minute intermission. Seriously, knowing when your stage manager needs a backrub is a special skill, and if you’re calling from the deck there are dozens of people nearby, one of whom might possess that skill. It probably isn’t your light board op.

There was one show in particular that I thought was a fantastic performance but the audience was kind of lackluster, so I went upstairs when we came down, just to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, and the cast felt as good about it as I did. They were glad to hear that I agreed it was their best show, even if the faces out there in the dark weren’t giving them a lot of support.

Artist's rendering of the audience in question.

Artist’s rendering of the audience in question.

I find that my mood can sometimes color my impression of a performance, so I like to have some kind of verification before I say something in the report like “This was the best show ever, and the other 900 people who saw it are wrong.” Being backstage removes a step from that process. A lot of the time I find myself asking the ASM, after everyone has gone, “how did the cast feel about tonight’s show?” and well, that’s kind of a lame way to do it. Also, I went up there selfishly looking for material for my report, but when I got there I saw the real benefit in the faces of the actors, who were genuinely thankful to hear that somebody noticed what a good show it was, and you don’t get that by doing it through a third party.

But when I wasn’t getting backrubs and giving pep-talks, I was doing the real work of keeping the show running: getting things done and fixing the show. Rather than avoid opening the door too wide to any and all complaints and requests, I welcomed it. My attitude was to put myself in everybody’s face as often as possible, in the hopes that they would tell me how I could make their show better.

I should note that this is not my usual M.O. It’s something I think I could work on, so I used this opportunity, and this lovely group of actors, to play with cranking my accessibility up to 11, to see just how helpful I could be. Part of what made this possible was how well-supported I was by management and crew. I had all the time in the world to take care of the cast because everybody else was doing their jobs. And the cool thing is, when you’re not stuck doing things that aren’t your job, and everyone else is able to do their jobs well and without much supervision, the PSM actually doesn’t have a lot to do, except be around to find out what else can be done better.

This was the case even sometimes in the middle of tech. I love when we can take a 10 and I literally have nothing to do for 10 minutes. And because I’m sometimes a bit calculating with how my behavior affects everyone else, rather than just sit at the tech table tweeting for 10 minutes, I often took advantage of the opportunity to show my face around the theatre — in the dressing rooms, on the deck, in the lobby where the producery-types had made their office — specifically for the purpose of being like, “Hey. No, just saying hi. How’s it going for you? Oh, there’s a funny YouTube video of Mary Poppins as a horror movie? Let’s all stand in the middle of the stage and watch it right now, cause your tech is going so well that this is what your PSM is doing.” I know from previous feedback that this kind of thing works wonders in everyone else having an enjoyable tech, so in addition to watching YouTube videos, I began my dressing-room-hallway flybys, just to show that although tech isn’t about the actors, this tech is so under control that it could be about the actors if they needed anything. With this pattern established, I made it a predictable occurrence as we continued into the run, in the hopes that people would think of things to ask me, secure in the knowledge that any problem they had could be taken care of swiftly.

It became something of a game for me, which is actually a very Mary Poppins life lesson, about making things that could be work seem like fun. I challenged myself to make sure that any note I was given was fixed immediately, whatever bad thing was happening never happened again, and any question, if I did not know the answer, I quickly hunted down the right person and came back with an answer. Anything from issues with the heat, to props getting stuck on scenery, to missed mic pickups of lines that aren’t in the script, to broken dressing room chairs, to soap running out in the mens’ room, to escorting backstage guests was something I enjoyed providing prompt and effective service on.

My proudest moment was a team effort, as one night after the show our PA alerted me to a potential problem that I hadn’t heard about. I was flabbergasted — it seemed impossible that this could be a real problem (a safety issue, no less) that had gone unreported with the amount of time I spent hanging around, prodding everyone to think of anything that was on their mind. I suspected one of those situations where something happens in the heat of the performance, and by the time there’s an opportunity to tell someone, it’s three scenes later and long forgotten. And then the next night it happens again, and the cycle continues.

So next intermission I swing around the dressing room door with, “Hey, I don’t know if this is a thing, but is there a scene change in Act II where you could potentially get crushed?”

“Yes! I almost die every night! How did you know?”

Because I am your magical PSM. If you don’t remember to tell me when I make my check-ins (many of which you actually answer with a cheery “I don’t feel like I’m going to die”), my magical minions have eyes everywhere. And now that I know what’s happening from your perspective, we can employ a change right now, ensuring you will never be nearly-squished again. #dropstheheadset No but seriously, I gave our PA most of the credit, cause it takes a village to keep a cast alive.

On the Deck

As I said in my earlier post, I was disappointed how little contact I got with people while the show was going on. The deck was crowded, and as a result everyone instinctively knew that if you were hanging out, you were going to be in the way of actors, crew or scenery who had a need to be where you were standing. So there wasn’t a lot of hanging out, at least not downstage right, and due to large chimneys and houses stage left, I’d imagine people got the hell out of there, too. Or maybe waited on top of chimneys and houses for a while, I don’t know.

When I picture calling from the deck, I think of those moments where you know you’ll see certain people. Maybe you have a little ritual you develop for that moment. And it’s important to learn the times during the show that you have a chance to get a word with people of note, if the need arises — your ASM, your head carp, your leads (especially those who rarely leave the stage), the dance captain. We did eight shows in five days, and I know if we’d run longer things would have relaxed enough to allow for more of that, but the inherent pace and structure of the show still would have limited it.

As it turned out, the moments I had any chance to talk to people were almost nil. The stage right offstage singing position was right behind me, which you’d think, “cool!” Yeah, but I’m still calling cues, and they’re singing, so every time I had the impulse to turn around and wave, I realized I’d be calling a cue right into somebody’s mic. And the moment they were done singing, they were scampering down the stairs to their dressing room to get out of the way and make their next change. So much for that.

The number of times in the show where an actor was standing next to me in a moment of calm for the both of us, for long enough to speak words? One. ONE. It was at the top of “Feed the Birds,” when Mary and the kids arrived for their entrance. The whole time they were there was maybe 20 seconds. In reality, between me finishing calling the scene change, and them moving into position to enter, it was more like 5 or 10 useful seconds of communication. Make eye contact of the “everything good?”/”good” variety, and then maybe a couple extra seconds for pleasantries, like actually saying those words out loud, or perhaps a brief comment on the performance, and off they went. A couple times there was something of actual content to say, like we’re working on the monitor issue. But the good thing was that we had eight deck crew members on headset, plus the A2, so in the event anything important had to be said between me and any actor, they could always find a nearby crew member to tell, and whenever I asked, “Is anybody near so-and-so?” the answer was always yes. So the in-person check-in was really just for socializing, or sharing anything not urgent enough to interrupt anyone, but I was still sad that I barely saw anyone.

Occasionally crew members or ensemble on their way downstairs would spend a moment standing behind me watching the show on the monitor, but the pathway would not be able to be blocked for long. My friend Jimmy, who played Robertson Ay, had a significant amount of time offstage, and would sometimes tuck into my jungle-gym (if you haven’t read the other post, I was under a platform, and the ladder and legs of said platform provided me with a footprint of personal space), to watch for a while. One night we had a prop get stuck on the apron and needed to get it struck, and of course the one time I needed to send him onstage as actor-conveniently-dressed-as-a-butler, he wasn’t there with me (and, I should correct myself, this was the one time when I asked “is anybody near so-and-so?” and nobody was, because his dressing room was in the bowels of the earth).

Word to the wise: make time to find out in advance how audible your paging system is to the audience if used during a performance. I would have paged him to come to the calling desk but I didn’t because I was afraid it might be too loud onstage. So instead we sent out a stagehand-conveniently-dressed-as-a-stagehand during a scene change, which is not quite as slick. Although if you’ve read my other Mary Poppins post, Being Too Clever, you would know that our attempt to solve the problem elegantly would have inevitably resulted in something far worse than an audience seeing a glimpse of a burly black-clad figure in the dark.

After the first few days of controlled chaos, things did calm down enough that the crew was able to wander over to chat once in a while. Our crew chief spent most of his track flying at the arbor right in front of me, so we were usually within sight of each other. Daniel, the ASM, was also able to be around more and more as things settled down. There were a few times when the three of us being able to chat off-headset while the show was going on helped us to better plan our response to unexpected situations.

Other than the fact that the show itself made things so crowded and crazy, calling from backstage was everything I hoped it would be and more. As I had hoped, I had good line of sight to the actors during most of the scenes. Although I never noticed how many of the Mary-snaps-and-something-happens cues were staged with her in my blind spot midstage-right. The ones where I could see her were a lot of fun. The ones where I was going just on knowing her timing and an incredibly blurry and low-contrast figure on a monitor were terrifying. I think I usually got them, but who knows. I have vague memories of getting completely psyched-out once, but I took my rehearsal-hall mock calls very seriously, so it’s possible that feeling of abject humiliation happened not only not in front of an audience, but quite possibly not in front of anyone. Which didn’t make it less terrifying.

The show had an unusually high number of cues that could be taken on acting beats, and that number grew higher the more I saw of the acting. With such performances to hang a cue on, who needs words or blocking to mark the separation between one thing and the next? It was a great advantage to be so close to the stage for all those cues. They were the easiest to call. I guess it also didn’t hurt that in the typical bane of my stock existence, I spent every single rehearsal with the principals. So I could write a paragraph to describe the moment in Christiane’s acting upon which a light shift from the living room to the office will occur, but I couldn’t call the dance break of “Step in Time” without counting it. But honestly, what I found — contrary to my expectations — was that the show is more about that shift from the living room to the office than it is about dancing chimney sweeps. Except Bert dancing on the ceiling. I literally considered my job description to be (1) be able to call the Bert walk correctly, by heart, every time, before we ever set foot in the theatre. (2) Call the rest of the show. (3) Schedules n’ shit.


Whatever, McKayla. If you look far stage right, you can see all the fucks I was giving about pleasing anyone within 20 feet of the ground.

January 12, 2014

Kit of a Crew Member

I call this: theatre — Posted by KP @ 7:00 pm

I’ve spent the last 12 weeks as a deck crew member of Peter and the Starcatcher. This is pretty much the only full-time job I’ve had in theatre where I wasn’t a stage manager.

It was a nice change of pace after a year as PSM of Silence! The Musical, and in general a chance to experience the life of a crew member first-hand, while also getting to observe and steal things from watching other stage managers work.

One of the nicest things about it was how little stuff I needed. When I went to work every day, all I needed to bring was black pants (which was my decision, something I find more efficient that keeping pants at the theatre and changing). And, not being a department head or anything, as long as I remembered what time the next show was and didn’t forget my track, there was nothing I needed to know or prepare.

My bag was usually a very small messenger bag, only needing to hold my Kindle, sometimes my iPad on a 2-show day, and very occasionally my computer, if I wanted to use some of my copious downtime to work on other projects. Other than wearing black pants, I really didn’t need to bring anything for the job itself.

So here’s my list of the things I kept at the theatre (aside from my boots, they all fit in a small drawstring back that hung from the crew’s coat rack).

  • black hoodie
  • black baseball cap (to keep hair out of my face during intermission)
  • Leatherman / flashlight holster
  • hand moisturizer (I did a lot of flying & always had blisters)
  • mints (for coffee breath)
  • iPhone charger (with 4/5 adapter, making me very popular)
  • black hard-toed boots

I’m looking forward to returning to the stage management world full-time, but this was a really enjoyable and useful experience.

September 16, 2013

Found: Women’s Black Jeans with Pockets

I call this: theatre — Posted by KP @ 7:16 pm

Ladies! I have found a style of jeans that

a) come in black

b) have actual fucking pockets that can hold things

Behold, “Lee Women’s Misses Relaxed Fit Straight Leg Jean!” (Amazon link)

I now own (I believe) 5 pairs of them. And I’m just getting started. I bought 3 pairs in black, and one each in two different shades of blue, for those days when you’re like “I don’t have to wear black today, and damn it, I’m not!”

The cut is pure “mom jeans,” but you’re not buying these to win a backstage beauty pageant, are you? They’re black and they have fucking pockets, which according to my research, makes them unique among women’s apparel.

And before you think you have a pair of pants that fit the bill, I will share the cautionary tale of my favorite Old Navy “Rockstar” jeans, which several years ago were awesome, and if you buy the same style today you’ll find the pockets are about half as deep as they used to be (which is like an inch).

So stock up, this may be your last chance to purchase functional clothing!

July 1, 2011


I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 7:33 pm

This is a photo that’s been kicking around waiting to be blogged for, oh… two or three months.

On tour one of our almost-daily tasks is marking the set for safety in every new venue. Responsibility for this varies, sometimes the electricians do it themselves when they run cable. Unless you’ve got an electrician who’s a closet stage manager, or has severe OCD, usually it requires a little bit of a touch-up to ensure that even the most blind, uncoordinated unattentive actor won’t do a faceplant over some backstage obstacle in the dark. When you tech a show you have a little time for the cast to learn what not to run into, but on tour we get only a few minutes to give them a tour and then they’re on their own during the show. Usually the walk-around is done with worklights on, so they will never know what backstage looks like under show conditions until the show starts. Thus, everything that they could possibly bump into or trip over needs to be clearly marked to show up under run light. Sometimes this creates a comical situation.

This is our upstage-right corner of the Comedy of Errors deck, looking from upstage towards stage right. As you can sort of see, it’s tucked fairly close to a corner of the theatre wall, meaning the only path from upstage to stage right is directly over the corner of the deck, which is also where all the cables for lighting behind the set are running. I don’t remember who did the tape job on this, it was probably a group effort over time. This was our New York run, so we had a little more time to make it nice. I know I was not involved, except when it was done to be told, “I think you need to check the UR safety taping, and if it’s OK, then you need to take a picture and blog about it.”

I agreed it was definitely blog-worthy. And I, for one, never heard a complaint about anyone having trouble navigating that corner. So good job to everyone involved.

December 19, 2010

Video Proof I Miss All the Fun

I call this: theatre — Posted by KP @ 7:49 pm

OK, I haven’t gotten the backstory on this yet, but it has come to my attention on Facebook that a video has been placed on YouTube featuring… pretty much everyone at the Majestic Theatre dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.”

I’m sorry I can’t embed it, but please follow the link.

Yeah rehearsal is going well, I paid the rent and my credit card bill on time again this month… but I am not making an ass of myself on this video, and that makes me very sad. The closest I’ve come is orchestrating Ye Olde Tyme Romeo and Juliet Crewe, and that isn’t even remotely in the same league as this for elaborate backstage shenanigans. I don’t know what the hell is going on back at the ranch, but I’m glad to see that it continues to defy its old reputation as “the House of Hate.”

I’m having a great time on the tour, but I really hope that my life works out to give me some quality time with the Phantom phamily this year.

November 14, 2010

Ye Olde Tyme Romeo and Juliet Crewe

I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 1:09 pm

Ye Olde Tyme Production Stage Manageress

Ye Olde Tyme Assistant Stage Manageress

Ye Olde Tyme Master Carpenter

Ye Olde Tyme Proppe Mistress

Ye Olde Tyme Sounde Fellow

Ye Olde Tyme Wardrobe Mistress

Not shewn: Ye Olde Tyme Gaslight Directrix.

November 10, 2010

R&J Roundup

I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 12:03 am

Another day, another student matinee of Romeo and Juliet for 500-something middle school and high school students.

Before I begin, I want to share a review from our time in Phoenix last week. I think it pretty much sums up the approach our show takes to R&J and what its unique and best characteristics are.

Today was our first performance in Tucson, at the Temple of Music and Art, owned by Arizona Theater Company. They’re our buddies, and there were many returning crew and staff members from when we played Henry V here two years ago. Most of the people I met on load-in day remembered me from last time. One was especially exciting, as one of our prop guys was not on the crew back then, but was in the stage management class that Nick and I had an hour-long talkback with after one performance (which apparently I didn’t blog about, because my computer was broken at the time). So it was cool to see that one of the students we met is now on our crew.

I had been hoping to call from backstage here, because I vaguely remembered it being possible, and happily it was quite a nice setup, so that’s what we went with. The only unfortunate side effect to calling from backstage on this show is that we have some floor-mounted pars that shine directly across the stage. Depending on the location of the calling desk, one or more of them might just be shining in my face for extended periods of time. There is one such light here, so I employed some sunglasses for the scenes where it’s on. Tim runs sound from right next to me, and prefers to pull up his hoodie and turn away.

After the show we rented a car and took a trip to Tombstone, AZ, where half the shops and attractions were closed by the time we got there, but we had a great time anyway, and got our desired fill of the old west. Here’s Olivia, Mariela and Tim walking off into the sunset.

We also pulled off the highway on the way back and parked in a totally deserted area to look at the stars. It was really cool. On the few occasions I’ve been able to see the milky way, it’s just been kind of, well, milky, just a slightly lighter band in the sky. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it before where you can actually see the individual points of light of all the stars, which is a totally different experience when you consider what it means and our place in the universe. It was a really amazing sight, and I would have loved to study it all night, but it was getting really cold in the desert after the sun went down, so we only stayed a few minutes.

It was a rather long, but very productive day. Except for Meaghan, who got food poisoning the day before from our (formerly) favorite sushi place, and was functional by show time, but was taking it easy for the rest of the day and missed the trip. We brought her back some souvenirs, though.

November 6, 2010

Phoenix – Round 2

I call this: On the Road Again,phones,tech,theatre — Posted by KP @ 1:23 am

We’ve spent this week in Phoenix, AZ, where we spent a week two years ago with Henry V, playing at the Herberger Theatre, presented by Arizona Theatre Company (who will also welcome us to their other venue in Tucson next week).

One of the highlights of the Henry tour, it’s once again great to be here with Romeo and Juliet. Here’s our set, as seen from the spot booth.

Last night was our official opening here. We had done three morning shows for school groups, performing for thousands of students, but last night was the first show open to the general public. The artistic director of ATC, David Ira Goldstein, welcomed us and introduced himself to everyone before the show, and then provided champagne and conversation in the greenroom afterwards. Here’s a picture of him with the cast and crew (I’m in the middle in the green shirt).

It’s always nice to get such a warm welcome and personal interaction with the presenters who have brought us in.

Here’s a shot of our upstage crossover, looking from stage right to stage left. There’s so much room that we have a full-length black traveler between the back of the set and the crossover, with just a little hole in the middle for entrances within the set. This allows the crossover to be fairly brightly lit for quickchanges and general hanging out. You can see the line of chairs set up and draped with costumes. Behind them are the workboxes for props and carpentry, easily accessible.

And finally as a bonus, I have a new iPhone wallpaper. The booth that I call from is also the audio booth, and the console sits right next to me (unmanned, since all the show sound is run from our console backstage). The venue’s console is a PM1D, which is very pretty when it’s lit up in the dark. I found it made a very nice wallpaper. Click on the thumbnail to see it full size (it’s big enough for the iPhone 4’s retina display). Enjoy, use, steal, but please give me credit if you share it!

October 26, 2010

More Early Tour Pictures

I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 8:58 pm

I’ve been taking lots of pictures this past week, so I’m going to share all the miscellaneous ones with you:

On our load-out day from Pace in New York, the truck was parked outside by the time we arrived for the matinee. On our dinner break before load out Tim, Olivia and Meaghan posed with the truck.

Meaghan was wearing a bandana on her head for the final performances at Pace. She said she felt like a Russian peasant woman, which I thought was especially appropriate when she came down the stairs carrying the water jugs for backstage, as though she had just pulled the water from the well. So I took a picture, which she requested also show that she was transporting Lady Capulet’s black shawl in the back of her hoodie (the shawl is hidden in a tiny box in the set for most of the show).

A random shot of the truck pack. I took this mostly to help document the configuration of the sound boxes, as they’re of a different size than last year’s package, so the positioning of this section of the pack is new.

The back of the set during load out from Pace. About half of it has been taken down at this point.

My hotel room in Palm Desert. I got up early and sat, not really out on the balcony for most of it, but I had the door open and sat right next to it while working at the desk, and it was awesome. My current hotel room in Northridge also has a balcony, but it looks out on parking garages and things, and doesn’t have any chairs. So, not as cool.

August 23, 2010

FLAT – A New Movie

I call this: summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 6:04 pm

If you liked Backstage Flood, then you have really low standards of entertainment, and you will love FLAT.

FLAT tells the story of an event that happened during our second-to-last performance of Hairspray. Before the final performance, we made a movie about it. The production values are much higher than Backstage Flood‘s. Which is not saying much. But we actually, like, put thought into it and stuff.

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