Friday, July 17, 2015

This Post is Dedicated to Nancy

"Perhaps, therefore, ideal stage managers need not only be calm and meticulous professionals who know their craft, but masochists who feel pride in rising above impossible odds."
- Peter Hall, Director of National Theater, England

Before I worked in film, I worked in theater, and my first real experience was as a minor actor in an ensemble play about Michael Servitas and the Protestant Reformation. It was a very long play. One reviewer said he felt like he had sat through the Protestant Reformation. It was done at a hot theater in summer and we wore heavy clothing, but it was there that I discovered the joys of stage managing through meeting Nancy Juliber.

I've told the entire story before, so I will spare long-time readers a complete recount. Suffice to say that Nancy took me on as an ASM on her next play, and I went on to stage manage probably close to a hundred small, Off-Broadway and so-far-off-Broadway-you-couldn't-find-them-with-a-map plays. Some were done with some of the best "downtown" companies and actors and directors.

Every play asked for a bio. As stage manager, you realize that nobody but your family cares about your bio. I always kept it brief. Sometimes it would be just one line - the line that would end all my bios in theater as stage manager and later as director and even the few times I got back to the stage as an actor.

This play is dedicated to Nancy.

I must admit that part of this was my own sense of humor. I loved the fact that if anyone bothered to read my bio, they might wonder who Nancy was. A lost love? The sister I lost as a child? My high school English teacher who inspired me to a life in the theater? At least, I hoped they wondered. More likely, they never gave it a thought.

However, in part, it was a sincere tribute. Nancy taught me how to stage manage, and later got me my first film production office job as assistant office production coordinator on a feature and showed me how to do that. I have talked lots about mentors, but no one contributed more to the direction of my career toward the production side more than Nancy. Indeed, stage managing prepared me for film production in many ways, from understanding how to protect and care for actors, how to make directors feel that subtle suggestions were, in fact, their ideas, and how to remain calm in the middle of storms. All of these skills helped me as First AD and, later, line producer and producer.

I got to thinking of this the other night when I went to see an old friend in a play at Soho Rep in Manhattan in the Anne Washburn play 10 Out of 12. 

The title refers to the number of hours Actors' Equity allows their members to work in a twelve hour period. The entire play is a tech rehearsal of a play we never see. It covers what Jesse Green of Vulture accurately calls "the only part of theatrical life almost everybody hates: the intense, soul-crushing boredom of tech rehearsal."Audience members are given headsets and can hear backstage chatter,  including the lighting and sound designers making adjustments and the stage crew reporting on how things are going.

And, of course,  the stage manager. Although the actress playing the stage manager is seen only briefly, she is, in many ways, the center of the show. The play is, intentionally or not, an homage to stage managers. If there is any doubt, check out the playwright's interview with three stage managers at the end of this post. 

Theater is not simpler or easier than film in many ways, but it is different. Watching this play, and laughing along at every inside joke, I was transported back to a time I remember now with fondness and love.

My first love, and I miss it. Like most first loves, the memory of it is likely way more satisfying than reality,  the bad days and the disappointments conveniently forgotten. 

The show is hilarious, and Gibson Frazier (the actor Upstage Left in period costume), who was writer, lead and producer on the film I am most proud of, brings the same incredible skill set I remember. He also gets to deliver a line that reflects not only the immediate crisis (a difficult actor making tech even more difficult) but, on a larger scale, maybe the absurdity of creating art at all:

“It’s too hard. It’s too complex. It’s too much of a task. It’s going to always lack. There will always be a kind of failure. We have to find a beauty in that.”

The characterizations were very much spot on, with just the right touch of existentialism and dramatic license. I also especially loved the director, played by the always wonderful Bruce McKenzie ( featured at the front of the stage above). Directors are often portrayed as fierce dictators. This director is much more what I remember, a benevolent despot who, in the end, is being blown around by the forces around him just as much as anyone else.

World-weary cynic that he is, he asks:

“With the playwright gone, where’s that little nimbus of panic and criticism right over by my right shoulder? How am I to know that I’m getting everything very subtly wrong?”

That reminds me of my stage directing days.

I would dedicate this post to him. Or to Gibson.

Except it's dedicated to Nancy.