Theater In Conversation
STAGE MANGERS Lloyd Davis Jr., Cole Bonenberger, and Martha Donaldson with Gary Winter
Over the past 10 years, the Rail theater section has focused its coverage on playwrights—new voices, more established and ever-reinventing voices, the scripts. Recently, we began talking about expanding our vision to embrace all the practitioners who blend their arts and collaboratively come together to make a script become a play.
Gary Winter launches this series of interviews with the keystone of a theatrical production: Stage Managers. Those under-sung heroes and heroines. What do they do? Who are they? To most theater-goers, SMs are invisible; to anyone who has put up a show, they are among the first persons hired, the most-often-person-called (in the middle of the night), and the last person on the set: long after the director and designers have moved on to their next shows (or back to a regular sleep schedule), the SM works tirelessly on, the consistent eye from first rehearsal through closing night.
In futures issues, we will interview designers, directors, producers, and all the players involved back-stage, above-stage, and beyond-stage. If you’d like to be involved in this project as writer or subject, send me a note at email@example.com.
—Emily DeVoti, Theater Editor
LLOYD DAVIS JR.
Gary Winter (Rail): Could you let me know what you’re working on now and have coming up next?
Lloyd Davis Jr.: Just finished FELA. I now have a much needed three weeks off before I head to my summer stock place in Vermont (the Weston Playhouse) to do Ain’t Misbehavin’.
Rail: Can you tell me something about the finer points of SMing that people don’t know?
Davis: Very few people really know what we do. There was an article in Backstage many years ago written by a stage manager that kinda said it all. He said he had tried explaining to his parents what he does. He finally said to his mother, “Mom, I am in charge from the curtain going up to the curtain coming down.” His mother’s response was: “Three years for an MFA at Yale and all you do is raise and lower a curtain??” That is my favorite SM story—and it is all too true. I have been doing this for 30 years and my parents still do not know 1) my title (they call me “stage director,” “manager of the stage”…and my favorite…“directing manager!!”) or 2) what I do. I have given up correcting them and explaining it. All they say now is, “Lloyd is in the theater!”
Most people do not know that we are the “creative catalysts” in the rehearsal process. It is our job to set the tone of the rehearsal room so that everyone feels emotionally/intellectually free and secure to do their job.
Rail: Could you talk about the impact/response of FELA on audiences in America versus audiences around the world, particularly in Africa?
Davis: We brought the show “home” to Nigeria, which was extraordinary. The African audience actually sang along with the show because they knew all of the songs and the history. It was beautifully eerie, inspiring, and energizing after playing to the New York audience, who (for the most part) were being educated about FELA. Though on Broadway we had (many) people who came to see the show many, many times. It certainly had a cult following here.
The sad part (to me!) is that in NYC and in Africa the people who should have seen the show (the young, the students, and the working class), could not afford to see it. Although in Lagos our amazing producer, Steve Hendel made it possible for many of these people to see the show. But mostly, the ticket prices in Lagos (and on Broadway), made the show available only to the middle/upper middle class.
Rail: Can you talk about how you see your role in the emotional part of a show?
Davis: Well, emotionally.... When you are calling a show, you find that you have to become, in a way, one of the characters as you have to get into the rhythm of the show in your timing of calls—more with plays than with musicals. (Musicals are usually always called on the beat.) And you have to be ready to change as the actors change. During rehearsals one has to be sensitive to the arc of the play and know when to call breaks.
When does the job take on more supportive/personal dimensions? The answer: ALWAYS!! The stage manager is, from day #1: stage manager, a k a maintainer of the artistic vision (the real job)…and…mother, father, baby sitter, psychiatrist, secretary, drill sergeant, nurse, doctor, disciplinarian, teacher, confidante, booking agent, shopper, go-between, advisor, banker, postal worker, computer whiz.
OR as a very seasoned SM once said to me when I was complaining about all I was being asked to do: “Lloyd, if directors and actors start asking you to do things outside of the rehearsal room, it means you are a damned good stage manager. They think you can get anything accomplished. You should take it as a compliment.” I have tried to look at it that way, though at times it becomes difficult. E.g., I did a show once, many moons ago, that ran for a very long time. The show was over. A week after the show closed, one of the actors called me at 6:00 am and asked me, “Lloyd, sorry to wake you, but how do I get a car service to the airport?” I hung up the phone!
Rail: What are you working on now and what do you have coming up next?
Cole Bonenberger: I am currently working on Picked by Christopher Shinn and directed by Michael Wilson at the Vineyard. After that closes, I go up to NY Stage and Film to work on F2M by Patricia Wettig and directed by Maria Mileaf.
Rail: What does an SM do?
Bonenberger: This is a basic question that comes up a lot and I have never been able to answer it in a way that satisfies me. In essence I communicate, coordinate, and facilitate for all aspects of the production.
Rail: Can you think of something you’d like us to know about working with you that you think we should know? What makes for an ideal (or bad) working relationship?
Bonenberger: Any problem can be solved if the resources are available and the most important resource for everyone is time. The more time I have to prep for something, the better the solution will be.
As for working relationships, I’ve come to the conclusion (and this mostly regards directors) that it comes down to personalities gelling. There are some people I work well with and can create a great room for them to work in, and there are others that we just don’t operate in a way that works with each other. I couldn’t articulate it better than saying some personalities work better together than others.
Rail: Can you talk about what it’s like to work on the same show night after night? How do you maintain focus?
Bonenberger: It’s never the same show night after night. I don’t care how consistent the actors are, there is always something different as the show grows throughout the run. Paying attention to whether that growth helps or hurts the story is how I maintain focus.
Rail: Can you talk about how you see your role in the emotional part of a show? Does your job ever take on a more personal dimension?
Bonenberger: I generally try to just keep the room focused on what needs to be done that day. Even in the worst of situations, actors are an adaptable breed and so long as there’s a stage and an audience, you can find a way to put on the show. (This lesson was learned on tour where you don’t always know what situation you will be walking into.)
As for the personal aspects, I try to not get involved. If someone has an issue in their personal life, I don’t think it should be brought into work, and if it’s an issue between people working on the show then it’s easier to deal with if I remain objective for as long as possible.
Rail: How have your ideas about theater evolved since you’ve been in the biz? How do you feel nowadays about theater’s role in the city/the world?
Bonenberger: When I started working in ’95, as a cocky kid I thought I knew what worked and didn’t onstage. However, over the years someone would ask me to facilitate an idea that I knew wouldn’t work but I’d make happen for them anyway. It being my job. And once the idea was executed it would generally be clear that I was wrong and the idea worked great or was at least interesting. So, over the years, I’ve realized that I know less than I thought I did and I get more and more comfortable with that.
As for theater’s role in the city/world, I’ll leave that to the academics.
Rail: What are you working on and what do you have coming up?
Martha Donaldson: Currently stage managing Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures (IHO), at the Public Theater. This summer I’m going up to work at NY Stage and Film on a musical called Piece of My Heart about the songwriter Bert Berns, directed by Leigh Silverman.
Rail: Tell me what you do.
Donaldson: The stage manager is basically responsible for everything concerning the production. We are there to facilitate information and to help guide the production from the first rehearsal through to the closing night. I work closely with the director: scheduling rehearsals, contacting everyone, disseminating information, and also making sure union rules are adhered to. We are there to make sure that everything runs smoothly.
An important part of our job is gauging the emotional temperature of the room and being sensitive to that. In rehearsals, knowing when to ask a question, or hand out new pages, or present a new prop or rehearsal costume is often key to having a happy process, at least for that moment.
I feel that the stage manager is dedicated to the director, and I am really fortunate to be working with Michael Greif on IHO. Michael is very smart and is always thinking many steps ahead, so just keeping up with him is a challenge, but trying to stay two steps ahead of him is even harder! So the constant challenge for me is to anticipate where he’s going next, what his needs are going to be. For example, if I can anticipate that Michael is going to want to run a scene over in rehearsal, then I will make sure that we get ready ahead of time to do that scene again, to minimize the time we spend getting re-started.
Rail: Working with Tony Kushner?
Donaldson: I stage managed Homebody/Kabul, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work on another new play by Tony Kushner. He’s one of the most brilliant writers we have, and he also happens to be one of the nicest people I have ever known.
Rail: What do you learn about IHO, watching it every night?
Donaldson: In addition to learning fascinating obscure facts about the history of New York, I enjoy watching how the show evolves/changes every night. You notice an actor doing something ever so slightly different every show. What’s also exciting is that I sometimes feel like I’ve heard a line for the first time, or an exchange will take on different meaning each time you hear it. Because we’re dealing with human beings the show is naturally going to be different each night.
Rail: Theater and politics?
Donaldson: Theater can be both. The first time I saw the play The Vagina Monologues it really changed my life. I went on to work on a national tour of that show and it really stirred up a lot of strong feelings in many of the cities that we went to. Who knew that vaginas could be political? Any show that shakes people up and makes them think differently can be called political, but I also think it is important to not be preachy. I certainly think IHO succeeds in that sense.
Rail: Other thoughts?
Donaldson: I am very happy when I get a chance to work with older people in the theater. They bring an incredible insight and wisdom to what we do and why. One time, I got the chance to work on a play by Caryl Churchill that starred Sam Shepard. There I was sitting in the rehearsal room with these two people whose work I studied in college. I just thought, “How did I ever get to be in this theater nirvana?” Amazing.
Special thanks to Maria Goyanes (Associate Producer at the Public Theater), Robert Kaplowitz (sound designer), and Danny Sharron (Assistant to the Associate Producer, the Public), for putting Gary in touch with Lloyd, Martha and Cole.