The house lights went down and I held my breath. The music started and Willy Wonka came through the curtain, lit by a followspot. I relaxed a little. It was opening night, packed auditorium. Sarah was backstage on headset, coordinating the activities of the running crew.
An invisible show happens behind and underneath what the audience sees. Curtains fly, lights go up and down, sets move, all because of stagehands and technicians. The stage manager coordinates their activity prior to and during the performance. It requires a cool head, a wide understanding of theater craft, and comprehensive knowledge of the production.
It was an exciting moment in my house when Sarah announced she’d been chosen as stage manager for the New Hartford Junior High production, Willy Wonka Jr. As far as Sarah’s concerned, that’s better than the lead. For two years now, stage management has been her college and career goal, and the fever only grows. I figure anybody who can stay awake through 25 run-throughs of Our Town must love theater.
During rehearsals, some of the student crew quit, some were fired. About one of those I asked, “I thought you were friends?” Sarah replied, “We are. This is business, not personal.” She created a position I’d never thought of – call it “stage manager’s morale booster.” Sarah: “I needed someone to make sure I didn’t stress out. She tells me I’m doing a good job and everything’s going to be OK.” That’s kind of impressive; what’s more, there was a waiting list of applicants for the job.
About 30 minutes into the show, the curtain closes, the stage lights fade and the followspots open in different places. The cues happen quickly; six people working together, timed just right. I held my breath, imagining the instructions being delivered over the headsets. Behind the curtain, the chocolate factory was being moved into place. In front of the curtain the actors gathered together, while a followspot slowly irised around them and finally closed to just Willy Wonka’s head. Then the light went out, and the actors lined up in the dark. The curtain opened on a transformed stage, brilliantly colorful. The silhouettes of the performers slowly melted into the scene with the final light cue. The audience applauded.
I applauded the spectacle along with everyone else, but my deeper satisfaction was pride (not just parental). I knew how difficult the maneuver had been, how many things might have gone wrong, or even not as right. And this was a student crew, running their own show. The rest went by in a blur; I registered the applause and noted more well-executed technical bits. My spine tickled with happy shivers, impressed at what the kids had pulled off, relieved the first show was in the bag.
During one rehearsal, Susan filled in when somebody had to leave early. She listened to Sarah on the headset, and later told me “It sounded like a younger, female version of you calling cues.” (Good heavens.) Frankly, it took me ten years to get that good. It’s an interesting and not at all unpleasant sensation to watch your children exceed you. I’m looking forward to what’s next. I’ll be there, ticket in hand.
“This is a warning for lights 35 and spot one on Willy, 3/4 body. And……… Go.”