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When I Ruled The Wings: True Stage Manager Tales

For ten years I was a theatrical stage manager – a job that people often realize, when they meet me, that they don’t quite “get”.  Once, after I’d been home for a visit, my grandfather and mother were chatting about me a bit when Grandpa finally gave her a sheepish, baffled look and meekly asked, “So….what exactly does a stage manager do?” 

An unpredictable everything.  That’s pretty much what they do.  We do a lot of administrative work and above-and-beyond catch-all stuff during rehearsals, and then during the performance phase we come in early and set everything up, check all the lights and sound effects are working, fix them if they aren’t, check all the costumes and props are in place and in good shape, fix them if they aren’t, and then make sure the cast and crew is all there in time and call them if they aren’t.  And during the show we cue all the lights and sound and troubleshoot the myriad tiny things that go wrong, and then after the show we wait until everyone has gone home and sweep up and put everything away and lock up and then come in early the next day and do it all again.

Sometimes we’re like Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction – we’re the ones that have to step in and fix it when some kind of disaster strikes.  Fortunately everyone else has the grace and the respect to stand back and let us do it, which – truth be told – is often all the situation needed, is for someone to just get on with doing something rather than panicking.

For example –


We were about midway through the run, midway through that afternoon’s show.  I was the stage manager for the company I worked with the most, one that does older American works.  I’d just finished setting everything up for Act II, and just finished giving the cast their five-minute warning before we started again.  I was actually on my way to the crowded bathroom when the lead actor, Tod, came to me, slightly panicked.  “Uh, I got a problem,” he said.  “The fly on my costume pants just broke.”

“How do you mean?” I asked.  He showed me – he’d zipped the zipper up, but the teeth had come apart, leaving his fly yawning wide open.  He’d struggled to pull the zip back down again to no avail.  “Oh my.”

“No, it’s okay,” he said, “I have my jacket on all through Act II, and I have a safety pin here – if we pin it closed I can get through the act and then fix it overnight.”

“Oh, that’s good!”  I said.  And then stood, expectantly waiting for him to take his pants off.

He stared back at me a couple seconds.  “Uh…we need to do that while they’re still on me, right?  Or else I wouldn’t be able to get them back on.”

“Oh.  Oh, right.”  I looked down at his fly again, then at the big diaper pin he was handing me.  Then at his fly again.  I took a deep breath.  “Tod,” I finally said, “I apologize in advance for fondling you way more than we thought I ever would.”  And then I crouched down at his feet.

I was able to slip the pin into the fabric, catching both halves of the split on it.  But the pants were heavy wool, and it was a really stubborn pin.  And so for three full minutes I struggled to get the pin closed, trying desperately not manhandle Tod overtly – every time I tugged at the fabric to get a better purchase I risked squeezing him, and every time the pin slipped open I risked poking him.  He just stood still, stoically bearing it while I pinched and poked and wrestled and cursed, and all the while time was ticking away and the show would have to start again.

And then at some point I happened to glance up – and I saw the entire rest of the cast had gradually come crowding back into our half of the wings, and were standing around us in a circle, watching me in fascination as if I were trying to juggle knives.

I just stared back at them all, then hissed, “Could we maybe have a bit of room, please?”  They all blinked, apologized, and stepped back.  And a second later, the safety pin finally clicked home.  Tod thanked me, relieved, and I stood up, took a deep breath, and calmly told everyone that it was “time for places, Act II.”  Wordlessly they got into place.

…I’ve actually run into Tod since then – he lives in my neighborhood, and we’ve both since drifted away from theater.  And while we’ve sometimes reminisced, neither one of us has ever alluded to the fact that at one point in our lives I was squeezing his crotch in public.




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