In Focus: The Stage Manager

By Elizabeth MacNally

Elizabeth MacNally is the Production Stage Manager at the amazing Pillsbury House Theater. She’s also been a freelance stage manager, and held positions at the Guthrie and History Theatre. She works with theatre professionals from all walks of life. I always look forward to working with Elizabeth: it’s impressive to watch her work. -Wu Chen

When Wu Chen first asked me to do this, I thought the timing couldn’t be more perfect.  As I approach my 15-year anniversary with Actors' Equity and a member of the Twin Cities Theatre community, I started to reflect on where I’ve been in the past 15 years; where I thought I would go, and what I wish I would have known when I was still in school.  Wu Chen asked me to write about working in some of the rooms I find myself and how I navigated these rooms.

In order for me to understand where I am today, I had to go back to the beginning.  I was lucky enough to grow up in a household that valued art.  My parents took my younger brother and me to theatre all of the time.  I have very strong memories of seeing Children’s Theatre Company’s production of Cinderella at Saint Kate’s O’Shaughnessy auditorium; more on that later. I was also very lucky to meet Scott Peters at the very young age of eight.  My mother was a high school theater director and Scott was her set designer and builder.  I was allowed to ride along with Scott in his navy blue pickup and collect props from the basement of Mixed Blood and other amazing errands.  Scott told me if a high school student could figure out how to build something so could I.

After that I was ready to become a scenic designer.  Only there was a problem, I can’t draw and I lack an artist’s imagination, so it was back to the beginning.  I started to audition for summer community theatre with my mom, she would get cast and I would not.  Now being a young person, I thought my mom’s rule for her high school students was the way theatre worked (if she didn’t cast you but you volunteered for the crew, she would find a place for you in an upcoming production.)  So I thought, “Great, I can be on the crew at the age of 9!”  And it was amazing! I was in charge of getting Sandy, in the Elk River Community Theatre’s production of Annie (Directed by Mary Finnerty), to all of her entrances and catch her when she would exit.  The following summer I crawled around the Oliver set opening trap doors and plugging in specials no one else could reach. I had found my place.  I was made for the crew!  I did get cast in a production of Bye Bye Birdie, because the director of Oliver remembered what a good kid I was backstage.  I hated it. Right before we started tech, I asked if I could drop out and join the crew.  My mom informed me I had to follow through with my commitments.  Bye Bye Birdie at the age of 13 was the beginning and the end of my acting career.  I knew tech theatre was for me.

Now, I know this is not a common road to stage management.  Not many folks enter under wanting to be a professional stage manager. In fact, most folks don’t know what a stage manager really does.  But, there I was, 19 years old in the fall semester of my first year in college, registered in intro to stage management.  Little did I know I would be stage managing the first show of my first semester, with a cast of all upper class people!  This would be the first time I would have to prove myself, in a room I wasn’t sure I really belonged, and had to manage a group of people who didn’t need to trust me and could make my life very difficult.  Several of the cast members were known to put under class members through their paces.   I was lucky enough to have Angelique Powers, an upper classmate, give me the encouragement and advice to make it through that first show.  At the end of that first semester, Q informed me I was going to have to take on the spring musical, since she would be in London.  How? What? Why?  I was 19 and scared.  The spring musical was huge, and I really had no idea about musicals, but I made it, I was strong and got a lot of praise for the department.

While attending Rockford University, I received two internships. The first was a semester long internship at New American Theatre, a small SPT theatre in Rockford with their amazing stage manager Kathi Koenig.  The second one was a summer internship at the Guthrie Theater with Chris Code, Martha Kulig, Jenny Batten, and Sara McFadden.  I wish I could put into words what I learned from these amazing stage managers, but all these years later I can’t find the words.  I saw the best of the best handle big personalities, stressful moments with an amazing level of control and staying calm under pressure.  It was with their skills and guidance, I was able to enter this profession.  I strongly believe that without these internship I would not have been ready to enter this field when I did.

During my first show in the twin cities, Tamarack, at the Jungle Theater, I really started to understand managing a room.   At the time I believed I needed to come across older than I am, (I wanted them to think “I looked good for my age”), know the subject matter to support conversations that would happen in the room and most importantly know the equity rules.  I was young and right out of school, but there I was staging managing for Bain Boehlke and working with an amazing cast, Terry Hempleman, Barbara Kingsley and Stephen Yoakam.  I was scared, this was the big times.  Bain was tough on me, but remember earlier I said Children’s Theater Company production of Cinderella had a major impact on me?  It was here at the Jungle Theater, I would have flashes from my childhood of Bain creating magic on stage, and he wasn’t as scary anymore.  

It was also during this time at the Jungle I had a horrible interview for a stage management job.  I was asked two of the oddest questions.  The first, “How do I handle my height as a stage manager?”  I thought I had the perfect response, “I’m not short!  I can always make myself taller”.  And the second, “How did I work with such professional actors, Terry, Barbara and Stephen, when I had such little experience?”  It was this question that really caught me off guard, I said, “We are all professionals, I respect them as artists and they respect me to do the job, I was hired to do.”  Needless to say I didn’t get this job, and I didn’t lose any sleep over it.  

At the time I don’t think I truly understood why this interview upset me so much.  I thought “it wasn’t the kind of theatre I wanted to do”, because I only do “real theatre”, or so other bullshit like that.  After I had been out of school for several years I used to think my department should have me back to tech a master class entitled “When they didn’t teach me, in stage management class”.   In school I was taught technical side, the fundamentals of stage management, how to read a ground plan, how to tape out a rehearsal space, and all the paperwork I could even want.  But no one taught me what the emotional or human side of my job that I had to learn on my own.  How do you relate to a company that may not be trust you because of your age, your sex or your skin tone?  How do you help guide a company through a tragic event?  No one told me, when your phone rings at 9:01am it’s never good news.  It’s 9:01am so the person was waiting until after 9am to call you, to say the one phrase I hate more than any other “I’m okay but…” .  No you are not okay, you are calling me at 9:01am to tell me something has happened that will affect the show in a major way for some period of undetermined time.

It wasn’t until earlier this year when a national email forum I’m a part of addressed “the role of the stage manager in the room” that I really tried to understand my own process how I handled these issue and found some real understanding to this interview, so many years ago.  I’ve worked with a lot of amazing people on a lot of amazing projects.  And I’ve come to understand that I believe the best way for a show to be successful is if everyone is working together to serve the play first and foremost.  This is a new understanding for me and one I will continue to explore.  I know there is a fine line that I dance as a stage manager in a collaborative process. But, it’s this dance, this passion I have for theatre that allows me to be a successful stage manager even when I’m in a room I may not totally understand or belong in.  It’s my respect of art and process that allows me to be successful.