In Focus: The Production Manager

Article by Nancy J. Waldoch

Besides being the production manager and stage manager for Ten Thousand Things, Nancy Waldoch is a also scenic carpenter. She and I have worked together for many years. Her sharp mind doesn’t miss much and at this point, she’s got much more to teach me and I had to teach her all those years ago when she was a production intern in the scene shop at Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Her calm competence at her jobs at Ten Thousand Things has made her a well-known and highly regarded figure in Twin Cities theater and I’m honoured to have her write for us. -Wu Chen

In the fall of 2006, fresh out of college, I started as an intern with Minneapolis based Ten Thousand Things Theater. I stuck around, made myself useful and eventually got a new title Production Manager.

My tasks have grown and shifted over the years as we as a company have grown and shifted. My specific responsibilities are definitely not “typical” production manager responsibilities. I have very little interaction with the budget aside from encouraging the artistic team to stick to it. Because for our size I stage manage all the shows but I also book all of our free performances and am the primary point of contact for all our partners.* In addition, I do all typical front of house duties. So why do I consider myself to be a production manager?

Production Manager made sense as a title for my position within Ten Thousand Thing (TTT) because, as far as our small staff could surmise, that was pretty much what I did, “managed” the production. In a small company and as the originator of my position what “production manager” means for me is very different than what a production manager means at another company. Every production manager I have had the pleasure of interacting with has had an equally hard time defining what exactly it is that they do and every definition is a reflection of the company (and in an ideal world) the company’s mission that they are coming from.

A few weeks ago I was able to attend (the first half**) of a panel put together by Technical Tools of the Trade on Production Managers. It was moderated by Chris Garza, a man about town and occasional production manager himself featuring David Stewart, the new Director of Production at the Guthrie and Matt Earley, Production Manager of Mixed Blood Theater. David gave the best simple definition of production manager that I’ve heard so far, he found it in his time in the corporate world as a project manager. Essentially, the job is usually to plan, budget, oversee and document a project from start to finish.

Even though the idea behind it all, planning and executing a production successfully is the foundation there are a myriad of reasons why this job title varies so greatly in specific responsibilities depending on where you are. In my humble opinion, the zero factor is generally budget. The size of the organization in terms of budget will affect physical space (or lack thereof), number of productions in a season, number of employees and staff, who your artists are and who your audience is. A theater with a $30 million budget, a huge physical footprint and multiple stages active all year long is going to require a much different set of responsibilities then a company that produces 3 shows a year with an annual budget of less than $800k.

Okay, so there is a lot of variability in what production managers might do within a specific company but I’d rather focus on some traits that describe who a production manager is.

We are dabblers and doers.

Most production managers come from one of two tracks, stage management or production/technical direction. It just so happens that about 33% of my job with Ten Thousand Things is what would typically be called stage management and for a number of years prior to going full time with Ten Thousand Things I moon-lighted as a carpenter and technical director around town so I fit the mold.

Whether someone got to production management from stage management, or another side of production be it technical direction, construction, sound, lighting, costumes, the common thread is that we have at least a rudimentary knowledge of most, if not all of the elements that go into putting together a show and at some point we’ve gotten our hands dirty in the action of it. One of my boss's favorite things to tell people about my skill set is that I can weld. I have never had to weld anything in any capacity for Ten Thousand Things, but you never know, maybe someday I will.  

We are good listeners and so we are good interpreters.

It often feels like different languages are spoken across the disciplines in theater, we are your interpreters. By knowing at least a little bit about most areas, not being afraid to ask questions and sincerely listening we can often quickly recognize and embrace the nuances of our team and learn to speak director, set designer, sound designer, musician, actor, managing director, whichever. One foot is the same on every tape measure but it is not the same in everyone’s minds eye. We can delicately say that, know that, and bring along a tape measure to get us all on the same page.

We are artistic advocates and team players.

We also tend to be pretty practical people and so when producers, directors, designers, actors come to us with what can seem at first to be outrageous ideas our first inward impulse may very well be, “that is ridiculous”. On the outside though we are going to be the best improve partner we can with “yes and” and work hard to see a vision through.  Our minds are constantly turning to figure out how do we do it? Is it possible to make this crazy idea come to fruition?  Sometimes we do say no. It’s true. But we are always searching for a way to not have to. A big part of our job is to keep an environment creative and open to possibility, if we start with no we shut that creativity down and aren’t doing our jobs.

We’re big picture thinkers and problem solvers.  

We have the whole productions, the whole season, in our heads. We’re constantly thinking ahead while doing our best to stay in the moment and keep room for creativity. We have very complex calendars and schedules rolling through our minds. On the same note, we are human and sometimes we need a minute to think.

We want the show to succeed and we’re dedicated to making that happen.

 

*It should be noted that TTT is pretty unique company. We are a small, professional touring company and we perform in non-traditional settings like gyms, cafeterias, and large classrooms for both traditional theater audience’s and not-so-traditional audience’s like inmates at correctional facilities or persons at a homeless shelter. We create beautiful work with fabulous artist with very little stuff and next not none of the usual theatrical flare. We perform in the round with all the lights on no matter where we are or who our audience is. We have 1 (maybe 2 if it’s a musical) live musicians and about as high tech as we get is a key board, maybe an electric guitar. Our set designers create simple and intricate worlds with stipulations like nothing can be taller than 7’2”, must fit through a standard doorway, be less than 40 pounds, usually on wheels, and everything must fit in the back of a cargo van and be assembled in less than 20 minutes with no tools. Out costume designers go in knowing that the actors take and maintain their own costumes so ironing is generally a non-started and dry cleaning is next to impossible. Yeah, it’s pretty unique.

**I have a 13 month old son that accompanied me to the Production Manager panel and it was his bedtime, hence only staying for half. Had I now had a sleeping disruptive child I’d have stayed. Make sure you are checking out these Technical Tools of the Trade panels people. They are good.