Sightlines: Managing Transitions

Article by Tree O'Halloran

Tree O’Halloran is a long time stage manager in town with a vast amount of experience both in the theater and in managing a family and she talks about the interrelationship of the two in her article.  She is currently the production stage manager at the Guthrie and it is a pleasure to have her writing for us. - Mike Wangen

As careers go, I won the lottery. In love with all things theater, from a very young age I discovered stage management while in college. I remember clearly the Equity stage manager telling us, "My job is about communication." Sign me up! I had, fortunately, landed at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, a state university with a small undergraduate theater program and a resident LORT theater (my mother was under the impression that I was going there for the excellent journalism school!)  My four years of college were a four-year intensive internship; assisting on all the PlayMakers Rep productions and stage managing the department shows while being mentored by two experienced and remarkable Equity SMs.  By senior year I had my Equity card and a wealth of experience. Right place, right time, and a whole lot of hard work. 

I miraculously navigated the transition from college to career, benefiting from the many contacts I had made at Playmakers Rep and my grueling summer stock internship at Williamstown Theater Festival. I worked steadily; StageWest, Hartford Stage, Williamstown, off-Broadway. A move to Minneapolis in late 1987 meant introducing myself to a whole new market.  Surely my vast experience on the east coast would make for a quick transition.  Not so much.  In the late 80s the Twin Cities theater community was a vibrant and tight-knit group. But one small gig led to another.  By the early 90s I was employed regularly at the Guthrie and the Children's Theater Company and also continued to work out of town in Houston, Columbus, and back to Williamstown. Freelancing was financially and logistically challenging, but I thrived on the freedom it gave me to work with a variety of institutions and artists; a freedom only possible because I had the emotional and financial stability that comes from being in a strong, long-term relationship.  In 1993, my work with avant-garde theater artist Robert Wilson (who I first worked with at the Alley Theatre in Houston) brought me overseas to a hilltop in Sicily and then to an abandoned train yard in Florence. I was barely 30 years old and doing the best and most exciting work of my career!  Must be time to have a baby.

The biological clock thing?  It's real.  I knew that stage managing moms existed, but I had never met one. How did they do it?  I was overwhelmed by the idea! My brand of stage management was hardcore - intensive and all immersive - and "balance" wasn't in my vocabulary.  My husband and I, both theater professionals, realized child care costs would kill us.  It was time for me to take a year off. When the year was up, I returned to work but with a limited scope, taking over a few shows that were already running. Soon a second pregnancy and a special-needs diagnosis for one of our children meant that returning to work was almost impossible. I was suddenly on indefinite leave.   

Fast forward 10 years. Kids are in school, money is tight, and college looms. I'd spent the decade taking the very occasional SM replacement work and being our school's "Talent Show Mom."  Going back to Stage Management full time would mean working nights, 6 days a week, and weekends. But my heart wasn't ready to explore alternative careers.  Even after my 10 year absence I was still passionate about being in the rehearsal room.  I started talking about it to friends, mentioning it at parties, and letting my network know I was ready to transition back to a stage management career.  Two months later the Jungle called and offered me a show. Right place, right time, hard work.

I didn't even know what a family-friendly stage management experience might look like. I did know that freelancing was now my friend because I could begin by taking shows that fit into our family schedule and transition slowly back to full time. It's an understatement to say that the juggling act of working parents is exhausting.  And the emotional toll is hard to understand if you haven't experienced it firsthand. Smaller theaters offered shorter rehearsal periods and more flexibility. I could dash from Illusion Theater right at 4:30pm, make it to the after school drop off in south Minneapolis, get my kids home, and then get myself back to the Illusion by 6:00pm, if traffic wasn't bad. I was now an SM who might be LATE!!!  I was now an SM who had to keep her phone handy and on vibrate, who had to step out of the room to take a call from her kid, who had to get up at 6:30am every day and drive kids to school no matter how late tech ran. And on top of it all, I was a "mature" SM who was 10 years behind on all things technological (smartphones, apps, programs, you name it!)  

But I was also an SM who had a new perspective, a new calm; a stage manager who could take more things in stride and who always managed to see the bigger picture, a stage manager who could use the word “balance” often and with pride. My focus was still the work but I had a new confidence when it came to working with colleagues, giving notes to actors, and having opinions on the work we did. I was also the only stage manager of my years who was giddy as a kid to be in the rehearsal room!  As my kids grew I took more and more work including two out of town gigs in Hartford and Houston which my kids now describe as their favorite vacations. They grumbled when I missed school events and stayed up way too late to talk to me when I got home from performances. They told me they didn't like me working but then I would hear from neighbors and teachers how proud the kids were to talk about the shows I was stage managing.  My "kids" may be 17 and 19 now, but I will always be a working parent.

My freelancing days are behind me, at least for the time being. I landed back at the Guthrie in 2010 stage managing a few studio shows and moved to full-time in 2012. In January 2014, I became the theater's Production Stage Manager (I still have to pinch myself when I say that!)  Right place, right time, hard work.  The new and broader perspective on my return to stage management sparked my interest in positively influencing the organization as a whole. I want to support and help actors, stage managers and staff to manage their own transitions; whether it's negotiating a change in leadership, embracing new attitudes and initiatives in diversity and inclusion, or creating the balance between vibrant career and healthy family as we all grow and mature in this business.  Not a shabby second act.