Discuss It With Management

Production Stage Manager Valerie Wheeler calls cues at the opening night performance of Opera Cleveland's Hansel and Gretel.

How did you come to be a stage manager specifically for opera?

I was dragged kicking and screaming into opera. I was an Equity stage manager right out of college, just finishing up a play. Not having any new shows lined up, I asked the director if he had any other productions coming up for which he might consider me. He told me of an opera project that he would love to have me on. I laughed and proclaimed, “I don’t do OPERA. I’m a THEATER stage manager.” He asked if I read music, which I did. He said, “You’ll do opera.” So, begrudgingly but seeing an opportunity to do something new, I accepted the contract. The first day of rehearsal blew me away–the voices, the voices. I was hooked. The caliber of the singers and conductor left me wondering why they didn’t ask me to leave the room as an impostor.

You are at every rehearsal, meticulously taking and reading notes? What are you doing, exactly?

Essentially, stage managers are video recorders. We record all movement in the rehearsal and can call it back in detail when needed. The notes I’m taking are staging notes called blocking. Any move the director has the performers do, I write down and map it in a miniature diagram (mini). Each page of the score has a corresponding mini. Every entrance, exit, step, gesture, costume worn and prop used is noted as well as when and where those things happen in the music. The stage manager’s score is often called the “prompt book”. Other notes I might be taking would be those pertaining to the production departments that are not present in the rehearsal. The stage manager is responsible for keeping all departments in the loop about the progress of the rehearsals and issues / concerns that arise throughout the staging process.

Stage managers “call the show.” What does this mean?

Stage Managers run the show (flexing muscles here). The show can consist of hundreds of cues / tasks (recorded in the prompt book) that need to be given to the singers, the props running crew, the costume running crew, wigs and make up crew, the light operators, the rail (fly) operators and the deck hands, even the front of house (house managers and ushers). All of the crews take their cues from the stage manager. In order to give these cues to all of the departments from one location, the stage manager “calls” them over a headset and paging system to which the crews are listening.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

There are a ton of things. I love my job, but one of my secret joys is attending the orchestra rehearsals. How many people get to sit and do paperwork with his/her own private orchestra playing in the same room? But the best thing about my job is watching my colleagues perform. Amazing.

What is the most difficult part about stage managing?

This is definitely different for each stage manager and for me it varies from production to production depending on the company, the cast and the crew. Shows can be technically very difficult to put together but easy to run because of how well the departments all work together. The opposite is also true. Shows can be technically simple to put together but a nightmare to run because of poor communication, battling artistic differences and egos, and lack of coordination.

What are you looking forward to when you return to Cleveland?

Seeing Carl the Opera Chicken. Working with Opera Cleveland. This company is striving to do it right and succeeding.Working in the State Theater. It’s a beautiful theater and a wonderful space to work in. The crews are top notch.

Any particular places in the NE Ohio area you want to visit again?

Technical Director Lisa Kish took me on a trip to Amish Country and I would love to visit again. I didn’t have the opportunity to catch any ball games last time I was there, but I want to experience a tribe home game at least once.

Do you have any memorable stage managing folly stories you’d like to share?

Oh wow! The list of follies is loooooong. Live theater—anything can happen and usually does. Here’s a few that make me laugh

- A singer portraying a nun accidentally got her wimple caught in the door as she entered because I called the cue to close the door too soon. The wimple actually jammed the door. After several attempts at discretely getting her wimple free, she gave up and simply sang the entire scene with her head caught in the door. What else was a nun to do?

- The main curtain got stuck on the way out (read, not my fault). It only got as high as the singers waists before snagging. The music had started, the singers were singing, but all the audience could see were the singers legs. Some of the singers actually squatted down to sing under the curtain. We had to stop the show, fix the curtain, and start over.