No one else was going to clean up this mess. The actors were not going to fix the uneven lights anymore than the lighting designer and electricians were going to fix the actors’ stumbles. The director and set/props designer were never going to agree 100% on the look of the play. The playwright was not going to stop hounding the sound designer about the clarity of the lines and volume of the music and the sound designer was never going to talk to anybody, which meant that Tina had to squeeze the information she needed out of him like the juice from shreds of potato that were destined to become a latke.
Because Tina was the Stage Manager; all messes were her messes to clean up.
And as she looked down from her booth, over the 89 seat theatre, at the chaos below that was the union mandated ten minute break following the rehearsal of a crucial scene, she fought off the instinct to ponder how she had gotten herself into this one. That was not the way to look at things. Tina was one of the few theatre people who had learned that no matter how bad things got in rehearsals, things would come together for the opening. It wasn’t magic, it was will, an unspoken agreement that no one would do anything wrong this time. Small mistakes would come later: forgotten props, flubbed lines, missed cues. Nothing that would be repeated, but small hiccups as everyone got comfortable with the machine they were part of. It wouldn’t be a disaster.
Tina knew this. She had danced this dance many times. This time was no different. Except it was. It was because of the interview she had had the morning of the day before. An interview for a job on Broadway.
“And the biggest space you’ve stage managed in was how big?” the director asked.
“About six hundred seats. That was the Ramsdell back in Manistee. But the house is bigger. It originally sat twice as many, but they don’t seat people in the gallery anymore.”
“The Ramsdell. Isn’t that where James Earl Jones got his start?”
“Yup. We’re proud of our native son.”
“I worked with him, oh, thirty years ago. Great guy. But in New York, what’s the biggest?”
“I think it was two fifty.”
“Broadway’s different. I mean, your credits are amazing, but this is a big show I’m directing. I need someone really solid.”
“What are you doing now? Is it this at the top here?”
“When does that open?”
“A week from Thursday.”
“Why don’t I come see a preview? See you in action. A kind of audition.”
“Would you be in the booth with me?”
“No.” He laughed. Tina was relieved that he laughed. “I wouldn’t impose on your presumably already cramped workspace. I’ll be in the audience. But I’ll know how you’re doing. I’ll sense it.”
“I’ll have them hold you a ticket. What day?”
“Oh, a show like this needs as many paying audience members as it can get. Am I right? Besides, if I buy it for myself, you won’t know when I’m coming. I think that’s better.”
It was better, but also worse. Tina didn’t know if she had a week or a few days to make the show run perfectly, and it was not like she wouldn’t have anyway. It was her job to. This just added extra pressure.
But she really wanted that Broadway job.
She picked up the god mic. “Back to work, ladies and gentlemen, back to work. Places for top of act two.”
By the first preview, a few days later, the play was running from start to finish. That was good.
But the young male lead, a tall and conventionally handsome Yale graduate named Jordan, was still missing lines. He would stare at his female counterparts (a young one who was older than him by a few years named Jenny and a much older one, and an old friend of Tina’s, named Michelle) until either he remembered it, which was rare, or they took the hint and moved the scene along without it, which Michelle, from decades of experience, had a much easier time with than Jenny had.
At the production meeting afterward, as the team sat in the top two rows of the audience, Tina asked her production assistant, “Zach, do you have time to run lines with him back stage?” She knew he did, but it wasn’t her style to just command him to.
“Yeah, I can do that. Any particular parts?”
Tina gave a tight lipped but still warm smile and said, “Nope, just as much as you can from the beginning. At least for a few nights. Next on the agenda?”
The director spoke up. “Are we on set now? Can we get different curtains for the kitchen scene? I just don’t think brown is the right color, especially against a lighter brown wall.”
“It’s all in shades of brown,” the set designer said. “That’s the idea.”
“Well, maybe black, or just…”
“Black is not brown, and is going to really stick out under those lights.”
“If we can get them to point in the right direction,” the director muttered. The lighting designer, a nervous woman a few years younger than Tina, scribbled the note, and Tina thought it must be in her notebook several times already. Tina wished the lighting designer would stick up for herself more, but hadn’t had time in the busy production schedule to say anything to her.
“I will look into gray curtains for the kitchen scene. Maybe dirty gray curtains, grimy, so there’s still some brown.”
“Dark gray,” the director threw in.
“The gray that I think works.”
“The gray that is available,” Tina broke in, attempting to make peace, “and that we can get before we freeze the show.” Tina made her own note. Both men looked sharply at her, but she would not look back. Still pretending to be writing, she said, “Anything else from set and props.”
“I don’t like the pot in the corner,” the director quipped.
“It was your idea, and I agreed, we can’t have a bare corner there,” the set designer said.
“I’ve changed my mind. I’d like to see a run with the emptiness.”
“I made that specifically for…”
Eventually, Tina moved on to lights. “Anything Cathy? Or anything for Cathy?”
Cathy looked up. “Um, I know what I need to work on.”
“There were some shadows,” the director began, and Tina took up the comment so as to spare Cathy the director’s tone. “Yes, um, from that light tree in the corner. Not big, terribly noticeable shadows, just in the wrong place, visible just on the wall. Maybe put that light up a little higher and angle it down a little more.”
“Ok.” Cathy made the note and Tina turned back to the rest of the group. “Anything else for lights? Other than the adjustments we discussed earlier.” No one said anything. “Right. Sound?”
“It was beautiful, Robby, really.” The director was always extra complimentary to the sound designer. Tina wished he would throw some of that Cathy’s way.
Robby very quietly said, “Thank you.”
“Joan, you were saying that it’s a real hustle to do the transition from the third scene to the fourth?”
The assistant stage manager joined the discussion. “Yeah, is there any way we can get more time?”
“What do you say, Robby, can you give us a bit more music there?” Tina asked.
“I like it the way it is,” the director said. “It flows nicely.”
“Maybe from what you can see,” Tina said, “but Michelle nearly fell in the melee backstage tonight, and it was a direct result of how fast everything was going back there.”
“You weren’t back there to see, how do you know what the cause was?”
“I trust my run crew when they tell me the situation is unsafe. I’m just asking for, maybe, fifteen extra seconds, is that ok? Robby, can you do that?”
Robby nodded, and typed the note into his computer. It shouldn’t be too hard, Tina thought, it’s mostly a vamp anyway. The director was not happy, but he knew that safety was a priority with Tina. She’d injured her foot backstage on a previous production of his.
“Alright, if that is all, and we know, as we’ve established, that we need to start wiping the windows before each run now that there is light behind them and we can see handprints, and that we have new chairs on the way, more period appropriate…”
“Not tomorrow, because I’m working all day on another set, but by Saturday,” the set designer said.
“That’s fine. I think we’re set. Go home, get rest. There’s painting on the stage happening in the morning, so the earlier you get here, the less you should touch things. Look for my e-mails. Good night.” Tina closed the meeting, and watched everyone leave before getting up herself and locking up.
In her apartment that night, after sending out her production report and daily call, she snuggled up with her Himalayan, Dusk, and put on a Harry Potter movie in the background as she looked around on the internet.
She had already known all about Jack T. Doyle before the interview, but she could not get enough of him. He had had a stunning career. James Earl Jones was just the start; he had worked with Brian Dennehy, Lynn Redgrave, Chita Rivera, Joel Grey, even Robert Preston right before he died. He had worked with everyone and everyone wanted to work with him.
Tina had originally wanted to direct plays, but had found stage management more exhilarating. Still, she could appreciate the work of a good director, and she had worked with some fine ones, but she wanted to move up in the world. Applying to work on Jack Doyle’s next musical, not even as a stage manager, initially, but as an assistant, had been one of those shot-in-the-dark, high-reaching moves that one never expects to actually yield results. But someone had given her résumé a good, thorough looking-over, and she had been called for an interview by the man himself right before going into tech.
He had worked with Arthur Miller. Oh, the stories he must have.
She closed her computer and let the magical movie wash over her as she fell asleep. Her cat leapt down from the bed, bored and ready for his nightly hunt, which rarely had any significant catches, since Tina kept a clean apartment, but was fun for him nonetheless.
Doyle hadn’t been at the first preview. She knew she should just stop thinking about him coming and get the show walking on its own two feet, but she knew she’d know when he was there. It was a small theatre, and from her booth she could see everyone who came in. And he’d probably be recognized, and people would flock to him, wonder why he was there.
Tina hadn’t told anyone on the production, not even Michelle, what was happening with her. She felt it was her responsibility to make sure no one came to suspect anything.
She had to want to do the small job more than she wanted the big job in order to get the big job, or at least she had to convince herself of that.
She could do it.
A couple of nights later, a costume split on stage. Tina could see it, though poor Jenny was doing her best to make sure the audience didn’t notice. Jordan could see it, also, and it didn’t help his memory any. He’d been doing so well, too.
“Joan,” Tina said, quietly, into her headset.
“Yes?” her assistant responded, after just a hair too long. She’d been reading something on her phone, probably.
“Tell Lorraine to have some safety pins ready for Jenny’s dress as soon as she exits. I’m sure she’ll be holding the place where they are needed.”
“Copy. I’ll have Zach tell her.”
Lorraine was the wardrobe supervisor, a late hire who had been a stroke of luck for Tina. She was quiet, almost as quiet as Cathy, but didn’t let people run her over the way Cathy did.
Tina still needed to talk to Cathy about that.
Lorraine was also the quickest to fix things, during a run or otherwise.
Sure enough, Tina soon got word that the dress was temporarily pinned, and when Jenny re-emerged she looked a lot more relaxed.
Jack had not come to this performance either, but now Tina kind of wished he had.
When the play was over, the set designer approached Tina as she was leaving the booth at the top of the audience, which was still mostly there.
“There’s a problem with one of the flats.”
“I didn’t…see anything,” Tina said in response, trying to absorb the abruptness of the address.
“Just come with me and look.”
The two of them made their way through the small crowd, Tina more politely than the set designer.
On the stage, he pointed out something Tina had not noticed from back in the booth: the flat, supposedly bolted to the wall, had come loose, and was swinging slightly. It would only get worse the longer it was left.
But it was also an easy fix.
“Can you fix it tonight or tomorrow?” Tina asked.
“No, remember, I’ve got to get to Philadelphia tonight because I start my next project very early tomorrow morning. This was my last night here.”
Tina had, in fact, forgotten.
“Right, ok. Well, don’t worry, it will be fixed before the next show.”
At that moment, Michelle walked out from backstage, already out of costume and ready to leave.
“Join me for a drink around the corner, Tina?”
“Rain check on that, my dear. Have to deal with this flat. Maybe…Monday? Let’s say Monday.”
“Monday, Monday, Monday,” Michelle said. “Have a good night.” And she blended in with the rest of the crowd.
“Are you going to do this tonight? It’s leaning in such a way, and the wood is not thick, it could get to the point where it’s irreversible.” The set designer was clearly eager to leave and eager to make sure his baby was taken care of.
“Go catch your train, I’ll do it myself, tonight, before I leave. Don’t worry.”
“Great, thanks.” And he was gone, too.
As the crowd thinned, Tina checked in with Joan and Zach back stage. They had done the usual resetting of props, and were ready to leave. She walked them out, told them she was staying late to fix something, but that they should go, and enjoy having Sunday off.
“Still working with Jordan on his lines back stage?” Tina asked Zach before he left.
“Yeah. He was doing better for a while, wasn’t he?”
“Yeah, I’m not worried. Just making sure. Goodnight.”
Tina went back into the audience section and opened a hidden door that lead to a room beneath the seats. She retrieved a power drill and several L brackets and screws. Apparently, there had not been enough used initially, and she wanted to make sure this didn’t happen again. She brought enough to reinforce the flat on the other side as well.
People kept saying goodbye to her as she located studs and secured the flat. The theatre got quieter and quieter as she worked, until she knew it was empty.
Shortly before she finished, though, she found out she was wrong about it being empty. Lorraine emerged from backstage, the bag of laundry from the show around her shoulder, and she stood looking at Tina.
“What are you still doing here?” Tina asked.
“I fixed the dress.”
“One less thing to bring home. Good idea.”
“Are you almost done? Want to get some food or drink or something?”
Tina’s stomach rumbled. It made sense, since this was the first time she had thought of food in hours.
“Sure. We can get to know each other a little. You’ve been doing great work, by the way. Nice save tonight.”
“Thanks for the heads up,” Lorraine replied, grinning.
“I’ll be done in just a second, if you want to have a seat.”
“I’m just going to go out to the lobby and make a call. Let my girlfriend know I’ll be late. Later than I was already going to be.”
“Then I’ll be right with you,” Tina said, and she started on the last two brackets.
“How long have you been in the city?” Tina asked.
They were at a small restaurant, Tina having treated Lorraine to a burger and soda, and herself to some macaroni and cheese with bits of buffalo chicken in it.
“Just a few months. I was always planning to move here, but I was going to save up first. Then my girlfriend got a job at Google downtown, and I figured why not make the move early. When opportunity knocks…”
“Of course. Done much? Obviously you knew…who did you know, again?”
“Adam, who knew Lisa, who was the costume designer’s assistant.”
“Opportunity knocking again. Is this your first job in the city? I’d normally do this during the interview, but since we never had one...”
Lorraine laughed. “Best way to get a job, know someone who knows someone who is desperately looking. Uh, no, not my first, just my first with a real paycheck.”
“Real, if small,” Tina added.
“Anything is more than I was making before. Fortunately, Google pays all the bills. And its not like we picked out a big place, just because we knew she had a great job. Just a small one-bedroom in Washington Heights.”
Tina smiled. “Wise move. Well, whenever you need a recommendation, let me know. You really have done great work. You work like someone who’s been doing it for years.”
“Well, if high school and college and community theatre count. I guess my philosophy has always just been if I’m committed, I should really be committed. And I love doing costume work. Eventually I want to design and build them myself. Maybe go to grad school in a few years.”
“Well, what do you think of our designs for this play?” Tina asked, finishing her macaroni and cheese.
“I like them. They’re great. Period appropriate, all that.”
“I won’t tell the costume designer,” Tina promised.
Lorraine shrugged. “I just maintain them, I don’t criticize. I help keep the show moving, I don’t try to make it mine.”
“That’s the spirit. I’m not worried about you making it as a team player. But know that, when the time comes, no one else is going to make it yours. You have to make it yours, often despite them.”
“Oh, trust me,” Lorraine said, putting off the last bite of her burger, “when the time comes, it will be mine.”
The preview following the day off went very well. Tina figured the day of rest did everyone good. Jordan missed one or two lines Monday night, but none on Tuesday. Even the director had stopped trying to give notes. There were no more wardrobe malfunctions, no more set fixes that needed to be made, and even though Joan dropped and broke a glass back stage, Tina was able to text the set designer to find out where to get a replacement, and she had Joan pick one up Wednesday morning.
Wednesday evening, after a flawless matinee, having nearly run out of previews, Jack T. Doyle arrived.
He came in just as Tina had been about to close the house. She had been so happy about the matinee, she had actually forgotten he would probably show up that night. When she saw him, she felt as though her stomach had disappeared. He was chatting with an older fellow in the front row who had stopped him as he came in. They seemed to be old friends.
Tina shook off the surprise. This was her moment. Her time to shine. All she had to do was exactly what she had been doing, and hope there were no surprises in store for this performance.
“Places,” she said into her headset.
“Thank you, places,” Joan responded. “Going off headset.”
It seemed to take longer than usual, because of everything suddenly on Tina’s mind, but actually less time had passed than ever before when Joan’s voice came back again with, “We have places.”
Tina cued the lights, then the music, and finally the entrances. The show began.
Tina rarely looked up from her script for the whole first act, following the lines carefully so that no cue would be missed. She had it memorized, but was afraid that if she looked out the window of the booth she would just search for the back of Jack T. Doyle’s head, and miss something.
Jordan’s lines, though they occasionally took a bit longer than ideal to arrive, all came out where they were needed. Still, it was not a great performance, even if it managed to be complete. Fortunately, complete was all Tina had to worry about.
During the intermission, Tina let Joan know that she wouldn’t be coming backstage as she usually did. Joan did not question her, but said, “Well, just so you know, then, a leg came off one of the chairs. It’s my fault, I was putting it on the table and didn’t lift it enough. Looks like it was held by wood glue.”
“It doesn’t come back on, though, right?”
“We’ll fix it after the show tonight. Thank you for telling me, I’ll make a note.”
Tina turned off her headset’s microphone before releasing a loud sigh. The light board operator looked over. “You okay?”
“Fine, just…something broke backstage, it can be fixed before tomorrow.”
“You seem a little more stressed tonight than usual. Are you sure you’re ok?”
“As long as we get through the show, I’ll be okay.”
Act two began. There were fewer cues in act two, so Tina felt more comfortable looking up a little more often.
Unlike Jordan, Jenny was giving a very exciting performance. Jenny would go far, Tina knew. She had discussed it with Michelle that past Monday.
As Tina watched, Jenny gestured violently, and the large pearl on the ring she was wearing flew off.
Neither Jenny nor Jordan seemed to notice, but Tina stood up and watched the pearl bounce off the flat she had fixed and roll in front of one of the entrances.
She got on her headset.
“Tell Michelle to be careful where she steps when she makes her entrance, because the pearl from Jenny’s ring is in her path. Tell Zach to make it a priority to pick it up before he does anything else during the set change, so no one steps on it while exiting. It will mean entering early and from a different entrance. Tell Lorraine the ring needs to be fixed.”
“Got it, going off headset.”
And that was all that Tina could do. The scene would be over soon. Tina called the rest of the cues perfectly, staring intently at the pearl the whole time.
Then the lights went down, on her command. She watched as the long arm of her gangly production assistant retrieved the pearl the instant it got dark, shortly after which he appeared at his usual entry point at his usual time. Tina smiled. She had told Joan to tell him to do what would be easiest, but her resourceful crew had taken the time to find the less intrusive solution to the problem.
That’s why she’d hired them.
After the bows, with the houselights back up, Tina stood up and looked out her window. Jack T. Doyle was typing something on his phone. He looked around, and she waved. Not overly enthusiastically or anything, just as though nothing more special than her spotting him were going on. He waved back, phone in hand. Her phone buzzed. She looked down at the message.
Jack T. Doyle: Meet me in the lobby when you’re done.
Tina let out another deep breath. The light board operator looked at her again. “Don’t be so worried, it was a great show. See you tomorrow.”
Tina patted her on the back, but couldn’t speak quite yet. She watched as the audience departed, actors joining the crowd as they came out. Finally the house was empty, and Joan, Zach, and Lorraine were on the stage waiting for Tina to come down to release them, Lorraine toting her bag of laundry.
“The chair?” Tina called from the top of the stairs.
“All set,” Joan replied.
“Go home, be free,” Tina said, as she shut off the lights in the booth and closed the door. “Big day tomorrow. Big night, anyway. Get rest.”
“You seem very…up right now,” Zach said.
“Two great shows in a row,” Tina said, still not willing to let her secret out, even to her crew. “You guys were awesome with that pearl.”
“Thanks. I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t do exactly what you’d said.”
“What you did was better. In theatre, you have to be always on your toes, and always trying to find the better way to do things. Now go, I have to lock up.”
She followed her crew out to the lobby. Cathy was sitting on a bench, Jack T. Doyle talking to the bar tender/box office person, who said good night as soon as he saw Tina.
Tina looked over at Cathy, but quickly had her attention usurped by Doyle.
“Well,” he said, “quite a show. But you know, I have any eye for tiny details. And I watched that pearl from the moment it left the ring, through the moment that actress stepped gingerly but noticeably around it, to the moment it was snatched up by that almost invisible disembodied arm. That’s a great team you’ve got back there. And nobody left the stage before all that happened. Only one person could have set those things in motion.” Tina stood looking up at him, unsure of where this was going. “Congratulations. You’ve got the job. My assistant will be in touch. Good night.”
“Good night,” Tina managed to say, and then, right before he was gone, “And thank you!”
Jack T. Doyle smiled and waved and disappeared.
Tina looked over at Cathy, grinning.
“Was that…? What job…? Are you leaving?”
“To answer your first question, yes, yes it was. The job is a Broadway job, as his stage manager. And no, I’m not leaving, it starts after we close. Don’t worry. Why are you still here?”
Cathy shrugged. “Just wanted to see the last show before opening. Make sure I was satisfied with my own work.”
“You didn’t have to stick around.”
“Well, I want to…say to you…just that I appreciate all you’ve done. A lot of people get annoyed with me, push me around, because I’m so quiet. You’ve just treated me…respectfully.”
Tina smiled at her. “Why don’t we go get something to eat? I’ve been meaning to chat with you. Get to know you better.”
As they walked out, and Tina turned to lock the door and lower the gate, Cathy said. “So you’re going to work on Broadway. That’s amazing.”
Tina nodded, still smiling. “Yes, my dear. Yes it is.”
Aaron Netsky is a Freelance Writer, Editor, and Photographer for Atlas Obscura. His writing has also appeared on Slate, TheHumanist.com, Thought Catalog, and Medium. He has written a few novels, including one about discovering musical theatre, and he has worked in a variety of theatre jobs off- and off-off-Broadway. Check out his personal blogs (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com and http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) and follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.