In my first Opening Doors column with Broadway producer Greg Nobile, he said something that really stuck with me: “The great news about being in theater is there's no formula for how you get there.” In this month’s edition, you’ll meet 24-year-old Dana Umble, whose unique path to working in stage management currently has her sailing all over the Caribbean. She is an entertainment floor technician for Carnival Cruise lines, a job which she’s had since graduating college at Quinnipiac University.
Speaking of Quinnipiac. That’s where I met Dana, back when she was a freshman from Kingston, New York. Raised in an “artsy place” about two hours north of New York City, Dana has always loved theater. As a kid, she was in school plays and later became a dedicated pit musician. It wasn’t until her high school theater teacher suggested she try stage management that Dana found her calling.
She applied to Quinnipiac planning to be a Media Studies major but a Theater 101 class with the “amazing director” Andrew Scott changed that. “The atmosphere of a rehearsal and the craziness of tech week is something that I absolutely live for,” Dana told me via email (reliable cell service isn’t available in the middle of the ocean), “being in that mindset all the time during college was amazing.”
There, Dana stage managed and ASMed shows, designed lighting for a New Play Festival co-produced with an Off-Broadway company and learned multiple aspects of theater from directing to designing. “Because of the small size of Quinnipiac’s theater program, we got to work very closely with our professors and really get to know them.” That included Tricia Petraven, then head of technical theater. “I can’t even begin to explain how much I learned from her,” she says, “from the precise art of drafting to being super confident around any sort of power tool. She taught me that I could do anything. I will always look up to her…especially when she’s rocking a pair of heels on a ladder during tech week!” (I can vouch for Tricia’s heels, usually worn in conjunction with a leopard print furry coat).
Dana graduated college and, inspired by an internship at Jujamcyn Theaters (“a NYC-based company that manages five Broadway houses”), decided to pursue stage management fulltime. It was her mother that suggested Dana apply for a position with Carnival Cruises. “A few weeks after taking part in a digital interview,” she remembers, “I was flying to Fort Lauderdale to start rehearsals for my first contract in February of 2016.”
Two years later and Dana is still enjoying the work, especially since every day brings new rewards and challenges. “There are only a few days in my routine that are always the same,” she says, “on embarkation day, the main lounge technicians load-in ‘Hasbro: The Game Show,’ that has larger-than-life games including Connect 4 Basketball and Yahtzee Bowling. After that is finished, we load-out ‘Hasbro’ and go right into load-in for our Welcome Aboard Show.” After the cruise has officially launched, “there is always some sort of maintenance to be done [like] cleaning set pieces and drops, fixing platforms and vacuuming backstage.”
The work has also been an incredibly educational experience. “You are surrounded by technicians that are great at what they do,” she says, “and can use your time onboard to pick their brains. I work closely with the sound and light technicians [and] help clean some of the LED light fixtures on stage. Before, I would have been terrified to open up a light, clean what needed to be cleaned, and put it back together correctly. Now, I can confidently clean color wheels in moving lights and put every little piece back together without a worry.”
While there are many perks to working on a cruise ship – avoiding harsh New England weather and “interacting with people from around the world” is at the top of her list – the schedule and time away from home can be tough. “On ships, you are constantly surrounded by the job. In a six-to-eight-month contract, I work every single one of those days.” The time away from her family and friends is also a challenge.
Looking to the future, Dana tells me she looks forward to getting involved in “land-based theater,” using all the skills she’s picked up on the ship. “My knowledge has grown immensely,” she says of her three tours at seas, “I can take what I’ve learned with Carnival to any theater and it would apply there.” Her goals include working towards an equity card and gaining more stage management experience. Her dream gig? A stage manager for Cirque Du Soleil.
I started this article with Greg Nobile’s advice for those wanting to start a career in the theater, which continued with “surround yourself with people you want to make art.” When asked what she would add, Dana mentioned the importance of mentors, she regularly keeps in touch with many of her professors back on land, and keeping yourself open to new opportunities. “Learn everything and anything,” Dana suggested, “even if you aren’t particularly interested in a certain aspect of theater, having a bit of knowledge in that area could come in handy in the future.”
Do you know a young theater professional with a fascinating job who would be perfect for this column? Contact NoahTheGolden@gmail.com.