When the average person thinks of a career within Broadway, they are most likely thinking about the actors and on-stage performers. The reality is that takes a team to build a hit Broadway show, and a lot of the needed creativity comes from the crew overseeing a show’s production. In the case of Clifford Schwartz, a veteran Production Supervisor and Stage Manager for a multitude of hit Broadway shows, he often spends years preparing for a show’s launch, long before an opening date has even been decided.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Schwartz about his past, present and future behind-the-scenes on Broadway. Schwartz’s current work schedule ought to simultaneously intrigue and puzzle the majority of Onstage Blog readers, as it not only shows how busy Disney keeps him, but also how much planning goes into what he does. Since our Q&A, Frozen has opened in New York, immediately reaching Top 10 Broadway sales status.
How did you become a Stage Manager? What was your first crew job?
When I was 15, my sister set me up with an interview for a summer “apprentice” position at Playhouse In The Park in Philadelphia. The apprentice job included building scenery in the day time and being on the running crew in the evening. The Playhouse In The Park was a summer theater that did one week star-packed shows. Each week there was a new show with new actors and a new star performing. We did about 8 or 10 shows each summer. It was fast-paced and a fantastic learning ground. The show would close on Sunday night, we would take down the scenery and lighting, then install a new show overnight. The new cast would arrive on Monday and rehearse in the evening. Then we would do the new show on Tuesday. Wednesday morning we would begin building up the next show in the shop. It was a fabulous learning ground.
Were you ever an actor? Or have aspirations to be a performer?
I definitely had aspirations of being an actor. But while working at the summer theater, I quickly realized I didn’t have the singing or dancing chops to make a career performing in musical theater.
You are currently a Production Supervisor rather than a Stage Manager. How would you explain what a Production Supervisor does versus a Stage Manager?
My job now with Disney is Senior Production Supervisor. The basic difference between a Stage Manager and a Production Supervisor is that a Stage Manager works on one show in one city every day. A Production Supervisor works on multiple shows in multiple cities, worldwide.
A stage manager is responsible for executing the Director's vision of the play. This begins prior to rehearsals -- planning and scheduling the day to day activities to take place in the rehearsal room. There are actors, costume fittings, scenic and prop elements that the Stage Manager needs to coordinate. As the play moves from the rehearsal studio to the stage, the stage manager's tasks expand to implement the design and creative aspects of the play, which the director and designers envision. Each moment of the play needs to be worked out and executed technically before it can be run continuously. The more complicated the show, the more time this process takes.
It is the Stage Manager who schedules and executes these rehearsals. The Stage Manager also keeps a “prompt” book. This book has the light, sound and scenic automation cue placements. The Stage Manager is responsible for “calling” these cues during each performance to ensure safety and consistency.
As Senior Production Supervisor I oversee the hiring of the Stage Manager and assist and advise, where necessary. My tasks on a new title begin many years before a show begins rehearsals. I work directly with the Disney producers, coordinating with the Director and their designers on development of their visions of the play. This could be coordinating meetings or helping to coordinate and execute acting or technical workshops to test their ideas.
Once the show is open, as Production Supervisor I am in charge of remounting Disney shows in the U.S. and internationally. This includes scheduling the timeline of the future productions and organizing the creative and technical teams. I coordinate with our partners in other countries to make sure they have a complete understanding of each creative and technical element including casting, orchestra, scenery, props, lighting, sound and special effects. Once these productions are mounted, it is my responsibility to keep them maintained to the high Disney creative standard. This includes technical and creative visits to each production.
What was your first crew job where it felt like this was a career, not just going from gig to gig?
I realized it was a career when I went to college. When I went to college I realized how much I learned and how valuable the lessons were from the Playhouse In The Park. I had a knowledge and understanding of what it took to make and implement a show that most kids didn’t understand.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Communication. Making sure everyone knows what they need to know to do their job. Also making everyone feel valued for their contribution to the performance or the rehearsal or the process at hand. This includes everyone from an usher, to the porter, to the director and producer and everyone in between. Everyone and everything that each person does matters.
Did you ever consider doing crew management for TV or film? What specifically led you into theater?
I have thought about TV and film. My path led me to the theater and I have stayed on that path. I am a theater guy, always have been. Can’t put my finger on it, but that living, breathing excitement has always connected with me. I was led to the theater by my sister and I have remained there, ever since.
I've read that you are currently working on the Frozen musical. What can you tell me about that?
I can tell you that Frozen has been an amazing and exhilarating experience.
How long have you been working on Frozen?
About three years.
Are you able to work on more than one show at once? Or are you exclusive to Frozen?
I am currently working on Frozen, Hunchback Of Notre Dame in Stuttgart, Germany and in Yokohama, Japan, Tarzan in Oberhausen, Germany, and Aida in Seoul.
When not busy with work, how do you like to spend your free time?
By the ocean in Long Beach!
What was the last play you saw for fun?
Angels In America.
When seeing a play, are you able to "turn it off" and fully enjoy the experience? Or do you also consider the stage management when watching?
I can do both, “turn it off” and enjoy, but totally appreciate what went into the play to make it happen.
Do you have an all-time favorite play?
My favorite plays are the ones I have done – Chicago and Aida!
Finally, Clifford, any last words for the young aspiring theatre artists?
Follow your dreams for sure, but always have a back up plan in case dream number one doesn’t pan out. Also for theater kids -- probably all kids -- it is important to be have friends and relationships in different areas of your world. Don’t just hang with the theater geeks. Or if you like sports don’t just hang with the jocks. And definitely develop a personal life. Maintain your personal relationships no matter how busy you get. This is really important. Don’t live and breathe the job. Don’t do work email 24/7. My best workers are the ones that shut off and have outside the job interests.