Captain of the stage

A Boston-based stage manager of a touring show at A.R.T. explains the role she plays in making a show sail smoothly. 

By Jake Stepansky '17

Over the weekend, the curtain dropped on the final performance of the Abbey Theatre’s touring production of Sean O'Casey's classic Irish play The Plough and the Stars. The production had played a limited run at the American Repertory Theater, and like any touring production, the cast and creative team were comprised of folks from the production’s home nations – in this case Ireland and Great Britain. One member of the team, however, stood out from the rest – betrayed by an American accent the second she called the first cue of the show. Production stage manager Katie Ailinger, a frequent stage manager at A.R.T. and various production houses in the Boston area, joined onto The Plough and the Stars only days before opening night in Cambridge. I asked her about the unique experience of being the final cog that allowed this well-oiled machine of a production to run smoothly in a new home.

Nyree Yergainharsian and Ger Kelly in "The Plough and the Stars." PHOTO: Ros Kavanagh.
What does the role of production stage manager entail?
Your role is to facilitate communication throughout the entirety of a production’s lifespan. During rehearsals, you convey the projected needs of the show so that it can easily transition into the theater, coordinate all aspects of the company (manage rehearsals, schedules, fittings, actors, technicians) and generate daily performance reports during the run of the show to keep staff apprised of the show’s continuing maintenance and development. Overall, you’re working to create a safe and consistent environment for company members of a show to their execute craft and maintain the artistic integrity of the show that was created by the cast and creative team over the course of its run. You act as the director’s representative during performances, ensuring that the show remains consistent and vital.

What was unique or exciting about the tech process for Plough?
Because Plough is a long-touring show, there was very little time allotted for tech once it arrived at the A.R.T. Our crew was afforded a four-hour block to preset the stage and step through all the show’s transitions, and then performed a cue-to-cue with the cast that evening. The following evening was our first public performance.

What was it like coming in as an American and as someone who hasn’t been a part of the production before?

Katie Ailinger
It was interesting to observe the management structure of Irish and British theater, which is slightly different than American productions. The “company stage manager” – what we would term a PSM – oversees the entirety of show, oftentimes residing on deck to observe and/or participate in execution of onstage technical elements of the show. The calling SM, referred to in Britain as the deputy stage manager, is exclusively responsible for calling the show from the booth. Performance notes are conveyed from the DSM to the CSM, as he/she may not have a clear line of sight to observe the show from offstage. It was exciting to come onto a pre-existing show, as the truncated process demanded that we absorb information extremely quickly. It was a welcome challenge to learn and execute a show in a day.

What advice do you have for students looking to pursue careers in stage management?
Develop strong interpersonal skills and a comprehensive knowledge of how a production runs from soup to nuts. You must have the temperament to work with a large company of people, from both the artistic and technical sides of theater, and to understand the roles that each participant plays in the success of a show. A stage manager needs to be authoritative, communicative and knowledgeable. In many ways a show becomes the ship that you must captain; you depend on the cast, crew, creative, administrative members of a show and also have a responsibility to them to keep the production focused and calm.