Wednesday, September 23, 2015

This is a story of a pair of pants

This is the story of a pair of pants.

But first, I have to back up to a time before the pants:

Twelve years ago, I got my first professional (read: paid) stage management gig working for my college’s theater program. I was 19, a complete theater geek, and wanted to be a director – but when my crotchety old theater professor ambled down the hall one afternoon and asked if I wanted to stage manage the fall production of A Servant of Two Masters, I figured that getting paid to do anything in the theater would be better than another year of serving burgers and beer to Packers fans at the Abbey Bar. So I lied and said that I totally knew how to call a show and sure I’ll take the job.

That show led to larger student productions that led to even larger summer stock musicals and before I knew it I was being offered a post-graduate internship at a well-known regional theater. Nine months of rehearsals, paperwork, set moves, and the occasional backstage dance party. All of it unpaid, all of it the hardest I’ve ever worked, all of it the best crash course in stage management anyone has ever received.

I remained at that lovely theater in Louisville for another two years before my boss opened the door and told me to fly free. I’d reached the limit of what I could do there – another year, and my career would start to stagnate. So I scoured the Internet and began the horrible process of cold-submitting myself to jobs and gigs across the country. After a phone interview in which I was asked what I like to put on my pizza (answer: mushrooms), I landed a job as a production assistant at a theater in New England. I later found out that my pizza-loving boss hired me because he liked the sound of my last name and figured he’d enjoy screaming it across a busy rehearsal hall.

I should pause at this juncture to point out a few key things. I won’t bore you with technicalities, but there are many facets of the job collectively known as “stage management.” At the bare minimum for most theatrical productions, there are actually two different stage managers working the same show – a production stage manager who sits in the booth and “calls” the show (dictates when the sets move, when the actors enter, and when the lights go on and off) and an assistant stage manager who remains backstage with the actors and crew and helps orchestrate the flow of everyone and everything that exists behind the scenes. While I’ve held both positions over the years, it is that of the assistant stage manager I find most pleasurable. My skills shine, my personality fits perfectly, and the rush I get from a well-executed scene is my drug.

And while we're on the informational portion of this essay, please allow me to add one more pertinent detail: when one is working backstage, unless he or she is an actor in costume, he (or she) must be as invisible as possible to the audience. And forgive me if I’m stating the obvious here, but the best way to remain hidden while running a show is to wear black clothing. This is also the best way to validate the stereotype of the techie wearing head-to-toe black, but other than an all-stereotype version of Godspell I once directed (when I still thought I was going to be a director), I am not one to comment on stereotypes.

So there I was in a dusty rehearsal room in Connecticut, playing Stage Left Rehearsal Tree #2 (the real trees would ultimately fly in, but we needed something, or someone, to help remind the actresses not to twirl into a set piece and I was cheaper than a mock-up of a tree. Both glamor and dignity have always been a very large component of stage management). The dancers eventually learned to twirl right and not left, and we soon moved into the theater for the hellacious process known as tech. I REALLY won’t bore you with the arduous details of what a tech rehearsal is like, but know that during such rehearsals, both the assistant stage manager and the production assistant are running around taking notes, trouble shooting traffic jams, putting band-aids on cut fingers, blowing up balloons, blowing up puffy chairs, brushing down furry chairs, refilling prop wine, cooking prop food, finding lost actors, finding lost costumes, finding lost props, finding lost set pieces, and any other entirely bizarre yet utterly necessary task that really needed to have been done five minutes ago if we have any hopes of making it to the end of the show before final dress.

A stage manager’s best tool is preparedness. A stage manager’s second best tool is the one in her hand, whether it be a pen, notebook, flashlight, roll of spike tape, Gerber, safety pin, tape measure, clear-com pack, line of glow tape, extra piece of tie line, clipboard full of paperwork, Sharpie, or that aforementioned band-aid. (A stage manager’s third best tool is a bottle of bourbon, but that’s a lesson for another day.) The problem with needing so many tools at once, though, is that there is never a good place to put said tools – space backstage is usually very limited, and an assistant stage manager is lucky to carve out a small square of a prop table to use as a makeshift base station. So as a result, many, if not all of those tools, are carried on her person. Or specifically, in the pockets of her pants.

Up until this point in my career, I inexplicably managed to survive my backstage life wearing nothing more than a comfy pair of yoga pants and an oversized hoodie. My thought was that if I had to be on my feet and running around for hours a day, why not be as comfortable as possible? And it worked, sort of. I learned to stash various pens and tapes in multiple nooks and corners of whichever theater I was working in at the time, but looking back I now realize that I was not practicing professionalism. Not to mention the fact that my headset’s com pack was so heavy that it continually pulled down at the elastic waistband of my pants, thus revealing whatever underwear I had chosen that day. Oh, to be young and stupid!

As soon as I made it through the first hour of my first tech in Connecticut, I realized I was going to need to change my ways immediately. While I had been spoiled with backstages the size of football fields in the past, this new theater had only an offstage left and an offstage right area. The upstage wall of the stage was the upstage wall of the building itself. And offstage right, where I was stationed, was all of five feet wide. And we were doing a 22-person musical. Space was at an all-time premium.

So after losing my pen to a moving set piece one time too many, I used my dinner break to run to the nearest store and remedy the situation. Since I was in the middle of nowhere Connecticut, the nearest store just happened to be a Wal-Mart – not my first choice for retail, but desperate times called for desperate measure. I grabbed the first pair of cheap black jeans I saw, made sure they fit, and ran back to the theater. Being the snob that I am, I figured that a pair of pants from Wal-Mart wouldn’t last long and that I’d have to invest in a more well-made pair sooner rather than later, but that they’d do for the time being. I just hoped they made it through the rest of that tech process.

That was six years ago. A lot happened after that – I moved to New York, started working at off-off-off-Broadway theaters, slowly began removing those “off’s” one at a time, and eventually worked my way uptown to the Great White Way.

And inexplicably, that pair of black jeans that I purchased in a rush 6 years ago from a Connecticut Wal-Mart is the one thing that has remained constant through my New York life. I wore those pants while wrangling original Jim Henson puppets, while resetting 64 tiny cardboard houses 112 times, while sweating my butt off at the height of summer heat waves in theaters that didn’t have air conditioning, while freezing my ass off during polar vortexes in theaters that didn’t have heat, while moving hundreds of chairs, music stands, and tables mere centimeters back and forth while the director settled on the “perfect” location, and while serving up spanakopita and Hurley Burgers at the two different restaurants I worked at during those leaner, off-off years. Those pants have been spilled on, crawled in, written on, cried in, stretched out, washed, rewashed, and tossed in the dryer and re-shrunk hundreds of times – and at the end of this past summer, they finally fell apart. The hems that had always been just an inch too long became frayed beyond an acceptable amount, and the hole in the crotch that had been slowly threatening to expose more and more of me finally grew so large that I had to wear leggings underneath just to remain decent.

Coincidently, the end of the pants coincided with the end of something larger. Or as I like to see it, the end of the pants poetically signaled the end of something larger. For a while now, I’ve been feeling like backstage is no longer the place for me. It takes a certain level of energy and tenacity to sustain the life of a freelance stage manager, and I’m not entirely sure I possess those levels any more. I’m tired of not knowing my next gig, I’m tired of not being able to purchase plane tickets for fear a job will come up that I truly have to take, and I’m tired of working a schedule opposite my partner’s and seeing him for a total of four hours each week when I’m running a show. I’m starting to resent the time that I’m at work, and that is one of the worst places for a stage manager to mentally reside. So I’ve decided it’s time for a career change.

I know what you’re thinking: “here’s the part of this incredibly long story where she finally reveals her awesome new business venture!”

Sadly, that’s not where this story is going. Instead, this is the part where I tell you that I have no idea what I’m going to do next. I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, and what I need to do next is figure that out. One of the frustrating things about working in theater is that each job is so encompassing that it doesn’t give you a lot of time to think about anything else, let along other careers. I’m only at the point where I realize I need to do some serious soul-searching – not basking in the afterglow of said soul-searching and brightly looking forward to my new great lifestyle.

Truthfully, I’m terrified. I really have no idea what I’m doing, and it’s entirely possible that I’m throwing away a perfectly good career, one that I worked tirelessly to get established in, only to pivot into something completely different. I might be on the brink of a big time failure (or at the very least, a very large regret), but insert one of the dozens of inspirational quotes about failures and successes here, and help me to remind myself that I just have to trust myself and those around me who are unconditionally supporting my search.

Do not fear though, those who are still reading by this point! I’m by no means cutting theater out of my life completely, whether professionally or personally. I have a few small projects lined up over the coming months that will help me stay in the financial black, and going to see other productions will remain a constant joy in my life. Theater was my first love – no other art form has ever hit me with that strange cocktail of beauty and pain, familiarity and possibility, vulnerability and harmony. But it’s time to step away for a while and see what else is out there. I may come crying back to theater, vowing to never again leave it’s avant-garde grasp, or I may find happiness in something entirely different. But I will know that I worked hard at the career I so passionately embraced – and if anybody asks for proof, I’ll just show them my pants.


  1. You are beautiful when you are brave. And also, this ode to black jeans must be a chapter in your book one day.
    Curiosity will lead you to find the next part of your journey.
    I'm so glad to know you.