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October 28, 2010

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Broadway Brain: Stage manager Matthew Shiner keeps his eye on all ’39 Steps’

by Jesse North

The sharpest eye in a theater belongs to the production stage manager. Sequestered to the stage’s wings, these vigilant crew members order every lighting and technical cue of a show into action. It’s not a job for everybody, which makes it surprising that a former child actor from California who disliked them in his youth grew up to become one. Matthew Shiner, the PSM for off-Broadway’s The 39 Steps, joined the show last May, after a six-year stint as the production stage manager at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC. Shiner, 40, sat down with Stage Rush to talk about the art of keeping a play fresh, scene-stealing flies, and Ian McKellen’s personal copy of The Lord of the Rings.

What exactly does a production stage manager do?
I am responsible for the day-to-day running of the show. The most important thing I do is call the show. I sit backstage right with a headset and a calling script and I call all the light and sound cues, some of the scenic cues. While the performance is not happening, I do a lot of paperwork and schedule rehearsals. I take notes on the show, trying to keep it as close to what [director] Maria Aitkin wants it to be.

How did you become a production stage manager?
I don’t remember picking it on Career Day, for sure. I never thought this was what I wanted to be. In fact, I was a child actor and I hated stage managers at the time. I genuinely love theater, the arts, and live entertainment. I had a general background in theater and realized acting wasn’t what I really wanted to do. I went back to finish up my undergraduate degree, and I ended up directing. I thought maybe directing was what I wanted to do, and I found out that I had really nothing I wanted to say as a director. But getting those director skills have definitely helped me as a stage manager. Every little step I took in theater helped me get here.

When did you realize this is what you wanted to do?
I think I realized I was making more money than I ever thought I would make as a PSM and jobs were just coming to me. Since I graduated as an undergraduate in 1997, the longest I’ve ever been unemployed was six weeks for a vacation, and then other than that, it’s been a week. I just constantly work, and I make a good living from it. It’s one of those [jobs in theater] where you can actually make a good living, on the technical side.

Do you get tired of watching the same show every night?
It’s never the same show. There are times when I think, ‘Oh crap, I have to call it again.’ But then the show stars and [actor] Cameron Folmar does something a little different, the audience reaction is a little less, and all of a sudden we’re on fire. Today, we had a small house that wasn’t as responsive in Act I, so the actors pushed forward and got through the act about a minute early. Things came quicker and I had to be on my toes. That feeling gets into your body.

Video: Matthew Shiner tells about the wildest onstage antics he’s seen while working in the wings

Which is more interesting: calling a complicated show like The 39 Steps or a one-person show?
I did I Am My Own Wife at La Jolla Playhouse during its first two-act version. That was the show that I realized that if I got paid $1,000 a week for a one-person show, I should get paid $2,000 a week for a two-person and $3,000 a week for three-person show. It was the most difficult show I ever worked on. Lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge has a theory that all shows are equal pain. If the set is really simple, then the actors feel like they can act up. If the set is really complicated, then the actors know they can’t be a diva about it. They all have their own difficulties.

When you go to other shows, are you able to enjoy them, or is your brain stuck in stage-manager mode?
A show has to be really good in order for me to turn [my technical thinking] off. If the show has a problem, then I’m thinking about how I would have tech-ed that differently.

You’ve worked with some big names, including Michael Greif, Jefferson Mays, Kelly McGillis, Patrick Page, and Ian McKellen. Who has been your favorite to work with?
I adore Kelly McGillis as a human being. We did a production of Macbeth and found out one day on break that we both worked at this little dinner theater on the coast of California near San Luis Obispo. Once we found that out, we realized how different and the same some people can be. She’s just an amazing human being. There’s a lot of great actors I’ve worked with, but it’s the really great human beings who stick with me.

Is there a “wow” factor for you when you book a job with big names?
There is. I try very carefully to not make it all about that. Ultimately, production stage managers don’t have artistic input into the show. What sounds great on paper could end up being really terrible. I’ve worked on shows that sounded great when I signed my contract, and then by the time we got to production, it wasn’t the cast, synergism, or the show that we thought we were going to get. But yes, when I worked with Ian McKellen, it was really exciting. We hung out, we knew a couple of the same people, we chatted, we talked about his coming-out process, and it was a very human moment. It was very exciting. I got to touch his copy of The Lord of the Rings on set.

What did it look like?
It was very beat up. He had it on the stage and then he left the area and people were coming on stage, so I saved it from being stolen. I was like, ‘Whoa, let’s get that right now!

What does your family think of your career?
(laughs) They didn’t get it for a long time. They pushed me into child acting. They didn’t understand stage management. I worked on Jane Eyre the Musical at La Jolla Playhouse. My parents came to see that, and all of a sudden, they got it. For graduation, I made them come see a dance concert I was doing, and at intermission, my dad said, “I don’t get it at all,” and I said, “Just look at the pretty bodies, Dad.” My family is sort of Middle American. My dad works for Anheuser-Busch, my brothers are all in business, and I’m definitely the artistic odd-man out. But they’re supportive and really happy for me. After 25 years of doing it, they sort of get it.

What are your goals for the future? Where do you go from here?
It’s hard, because like acting and other aspects of the arts, you’re not really in control of your career. It’s always if the right thing comes along at the right time. I will ride The 39 Steps out for a while, and after the first year, sort of figure out what I want to do. I eventually want to teach production stage managing classes. I’d like to stick to straight plays. It’s nothing against musicals; I just think I’m a better stage manager for straight plays. Not that I’d turn down Wicked if it was offered to me.

What do you think, Rushers? Could you watch a show as many times as Matthew has had to? Did aspects of his job surprise you? Leave your thoughts in the comments below! Follow Stage Rush on Facebook and Twitter for on-the-go updates, news, and sightings!

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kym
    Oct 28 2010

    This was really interesting, Jess! I guess I never gave much thought to the stage manager before, but I guess that’s the point…he does his job so that no one else has to think about it.

    Reply
    • Oct 28 2010

      @Kym: Yeah, exactly! Once a show opens, the director leaves and the stage manager is then the “director.” And they’re with the show longer than the director. So I just thought it’d be great to hear what one has to say.

      Reply
  2. Grace Anzelmo
    Oct 30 2010

    Thanks for sharing – from another PSM that found myself migrating to this aspect of the business it’s great to see another perspective, another story. I too have found it interesting to try and explain to others, even co-workers, what it is I do at the theater. Many times I invite them into the booth to ‘see’ me call a show – that is usually an eye opening experience!

    Reply

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