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. Read more
Broadway Brain: ‘Promises, Promises’ plays best when music director Phil Reno’s mother is in the audience
While Jonathan Tunick might be a Tony nominee for Best Orchestrations for the revival of Promises, Promises, music director Phil Reno has to implement his work every night while conducting the show. Having previously conducted shows like The Producers (for a whopping 1,383 performances!) and The Drowsy Chaperone, Reno is no stranger to Tony-winning productions. Presiding over an orchestra of 18, as well as stars Kristin Chenoweth and Sean Hayes (this year’s Tony host and nominee), Reno is entrusted with Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s famous score.
Reno sat down with Stage Rush in the house of the Broadway Theatre, where Promises is showing, for a chat about Tonys, career destiny, and conducting for his mother.
Explaining it to me as if I’m a 3 year old, what does a music director/supervisor do?
We’re responsible for teaching all the cast members the music. That all happens way before we ever add the orchestra. We usually rehearse a show like Promises, Promises five or six weeks before we go into tech rehearsal. I supervise and oversee the scene-change music and underscoring and introductions of numbers. I write and make suggestions for those pieces to make the whole musical flow of the evening go as smoothly as it can. As the show progresses, I’m responsible for maintaining the musical integrity of the show. How people sing, interpret their songs, make sure group numbers are still tight, and that the orchestra is still playing well. For those of us that are involved in a long run, it can be very easy for some people to get complacent and casual with it. I consider my job to keep them enthused and energized to do it, making it as good or better than the last performance. I try to inspire energy and emotion from the musicians and the cast. I never wanted to be one of those “Here we go again” kind of conductors.
What do Spring Awakening, Passing Strange, and Next to Normal all have in common? Lighting designer Kevin Adams. Widely regarded as contributing factors to the evolution of the American musical, these shows all have creative teams that have collaborated on subsequent projects, but Adams is the only one to have worked on all three. The Tony-winning lighting designer brought revolutionary looks to these acclaimed productions with his use of bare light bulbs and fluorescent tubes—what he calls “electric objects.” Now Adams is nominated for his fifth Tony award (he won for Spring Awakening and The 39 Steps) for his work on American Idiot, which blends the creative teams of all three rock musicals.
Yet Adams, just shy of 48, says lighting was never a thought in his mind during his education. With an MFA in set design, Adams began working as a set designer in Los Angeles, when he was asked to do his own lighting. Local artists who had seen his work began asking him to light their pieces in galleries. A self-taught lighting designer, Adams then moved to New York to focus solely on that work. “I can’t believe I’m still doing this,” Adams said. “After I do a Broadway show, I think, ‘This will surely be the last one I ever do. No one’s going to come up with another Broadway show that suits what I do.’ But then American Idiot came along.”
The Tony winner (who keeps his two awards at his parents’ houses, claiming they make him nervous) invited Stage Rush into his Manhattan apartment to discuss Tony nominations, his style departure on American Idiot, and what happened when he first met Green Day in a cramped dressing room at Saturday Night Live.
This is your fifth Tony nomination and you’ve won twice. Is it still exciting to get nominated?
It is very exciting. It was exciting to be nominated twice last year. It’s exciting to be nominated for American Idiot. That first time [being nominated], you’re so excited to win and then once you win, then you feel you have to win again. You feel like, “I want to win!”
So you feel pressure to win?
I don’t feel pressure; it’s just that you become much more grotesquely competitive about it. [laughs] And I know other people who have won that agree and say, “Yeah, I’ve felt that way too!” It’s not that it’s competitive, it’s just that the first time you’re nominated, you’re like, “It would be cool to win,” and then the next time, you’re like, “I’ve got to win!”