Poetry in Motion
“There’s for you, sir!” declares Andrew Farley ‘15, as he slaps Daniel Alvarado ‘15, only to be slapped in return by his fellow thespian. Jessica Richmond ’16 is maneuvering around them, not paying much attention to their loud arguing and apparent violence; she has flowerpots to set up and chairs to arrange.
Gordon’s production of Twelfth Night was two days away from starting, and as stage manager, Jessica was rushing to make the show perfect for opening night. Attempting to be a fly on the wall during rehearsal, it seemed impossible to follow everything that is happening. Through patience and sharp observation, I planned to find out how this machine works, and how Jessica puts it in motion.
We talked weeks before the opening night about my curiosity concerning the inner-workings of this production, and she thought my prospective visit sounded like fun. Once I was talking to her cast, filming in the prop shop, and snapping photos of the set, she may have felt less sanguine about the agreement. But she was still being completely hospitable. After two years of classes and some large shared projects with her, I suppose I have bought enough goodwill.
Rehearsals were focusing on refining the details of the play, meaning director Norm Jones was in his element. He honed in on the finer points of each actor’s performance, and he always had the greater vision in mind. Jessica recognizes him as a visionary, as soon as I ask about his direction she says, “Norm is a dreamer.” In this case, the dream features architecture, acting, music, and hundreds of tiny details, all to construct Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in 1920s New Orleans.
For it all to be dazzling when the curtain comes up, someone has to make sure these parts move in harmony. While Prof. Jones imagines the incredible picture and directs the actors how to portray it, the stage manager is in the middle, situating physical manifestations of these theatrical ideas. As Jessica puts it, “You are there to help the director make his dream come true.” The job entails working on the set, helping with the carpentry, and even sometimes reining in the director’s wilder ideas. Ensuring that the vision can land on the ground, any good stage manager gives the actors the foundations on which to work.
Jessica’s job is all about the details. The bustle of the set — carpenters’ constructions, actors’ movements, lighting cues, and interaction with props — needs a fixed point. It can seem like chaos, but each person has a place. Twelfth Night not only had a cast of eighteen, but the production team of thirty-one ranges from wardrobe to assistant stage managers to fight choreographer. Prof. Jones even added live jazz music, so four musicians enter into scenes for such critical lines as “If music be the food of love, play on!” This multimedia element is just one example of the layers of complexity to the show, making Jessica’s job harder and more enriching.
Why Stage Managing?
For Jessica, stage management was not love at first sight. In her theater career before Gordon, she focused on acting, and only in the class Technical Production II did she try stage management. She did not love it; “I wanted to throw up the first time I had to do a practice run from the booth,” she said. But she got good feedback on her work. Then Jeff Miller, the director of Metamorphoses, asked her out of the blue to stage manage that show. Wanting to act in that play (“It has a pool on the set!”), Jessica had a tough decision to make.
In the end, she chose to take a chance on stage managing. “Might as well, these opportunities do not come around often.” It shifted her direction away from acting and more toward production management. She excelled in her tech class, and this was the natural extension. As it turned out, Metamorphoses would become a favorite play of hers.
She gushes about her experience on that production, even though everything certainly did not go right. She was energized by the responsibility, and her enthusiasm led to a kind of over-commitment. “I wanted to do everything myself, to learn from it all,” she said. The play was a bizarre mix of elements: a one-act with the aforementioned pool, a cast that all play multiple characters in different scenes, comedy and drama elements, all based on Ovid’s poetry. In the end it was a spectacular and hilarious show, and while it was only a moderate success on campus, Jessica and others involved fondly remember it.
After such a great experience, was it an easy decision to jump into stage managing for Twelfth Night? Prof. Jones requested that she take the job, and again, Jessica was torn between stage managing or auditioning. “My parents told me how good I had been in Shakespeare, and they really wanted me to try out.” But the more she works backstage, the more she likes it.
Managing The Talent
Making the most of a show’s talent requires smooth management, and Twelfth Night showcased the best performers Gordon has. Jessica knew that hers is a big job if the potential of everyone involved is to be realized.
Several experienced comedians like Andrew Farley are Jessica’s friends on Gordon’s improv team the Sweaty-Toothed Madmen, and the other actors’ talent for comedic timing is also evident. Knowing the extraordinary possibilities of this production, Jessica wanted to make each piece of direction, each touch to the set, and each light cue work just right.
The ability to pull this off requires an effective kind of community, where everyone can be themselves in harmony. Going into the dressing room on opening night, I found impeccable dance moves to Uptown Funk from David Alvarado, hopping on a chair to save space in the cramped room where others are applying makeup. Some guys handle makeup better than others, and makeup artist Michaela Todd ’18 affectionately refered to Andrew Farley as “Twitch.” By the clothes rack, Emily White ’17 methodically steamed each jacket and pair of pants. This whole process looked chaotic, but David got ready in time, Andrew eventually had his makeup finished, and their outfits all looked fabulous.
Jessica loved seeing the camaraderie come together, and it drives her work in theater. “Every theater work is about community, and even being in an authority position, I still enjoy the fun of it all,” she said. When the show did open, all the talent present came out. The crowd laughed raucously, the actors were thrilled, and Twelfth Night was on its way to outstanding word-of-mouth.
The amount of different activities I have been able to see gave me copious material for a documentary. Being there with a camera, I realized that I needed to make one. From the booth, to the set, to backstage, I had too many cinematic options to pass up. I acted like that was what I had come to do all along, and nobody complained (outwardly) about my intrusiveness.
Reactions and Responsibility
When you work so hard for something, you tend not to think in terms of pass or fail, so the lively audience and ensuing praise for the show did not stop Jessica’s scheming. We met up at a birthday party for mutual friend Will Martin ’15 (who co-starred with Jessica in a movie Ethan Sullivan ’16 and I made), and with her and many of the cast reporting wild laughter and applause, I was slightly surprised to see Jessica so pensive. She had all the improvements yet to be made floating in her head, and she was not going to let them go. A show tomorrow at three o’clock meant she had to stay focused, in a way that didn’t seem apply to her actors also at the party.
The show’s opening weekend created a groundswell of enthusiasm around campus, and everyone in the play had the sense that it had become something special. The level of quality remained high, and shows continued to sell out (I barely got a ticket for the Wednesday show). Reflecting on it later, Prof. Jones had a unique position to judge why she is a model stage manager. “First is her ability to communicate carefully with other people,” he said. Then he marveled at her anticipation of what each person, including him, is going to need. Not only that, but her holistic understanding of theater maximizes her positive impact, he said. She helps the different teams within this huge production stay in tune with the play as a whole.
When I was in the audience that Wednesday, the show did not disappoint. The hilarity of the show’s comedy elements was no surprise, but I was pleased to enjoy the drama of it as well. The characters fall in and out of love in an astonishing variety of ways, and they made this absurd play as believable as one could hope for. Even if “siblings” Sebastian and Viola (Daniel Alvarado ’17 and Hillary Webster ‘15) do not bear the magical resemblance that the script claims, they made the ridiculous story work. It is impressive to see the lights, music, and performances all harmonizing. Jessica had invited me to shadow her in the booth the next day, and I was excited to see how it all worked upstairs.
Keeping Things Under Control
When I did see Twelfth Night from the booth of Gordon’s Black Box theater, I got to watch and listen to Prof. Jones’s final admonitions to the cast. He instructed them in strange-sounding breath and vocal exercises, and they responded in unison, following his every word. “This is such a weird thing to watch,” remarked light technician Merisa Kouvo ‘17. She is right, the final preparations for a high-pressure theater production are focused and idiosyncratic; Prof. Jones has a method to get them comfortable and loose. Meanwhile, the booth-dwellers planned how to execute everything occurring upstairs.
The sense of community I felt backstage during rehearsal applies on a micro level to the three people in the booth who run the tech side. They have their own jokes about cast-members (my lips are sealed), routines they enjoy (getting candy during intermission is a must), and they communicate with impressive efficiency. “Light cue 34, stand by.” “Thank you, standing by.”
At this point in the night, Jessica’s job looks much less intense. She dons a headset and keeps a sheet of cues in front of her. She whispers scripted instructions and tries to focus on timing. From up here, it is time for the ones down on the floor to be the stars.
Filming them working in the booth, as well as shooting photographs from the window down onto the show, I rapidly accumulated more visual content than I could ever use for a feature or even the planned documentary. 543 pictures and 104 video clips? Plenty of work was left: I needed to set up a Flickr account so I can share pictures with the cast, and I needed to get to work on that documentary.
All’s Well That Ends Well
On the night of the tenth and final show, Prof. Jones gave a speech that made everyone cry, hugs were exchanged, and Twelfth Night finished its sold-out run. On this night, Jessica struck a balance between her emotional involvement in the play and her leadership. Following the director’s poignant pre-show talk, the tearful and reflective cast and crew nevertheless had a show to do. Feeling it all herself, Jessica still had to be the one to say sensitively, “It’s 7:20, we have to get set!”
Everyone is proud of what they accomplished, and seeing it end is difficult for most. Curiously, Jessica does not feel the relief of a weight off. “I hate free time; four hours a night with my friends was gold.”
Even though she feels weird talking about “calling,” this show has confirmed her trust that she should be working backstage. She still loves being on stage, and doing improv with Sweaty Tooth is an important outlet that keeps stage management from making her restless. However, she is focusing on management and direction with a sense of purpose.
Not one to take long breaks, she is co-directing a one-act play Edge Effect that has been accepted into the Fringe Theatre Competition in Edinburgh, Scotland. Getting ready for the world premiere at Gordon in May and preparing to take the show to Europe occupied her thoughts. It is bittersweet to end a production as ambitious as Twelfth Night, but she already has another play to worry about.
Edge Effect is a collaborative work with Hannah Pentico ‘15, and Jessica believes it is helping her tighten her directing skills. Also, she is feeling a rush of enthusiasm; “I still can’t believe this is a real thing, we are going to Scotland!”
As Edge Effect and the other spring shorts take Twelfth Night’s place, the Black Box theater scarcely looks like the same place. Stripped of the magnificent New Orleans set, the room’s appearance matches its name again. Before anyone had time to comprehend it all, the stage was deconstructed and other productions opened. Twelfth Night is now just a memory, but the department’s shows must go on.