• Natalie Wisdom

Brian R. Sekinger, Professional Production Stage Manager.

[Interview Date: November 28, 2020]

New London Barn Playhouse, Northern Stage, NYMF and more.

Where were you on March 12, 2020? And what was the week leading up to it like?

On the 12th, I had a two-show day, stage managing a new play titled Citrus by Celeste Jennings at Northern Stage, a LORT-member theater in Vermont. In the week prior, we had made blocking adjustments to the show, so actors were further away from the audience and didn’t share any vom entrances/exits patrons also used. Much of the show is played “out”, so it was a difficult adjustment to put more of a metaphorical barrier between the performers and patrons. Although we felt we were at low risk of exposure in Vermont, several of our actors were from NYC so they were anxious for their family and friends back in the city. We made the decision on the 12th that the 13th would be our final performance of the run. Although we weren’t bound by the same closures as the Broadway League, the general anxiety about health and safety of the stage managers, actors, crew, staff, and patrons made this a necessary decision.

Did you anticipate Broadway and other theatre productions to be closed for this long?

I remember hearing some offhand comments from public health professionals on the news that it could be years before large gatherings happen again and didn’t pay much attention to those prophetic warnings. The public messaging was so conflicting and confusing, there was a lot of willful ignorance in our industry of how serious things actually were. Especially in a profession where we are often faced with impossible challenges that we overcome, there was a lot of hope. I went to visit family after my show closed early, anticipating I’d be heading back to start a summer stock season at the beginning of May. When that summer season got cancelled, I knew we were in it for the long haul. Given the long-term strategic planning all non-profit theaters need to do for budgeting and staffing, I felt at that point it would be at least a year before there was any return to “normal” live production.

As a Stage Manager, what were the biggest challenges for you when you saw things were shutting down?

When we shut down, we didn’t know how long it would be for. Since it all happened so fast, we packed our personal belongings and left the show as it was in the theater. We were told in the morning the theater was closing and had until the end of that day to pack and leave. The feeling, at the time, was we needed to immediately lock down the building, and we’d deal with the physical aspects of shows at a later date. Our show was just a few days away from its scheduled closing, with another show sitting in the wings about to be loaded in, and a third show less than a week away from starting rehearsal. My biggest challenge was trying to anticipate what this would mean for our schedule. Would we be delaying the start of rehearsals? Would we be cancelling the run of a show? As a stage manager, you’re often one of the main contacts actors have at the theater, so all these questions were coming my way from my next cast that was due to arrive from out of town in less than a week. I found out information about show cancellation before the actors. And, being friends with many of them, it was hard to withhold this information until the producers had formally contacted everyone.

What precautions have you discussed or heard discussed in regards to innovative ways to come back to safe rehearsals and performances? How do you think this will make your job different when you return?

Having been back in a rehearsal room, I’ve had some first-hand experience with these new protocols. One of the biggest ways these procedures has influenced my job is having a dedicated person, or team of people, who are cleaning and sanitizing the space, props, costumes, etc. Instead of an ASM coming in early to sweep and wipe down the tables, there is now a COVID Compliance Officer wiping every surface with sanitizer. I had to work closely with the producers to make sure they were scheduled appropriately so all rehearsals and performances were covered. Another added workflow change was not just tracking where props/costumes/furniture were, but also who the last person to touch them was. As part of our procedures, no actor could touch an object another actor had touched, so we had to track duplicates and stage moments of “handoffs” creatively. Resetting during rehearsal and tech was thus more difficult and sometimes involved longer holds so we could sanitize things before restarting a section. One exciting innovation for our process was made in finding ways to minimize the number of people in the room during tech. Our sound designer had an assistant who was working remotely so we sent him a Zoom feed of what was happening in the theater and connected him to our com system using Discord. I also had an ASM who had been working remotely during some early virtual rehearsals who was able to connect remotely into our com system to help with information about resets and tracking as we teched with a new ASM physically in the room. In my ears, it sounded like a normal tech team, but several of the people I was listening and talking to were in other states across the country.

What have, you, personally, been doing over the past year or so to stay sane? What has helped you the most?

I’ve been doing a lot of jigsaw puzzles! They appease the analytical and problem-solving part of my brain, as well as my goal-orientated nature. Some I even mounted and hung on my wall as a nerdy celebration of accomplishment. I’ve also doubled-down on finding recipes for my Instant Pot that lend themselves to meal prepping. When we went into quarantine for a film project, I had 30 days-worth of food between my fridge and freezer, so I didn’t have to grocery shop.

What has been the hardest thing about the past months since the shutdown?

For me, the hardest aspect is watching so many of my colleagues and fellow artists in the industry experience anxiety over survival, let alone continued professional success. One of the joys of working in the performing arts, is your chosen family extends to all reaches of the country and supersedes time. You may do a show with somebody, not see them for 3 years, then bump into them on the street and it’s like you saw each other yesterday. Watching so many of these friends struggle to pay rent, lose their health insurance, fight for unemployment benefits, all while trying to preserve their careers is heartbreaking.

What positives, if any, do you think have come out of this time of quarantine?

For the first time in my career, I have had time off for myself. I had been privileged to be working very consistently, particularly the last 5 years, but this meant I missed a lot of what was happening in the world around me, including weddings, funerals, birthdays, and most importantly, time for self-care. The pandemic has forced me to think about what I want my priorities to be long-term and how my work fits into that picture. I find many theater professionals have built their identity around their career and without the ability to work, there was an immediate sense of personal loss. I have used this time to redefine who I am as a person and what I want my legacy to be.

What is your biggest worry right now?

The cultivation of new work. Making a new show a commercial success, even just to the point it can get published and licensed, is a long and expensive process. Although the pandemic has been a great time for writers to collaborate due to many artists being home and available, it has also come with little to no financial compensation for that work. When theaters reopen, I worry seasons will be filled with jukebox musicals and problematic revivals that will sell tickets and not necessarily make space for contemporary voices and issues.

What do you miss the most about theatre/your job/the arts?

I miss the joy of sharing our work with others. Doing shows totally virtually or with very minimal audiences indoors doesn’t have the same energy as a theater full of people breathing with a show. The laughs, gasps, sniffles, and candy wrappers all influence a performance for stage managers, actors, and technicians. I long for the days of telling an actor they’re milking a death scene too much, because we’ve had a string of enthusiastic patrons.

What’s your favorite theatre memory?

I was born and raised in Maryland, and during my senior year of high school the Hairspray national tour started its run in Baltimore. Fans of the show will know it’s full of humor and references that are very specific to Baltimore. The audience exploded with applause and a partial standing ovation after the opening number and continued to stop the show throughout the evening. Although I had seen several regional productions of shows and a few other national tours at that point in my life, this was the first time I was in a sold-out house where a show moved an audience in such a profound way.

What is the first thing you’re going to do when theatre is back?

This sounds a bit sad, but I want to hear the affirmative beep of my successfully scanned ticket to a new show. I want to stand on line in the rain, walk into a tiny, crowded lobby, and hear the beep admitting me to an evening that offers me art that will challenge the way I view the world.

What advice do you have for young Broadway/Stage Manager hopefuls during this time?

Keep yourself informed of what’s trending in the industry and find ways to be at the forefront of innovating that work. With so much of performance going virtual, there is a whole new market for managers who know how to use that technology. Early career managers tend to be more knowledgeable about emergent technology and how it can be adapted for use in virtual production. Take a look, every week, what’s being produced and investigate how they’re producing it. What programs are they using? What management positions were listed in the credits? What kinds of shows do you see being most successful? In the same way we would send a stage manager a message, asking if we could shadow the call of a show, reach out to the manager of a virtual project and ask if you can shadow a rehearsal or a show or at the very least have a virtual drink to talk about the process. People are working, so take advantage of their experience!

Lightning Round:

Favorite Broadway Musical: This changes daily based on my mood, so I’ll go with my first Broadway musical, and one that is still on my bucket list to do: Chicago. This was my introduction to Fosse and although my body could never and will never be able to do any of that choreo, his work continues to fascinate me. I’m also covertly a huge Kiss of the Spider Woman fan, which I discovered by exploring more of Kander & Ebb’s work.

Favorite Broadway Play: The History Boys. Okay, it technically came from the West End (where I saw it), but it won the Tony, so it qualifies! I was in college studying educational theater when I saw it, so to say it was transformational is an understatement.

Favorite Movie Musical: I’m going to stretch the definitions of canon a bit here and nominate Muppet Treasure Island. It’s the perfect blend of bops, heart, adventure, wit, and self-awareness. Also, what Stage Manager doesn’t want to call a live version of “Cabin Fever”?!?

Phantom or Les Miz: Les Miz, but I’m partial to revolutionaries at the moment.

Hamilton or In the Heights: In the Heights, mainly because “Blackout” was one of my pump-up songs in grad school when I was up late writing my thesis.

Favorite Theatre Ritual: It’s deeply personal, but after closing night of a show, I’ll find a moment alone in the theater after all the lights have been turned off and the ghost light is out to thank the space. I will touch each wall of the theater and then end with a kiss of the stage (via my fingers).

Favorite NYC Restaurant: V{IV} Bar & Restaurant, a Thai place in Hell’s Kitchen. Their bar makes the best lychee-tinis and is a happy hour dinner favorite for me and some other stage manager friends when I’m in town.

Favorite Theatre Superstition: Bad dress, good opening.

Favorite Stage Manager Gadget (glow tape, spike tape etc.): My sticky note printer!!!

Best Personal Superhero Stage Manager Skill: Covertly planting ideas into others’ heads

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