A commanding presence: Stage managers direct from afar

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STOCKBRIDGE — "Sound 25 — go."

A beat later, a doorbell rang during the first act of Tuesday night's performance of "Arsenic and Old Lace" at Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Main Stage. From a booth at the back of the theater, stage manager Jason Weixelman had cued sound board operator Caleb Siler to select the effect from a running list on the monitor in front of him.

It was one of Weixelman's first calls, or the commands that a stage manager gives to subordinates to ensure a play runs as planned. The stage manager likens his work to driving a car or piloting a plane as he hovers over a table with buttons and switches, watching — and directing — the night's journey before him. The aeronautical analogy is more apt. Perched above the action, Weixelman alternates between alert stillness and short commands or movements that can have catastrophic consequences on a performance if he makes them a second too early or late.

"Communication, organization and anticipation — those are the three keys to being a successful stage manager," he said earlier.

The stage manager's responsibilities, then, don't begin at showtime. On this night, Weixelman observed a "fight call," or a rehearsal of any on-stage combat scenes, and a "blackout check" before 6:30. He then proceeded down a few flights of stairs to the lounge backstage. Before each performance, he delivers 30, 15, five and "places" announcements to the actors.

"This is your half-hour call," he said, repeating himself as he scurried down the two hallways of dressing areas leading to the lounge. He remained backstage until showtime, chatting with actors as they calmly waited in a cramped area with a table that included essentials such as coffee and cough drops.

"You do become a family," Weixelman said earlier, mindful of the cliche. One of the topics in the minutes before the show was a cast member's "Margarita Monday" celebration the previous evening.

At one point, a staffer informed Weixelman that the actors were concerned about it being too cold for audience members, so Weixelman had her check on it. The staff often blasts the air conditioning before the show. "You want to keep it cool for the actors," Weixelman said. While his job is to communicate with every department associated with the production, Weixelman reserves special attention for the performers, making sure they feel supported. "At the end of the day, the actors are taken care of," he said.

Weixelman's empathy comes from experience. After acting in community productions during his teens, Weixelman earned a bachelor of fine arts in theater from Nebraska Wesleyan University. He eventually moved to New York City to advance his career. "I understand what it means to be on stage," he said.

Soon thereafter, a friend called about a stage managing gig, and Weixelman took it. In the past year, he has managed four plays. Weixelman views it as another form of acting, which he'll continue studying when he begins a master of fine arts program at Shakespeare Theatre Company's Academy for Classical Acting in Washington, D.C. this fall.

But his focus is currently on leading this production.

"We're at places everybody. Have a good show," he said at 7, retreating to the windowed booth behind the last row of seating. In his seat at the center of the dark, enclosed space, Weixelman faced an array of switches and buttons as well as a monitor. He opened a binder with the play's script and put on a headset, which he used to communicate with Siler and light board operator Taylor Jensen, both of whom flanked him throughout the play.

When the show began, Weixelman started a stopwatch on his phone and marked the time —7:05 — in a notebook. He would perform the same task for the two subsequent acts; he would also note the acts' and intermissions' lengths down to the second. "If we do go over, most of the time it's because of audience reaction," Weixelman said on his way down the actors' lounge, where he spends each intermission.

Running time is part of the recap email he sends to all departments in the organization after a show. Along with timing, the memo will address the actors' performance, the audience's reactions to different moments and props' condition. During the first act, Weixelman thought a prop was missing when Timothy Gulan (playing Teddy) mentioned the "Oregon." He made a note of it. Otherwise, the evening went smoothly, with the stage manager only jotting a few other notes during the comedy.

"We're at the point of the run where I think everybody has their rhythm," Weixelman said during the second intermission.

It's not always so stress-free. During a prior performance, a telephone was knocked out of its holder before Weixelman was supposed to cue a phone call. From his position, Weixelman felt helpless, but Graham Rowat (playing Mortimer) noticed and placed the phone back on the hook in time to cue the ringing. "ESP," Weixelman quipped.

On this night, the most action for Weixelman may have been when the performers took their bows. To cue the actors before they go on stage throughout the show, Weixelman flicks switches labeled with different positions (e.g., cellar). A light on signifies standby; switching it off means "go." As each group of actors emerged from various parts of the set, Weixelman cued a different location, his hands moving rapidly across the switches.

After what he said he would call a "good show" in his recap email later that night, Weixelman reminded the cast that the call time for tomorrow's matinee was 1:30 p.m. He was already preparing for the next journey.


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