Interviews with Rad People / Stage Manager Jean Compton


Jean ComptonAsk me what my favorite part of blogging is, and I will always answer the community. From the first comment I ever received to the friendships I’ve formed over Twitter, the people I have “met,” so to speak, through Ciao Bella make the hours of prepping posts, leaving comments, and writing emails entirely worth it {although don’t get me wrong, those tasks can be fun too!}.

These talented bloggers, writers, and other individuals inspired Interviews with Rad People, a new series in which I converse with some friendly, talented faces of different professions. Whether these interviewees are making their name known in the design industry, launching their own small business, or working diligently behind the curtain, I hope you have just as much fun reading through their replies as I have asking them the questions.

To kick off the feature, I’m excited to introduce Jean Compton, a recent graduate and current assistant stage manager based in Chicago! I first came across Jean’s career on her now-defunct Tumblr, Stage Manager Ryan Gosling, where she posted, as the title suggested, Ryan Gosling images with perfect tech-themed jokes. Although the page is no longer updated, it did lead me to Jean’s personal site and had me intrigued by her career in technical theater. I’m delighted that Jean was able to answer a few questions about her love for theater and her job in stage managing, and I hope you enjoy her answers as well, future crew member or not.

• • •

Have you always had a passion for theater, or did something spark your interest later in high school or college? 

I think theatre has always been a part of my life — one of my first memories is watching the pledge drive of Les Mis on PBS when I was two {I just thought those ladies were sad}. And my mom worked at a high school, so she took me to their plays every year growing up. I did a few plays early on but acting just made me itchy — I was nervous the whole time I was onstage, I hated it. But I loved the rest of it. So I started researching other jobs in theatre online, and found about stage management. The more I learned the more it really clicked with my other strengths and interests — I love organizing things, meeting and leading diverse groups of people, and I am really good at spelling.

I grew up in a pretty rural area, so a lot of how I learned was from the internet and books { and Thomas Kelly’s Back Stage Guide to Stage Management were big sources}, and then I got to start practicing what I learned in productions at the local community college when I was still in high school. I feel lucky that I figured out what I wanted to do for my career early enough that I could apply to college with that focus in mind, and I graduated in 2014 from The Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago with my BFA in Stage Management.

SMRG_02What does a typical day look like for you when you are stage managing a production?

At this point in my career I’m working primarily as an assistant stage manager. A typical day for me changes depending on what phase of a production we’re in at the time. Rehearsal days look the most like a 9-5 type job. Rehearsals are usually 8 hours a day from 10-6 with an hour lunch break in the middle.  I’m usually there at least a half hour before rehearsal work starts to set up the room, print any paperwork needed for that day, and most crucially, make coffee.

During rehearsals I’m on book for scenes, moving furniture and props for scene changes, taking notes, answering questions and relaying questions to designers, keeping the schedule on track, making copies, and running errands as needed. After rehearsal, I clean up the room, help make the schedule for the next day, and help the stage manager write and send out the rehearsal report.

When we move into the theatre for technical rehearsals, our days get longer with 10 or 12 hour workdays {lunch breaks included of course!}. I move backstage to run that track, which can include scene changes onstage, prop hand-offs, costume quick-changes, and actor cues. I keep in communication with the stage manager in the house via headset, and help them keep the rehearsal running smoothly on stage while the designers create their cue sequences.

Previews see us making changes and rehearsing during the day before performing for an audience in the evening. Once the show is open I’m mostly working during the evening running the show backstage, with some mornings and afternoons for understudy rehearsals and matinees.

What was your most memorable or favorite show to work on so far, whether in school or professionally?

In school and professionally, I’ve been lucky so far to be involved in a lot of world premiere productions. It’s really exciting to be able to be involved in the process that creates a play from scratch, and see the changes from day to day, what gets added and what gets cut, before it ever sees an audience. I’m especially drawn to new works because it’s the purest distillation of what’s unique about theatre: if you’re not in the room where and when it happens, you missed out.

SMRG_01What do you believe are the three most important skills for a stage manager to have?

Multi-tasking: In production, you have to be able to balance a lot of different priorities all competing for attention between directors, designers, and actors. Managing the schedule, communicating with everyone, running the actual show without letting any of these fall away is important. Also as a freelance professional stage manager you alone are in charge of moving your own career forward, and when you’re doing one show, you’re either preparing for the next show you’ve booked or searching for the next job. If you can keep working well while looking ahead, you’ll be more successful and less stressed.

Communication: Not just when and what you communicate, but how. Being aware of and able to adjust tone in speaking and writing is an immensely useful tool for stage managers because we are the ultimate diplomats of the theatre. Avoid sarcasm — it’s hard to detect in text. Be clear, be concise but specific. Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ a lot, and ‘I’m sorry’ as soon as you need to. Have conversations instead of barking orders. When you don’t know something say so, and ask questions. Try to listen more than you speak—that’s a sign of strength, not weakness.

Sense of humor: There’s a stereotype sometimes of stage managers as type-A, control freak, stressed-out dictators. There are certainly stressful elements of the job, and it is a big one that requires strong leadership. But the best stage managers I’ve worked with are able to make that look easy because they don’t take themselves or the job too seriously. Of course safety is always a concern that isn’t taken lightly, and sometimes a firm hand is needed to maintain order. But a great stage manager can do that while making the theatre a really pleasant working environment where people are excited to show up everyday and do their best possible work.

Theatre is not brain surgery or a mission to Pluto; professionals on every level of theatre make mistakes, and things go wrong beyond our control, but we laugh them off, come in the next day and try to not make the same mistakes again. Part of what makes theatre unique is that we get to do it fresh each night — we plan for perfection and adjust as needed.

SMRG_03And, finally, just for fun, did you expect your Ryan Gosling pictures to be such an Internet hit?

I am continually shocked by the response that SMRG received. I made it when I was home from college for Christmas in 2011 and I was bored on the Internet. It was the height of the various Ryan Gosling “Hey girl” memes and when I thought of a few SM jokes that made me laugh I thought a few friends and maybe 3 strangers might like them too. I was immediately surprised by how fast it spread. I didn’t tell anyone about it and I think it took 6 days for someone at my school to find it and share it there.

Before I ran out of jokes there were over 100,000 visitors from more than 100 countries. When I studied abroad they already had one of the pictures on their SM office board before I got there, and friends tell me when they spot them backstage at theatres, which is so cool and so insane to me. It was definitely a lesson for me about how quickly the Internet moves and how far it reaches, and hopefully how to use that power for good.

• • •

Thank you again to Jean! I too was first drawn to stage managing because of my love for organization and have since teched countless productions. I think I made the right choice in extracurriculars – I am so, so grateful for my district’s drama programs – and I adored this inside peek into the actual business. Do you participate in theater in some format? Do you have any interest in stage managing?

Have a lovely rest of your day!


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