BY CARY GINELL
Everyone knows that the director is the person responsible for the look and content of a musical or play, but once the cast has been selected, sets and props are delivered, and all the technical elements are in place, who puts it all together? The week prior to a show’s opening is called “Tech Week,” a four or five-day period during which all the elements of a production are assembled on stage for the first time. Tech Week marks the transition period between the rehearsal stage and the performance stage of a production. Once the show is underway, it is the job of the stage manager to supervise, coordinate, and maintain all of the sundry elements that make up a production, from lighting, sound, and sets to costume changes, blocking, and all the performers’ backstage activity. As we found out, it takes a particular kind of person to become a stage manager. He or she has to be detail oriented, disciplined, unflappable, and resourceful. Kimberly Kiley, who is currently serving as stage manager for the Actors’ Repertory Theatre of Simi’s production of Ragtime, has all of these attributes and more. We visited her before a performance last weekend and were introduced to the new staging area at the theater where Kiley is stationed during a show.
VCOS: How did you get started as a stage manager?
KIMBERLY: Actually, I started as a dancer. I got into my first show here in Simi in 2005 as a dancer and I did it for a long time. But I didn’t love it. I kind of felt like I had to be here and by the third weekend, it was like “Ohhh! Another show…” So I took some time off and then David Daniels asked me to come in and work back stage for The Drowsy Chaperone. They just needed someone who was organized and I’m an organization freak. So I said, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but OK.” And I got hooked on it and now I see my place in the theater. I’ve worked backstage ever since but still do a little dancing on the side.
VCOS: What was your education like? Any formal training in theater?
KIMBERLY: I’m actually a finance major. I went to school at CSUN and currently work at a construction company. I do the books and office organization and stuff that has nothing to do with theater at all.
VCOS: Do you think you might want to do this for a living?
KIMBERLY: I don’t know. I think I like it more as a hobby. If I had to rely on it as my main means of income, it might become less fun and more work. So I like where I am work-wise and I like what I do here, so I think I’ll probably stick with it more as a hobby.
VCOS: You call yourself an “organization freak.” Is that a must for this kind of job?
KIMBERLY: Absolutely. There are so many different parts to it and in order to really have a solid tech week that creates a solid show, you need to know all the parts and where they’re going and where they’re coming from. And you have to be able to organize people, which is the hardest part. It’s like herding cats, working in theater. But it’s fun and it’s a challenge.
VCOS: You work in conjunction with the director, but is there a point where he turns it all over to you?
KIMBERLY: Tech Week. During Tech Week, I’m in charge of everything at stage level. During Tech Week, he’ll still be working on lighting design and the sound design and making sure all those departments are where they need to be. Halfway through Tech Week, when that stuff has become a little more final, I’ll get with them, take down their cue notes, talk to them about their lighting design, and by opening night, I’m calling all the lighting cues, the scene change cues, and all of that kind of stuff.
VCOS: Physically, where do you hang out during a show?
KIMBERLY: Right here in my little station, which is kind of a new thing. This is the first show I’ve ever done from here. Usually I would be off stage left by the tech room, in case there were any mic issues. And then I’d also be on stage moving set pieces. I loved that because I was in control of it and I knew that I was going to move the piece myself. There was not question of “Is the person standing there?” “Are they ready to go?” “Did something happen?” So I liked being on stage level to do that. But this is my first time sitting and having to rely on people, which is a challenge because you have to teach people where you want them to go, so you need to be able to communicate really well.
VCOS: You have to delegate and trust.
VCOS: Is that hard for you?
KIMBERLY: So hard! SO hard! And even now, I have the impulse to just jump up and move things myself right now, but I just have to take a breath and say, “Can you please move this?” and do it this way or tilt it that way.
VCOS: Have you ever observed professionals doing this?
KIMBERLY: Only on video. I haven’t seen any professionals call a show in real life, but I’ve watched a lot of videos before I started calling this show, just to get the feel of the pacing, how long I should wait before giving a “stand by” cue, a “go” cue, and stuff like that.
VCOS: Who do you communicate with from here?
KIMBERLY: I wear two headsets during a show. I wear a clear com headset, which talks to Brenda [note: rehearsal stage manager Brenda Goldstein], who runs the light board, and I use a regular walkie headset to talk to the stage crew. The clear com can also get me Seth [live sound mixer Seth Kamenow] if I need something, but he doesn’t wear headphones because he’s doing the sound and needs to be able to hear. So I can always get Brenda to tell Seth to put his headphones on. If there’s a mic issue or the monitors aren’t working or something technical that he has to do in the booth, then I talk to him directly.
VCOS: So how many people are you dealing with?
KIMBERLY: During a show, I only deal with four. Seth, the technical director and sound designer, Brenda, who does the light board, and Linda and Dean, who are my stage level stage hands.
VCOS: What’s the most difficult show that you’ve had to deal with so far?
KIMBERLY: That’s a tough one. Actually, they all create their own special challenges. They say that every show is different when you’re an actor but every show is a hundred times more different when you’re stage managing because there are so many more pieces than just your part on stage. I think that Drowsy Chaperone was the most complex because it was a set that blocked the whole stage. We didn’t have this monitor set up then so I couldn’t see the stage when I was working. So it was a matter of making sure people knew where they needed to be at all times. Plus, it was my first show, so there was a big learning curve there! Ragtime is a huge challenge as well because it’s almost like my first show stage managing because I’ve never used this setup before. They set it up for the first time during Fiddler On the Roof, which was last January, and it’s kind of a new thing. Most stage managers at theaters – this is what they do now. They sit, they watch the show, they call the scene changes and lighting cues, and sometimes sound cues, but till now, we haven’t had the setup to do it. There was nowhere to watch the show from.
VCOS: There are shows that have a lot of set pieces that have to be moved around and there are shows with a lot of costume changes. Can you talk about the differing complexities of those elements?
KIMBERLY: Set pieces are always the most challenging because you have to coordinate getting them on without hitting actors or impeding them from getting to their spot. So the hardest thing about being stage level, tech wise, is to make sure that you are making the actors look as good as possible and being as invisible as possible.
VCOS: Do you prefer having stage hands moving set pieces as opposed to the actors themselves?
KIMBERLY: Not necessarily. I have found that it’s good when you have a stage crew that has headsets on, and you know they’re there, and you can give them a cue. But we have a few set pieces that come on with actors in this show and we picked specific people that we could trust to bring them on. If you haven’t worked with someone before, sometimes you don’t want to put that in their hands because you can’t always check and see if they’re there.
VCOS: And some set pieces are heavier than others as well.
KIMBERLY: Exactly. And you don’t want an actor to get injured bringing on a set piece. So set pieces are a very particular beast. Costume changes can create a traffic problem, which is always fun to deal with. Luckily, there are no quick changes in Ragtime that require this. I’ve worked in shows where I had to have two tech crews dressing someone because the quick changes were so fast. So it’s kind of like a set piece, getting a costume on someone. It’s just stuff you have to juggle and make happen.
VCOS: Tell me about improvising. When the unexpected happens, what kinds of things have you had to deal with?
KIMBERLY: If someone doesn’t come or there was an emergency and they’re not here, I’ve found that I can always find a couple of actors that I can trust to get the work done. Sometimes you just have to jump in and do more. Luckily, with this theater, I’ve found so much support from the actors in getting stuff on the stage. They all want to help and want to make the show great also.
VCOS: Do you ever have the impulse to just jump in and do it yourself?
KIMBERLY: Always. Always. And in some shows you can do that because everyone’s wearing dress blacks or tech blacks and the director is fine with seeing a tech person. With a show like this, my tech crew is in costume. They do all the scene changes in costume, so I can’t really jump out onto the stage. There are no blackouts and no time when I can really go out there. That creates a little special problem. But we’ve had such good luck with things like when an actor sees something on stage, instead of saying “That’s not supposed to be there!” and walking off, they’ll pick it up themselves and walk it off.
VCOS: Any on stage emergencies that come to mind?
KIMBERLY: I was on stage myself during an emergency. When I was doing Shrek, Georgie Chavez was playing Shrek and was wearing a mask that had his mic built into it. Well, the mic went out and there was no way to fix it. You can’t replace a mic head like you can with a regular character that isn’t wearing a mask. So we had to get a handheld mic out there and wrap it in some swamp stuff and he had to do the scene with a handheld for the whole rest of the show. I thought that was great improvising by the tech crew. This kind of thing always seems to happen to a character who doesn’t get a break; they’re on stage the whole time and you’re waiting in the wings to fix their mic but they never come off stage. Most of the things that I find catastrophic are things the audience would never notice. Like if I don’t call a scene change at exactly the precise moment, but we’d find the right time to go in and do it. So although it might not happen when you’re expecting it, we can make it happen at a time when you’d think it was always supposed to be there, but maybe a page late.
VCOS: So you’ve never had things like set pieces falling over?
KIMBERLY: No, nothing like that, thank goodness. Once I pulled the scrim down, before all the actors were back behind it, and then they were stuck in front of it. I was covering for someone and I thought, “This seems like a good time to put this down,” and everyone was stuck in front of the scrim. But they all got off stage and probably no one noticed, except for me. That’s one thing about being stage manager. Everything that I think is catastrophic, I would go out to David Ralphe, our director, and apologize and he’d say, “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” I’m a perfectionist, though, and I think that’s important in doing the job because you just can’t say “that worked great so we never have to look at it again.” Every night I’m trying to call things at the right time, make sure the stairs move smoothly, or if someone’s not making a change fast enough, we’d work on it before the next show.
VCOS: So your role is almost as important as the director’s after Tech Week, isn’t it? I saw you working with the actors in the baseball game sequence as if you were the director.
KIMBERLY: Yes. A lot of times, the director and Becky Castells, the choreographer, will let me do that. And Becky knows my background in dance, so she knows that if she is not available, I can run numbers or give feedback on how they went. So it’s kind of like another hat that you wear.
VCOS: Do you keep a log book?
KIMBERLY: I do. During rehearsals, I have all sorts of books that I carry around with me. For Ragtime, I have is a shift plot, which shows all of our scene changes, I have a notebook where I make notes about things I have to work on or talk to people about, and then I have my script, which has all the cues written into it. It’s not much work once it starts. I like knowing a show before you get to Tech Week. You know who can move set pieces, you know what the sets look like, but when you just jump in during Tech Week, there’s often a lot of scrambling. So it’s important to learn the show and all the blocking first and then do all the technical stuff.
VCOS: You look like you have a lot of fun doing this.
KIMBERLY: I do. It just keeps you on your toes and it’s never boring.
VCOS: And staying on your toes is something you learned to do anyway as a dancer.
KIMBERLY: Good point!
Ragtime plays at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center through December 4. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.