Taking Breaks: Why Everyone Needs a Stage Manager

Actors, especially young ones, would gladly rehearse endless hours to make a performance beautiful or a director happy. When the work is so important to you that it feels like a calling, you’ll knock yourself out to make it good. Unfortunately, knocking ourselves out destroys our health, exhausts our spirits, and ends up being counterproductive.

Fortunately, there are stage managers to save us from ourselves.

God bless the stage manager, who keeps an eye on the clock, tells the director it’s time for a break, then utters the magic words, “Ten minutes, everyone!” Like Pavlov’s dogs, we answer on cue, “Thank you, ten!” and drop what we’re concentrating on to stretch, grab coffee, check messages, hit the restroom, whatever. We know that in exactly ten minutes the stage manager will say, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re back!” and the work will resume.

A number of years ago (a large number; I am no longer young), I had the honor of playing Blanche du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire. During rehearsals, I took my breaks to the next level – I literally went outside. As soon as I heard those magic words, “ten minutes,” I was out the door, down the stairs, and out in the bright summer sun. I needed those breaks for my sanity, because Blanche lives in a very dark emotional place, and I had to remind myself that (a) I’m not Blanche, and (b) despite her emotional darkness, the sun is still shining.

I also need breaks from my mother’s dementia. I need to take walks, do yoga, be alone, write in my journal, play music, see other people, and generally get on with my life.

As an actor, I was willing to give myself over to Blanche. It was a privilege to play her. As a caregiver, I’m willing to give myself over to my mom’s needs. It’s a privilege to help her through this phase of life. But that doesn’t mean I don’t need breaks. What I really need is a stage manager to remind me when it’s time to clock out. Lacking that luxury, I build respite into my calendar.

I’m part of a family team, and we’ve learned to spell each other so that noone gets burned out. My sister Juliana and I are the front line in mom’s care; our cousin Terry is the angel who swoops in once a week and takes Mom out to dinner; and my brother David and sister-in-law Andrea travel long distance on a regular basis to take over for a few days and give everyone a break.

Believe me, I know how lucky I am to be part of this extraordinary group. The credit goes to Mom for raising us well and inspiring such devotion; she really was a terrific mother. But this level of cooperation also comes from our willingness to be honest with each other about what we can handle and when we’re burning out. We all understand the need to stop and rest.

If Mom were living in one of our homes, instead of in assisted living, breaks would be even more essential. In her excellent book The Spectrum of Hope: An Optimistic and New Approach to Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, neurologist Dr. Gayatri Devi stresses the importance of downtime:

“The trick for each caregiver is to find out what makes them tick – what offers them pleasure and relaxes them, what restores them – and schedule time for it. I’m a big believer in caregivers taking not just the occasional vacation but breaks every day, so they have restorative time for themselves on a regular basis.” (The Spectrum of Hope, p. 197)

One more point about breaks, in theater and in life: they’re not just good for you — they’re necessary to the work. Acting and caregiving require intense mental and emotional energy, and that has to come from somewhere, some reservoir of calm and peace.

We don’t become better at acting or caregiving by hunkering down and trying harder. We have to let our minds wander, and I mean this in a very positive way. We need to amble down quiet paths – physically and mentally – and see where they lead. It doesn’t take much. Even a short nap or a walk in the afternoon sun can restore us.

Let’s listen to our inner stage manager. Ten minutes, everyone.

June Sparks and Andrea Sparks, Majestic Diner, 2018

Mom out on the town with my beautiful sister-in-law, Andrea.  Photo by David Sparks. 


Managing the Magic

(Part of a series about creating a new production of “Metamorphoses” by Mary Zimmerman at Georgia Shakespeare, summer, 2013.)

Stage managers work hard.   Let me say that again.

Stage managers work hard.

If you don’t know what a stage manager is, imagine a cross between a CEO, a military tactician, and the mother of a very large family.  Add in cruise director and you’ve just about got it.

Command Central:  our stage manager's desk in the theater

Command Central:  our stage manager’s desk in the theater

The stage manager coordinates everything we do.  Everything.  He/she knows when and where every actor, prop, costume, light, and sound cue appears on stage.  From well before the first rehearsal through every step of the process, the stage manager is keeping records, writing notes, making changes, tracking people and objects, and keeping the company on schedule.  Ultimately, the stage manager is responsible for the smooth running of every single performance.

Robert Schultz, a frequent GS stage manager, in rehearsal

Robert Schultz, a frequent GS stage manager, in rehearsal

In the rehearsal hall, the stage manager (SM) is fairly quiet.  He or she is the director’s right hand.  She’s taking notes and whispering to assistant stage managers (ASMs) while the director conducts rehearsal.  Our beloved SM, Margo Khune, is the glue that holds us together while we figure out the play. Our ASMs set out rehearsal props, keep water and coffee available, and stay “on book” to help us with memorization. 

Now that we’re in the theater, the ASMs are backstage and Margo’s job is more central.  From her desk in the middle of the audience, she communicates with the stage crew, the sound and lighting designers, the technicians and the actors, working out the mechanics of every entrance, exit, and technical effect.  If that sounds like a massive undertaking, it is.  She pulls it off with calm persistence and a wit as dry as a fine martini.  A work of this magnitude would be doomed without someone like her.

Laura, one of our ASMs, wore out her shoes on the job.

Laura, one of our ASMs, wore out her shoes on the job.

It comes down to this:  if a stage manager does his job, the audience will never know he’s there.  Great stage management is the ultimate magic trick.

Margo, you are a magician.