In anticipation of our move in the coming year, I’ve been sifting through old papers in my home office, trying to purge before the packing begins.
The move is not just a transition for my son, allowing him to have more of his own space while still being fully supported by us. It’s also a transition for me. I’m preparing for this interesting shift in my “job description.” I’m still parenting this kid, but he’s an adult now, and that changes things.
While cleaning out my office, I’ve stumbled across an intriguing parallel from one of my “past lives” that has given me a helpful way to think about this next phase of my parenting life.
When I worked in theatre (feels like ages ago, but I’ve got scribbled-on scripts and photos and even VHS tapes to prove it), each production went through several transitions – from pre-production to rehearsals to tech runs to opening night and sometimes to an extended run or tour. The script and the company remained the same, but the venue and the energies changed as the ensemble developed, as new actor-audience dynamics arose, and as the show took on a life of its own that might have been different from what was envisioned in the early days of rehearsal.
But there’s one person that holds the show together through all of these phases: the stage manager. It’s a challenging job I used to love.
Now, indulge me for a moment, even if you’re not a theatre nerd like me.
Any parent could be seen as the “director” of the production that is their children’s lives.
But a special needs parent also takes on the vital role of the “stage manager.”
The theatre director leads a production through its early life, molding the actors in their development until the show is presented (ready or not) to the world on opening night. When the curtain goes up, the director can only watch nervously from the audience. Some of the show’s success can be credited to the director’s guidance and input, but the performers’ unique talents are all their own. The director takes pride in “birthing” the show and letting it go, her job ending as the show’s run begins.
(Of course, we all know that some directors remain tightly invested in their shows, reappearing periodically throughout the run to offer praise and encouragement, or even (as the actors cringe) to “give notes” on ways to improve the performance).
But the stage manager is an integral and necessary part of the production for its entire run.
She was there from the very first rehearsal, witnessing every moment as the actors discovered their characters and learned how to express themselves. She knows the motivations behind the actors’ every movement, word, and interaction.
She stays on with the company even after the first tickets are sold, charged with running the show and supporting the actors in their work to communicate and connect with audiences.
The stage manager calls the actors to “places” at the start of each performance, and monitors their progress from just off-stage or from the booth behind the audience, wordlessly celebrating as the performers demonstrate what she knows they can do.
She manages her show’s skilled stagehands and technical crew, who make sure each actor is seen in the proper light, is heard without being misunderstood, is standing on solid ground devoid of trip hazards, and is dressed in clothes that fit the part (but also aren’t too scratchy).
She ushers the show through changes in supporting cast and crew, carrying the “prompt book” that ensures new ensemble members stick to the expected script.
She oversees adjustments to worn-out costumes, broken scenery, technical difficulties, and flubbed lines.
The stage manager protects the actors from unkind reviews and ill-behaved patrons, reminding them of their worth and fabulousness in these roles that they were born to play.
She labors purposefully behind the scenes, her success defined by how un-noticed her work is (There is no Tony Award for stage managers – when the job is done well, the audience never sees it).
She even keeps the backstage green room comfy and quiet for the actors, who will need frequent breaks from the lights, crowds, and attention.
The stage manager is the first one at the theatre each day, unlocking doors and prop cabinets, and making sure there is enough caffeine, snacks, throat lozenges and hand warmers to get through the day’s performance.
And, she’s the last one to leave, sweeping up, resetting the props, leaving on the “ghost light” to protect against middle-of-the-night injuries, and making notes about things that need to be fixed, replenished, or rehearsed again.
She has a huge responsibility, and a hugely rewarding job.
So sure, I may not be the “typical” director. I may not have the chance to launch a show on opening night and send it off with my blessing and a prayer that the actors retain some of what I’ve taught them (and that audiences appreciate the 18+ years of hard work we’ve put in to getting this “show” off the ground).
But I get to stay on with this fascinating and unique production, support this still-emerging talent through every phase of his character development, and help make his performance as successful and as meaningful as it can be.
That’s a pretty nice role, too.