“Your job is to manage the crazy and bring out the talent.” –Jack Donaghy, 30 Rock
Patience. A virtue, some say. I say it’s an art form, a muscle: it’s something you craft or tone. Every person I work with, every place I work, every show I do… it’s all a part of the shaping of my patience. I find that I need to be addicted to patience, almost like a drug. Without that addiction, I’m any other stage manager, running on way too little sleep and an affinity for office supplies.
I’d say that for most of my life, I’ve prided myself in being a patient human being and I’ve taken that gift, applied it to stage management, and used it to my advantage. In my perfect world, I’m tolerant and can withstand any frustration that is thrown my way. As a stage manager, I believe I have to carry out this ideal no matter what, even if that’s not how I’m feeling inside. Some days I feel like I’m acting more than the people on stage. I feel guilty for lapsing into momentary spurts of internal impatience (which, I know, is ridiculous) and make a mental note to myself to try not to have that weakness in the future.
My current gig at Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft, ME (whose spring musical, The Apple Tree, just opened on March 31st) was no exception. I was hired to stage manage and be the technical mentor for the show and technical theatre class. I had students fail to produce work at the given deadlines, not know their music a week before tech, show up half an hour late to rehearsal with no notice, and many, many other irritating things that drive me (and stage managers, in general) insane. Tiny, incremental things that got under my skin, put me in a foul mood, and therefore, all of that was in danger of being projected onto the kids. And I hated that possibility. One of my jobs as the stage manager (and more importantly, a working professional setting an example for kids who are still learning) is to help maintain high production morale and if my slight impatience started to poison the well, there would be no turning back. Negativity is infectious and when it spreads, even if you find an antidote, at that point it’s hard to purge every crumble of that attitude out of the show. Now, I won’t say that I never yelled or reprimanded them throughout this process… because I definitely did (more so than normal). But being firm and making point and yelling to establish dominance are two very different concepts. Furthermore, when I’m being firm, I am not being negative; I am simply trying to get my message across. I had to keep my cool and remind myself that they weren’t born knowing all the rules. I was given this incredible opportunity to guide them in the right direction, even if it tried my typically unwavering patience.
Two examples in The Apple Tree come to mind when it came to exercising my patience and my need for it. The first: my deck crew. Four sophomore boys with little to no experience in running a show backstage and who bicker over asinine details (or nothing at all) without actually working out problems. This is what I had to work with. One of their tasks during the show is to take down an eight-piece wall unit, consisting of six 4’x10’ flats that are held together with coffin locks and supported by a jack, with a screw drilling it to the floor. Basically speaking, it’s a pretty simple piece of theatre scenery to assemble and disassemble. The four of them have ten minutes or less to take it apart (during our second intermission). The first time I timed them? 22 minutes. After a hellish tech week, where they made mistakes, fixed them once, and repeated them, they can now take it down in three-and-a-half minutes, at best. In addition to all of this, I need them to set and keep track of all props in the show and maintain a quiet and productive backstage area. Time and time again, they were told how things needed to be done. Time and time again, they did the total opposite of what I wanted. Time and time again, I became frustrated that the notes weren’t sticking; at one point during final dress rehearsal, I was yelling directions to them from the back of the house (something I rarely do under normal circumstances and never do the day before opening). But after each slap on the wrist, I definitely instilled in them the positive reinforcement needed to keep them coming back for more. Now, I have a fully functioning crew that I would happy to work with again in the future. Taking the time to fix the problems and see them through no matter what, in addition to not giving up on them merely because things didn’t always go perfectly, made all the difference. I feel extremely proud to have been an integral part of their development in this art form, merely because I invested my time and patience in them.
The other example: a senior actor in the show (oh, how his reputation preceded him). When I first met this kid, he came off as combative, at best; always had an answer for everything, resistant to direction or suggestion. He had his answer that he wanted in his head and if yours didn’t match, he was fixed on what he wanted. I didn’t know how to approach him. Should I try to befriend him? Should I be firmer with him because he doesn’t follow certain rules I’ve set? I didn’t know, so I did neither, going against my first instincts. I waited for the answer to come to me and I found that I couldn’t have done anything better. Being patient and waiting for him to become comfortable with me, to know what I’m all about and in turn, learning what makes him tick, ending up being the best decision I could have made. I find this particular student to be entirely different than how he first portrayed himself to me; he is an extremely bright, emotionally in-tune individual with tons of potential. Had I not been fervently patient, I would have never gotten to really know and understand such a great kid.
And as much as I’ve pushed these kids to shine and play out their potential (not only as theatre individuals, but as future adults), I feel I have been pushed by them, as well: remember to always keep the faith and fight to the finish. That is the true magic of theatre: the unknown spark that ignites the fire. That is one of the things I love the most about what I do. And despite all of the mistakes and errors, the feeling of overcoming it all was worth it. There is a quote I use as a constant reminder of this:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” -Rainer Maria Rilke
Some people believe that being patient is something you are born with, like having blue eyes or a birthmark. I truly believe that patience is something you have to want, and if you don’t want anything to do with it, you won’t. That’s how we are as human beings. We focus and set our minds to things we are drawn to and we reject and stay away what we don’t care for. The difference in being patient versus wanting to be patient is desire, plain and simple. This desire is what drives me as a stage manager: to become the best version of myself, on and offstage.