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An Off Broadway Stage Manager-ess

An Off Broadway Stage Manager-ess

In the early 1980s I worked as a stage manager for plays done in Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway theatres.  I loved the collaborative nature of production: people, mostly strangers, come together to work intensely, intimately for several months, flying through the highs and lows of vulnerability necessary to creating real art.  Then closing night comes all too quickly, and is usually topped off by a wild party if you were lucky. I was often very lucky in that I had friends with big Upper West Side flats in pre-War buildings so I frequently got to co-host the parties!

Then cast and crew drifted off to the next play.  Sometimes you bumped into each other at other shows or reunited for a different production.  The exhilaration of the connections you made trailed off slowly and then an ache set in…as if you came home to discover that your entire family had moved to another state and forgot to tell you they were leaving.  My therapist at the time told me to stop doing theatre because the post production depression was just too much for me.

What really depressed me, I think, was that the theatre world had only a very narrow place for women and for women of color. So I always felt uncertain if I’d find a new family. I loved working on plays, working with directors and actors but I could never be sure I’d get more work (which is a funny thing to call it since it never paid a living wage). Female stage managers were still an anomaly back then.  I didn’t aspire to be a director and I was only just beginning to think I’d be a playwright.  But I loved being a stage manager.

When I looked at the production staff list on shows rarely was there a woman stage manager.  Costumer…yes.  Assistant prop person…sure…assistant anything.  I tried once to get work on a show that would allow me to get my union card but that was a sham. Another time a director told the Black male playwright I was the stage manager for his Off Broadway production—the next rehearsal the playwright gave me a book on stagecraft!

Before this humiliating encounter I’d been stage managing for almost a decade, supervising large crews and casts without any complaints. My favorite accomplishment was supervising the move of the front end of a 1957 Chevy onto the stage without any broken bones or destruction to the front lobby!  I could have written a book on stage craft.

In the early 1990s when I worked with Urban Bush Women Company on the theatrical adaptation of my novel, “The Gilda Stories,” it was all girls all the time!  Well the assistant director and set designer were guys but there were 10 female cast members, as well as director, lighting designer, stage manager and other assorted crew who traveled with the show.  It was a great antidote to my experience in the ‘80s.

So last week we started rehearsals on my new play, “Waiting for Giovanni” (opening at New Conservatory Theatre next month), and it was strange to be in a room full of guys again.  I had written only one female character in this piece about James Baldwin so that was partly my fault.  But there I was with 7 male actors, male director, male stage manager, as well as stage and light designers. And yeah, a woman costumer and prop person.

I decided to ask my friend, Meja, if she’d join the production team.  I knew her in NYC back in the old days when we were two of the few colored female stage managers and she’d stage managed the readings we did of this piece over the past winter.  I didn’t know exactly what she’d do since the theatre had their own staff but I knew it was important.  I needed to feel the balance of female energy.

And it’s not that the guys are horrible sexists.  They are all amazingly thoughtful and appreciative folks.  It was just a feeling I had that I didn’t want to be in that room again…that room where I felt like the odd one out.  A place where it was amusing that a ‘girl’ was on the team.  Some people of color and some women enjoy being the ONLY ONE.  It’s a space in which they thrive because being the other is exotic and special…which is not the same as being equal.

I much more enjoy being on the team, working in concert with others, learning who each of us is.  I can be the diva as much as anyone but that’s not the collaborative experience I want in my creative work or in my life.

Women do change things.  It’s one of the reasons the armed forces are afraid of giving women equal opportunity there.  Or in the Catholic church…or any church.  If women start to not just interact with a system but to think about a system (and with a critical mass we do start to think)—it will change.  It may be slow or almost imperceptible but we do have a way of looking at things that takes in a larger picture.

I feel much better with my one actor, Desiree, who plays Lorraine Hansberry and Meja in the room.  We’re in it just like the guys and then some.

Jewelle Gomez is the author of 7 books including the lesbian vampire classic novel, The Gilda Stories.  Her new play about James Baldwin will be produced in September 2011. Follow her on Twitter: VampyreVamp.  Or her website: www.jewellegomez.com

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2 comments

  • Kim Reed says:

    Giovanni’s Room is one of my favorite novels of all time. I read it at a time when I had few models and little experience. I dreamed of Paris. I imagined intrigue. I aspired to write. James Baldwin was inspiring, intimate, exciting and excellent. Loraine Hansbury wrote a Raisin In the Sun about housing segregation here in Chicago. She also attended the New School and worked with DuBois, one of my favorite black listed founders of American sociology. When I was in high school in New Jersey, I was fortunate to see Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enough on stage in New York City. The poems, music and dancing entranced me. This choreopoem changed my life. I still sing the last few lines, For I found God in myself, and I loved her fiercely, I loved her fiercely. My high school drama club chose For Colored Girls as their annual play in 1979. As a short white girl, I could not star, but the women my age who did were beautiful. One girl was from the local public housing project, had no stage experience, yet blew us away with talent and passion that had been there all along while we staged ‘white’ productions. After the show at Franklin High, I found her and told that she was beautiful. She was surprised, but very happy. I don’t think we had ever spoken to one another before. I love you fiercely for your art and craft. Living in borderline poverty as a part time academic, I often find strength in art, and the alternate worlds it allows us to travel and meet in. Every school should be a new school for diversity and open the horizons of love and understanding.

  • Emily Culpepper says:

    So excited that “Waiting for Giovanni” is about to be produced, eager to come to SF to see it. The perspective here by playwright Jewelle Gomez touches on so many important points about the last several decades of our interconnected social justice movements & cultures. Key to me is her frank look at the politics of paying attention to balancing energies & not slipping back into token participation(and not seeing that as some outdated concern). It seems to me that too often old patterns of privilege can unintentionally creep in – especially in tough economic times. As Gomez makes clear, this isn’t about being artificially PC. A play about James Baldwin understandably has a lot of men 🙂 But her frank look as who is on the production team is refreshing & thought provoking. Brava!