When I started my schooling at my local university, I spent the majority of my time at the theatre department. At the beginning of the year, there was a department wide meeting for all students and teachers. The department head used this time to tell them of his expectations for them throughout the year. It was here that crews were explained – a component of certain classes that required hours of work outside of the classroom. It was here that I learned “if you’re on time, you’re late” (a philosophy that helped break me of my habitual habit of being five minutes late for everything). It was also during these meetings that I developed a fear of the man. Not that he was cruel or even scary – he just meant business. I resolved early on to stay on his good side.
As my time at the theatre department went on, I learned more about our department head. He directed at least three of the five main stage productions the department put on every school year, not to mention the summer theatre productions. The man knew his stuff. He was also a teacher for the Directing I class, a required course for my field of study.
Directing I was only offered once a year. I did not meet the prerequisites the first time I needed to get in. Several of my friends in that program did a summer course to fulfill the requirement and take the class that fall. I did not follow them, since my funding wouldn’t have been available for the summer courses. A few friends were in the same class as me that fall, and I learned all about the Directing class, and the Dreaded First Test.
Anyway, I got into the Directing I class. It was quite a struggle, but I managed to survive the class and come out with a decent grade. My fear of my teacher during that time was not only well-founded, but fostered during that semester. My friends and I were all relieved when the class was over. We still had Directing II, but that was with a different teacher. We had survived. We were done.
That spring semester, I took another requirement for my major – Stage Management. This crew was very labor-intensive. Whatever show you were assigned, you were required to be at all rehearsals and performances from the first audition to the final performance. Monday through Friday, 6-11pm, for about a month.
I was assigned The Tempest, the final spring production of that particular semester. I was relieved that I could manage at least one of my Directing projects without a stage management crew. The director for this play was the department head.
As an assistant stage manager, I was not required to do a great deal. We listened to the stage manager, taped down the set parameters, filled our binders with the script, and made note of the actor’s movements on stage. Once the actors learned their parts, we were all assigned certain characters to follow their lines. Whenever a character missed a line or said it wrong, it was the responsibility of whoever had them that day to make note of it and give it to the actor after rehearsal.
The set didn’t move, so we didn’t have to worry with scene changes. We just had to focus on the actors and make sure our notes were right. In case the need arose, any one of us could be called upon to fill in for an actor who had already stepped out for the night (never happened to me, but it did to others).
The director worked with his actors and demanded their absolute best. He was very insistent, and was generally the same type of person that scared me. I did my best to blend into the background and do my assigned job.
The set was finished. The production moved to the stage. They practiced and practiced and practiced. Everything was done – except the curtain call. The director meant to block it, but never did. “We’ll do that tomorrow.”
Finally, it was opening day. The cast knew their parts, but they didn’t know the curtain call. The cast arrived and gathered for the final notes from their director. They did discuss the curtain call, but did not walk it through. “You come in, then you, then you. Everyone bow.”
The show went fine. The final line was given. It was time for the final bows. There were no trips, no bumps, and no hesitant actors wondering whether or not they should enter yet. Everyone made it on stage without a problem. The main actors bowed. Everyone bowed together. The stage manager did her job, and gave the order for the lights to black out. The audience clapped and the actors filed offstage.
Each side of the stage had a stage manager wearing headset that connected them with the people running lights, the stage manager on the other side, and the head stage manager. These people gave us cues as needed. For this play, it was largely unnecessary, but they were there.
I was not wearing the headset, but a friend was. As the audience filed out, the director marched over to the person running the sound and demanded their headset. The frightened student complied. The director proceeded to yell at the head stage manager over the headset. He felt she had called for the lights too early.
After the cast left, the stage managers gathered in our usual classroom. We discussed what had happened between our stage manager and the director. Our stage manager made a very good point. “We never rehearsed it.” The director, we found out belatedly, wanted the entire cast to take another bow because they had done so well. The stage manager had no way of knowing that, so she called for the lights.
During a quiet moment, just before we were dismissed for the night, the director walked into our classroom. He ignored us and focused on the stage manager. “I’m sorry. You were right, and I was wrong.” And he walked out.
I promptly pulled out a sticky note and recorded the momentous occasion. The scary director had admitted he had made a mistake. Not only to the stage manager, but in front of others.
The rest of the production, the stage manager let the cast take two bows before calling for the lights. The director never said a word about it again.
I saved that sticky note, written at the time to document the department head admitting that he was wrong. He had always acted as if he was right. In this particular situation, he was not. The students had known that, of course, but we did not expect him to admit it. Yet, he did.
Maybe he was gently reminded of the facts after he yelled at the poor stage manager. Maybe his anger wore off and he realized he was in the wrong. Whatever actually happened, he resolved to not only apologize to the student performing arguably the hardest job of the show, but he did it publicly, before her subordinates. Maybe it was calculated, maybe it wasn’t.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but he illustrated a life lesson that night. Never be afraid to admit when you make a mistake. Even if you’re the director. It takes the pressure off of everyone to realize that the person in charge is just as human as the one taking all the orders.