Man With A Plan

by Lisa Mulcahy

Travis Blackwell's confidence and skill as a stage manager is the result of facing many tough technical situations—and conquering each one. The calm and affable Blackwell is currently an SM on Hamilton's national tour, and has worked extensively at theater companies across the country including the Orpheum in Memphis, TN, the Weston Playhouse in Weston, VT, and the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, NY. In numerous venues, Blackwell has handled potential calamities throughout his career; he's earned a stellar reputation troubleshooting challenges such power outages, flying food, objects raining down onto an actor, gunfire, knife fights, you name it. His priority: always makes sure his cast, crew, and audiences stay safe. Blackwell's background and accomplishments, along with teachers and mentors have fueled his respected expertise.

The Importance of Learning from the Best

From the time Blackwell was a teenager first interested in, and learning about, the theater, he paid attention to the wisdom of his mentors. "When I was still a kid in high school, I decided to gain some experience acting in community theater," he recalls. Being in eastern Tennessee, Blackwell found an opportunity at the Oak Ridge Playhouse, a great place, it turns out, for him to learn the business. He had a tiny part in a production there when the ASM on the show quit all of a sudden. The Artistic Director of the Oak Ridge Playhouse, Reggie Law, pulled him aside and told him that he thought Blackwell could do the ASM job, plus he could also keep his part in the play. Blackwell felt that Law observed him and figured he had what it would take to do the ASM job. Law had previous been an equity stage manager himself earlier in his career. Blackwell took on the ASM position and found that he loved it. He continued learning through a program for youth, doing more stage management duties on Hansel & Gretel at Oak Ridge the next season. Law continued to train Blackwell during this time in stage management skills and responsibilities. Blackwell paid close attention to Law’s guidance, and I used all of the experience to apply to the University of Memphis, where he got a scholarship and then focused on stage management. Blackwell ultimately graduated with a BFA in theatre design and technical production.

Outside of school, Blackwell decided to up his game by seeking out work, where he could collaborate with theater artisans and garner more hands-on knowledge. He got a summer job at the Lost Nation Theater in Montpelier, VT, which paved the way for him to stage manage a mainstage show. The cast was filled with professionals on Equity Guest Artist contracts, and it was here he was happy to find out that working in a totally professional environment, with seasoned pros who'd been working for 30+ years, that it didn’t matter how old someone was—if you work hard and know what you're doing, you can earn respect the same way the veteran professionals had. Blackwell also interned for a summer at the Weston Playhouse in Weston, VT, where he credits having again learning much that added to his skills —plus when he was invited back two years later, it was at the Weston Playhouse where he got his Equity card.

Blackwell's work on Hamilton came about after he'd impressed a SM mentor. "I participated in the USITT Stage Management Mentoring Project (SMMP)—just an incredible program, where you're paired with an industry professional," he says. He was paired with Stacy Taylor. While at SMMP he also met Kimberly Fisk, the SM for Hamilton's first national tour. They got along great, and after the program ended, they stayed in touch. Blackwell was able to email Fisk when he was on a job and faced with a tough problem to ask, 'Hey, what would you do here?', and she sent him back sage advice. She also said she would keep him in mind if she ever needed a production assistant. Fisk, did in fact keep him in mind and emailed when she needed an SM PA for the national tour. Blackwell jumped at the chance and went straight to New York to do all of the rehearsals there, then to San Francisco to do tech and previews. He immersed himself in learning everything so he could be a sub if an SM went on vacation. His hard work paid off and he is today the ASM on Hamilton in Los Angeles. At the time SD spoke with Blackwell he was training to call the show. This brings up the importance of networking, not just to Blackwell’s career but to all theater artists’ careers. Blackwell noted that the key to him was you only build relationships based on a genuine connection, like the friendship he has with Fisk. It should be a real connection as people, it should never be about, 'What can I get out of this person?'. Blackwell works hard, does his best, and notes, “if someone that I have a genuine relationship with wants to work with me, it is because I've earned their trust and the right to step up to the plate."

 

Keep Calm

Blackwell’s experience-driven confidence has served him well when he's had to control and solve performance problems. Undaunted, the mark of a good stage manager, here's how he's made the save throughout a number of potential calamities:

"I've had power outages happen three times during my career, actually," Blackwell reports. "The first time, I was working on a production of The Cemetery Club at Lost Nation. I was operating the board, when suddenly, boom, out go the lights. Not a technical problem—a full power failure mid-performance. After a few seconds of concern, I just thought, 'OK, the power is either going to come back up or it's not. We'll either stop the show or we'll find a way to keep going.' There's not so much you can do—use flashlights, if it fits the production, I guess could work. But the simplest thing I've done in each of these situations that helped me, and the whole cast and crew, retain some sense of control, is try to go for the natural light source. If you can, let some sunshine in, and then the cast can just keep going. An easy, low-tech solution. Or, you know what? If it's too dark to achieve this, you just call it. Go home, and work things out so the audience can see a rescheduled performance if possible. No one's lost their life here—it's not the end of the world to call a show, even though some people think it is."

Keep Safe

"Whether your battle involves a gun, knife, or food, the number one concern you should never lose sight of is safety, plain and simple," Blackwell stresses. "You must enlist a fight coordinator to work with your actors and safely stage the fight, and you must choose a fight captain from your cast, an actor with stage combat experience, to mentor the actors involved with the fight during rehearsals, and during performances Then rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, till the kinks are worked out and the fight is completely second nature. Follow all protocol for using ANY prop gun, and lock it up, with any blanks you're using, as soon as the scene is done, every single show. A knife fight will obviously be done with a prop knife, but a fight like this can involve a lot of movement—people can still get hurt. You want to make sure to facilitate good communication between the actors involved. No one should change any choreography until your coordinator, captain, and every actor is on board, and understands exactly what's going to happen—communication prevents accidents. And don't think a food fight can't be just as dangerous as a stage fight with weapons. When you're throwing mashed potatoes around, the floor gets slippery, people can fall—this kind of stage combat needs very careful planning and execution. You also need to practice, as an SM, thorough hygiene. Clean everything up immediately after the scene. And don't damage your set permanently—colored water needs to be subbed for wine, for example, or you'll be dealing with incredible stains."

Ultimately, Blackwell feels that dealing with a tough production problem comes down to trusting your abilities—and sometimes, your gut. "I was working on a production of the opera, The Loser at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year," he says. "Jennifer Tipton, the lighting designer, came up with a truly beautiful sequence that was so intricate—it contained an essential the cue that couldn't be based on music, or anything visual—the cue literally had to be felt to be properly executed. We all worked together, kind of listened to our physical instincts, and got the rhythm down, and we finally meshed together our skills on both an artistic and technical level to feel the cue as a group. And we got it! It was an amazing moment—and proof that stage management can be a very creative and rewarding job when you're on a true mission to master something."