Master of His Craft: 2019 Del Hughes Honoree Rich Costabile

by Lisa Mulcahy
Rich Costabile
Rich Costabile

Rich Costabile has built a career on determination, wisdom and observation--and has earned industry-wide respect and admiration. In fact, this year the Stage Managers’ Association (SMA) will present Costabile with a Del Hughes Lifetime Achievement in the Art of Stage Management Award. A prized honor in a stage manager’s career, the Del Hughes Award goes to those who personify the finest qualities of stage management: patience, diplomacy, organization, and a sense of humor. The award was established in 1986 and named for master SM Del Hughes, who had an inspirational career as a Broadway and television stage manager and a TV director from the 1930s to the 1970s.

Among Costabile’s credentials is his touring with Hal Holbrook in the wildly popular production Mark Twain Tonight! for over 17 years. Additionally, his work has encompassed scores of productions, multiple tours, one-person shows, workshops, and full productions of original works. His Broadway credits include The Odd Couple, Anna In The Tropics, A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg, and The School For Scandal. He’s applied his talents to the Big Apple Circus, numerous special events, off-Broadway and regional theaters, including extensive work with with Gerald Freedman at Great Lakes Theater Festival. As chair emeritus of the Stage Managers’ Association after serving over 20 years on its board, Costabile contributed his energies and skills to the job of chairman for six terms. Incredibly generous with his advice earned from navigating the business, and its rewards and challenges, for over 35 years, Costabile relishes the opportunity to work with stage managers starting their own careers.

A Process of Discovery 
Costabile was born and brought up in the Bronx, and attended high school in Manhattan. “The way I got involved with theater felt kind of like falling in love--the best kind of love, the kind that comes over you gradually,” says Costabile. “When I was young, I was a singer--I focused on the glee club, not drama, in high school. I got a degree from Fordham University in math, and while I had started performing in community theater after I graduated, I also taught math for a traveling high school. I was working with computers at that time, too. I did freelance computer work, and then I started working at IBM, where, believe it or not, there was a drama club! I discovered that I enjoyed acting tremendously, and I started to rethink my career choices at that point, but I didn’t know whether I should pursue acting fully or not. But the woman I was married to at the time, for five years in fact, greatly encouraged me to pursue it further. “Look,” she told me,”you love this so much, you need to do this as a career. So with her support, I did!”

Costabile studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse for two years, and it was there he got the advice that shaped his subsequent career. “At the playhouse, I found out that as an actor, I was not good,” he laughs. “Kent Paul, my director there who was a friend but who was not casting me in any of his productions advised me that I should try stage management. So I bought Bert Gruver’s book, The Stage Manager’s Handbook, really the only available book on the topic at the time you could get the basics from. I just decided I’d learn as I went forward. So I simply started looking for jobs in the print issue of Backstage...and amazingly, I started getting those jobs. I was very, very lucky--completely in the right place at the right time.”   

He wisely focused early on building professional relationships that would last. “Networking is the most important thing a stage manager needs to focus on,” Costabile says. “As a founding member of the Stage Managers’ Association, when I speak to young stage managers, this is what I emphasize. I do two things: I absolutely encourage them to study or learn as much as they can about life outside of the theater--if you do that, the more valuable you will be at your job, as you can use that outside knowledge in your work. And then, networking. My first major job was at the Great Lakes Theater Festival--in Cleveland, Ohio, I ended up spending 11 seasons, and working with artistic director Gerald Freedman, a wonderful man. And that experience me led to meeting Hal Holbrook.”
SM Costabile at work

Meaningful Milestones 
That fortunate twist of fate in meeting Holbrook ultimately provided Costabile with one of the most important experiences of his career. “Hal was doing the role of Mark Twain at the time at the Palace Theater, and I had plotted to be backstage at one of his sound checks, just to watch him. Gerry Freedman approached Hal and asked him to do King Lear at Great Lakes--so that’s how I came to work with him. Hal was amazing in terms of giving everything he had to his work and his audience--he’d come off one show with his Mark Twain roadbox and go right into becoming King Lear--he also did such terrific work in Uncle Vanya and Death Of A Salesman as well. Hal ended up calling me and asking, ‘Would you consider coming on tour with me for three or four dates, or a couple of weeks?’ I wasn’t sure, because I would only be paid for my time on the road, but when I turned to my husband, Randy Wilcox, he said, ‘We’ll figure it out!’ [Wilcox, who has been Costabile’s partner since 1992 and husband since 2013, has had a profound, positive effect on Costabile’s life and career.]  

“So with Randy’s support, I committed to being Hal’s stage manager, and it was incredible. I learned so much from him. No matter what was going on in his life--if he had travel issues or health issues, or any other obstacles--he would come to the theater, put all of it aside and just focus on his craft as a gift to the audience and his producers. He taught me never to slack.”

What have been some of the high points of Costabile’s work? “A milestone for me, and a wonderful experience I had, was stage managing the one-act play Eulogy directed by Jerry Zaks at Ensemble Studio Theatre, with the great actors John Randolph and his wife, Sarah Cunningham,” he says. “These performers did the most amazing job, with such artistry and humanity. Another great experience I had was working on a production of To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday with Sarah Jessica Parker and Gates McFadden. The play is about death and was done so sensitively by the cast and the director, Pam Berlin. Everyone did such beautiful work--what a wonderful experience it was to be part of that team.”

As to what is it that he loves about stage management, Costabile laughs, saying, “I think so many of us like working in theater because we don’t do mornings. But one of my most rewarding experiences was getting into the van at 6am to do children’s theater. I stage managed Music For Many, which was founded, directed and conducted by Rosalyn Winokur. She was also the pianist and composer for all the original music that was played, beyond the classics performed in the production that were composed by Mozart and others. Bringing this wonderful music to schools, and seeing the joy of kids in experiencing it live for the first time, was an incredibly moving multi-artistic milestone in my career, and such a wonderful memory! Experiences like this are what I love about the work I have been able to do.” 

A Successful Skill Set

For Costabile, he believes among the important traits a stage manager possesses is, “You must be an active listener as a stage manager,” he stresses. “Listening is of such value to a stage manager in this way. By not being the wise person in the room who thinks he or she knows everything and talks all the time--when maybe you actually don’t--if you take the approach of listening, you find your problems or questions can be solved so much more easily. Take in the words of those you’re working with. Listen and accept their perspectives. Learn by what you hear. You’ll understand and see new ways to do things, and also get to know the people you work with so much more clearly. I take the same approach when it comes to working with so-called ‘divas’--often, people in the theater who act this way do so because they feel very insecure. If you simply listen to them, you give them a feeling of security, not by being the boss as their stage manager, but by being compassionate. The simple act of you listening to them without interrupting lets them come out and tell you, and show you, what’s really bothering them. You don’t have to be friends with them, necessarily, but they will understand that you are there with them. It creates context of support, which is just invaluable.” 

In the end, communicating wisely, and maintaining strong professional relationships, has been Costabile’s priority. Being a 2019 Del Hughes award honoree is certainly a well-deserved recognition of the respect his peers have for Rich Costabile.