With Persistence, Adaptability and Empathy: 2019 Del Hughes Honoree Barbara Donner

by Lisa Mulcahy
2019 Del Hughes Honoree Barbara Donner
2019 Del Hughes Honoree Barbara Donner

Barbara Donner loves the art of theater both creatively and technically—and she skillfully shifts her talent to serve it. Donner has been a highly respected stage manager primarily of opera for over 38 years. She has worked at the Los Angeles Opera since 1990, recently working on her 85th production for the company. At LA Opera, Donner’s credits include stage managing Achim Freyer’s production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, Franco Zeffirelli’s Pagliacci, and Francesca Zambello’s production of Candide.

A graduate of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Donner has stage managed at the San Francisco Opera, the San Diego Opera, Opera Pacific, and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. She also has had a long association with the LA Philharmonic, stage managing their productions of Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and Cosi fan tutte—all conducted by Gustavo Dudamel—as well as Philip Glass’ The Civil Wars and Yuval Sharon’s productions of Young Caesar, Europeras, Das Lied von der Erde, and Atlas. With the San Francisco Symphony, Donner stage managed the widely lauded production of Bernstein’s On the Town. Donner has also been part of the stage management team running the summer musicals at the Hollywood Bowl for the past 11 years. 

On September 23, the Stage Managers’ Association (SMA) will present its annual Del Hughes Lifetime Achievement in the Art of Stage Management Award to Donner, in recognition of her body of work. This crowning accolade is given only to those SMs who represent the finest qualities of stage management: patience, diplomacy, organization, and a sense of humor. These qualities were the hallmark of the award’s namesake, Del Hughes, renowned Broadway and television stage manager and a television director from 1933 to the 1970s. Recently, Donner discussed with Stage Directions her work perspective and process, the perfect mix of a love of the art she makes happen, and an unfailing dedication to her craft.

An Unexpected Path
Donner had no idea she would grow up to be a stage manager. “I come from a small town in southern Illinois,” she recalls. “I liked theater when I was first exposed to it and as a freshman in high school, I auditioned for that year’s musical, got in, and went on to perform all four years. I ended up studying at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music,” Donner says. “My friend there, Blythe de Blasis, had been stage managing since she was 14, as her dad ran the Cincinnati Opera. Blythe asked me one day if I’d like to replace an extra in an opera who had dropped out—I would only be in Act 1. I agreed and hung out with Blythe backstage while she did her ASM work. I’d follow her around, and I thought this kind of work was so fascinating.” 

Donner never had an inkling she might be interested in technical work in the theater. “I had no aspirations in this direction whatsoever,” she notes. “But later, Blythe’s father asked me if I wanted to work on another production. I did it with no experience at all; I truly fell into it! I found I loved doing technical work—it was so exciting, so much fun. But I thought, you know, maybe I should get a real job—like as an administrative assistant. Well, Blythe took me to lunch and said, “What are you doing? Why don’t you try to be a stage manager?” She was 100% right. I had to do what I loved. So, I called in sick to my administrative assistant job, and sent my resume to every single opera company I could find. And I got work! I give Blythe the credit for helping set me on this path, because I would never have seen it coming my way.”

The Traits That Make a Career
Once Donner began working, she never stopped. One trait she embodied was essential: persistence. “I just kept moving forward,” she explains. “One of the things I really, really believe in is the power of networking,” Donner stresses. “I ALWAYS tried to connect well with the people I was working with. Network. It can make your career happen. When people believe in you, it’s so important. I worked with great stage managers who would pass along my name—word-of-mouth is such an important part of getting a job. Most of my jobs throughout my career have come from that kind of word-of-mouth. So, you always want to do your very best work. You never know who may be watching you—you need to be the best that you can be, because if your work connects with the right person, more great opportunities and work can follow.”

Donner believes in paying her success forward every chance she gets. “I will do the same for people today, in terms of giving opportunities to stage managers at the start of their careers who have impressed me and connected with me,” she says. “Early in my career, it was because two women I had impressed with my work said, ‘We think you should be working with the San Francisco Opera’ that I actually got to work with the San Francisco Opera. Someone will give you a name of one of their colleagues if you impress them. What really comes through and makes people notice you and want to work with you, number one, is that you must have an enormous love of what you’re doing. People who work in the theater don’t have regular lives or regular hours when they are working on productions. Our work takes so much of our time when we’re on a show. We can’t do other things in our spare time like other people can do. So, we need to love our jobs. Love what you are doing or there is no point in doing it.”

Shapeshifting is a stage manager’s secret weapon according to Donner. “I think that the traits that are really important for a stage manager to have include, first of all, the ability to adapt to change,” she explains. “A show can change direction at any given moment. A director may suddenly decide, ‘I need to do this completely differently.’ So, then I, as the stage manager, need never be resistant to that change, but work through it. It’s always important to remember that as stage manager, you have to look at the big picture of the show you’re working on. Every little piece of work you do, every little of piece your crew does, needs to be looked at through that lens—a collaborative contribution to the show as a whole. You have to have great communication skills to succeed as a stage manager. You must always think of yourself as the liaison to all the different parts of a production. You function as the person who holds all the moving parts of a show together.”

Remembering to Be Kind
Another key quality Donner applies to her work is compassion. “Dealing with performers, specifically, is a delicate job,” Donner explains. “When you have a performer you’re working with who may seem a little difficult, it’s key to remember that everyone is just a human being like you are. Performers, uniquely, put themselves out there to be judged. That is enormously fulfilling and enormously frightening at the same time. Maybe a performer is acting out because he or she is nervous. I always keep that in mind and put myself in that performer’s shoes. And you know, directors get nervous, too. When you approach a situation in which someone may be acting a little difficult, in whatever way they are expressing that, try to go in from a place of empathy. Working onstage and backstage means you’re working in a bizarre, crazy world at times—everyone feels that. You can assist in the best way if you try to be understanding.”

When it comes to her key career milestones, Donner cites a production that required generosity of spirit, as well as adaptive skill. “One of my favorite things I’ve ever done was Der Ring des Nibelungen,” she recalls. “It was an enormous undertaking. Achim Freyer was the director—as a visual artist, he is very non-traditional. So again, this was an enormous technical undertaking, with an enormous raked stage. My team helped me so much, as we worked to help our director’s vision come to life. And that vision would change every day! So, every day, we would sit down and talk the changes out and work the changes out, with sweat and blood and tears and laughter, and we would make it happen. It’s amazing to me that everything worked so wonderfully. It all comes down to working together, to hard work, to handling things when something would happen we didn’t expect—which it did, at every performance! I am so proud of how we achieved what we did on that show.” 

Ultimately, it’s that kind of challenge that has kept her as excited about her work today as she was when she was that young opera performer. It all goes back to the fact that you have to love what you do,” she concludes. “I’ve worked with wonderful people, from directors to conductors to my ASMs and assistant directors—that in itself has made my work amazing.”