With Understanding of Purpose: 2019 Del Hughes Honoree Mary K. Klinger

by Lisa Mulcahy
2019 Del Hughes Honoree Mary K. Klinger
2019 Del Hughes Honoree Mary K. Klinger

Mary K. Klinger’s professionalism as a production stage manager has inspired everyone she’s worked with. Though based in California, Klinger’s long career included her work on the original Broadway productions of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, QED, national tours of Death of a Salesman, the stage adaptation/national tour of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the London production of Spunk. Regionally,  Klinger has worked with the Ojai Playwrights Conference, and stage managed scores of productions in San Diego, La Jolla, Chicago, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Seattle, Laguna, Hartford, Denver, Rancho Cucamonga, and throughout Los Angeles. Klinger worked with Center Theatre Group for 22 seasons and served as adjunct professor of stage management at USC from 1997 to 2007.

On September 23, 2019, Klinger will receive her theater discipline’s coveted annual Del Hughes Lifetime Achievement in the Art of Stage Management Award from the Stage Managers' Association. The Del Hughes honor is awarded to those who represent the finest qualities of stage management: patience, diplomacy, organization, and a sense of humor, qualities its namesake, Del Hughes, embodied as a Broadway and television stage manager as well as a TV director from 1933 to the 1970s. Stage Directions spoke with Klinger talks about her career philosophy with a view toward helping others succeed as she has—with consideration, quality and humanity.

Learning the Ropes
Klinger loved theater from a very young age. “I actually wrote a play when I was in first grade about Easter that turned into a touring show where I went to school,” she recalls. “Then I saw a production of The Magic Flute at the Shrine Auditorium—well, I was convinced that flute was real! When I got to college, though, I didn’t have a clue about what I really wanted to do. I was a math major, seeking my teaching credentials. But then I assisted the lighting designer on a show in college, and once I really learned what it was to do technical work, I loved it so much I knew I would never go back to what I had thought I might do before. From lighting design work, I moved into stage management. Now, this was a long time ago—we used a preset board, and timing, as you called a show, had everything to do with feeling the show as you would go. I watched, I learned, and I got a sense of what a stage manager did, but there were no stage management classes at UCLA, where I was studying.”

Klinger’s solution? Pay attention to her peers. “My whole generation invented stage management as it exists today,” she says, “I learned to stage manage from other stage managers. I learned from experience—that’s how I joined the [Actor’s Equity] union in 1980. It was very much a hands-on experience from the start. The second space at The Mark Taper, the Taper 2, hired me as a master electrician, and while I was doing that job, I watched the productions going up in the big house. I saw the importance of being able to think on your feet, of understanding the art in a show, and understanding that for a stage manager, the art is in the communication you do. 

There’s an art in the calling and timing of a show. You can change where the laughter comes in on a line by the way you handle a cue. You, as a stage manager, have a profound effect on every aspect of the show you’re doing, always. It’s so important to appreciate the art of a show, when you come to work on it. I will dedicate my life to understanding the purpose of a show. I need to do that to help the lighting designer, the crew, achieve all the technical aspects they need to.”

Klinger believes now, as she did then, that being singularly resourceful is a key part of her job. “I need to help and organize every person on a production, and I know how to do it,” Klinger says. “The actors know I will take care of them. If they know that, it allows them to do their best work. If that means I need to call them at 8 AM to make sure they’re awake, I do it. I’m not paid for doing those kinds of things—I do them for the greater good of the show. A happy cast and satisfied designers mean the director gets his or her work done.”

Collaborating Fruitfully
Klinger believes she learned a tremendous amount by observing the skills of the artists, both creative and technical, she worked with through the years. “I did Swimming to Cambodia with Spaulding Gray,” she says. “It was a monologue piece, of course, so it was really just the two of us creating this one piece. Spaulding had such an amazing ability to communicate with the audience. I worked with incredible people at the Mark Taper. Working on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, with Jules Fisher and Eugene Lee, was a wonderful experience. And working with George C. Wolfe, starting with Jelly’s Last Jam. Then came Angels in America. George trusted me, which was terrific. Other great experiences have been to work with people like director Joe Mantello. With my work at the Old Globe, I got really lucky—from all the Shakespeare productions I did to the original production of Ruined. I have had so many great milestones throughout my career.”

When it comes to advising stage managers at the start of their careers what traits they need to cultivate, she believes in basic, practical courtesy. “The best advice I can give is to just do good work,” Klinger says. “Be nice. People notice if you aren’t. People don’t want to work with you if you aren’t. It’s not too hard to be nice and gracious to people. You know, if someone needs lunch, even if it’s not in the contract, get them lunch.”

She’s also a believer in never taking your eyes off the prize. “I think in terms of defining roles on a team, the ultimate goal always is, do what’s good for the show,” Klinger explains. “I keep the rules on the shows I work on, of course, but what if I, as the stage manager, feel I need to be on book? Yes, that’s the assistant stage manager’s job, but I don’t want that to be so unionized that I can’t do it if I need to. It’s about what’s good for the company. You know, don’t call a break in the middle of a scene. The director will be upset—not good for the show or the company. So, you just let everyone know WHEN the break will begin. You schedule creatively. If there’s no time for fight choreography to be drilled during rehearsals, you schedule 15-minutes around those times for fights or lifts to be worked on.”

Be Positive
Klinger is noted for her attention to detail—and she knows the value of making the impossible happen. “Don’t say no to people,” Klinger advises. “Say, ‘let me see what I can do.’ Don’t be negative.” At the same time, she’s a believer in speaking the truth efficiently and plainly when she needs to. “In rehearsal, if you see the director heading in the wrong direction, you need to tell the director. You need to say, ‘The actress will be wearing spike heels—you can’t block the scene so she’s walking over that grate.’”

Klinger has proudly capped off her career doing work in children’s theater, and to her, this is the perfect way for her work to come full circle in the most significant way possible. “Working in children’s theater at this point in my life has been the most exciting thing to me,” Klinger enthuses. “Watching kids react so positively to a show, hearing them ask questions about a show—it brings me back to that excitement I had when I was six-years-old and experiencing theater for the first time.” It all comes down to understanding that creativity is the ultimate gift. “I’ve had a wonderful career based on that early excitement I felt,” Klinger sums up. “Giving that gift back to young people is everything!”