Yes Men

by Natalie Robin
in Feature

Matthew Carlson and Kathryn Hunter-Williams in Angels in America at Playmakers Repertory Company, with production management by Michael Rolleri.
Matthew Carlson and Kathryn Hunter-Williams in Angels in America at Playmakers Repertory Company, with production management by Michael Rolleri.
Production Managers detail why saying “Yes” is more common than you think

The production manager is one of the most misunderstood positions in the theatre (especially among younger artists, I find). They’re often seen as an impediment to artistic vision, a wet blanket of budgets and technical obstructionism, determinedly saying “No” to all the artistic staff’s ideas and designs. In truth, the opposite is true of any good PM, who brings creative thinking and an absolute dedication to achieving the artist’s vision to their position.

 

I've talked to a number of production managers working in all kinds of live performance: downtown theatre, regional theatre, Off-Broadway, Broadway, events from fashion shows to the Republican National Convention and at one of the largest presenting theatres in America. All of them echo the idea that the goal of a PM is always to marry the artistic integrity of an idea with the scope of what is possible—not to squelch the possibilities of what can happen onstage.

 

Jeff Wild had to use some ingenious construction techniques to ensure the troughs of water would remain in the set for Second Stage Theater’s production of Gruesome Playground Injuries.
Jeff Wild had to use some ingenious construction techniques to ensure the troughs of water would remain in the set for Second Stage Theater’s production of Gruesome Playground Injuries.

“I don’t think I have ever said no to an artist,” says Jeff Wild, production manager for nine years at Off-Broadway’s not-for-profit Second Stage Theater. And he’s been tested on that, too. For Second Stage’s recent production of Gruesome Playground Injuries the original set design called for a runway stage flanked by tanks of water. Sadly, the combined weight of this much water was too much for the floor at Second Stage’s 43rd street home to handle. But that didn’t mean the water had to be cut. Wild saw that the water was used in the piece by the actors and its presence was necessary—but maybe not the sheer amount of it. Instead of negating the idea outright, Wild worked with designer Neil Patel to find an appropriate solution, one that supported both the idea and the technical limitations: displacement. Water only filled an L-shaped section (the top and the side facing the audience) in the tanks. This reduced the water weight to safe levels, created the same visual effect and gave the actors access to the water.

 

Paul Bartlett, one of the production supervisors at Brooklyn Academy of Music, agrees with Wild and says “I think that, in fact, the PM’s job is actually to find a way to say yes! A good PM will try to find a way for the artist’s vision to appear on stage but at times constraints of time, budget, space or practicality and safety influence decisions. The PM has to communicate with the artist what the issues are at stake and work with the artist to devise a plan to achieve the artistic vision. I try to never say no but rather, ‘Let’s find a way to make it work.’”

On the other hand, Mike Wade, currently the production manager at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York City, admits that there are sometimes when PM’s have to say no. “The Production Manager has to weigh all of the challenges of each production in order to support the entire artistic team. Sometimes that means saying no, but most of the time it means suggesting alternatives to a given design choice or equipment spec that will best serve the production—not just one designer or department.”

Multi-Dimensional Wizardry
So if the production manager is trying to say yes instead of no, what is their actual job?

 

Mike Wade is the production manager at Atlantic Theater Company.
Mike Wade is the production manager at Atlantic Theater Company.

Wade breaks it down like this: “The Production Manager facilitates the successful execution of each production. I am responsible for creating and maintaining the production budgets and production calendars for each production, as well as the hiring of the load in and run crews.”

 

Michael Rolleri, production manager at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, N.C. explains it as, “I am a large traffic cop. I try to keep the physical production and production personnel moving along. Planning ahead for the near and far future. Problem solving … I am tracking the production budget, setting up design meetings, trouble shooting for all departments, running production meetings, etc.”

Rolleri is deeply invested in PlayMakers, where he has worked for the majority of his career. He was the technical director for 23 years. “Over that time period, some production managers left and it was sort of ‘Tag! You’re it!—Until we find someone to be the new production manager,’” he says. “I would end up being both the production manager in addition to being the TD. This would last anywhere from a few months to a few years. This last time, I had to choose one or the other but not both—I decided it was time to cross to the dark side and be a full time production manager. I thought at this point I could benefit the company best in that position. I could really manage, help, protect, and be an advocate for the production end.”

 

Bluebird, by Simon Stephens at the Atlantic Theatre Company
Bluebird, by Simon Stephens at the Atlantic Theatre Company.

“It’s about not giving anybody the short stick,” says Wild, and he has a mantra he repeats throughout the day: “Sets. Lights. Sound. Costumes. Props. Video.”  For Wild, it all starts with a schedule. He says that he works back from the first performance to tech, load-in, first rehearsal, design deadlines. “No matter how big, there is a budget, there is a schedule.” And Wild knows big. Before coming to Second Stage, he worked his way is as a Broadway company manager to the vice president of production for Radio City Entertainment. In addition to supervising Second Stage’s mainstage season and smaller Uptown Series, he was the production manager of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York and the supervising producer for the 2008  Republican National Convention in St. Paul. He was the technical producer for the NBA All Star Game and the production manager for the Tony Awards red carpet and press room. In all of these cases, Wild says, he was just helping, “I am not the artist; I am the facilitator. Nothing is impossible; there can always be a point of compromise in which everyone is satisfied.”

 

Making sure everyone is satisfied means staying in touch with everyone. “I am in fairly constant contact with the artistic director/producer throughout the process, keeping them up to date on where we stand schedule and budget wise as well as how I feel the production process is moving along,” says Wade. “Once through the first week or so of previews, as long as the production is in good shape, my interaction with the director and design team is generally finished, though there will be emails or calls if any notes come up through the run. I keep in contact with stage management throughout the process, helping with pre-production and following up on any notes or issues through the rehearsal and performance process.”

 

Monica Moore started as a stage manager before moving into production management. In both cases, communication is key.
Monica Moore started as a stage manager before moving into production management. In both cases, communication is key.

For Monica Moore, who transitioned into production management from stage management, production management is all about communication; it is her job to “make sure people are getting all of the info that is out there.” This means setting up meetings, giving members of the team projects to have ownership of, reading the rehearsal reports and following up. Knowing all of the sides of the situation helps team members see the big picture. Moore started her career with an 18-month stage management fellowship at the Lincoln Center Institute. After the fellowship, Monica worked as a freelance stage manager for theater as well as dance. As a member of LAByrinth Theater, she production stage managed Our Lady of 121st Street (Center Stage and Union Square), The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and The Little Flower of East Orange. In addition to production managing, she has taken on event management and producing, jobs which have taken her to many great venues including Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall and P.S. 122. Currently Monica works on events throughout the city in many capacities, including special event permitting for the Tribeca Film Festival Drive-In Venue, stage managing the AIDS Walk in Central Park for the third year in a row and she is looking forward to starting her ninth year as the associate producer of New Year’s Eve in Times Square. In her event work, she says, her role of manager really kicks in on-site; there is less of an emphasis on prep than in theatre. The role turns into one more of producer: looking at the larger, universal picture, more facilitator than as hands on as theatre might be. But it is the communication which makes the job possible and the goals achievable.

 

 

Paul Bartlett is a production supervisor at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
Paul Bartlett is a production supervisor at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Bartlett agrees, and he’s got the experience to back it up. A member of United Scenic Artists Local 829, Bartlett was production manager/tour manager with Columbia Artists Management for more than 20 National tours over the course of 15 years. Prior to his touring work, he spent five years as the production manager of the Powerhouse Theater at Vassar College and has worked at the Hartford Stage Company. Bartlett holds a BA in Theater and History from Vassar College and an MFA in Lighting Design from New York University. In the course of his career, he has been a stagehand, actor, director, designer and manager. He says that the job of a production manager “requires you to be obsessively detail-oriented and meticulous in your work. The production manager is often the person all the other departments rely on for information and decisions.” But these decisions can be to approach the problems by looking for solutions, instead of negating the idea because it is hard. It all goes back to the distribution of limitations – time, space, money, people, resources.

 

As production manager at BAM, Neil Kutner oversees Bartlett and all the production supervisors at the institution. His philosophy of production, and that of BAM, is to “make the theatre conform to the artists rather than the artist conform to the theatre.” Considering that much of the work presented at BAM has premiered elsewhere, this kind of philosophy goes far.

But even before working at BAM, Kutner approached work from the core of the design. He sees his job as getting people to talk to each other “to make the sum greater than its parts.” This means that he aims, as often as possible, to “figure out how to say yes, but not say yes to things that are unnecessary.” It is this evaluation of the idea that is crucial. What does the piece need? What is the essential design? What are the consequences of the choices?

Kutner came to production management via design, because he believed he could help artists be more successful. In his first project with the Sydney Theater Company, a job which moved him halfway around the world to Australia, he was confronted with a problem to which everyone assumed he was going to have to say no. He was asked to figure out how to cover the performing space with water, a feat deemed impossible by others involved. Eager to solidify his working relationship with Cate Blanchett (artistic director of the company) and earn her trust on her production of two one-acts (Reunion and A Kind of Alaska), he said “I think we can do this.” By thinking outside the box and hiring non-theatrical specialists, he found a way to achieve the desired effect without damaging the building and coming in under budget.

Minding the Budget
Speaking of budgets—a production manager needs to walk a fine line between money and art, and try to convey the limitations one places on the other.

Bartlett recounts a story of an event curator who came into BAM with a bit of chip on his shoulder for having to work in a “corporate” theatre. “He came up with some wild (and creative) ideas about what he wanted to do and how he wanted the performances presented. In a tone that dared me to say ‘No’ he asked if his ideas were possible. I told him that anything was possible—it was all just a matter of time and money,” says Bartlett. “We then worked out a plan to realize his ideas and the evening proved to be very successful for BAM and the artists and ultimately the curator. It all boils down to something I learned in grad school: Time-Money-Quality; Pick two! The production manager is there to find the balance.”

Of course, that is often the crux of the production management dilemma. What decision is best for the balance? Where is the compromise? After all, at the end of the day, it really is about finding a way to say something close to yes to scenery, lighting, sound, costumes, props, video, marketing, directors, producers, actors and crew. Production management is what holds the theatre together. And trusting them to help find a satisfying solution is how theatre happens.