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Brilliance and Authenticity: Stage Manager Ross Jackson

Lisa Mulcahy • April 2020In the LimelightStage Management • March 25, 2020

Ross Jackson’s talent and unshakeable sense of self have carried him to the top rank of stage managers and have earned him respect from countless colleagues. Jackson works extensively with The Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, where he is a production stage manager. His credits there include Key Largo, Skintight, The Niceties, Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole, A Christmas Carol, The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona, Skeleton Crew, Sell/Buy/Date, Ironbound, and A Funny Thing Happened… Additionally, Jackson’s stage management work has encompassed productions of Meredith Monk’s Atlas at the LA Philharmonic, Five Guys Named Moe at the Ebony Repertory Theatre, The Tempest and Deferred Action at the Dallas Theater Center, The Crucible and A Lesson Before Dying at the Clarence Brown Theatre, Aladdin and His Winter Wish and Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight at the Lythgoe Family Panto, and Nickel Mines at the New York Musical Theatre Festival and now playing at ACT of Connecticut. In addition to his busy schedule stage managing and mentoring, Jackson is also a contributing writer for Stage Directions including his valuable work for the Stage Directions’ Illuminations blog that covers people dealing with equity, diversity, and inclusion in theater. Jackson has also worked on a number of educational productions with the University of California, Irvine, from which he received his Master of Fine Arts in Stage Management in 2015, and worked under the guidance of drama chair Don Hill and co-head of stage management Joel Veenstra.

SM Ross Jackson at work in the Geffen’s booth for A Funny Thing….

Jackson’s experience and skill set are enriched by his intense commitment to being true to himself and his work. Read on to learn about the way he has successfully plied his trade, as well as his enduring desire to help aspiring stage managers enter the business with confidence and top-tier knowledge.

Determination from the Start
A Louisiana native who was raised in New Orleans, Jackson didn’t have the typical epiphany moment where he saw a piece of theater and became inspired to want to participate himself. “I didn’t see my first play until I was older,” he recalls. “I had left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and moved to Hot Springs, AR. In school there, I didn’t know quite what I wanted to pursue—you could do music or art, choir or band, but I can’t play an instrument. But then I thought I used to perform as a busker in the French Quarter, and so in school, I started acting in plays. In the tenth grade, when I wasn’t cast in one particular show, I got the opportunity to support it as a ‘stage manager’—meaning I basically opened the curtain. But then, in college at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, I worked as an ASM, and I began to understand what the work really was about. I learned through the conservatory approach—you do every job in the theater, and all of that experience will help you along the way as a stage manager.”

Jackson began to actively plan for a career in the business. When he moved on to college, he was fortunate to find fantastic mentors to impart great information from the get-go. “The best piece of advice I got early on? Yslan Hicks, now chair of University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Theater Arts department, taught me that if you leap, the safety net will appear,” Jackson says. Another key concept Jackson adopted early on: it’s OK to turn down work if it doesn’t speak to your taste, philosophy, or values. “I’ve learned I really feel like I’ve earned my no’s,” he elaborates. “I did everything I really believed in, in terms of work, in order to be the best. I have a passion for stage management—I worked in lighting, sound, every aspect of a production so I could actually understand all the aspects of my own work.”

One early production he worked on was particularly significant in terms of shaping his approach to fruitful collaboration. “I think I realized I could really do this work on a production of Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks,” Jackson says. “We had a student group working on the show, and I was the producer and stage manager. On that show, I developed a holistic understanding of the ripple effect. For instance, changing a color onstage could affect the rest of the lighting and costumes. By understanding, as a stage manager, how that ripple effect could have an impact on the aspects of others’ work, I learned to become a better communicator.” 

Revenge Song at the Geffen Playhouse
(Photo: Jeff Lorch)

Championing Conversation
Jackson’s style when it comes to working one on one with his company members is democratic, fair, and fluid. Another one of his early career mentors set a powerful example in this regard. “I worked with D Westerholm, stage manager at the Profile Theatre in Portland, OR, and learned so much,” he says. ” D is a people person—she is very good at individualizing communication, and her style is to have MANY styles.” 

This kind of versatile approach to solving interpersonal conflict has also become one of Jackson’s signature assets. “I think that my job as a stage manager is not to manage personalities, but instead, to facilitate communication,” he explains. “People use the word ‘diva’ sometimes in the theater, which I don’t ever do. For me, it’s about setting the tone that will drive everyone toward a solution if there is conflict. I believe every person I work with knows exactly what he or she needs in order to do their job, so I allow them to do that, and encourage creative conversation—how do we arrive at the solution that works for all of us? That may mean a compromise. Solutions can look many different ways, but to get to the right one, it’s always about taking a foundation and building upon it.”

In terms of his own career and life solutions, Jackson is pragmatic, and has his priorities clearly defined. “In terms of my future, I’m strategically rigid but tactically fluid,” Jackson says. “If I think about things like five-year plans; for me, all of these things are based on personal goals. Meeting my fiancé, Megan Gainey, was wonderful, and I knew my goal and intention was to be with her—and we are getting married in July. I do a good job at managing the importance of my personal life—my goal is always to be in a content place, because the work is affected if you are not happy personally, and you are personally affected if you are not happy in your work. For me, all of those things are in balance—my work at my home theater, The Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, the other work I do, I feel very good about. I think when you dedicate yourself to your personal life, that foundation will take you where your work needs to go. My work will not be able to do that If I am not able to dedicate what I need to my home life.”

Ross Jackson with Avery Evans at USITT

The Power of Giving Back
Jackson serves a key role in his work for the USITT Gateway Program. The program pairs promising theater majors from underserved areas with professional stage managers, so that they can glean invaluable insight and experience. “With my work at USITT, my philosophy is, something is not worth having if you don’t share it,” Jackson says, “Young stage managers want to know what the work is like, and being able to inform them about that is an incredible opportunity. Avery Evans, my mentee and master student in the Gateway program, is from Jackson, MS. Avery is a young black male stage manager as I was; working together is very rewarding. When you come into the theater as a young black male stage manager, you don’t think doing the work is possible. You don’t see us in stage management positions. But by solidifying our comradeship, I’ve helped Avery by sharing my knowledge, and it has been an incredible experience.” 

Jackson has learned as much from the program as he has contributed knowledge within it. “The Gateway program is one of the best mentoring programs,” he enthuses. “Avery and I have learned together—one lesson being for sure, the work you do is less important than the person you are. Can you maintain the authenticity of who you are as you move forward in this field? We have all the conversations about the technical realm, and show calling, all those brass tacks, but staying who you are is the most helpful thing to learn.”

In the end, being true to his gifts and skills is Jackson’s greatest strength—and will carry him on to even greater future accomplishments. “To be successful, you don’t have to fit a mold or shape or cookie cutter,” Jackson sums up. “You just be the person you are.” 

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