Stage managers: How they keep shows from going up in flames — sometimes literally

Paula Keller

Paula Keller

Stage actors are accustomed to receiving applause at the end of each performance, but when they had a chance to turn around and do their own cheering at last year’s MN Theater Awards, they saved their loudest applause for the stage managers.

Stage manager Stacy McIntosh says the public shout-out was a “huge honor,” but the artists she works with have always made their gratitude quietly known. “That’s where the glory comes, for me: having someone say, ‘I really appreciate that you took care of us.’”

McIntosh has worked at the Children’s Theatre Company for over 20 years, playing an unseen but essential role in coordinating complex productions. She also keeps an eye on the audience, and can help tweak a show to make sure every moment lands as intended.

In college McIntosh studied directing, and explains that as stage manager it’s her job to “make sure that the show stays as sharp for that first audience that sees it as for the 125th audience.” A show’s director typically moves on to other projects after a show opens, so it’s up to the stage manager to keep an eye on the production.

A stage manager typically “calls” a show: follows an annotated script and, speaking through monitors for the crew, cues all the necessary technical steps in precise order. “There are times that I actually talk more than the majority of the cast,” McIntosh says.

Ideally, everything runs like a clock... but it’s live theater, so occasionally things go wrong, and it’s up to the stage manager to get things back on track. Once, during Diary of a Wimpy Kid, an automated lift malfunctioned and the actors were left waiting for a young star to rise from beneath the stage.

“It’s moments like that,” explains McIntosh, “when you have to be ready to say, ‘How long are we going to wait for the automation to work?’ and [when] are we going to say, ‘Let’s cut our losses and have him run to the stage.’”

Once, McIntosh’s job of putting out fires became literal. At a Jungle Book performance, some flaming gel accidentally spilled. While the set had been treated to keep any fire from spreading, McIntosh still had to alert a crew member to douse it. For safety’s sake, she was ready to disrupt the performance.

“I was expecting a CO2 burst,” she says. Instead the nearest crew member unobtrusively used a blanket to snuff the flame. “The actors covered it so well, and that crew did it so calmly, nobody even noticed.”

Because McIntosh and her team are ready to take that kind of quick action, the shows can shine. “Artists are sensitive people. That’s why they’re good at their jobs,” says McIntosh. As she sees it, it’s her job to make sure those artists can “be brave—because somebody has
their back.”