JACQUELINE LAWTON: How long have you lived and worked as a stage manager in DC? What brought you here? Why have you stayed?
OUIDA MAEDEL: DC is my home town. I feel very fortunate to have grown up here because I’ve always had terrific access to the performing arts, to an incredibly diverse community of mentors and friends from all fields and backgrounds, to national and international news and events, and to an understanding of the complexities and social inequalities that are so often amplified in urban environments. I went to college in New York and worked as a stage manager and as an actor there for a while, and I’m sure many would have said that I was on a successful and upwardly mobile path as a theatre professional in NYC. But, I became deeply disillusioned with the theatre business – I think because of the pervasive commercialism of the industry in New York, because I felt powerless and like an object of use for the agendas of others, because I felt like I was not living my life in service of humanity and making the world a better place, and because I was sick of living on ramen and struggling to pay the rent. So, I decided to leave the theatre and go to graduate school for and pursue a career in international development. I came back to DC in 2008 as a graduate fellow at American University. My foray into international affairs was a welcome detour that taught me a lot about myself and my areas of interest – but about my areas of interest as an artist. I discovered that I’m a theatre person and that I will always be a theatre person. Instead of walking away, I needed to transform my relationship to the theatre and figure out how I could put myself in a place of power to cultivate opportunities not only for myself, but for my fellow artists.
So, I added on a graduate certificate in Arts Management, and threw my hat into every ring I could find regarding DC theatre internship, fellowship, and employment opportunities that I could work into my graduate school schedule. I quickly discovered that I would not be able to rest on the laurels of my NYC reputation in DC, because I think the relationship between NYC and DC theatre professionals is quite a bit contentious. I landed a position at Capital Fringe, working on the programming team of the 2010 festival, and I fell in love with the theatre again. I fell so in love that I would stay there for 24 hours at a time cleaning, painting flats and stages, carrying equipment, and doing everything that needed to be done in addition to programming. The Producing Artistic Director handed me the opportunity to stage manage the press preview, and the combination of my duties at Fringe was eye opening – I was able to create opportunities for and cultivate relationships with a diverse community of artists, work as a member of a strong production team, and program the arc of the festival. I was able to be of service and promote issue-driven, experimental theatre that needed to be seen. This was a different world than non-union chorus auditions and stage managing for directors who were more concerned with which NYC theatre glitterati would come to opening night than with the rehearsal process. After grad school, I intended to move straight back to NYC, but the economy crashed and almost everyone I knew in the city lost their jobs, and I began to have all of these opportunities in DC, so I stayed. I am currently the Partnerships and Production Manager at Dance Exchange, where I stage manage as well.
JL: What excites you most about being a stage manager? What do you feel your greatest challenges are?
OM: Well, I think what excites me most about stage management stems from the fact that I consider stage management to be deeply artistic. I am excited by the relationships that emerge from my investment in every aspect of the process, the imperative to foster clear communication between all parties to ensure an artistically cohesive and spectacular outcome, and the skill to anticipate and meet the needs of others. A lot of people talk about how much they hate tech week, but I love tech week. Everyone finally puts their heads together and leverages all of their talents to ensure that every detail is executed to serve the arc of the story and the emotional journey the audience may expect, or not expect. And the audience is coming, whether you are ready or not. I love the feeling I get when I walk into a theatre. The sense of possibility, transformation, desire to succeed, and love for the craft embodied by the people who were there before you and will be there after you is palpable. It is humbling to be a part of that, and it is a privilege.
As I change, grow, and learn as a stage manager and as a performing arts professional in general, the challenges also shift. When I was younger, I found it challenging to give instructions to and feel respected by members of the creative team, cast, and crew, or to say “no” to the director. Granted, I was often in situations where I would be a decade or two younger than anyone else on the project, and/or the only woman, and/or the only person of color, and I was greeted with a lot of surprise that I was really the one who was so highly recommended. That is often still the case, but it doesn’t get to me anymore. Right now, I am at Dance Exchange full time. I love working in contemporary dance, but shifting from a mindset of stage managing a straight play that has already been written to a modern dance work that is being created in the room is very different. It took me a long time to figure out how to take blocking notes effectively and why everything needed to be filmed, and why the set design process wasn’t complete before the first rehearsals. In general, theatre is much more production oriented than dance. I am the only full time production person at Dance Exchange, and I also hold a lot of other non-production related responsibilities. I am the only production manager, the only stage manager, the only company manager, the only vocal coach, one of the grant writers, and on and on. This is an enormous challenge because I love working as a member of a large production team, and that is the way I was trained and have worked before. In situations where a stage manager would consult with an ASM or their PM, I am left consulting myself. I have to make sure I take very good care of myself, and I’ve had to figure out how I can do two or three person jobs – like taping out a floor in the rehearsal room – alone. In some ways, these challenges have been liberating because I cannot indulge my perfectionist side. I have to mindfully let go of some of the things I would do as a stage manager as part of a larger production team, I have to prioritize and delegate. That said, I love where I work and I love what I do, so these are welcome challenges. I think these challenges are recognizable across the performing arts – many theatres have laid off permanent full time production positions in recent years in favor of seasonal positions or combining and eliminating jobs.
JL: What traits do you feel a successful Stage Manager should have to support the health and growth of a production?
OM: I think a successful stage manager has to be an incredible, selfless listener, who is inquisitive, straight forward, and a strong advocate and partner. A successful stage manager is obliged to take care of her director, designers, crew, and her performers, whether or not they are returning the favor. It is best if she loves taking care of other people, and hates being taken care of herself.
To support the health and growth of a production, you have to understand the balance between putting your own artistic proclivities and opinions aside, but making them known when necessary. There is a fine balance between holding your tongue and serving the artistic needs of a production – regardless of whether or not you are interested in the content or aesthetic of a work – and speaking up when a suggestion or idea from any involved party will undermine the health and growth of a production – whether that is from an artistic perspective, or because it is not feasible from a financial or production perspective. Another way I think of this is as if I am being the container for the work, and holding a nurturing space in which it develops. Defining what is outside of the container is as important as defining what is inside. You always have to know what time it is. You should be able to sense the duration of a minute, five minutes, and fifteen minutes in your body, without looking at a clock.
Watch everything very carefully and take a lot of notes. You constantly have to work on cultivating the ability to pay attention deeply to the details of a lot of things happening at the same time, and the ability to entertain all questions and concerns, from the ridiculous to the very serious. Have a cordial relationship with everyone, regardless of how you feel about them personally. In that way, it is kind of like being a server at a fine dining restaurant.
Most importantly – be honest. When you don’t know the answer to a question or don’t know how to solve a problem, say so, and call someone who does. And, carve out “alone time” for yourself (with a glass of wine), personal practices outside of the theatre (I do a lot of yoga), and develop friendships with people who have “normal” jobs (not hard to do in DC, where everyone works for the government). All of that keeps me grounded, and being grounded serves my professional life.
JL: Does your work as a Stage Manager pay the bills? If not, what other work do you do and how do you find a balance?
OM: Well, my full time job at Dance Exchange pays some of the bills. I think anyone who works in the performing arts these days who has a full time job with a salary and benefits, even if it doesn’t exactly cover all costs of living, is very fortunate. And it is too bad that we have to feel so fortunate, but that is just how things are in this industry because of the international political, economic, and social priorities the wealthy and the powerful dictate.
Dance Exchange is currently my primary employment, but I’ve also been a freelance grant writer, stage manager, actor, teaching artist, teaching assistant in international affairs, waitress, bartender. I have recently developed an interest in directing, which I am excited to explore further. I had the opportunity to work as a co-director for “The Parlour” (an immersive environment for the audience) as part of Pinky Swear Productions’ Bondage at Anacostia Playhouse in November, and that was really awesome.
I will say – and this may be a vestige from my NYC life – that I really do take a business-minded approach to my work in the performing arts. I think everyone should, though it is challenging because so much of the work is deeply personal, and we’re all in it for the love. This isn’t the kind of work anyone gets in to for the money. But since we’re in it for the love, we have to be all the more ambitious and strategic. I always have upwardly mobile career goals, and a strategy in mind to maximize my earning potential in this field. I think everyone in the arts has to constantly evaluate their personal goals, the goals of their organization, and how that relates to work-life balance and their personal long-term financial planning. It is important to develop the ability to say “no” when something does not serve you, or to walk away when you have gotten all you’re going to get from an opportunity.
I know tons of performing arts professionals who are in their forties and fifties, have no insurance, no retirement plan, no assets to speak of, and no idea what they are going to do aside from hope that they might still make it big. Going that way is not an option for me, even if it means modifying dreams to achieve the ultimate goal of gainful employment in the professional performing arts. I hate that we live in such a capitalist society, but we do, and I can’t change that. What I can do is transform my relationship to capitalism, and think and plan like an investment banker or a CEO of a major company so that I can come out on top – and maybe even buy a house one day, or at least pay off my medical bills and student loan debt.
Life is expensive – and the ability to work very crazy schedules for very little money, and do hard labor on production after production – no matter how much you love it – is fleeting. Figure out how you can sustain yourself and climb the ladder. Cutthroat and cold? Maybe. But that’s the business if you want to make a lifelong profession out of it that pays.
JL: Looking at your body of work as a stage manager in this community, how conscious are you of selecting plays by women or people of color when deciding your season?
OM: Since I’m not doing so much freelancing, currently, and am working more in devised contemporary dance than in theatre at the moment, I don’t really have so much of a say regarding the arc of a season of shows I work on. In the production management side of my job, I do try to consider the diversity of my design team and I try to push my artistic director to consider that in casting. I am deeply conscious of how plays by women and/or people of color are produced around town, as well as how plays by anyone are cast, and who is on stage management and design teams, who holds crew positions, and what the leadership of arts organizations look like. And frankly, I am quite dissatisfied. I believe in theatre because of its power to shed light on stories that are unseen and unheard, and its power to gather groups of diverse people from all backgrounds in the same room for a similar transformation and purpose. I think a lot of organizations are trying, but no one is really doing enough, and that is very close to doing nothing. I would add that not just the inclusion, but the equity of plays by women and people of color when compared to plays by the usual suspects is vital, and that we also need to consider physical and mental ability, sexual orientation, religious and spiritual diversity, ethnicity, age, and on and on. Good plays are specific and yet universal, and speak to everyone on some level. The development of a season arc must take the specific and the universal into account, and I want to see many different kinds of people – from the artistic director to the business manager to the overhire carpenter to the stagehand apprentice – represented. In whatever I do, I strive to embody that ethic.
JL: How do you feel the DC theatre community has addressed the issues of race and gender parity? How has this particular issue impacted you and your ability to work?
OM: From a production perspective, I think gender and racial parity in the theatre community are in a dire state of affairs, not just in DC, but on a national and perhaps international level. Over the course of my lifetime, I have stage managed, acted in, or otherwise worked on a multitude of productions at the academic, community, and professional levels across budget sizes and across artistic disciplines in DC and in NYC. I have only met two other female stage managers of color. I have never met any set designers, lighting designers, or costume designers who are women of color. I can count the number of white female set or lighting designers I’ve met on one hand. I have never met a sound designer who is not a white male. And I haven’t even covered property designers, choreographers, board ops, stagehands, stitchers and dressers, carpenters, painters, electricians, fly personnel, production managers, producers, company mangers, tour managers, and everybody else yet. I think there is a little bit more parity and awareness of diversity on the artistic and administrative end, but I don’t know of any women of color who are artistic or managing directors of any of the LORT theatres nationwide. I would love to find one.
How can anyone consider that and say, “Isn’t that terrible and shouldn’t we do something about it?” But the fact is, very little is being done about it. There are a few programs here and there promoting people of color and women in the arts, but nothing so significant that it can tackle the lack of diversity I have encountered in my experience. I often walk into a production meeting and I am the only person there who is not a white male. It doesn’t bother me personally – some of my greatest advocates, mentors, friends, and people I love working with are white men. But I think as an international occupational field that claims to serve the human story, we should all be ashamed. Sometimes, I do wonder – when a lighting designer is really impressed that I expertly called a sequence of complex cues, or a set designer is astounded that I can use a scale ruler and tape out a set in a rehearsal room with complete accuracy and ease – what they expected. One of the things I love about stage management as opposed to performing is that the skills demonstrated speak for themselves. Being able to impress people easily and earn respect quickly isn’t such a bad thing, and it keeps you working.
When I was avidly pursuing acting more than I am now, being a woman of color definitely effected my ability not only to work, but to be involved in work I was excited about and found compelling from an artistic perspective. The first time I encountered this was in college, when the chair of the theatre department called me in for a meeting in her office regarding a casting dilemma – one of the directors in the department wanted to cast me as one of the leads in a musical going up that season, and another director, who was a big deal in New York at the time, wanted to cast me in an experimental piece to be devised loosely connected to the Trojan War. He wanted a woman of color to play a Dido character, which would be somewhat of a peripheral role. She was honest and respectful, and I appreciated her consulting me. I was 18 or 19 at the time, and found the whole thing confusing – I still lived in a world where I thought I would be cast in roles because I was the best person for them. I told her I would do the musical, because it was a lead, had nothing to do with race, and because I love musicals and at the time wasn’t really interested in “experimental” theatre. I thought it was strange that this NYC bigshot couldn’t cast any one of the many 150 or so not black, very talented, actors in the department as a peripheral Dido. In NYC, I often found myself cast in roles that served the agenda of producers or directors. The only black person because we want to have a black person, or because we’re going to make a “statement” by having an all black cast for this play, or whatever. The last audition I went to in NYC was a non union chorus call for The Color Purple: The Musical. I remember feeling ill, sitting there, waiting to be seen. I wanted to perform, but at what cost? This was not living out my potential as a performer – the idea of playing a singing slave girl was artistic death. I walked out without being seen, and decided I was done with the theatre business. Honestly, I think it is a lot better in DC which is less driven by the commercial market or the off-Broadway prerogative to “make statements,” but I see a lot of actors of color playing racial stereotypes instead of rich, compelling characters. I see a lot of plays that are the “people of color” play for that season. That isn’t racial parity or very empowering either.
JL: DC audiences are ...
OM: People I spend a lot of time observing. Whenever I go to see a show, I love looking around and seeing who is in the audience and how audience members are reacting. I have a deep appreciation for DC audiences, because they honor my work and love what I love. We need to work on growing new audiences across all social strata.
JL: DC actors, designers and directors are ..
OM: Beautiful souls, hard working, friendly, willing to share their advice, experiences, and expertise and share opportunities. I think that theatres have a tendency though to favor certain actors, designers, and directors - which is incredible for those in favor – but it leaves a lot of very talented people who have immeasurable gifts to offer underemployed, underpaid, cynical, and likely to walk away from a field that needs their voices and their talents.
JL: DC critics are ...
OM: Seeing a lot and writing a lot without being too cynical, and are a vital part of the team and an important part of the conversation. I love good reviews and I love bad reviews. There is always an opportunity to learn, grow, and see what you are communicating and what you are not communicating to certain people. As long as a review is factually correct, I appreciate all opinions. Maybe it’s unfair of me to say something like that as a stage manager though – no one ever talks about us in reviews.
JL: What advice do you have for an up and coming DC based stage manager?
OM: I always hear that good stage managers are hard to find. I don’t know how true that is – I pride myself on being excellent no matter what and I demand excellence of the people I work with – or if they can’t be excellent, I work around them. But I would say it is important to identify what your strengths are as a stage manager and what your weaknesses are. Work on your weaknesses, and consider what kinds of shows you prefer working on, as well as what kind of support you need to have in place to do your best work. Never take anyone’s knowledge for granted. I’m still surprised when I have to explain to an arts professional what a stage manager does, but it happens. Show them that they’d be lost without you.
Be brave and bold – work across disciplines, work at small theatres and large theatres, work in opera, dance, and performance art, immerse yourself in new technologies that you’re afraid of but make sure you hang on to your knowledge and experience of other technologies (I’ve seen the transition from lettered to numbered sound cues and the rise of QLab, the birth of projection as a design element, the death of the floppy disk to save light cues, and the shift from hand drawn blueprints to 3D computer modeling and I’m only 29 years old) and never think you’re too good to be someone’s ASM or to sweep and mop a floor or to hem an actor’s pants if you happen to have some costuming in your background. Do everything that needs to be done. The logistic success – and therefore the artistic success – of the show rests on your shoulders.
Hone your multitasking skills, but know when too much is too much. Personally, I don’t do the best at identifying when too much is too much, but I have a few theatre and non-theatre friends who I ask to help me keep an eye out. Make sure someone has your back – it is especially great for this to be someone who knows the business but doesn’t work with you, so that they can offer insight and objectivity.
Listen, learn, meet a lot of people, don’t let work come to you – go to it. Be kind to everyone, and be early and ready to leave late from every professional commitment. Those who know me well know that I make up for that by being late to and leaving early from most personal commitments.
JL: What's next for you as a stage manager? Where can we keep up with your work?
OM: Currently, I’m working on a 15 minute dance piece with Dance Exchange and Jacqueline E. Lawton, “From the Desk of Rachel Carson,” that will have its world premiere at Dance Place’s Modern Moves Festival at Atlas Performance Arts Center on January 5, 2014. We have a lot of projects cooking at Dance Exchange right now, so I’m not taking on a ton of other artistic or stage management work at the moment. Upcoming Dance Exchange projects include a NEA ArtPlace grant to do work along New Hampshire Avenue in Takoma Park, MD, and a commission from the Embrey Family Foundation in Dallas, TX to design and lead artistic initiatives for Dallas Faces Race, which will culminate in November 2014. I also curate Dance Exchange’s HOME Series at our studios in Takoma Park, MD on the third Thursday of each month. Go to www.danceexchange.org for more information.
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!