Observing Bob Bennett, Stage Manager for “Incident at Vichy”

Bob Bennett, Stage Manager for "Incident at Vichey by Arthur Miller
Bob Bennett, Stage Manager for "Incident at Vichey by Arthur MillerIn December I had the pleasure of observing stage manager Bob Bennett at work during a performance of Incident at Vichy at the off Broadway Signature Theatre in New York City.  
First of all, if you have never been to the Signature Theatre, I would definitely recommend a visit (and a tour if you can get one) when the opportunity presents itself. The Signature Theatre building is beautiful and a bit unusual in that it was originally built to be the New York home for Cirque du Soleil. The lobby is expansive and comfortable and there is a before-and-after cafe with a full bar, so it is a great gathering space for theatre goers or anyone from the public whenever the space is open.
It is always interesting to observe another stage manager at work. Bob is what I would call ‘old school’ and since I consider myself a bit of old school, I was happy to see that he created his script in much the same way that I do, using the good old pencil, ruler and paper method. His calling was crisp and sharp, clearly the gentleman in command. Between cues, he did take the time to tell me a bit about the creation of the production, and how he worked with the director, Michael Wilson. I was also fortunate that Mr. Wilson was revisiting the production that evening and was
as gracious a host as Bob was.
After the show Bob, his assistant stage manager Lori Lundquist, and I got to hang out a bit and chat, capping off an enjoyable evening.
There is something soothing about sitting in a booth, watching and listening. Unconsciously, without realizing it, you have been reminded of the important parts of running a performance: listening and taking in the atmosphere. I have had the opportunity to observe a few times in the past, getting an introduction to Mickey Rooney from Stage Manager Joel Tropper and meeting the inimitable George Rose backstage at The Mystery of Edwin Drood and even finding out why never to wear white shoes, as demonstrated by an unfavorable reaction from actor Daniel J. Travanti when I was, without realizing it, being suggested for an ASM job only to lose it by wearing distracting white athletic shoes. I have to say the experience with Bob is my new favorite. I definitely recommend taking advantage of Operation Observation, should you get the opportunity.

10 Questions for Kim Fisk, PSM on “The Book of Mormon” National Tour

KimFiskOur thanks to Kim Fisk for giving us this interview and answering our questions. Kim is a Production Stage Manager with The Book of Mormon National Tour.

How did you start with The Book of Mormon?

In the late 90’s I worked on a show called Harmony. In the ensemble of that show was a gentleman named Casey Nicholaw, who of course went on to be a director.  At the time they started thinking about a [Book of Mormon] tour I was working on a different show. I got in contact with Casey and said “Hello, I would love to work on your show,” and he said okay, done, and off I went to the General Manager’s office. It was almost 14 years between Harmony and Book of Mormon.

Obviously being on tour is different from a sit-down production.  What are the primary differences for you?

The biggest difference is we are constantly getting new inspirations. Change of venue, new cities, new people, new crew, it can never really get boring out here, so I find it keeps me fresher as a Stage Manager to have those constant new challenges.  There’s a lot more autonomy out here. We don’t have a constant director or choreographer with us; they might come to check up on us at times.  I find that my job is a lot more about all the elements, where in a sit-down there are specialized people for all those departments.

How is maintenance of the show done?

The standard formula is that the stage manager maintains on a day-to-day basis and then you’ll have someone coming out from creative every six weeks or couple months, which is true on this show except we have a much bigger team of people. There are four associate directors and two associate choreographers, so there’s a more constant flow and a different bunch of people who make up that team.   They’re a fantastic group of people and we have a great respect for each other. It’s very helpful when they come out to support us, and vice versa when we support them.  It can get tricky if the team doesn’t work well together, and they don’t always. I’ve worked on a couple of shows where the associates come out and they don’t always say the same thing or feel the same way about the beats of the show.  And that’s hard because you’re the one dealing with the cast and when the creatives leave us each time [the cast is] trying to find the happy medium between what they learned on this visit versus what notes they received last time. It can be tricky, but on this show in particular it’s been really smooth and easy and we look forward to having them come out.

You have a younger company, does that change the dynamic of the company on the road?

It does.  We have a few older seasoned people but more young people, some fresh out of school. We’ve been lucky, they’ve been people who really wanted to come out and learn the ropes, to learn how to be out on the road. They love the show and they love performing it. And the handful of older people that we have are real gems as far as wanting to pass on all their knowledge to the younger cast, because they’ve been doing this a long time and have wisdom to pass on. So it’s been surprisingly easy on this show, because I’ve done other shows where it’s been hard to keep the cast together. They want to party all the time, but you can’t necessarily live that kind of life on the road. It will catch up to you!

You have been long enough on this tour that you are putting in people on a regular basis. Can you talk a little about the process of rehearsing replacements and understudies and how that is typically done?

Yes, it started very early.  After the initial six months we started with replacements and we’re on year four now and it’s been somewhat non-stop.  For the most part they come out to us to be taught the show, the new cast. We take two weeks to put them in; for the leads it might take a bit longer but not that much.  For us it’s tricky because for the one-weekers we don’t have a lot of rehearsal time because Monday and Tuesday are a wash and weekends are two-show days. Some tracks are trickier than others and we have to postpone their opening to the third week, but basically we rehearse every day for two weeks and get them in. For the two leads, Broadway will take them for a week or so first and then send them to us and we do that same two week process.

It’s funny how it’s changed. Initially the first year it was more geared toward, let’s just get them in the same character mold we already know and has been working.  After that first year I think we had so much changeover and the creatives start allowing [the cast] to have some more freedom in their characters. So I’d say at the beginning 80% what we’d already done and 20% new, and now it’s become more 60/40. But I’m talking about things which might not even appear obvious to an audience member because the staging has to remain intact. There’s more liberty with character motivation now than at the beginning.

What makes for a good touring SM team?

The thing that works best for my team is that we all have different skill sets and we all have different preferences on the things that we like to focus on. I learn stuff from them all the time. One of my team is kind of a no-bullshit guy. He doesn’t take crap from everybody; for him there is no gray area and for me I’m all about the gray area. He’s taught me to be more straightforward in my approach. And I think the biggest asset for a touring SM is to be able to think on your feet and be flexible!

What’s the relationship between Stage Management and Company Management on a tour?

It’s ideally a very close one. More than in the sit-down situation, they are your counterpart and they handle all the business and money, housing, and travel. We collectively become “The Managers” – I really think a lot of the people in this company don’t know the separation between us and get confused about who deals with what.  We work very integrated with this group and we work well together. They’re the business side and we’re the more artistic side and together we make the total team that runs the ship.

Are there things you miss when you’re on the road? Is there a downside to touring life?

Yeah, absolutely. I miss my house. My husband and I just bought a new house, it’s in the process of being renovated and we would love to move in and stay there for some period of time. But I may see that house once or twice a year.  We also have a place in Tennessee that we’ll probably hang onto, but again I have been there so few times in recent years. And on occasion we hit a town that is just not fun; the town is not ideal, there is little redeeming about being there. This happened for us over Thanksgiving week. You want holiday weeks to be homey and those are the weeks I ask ‘why am I doing this again?’ But I don’t have them very often and we don’t hit many cities that make you feel like that. It’s the worst case scenario. [Places are] constantly changing and I guess that’s kind of a good thing because I’ve been to these cities 7, 8 9 times and it doesn’t get boring because everything is constantly in flux.

What’s the first thing you look for in a city – a particular kind of store or restaurant?

I hate to say this but the first thing I’m always looking for is the Starbucks. That is the one kind of place I know everyone’s wants; we live out of them. It is typically near a theatre or the hotel and it’s what you know and constant. I like to know there’s something around like a Walgreens or a Target, so I know if I need something I can drop by. Some of the places we stay I end up feeling a little bit stranded, hotels by the airport there’s not a lot of commerce beside that airport stuff, so finding a store like that can be tricky. Also for me – this is a personal thing – I look for grassy areas and parks because I have two dogs.

Are there things you travel with that make each place seem more like home?

I have two dogs on the road with me, so I think for me that’s what makes my home. And my husband, who travels with me; I wouldn’t be able to travel with the dogs if he wasn’t with me. That grounds me when I get “home”. I am at the point after 20 years at this where I have shed all the extra stuff in my pack/luggage to travel city to city, and really just try to keep it minimal. But the dogs and my husband are my touchstones.

Any advice for those who thing they might want to do touring or investigate as a way of life in theatre? Do you think there’s a type of person who will enjoy touring more than others?

I think a lot of students are interested in doing this – getting in touch with shows as they come to your town and meeting the SMs and asking to talk to them or shadow or something.  Because the ones who get that perspective from all the SMs on the team really see what it’s about and how it feels to tour. And you have a connection to that team.

I think it’s important to know that literally the show is your life out here.  It’s the reason you’re on the road and it can be all consuming at times. So if you’re okay with that, and if you’re okay with not spending holidays with your family and not sleeping in the same bed too often, then the gypsy life is for you. I’ve seen amazing parts of the country I’d never have seen had I not been on tour. And I’ve met people I have would never have met.  You can’t beat those relationships and that knowledge of your country. But you definitely have to be able to let go of a lot of stuff. So, for people who can “let go” and not be bothered by constant flux/movement, it’s an awesome career.