In Memoriam: Dan Zittel (1951-2017)

It was with great sadness we learned that on Saturday, August 19, 2017, AEA Stage Manager and Stage Managers’ Association (SMA) Board Member Dan Zittel passed away.

Born August, 15, 1951, Dan received his BA in English Literature at Fordham University and his MFA in Directing at Catholic University. His stage management credits run the gamut of Equity’s contracts from Theatre for Young Audiences to Production, from being a 2nd ASM to PSM. Recently he was the Advance Stage Manager for his 50th production for The Cape Playhouse. Some of Dan’s touring experiences include Disney’s High School Musical 1 and 2, White Christmas (4x), 42nd Street, Sound of Music, Fiddler, Man of La Mancha starring Jack Jones, The Value of Names with Jack Klugman and much more. Off-Broadway he worked for The Public Theatre, Playwrights Horizons, The Barrow Street Theatre (Orson’s Shadow), The Women’s Project, Cherry Lane, City Center, Sundance Theatre Institute, and The York Theatre (The Musical of Musicals). The Barter, The McCarter, Caldwell, Riverside in Vero Beach, Florida, Olney, Theatre By The Sea and Two River theaters are among the regional companies on his resume. Dan’s Stock theatres encompass The Cape Playhouse, Ogunquit, Westport, Music Theater of Wichita (12 productions), West Virginia Public Theatre, Mountain Playhouse and Starlight Theatre (8 productions). For six years, he was the Production Coordinator at The Kennedy Center for the American College Theatre Festival.

With cast and crew of “Drowsy Chaperone” at Cape Playhouse.

Dan joined Actors’ Equity Association in 1976 and most recently sat on the Off-Broadway, Stage Managers and Stock committees. He also served as Co-Secretary on the Board for the Stage Managers’ Association 2000-2007 and then returned in 2015 as a Board Member-at-Large and chaired or served on various SMA committees – the most recent being the Nominations Committee for the 2017 SMA Board elections. Dan was also a long time member of the Broadway Bowling Team and a regular presence at AEA meetings, SMA panels and meetings, USITT, and BC/EFA events.

Described by many as sweet and humble, Dan’s colleagues and friends have been dedicating their shows and rehearsals to his memory, and several SMA members emailed their reminiscences of their encounters and friendship with Dan.

Elynmarie Kazle (current SMA Chair) wrote: When I first became Chair of the SMA I sat down with Dan for breakfast. I wanted to find out what his priorities were and what he was looking to do on the board. He told me how he got started in the business and how as a stage manager the road was sometimes a lonely one. He believed with a passion that the most important thing that the SMA could do was to continue to provide stage managers, in New York and across the country, a place to share their challenges, successes and so forth, with each other.  One of the New York events Dan put together in recent years was a lunchtime meeting he called “Thanks for Sharing.”  He felt very strongly that, social media aside, it was critically important for stage managers to get together face to face.  In that way, he has carried the torch for the mission of our founding members. Dan had a ready smile, a gentle spirit but very strong convictions. I will miss his advice, nudging and counsel greatly.

Iconic Dan Zittel in stage manager mode.

Rich Costabile (SMA Chairman Emeritus) wrote: In addition to serving as fellow Officers of the SMA for several years in the early 2000s, we worked together professionally on a number of occasions.  I knew him to be unbelievably meticulous about things like the safety and comfort of his cast and crew.  His energy never flagged in the execution of his duties, which is one of the reasons that, whenever I knew of a job that I had to pass up, he was a person I could reliably recommend to any and all.  I knew that employers would be foolish not to take me up on my recommendation, and indeed I received feedback several times about how lucky they were to have found Dan. And he, in turn, always kept me abreast of how those projects were going. His skills, his excellent work ethics and his warm, caring demeanor were the reasons he was hired over and over by Evans Haile at the Cape Playhouse and by the producers of the touring White Christmas, among others. His loves were theater and – HORSES!  He tried not to pass up any opportunity to go to whichever race track his travels might take him near.  He won, he lost, but most of all he loved playing the odds. I’ll miss Dan very much.  We all will.

Dan Zittel at the 2016 Collaborator Party with Cheryl Mintz.

Cheryl Mintz (Resident PSM at McCarter Theatre) shared her thoughts about Dan: I was fortunate to spend many happy hours over many years at events and gatherings chatting and laughing together; that is how I knew Dan best. We organized a decade of SMA parties together (Holiday Parties and Annual Membership Parties), he as the SMA Co-Secretary and myself as Executive Board Member/Events & Parties Committee Chair. I recently recommended Dan to Bristol Riverside Theatre to PSM their spring 2017 production of “Jesus Christ Superstar”.  Dan thanked me and reported back that he had a wonderful time and experience with the production.  It gives me joy to think he stage managed until the end.  Dan and I met up at the NYC Collaborator Tony Award Party 2017 in June; so glad I got in a last toast and schmooze with him.  (He made no mentioned of his health challenges.)

Dan Zittel with the cast of “White Christmas” on tour.

Andy Feigin (Past SMA Board Member and Chair of the Nominations Committee) expressed: So saddened by Dan’s passing. He was indeed a beautiful person. Dan Chaired or Co-Chaired several SMA Nominating Committees over the years with me and others, including for this most recent election. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to work with him right up through this past June’s National Membership Meeting, where we calculated the results and announced them. There were laughs along the way, even over something as bureaucratic as tallying votes. I had no idea he was ill at the time. We spoke about our summer plans for work and play. Rest in peace dear Dan.

Dan in action at the 2016 BC/EFA Flea Market. Photo by Hope Rose Kelly

Tom Viola (Executive Director, BC/EFA) also wrote in to say: Dan was a great friend of BC/EFA and the Actors Fund’s working with us backstage at many annual events, as a well as always at the BROADWAY FLEA MARKET and as part of the “Bucket Brigade” during the fall and spring fundraising campaigns in the theatres.  He was a beloved and stalwart champion, a part of our efforts going back to the earliest days.   Dan will be greatly missed and always fondly remembered.  Dan truly typified the kind of quietly dedicated support behind the scenes that has made BC/EFA’s work possible.

At the 2016 BC/EFA Flea Market, I came across a copy of the book “Performance of the Century” that AEA created to commemorate 100 years of the union. Several Equity Stage Managers contributed to this book and Dan was one of them. When he saw it, he was excited and showed me his entry. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to ask him to pose with the book that I would include with a brief article that I wrote about the SMA at the Flea Market. Modestly, he agreed!

Dan Zittel showing his entry in “Performance of the Century”. Photo by Hope Rose Kelly

Click here for the excerpt that he wrote for “Performance of the Century” in readable format.

Thank you to all for the contributions made to this article: Elynmarie Kazle, Rich Costabile, Cheryl Mintz, Andy Feigin, and SMA Board Members. To close this article, it is only fitting to do so with words from Dan Zittel himself that he wrote in 2012 on his Facebook page in reference to being included in AEA’s centennial celebratory book:

As this year comes to a close, there’s much I am grateful for, especially for friends near and far. However the highlight of the year came when I received my copy of “Performance of the Century”. I felt as if I had won a TONY award. At the top of my thank you list is Marjorie Horne who has been an inspiration for me not only in my career but also my involvement with our union. I’m always in awe of her expertise when either managing a production, an event or a committee meeting. When she asked me to say a few words for the book, I felt very honored and humbled and almost speechless. So THANK YOU, Marjorie. It’s also a great honor to be in the company of the other contributing stage managers such as Hilary Austin, Buzz Cohen, Cheryl Mintz, Jill Rendall, Doc Zorthian, Arturo Porazzi, and David O’Brien. But before the ‘red’ light comes on and the underscoring begins, I want to thank all the actors and actresses who I’ve worked with and loved watching them make a script or a score come alive and for sharing their talents and creativity to every performance. And a larger than life thank you to our union, for without it, we would not be here and just think for 100 years. Bravo and thank you Actors’ Equity Association.

Dan Zittel as Santa Claus!

Best Compliment

I joined the stage management team for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in the fall of 1991. The show that year was the one they’d been doing for a number of years with no changes. The crew was the same, the sets and lights were the same; I was the newbie. I studied hard to learn to call the show (to this day, the most difficult show I’ve ever called). Finally, the day came to solo my first time. I was nervous but had the support of everyone I was working with. The first compliment came when I cued the snow for a scene and the fly floor dumped snow on my head as I was calling – they knew it would not rattle me and they were right. But the best compliment came at the end of the show when the show electrician, Marty Fuller, came back after and said: “You called a great show! You called all the cues just where we DO them!” I have carried that as a badge of honor ever since.

SMA partners with Columbia University for Standing in the Dark

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The Stage Managers’ Association of the United States (SMA) is pleased to announce Standing in the Dark: A Series of Conversations with Prominent Stage Managers. This exciting initiative, a continuation of the SMA’s “Legacy Project,” will be featured on the Association’s website in both podcast and video format.

The Legacy Project has been in development for the past few years under the leadership of the SMA Chair Elynmarie Kazle who has been working to create a structure for the concept and a way of preserving these important voices.  It was originally conceived as a series of video conversations. Standing in the Dark, is a series of audio recordings of prominent stage managers and was created by Rachel Zucker, who envisioned this project as her MFA stage management thesis at Columbia University. The two efforts will be combined as Standing in the Dark: A Series of Conversations with Prominent Stage Managers. Last spring, Zucker contacted the SMA to see if there was interest and support for the continuation of her undertaking beyond graduation and the board of the Stage Managers’ Association has given its full support to the collaboration.

“One would think that stage managers, who are the backbone of the theatre industry, on Broadway and beyond, would have a rich written and/or oral history devoted to their work but unfortunately very little exists,” according to Zucker.  “That’s what really inspired me to propose this as a thesis project, which eventually became Standing in the Dark.  I believe it is important to hear their own words and voices, how these stage managers got to be where they are today.”

Michael J. Passaro, Associate Professor of Professional Practice (and Rachel’s advisor) at Columbia University, was supportive of Rachel’s venture from the start. “When I begin to advise my students on their thesis projects, I ask them a few questions to focus their thinking: What’s missing? What isn’t available to them, or doesn’t currently exist, in the world of stage management theory or practice? What do they wish they had in terms of a resource that will help them – and future stage managers – be better at what they do? Rachel’s proposal crossed my desk and I wrote one word on it: YES!”

In the next few weeks, ten audio podcasts compiled by Zucker will be rolled out on the SMA website along with the first video podcast.  According to Hope Rose Kelly, the Stage Managers’ Association Website Editor in Chief, the podcasts will feature conversations with Bonnie Panson, Michael Passaro, Buzz Cohen and Arturo Porazzi, among others. The first video podcast will feature premiere Broadway stage manager and invererate hiker, Bob Bennett.

“I speak for many of us I’m sure” continued Passaro, “when I wish that legendary voices such as Ruthie Mitchell, Biff Liff, Beverley Randolph and many others were part of this series [who are no longer with us].  There’s no better organization than the SMA to foster the continuation of Rachel’s work and to ensure this incredible history is available to future generations of stage managers.” Speaking for the SMA, Kazle says, “By working together, we can create a cohesive history for our profession.  It is our hope to make this available through our network to future generations of stage managers.”  To nominate a stage manager.  Go to I WANT TO (on stagemanagers.org) and click on NOMINATE A STAGE MANAGER FOR THE LEGACY PROJECT.

Off the beaten path

Usually when a backstage track has been established, you keep to it to be consistent. Every so often some arises where you must go off track. Then there are those rare moments when you go off track and you don’t know why until something does happen to explain it. For me, I was ASMing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and I was curious about a part of the show from a particular backstage perspective – the theatre this was in was shaped like a classic Greek theatre – stage thrusts out, downstage entrances are voms that go deep to the backstage area. The walls of these voms had wide ledges and our Oberon was staged to sit on one while Puck told him what he did to Titania which resulted in Oberon laughing so hard that he would fall off the ledge into the vom. Puck is worried but then Oberon would bound out to congratulate him. Early in the preview process, I had a bit of free time and rather than just passing by this vom to go directly to my next stopping point, I stood by to watch Oberon drop into it. He dropped only rather than bouncing back up, he began crawling towards me – realizing he must have landed wrong and broke something, I instantly radioed up to my SM to tell her the actor was injured and to stop the show which she did. We tended to the actor till the ambulance arrived and needless to say the performance did not continue that evening.

The dummy didn’t drop!

My favorite shows tend to be farces or ones with fast costume and scene changes like “The 39 Steps” or “Compleat Work of Shakespeare Abridged”. And when you work on a show where you are constantly moving around backstage, any troubleshooting that arises needs to happen on the go.  So when we started Act 2 of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and we didn’t hear the “plop” of the dummy body drop to the stage from the grid when it was supposed to – a crucial prop piece that would show up again in a scene following the one we were about to change into – the troubleshooting commenced as we readied ourselves to go onstage to set the next scene. The plan I came up with was to send the wardrobe person to get a spare costume suit from the dressing room after she did the scene change and then we would grab some pillows from the green room and stuff them into the suit thereby creating a makeshift dummy. After quickly imparting that plan to wardrobe and the PA, we popped out for the shift and as I rolled off a set piece – hands full with Dr. Watson’s medical instruments – the actor playing Holmes grabs me and whispers in my ear “The dummy didn’t drop!” – to which I quickly whispered back, “we know, we have a plan” and we moved on. Wonderful thing about the show is that there is room for ad libbing so when we tossed the makeshift dummy out onto the stage, the actors had to take a moment to laugh and comment with the audience.