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Joe Drummond: A Stage Manager is the Center of a Wheel

Updated: Aug 2, 2019

Goodman Theatre Production Stage Manager, 1974–2016

A Conversation with Joseph Drummond

by Mark Larson

I spent 42 seasons at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. In hindsight, I’ve been doing a lot of saying, "My god, we were so lucky." Some of the playwrights that we worked with are people I had grown up reading. My acting training had included Tennessee Williams. And then, later, to be working on a show in which Tennessee Williams was in the room a lot was like, "Oh my god, I'm pinching myself that this is actually happening." Then working with Edward Albee when he was the playwright and the director. Things happened during the 70s and 80s that I just can't believe I was actually part of.

I started my career at a summer stock theater, Totem Pole Playhouse, which is located on Route 30 outside of Gettysburg. I got my Equity card as an assistant stage manager and, through the course of the summers, the producer, William Putch, decided he saw some potential and offered me stage management work. That's where I cut my teeth, and that's what I focused on after that.

I had caught the theater bug through acting first, but I found stage-management a lot more rewarding than I ever imagined because I hadn’t had any training. But I was watching the stage managers I worked with and thinking, "OK, what are they doing? OK. I see." A lot of it was trial by fire, and they certainly gave me an opportunity at summer stock to do that.

I was trying to find a job in regional theater, and by luck, several members of the acting company at Totem Pole knew the Goodman's production manager, Joseph DePauw. They decided it was about time I got a job in a regional theater, so they contacted him on my behalf without my asking them to do so, and said, "Please just interview Joe." I came out here in '74 for an interview, and based upon my friends’ recommendations, he took a chance on me.

“Arguing for the artistic importance of stage management.”

The Stage Managers' Association was founded in New York in 1982, and as members way out in the cornfields, which is how we felt we were thought of, we were getting minutes from their meetings. We got a sense of what was going on in New York, and we thought, "OK, let's try to do that here in Chicago." For us, the theater community in Chicago was evolving, and I and a few other stage managers in Chicago decided, let's look at the standard of how we're respected in the profession and improve upon that. A group of stage managers and I decided that it was important that we up the ante on our position, not just as the stage managers, but also as an integral part of a production.

Was that something new for the profession?

Oh yes, yes. There was a point when stage managers were not listed on the title page the way they are now. Oftentimes, assistant stage managers were not even listed in the program at all.

I would think that tells you something about how that work was viewed by the rest of the profession.

Unfortunately, yes. Even now, in the Chicago area, stage managers are not always listed on the title page. You know how I did it back in the '80s? When the programs were passed around to proofread, we just added our names on the title page. We thought, "We don't have anything to lose. They may not do it, but they might." And the person doing the program did just print it out with our names.

I don't think there was a deliberate effort to deny us a place. I think it was just that the position [of stage manager] was not seen as one of artistic [importance]. You've got actors and you can see them; you've got designers and you can see their work; and you've got directors, but then there's these people, stage managers, who have no faces, they're backstage and yes, they take documentation, they run the cues, but they didn't create the cues. They're just seen as an extension of crew people.

Actors' Equity did not help things in that, when you signed a contract, you were referred to as “actor”. In the rulebooks, they would refer mostly to actors this and actors that, because they didn't recognize stage managers. There might have been three or four rules that pertained to stage management. We could work unlimited hours and not get overtime because it didn't say anything about us specifically. It talked about actors in this regard, but we weren't actors. It was a very shady area for stage managers. So we, as a stage management community in Chicago, said, "Let's get involved in the union. Let's get on some committees. Let's talk about what we feel is wrong." New York had gotten what they needed. That was by uniting.

I couldn't say at what point someone said, "That's not right." It was just, I think, a progression. Again, New York was leading us, because once their voices were heard, we said, "Well, if they can do it, why can't we? Let's organize. Let's go to Equity. Let's get some rules changed. Let's get our names in the program."

Today, in the LORT [League of Regional Theaters] union rulebook, it states that the stage manager staff must be listed on the title page or cast list page. That took a long time to do, to get those rules and regulations.

We felt that what was happening artistically in the Chicago theater community, as a whole and the new works that were being cultivated here, was part of the excitement of that time, and we felt that we were keeping up with it and that we were contributing.

The Role of the Stage Manager

Imagine a wheel, and the stage manager is the center of the wheel, in this sense: your director is giving you guidance and the artistic designers are giving you cues and costumes changes, and sound is giving you cues, and the actors are coming to you, and the staff is depending upon you for information coming out of rehearsal because they're not in there. You're the person at the center of the wheel who's dealing with all of those people, but you're not making artistic choices for any of those people. You're relaying information and you're taking what the designers and director have envisioned and created and maintaining that.

When Bob Falls was doing Desire Under the Elms [2009], he wanted to use live cows on stage. Well, as Scott Conn, the production manager said, "Oh, really? Really?" And Bob said, "Yes, I want live cows on stage." And there’s Brian Dennehy saying, "What the fuck are you talking about? I'm gonna be upstaged by a cow?” [Laughs.]

Scott Conn said, “OK, let me find out where we would house them and what would this entail.” In this production, Bob had these huge boulders and a house suspended above the stage. Scott learned that the cows would spook if there was any movement of that house over their heads. They would not be able to come on stage. But up to that point, everybody was willing to go along. So he had to come back and tell Bob, "Can't do it. Cows won't cooperate, it's in their contract.”

Brian Dennehy paid me one of the highest compliments, once. He said, "I can tell when you're calling the show, and when someone else is calling the show. You're calling cues with us, and others are just calling cues." I knew exactly what he meant because I listen in rehearsal. There's a rhythm to the way he talks, and I know that a sound cue has to come in at a certain point. But it can’t just be when he says the line, and then I say “go." No, it might be a half a beat after he finishes, allowing the audience to do this or that. And some of it is just feeling the show, but to do that you have to engage and be invested in the show from day one. You listen to those things. I don't like to talk a lot in rehearsal, because I need to listen. Bob Falls uses the phrase, "the musicality of a production". You listen to the musicality of a speech, or the dialogue, or the way an actor lays out a line. And then the next night, he might change the inflection on a line or a speech and it's like, “Oh! See what he's doing." And then the other actor has to respond differently, because the inflection was given to him differently. And that affects what I do. That’s the delight of working on live theater because it does ebb and flow on a nightly basis. It's all about listening to it.

It was hard to leave, yes. I have to say with all honesty, though, I don't miss the hours that were necessary to work as a stage manager. I felt it was time for me to step aside and allow other stage managers to have the opportunity I was given. It took us a while to find the right mix to replace myself and Kim Osgood who just retired too, after 25 years. It takes a unique individual and Briana Fahey filled that bill. She took my place at the Goodman. I couldn't be happier, and the staff said, "OK, now you can go. We've got Briana." [Laughs.]


Ensemble: Chicago Theater Makers Talk /

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