Behind the scenes at the Wells-Metz, stage managers make the show go on
Marianne Dashwood, the younger of the two Dashwood sisters, sits at the piano in front of pages of yellowed sheet music. After being expelled from her home once her father passed, the Dashwoods relocate to the cottage of a relative; Marianne has been asked to play the piano at a small gathering. Her hands float over the keys.
But, like the baby one character will later give birth to, the cranberry juice masquerading as wine and the thunderstorm composed of lights and sounds, the piano is fake.
When the actress who plays Marianne in this production of “Sense and Sensibility” presses the keys, nothing but silence emits from the piano. But with a well-timed word, the sonata that one of Marianne’s love interests, Colonel Brandon, will compliment her upon comes from the speakers of the Wells-Metz Theatre.
That’s Alex Allen’s job.
Allen, in addition to stage managing this production of “Sense and Sensibility” for Indiana University’s professional summer theater company, is an undergraduate student one semester from completing his studies in theater at IU.
For the almost three-hour run time of the show, Allen sits two levels above the house floor at his roost while calling the show. “It’s long, intricate. It still stays fresh every time you see it,” he said. “The more you see it, the more you get it.”
While he watches the show he follows along in his highlighted and marked copy of the script, relaying sound and light cues through his headset to crew members. At times, he rattles them off in quick succession:
Light cue 1.9. Standby at light cue 2. Go sound cue 15.
Every light cue Allen calls was run through before the show by crew members. They stood with clipboards in hand, listing every cue one by one to test appearance, diffusion and more. Now, during the show, undergraduate theater student Kate Peters follows Allen’s cues, combining them to transform the stage into a stately manor, then a stormy forest and onward to a trip to London.
In addition to calling cues, Allen also works the comm (short for communications) box, the main base station for all headsets on crew members. One of those crew members is his assistant stage manager for the night, Elizabeth Allen. For the entire show, she’s backstage overseeing props and people as Alex’s eyes and ears on the ground.
Even though they share a last name, a major, a theater and even an email address, Elizabeth and Alex Allen would like you to know they’re not married or related.
Elizabeth is a recent IU graduate who worked with Allen on productions like “Antigone,” “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” and more.
“We worked on a bunch of shows together and we realized we were a tag-teaming kind of deal,” Elizabeth says. They call themselves the Allen Team, and they even have a catchphrase: “back at it again.”
Also helping out is Merle Palmer, a recent IU graduate who majored in stage management and assistant stage managed “The King’s Critique,” a production that ran at the Wells-Metz Theatre earlier this summer. Palmer is planning on moving to Chicago to pursue theater professionally soon.
“Alex is a cool mix between really understanding the actors and the technical side,” Palmer says. “Alex is the perfect mix of both of them.”
“The perfect storm,” Elizabeth responds.
The cast and crew prepared for the show for months before opening July 8, with the show’s process starting back in March at an early design meeting. Production meetings lasted until early June, when rehearsals began and lasted for almost a month. Rehearsals were eight hours a day, six days a week, making the production the result of more than 150 hours of rehearsal time in addition to all preliminary meetings.
Now, it’s up to the Allen Team to run the show. Or, rather, shows.
Alex stage manages “Sense and Sensibility,” but he switches places with Elizabeth for “Midsummer’s Night Dream” as the latter takes his position on the upper level; the shows are in rep (short for repertory) meaning they’re alternating performance days at the theater. In 24 hours, the antique furniture, framed illustrations, paintings that look like they belong to your grandmother’s grandmother will be replaced with props and scenery of the forest in Shakespeare’s play that lie in wait until the next day.
One of the side rooms of the Wells-Metz Theatre has a small, wooden script stand sitting on a desk. The script stand has been in use since 2003, and it’s a tradition for stage managers to write their names, production title and years on it. Elizabeth and Alex’s names are on the script stand, along with the stage managers that came before them.
It’s completely covered with 13 years of names and productions past, each piece of handwriting commemorating not only the stage manager, but the cast, crew, time put into rehearsals and production meetings and tech weeks: everything and everyone that comprises a show.
“There’s not a better community than the theater community,” Alex said.