Be Prepared: A Stage Manager Expands Her Toolbox for Social Justice Theatre
Whitlock, Evangeline Rose, American Theatre
"I admit that for me, love goes deeper than the struggle, or maybe what I mean is, love is the deeper struggle." --Maria Teresa Mirabal, from In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez
I CAN FEEL THE PROP PLANE'S DESCENT AS I peer out the window at the dark country below. Electricity is a valuable commodity in the Dominican Republic. Americans know this Caribbean nation for its resorts, beaches and shopping, but I'm not here as a tourist; I'm preparing for a three-city tour that will happen next month, in November 2011. The United States embassy is sponsoring Eveoke Dance Theatre of San Diego's production of Las Mariposas, an adaptation of Julia Alvarez's novel In the Time of the Butterflies, based on a true story about the Mirabal sisters and their struggle for justice under dictatorship. I'm the stage manager, and I've been sent on an early two-day site survey to arrange venues, schedules and meals (in a language I do not speak).
Like any good stage manager, I've anticipated everything. My bag is packed with measuring tapes, two cameras, spare batteries and gaff tape. I have my laptop, the production bible, a Spanish-English dictionary, pages of questions to ask and lists of measurements to take. I have good shoes, sunscreen, a raincoat, a nice dress and a first aid kit.
As a stage manager, my primary responsibility is to facilitate communication between the show's collaborators. I create schedules, run rehearsals, call cues. I've been doing this for 10 years. Those skills should be more than enough, right?
Wrong. Las Mariposas is theatre for social justice. This genre explores issues of power that manifest in race, gender, economic and sociopolitical struggles. When stage managing work like this, I need an expanded toolbox.
I've packed all the dramaturgical research (and I've read it). I bring a deep understanding of the story and the company. I toss in a journal. Professional distance? I leave that behind. My personal, emotional connection to the show will be my most important asset in maintaining artistic integrity.
Stepping off the plane in the D.R., I'm greeted by a wall of humidity. Its a shock after the crisp Midwest fall I left a few hours ago. Buying a much needed bottle of water, I look down and am amazed to see the faces of the Mirabal sisters, the subjects of our show, on the 200-peso bill in my hand.
MY WORK IN THEATRE FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE began in 2007 with a devised 90-minute play called Seven Pas sages: The Stories of Gay Christians, at Actors' Theatre in Grand Rapids, Mich. I was the script supervisor and stage manager. The stories we collected were difficult, painful and charged with commentary on faith and politics in our world today. The subject matter challenged each collaborator to examine our daily interactions, confront injustices and make choices about how to respond compassionately to the work.
But as stage manager I was simply there to organize a script and call cues, right?
Wrong again. In a show like Seven Passages, personal connections became critical in everything I did. No task was exempt--even calling the show. The cueing was incredibly complex; I called lights, sound, deck moves, five separate projectors and two live video feeds. The actors' performances were nuanced and dependent on the subtlest audience reactions, which changed drastically each night. A shocked gasp on Thursday became a laugh on Friday. I literally had to breathe with the actors to call the show correctly. The only way I achieved this level of synchronicity was by investing my energy in the stories, characters and actors.
One of our interviewees wrote: "It's undeniable that the stories you chose to tell are healing. But the fact that they are delivered by a committed, empathetic cast gives them weight, resonance, credibility, honor. It's like having someone speak for you when you don't think your voice matters. …