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On the Job

Theatre pros recall the doors they’ve opened by assisting (including a few better left closed).

BIG BREAKS
My first internship in college was at a little puppet theatre on the Lower East Side. As the only assistant in this small operation, I was certain I would be folding programs, sweeping the floor and refilling the toilet paper. Then one day the head of the theatre thrusts two three-foot, armor-clad, wooden Sicilian marionettes at me and says, “Someone’s sick; you’re doing two shows today.” I was really sore that night, but it was a great day. —Gretchen Van Lente, artistic director, Drama of Works, Brooklyn, N.Y.

When I started out in New York I worked as an assistant director in a lot of experimental theatre. It was actually the start of my acting career, since each show we tended to have someone drop out of roles with titles like the Dead Man or Punchy Dwarf, and they’d say: “Sean, he just lays there, go and do it!” For a few years after, my résumé looked like I worked at a carnival for the past few years.
—Sean Christopher Lewis, artistic director, Working Group Theatre, Iowa City, Iowa

Weild (Photo by Xanthe Elbrick)
Weild (Photo by Xanthe Elbrick)

My first Broadway A.D.-ing job was to Michael Blakemore on Terrence McNally’s Deuce. As we went into tech, Mr. Blakemore moved into the theatre for several days without the actors. The day before he left, at the end of rehearsal, he turned to Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes and said, “I’m turning the next two rehearsals over to Kim and I think you will know what is a note from me and what is a note from her.” The next day as I walked to the subway I was filled with a mixture of fear and excitement. When I arrived, the generosity of spirit on all the actors’ parts was palpable and they treated me with utmost respect. At the end of the run-through, I gave notes and, yes, I made sure they knew which was a note from Michael and which was a note from me. As those formidable ladies left for the day, one of them turned to me and said, “Little bird, you just took flight.” And the other one said, “You just soared.” Kim Weild, director, New York City

At age 45, as a mother of three, I got my degree in theatre at the University of Rhode Island. In my senior year, I was appointed assistant stage manager on Merchant of Venice. It was then I heard my calling for theatre management. My “mom” skills really came in handy when dealing with cast and production staff! Diplomacy is important, and knowing what battles to pick. —Maria Day Hyde, props mistress, University of Rhode Island

ROLE MODELS
My first professional job in the theatre was as Peter Sellars’s assistant director at the American National Theatre at the Kennedy Center in D.C. I worked with Peter on three shows—he actually listened to my ideas, and he sometimes even let me work with cast members on my own. It completely shaped the way I think about working with assistants, and I try to model his generosity to this day. —Bill Rauch, artistic director, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, Ore.

Feldman (photo by Will Haraldson)
Feldman (photo by Will Haraldson)

Finding myself in a cab with Sarah Ruhl on the same day that my first play opened in the NYC Fringe Festival was surreal. Her work sparked my desire to be a playwright and I felt like stars had aligned to put me in touch with her. Over the course of the next six months I became her weekend babysitter. While we fed her gorgeous twin babies we talked about everything from the plays I’d seen recently, to my questions about graduate school, and the most appealing or appalling flavors of baby food. I was touched by the genuine interest she expressed in the work I was doing and the career I was starting. Getting to know her is a gift that inspired me to keep writing and gave me a window into the challenges women playwrights face while starting families. —Emily Feldman, playwright, New York City

One of my best theatrical experiences to date was dramaturging/assistant directing Doubt at Portland Stage Company during its 2007–08 season. The director, Sally Wood, gave me the freedom to lead dramaturgical “field trips” for the actors, such as attending a local Catholic Mass and rehearsing the outdoor scenes at Fort Williams Park. Sometimes she would drive me home from rehearsal, and we would have “bull sessions” about what was and wasn’t working in rehearsals. I am ever grateful for those car rides and the opportunity to learn from Sally what collaboration is all about. —Rachel Hutt, dramaturg, New York City

While in school, I had the opportunity to work with directors at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. One of my assignments was being the assistant to guest director Doug Wager on a production of Touch of the Poet. I believe that in creating the “assistant to the” position, the festival intended the post as someone to get coffee, drive around, etc. But Doug took me on as a real assistant director, and at that time in my development, the experience was invaluable. He was incredibly generous with his time and knowledge, and gave me my first real chance to be a part of a professional team. Now, 15 years later, I still reference lessons that I learned from Doug. —Marieke Gaboury, managing director, Southern Rep, New Orleans

Early in my directing career I had the privilege of assisting a director who’d been working professionally longer than I’d been alive. He’d cast the show we were working on brilliantly—the actors would come to rehearsal prepared with new ideas every day. After several days of painstaking work on a difficult scene, one of the actors threw up his hands in frustration and asked our director a question. I cannot for the life of me remember what our director said, but after that, the scene worked beautifully. He leaned over to me and whispered something that has stuck with me: “Sometimes, the hardest thing about being a director is waiting until the actor is ready to hear the note.” —Nathan Jeffrey, freelance director and director of education and outreach for Taproot Theatre Company, Seattle

Bauriedel
Bauriedel

I moved to Minneapolis to work with Theatre de la Jeune Lune after college, having heard a bit about the work they made. During the course of a year, I managed to strike sets, work as crew, write grants, write donor thank-yous, sit in on artistic meetings, assist the dramaturg on a new production and take part in a six-month training program with the company. The experience was revelatory. I soaked up every conversation, every rehearsal, every possible thing I could learn about how this company administrated itself and how the artistic projects were realized. At the same time, Pig Iron was founding and the skills I developed—fundraising, marketing, artistic management, artistic vision—had a direct impact on our initial years as an ensemble.
—Quinn Bauriedel, co-artistic director, Pig Iron Theatre Company, Philadelphia

CELEBRITY ENCOUNTERS
After a conversion experience seeing Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror, I begged to help in any way I could on her next show. As one of her many assistants for the first incarnation of Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, I went beyond the call of duty and set up an interview with Snoop Dogg. She hadn’t heard of him so the meeting never happened. I still want to see Anna play Snoop. Eisa Davis, actor and playwright, New York City

I served as assistant director to Lloyd Richards and August Wilson during one of the initial productions of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Huntington in Boston in the early ’80s. August NEVER had a pen or paper to take notes but would ramble the aisles, sometimes writing on his shirtsleeves! During a run he asked me for my pen. I had no paper so he wrote on my hand the word “shiny” and told me to remember it for later. Paula Plum, actor, Boston

Redgrave (photo courtesy of Miramax/Photofest)
Redgrave (photo courtesy of Miramax/Photofest)

When I was in graduate school, I assisted dramaturg John Dias on a production of Antony and Cleopatra, directed by and starring Vanessa Redgrave, at the Public Theater. I borrowed some Brooklyn College library books, and over Christmas Ms. Redgrave took them back to London from New York—including a fairly old Bible in Latin. I had to get a note from then associate producer Rosemary Tischler to allow me to register for classes, since the books were overseas. The look on the librarian’s face was priceless when she read, “Please allow Celise Kalke to register for classes. Her library books are with Vanessa Redgrave in London.”
—Celise Kalke, director of new projects, Alliance Theatre, Atlanta

ABOVE AND BEYOND
What’s amazing about being an assistant in New York City is the urgency of requests for strange things and how everyone helps you find them. You’re given a list of 50 items that have to be magically produced in two days or the show will fail and it will be your fault. You run through the streets, in and out of stores, warehouses, theatres and peoples’ basements, shouting, “Please, please, please, I need 16 bags of non-flammable red confetti! A wall telephone from 1952! A colonel’s hat! Ten plastic tumblers that look like glass! Giant solid green gummy worms, not the multi-colored kind, green only, it’s really important!” Everyone is fantastic about it—they say, “Hey, we don’t have giant solid green gummy worms today but if you run you can get to that store with the blue sign around the corner before it closes—also my friend runs a paper store, they’ve got the confetti, here’s the address, take the Q, third stop in Brooklyn.” —Hester Kamin, director of education, Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass.

When I was in my early twenties, I scored a summer job working as the personal assistant to a famous screenwriter/novelist at her swanky beach estate. One of my duties—which I had to do daily—was to spritz her underwear with lavender spray.
—Aspiring Playwright in Disguise, New York City

Thorne (photo by Dona Whitaker)
Thorne (photo by Dona Whitaker)

I was working at the Vineyard Theatre in New York as an intern and assistant to the general manager. It was opening night and a fuse blew in the booth. It was some sort of major fuse they didn’t stock, so they sent me running in the snow down the road to another theatre to borrow one. I ran back in my high heels through the snow with the prize in hand just before curtain. We had to knock it into place with a two-by-four. —Jennifer Thorn, marketing director and associate artistic director, MOXIE Theatre, San Diego

CAUTIONARY TALES
When I was new to the profession, I was the assistant to the wig assistant for A Christmas Carol at a large professional theatre. I often lingered just outside of fittings and rehearsals, trying to soak up everything I could. During a fitting as I sat just out of the sightline of a dressing room, I heard the wig master for the production (we’ll call him A) ask, “Well, what do you think?” The assistant I was shadowing (B) replied, “The sides might be a bit uneven.” There was a stiff silence, and as soon as the actor left the fitting, B apologized with, “I’m sorry, I thought you were talking to me.” When A replied rudely, “If there is an actor in the room, I am NEVER talking to you,” I knew I had seen the kind of wig master I never wanted to be. —Wig Mistress, Oregon

During one assisting gig in New York, my job was to take line notes, but I wasn’t allowed to sit at the stage management table or the artistic team table. Since it’s difficult to balance a computer and a script on your knees, I started finding my own work tables. But the stage manager always decided they were needed for something else: a set piece, a make-up station, a Kleenex box storage unit. I worked my way down the table hierarchy, through a child’s desk, a prop nightstand and a bar stool. Finally, I found a broken TV tray table and sat in a corner balancing it with my foot. When the stage manager grabbed it, said “We need this for snacks!” and slapped a bag of pretzels down on it, I figured the show could go on without me. —Anonymous, New York City

I was assistant director on a big Broadway show with a hot British actor making his Broadway debut. We were in previews and one night after a performance I ascended the stairs to his dressing room to give notes. I properly announced myself, knocked on the door and heard him loudly say, “Come in….” When I walked in his back was to me, his trousers were down, his lover was kneeling and I quickly learned that what he said was actually not “Come in” but something close to it…. I blame the accent. —Director, New York City

WORDS OF WISDOM
My best advice for aspiring personal assistants is to find an employer whose life work interests you. I was the P.A. to actors Olympia Dukakis and Louis Zorich for 25 years. Right out of college, I attempted to be a professional actress but I soon realized that I was much better suited to working behind the scenes. Whenever Olympia worked on a play, she called herself a “thespian nun,” which meant her life became consumed with the play and I handled everything else. That’s what personal assistants do. I love knowing that I contributed to her enormous success—and in turn, Olympia has been very supportive of my own ambitions. —Bonnie Low-Kramen, co-founder of NYCA (New York Celebrity Assistants) and author of Be the Ultimate Assistant

I was just out of college and interested in assistant directing; I cold-called a major regional theatre and somehow got through to the artistic director. He said, “There’s no such thing as an assistant director; most directors don’t want another director lurking around their productions; go stage manage—it’s the only way you’ll get into the room.” I took his advice, but I kept asking around (more tactfully, and through friends or connections instead of cold-calling)—and a few years later, with some planning, I assistant directed six shows at six different theatres in a single year. —Dara Weinberg, writer/director, Warsaw, Poland

Davis (photo courtesy of The Right Image)
Davis (photo courtesy of The Right Image)

I assisted Rebecca Holderness on her thesis production of The Tempest at Columbia University in the early ’90s. She was part of the first graduating class of Andrei Serban. The terrific production, set at the apse of a cathedral near the campus, featured Randolph Curtis Rand of Elevator Repair Service as Ariel, Molly Hickok of Big Dance Theater as Caliban, Jeremy Shamos as Ferdinand and an assistant stage manager named Diane Paulus. I played Antonio and assisted Rebecca. These are the kinds of rooms young artists need to get themselves into (and stay there for a while) before they strike out into the world to start theatres. Makes the sailing a lot smoother later on. —Jerome Davis, artistic director, Burning Coal Theatre Company, Raleigh, N.C.

There are a few rules of thumb for an assistant director who wants to make a suggestion about a production. One: Your ideas may be valid, but they may not be applicable to the director’s vision. Be sure that any suggestions you make are appropriate to the world of the play as it is seen by the director. Two: Never interrupt a scene to make suggestions. Write down what you are thinking and watch the rest of the rehearsal. The cast may stumble into your idea or they may head in a different direction, which will make your idea irrelevant. Three: Do not, however, try to wait to speak with the director until he/she is “not busy,” because that moment will never come. —Prof. Nathan Gabriel, director, Lafayette, La.

Don’t complain if you are asked to scrub silver stage makeup off the stage or spend two hours every day preparing food for a show. The terrible jobs you have to do when you are an assistant are the ones you brag about years later. They become your battle scars you tell stories about! —Anne L. Hitt, production stage manager, Taproot Theatre Company, Seattle

For an assistant director, staying healthy is essential. In rehearsal, an ill-timed sneezing fit will bring shame upon your family. I once wept through a press performance suppressing a cough. Tears are generally frowned upon, so try to make it through the finale of A Doll’s House without dampening your director’s script. Knud Adams, director and sometime assistant, New York City

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