If a theatre season were a political campaign, the production manager would be the person in the “war room” to whom everyone turns when a logistical problem comes up. Need more video monitors? Not enough “boots on the ground” to finish loading in for the next campaign stop—er, production? Conflicting agendas (say, between directors and designers) threatening to create budget problems?
Production managers often end up taking care of all of that. And, unlike most campaign operatives, they also don’t mind getting up on top of a tall ladder to self-delegate such practical matters as, oh, shifting clunky speakers out of audience sightlines.
Just ask John Kearns. The 30-year-old production manager for Chicago’s TimeLine Theatre Company has only been full time in the position since last summer. But his résumé stretches back to stage managing the 15-year-old company’s 2008 remount of its hit production of Fiorello! He then moved to a part-time role as production manager in 2010, and hit the full-time ground running this fall by overseeing two shows simultaneously.
What’s more—as if the challenge needed amping up—the two shows were happening nearly a mile apart.
A Raisin in the Sun, directed by Ron OJ Parson, ran from mid-August to Dec. 7 in TimeLine’s home space in the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ in Chicago’s Lakeview East neighborhood. Meantime, about a mile away at the multi-venue Stage 773 building on Belmont Avenue, the company opened Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, directed by Nick Bowling and starring David Cromer, the Chicago native best known as a stage director, who made a rare return to acting in the lead role of Ned Weeks. The Normal Heart opened in late October and was scheduled to run through Dec. 29.
I tailed Kearns on Monday, Oct. 14, the day that TimeLine began loading in at Stage 773. What did I learn? Mainly that being a production manager requires a rare blend of technical know-how, budgeting acumen and interpersonal communications skills—and that the requisite knack for communication has to run the gamut from minute details to bigger-picture concerns.
9 a.m.: I arrive at the theatre—the 147-seat “pro” (for “proscenium”) space at Stage 773 where The Normal Heart will go up. Company master electrician Mac Vaughey, himself a well-known lighting designer in Chicago, is overseeing a crew of three as they start hanging lights, consulting the lighting plot spread out at the apron of the stage as they go.
The set and lighting design for this show are both by Brian Sidney Bembridge, a prominent Chicago theatre artist who has designed more than 20 shows at TimeLine alone, including the concurrent A Raisin in the Sun. Bembridge also did the design for TimeLine’s production of Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations, which ran in this same space in fall of 2012.
Using a rented space is just one of the challenges facing Kearns, who arrives with a model of Bembridge’s set in hand. Since TimeLine’s productions—even without extensions—run 13 weeks (as opposed to the five-to-six-week runs that are standard for many Chicago companies), the company has started using alternative spaces in recent years for at least one production per season, which allows hits like Raisin to extend at home. But it also requires planning for transit between spaces and sharing of resources.
As Kearns shows me the set model, he surveys the stage. “It looks so much shallower than I ever remember it being,” he says, then turns and reminds Vaughey to keep a running tally of equipment and personnel expenditures for the budget. In particular, they are concerned about running out of pipes for hanging lights. “Raisin ended up using all the pipe we had,” notes Kearns. The Stage 773 space has its own inventory of lighting equipment that comes with the space rental, but TimeLine will rent even more lights from their landlords to fulfill Bembridge’s plot. “It’s cheaper than renting from an outside source,” Kearns volunteers.
Bembridge’s set calls for the stage to be covered in gray industrial carpeting, which director Bowling has already chosen as a remnant to be picked up by Kearns later in the afternoon. The entire back wall will be covered with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, crammed with books and personal effects, representing Weeks’s home. That design element, Kearns points out, was inspired by a line from Weeks’s lover, Felix Turner, about how it would be impossible for Weeks to ever read all those books in one lifetime.
A shipment of books on loan from the Salvation Army (an organization, by the way, not generally noted for gay-friendly stances) will be arriving later in the week. Bowling made the arrangements for that temporary donation as well, which illustrates how multiple hats are worn and tasks are shared in relatively small-budget productions. For the record, The Normal Heart’s production budget is around $45,000, which Kearns says covers salaries for all designers, technical staff and stage management personnel as well as equipment and material.
“The thing I love about Nick [Bowling] and PJ [Powers, TimeLine’s artistic director] is that they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty,” Kearns remarks with a smile.
The playing area will be bisected diagonally by a series of sliding frosted-plastic panels, which will serve as screens for Michael Stanfill’s projections of New York City scenes from the 1980s and statistics about the burgeoning numbers of AIDS-related deaths.
Today, says Kearns, “two things need to happen—I have to get that [rear stage] wall black, and carpet has to go down.” Specifically, he wants the rear “nailer” board that runs horizontally across the back wall to be painted black. It will serve as the main support for the bookshelves.
10 a.m.: Seeing that Vaughey and crew are well underway with the lights, Kearns and artistic intern Sara Thornton take me back with them to TimeLine’s main space to collect equipment and supplies. Kearns’s 2002 Jetta will get quite a workout—we end up making a total of three trips in two hours between Stage 773 and the Wellington Avenue church space to collect not just tools and computer equipment but also stacks of plastic bins that another intern, Jessica Martens, will put together in the Stage 773 dressing room for the actors’ props and costumes.
Kearns notes that this fast-paced schedule is actually less stressful in some ways than the one for 33 Variations, which loaded in on a Monday and began tech on Wednesday. The Normal Heart starts tech on Friday. And though pallets of more than 6,000 books aren’t the easiest thing to maneuver in and out of the space, at least this time Kearns doesn’t have to worry about damaging a Steinway piano.
“With 33 Variations, there were some things on the set that weren’t completely in place by tech—some doors weren’t finished, for example. I could tell that Nick and the actors were disappointed. Now I want everything completely done before the actors come in,” Kearns avows.
He takes me around on a behind-the-scenes tour of the TimeLine space, pointing out the temporary “Stairs” sign hanging semi-unobtrusively on one corner of the Raisin set. Since Bembridge’s design obscures the usual exit sign, the company has to comply with fire department regulations by using this one. Knowing the fine points of building and fire department codes also comes under the production manager’s expansive umbrella of tasks, particularly when a company is using a space not originally built to be a theatre.
TimeLine has some office and storage space in their home venue, in what used to be a gymnasium. “It’s about a third rehearsal space, a third storage and a third shop,” says Kearns. Most of the big set construction is jobbed out to Crosstown Scenic, who will be dropping off the frames for the bookshelves and screens later this afternoon.
Perhaps nothing better illustrates the additional headaches that come with using a repurposed space like TimeLine’s than the tool room, which is in a loft right above and behind the church’s altar. “The room has to be completely silent whenever there’s a service,” Kearns tells me later. “It actually has a super-expensive soundproof door. I think it’s funny that the one room we have with fancy soundproofing is for our tool storage!”
Kearns shares a tiny office with the interns, with whom he has an easy rapport. Martens shows up with cupcakes “to alleviate stress.”
“What makes you think there’s stress?” asks Kearns.
“Every conversation I had with you last week,” Martens shoots back.
Kearns laughs—and later notes that load-ins and tech weeks are “only as stressful as you don’t plan for them.”
We return to Stage 773 with equipment in tow. Kearns puts another artistic intern, Alex Wendell, to work on painting the nailer board. Wendell is using some brushes and pans on loan from Stage 773, and Kearns reminds him to make sure that he returns the equipment “as clean as possible.”
“Clean enough to put in my mouth,” Wendell deadpans.
Vaughey has also returned from picking up last-minute supplies to finish the light hang. “Do you have a screw gun?” he asks Kearns.
“Watch this,” Kearns says, pulling the requested item from the toolbox he just brought in.
“We’ve been rehearsing this for days,” Vaughey tells me, joshing.
12:30 p.m.: After a quick lunch, Kearns and I return to the TimeLine space, where he leaves his car. We pick up a rented Zipcar van—fortuitously, the local lot is right next door— more suitable for collecting the carpet remnant from a shop on Chicago’s northwest side, about five miles away.
The remnant is 12 feet wide by 17 feet deep. Kearns crosses his fingers that it will fit in the rented van. It does—barely. As we drive back, he talks about some of the more challenging problems he’s faced in past productions.
“With Frost/Nixon, in 2010, we needed two sets of television monitors. They had to be from the period—what would have been used in a studio, not just regular television sets, and they all had to match,” he says. A cold call to a production manager at local television station WGN turned up just enough old monitors to make it work.
More problematic was 2012’s production of Lucy Prebble’s Enron, directed by Rachel Rockwell, whose musical stagings at larger theatres around Chicago have won plaudits, and designed by Kevin Depinet and Nick Sieben. For Enron, Rockwell “had a very specific concept for it that was mostly about being in a slick, modern world. And we didn’t have the budget to build it out of Plexiglas. We ended up just having a few set elements that we could put a lot of money into, and from there we depended on a whole lot of begging, borrowing, stealing. The thing that was challenging about it was that we had an enormous amount of technology that we had never used before, and it was about trying to make it all work together.” (TimeLine’s current annual budget stands at $1.5 million.)
TimeLine’s artistic director, PJ Powers, makes a similar point in a later interview, noting, “We are in a 102-year-old building. The amount of electrical capacity we have—well, to run a very limited amount of lights as well as video and sound becomes a monster math equation for John.”
2 p.m.: Back at Stage 773, the carpet has been delivered, and Martens and Thornton are put to work laying down the remnant and cutting it to fit the space. Kearns cautions them to make sure that they can fill all the visible space. “If you screw up, we can’t fix it,” he reminds them. “I am the carpet whisperer,” Martens declares.
Kearns leaves to return the van and pick up his car at the TimeLine mothership. When he comes back, he has to call the Salvation Army about the book donation. The original plan was to have them drop off at Stage 773 on Wednesday, but now they want to do the drop on Tuesday, which means that the shelves will need to be in place even sooner.
(I’m gone by the time the books show up, but Kearns tells me later that they arrived on pallets with 650 books to a box. “Easily half a ton each,” he estimates. “Because there are two steps up from the alley to the stage, they couldn’t get them inside. So we had these boxes lining the alley, covered in tarps because it was raining, and we had to manually take all the books out, bring them inside, and throw them in a pile in the corner. The pile ended up eight feet high. Between that and shelving them, we probably spent the equivalent of two entire work days for two people.”) As the carpet goes down, Kearns goes up—to the top of a very tall ladder to move two heavy speakers on chains as far to the side of the playing area as possible. Having worked with Bowling and Powers many times, he knows they will comment if the speakers are in the audience sightlines, so he struggles to move them down the pipe.
“Are you afraid of heights at all?” I ask him, nervously wondering just how rusty my first-aid skills are in the event he should fall off. “I used to be,” he replies. But, like a lot of other things associated with the production manager’s job, he’s learned to be comfortable with it.
Kearns, who is originally from the Chicago area, studied stage management at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., before working in Charlotte, N.C., as a stage manager for a few years. He moved back to Chicago for an apprenticeship at Steppenwolf Theatre Company and has also worked at Evanston’s Piven Theatre Company in addition to TimeLine. What’s the biggest difference between stage management and production management? “I guess it’s like taking a step back and zooming out a little, and just looking at an even bigger picture,” Kearns reasons. Though he is glad to avoid the repetition that comes with stage management, the increased responsibilities for production management still surprise him. He notes, “Now there are a number of times I sit in a production meeting and it’s like, ‘We don’t know how we’re going to do this,’ and I realize ‘Oh, it’s my job to figure that out.’” Powers sees it this way: “It really is a fiendishly difficult position, because it requires so many different skills. John doesn’t have a team working under him.” (That’s true enough, but more than once during the day we spend together, Kearns mentions his desire to make sure that the interns who work for him get meaningful experience in addition to the unavoidable “grunt work” of putting a show together.)
For Bowling, who has worked closely with Kearns several times since the latter began at TimeLine, the relationship is “kind of yin and yang. He is organized, I am disorganized, he’s big-picture and I’m little-picture. It has turned into a lovely marriage.”
4 p.m.: I prepare to leave Stage 773 as Kearns is taking a last look around with his ever-present clipboard and task list. The carpet is down, the nailer is painted, and the pieces for the set frames are neatly stacked and awaiting installation for the next day. I compliment him for doing a job that I know I would never have the patience or organizational skills to pull off—and for doing so while graciously hosting a journalist.
For Kearns, staying on top of the game isn’t just good for the show—it’s good for him, too. “My goal is always to leave myself enough time to have conversations with people and be rested,” he says, adding with a laugh, “I’m a nicer person when I’m rested and I’ve eaten. And that’s important in my job.”
A concluding note: At the performance of The Normal Heart I later attended, the projections didn’t work for the first part of the show. When I contacted Kearns to ask if he came in to trouble-shoot, he confirmed that he did—being on call for those kinds of crises is part of the job description for production managers, especially for smaller companies such as TimeLine.
“This was only the second time I can think of that I’ve done it,” Kearns allows in a follow-up e-mail. “The first time was much more dramatic.” He describes opening night of Susan Felder’s Wasteland, which ran in the fall of 2012 in TimeLine’s home space. “The stage manager noticed pre-show that the plug to a critically important 5,000-watt light had melted, and I had to dash to the hardware store to buy an enormous plug so the two of us could swap it out backstage while the audience and press waited for the show to start. I also had my toddler with me. Luckily, my wife was seeing the show that night so she could wait with him in the lobby while I worked.”
Such is the production manager’s lot: What you do is what it takes.
Kerry Reid is a frequent contributor to this magazine.
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