At a college performance of The Diary of Anne Frank, production stage manager Jonathan Castanien, along with show’s cast and crew, watched in terror as a group of 200 bored middle school students took their seats, sure that the preteens would bring an end to their standing ovation streak. But once the show began, those students were completely enthralled and invested in the story. They laughed and reacted in exciting ways that other audiences hadn’t. And they instantly stood up at curtain call.
Castanien, now an in-demand New York stage manager and an activist for greater equity, diversity, and inclusion in the theatre, knows that if his invisible contribution from the booth helps audiences experience what he witnessed in that college performance and many times since, then the endless hours of hard work are worth it.
Originally from Southern California, now based in Brooklyn, Castanien got his big break in 2017 with the Off-Broadway run of Drew Droege’s Bright Colors and Bold Patterns, directed by Michael Urie. The show’s success put Castanien on the map professionally and earned him his Equity card.
Castanien’s multifaceted background has led him to seek more creative roles. His degree in design and technical production from Cal State Fullerton, a sort of catch-all for all aspects of design and technical production, taught him the basics in almost everything theatrical and eventually led him to specialize in stage management. He’s also worked in public relations for the Southern California companies Artists at Play and South Coast Repertory, and produced play development workshops—all experiences that have informed how he interacts with different departments and understands the needs of each.
They have also pushed him more toward the artistic aspects of theatre and away from its technical side. His goal, he says, is to play a bigger part in deciding whose work will be developed and uplifted—to find a role that would give him more responsibility and a say in decision-making so that he can directly support the work of underrepresented groups. Like an artistic director? He’s not sure, he says, but sounds open to it.
“The integrity of his work is carried through with his activism, his dedication to supporting Asian American stories and artists, and working on projects that align with his values,” says playwright Madhuri Shekar, who worked with Castanien when he served as stage manager for the Los Angeles premiere of her play In Love and Warcraft.
In addition to his work as a stage manager (other credits include The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up by Carla Ching at Artists at Play and the national tour of 57 Chevy with the National New Play Network), he hosts “Not So Ancient,” a podcast about the history of Asian American theatre with director Peter J. Kuo.
Castanien will next serve as assistant stage manager for Bernard-Marie Koltès’s Roberto Zucco, directed by MFA student Joseph Rizzo, at the New School, and will be part of the 2018 artEquity facilitator training cohort in New Orleans. Indeed, as he watches a wave of artistic directors work to diversify resident theatres, he has decided to join the movement for equity, diversity, and inclusion on behalf of his profession. Voicing the forward-looking, other-focused approach to theatre which has made him such a good stage manager, Castanien says, “We need to figure out how to uplift others instead of doing the same old same old.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece misstated when Castanien worked on Bright Colors and Bold Patterns. He served as stage manager for the staging at SoHo Playhouse, which began performances in 2017, not the 2016 Barrow Street Theatre run.