There's no denying the endless list of responsibilities designated to a production's beloved stage manager. It's hard to imagine a show running smoothly without one, and even harder to believe shows like that even happen. Ruth Anne Watkins, a senior at the University of Maryland (UMD), taught an entire crew how to operate with a stage manager when the School of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies (TPDS) and National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts' (NACTA) bilingual production of A Midsummer Night's Dream went overseas to Beijing, China.
Mitchell Hébert, co-director of the production, said shows in China typically don't operate with a stage manager and the crew simply executes their learned cues after the director tells them where he or she wants the light and sound. For A Midsummer Night's Dream, Watkins, along the the production manager, taught the crew a whole new system in three days.
Watkins said she looked at the history of Peking Opera, and with the minimal set and light changes plus intricate costumes, she can see why Chinese theater doesn't necessarily call for stage managers. With that said, the theater and marketing major tried not to think about the amount of work ahead of her to avoid being overwhelmed, especially as a first time stage manager.
"I was kind of glad I didn't have the time to mentally prepare for what I had to do because tech is tricky enough in English," she said. "I'm fortunate enough to be bilingual however my Chinese is fairly limited to what I was speaking at home, which is not theater terminology. I still don't know how my ASM's (Assistant Stage Managers) managed to be on headset with a constant barrage of Chinese thrown at them. I really had the best support team going in that I could have asked for."
Despite the daunting task at hand, Watkins said the eagerness of the crew to learn about her job made her really enjoy the experience.
"It was such a wonderful moment for me personally to be on headset with them," she said. "When there was a complication during one of the shows, I started speaking, and everyone was quiet when I started talking. It was such a cool moment. They were starting to realize and trust me in my job."
Watkins said what made such a seemingly grueling few days in China so worthwhile was the atmosphere of the entire cast and crew.
"It was really a relief going into this knowing there were people who were supporting me and everyone really wanted the show to succeed," she said. "That was the kind of atmosphere the entire had from the first rehearsal. There was never any blaming or finger pointing. Everyone was there to make the show work and it made for a wonderful, productive environment which doesn't necessarily happen every single minute of every show."
Watkins' upcoming plans include performing in Dead Man's Cell Phone in the spring and stage managing for the Maryland Dance Ensemble. Even though the dance show is script-less, Watkins says it keeps her on her toes.
Overall, Watkins said a Midsummer Night's Dream was a truly wonderful experience.
"When it was over we were all saying, 'Oh no. Why didn't we have more showings?' We spent so much time and money on this, but it wasn't really about that," she said. "I know we talk in theater a lot about how it's about the process, it's not about the product, but this really and truly did feel like it was about the process."
"It was about cultural learning and sharing this experience with people. For me, it really defined my job and what stage managers do, being that hub of communication," Watkins said. "Doing it in Chinese made it so much more important to have the right information and be aware of what is happening so everyone is on the same page regardless of what language they spoke. Everyone had such nice things to say about each other, and I felt so fortunate that I got to share in a lot of things not just as a stage manager but as a bilingual person."
For more information on The University of Maryland's School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies, visit http://tdps.umd.edu/
Photo of Ruth Anne Watkins. Credit: Diane Egrie