As part of our Broadway Buzz program, Buzz Extra writer Alicia Hansen will take you behind the scenes of each KeyBank Broadway Series show and interview a member of the show’s cast, crew or creative team.
As part of the 2015-2016 KeyBank Broadway Series at Playhouse Square, Phantom of the Opera is making it’s mark on Cleveland once again. In this interview, stage manager Jovon E. Shuck gives a behind-the-curtain look at the show.
Tell us about yourself.
My high school drama teacher encouraged me to be a stage manager as I had a flair for being organized… and also because I was a pretty terrible actor back then! I went to Michigan State to be a veterinarian. As I was taking math and science classes, I was also taking a technical theater class. I quickly realized I liked one a whole lot better than the other. So I switched my major, became a theatre major, graduated and went on to work in summer stock and touring productions. I would eventually move to New York City, where I worked a lot, including at Radio City Music Hall and Shakespeare in the Park. There, I worked with a Broadway stage manager who connected me with a job opportunity that would set me up for all my jobs going forward.
This is my fourth time in Cleveland with a touring production. I was here almost ten years ago with Spamalot. We were here twice with that show – we played both the State and the Palace Theatres. I was here not too very long ago with The Lion King, and now back with the Phantom of the Opera.
Touring Phantom seems like an epic undertaking. Can you tell us the process of getting from the previous location to the next? What does this show entail that some others do not?
It takes us about 14 hours to load it out when we are done in one city and about three days to load the show into a new theater in the next city. Two of the trucks actually arrive with what we call our “advance package” while we are still loading out in the last theater in the previous location. It is a marathon for the crew!
We travel in 16 separate semi-tracker trailers. As you can imagine, moving 16 trucks means moving around a lot of stuff! There is one whole truck that is nothing but costumes. The two opera boxes that are on either side of the stage design – those ride in one whole truck themselves. They travel just as you see it on stage, as does the chandelier, so not everything breaks down into smaller parts. Our chandelier is one ton in weight. Our revolving stage wall is ten tons. We have mammoth pieces to move!
There are 65 people in the company: 30 of them are actors, 30 of them are crew and staff. We also travel with our own resident director to help maintain the show. When we get to a new city, we hire about 100 people to help us move the show into the venue. They are all locals. They are wardrobe people, as well as crew working on and back stage. Then about 30 will stay with us to help run the show every night. We really count on those local people. Same is true with our orchestra: we travel with five and we hire ten local musicians. As you can see, there is a lot of logistics and time dedicated to moving the physical production pieces as well the people.
As a stage manager, one of your primary responsibilities during the show is to call cues. What are one or two examples of cues that you call each show that stand out to you?
The first that comes to mind is right at the top of the show with the start of the overture and those big organ cords. That cue starts a whole series of cues – in this day and age, some of those are computerized, taking some of the pressure off of me! Calling that cue will give you goosebumps every night. The same is true at the end of Act I when the chandelier crashes. That is just fun to do! When you hear the audience scream when the lights go off, it is pretty great.
I first saw this show when I was 12 years old. I learned all of the words and music then. I have seen it more times than I can count, but the end of the show still gets me. I sometimes have to tune out what is happening on stage and just focus on my cues! If I am standing in the wing and get wrapped up in the story – sometimes that is too much to handle! The story will suck me in every time. I still get wrapped up in it, and that is not true for every show I have ever worked on.
Once the show is up and running in a new location, what is your average “day in the life” of a stage manager on this production?
I eat my way around every city that we are in, so I try to find the local specialties by asking all the local crew where they eat. It is my way of getting out and experiencing the city, so that is how I generally spend my afternoons, if there is not a rehearsal scheduled. The show just passed its 1000 performance so we are constantly replacing people, but also continue to keep up our understudies. We will have an understudies’ rehearsal every couple of weeks. Those sort of rehearsals will take up an afternoon or two each week.
We are in the theatre an hour and a half before the show every night. The crew comes in at that time to start the preset: they will rig the chandelier before every performance, do all their safety checks, reload the pyro, etc. That all takes about an hour before the show every night. It is a pretty carefully choreographed hour – it is full of activity from start to finish. At 7:30pm, the actors are due. Lots of them are due earlier though. For example, Chris, our Phantom, is in at least an hour before curtain as it takes about 45 minutes to get him into his makeup. The company does a full company vocal warm up together, which is not typical for every show I have ever done. The ballet dancers are downstairs stretching during this time. We travel with ballet bars so they can do their whole ballet warm up pre-show. That final half hour before the show is the most intense period.
Then at 8pm, we start the show. It takes about two and a half hours to run the entire piece. Even once we are done, there is about 15 to 20 minutes’ worth of post-show paperwork, safety checks and resets to complete. About 11pm, we are out the door, but we never go home and go right to bed! My wife always teases me, “don’t you ever go home and go right to bed?” I say “well, when you get out of work at 5pm, do you go straight home to bed?” We have that much more day to go! We are often night owls and late to rise the next day… which is why my day starts with lunch!
Out of all the shows you have been involved in over the years, what makes this production of Phantom of the Opera special to you?
People’s relationships with the show – it really is different and special and unique to this show. We have super “phans” – you will notice we spell fans with a “ph”! Certainly the other shows I worked on have their own fan bases as well, but this show gets a reaction that no other show does. I will see the same people in the front row all week sometimes, and I will see them outside the theatre before and after. That means a lot, especially to the performers, but also to all of us backstage too – we all certainly feel that love.
Phantom of the Opera runs June 15 – July 10, 2016 in the State Theatre at Playhouse Square. For more information, please visit the show’s page on the Playhouse Square website.
Alicia Hansen is the writer behind Poise in Parma, a healthy balance blog for Clevelanders. A graduate of Baldwin-Wallace College’s theatre program, Alicia is a local yoga teacher, event professional, marketer and proud Northeast Ohio arts supporter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.