Thursday, July 12, 2018
At about 6:15 p.m. during a Thursday evening in May, the crew of TheatreSquared's production of The Hound of the Baskervilles were bustling around Nadine Baum Studios at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, readying the space for the 7:30 p.m. show time. Props were checked , seats were de-linted, floors were swept -- and dozens of feet above the stage, the footfalls of Shannon Jones, the stage manager, were heard as she carefully made her way along the catwalk.
It was an unseasonably warm day, and T2's black box theater has an unpleasant circumstance of absorbing the strong pre-summer sun rays until the space is as warm as a nursery greenhouse. For Jones, it's a constant battle: It's her against the elements, a fight the stage manager is determined to win. She was busily checking all of the air conditioning vents in the space -- including those perilously close to the ceiling -- making sure nothing would stop the artificially cool air from making the audience, cast and crew as comfortable as possible.
"I dare you to beat me, HVAC!" she said, laughing and shaking her fist, when she was back on solid ground. And then she was gone, moving off to her next pre-show duty. Jones is petite and fast and moves like a hummingbird, seemingly everywhere at once, with a perma-smile that rarely leaves her face. In the kitchen of the theater's small green room, as an actor jokingly said, "I'd better grab a fruit snack before Patrick eats them all," Jones was suddenly at his elbow, handing him a fresh box of the treats.
"It's a lot, when I try to explain it to people," said Jones of her job. "There are so many different categories I fall under. Sometimes I'm a mother, sometimes I'm like a personal assistant, sometimes I'm an ambassador for the company I'm working with, sometimes I'm a confidant when people need someone they can trust -- I have my foot in a little bit of everything."
"It's the most important job in theater," said Rob Sutton, a New York-based actor with Broadway credits on his resume. He returns to his native Arkansas occasionally to perform with TheatreSquared, having last been seen in 2017's Fun Home. "Aside from just maintaining the integrity of the show, it requires a very special human being with skills that cross all kinds of areas."
But few outside the theater world understand how critical the role of stage manager actually is, even though the position is often described as the glue that holds a production together. Although Jones is responsible for all of the technical aspects that happen during the course of a show -- from lights up to the final bow -- she'll remain virtually invisible to the audience, perched behind glass in the dark booth, watching with a laser focus as the show unfolds underneath her.
Her responsibilities start far ahead of opening night, of course -- she's in on conversations about the theater's season schedule, and once the season is set, she participates in the earliest of meetings, when a show is just starting to take shape and designers and directors are generating their ideas and concepts.
Jones stage manages every show at T2: Designers and directors might be coming from out of state and might be unfamiliar with the quirks of the theater's space, so Jones' institutional knowledge is invaluable. She knows about the sound capacities of the space, where the sight lines might be weak and what the theater sounds like when a thunderstorm passes through.
Once the actors come on board, Jones adds personnel manager to her list of duties. While she manages the cast and handles the long list of responsibilities that role includes, it's also her job to make sure the rules of the industry's union, Actor's Equity Association, are followed.
And after a production opens, it's Jones who is running the show.
"If a stage manager isn't in tune to the integrity of what a director has set, what the actors has discovered and have pledged to maintain, then, over time, the show starts to fall apart," Sutton said. "Then weeks, months down the line, the audience is going to see a different show than the director intended."
"It's the work you don't know needs to be done," said Jones with a smile, "but it does need to be done."
"You have to be authoritative, friendly, playful yet professional, able to communicate with every member of the creative team, but also to field problems, questions, concerns from the actors," Sutton noted. "She's the boss. And I think she has all of those qualities. I think she's delightful and special and can crack the whip without making you scared to come to her when there's a problem."
It was a theater teacher in high school who recognized the unique qualities in Jones that would make her a crackerjack stage manager. Jones was a bookish student in her native Florida who intended to seek a career as an anesthesiologist -- but that was before she discovered a love of theater. She participated in dance and choral activities through middle school, and when a friend suggested she try theater in high school, she gamely jumped in by auditioning for a production of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew.
"It was great," she remembered. "I was, you know, 'Chorus Member X', and there were a thousand people in the cast. But it was so fun in the way that doing theater when you're in high school can be because you're all just in it. As the years progressed, I thought, 'Man, I really like this.'"
Jones joined the International Thespian Society, which required her to get a little bit of experience in a variety of backstage roles. She found herself working props, costumes, on tech teams, in the front of house -- a taste of anything and everything. When she was a high school junior, her theater class toured elementary schools with a Schoolhouse Rock production, and Jones found herself naturally falling into the role of tour manager.
"I didn't even realize I was doing it -- I started gravitating toward making sure everything was organized," she said. "And my drama teacher said, 'I think you would make a good stage manager.' I said, 'I don't really know what they do.' Even after being in the theater world for a few years at that point -- no one ever knows what stage managers do. She said, 'You have a knack for keeping things moving and keeping things running smoothly.' So she hooked me up with one of the community theaters and that got me into more backstage work.
"And it was so great. It was one of those unexpected things -- I didn't know that I was missing it, and I didn't know that it was going to fill this part of me."
Announcing to her parents that Jones was going to seek a career in theater when she had originally intended to go into the medical field wasn't easy. Although her parents might not have fully understood the change in plans, they supported her. It's not that common for universities to offer stage management as a major, but, in a flash of kismet, the University of Central Florida in Orlando -- just two hours away from Jones' home -- offered a bachelor of fine arts degree in the field. Jones finished her degree in record time.
Although finding employment in the arts is notoriously difficult, Jones said periods of unemployment have been few and far between for her. The world of theater is small, and when someone is as talented at their job as she is, word gets around. That is, after all, how Jones came to work for TheatreSquared.
"We needed an assistant stage manager, and I called up the best stage manager I had ever worked with, Jen Nelson Lane, and said, 'I'm looking for another Jen Lane,'" said Robert Ford, T2 artistic director. "She replied instantly, 'That would be Shannon Jones. I'm sending her resume.' Then, on a Skype call with Shannon, I think we knew within a minute that we wanted to hire her: so personable, smart and passionate about theater. There was no question. It didn't hurt that she was in the middle of stage-managing the play we were hiring her for, One Man, Two Guv'nors."
"[Bob] reached out to me and said, 'I just wanted to talk to you a little bit about TheatreSquared.' And I said, 'Sure, why not?'" Jones remembered. "And Bob Ford sold me on Arkansas. He's a great salesman. And it had what I needed at that moment -- the community, the opportunities for growth, for learning and stability, which is what I really wanted at that time in my life."
That was in 2014, when Jones first came on board as an assistant stage manager. She was later promoted to stage manager in 2017. She moved to Fayetteville with her boyfriend, Brodie Jasch -- also a theater professional, he would go on to become T2's properties manager -- and she said the affinity for the city, the theater and the work came almost instantaneously.
"I've got a really awesome job that I love," she said. "I work with people who are supporting me, they're building me up. And you're all working toward a common goal, which is a really, really great thing about theater. It's so collaborative. It's such a supportive field, and there is no room for egos."
"Shannon brings a rare combination of smart leadership, dextrous organization, top-notch communications and a sheer sense of joy in the process -- even and especially in the most challenging moments," said Martin Miller, T2 executive director. "She's defused many could-be crises and is unquestionably in charge after the show opens, but she runs things without any sense of ego."
That lack of ego is immediately evident upon first talking to her, when she shyly mentioned that she's not sure why people would be interested in reading about her. Directors have suggested in the past that the actors recognize her role by signaling to the booth during a curtain call, and Jones has always demurred. When she switched roles from onstage performer to backstage crew member, she never missed the glory of audience appreciation.
"I told the cast, 'Seeing your recognition from the audience lets me know that I did a good job, ' and that's all the recognition I need," she said. "It's great to know that something has been achieved because you had a hand in it, and you could help lift it up in some unknown way. I think, 'I had a part in this.' And that -- that is very rewarding."
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