As Stage Manager for the Primary Stages production of Daniel’s Husband, Michael Palmer takes on a variety of roles throughout each step of putting a show on stage. In this candid interview, Michael talks about what his job entails, his favorite theater memory, and the one factor that makes his job worth it, every single time.
The Primary Stages production of Daniel’s Husband. Photo by James Leynse.
What made you want to become a stage manager?
I fell into it. I started out as an actor, dancer, chorus boy, and a musician. I played and piano and violin, and I was a music major in school. And my roommate was a stage manager. Years ago on a tour, they needed an ASM (assistant stage manager). So I said, ‘I’ll do it’. And so throughout the years I would, if someone said, “Hey we need a stage manager, will you do it?” I would do it. And then I was casting a production of the Scottish play, and the stage manager left before we even started so I said “I’ll do his work until you find someone else.” And then the director was fired, and a new director came in and they still hadn’t found a stage manager so I was basically stage-managing it. The show never ended up going up and the producer pulled out eventually. But then I got another stage managing gig and another stage-managing gig. And then I just became a stage manager. I’ve been stage-managing now for about ten years full time.
Not everyone knows what a stage manager does. Could you explain your job?
It’s a hard job to describe, but how I look at it is that everyone is involved in the show, I put it in a big circle: producers, directors, actors, and designers. I kind of stand in the middle and just make sure everything is working, everyone is communicating, and everyone has what they need. It’s sort of like an office manager because, especially in the beginning, you’re doing all the scheduling, and paperwork and things that are happening: everyone has scripts, making sure scripts are updated. When you get into the rehearsal process, you’re making sure everything is written down: what props are needed, where they’re going, where the actors are moving, staying on lines to make sure they’re learning their lines correctly, and you’re working as a right hand with the director. When the show starts running, you do what’s called, “calling the show”. You’re on the headsets calling for the lights, and the sound, and the crew, and so you’re running the show.
Do you have a favorite theater memory?
There’s just so many. I grew up here in New York so I was always seeing shows: Broadway shows, off, off-off. Well one thing I remember from when I was a kid, I saw a production with Bernadette Peters before she was “Bernadette Peters,” you know? When she was just starting out- it was called Curley McDimple, she must have been about 18. Me and my family, we followed her career because she was the girl we saw. In college, I saw a production with Estelle Parsons and she just blew me away, it was just an amazing thing to see. I stage-managed a show that she directed, so I got to work with her for a little short while. On the second day, she called me, and I was like ‘every time you say my name I shake’.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I think the most rewarding part of the job is the show. Everything about it, I can’t find just one thing that is rewarding, it’s the whole thing. The show, getting our show up and people applauding at the end, you know? Liking the work that we’ve all done, collaborative efforts of everyone.
The most challenging?
The scheduling (laughs). The hardest part is just trying to…doing everything that everyone needs, you’re making their lives easier. I mean not only their life on the outside, but you know people having bad days, or things going on, they need this, they need that, sometimes there may be friction. So, I think that’s the most challenging part is to make sure that you’re getting it all done the way people need it, and without stepping on toes or hurting someone. Just do it all with a smile and you’ll get it done.
What is your favorite play? Why?
It’s usually what I’m working on at the time. I mean I do have to say Daniel’s Husband is one of my favorites, it really is. I love everything about this: this experience, the people I’m working with, the actors, the crew, the play itself, the writer. I’ve worked with this director a lot, I love working with him. I love A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I don’t know if I would call that my favorite. I don’t think I have a favorite. I don’t have a favorite color either.
Primary Stages is in the midst of a season-long initiative about “home.” What does that word mean to you?
Well it conjures up different things in different contexts. But in this context, home is right here. I feel really at home sitting here, or up there, in my booth with my headset on, I’m at home. Coming into this whole process, going to rehearsals. Most people have to have other jobs: waiting tables, working in offices, none of that is home. This is home.
The Primary Stages production of Daniel’s Husband runs until April 28, 2017 at the Cherry Lane Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit our website.