Jamie Eckhold is the Production Stage Manager for Miss Keller Has No Second Book.
Nothing is the same. I walk backstage or into an empty theatre and my tummy tingles with delight. I breathe easier and fuller, my mood lifts, and I smile. I have what I call the “bug”, the theatre bug. I love the challenge, the community, the fantasy, the responsibility, the emotion. Theatre is home. I know that I’ll have my place there, play my part like I and every other member of the cast and crew trusts one another to play. We all work toward the common goal of moving an audience to feel or think by telling a story to a live audience and trust that our creativity will be appreciated and respected.
Unlike many of my theatrical peers, I live in one place full-time and choose not to pursue work out of town. After college and a Stage Management Apprenticeship in Chicago, I married the man I love and settled into a domestic adult life complete with mortgage payments, two kids, and a dog. Though an artist in his own right, my husband is not involved in the theatre and the idea of me traveling for weeks at a time to put on a show is something our family life cannot wholly support. So it’s not hard to imagine that among the professional stage management jobs around town I am lucky enough to snag, a world premiere play is a rare gem!
I was first introduced to Miss Keller Has No Second Book at the 2016 New Works Festival, which also happened to be my first job on the payroll at Gulfshore Playhouse. I knew this play was a keeper right off the bat. I’m no literary guru, but a play that makes you laugh, cry, and think about how art can change the individual and thereby the world (an ongoing theme here at the Playhouse), and at what cost, is the kind of play all thespians want the chance to be involved in. After a “loverly” time as an Assistant Stage Manager on My Fair Lady, I was thrilled when GP invited me back to stage manage Miss Keller. I had worked with Deb Hiett, our brilliant playwright, and met Amy Van Nostrand and Maureen Silliman during the festival, and couldn’t wait to be back in the rehearsal hall with them all again.
As the first days of rehearsal drew near, I found myself reflecting on what an SM needs to be prepared for when facilitating a new play. The last new work I had done was August: Osage County at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. I warmly remember Tracy Letts’ mischievous smile as he would stride over to the SM table with a stack of new pages he had reworked the night before, grinning apologetically as I dashed off to the copy machine in a panicked effort to be sure everyone in the room had the most recent edits before the day’s work began.
For Miss Keller, I came to realize it wasn’t so much about keeping on top of the changes, but more about supporting the network of trust between the players. Writers lay their souls on the page, actors bare themselves emotionally, directors and designers have visions in their minds of how everything will come to fruition, all of which are deeply personal. When beginning a rehearsal process there are often previous productions or adaptations that lay a foundation. In the case of a world premiere, this group of strangers must come together and make art out of thin air. We are all working to the same end, but will each have a different idea of the best way to get there. The end result is the best of each part coming together to create a whole. It sounds easy enough, but being free to create in an unfamiliar group setting requires an extreme amount of faith and openness. Fear of judgment and betrayal are stifling to the creative process.
It became my duty to ensure everyone in the room could feel comfortable in doing the uncomfortable, facilitating trust, and watching this play blossom. It’s amazing to me how a group of artists can merge into a cohesive unit for the sake of storytelling, and do it again and again with grace, learning how to communicate with one another, and trusting that each person will do their part.
This is why I am so drawn to stage management. Not only am I around talented creative people and get to say when the lights “GO”, but because it is truly a community effort. Every show I do a new family is born and finds a way to create something together that shares a message with others. It’s pretty magical. The pieces of the puzzle are ever-changing, but there is always a bigger picture.
In this particular case, my fulfillment is in having gained the company’s trust. Trust from the director, Emilie Beck, that her intentions will be maintained throughout the run when she returns to California. The actors trust they will have what they need when and where they need it in order to give over their best selves to the work onstage. Trust from the playwright that her words will be performed as written every night. Trust from the designers that the lighting, costumes, and sound will be the same closing night as they were upon opening. And trust from the Producing Artistic Director that each patron sees the show at its absolute best.
Now midway through the run of Miss Keller, I already feel it will all be over too soon. This remarkable group will scatter our separate ways to tell other stories on other stages. This is a reality we theatre folk accept, though sometimes it can be more bittersweet than others. Comfort comes from knowing we have shared this story, this moment, this trust, with as many theatergoers as we could. And I, for one, get to remember the magic we made together long after curtain call.
Jamie, you are an extraordinary professional, a joy to work with, and hella good at karaoke. I hope our paths cross again soon!