First Impressions

For anyone who has ever done Summer Stock Theatre, the terms “company manager” and “change over weekend” come accompanied by a wince and gratitude towards the crazy men and women who willingly elect to become the temporary parents for hundreds of actors/interns/staff/etc. and steer the ship through the chaos of 24 hour work calls. Or shudders of horror in recollecting those who were not up to the task.

If you haven’t done Summer Stock Theatre, take pride in your sanity. Imagine a small town in the middle of nowhere with just a theater as the major attraction, maybe there’s a lake or mountain if you’re lucky. You hire and drive/fly/train/bus 300-500 theatre professionals for three to five months, stick them in rental houses with roommates and shared rental cars and hope for the best. There are anywhere from 10 to 30 events that happen in this small time span, plus parties to celebrate all of them, all of which are under the watchful eyes of rich donors, patrons, and members of the board of directors for the theater.

Imagine everything that could possibly happen in those three months, never mind go wrong, and you have a rough estimate of Summer Stock and only an inkling of what it means to be a company manager for these crazy circuses.

Unsurprisingly to anyone, I spent two years on a company management team. The two women heading the team are the best company managers I have ever met, and even they had a fifth of whisky in their shared desk by July.

It was the end of July and in the span of 36 hours we had 56 people departing the theater for their real lives and 26 arriving for the final show of the summer. People had to be driven to airports, train stations, bus stations, with massive amount of luggage in tow. The open rooms had to be flipped (cleaned) to return rental houses to owners or prepare for their new tenants arriving. The tech crew was working in overnight shifts to take down one set and put in another, we had to coordinated 4 meals for them and keep caffeine and water flowing.

We made a plan. We practiced the plan. If we kept to the plan, it was all easy. We even had 6 hours each to sleep! We all had copies of the plan in our back pocket. We started at midnight on Saturday. By 8am Sunday, I was picking up a group headed to bus station when I heard a noise downstairs. The boiler in our biggest house looked as though it had been stabbed and there was a foot of boiling water in the basement.

And there goes the plan!

I am calling everyone on my team while tossing luggage into my car. I get the first group on their bus and turn around to take the second group to the train station. An actress felt bad about the mess she left behind and decided to run the dishwasher to help us. I arrive in time to watch mountains of suds ooze across the linoleum. I’m covered in suds and shoving laundry to catch the water when my boss arrives with our handy man in tow. I grab the actors leaving with me and drive the hour to the train with soap still in my hair while my boss tries to salvage the plan.

I have a lovely breath of silence on my ride back. I return with refills of supplies and to the team being mostly back on track. It’s only a few hours of work later when the company phone rings.

The AC unit in a lead actor’s apartment unit is missing. His contract requires one. We have one window unit left in storage. I am handed the unit and off again to the next town over where he’s staying.

He is a charming, older actor who has been working at this theatre company almost since its inception. He’s a favorite among the staff so I’ve heard plenty about him though this is our first time meeting. He offers to lend me a hand as I work to install the unit in his room, which I readily accept. We’ve got it settled in the windowsill when I reach up to close the window to secure it. And watch him let go of the unit. As our last AC unit tumbles out of the window towards the asphalt below, I am struck with the horror of how this is going to end. The unit will smash, I will have to interrupt the plan once more to track down the petty cash to buy a new one, assuming we can find any left in stores this late in the summer, and there will be an additional layer of chaos tossed into our already maddening stretch. I don’t remember making any decision or choosing to act, I just remembering thinking “No!” before diving out the window to catch the unit by the electrical cord.

The world stopped, stunned for a second at the sight of a tiny 22 year old girl dangling out of a second story window clinging to the cord of an AC unit suspended maybe a foot above the pavement below.

Not knowing how to break the stillness I uttered the obvious. “I caught it.” The laughter that roared out of my companion was enough to shake the house.

He went outside to the ground level to help pass it back up so I could haul it back into the window. We successfully secured the unit in the window, and made sure it worked before both of us collapsed again into laughter.

We made it through the rest of the changeover weekend. The end of the 36 hours stretch was created with whisky toasts and an immediate collapse into our beds.

The summer continued as normal. The story of the crazy intern and the AC Unit spread through the company. I was given a helmet in case I felt like diving through any more windows.

The summer ends and we all go back to our regular lives in cities across the country. We all stay in touch and laugh over our misadventures this summer. We see that our old favorite actor will be performing over the winter. Of course we have to go see him.

We meet him backstage and he is overjoyed to see us. He introduces my friend and I as the best company management team he has ever seen. He winks at me before continuing, “And I have a great story to prove it…”

First impressions die hard, but they often leave behind great stories.

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