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Meet the Team: ATC Production Manager Jen Smith

Meet the Team: ATC Production Manager Jen Smith

Republished with permission from Big Image Theatre Network (BITN).

It’s a back-of-house, production staff position, but it’s also a creative one. It’s a job that balances artistic vision with dollars and cents, realistic expectations with creative impulses, endless attention to the million details that make up a successful company. Sounds pretty straight-forward, right? But spend some time with Arizona Theatre Company’s Production Manager Jen Smith, you realize quickly that sentence leaves a lot out. It’s a back-of-house, production staff position, but it’s also a creative one. It’s a job that balances artistic vision with dollars and cents, realistic expectations with creative impulses, endless attention to the million details that make up a successful company. Jen sat down with B.I.T.N. on the set of their stellar production of Man of La Mancha, and provided deep insight into the role of Production Manager for ATC; the hub of the production wheel…

The first thing I wanted to know was how that definition stands up to the realities of someone living it? “You are representing the company, what it can and can’t do or how we make something work with the resources,” Jen began.  “I think about manpower, having the skill set in the shops. I need to have a very clear reality of what can be produced, either by ourselves or by bringing in outside resources to accomplish something. For me as Production Manager it’s about figuring things out with the department heads. Directors, they bring their own ways of working.”

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“Time Management also has a lot to do with it. Because the show is going to open on that date regardless. We discuss this as a whole company. There may be other places you can finagle things, but with production, there is going to be an opening night, you can’t put it off.”

jen article photo 4As Production Manager, Jen has one eye on each department, one eye on the budget and one on the clock. I was curious as to how she handled it. Was she saying to them, “This is your budget”, or are you asking, “What do you need?” Who determines that? “It’s me in combination with our Managing Director and our Artistic Director,” Jen explained. “One of the best things I can be in my position is flexible. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel, you need to have a solid foundation, so off of that I try to remain as flexible as I can. I don’t want to be the “No” person, but I can’t realistically be the “Yes” person either.”

It’s a crucial role.  So when does it begin? There’s a certain order to which things happen in a company the size of ATC, a certain process of choosing the season, bringing in the talent, herding the cats. I was curious to know when the P.M. gets into that program? “The P.M. gets involved in the process immediately,” Jen answered. “In fact, right now I’m in meetings for next year’s season. We’re discussing possibilities, what those titles will mean for us, can we produce them on the right scale? How does this show line up with the next? Is there enough time to do two shows of this scale? There are so many conversations to be had before directors are even on board, before my team is on board.”

This was interesting, I was learning something. I would have imagined that the P.M. would be inserted after the artistic team was assembled, at the very least they would come in just behind the director, who would be bringing the vision, after the Artistic Director had picked the season, then they would come to her and say, “We want to do this.”

“And I have had that experience!” she said, laughing. “It happens that way sometimes. That may not be the collaborative environment to work in, know what I mean? And I shouldn’t say that directors aren’t on board yet because there are times we have directors in mind, so part of the conversation is that you know what the director is going to bring to a project, and do we have the resources to work with that individual artist? There are people who come with their reputations, their aesthetic, you know what they’re bringing to the table up front and how do we accommodate? Part of that conversation is ‘How do we support this as a company?’”

I wanted to get a little more info about Jen, her history. How did she first get started in the business? What was the journey she took that eventually led to the role of Production Manager? “Well if I go back in time I started with an internship I took totally by chance and I wound up at Playwrights Horizons in New York City when I was a teenager […] playwrights_logo-square-3That was the hook that got me into theatre and also interested in the Stage Manager role. After that I went to the Theatre School at DePaul University and studied stage management, which was at the time ‘Slash’ Production Management. At that time the two roles were not as clearly defined as today.”

Evidentially mind-reading is another attribute of the Production Manager. I was going to ask her about the difference between the two positions. “I think Stage Management is one of my right arms,” she says, “Not “The” right arm, but one of them.”

From 10,000 feet up, looking down at the process, you can see the pattern working. The stage manager is the fly on the rehearsal room wall, communicating to Jen and the rest of the departments on the outside to make sure everyone’s still on the same page.

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“I was really into stage management, it kept my interest for many years. Then after graduation I found myself in the role of Stage Manager with smaller companies that didn’t have a Production Manager position, just simply by being the Stage Manager – you did everything. So that just grew for me and I realized that Production Manager was a real position. For me it was a natural progression into a larger picture.”

One thing I have learned from B.I.T.N. is that there’s a ton of original work going on in theatres across the country, more than I ever thought. From the point of view of a Production Manager, the one herding the cats so to speak; controlling budgets, coordinating crews, I wondered if it was more challenging to do original productions or something brand new? Was there potentially more freedom in mounting something no one’s ever seen?

Jen considered this a moment before continuing, “I don’t know if I’d call it ‘Freedom.’ Both originals and standards bring challenges to a degree. Especially in my position. I try to stay ahead, to schedule resources. When you’re dealing with a classic, people have those expectations; you yourself can have those expectations. Like Miss Saigon, there’s the helicopter, that kind of thing allows you to start research early off the bat.”

“With a newer work it’s interesting because you think, ‘What will this new work represent? How much experimentation, research and development is taking place in the WebGallery-MOLM_9393rehearsal room?’ I’ve had a lot of experience with new works, not here at ATC but other places in my career. Part of those conversations is always, ‘How can we respond in time? What can we allow in terms of time? How much can we allow in the rehearsal room in terms of experimentation before we move along?’

“Then from a practical matter, from a shop perspective it’s, ‘What does this new work represent?’ Is it going to be, ‘Hey we just need a spaceship in one day!’ It’s one of the reasons I like it here at ATC, and the others. There’s always been a mix, so everything is something new.”

And that’s Production Management in a nutshell, really. Jen is there to take the artistic process, break it down into manageable, defined pieces, then turn those pieces over to the shops and manage the resources to make it come to life.  She’s the “Business” of show business …

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Aside from its mainstage season, ATC also offers to the community education programs and internship opportunities. From the five-week-long “Summer On Stage” program, which immerses young performers in a five-week intensive workshop that includes both performance and technical training culminating in two mainstage productions, to programs designed to engage students through the works of Shakespeare, to original works inspired by fine art and personal experience. ATC also offers the “Veterans Playwriting Program,” giving active and retired military personnel the tell their stories and explore their beliefs.

With all of her spare time, I asked Jen how involved she was with those? “A bit. The education programs are a very important part of what ATC is, and as an employee of the company there is always a certain amount of collaboration. One of the big areas we support is our ‘Summer On Stage’ program. My Associate Production Manager, Chris Gerling, really runs that; it’s a program that is really important to him.” 

When I was younger I went to college primarily as an acting major. And sometimes acting majors (myself included) would have an attitude of “Well, if I’m not on the cast list then I am going to be assigned a crew job,” and not in a good way. There was a stigma of sorts attached to it, as if  crew was a consolation prize or worse. So it’s good to see that ATC was offering production opportunities in the education programs. 

“We do teach those skills,” Jen emphasized. “Chris makes certain of that. Part of the ‘Summer On Stage’ Program is working both the stage and the shop. One of my favorite examples of this is Carley Preston. She’s a local actress but also works in our development program. She was in our summer program. Sometimes they stick around, sometimes they don’t, but it helps them to figure out what they want to do or don’t want to do.” 

jen article photo 2“Something I like to do as Production Manager when it comes to hiring, even the person who sweeps the floor, or puts the props in their place, is to stress that they are important. So someone wo might say, ‘All I do is press  “Go” for lights.’ I correct them, ‘You don’t just press “Go” in a vacuum; you are an important staff member. What you do takes a skill.’”

I commented to Jen that it’s become apparent as we travel talking to production professionals, that one of the central themes is “Learn as much as you can, about as much as you can.”

“True. One of the things I did early on was to try and get as much experience in all areas as I possibly could so that, later on as a manager, I could be fully supportive because I learned what it takes to ventilate a wig, make a corset, or hang a plot of your entire lighting inventory. I still have these conversations in terms of budgeting where someone will say, ‘Well, can’t you just switch people out mid-tech so we don’t go into overtime? Can’t we just bring a new group in mid-stream?’ And I need to explain that what people are doing is not necessarily transferrable, and so no, I can’t just swap out crews in the middle of a run, or the middle of a tech, they have the particular skillset and the experience of the life of the production. Sometimes people just don’t understand how we work, or what the etiquette is to work in theatre.”

Jen Smith, if you haven’t already picked up on it, is as professional as they come.  So my last question was designed to take a deep breath, and reflect. 

What are the moments that make you love your job?

“I would say that one of the things I really love is when we’re sitting down with the designers, the costumers, the scene shop, when we’re sitting down as a group,” Jen reflected. “Sometimes there are all of these challenges, and we are all sitting down as a group – all departments – and we’re saying, ‘How do we do this? Who’s building what? Who’s testing this?’ I love the collaborative feel, the moments of having a particular production challenge on your hands and I see all of us coming together at the table, really working well and sharing ideas and getting to the bottom of something, that when I really feel great about what it is we do.

“The other moment I like is the first day of tech. When I can come in and there’s nobody saying ‘Hey, why is that wall where I need to hang my speaker?’ or ‘Hey, we have a quick change off stage right and there’s no room for the changing booth.’ When I can come in and these conversations don’t take place then I can wipe my brow and think to myself okay, everyone worked well together on this one, we’re ready to go.”

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