At first glance, the living-room wall of Roy Harris's apartment in Manhattan's midtown theater district may make you think of the walls of the nearby restaurant Joe Allen's: lots of framed show posters. During an at-home conversation this week with Harris, however, who is the production stage manager for Dividing the Estate, I studied his artwork and realized the wall wasn't like Joe's at all: the eatery features flops, whereas Harris's displays (mostly) hits.
More important, it offers posters from many of the 45 or so plays Harris has stage managed. There's Twelve Angry Men and Sylvia and Major Barbara. Most conspicuous, at least to my eye, were plays directed by Dan Sullivan. "I've worked with Dan on 20 shows," Harris said. "He's been my most consistent theater relationship."
Sullivan directed the play that Harris said "vaulted me into the big leagues." It was Wendy Wasserstein's 1988 piece The Heidi Chronicles, which was done off-Broadway, at Playwrights Horizons (100 performances), when LCT Artistic Director Andre Bishop was in charge there, and then on Broadway (632 performances). "I had read the play about a year before it was produced," Harris said, "and knew I had to be a part of it."
Harris didn't go to school for stage management. "I grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama -- that's why I can recognize the Southern truths in Dividing the Estate -- and attended the University of Alabama. I moved to New York in 1968 to be an actor and eventually realized that I wasn't very good at it."
For Harris, stage managing professionally began around 1982. "I realized that I was good working with people," he said. "I'm not put off by eccentricities or by difficult personalities. Not every stage manager has that ability." He added: "I tell my students at Columbia, where I teach a class each semester, that the most important thing in stage managing is the ability to work with complicated, creative people and find their quirks interesting rather than annoying. Sometimes, of course, you have to bite your tongue. If you can't do that, you're not going to last."
Of all the millions of tasks that go into producing a show and that the stage manager must somehow find time to track, Harris admitted that one of his favorites is organizing the costume fittings. "Most stage managers hate that," he confessed. "The fittings usually happen in the morning, and on a big show they can bump into rehearsal time. Not all directors are willing to let clothing take precedence over rehearsal."
Asked to shorthand his job, Harris replied, "A stage manager has his finger in every pie, but isn't responsible for the whole pie itself." The food metaphor is appropriate, since of the four books Harris has written two of them involve eating. (The other two are volumes of interviews with top actors with whom he has worked.) There's "Recipes and Reminiscence," in which theater pros like Sullivan and Wasserstein share culinary treats, and "More Recipes and Reminiscence" (Joan Allen, Cherry Jones, and many others) which follows a similar format. The books' proceeds benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, of which Harris is a board member.
Since my next blog posting will more fully involve the deep culinary acumen of Dividing the Estate's roster, I'll wrap up things for now, with Harris getting the tantalizing last word. "Annie Purcell" -- who understudies the characters of Pauline and Irene -- "makes an egg souffle that's one of the best things I've ever eaten."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com