It's a couple of hours to curtain and Rolt Smith, the production stage manager for The Nance, is showing me his call desk. This is the perch, stage left and out-of-view of the audience, from which he calls the show - issues the dozens and dozens of cues to keep lights and sets and stagehands whirring during a performance. "As you can see, there are five monitor screens here," Smith says. I tell him that he is essentially conducting a surveillance operation. "That's true," he comments, laughing. I am reminded that a healthy sense of humor is essential for a first-rate stage manager.
The monitor that most piques my interest is a black-and-white one with built-in infrared. "What's that for?" I ask. "So I can see things onstage during a blackout," Smith replies.
An alertness about dark places is especially important in The Nance not only for Smith and his associate, Andrea O. Saraffian, but for the show's actors. After the monitor moment, Smith - who has worked on 12 Broadway productions, including LCT's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown- shepherds me onto the stage and shows me a scrim. "Because of the scrims," Smith says, "we can't use flashlights to help the actors exit the playing area when necessary. The light would call attention to the scrim and what could be seen through it. So the actors had to learn to pay closer attention during their exits."
Further challenging the actors during those leave-takings: John Lee Beatty's Tony-winning turntable set. "It is disorienting for them at first," Smith said. "They make an exit and they are no longer standing in the set they entered from." Smith praises the performers' resourcefulness in navigating the nightly obstacles. "There have been no major mishaps," he observes. "Knock on wood."
We continue our tour and Smith - who grew up in Greenwich and worked for several years in a bank before re-igniting the theatrical vocation that had first flared in high school - is soon showing me the vintage apartment for the play's main couple, Chauncey (Nathan Lane) and Ned (Jonny Orsini). I mention that it could be the set for any number of realistic kitchen-sink dramas: A Streetcar Named Desire, Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer."Yes," Smith concurs. "When I look at this set through the black-and-white monitor I sometimes feel as if I am watching an old movie."
I ask Smith how a turntable set would have been operated at the time of the play's action: 1937. "I'm not an expert in theater history," he replies, "but the turntable then would probably have been on a crank. Stagehands would literally have been cranking it around, and taking cues on cue lights."
Whatever the advances in technology since then, some bells and whistles remain basic. At the call desk, for example, Smith had a slight issue at first with some of the cue-light switches. "The clicking can be distracting to performers during their more intimate scenes," he said. "I had to learn how to switch them more quietly." He adds: "During those scenes, I also sometimes have to whisper into my mike."
One night during the run, however, Smith relates that there was a man in the audience who didn't know the meaning of the word "whisper." "It was after the 'Niagara Falls' comic bit," he says, referring to the famous "Slowly I turned, inch by inch" routine. "Chauncey was schooling an inexperienced Ned in how to get laughs onstage. This audience member starting talking along with the bit, pretty loudly." The veteran Lane didn't miss a beat. "Nathan gave it right back to that guy, " Smith says, "incorporating him into the moment in true burlesque fashion."
Smith concludes: "I'm glad it was during a comic sketch that the guy spoke up. I can't imagine what would have happened if he'd interrupted Nathan during a quiet scene."
I can. That is, I can if some sly audience member had whipped out a cell phone.
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Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com