When you ask Rick Steiger, the highly resourceful production stage manager for War Horse, to name the biggest challenge of his job, he answers: "The rotation." It's not surprising that the only other context in which most of us hear those words has to do with baseball, specifically the organization of pitchers. But I'd like to see Joe Girardi or Terry Francona or any other big-league manager cope with the personnel-scheduling demands - the rotation -- facing Steiger and his stage-management team.
The other day, during a conversation held in the Beaumont before an evening performance, Steiger elaborated. "Usually, in a show this size, 35 performers, you might have 10 to 15 principals and 10 to 15 ensemble members. If an ensemble member is out, you can usually move other ensemble members or swing persons to that position without much problem." He went on: "But inWar Horse everybody is both a member of the ensemble as well as a principal. Two people cover each part, but they're often covering parts that they normally play opposite. Figuring it all out on a night when we have to make a change is like trying to solve a giant Sudoko puzzle."
I suggest to Steiger, who grew up in St. Louis and attended St. Louis University, that some tech wizard should come up with Rotation software that he could use. "We have grids and charts," he replied. "But they don't necessarily account for all the variables."
For example? "Recently on a matinee day," he explained, "there was a problem with some of the subway lines. We had five actors who were stuck on trains trying to get to the theater. They weren't all on the same train. We had to come up with multiple scenarios depending on who didn't make it in time for the performance. Magically, everybody got here by half-hour." (All actors are required to be at the theater and be signed in thirty minutes before show-time: hence "half-hour.")
I mention to Steiger, whose resume includes several major productions directed by George C. Wolfe, that those actors stuck in trains must have been dying a thousand deaths, because the War Horse cast is not full of people known for dogging it. "That true," he said. "What's interesting about this show is that nobody wants to be out. If they are, they know that somebody will have to work harder because of that. They all want to be here." He added: "There is true camaraderie - in no small part because every night the cast has to go to war together."
The qualities present in the War Horse actors are qualities that Steiger, whose pivotal role keeping War Horse operational day to day of course includes much more than rotation, looks for in his stage-management team. "The kind of person I look for is someone with a strong work ethic." He continued: "I've been in New York for twenty years" - he came for a two-month trial period and almost immediately ended up on the Scott McPherson play Marvin's Room, at Playwrights Horizons - "and it seems as if it's gotten harder to find people with a strong work ethic. I don't know why. But they do still exist. That's a good thing, because you can't have successful collaboration - and that's what theater is at heart: collaboration - without people willing to work hard."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.