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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, April 23, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

Melissa Wanke makes the trains run on time in Milwaukee's world of theater.

Behind the curtain: Stage manager Melissa Wanke


There are a lot of people who make theater in Milwaukee who you never see on a stage. They make music and make sure the costumes are right. They design sets and make sure you see them in the right light. They make sure the audience hears what they are supposed to hear and they put all of this together into one complete package. In this series we introduce you to some of these people who work so hard, often without much public acclaim, to bring great theater to Milwaukee audiences.

It used to be said that the reason the late Richard Daley was such a great mayor in Chicago was because "he made the trains run on time."

What people meant, of course, is that he was in control and made sure, on a daily basis, that his city ran smoothly with little or no interruption.

Well, the world of theater has someone who makes the trains run on time, too.

Say hello to Melissa Wanke, stage manager.

The easiest way, although not totally accurate, to describe what Melissa does as a stage manager is to say, "everything."

When a door opens, she tells it when. She tells the actors when to enter. When the lights change, she tells the light guy. When the sound of a train rumbles through, she tells the sound guy to make the train go. When snow falls or rain batters the windows, she cues Mother Nature.

When the sword fight is about to take place, she makes sure the actors have their swords. And she brings the fighters to the stage well before the play so they can practice with the fight choreographer. When the orchestra is supposed to play and a singer supposed to sing, she tells them when to go. She makes sure the curtain goes up when it should and comes down when it should.

When the leading lady is in her dressing room Wanke tells her when she's due on stage in two minutes. She tells the actors when they have to be at rehearsal and when they have off. When the dancers are coming out she makes sure they are entering in order.

When it looks like rain at an outdoor theater she arranges for plastic chairs to be brought in. She gets them herself and unloads them from the truck. She takes notes during the performance and after the show she tells the actors about places that they may have said the wrong thing or gone the wrong way. She also pats them on the back. She makes sure child actors are not too nervous and she makes them smile.

It has been said, and there is a lot of truth to it, that a stage manager is the single most important element in a production. With a good one, odds are it will be a good play. If you have a lousy one, it's a struggle from the first day of rehearsal to the curtain on the final night.

"When I was in college took a make up course and my professor said, after awhile, 'You're going to be a stage manager,'" Wanke said. "I didn't even know what that was."

She knows now. A stage manager calls a show. What that means is she takes her cues from what's happening on stage to get the next thing going. And working at First Stage, as she does, presents some challenges.

"For example, our shows are double cast," Wanke said, "With adult actors they are always going to deliver the same line the same way. With two young actors playing a part they may not. In our current show, there is a line that I take a cue from. One of them delivers the line much faster than the other. So I have to allow for that."

She starts her work with the very first rehearsal.

"I always think it's important at the first rehearsal that it is relaxed," she said. "I want to make it comfortable so the actors can grow. I always tell them: 'We're doing a play. There shouldn't be anything too stressful about it.' We're telling a story and it's easier to tell that story when outside distractions don't intrude."

Wanke has earned a great reputation in Milwaukee.

Ron Scott Fry is the artistic director of Optimist Theatre which stages an annual Shakespeare play outside.

"In rehearsal, Melissa is the order that makes chaos functional," Fry sid. "She creates an environment in which a director and actors feel free to do their best creative work. In performances, everyone involved knows that the captain of the ship has a strong and steady hand. She's masterful at managing the unexpected, and even better at keeping the unexpected from happening. Milwaukee's play-makers and audiences are blessed to have her."

The question is whether her hyper-organization spills over to her personal life from her professional life.

"I am (hyper-organized)," she said. "Especially with paperwork and stuff like that. I admit my bedroom gets a little messy but my house is pretty well-organized."

All of those skills help make her a very important element of any theatrical production.

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