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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Ford's Focus: Melanie St-Jacques

The Graceful Art of Stage Management
I was fascinated watching the SM (Stage Manager) check in with the various departments- costumes, lighting, set design. I love to meet people and listen to their stories...
by Barbara Ford
Melanie St-Jacques may not have known early on in her life that her strengths lay in stage management, but she is most assuredly a natural fit. She discovered a love of theatre at the dawn of her adolescence, seeing the ‘Big Three’ (Cats, Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera) with her mom. Further exposure through Villa Maria Secondary School field trips to New York and Stratford (A Streetcar Named Desire with Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange tops the list) had equal impact but upon graduation, theatre as a career option wasn’t even a remote consideration. “That was just something I loved and did for fun,” Said St-Jacques, having played roles like Alice [in Wonderland] in school productions.

Schwartz's: The Musical, Centaur
St-Jacques remembers feeling quite stressed after high school, daunted by the idea of having to choose her career path even though she felt much too young to make such a serious decision. “I was good at math so I thought it was best to choose something that utilized my strengths,” so she went into Commerce at Dawson, which lasted a year before the boredom got the best of her. She then switched to nursing, taking after her mother’s chosen profession. As a young girl, she spent a lot of time on the hospital wards during her mom’s shifts and rather than being spooked by the sights and smells, she loved the orderliness, the myriad systems that maintained the huge machine.

Yours Forever Marie-Lou, Centaur
(photo: Yanick Macdonald)
St-Jacques completed half of Dawson’s three-year nursing program, doing well in her studies and relishing the on-site work with hospital patients. Still in her ‘party girl’ phase, she and her sister headed out to Banff one summer, on the advice of friends who recommended it as a guaranteed fun vacation. School was put on hold as summer turned into fall and she ended up staying for a year, living first at the YMCA hostel and then moving into an apartment with six other people, working at odd jobs (like the KFC on Caribou Street) to pay the rent. 

Her Rocky Mountain vacation confirmed her gut feeling that she was still too young to settle into a career but she conceded that she needed her DEC. When she returned to Montreal she registered for the Social Science DEC and after piecing together what she could from her previous studies, found that only one more semester would fulfill all the credits she needed to graduate. One of the courses she signed up for was a class with Dawson theatre professor, Winston Sutton. Not only did she love the class but she saw that theatre could be a career choice. She discovered the craft’s history and realized there were techniques to it, skills that could be taught and learned. The activity, the spirit of the other students was new and alluring. “I thought about working in an office or a hospital and compared it to how I felt working here. I remember thinking ‘I want to work with these people.’” 

Have a Heart, Centaur (Photo: Yanick Macdonald)
Sutton advised her to audition as an actor for the Professional Theatre Program, which she did and was accepted. In her first year, St-Jacques recalled feeling nervous, but she also admitted, “It felt good … right, and satisfied my need to move.” St-Jacques had studied ballet from the age of three with Cheryl Walton in Town of Mount Royal, and shared fond memories of leaving all her worries behind, enthralled, as she danced to Miss Rita’s piano accompaniment twice a week until she was seventeen. “Now I really regret stopping my ballet classes but at that age, I felt it was getting in the way.” To this day, St-Jacques incorporates movement into her life with NIA classes (a blend of dance, martial arts and Yoga) and Yoga, which she’s been doing for years.

St-Jacques’ world really started to rock in second year, when she and her fellow classmates had to work every aspect of the third year productions. As the ASM (Assistant Stage Manager) for one production, “I got to see how it all comes together, the organization aspect- the managerial side. I seem to gravitate towards that. [She was head of the badminton team in high school.] I was fascinated watching the SM (Stage Manager) check in with the various departments- costumes, lighting, set design. I love to meet people and listen to their stories, so I was fascinated with all of these different people in their departments, giving updates on their progress, contributing to the end result. I really began to appreciate the mechanics of how a play is built.”

(Photo: Yanick MacDonald)
In 1999, St-Jacques graduated the Dawson Dome program as an actor. A warm and easy-going person, St-Jacques had made friends with students from all years during her time there and banded together with nine others to form a small company called Untimely Ripped while still in school. The group stayed together for roughly four years between 1998 and 2002 and, as is the norm with small companies, every member wore multiple hats with St-Jacques acting as well as stage managing. They did their best to put up one show a year, including Look Back in Anger (Atwater

As the SM for this production, St-Jacques blushingly confided how silly she felt asking Centaur Technical Director (Mark Baehr at the time) to do something during the cue-to-cue that she now knows made no sense and having to endure the embarrassment of Mark’s reply: “Oh Mel … you have so much to learn!” 

Untimely Ripped started to disperse, with members moving to New York, Toronto and elsewhere. While stage managing Leaf in the Mailbox, St-Jacques befriended Layne Shutt, Centaur’s Front of House Manager, and subsequently took a job as an usher. You may remember her tearing your ticket before you proceeded upstairs. Graham Frampton, Centaur’s Production Manager, became aware of her capabilities and asked St-Jacques if she was interested in the Apprentice ASM job for an upcoming Centaur production. A resounding yes was the answer and St-Jacques worked her first regional theatre show: Trick or Treat.

Schwartz's: The Musical, Centaur
With that first great encounter under her belt, St-Jacques decided to go for it and become an Equity-accredited SM, which meant she needed to work as an apprentice on five more productions. She hit pay dirt, landing back-to-back apprenticeships with two of the best stage mangers at the time, Chris Hidalgo and Wendy Rockburn, on two more shows at Centaur: Art, directed by Greg Kramer and Dinner with Friends, directed by Rosemary Dunsmore. That same year, in the summer of 2002, Douglas Campbell and Moira Wylie were running The Piggery Theatre in North Hatley, and St-Jacques picked up her remaining three shows working under Douglas and Moira’s daughter, Beatrice Campbell (now a Shaw SM), on Tango, The Fantastiks, and Twelfth Night. 

“I learned a lot in that year … what a learning curve! I love the combination of skills you need to use as a stage manager: patience, tact, diplomacy … and grace. You need a lot of grace. Being at the hub of everything is so exciting … staying on top of so many people working in different areas, in addition to taking detailed notes for the prompt book during rehearsal. Rather than seeing only a small piece of a production, like I might have as an actor, I was seeing the whole picture but minus the pressure of performing, which is different from the pressure of doing your job.”

Carpenter Trilogy, Centaur
(Photo: Yanick Macdonald)
Even though she was now recognized by Equity as someone equipped to wear the Stage Manager mantle, St-Jacques cleverly chose to further solidify her skills by taking ASM positions before jumping in with both feet. After five shows between 2003 and ’04, working the Centaur, Segal Centre, Manitoba Theatre Centre and Lighthouse Festival stages, she felt ready to fly solo. The conditions were perfect: Dean Fleming directing Here on the Flight Path, a Norm Foster two-hander with Chip Chuipka and Danielle Desormeaux at the Hudson Village Theatre in the summer of 2004. A small theatre, no ASM (St-Jacques had to do it all), only two actors, albeit fantastic, outside the city … you couldn’t ask for a more ideal situation that enabled St-Jacques to walk away from it with confidence saying, “I can do this.” 

Her first regional house production was the 2005 Centaur world premiere of David Fennario’s Condoville, the sequel to his renowned Balconville, incidentally one of St-Jacques’ favourite plays that she’d read at Dawson. Since Condoville, St-Jacques’ name has appeared in many Segal Centre and Centaur playbills as well as Neptune Theatre (Halifax), Theatre Lac Brome, Repercussion Theatre, Clowns Gone Bad, Concordia student theatre productions, the Citadel Theatre (Edmonton) and the Manitoba Theatre for Young people (Winnipeg). Having worked with Dean Fleming out in Hudson, once he became the Artistic Director of Geordie Theatre in 2006, he brought her on board to stage manage Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. They have collaborated on several Geordie productions since then including the recent smash, Beethoven Lives Upstairs, and will hook up next fall for the remount of The Little Prince. 

The Little Prince (Geordie)
Early on in her career, Peter Hinton, Artistic Director of English Theatre at Canada’s National Arts Centre, made a huge impression on St-Jacques when she worked with him for the Segal Centre’s 2005 adaptated version of Ibsen’s A Doll House. “The relationship between a director and stage manager is like a marriage. Open communication is vital and Peter truly opened up the room, not just to the SM [St-Jacques was the ASM on this production] but to everyone. Everyone’s opinions and positions were respected; we all had a voice. It was such an open and loving experience- I was riveted. He empowered you; he made you discover what you loved about your job and brought out the artistry in everyone. Each of us felt that we were in it together. I love being treated as an artist and that was the first time I remember having that feeling.”

The Works, Scapegoat Carnivale
When St-Jacques was the ASM for Centaur’s Copenhagen in 2003, she met Alison Darcy. Maurice Podbrey, Darcy’s father and founder of the Centaur, was directing with Darcy’s assistance and the two women became fast friends. Darcy was in the early stages of putting together a company (it must run in the family) which used the Roy Street Collective to present their first play, The Scavenger’s Daughter, written by Joseph Shragge, also a co-founding member of the, as yet, un-named company. 

In 2006, Darcy approached St-Jacques to ask if she would like to become a member of the new company and St-Jacques agreed. They became known as Scapegoat Carnivale and have since gained notoriety with such productions as Last Call, about a down-and-out alcoholic; The Works, an off-venue Fringe production at Theatre-Ste-Catherine; Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s Life is a Dream, a Centaur Brave New Looks production and most recently, the sold-out Greek tragedy, Medea. Aside from her role as SM, St-Jacques also took on the role of producer in addition to acquiring some of the duties of a general manager. The spring of 2012 will see a Segal Studio production of Scapegoat Carnivale’s The Heretics of Bohemia (April 27 to May 19), however St-Jacques, who was already booked to work a Segal main stage production at the same time, won’t be able to stage manage that show, although she will be handling many of the production manager and producer responsibilities for them.

Last Call, Scapegoat Carnivale
St-Jacques also teaches Stage Management at the National Theatre School of Canada (NTS) and she loves it. As she described her course outline, pedagogy is clearly another area she seems to take to quite naturally. She has a mere thirty-six hours to share everything she knows about stage managing with her students, and in trying to jam-pack a decade of experience into such a short time span, she has come up with a brilliant breakdown of the process of getting a play to opening night and beyond, which is not only helpful to her students but often guides her in her own work. 

She has broken down the journey of getting from the page to the stage into four phases: Forming, Norming, Storming and Performing. For example, Storming is what she calls the hectic tech-week, when actors must be off-book and the emphasis is on the technical side. Rather than taking offense at an untoward comment from an actor during the period, she is able to see if for what it is: the usual apprehension that surfaces at this point of the process. 

Her teaching model helps to sustain her objectivity and allows her to see where people are in the overall process and thereby understand how best to approach them. Time and place are also important as are tone, respect and the ability to listen. As pressure mounts the closer a production gets to opening night, it’s the job of the SM to keep things running smoothly towards the common destination while acknowledging what everyone is going through in their particular area of expertise. It’s a delicate balancing act that requires a very special personality and St-Jacques is indeed cut from the right cloth.

Life is a Dream, Scapegoat Carnivale
Some regard stage managers as technical people but there is a definite artistic side to the position. “Really, it’s half technical and half artistry, especially once opening night has come and gone, the director has left, and now it’s up to me to maintain the play as it was set. There is continual, natural evolution to a play: the audience is a whole other beast that develops it further, but I have to make sure that scenes don’t begin to take on a whole new meaning from what the director intended. Giving actors notes is one of the most amazingly challenging parts of my job. It’s exciting but you have to be on your game, able to back up your comments. And my training as an actor helps a lot.” 

By the end of May this year, St-Jacques had a pretty good idea of what her coming season would look like and whether she had any holes to fill. “Sometimes I get worried about that. What happens if I stop getting work or even worse, if I don’t want to do it anymore? The whole free-lance thing is a bit nerve-wracking but I try not to think about it too much and just focus on what’s directly ahead.” She loves to spend hours cooking in her kitchen and whenever she does find herself with time off in need of a pay check, she works for Chantilly Catering on Milton Street. 

“Cooking and catering are very similar to stage managing. It’s about putting all the right ingredients together at the right time to create something delicious. When we arrive at a venue for a catering job, we don’t have much time to set up, to decide how to provide the best work flow, but that’ what I do. It’s the same skill set but in a new environment. The key, in both worlds, is to leave yourself open to consider possibilities you may not have anticipated and regard them as opportunities, not obstacles.” 

Medea, Scapegoat Carnivale
The reflective St-Jacques possesses an inner wisdom and centeredness that belies her youth. “Stage managing is a job where a lot of your time is spent answering the needs of other people so it’s easy to get burned out if you forget to address your own. That’s where the NIA and Yoga help- they keep a balance in my life.” She keeps the stress that can accompany the job at bay by avoiding an ‘I’m all that’ attitude. “I totally rely on my team. I ask questions and expect them to do the same.” The learning never stops and that’s what St-Jacques loves about the job. “Every show is different; I set up the prompt book differently, based on how many actors are in the show, the technical bells and whistles we’re planning to use, things like that. It’s about finding the best way to get to opening night.” 

You will find St-Jacques at several upcoming opening nights beginning with the remount of the wildly popular Schwartz’s: The Musical at Centaur from July 20 to August 7, 2011. She’ll be teaching the fall semester at NTS as well as stage managing the aforementioned Geordie remount of The Little Prince at Centaur October 13 to 23. Centaur’s In Absentia follows from January 31 to March 4, 2012 and in the spring, she teams up with director Diana Leblanc again (they previously worked together on Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels at the Segal) for a production of Same Time, Next Year, playing from April 29 to May 20, also at the Segal Centre

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