Winter 2018

Miracle Workers

As stage managers navigate a set's various moving parts, the clock is ticking and the pressure is on


Lead stage manager Gary Natoli works with actress/presenter Naomi Watts in the Dolby Theater in Hollywood during rehearsals for the Oscar telecast that aired March 2. (Photo: Al Seib/LA Times/Getty Images)

The stage manager's job is something of a mystery to almost everyone who isn't one. "People don't know what we do," agrees Gary Natoli. A veteran stage manager of virtually every awards show imaginable, Natoli speaks by phone from Nashville, where he's prepping the Country Music Awards.

While overseeing a load-in at the Bridgestone Arena, he breaks it down simply: "I'm in charge of everything that goes in front of the camera."

That means talent, from A-lister to extra, scenery, lighting, video, effects, props, stages, lifts—you name it, he and his colleagues handle it. And when the action is live, every element is heightened.

Now in his 12th season on the hit show Dancing With the Stars, Garry Hood handles at least a dozen set changes every episode. And the show spares no extravaganza. Monday's show-day rehearsal is full dress, with a live band. As the audience starts to line up outside for the show, which starts live at five, Hood stands by a camera, tablet in hand, counting down the minutes and then seconds during the commercial breaks and the taped packages. Like a huge game of reverse musical chairs, every time the music stops, his crew jumps up from spots around the room and sets about clearing and replacing sets. Chandeliers fly in. A corn maze flies out. A café scene is detailed down to the pastries in the case. A Phantom mask drops down from the ceiling at exactly the right second for celebrity Frankie Muniz to grab it.

The adrenaline rush is a big appeal, but the best part is "you go off the air, you're done," says Hood. "Taped shows, it's, 'Okay, let's do that again.' I'm not a big fan of 'let's do that again.' Don't get me wrong, I do a ton of taped shows too, but I'd much rather do live."

Natoli has stage-managed the last 12 Super Bowl halftime shows. A set can have 70 different pieces, stretching back as far as a half mile, that have to be brought out in order. Not to mention stars, musicians and up to 1,000 members of the field cast. He and his crew have 12 minutes to set up the stage, another 12½ for the performance, and 10 to dismantle and remove it from the field. "I know every 10-second interval where everything is supposed to be at that particular time," he says.

He also creates document of the painstaking process for the NFL so that everybody's on the same page. "I have to spell out, in detail, minute by minute, when I'm moving people from point A to point B, because security is so tight."

He has six stage managers on his team. "It's kind of like casting actors and getting the right chemistry," he explains. "You need these people who have shorthand with you and understand what needs to get done without having to ask." As for his director, Hamish Hamilton, "He prepares so much because he has so little time with the cameras. It's amazing what he achieves. I say that for all of us: It's amazing what we all achieve."

The irony about stage-managing is that the better you are, the less anyone will notice. "A big motivator to do a great job is not to get yelled at," John Esposito jokes. The longtime stage manager for America's Got Talent adds, "Essentially, we have to be perfect." And since perfection is impossible, they have to think of everything that could possibly go wrong, and how to right it.

The Fixers

Esposito recalls one such instance about six years back, when walls were supposed to open to make way for a silhouette act against a large screen. When the time came for the walls to open…they didn't. "Go manual," Esposito ordered. They tried—but the manual lever snapped. He alerted director Russell Norman to the problem and got crew members working to pry the wall open, while the rest of the team kept preparing for the next act.

"We come back from commercial, the walls are still not open. Nick Cannon, the host, says, 'We have a problem with the walls, it's a live show, here, take a look at the best of our auditions.'" The crew finally jammed the walls open during the stall, and the next act began, "a credit to everybody and the stage managers with them, because it wasn't as if, 'Well, the walls won't open, let's all stop.' Everybody's going to keep doing their thing. But that was a particular moment where it catches your breath."

It also led him to institute a system in which he and the producers go through every possible mechanical malfunction, and what to do should the worst occur.

"There're always problems," observes Garry Hood, during a quick lunch break on Dancing With the Stars. "We're fixers."

(Top) John Esposito swings into action on America's Got Talent; (Middle) Valdez Flagg provides guidance at the Shrine Auditorium in preparation for the 23rd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards; (Bottom) Garry Hood surveys the scene on the set of Dancing with the Stars. (Photos: (Top) Courtesy John Esposito; (Middle) Kevin Winter/Getty Images; (Bottom) Eric McCandless/ABC)

The Calm During the Storm

The job requires an obsession with detail, a love of adrenaline and, above all, the ability to keep a cool head while everyone else is losing theirs.

"If we don't appear calm, then something's totally wrong," Natoli says. "And sometimes things are, but we have to keep it under control. The worst thing you can do is panic."

Nowhere was that more evident than the 2017 Academy Awards, when an accountant's mistake led to the wrong name being announced for best picture—the final award of the night. As soon as Natoli learned of the mishap, he jumped into action: racing to the stage to get someone to speak up, while also making sure the correct envelope was shown to the camera, and that director Glenn Weiss got a tight shot of it, to show the audience proof.

There was no time to discuss what to do, he recalls. "By the time you talk about it, you're off the air. That's the worst-case scenario."

Valdez Flagg, who was working on the Oscars for Natoli, credits him for acting so decisively. "There are people who would have shrunk at having to walk out there, on the most-watched show in the world, and do that."

Flagg and Natoli both started out in the business as performers before falling into stage-managing. Flagg remembered abrasive stage managers from his acting days and vowed not to be like them. "I know what artists may need, and I can make them comfortable to give their best performance."

At the 2013 Oscars, Hugh Jackman and his Les Misérables costars were waiting backstage to perform "One Day More." Onstage, Jennifer Hudson tore the roof off with her rendition of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from Dreamgirls. "Hugh, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, they were saying, 'Oh my God, we have to follow her?'" recalls Flagg. "So I said, 'Wait a minute. What you've seen is an exceptional solo performance, and what you are about to show them is an exceptional ensemble performance.' They all exhaled, and collected themselves, and went out there and gave an outstanding performance."

Esposito, who also works the Oscars, enjoys training student filmmakers to be trophy presenters. Their first year, after careful rehearsals, "They took three steps and stopped, because now they're onstage with a full audience, and it's kind of daunting. And I thought, I get it. You can practice, practice, practice, then you go onstage and all of a sudden, you're 10 feet away from Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey and Tom Cruise, and it stops you in your tracks." Since then, every year he brings them onstage 10 minutes before airtime, so they can soak it in early.

The stage managers all know each other, having worked together in one permutation or another over the years. "We're in that same sort of gypsy caravan," says Natoli. Or as Hood puts it: "We're all wandering madmen and madwomen. We're carnival acts."

Adds Flagg: "It's just an amalgam of crazy personalities, because of course, we're all Type A people. You could not have the success that you have otherwise. But the reality is we all demand excellence out of ourselves. The focus of the work is what makes us all band together."

Hood says his focus now is "to find younger people to teach them the proper way. I see a lot of people now who don't have a work ethic and haven't learned the proper tools. Back when I started, there were a few of us and there weren't that many shows, so you had to be on your game every day. Now, especially in Los Angeles, you can literally work every day. Somebody hands them a marked rundown. They don't learn anything. So as I'm starting to fade out, that's what I'm trying to do. It's not about me, but about them learning properly and carrying it forward."

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