Propared Interviews The Pros: Brian Sekinger

Propared had the great fortune of sitting down with Brian Sekinger for a one-on-one this week. Brian’s currently SMing a production of Jasper In Deadland, happening at NY’s West End Theatre. He had a lot to say about his journey. From a behind-the-scenes techie in regional theatre, to a Teaching Artist position in the D.C. area, to Stage & Production Management in commercial theatre, Brian’s done it all. Aspiring theatre professionals take note!

PROPARED: Let’s start at the beginning! Tell us where you’re from, and what kind of Theatre expereinces you were exposed to, growing up.

BRIAN SEKINGER: I’m from a little town near Annapolis, MD, called Pasadena. Our high school had always put on big theatrical productions. It was always a thing to go see the Spring musical, or the Christmas Story, etc. So, I remember, as a kid, going to these shows, and just being kind of transfixed, you know? By the “magic” of it. Seeing people on stage….they’re real, they’re not like seeing actors on TV, which is a much more removed experience.

Then, when I got to high school, I started doing sound design work. That was my entry into this world.

PROPARED: How did you get into sound design? What circumstances got you your first gig?

BS: It was such a small community. Everybody knew each other. The director knew my babysitter, whose kid was also in the show, and knew they needed somebody to help run sound for a show.

PROPARED: Had you ever thought of acting? Taking Summer classes? Seeing those shows as a kid, what were you drawn to, that might have led you to do behind-the-scenes work?

BS: Seeing the shows, I was more taken with the whole concept of the show, rather than the individuals on stage. Getting the opportunity to help run sound, I thought, “This is cool. I can be apart of this.”

I was mixing, running cables, doing playback, all that stuff. There was also a Glee-type vocal performance group, and we would go with them to their shows, and help set up & run those as well. It was really a way to kind of deconstruct the magic, you know?

PROPARED: After high school, you attended St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Why did you choose that school?

BS: I looked at other schools, but St. Mary’s was my first choice. It was close to home, which is nice, but….as you’re approaching the campus, you’re driving through miles & miles of woods. When you get there, the woods open up, and there’s a beach, and water, and….there’s just this kind of feeling. Anybody who’s gone there will talk about this transcendent moment of when you clear the woods and see the school. That visceral moment kind of spoke to me, and I knew this was where I wanted to be.

PROPARED: That’s kind of an analogue to the Theatre experience, isn’t it? The curtain rising, and seeing a new world.

BS: Yeah! The curtain comes up, and there it is! {laughs} Also, the reason I applied in the first place….it’s a small, liberal arts school. Something that I had always done in high school, maybe without realizing it, is trying to learn about as many different things as I can. Different areas. St. Mary’s overarching philosophy about a liberal arts education is: we can’t possibly teach you every book there is in the English cannon. But we can teach you the skills, through studying these works, to take any book in the cannon, and learn from it, know how to analyze it.

They taught us, through this content, how to develop these learning skills on our own. Problem solving, etc. It was about more than just mastery of a single subject. How does this subject apply to all other things. This approach had us taking classes outside of our discipline, and through that, becoming familiar with so much more. This helped broaden our world view considerably. It also helped foster this tight community. Their admissions process focused heavily on pulling people from all over the world, bringing them to this special place, and building this community.

PROPARED: This is interesting to hear. When we interviewed Mandy Berry a while back, she said some similar things about her decision to study Theatre in a liberal arts school, as opposed to a Conservatory. Her comments spoke to the concept that if Theatre is supposed to replicate & imitate life, then you need to study more than just Theatre to be able to do that effectively.

BS: Absolutely.

PROPARED: After you graduated, you had some time before choosing to pursue graduate school. What were you up to?

BS: Yeah, two years in between. My degree from St. Mary’s is in Education. I was planning on being an English teacher. When I graduated, this was when {Govt. program} No Child Left Behind was just starting. I was pretty frustrated with what my options were, as an aspiring teacher. While I was student-teaching, I felt stifled, like I couldn’t reach the kids the way I wanted to.

There was this new field of educational Theatre that was developing in tandem with [No Child Left Behind], that was more outreach-based education vs. in the schools. How can we use the arts to supplement what was happening in the schools? You know, arts education is usually the first thing to get cut when budgets are being looked over. So, for a school that doesn’t have a lot of money, these outreach programs can make a big difference.

I started doing this work with some D.C. based Theatres, where we would take over their [the kids’] English classes for a week, and do workshops with them. We’d do camps, paired with the shows that these Theatres were running. Doing an analysis on Treasure Island with them, etc. Then we’d take them to see the show. So, the first week, we’d read the script, then look at how costumes are designed, then staging & props, lighting, all that stuff. And they’d get to participate in all of this, and then get to compare their work to what the professional production did.

PROPARED: How did the kids respond to this?

BS: It was kind of impressive, in that the students had a lot of very strong opinions & ideas. You would actually want to see what their production would have been! Also, they would want to hold very true to the text; they were very adamant about that. And this was a literacy-based program. Remember, these were considered at-risk students, kids who were performing many grade levels below where they were supposed to be. Through this program, they were becoming really engaged in reading, in the text.

PROPARED: So, you found it to be a successful program?

BS: Yes, definitely. It was a great experience.

PROPARED: Do you find that a lot of Theatres make these kinds of strides, to educate others?

BS: Almost every Theatre today has education as a part of their mission, but the Theatres I was working with really made an effort to make this a big part of their mission, to reach out to the community.

While I was doing all of that, I really missed production. I was a part of what they called the “Teaching Artist” program. And, because we were teaching all day, we didn’t really have time to actually put up shows. Developing future artists through education was great, and rewarding, but there’s also that need to continue working on you craft. How can we teach it, if we’re not practicing the craft? Plus, this kind of work can really burn you out.

PROPARED: So how did you get into Stage Managing, and out of Teaching?

BS: While I was doing this, I was also doing other work. Box office stuff, and working as a house manager. This all pretty much fits into that earlier philosophy of doing all the things so you know how the bigger picture works. Today, when a house manager tells me they “need five more minutes”, I can understand why, because I’ve been there. So, all of these experiences are great, even if you think you’re just doing the extra jobs for extra cash.

While I was working as a House Manager, a friend told me about this PA gig at the Kennedy Center. I thought it would be a good opportunity to get back into production. At the time, I don’t think I even recognized that “Stage Manager” was a real job! I guess, the downside of going to a liberal arts school, is that it’s “all hands on deck”; everybody helps everybody out. We were kind of collectively in charge. There was no Stage Manager major. The SMs on the shows didn’t do what a professional SM does now.

PROPARED: What about the financial part of the educational experience? How did they prepare you for that aspect of managing/producing a show?

BS: I found out, kind of by mistake. Almost every undergrad at St. Mary’s had to do what they called a “Capstone Project”, which was basically a Senior Thesis. I produced a version of the play Proof. Part of this project had me producing a workshop package for Teaching Artists to take to students, which foreshadowed the work I would do after I graduated.

Through this process, I learned about production management, even though I still didn’t really have a concept of that being an actual job. The school gave me X amount of dollars, and I had to just do it.

PROPARED: Oh, wow. So, did you understand the value of the money they gave you, in terms of how it needed to be budgeted to complete this project?

BS: Nope! No clue. I just had to figure it out. Especially as a college kid. They give you $500, and you think, “I have $500!?!?!? I can do anything!” {laughs}. Then you go to buy a can of paint, and well, there’s $20 gone. So, it really forced you to learn to prioritize your needs. Any money spent past that $500 is coming out of my pocket, and I didn’t have very much of my own money, so….yeah. That’s when you really start to appreciate the value of things. There’s a can of soda in the show? Then you need to buy a new can of soda for each show. For a two-week run, that’s adds up.

PROPARED: This is interesting, because these are all skills you need to run a business, and that’s not something you might think you are learning as a Theatre student. We have to wonder why these business skills aren’t part of the curriculum.

BS: Definitely. I can’t speak for the entire program, but there was a professor there who would intentionally set you up to fail. He would give you a task, knowing that you didn’t have the time and/or resources to succeed. And it wasn’t even about putting on the show, or the project, so much as the thought process behind doing that. This was all about learning to prioritize. How do you solve these problems? If we can only have one thing on our wish-list of ten things, which one do you pick, and why?

And directors, actors, and designers, they all have different priorities, different ideas of what is important for a show to succeed. And that’s pretty much what my job is today: mediating priorities.

PROPARED: So, how did you get to grad school?

BS: Well, while I was at the Kennedy Center, doing the PA work, I was still not totally aware that this career could even exist. I was a part of this huge team, at a big festival. And I worked under this amazing Stage Manager who was able to run these shows, and make it enjoyable. It was really a crash-course in management styles. I really respected the kind of work she was doing. I learned what it meant to be a Stage Manager, and also found out that I was pretty good at it.

So, I started to figure out that this was a real job. I mean, you look at a playbill, and the Stage Manager has front-page billing, so it must be pretty important! {laughs} So, in these six weeks, I got a pretty intense education on what my future career would be like.

But, it was also such a stressful job, and I wasn’t really sure that I could see myself doing it for a job, just yet.

I left this job, and started doing smaller shows, Stage Managing community Theatre. It was a little less overwhelming. I went back to basics, sort of, for about a year. And that gave me more confidence.

Then I got a job as a non-equity ASM for a season at Folger Shakespeare Theatre. And here, I got to see what both Stage, and Production Managers do, their process, etc. After finishing the first show there, I knew, “this is what I want to do”. Something clicked for me here. But, what I was missing was the networking. I didn’t want to stay in a regional market, and wanted to do commercial Theatre. That wasn’t going to happen with my level of education, and just my connections in D.C. That community is pretty tight; they tend to use the same few SMs for every show.

I tell people now, it’s not who you know, it’s who knows you. I “knew” plenty of important people in commercial Theatre, but they didn’t necessarily know me as a professional on their level. Grad school seemed like a good option for me to make more connections, and get more professional “cred”.

I applied to Carnegie Mellon University because it had the only program that I felt I would put the time & money into. They were offering everything I was looking for. I knew that’s what I had to do.

PROPARED: Did you get what you were looking for?

BS: I did. I went in looking for more experience and networking, but it also really challenged my conceptions of what Theatre really is. School is a place where you can take risks. You’re not waiting on that crucial review. In the real world, if you get a bad Times review, you close in a few weeks. You don’t have to worry about that in the academic environment. It’s important, I think, to have that option, because you need to be able to take a risk, fail, and still get back up and do it again.

Another aspect of working in this more experimental-friendly environment is: everyone’s opinion matters, creatively The director, costume designer, AND stage manager can weigh in on creative decisions together. It’s a more collaborative environment. That really surprised me, at first. The traditional view of SMs is as the person who sits in the room, takes notes, and documents. Not, necessarily, as a person who is asked for their creative or artistic input, as an active collaborator.

With that experience, I really came to love the collaborative Theatre process. My work now, primarily, is in New Works.

PROPARED: Is there enough work in this kind of new Theatre? For young, aspiring SMs or just anyone in Theatre programs, would you advise them to pursue a specialty in New Works?

BS: Well, this is getting into my larger philosophy on Theatre and work. I do what I do because I love it. I made a commitment to myself when I left grad school, that the moment I stop loving this, is the moment I stop doing it.

Part of the reason is, there’s a lot of competition. In a cast of 30, there are 1-3 SMs. That’s pretty tight. As much as you hear about actors struggling to find work, there is exponentially less work for aspiring SMs. Because of that, you have to to love it and want to do it.

I would say to young people studying Theatre that Stage Management is a lifestyle, not a job.

PROPARED: Can you explain that a little more?

BS: Yeah. And this is especially true on New Works. I don’t get to stop working at the end of rehearsal. I don’t have a set number of hours. My job travels with me, especially with mobile technology. I can be contacted at all hours of the day or night.

You have to set limits for yourself about when it is when you are working, and when it is that you are “living”. You have to be clear, if you’re going to maintain sanity, especially as a young person in this industry, about when you’re working on a show, and when you’re going to take time for yourself.

It’s very easy to let the show completely consume your life. And if you allow the show to consume your life, then not only does your personal life suffer, but your work on the show will suffer. Even if that boundary is something simple, like, “I’m going to turn my phone off, and go see a movie.” That 2-3 hours alone can completely change how you feel, your outlook.

And, as artists, it’s so important to go see other works, to have those experiences, to stay relevant in our own work. If you don’t, then you’re not experiencing life. How can you bring life to stage, if you aren’t out there living it?

PROPARED: Is there enough work in NYC for those aspiring Theatre kids, who may want to do more “niche theatre”, or more experimental stuff?

BS: Yes. The other edge to that sword of “it’s tough out there” is exactly that. There is a LOT of “work” in New York. If you want to do something specific, there are people who will employ you to do that. And by “employ”, I don’t mean to say that there will necessarily be financial compensation. There are a ton of people here who will let you work on their projects for the experience.

The reality is, this is an expensive city. You gotta pay rent! You have to balance doing what you love, with the basic economic reality. And you have to have a basic level of comfort that you’re happy with. If you’re just scraping by, and living in a part of town that you hate, and eating half a pack of Ramen, because you can’t afford a whole pack, and you’re miserable, that’s not success!

I think it’s really important to balance your “passion projects” with those commercial gigs that will pay you. Even if that corporate event isn’t exciting, you might have to do that to have the freedom, months from now, to do the show you want to do, that doesn’t pay.

PROPARED: You’ve managed to find a fair amount of successful work in NYC. In addition to these philosophies, what’s worked for you, to help you get to this level?

BS: I’ve been successful, I think, because I found a particular niche that I excelled in, and that’s New Musical Development. So, I’ve sort of built my resume, and made choices to take certain jobs that tailors me to be good at this. So, it’s easier for me to go to producers or developers and say, “Hey, I see that you’re about to do this new musical. I’m really good at doing new musicals. You want to bring me on board.”

So, why it’s great to have a diverse resume, and you have to have that, I’ve found that it’s also good to develop skills in your own little corner of Theatre, something unique to you and what you’re about. It’s ok to also get specific, and target that audience. You can’t cold email every producer in the city. Narrow it down a bit, after you’ve done a bit of work.

PROPARED: That’s great advice for anyone in any artistic medium. Can you tell us a little about your process? What do you do when you’ve first been hired on a new show?

BS: Research is a big part of it. Typically, a Stage Manager is brought in a week, maybe two weeks, before the project starts. And I may have been hired several months, or a year out in advance, but I wont be under contract until a week or two before. So, by the time I’m really invested in beginning the project, it’s been in development for a year or more. So, I’m playing a big game of catch-up.

I have to understand everything that’s happened with the show’s development up to that point, and be able to look ahead to see what has to happen for opening night to happen. I sort of stand in the middle of the calendar, and look backwards, and forwards.

So, from there, it’s about setting immediate, large milestones. When do we go into rehearsals, tech, opening night? Is there a closing date? And, of course, I have to gather everybody’s contact information.

PROPARED: How do you gather & manage those contacts?

BS: That depends. I may be given a list of names & emails from the producer (that’s pretty rare), but actors often work through agencies and their agents. So, a lot of the time, I have to work through those agents. That can get tricky, because this is time-sensitive stuff. Once we’re in rehearsal, I’ll ask for the actors’ phone numbers, but until then, it’s a lot of back-and-forth with the agents.

PROPARED: How do you organize all of your data?

BS: Pretty much everything I use is [Microsoft] Excel-heavy. Depending on the show’s size, I do a lot of database creation within Excel. That’s very time-consuming, but if the show is big enough, and/or I think it’s gonna run long enough, it’s worth the investment. It’s a lot easier for me to export things that look pretty in Excel, than create a new document or template every time. It’s a lot of work!

Setting up these structures is especially important in New Works. Things change so much, and you need to be able to be quick, and make those adjustments quickly. You’re constantly getting new information, and I don’t have time to play catch up. You need to be one step ahead, at all times.

But these challenges are what keeps me interested. But it’s also why I advise doing older shows now & again, too. It’s nice to be able to “just do Oklahoma” once in a while! You have to be able to re-set your brain every once-in-a-while, and do an easier show, to give yourself a breather. New Works evolve over the whole run of a show, and, as a Stage Manager, you’re “on” the whole time.

PROPARED: That can be a pretty intense, taxing experience, I imagine!

BS: Yes, it can.

PROPARED: Are there any other trends in production that you’re seeing? Anything you would tell young folks to be aware of?

BS: I think the big thing hitting, especially in NYC right now, is Stage Write, which is an iPad app stage blocking program. I use it. It’s very expensive, and in early stages of development. It’s there to manage your workflow, which is tricky, because Stage Managers each have their own unique kind of workflow. So, it hasn’t really developed to be easy to use, just yet. But, in five years, this kind of thing will be what everybody uses. Maybe not this app, specifically, but something like it.

If I can collaborate with a choreographer on the west coast, a lighting designer in the mid-west, and I’m in NYC, that’s huge. That’s a big deal. These kinds of collaborative tools are what is going to help us achieve that.

I’m seeing a lot of individuals who are becoming familiar with using these new apps, whether it’s a simple timer, or a way to mark stage spikes. That was still very much a fringe thing when I was in school. Now there are high school classes that teach kids how to make their own apps. This is going to be a crucial skill for the Stage Managers of tomorrow.

You can follow Brian Sekinger on Twitter, and check out his impressive resume on his own website: briansekinger.com

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