MILESTONES: Becky Hamlin
We are proud to spotlight members of the Alley Theatre family as they reach milestones onstage and behind the scenes. To reflect on 20 years at the Alley Theatre, Literary Manager Lily Wolff sat down for a conversation with Stage Manager Becky Hamlin.
Lily Wolff: If you talk to anyone who works in the theatre, they will tell you the Stage Manager (SM) is a vital person in the process of making a play, but SMs are largely invisible to the audience. Would you share some insight on the work of the SM, both practically and spiritually?
Becky Hamlin: This is how I describe it to my extended family, because my grandmother always asks, “What are you doing?” I say in simplest terms, I manage the stage. I like that broad definition. I think I have the coolest job in the theatre. I’m responsible for -
BH: (Laughs) Well, I get to be the one who starts the show and I’m the one who ends it. I love checking in with the actors. One of the great things in rehearsal is that I get to be the advocate for the actors. Spiritually, that’s how I like to operate. I like to make a thorough, thoughtful, calming environment, whether that means having plenty of tea on-hand or making sure a costume piece is available early in rehearsal or thinking ahead to eating onstage and dietary needs, so the actors can just come in and do their jobs without seeing what I do behind the scenes.
LW: You’re predicting what everyone in the room may need.
BH: I’m ultra-observant, so I love doing that. I’ll see the actors doing something out of the corner of my eye and I just follow them, see where their journey is taking them. I’ll notice how they preset their fork if they need to eat on stage, or their papers if they have to write a certain way, and I document it all so they don’t have to think twice about it.
LW: So, you manage that rehearsal room and then you manage the performances. Every light shift and sound cue, every actor entrance, every scene change is initiated by you up in the booth every single night. There’s a live performance that happens onstage, but there’s also a live performance that happens in that booth that very few people get to see.
BH: Except now, I love that the Alley is doing that, it seems like they’re doing a lot of behind the scenes stuff now, which is very good.
LW: I think people are interested!
BH: They’re very interested, I think A Christmas Carol is the prime example of that. It’s a huge show. And I think people believe that, because we do the same production every year, it’s simple. But there are so many moving parts. There are 45 actors in the cast, I say “go” about 500 times every night, nine shows a week, plus all the behind the scenes work that we do, all the tech rehearsals, all the understudy rehearsals. Last year we did 59 performances and I called the show about 66 times.
LW: Would you give us an example of what a “call” sounds like?
BH: My sequence would be, “standby lights 5, sound 10, automation cue 1, and actors please.” Then I get confirmation or “standing by.” Then, “lights 5, sound 10, actors go… automation cue go… okay, stand by to reset… automation cue 2 go.” That would be an example of one call. Luckily, you do so many shows here that you get to memorize it, so you can actually look up from your script. I know Carol backwards and forwards, so I actually don’t have to look at my book very much at all. On a new show you’re constantly looking at your book, so that can be really difficult when you’re trying to notate the show and maintain the director’s vision.
LW: And that’s where you might give some notes, if you know there’s a moment that a director wants really tight, and you’re noticing a lot of air, for example?
LW: But if you’re looking at your book, then it’s hard to do those things. I mean you might hear them, but you might not.
BH: You might hear them, but if you’re in a very tech-heavy sequence, you might not hear them. But like I said, you get better and better and so you start to memorize it. Me being who I am, I try to memorize it anyway, because I want to see what’s happening onstage. Anything that might seem off, you want to recognize. You want to see a projection and say “Is that right? What just happened?” So like the actors, we like to memorize too. Or at least I do.
LW: What really blows me away, is the amount of multitasking that is happening, but also the amount of care. You’re doing all the things you need to do as a SM in a rehearsal, but you’re also making sure the rehearsal room is happy and functioning well and predicting needs while you’re doing all this incredible notation and tracking, it’s amazing.
BH: There was an actress I worked with a couple of times, who wanted to be word perfect for every one of her lines. She would say her lines backstage constantly to herself. When we got into tech, she would come off stage and ask me, “what’s my line?” This was early on, I was a production assistant at the time. I thought I was doing a good job, setting everything as perfectly as possible and doing all this stuff backstage. I realized that needed to push me into the next step of care. I memorized all of her lines, so when she came offstage and asked what her line was, I could tell her.
LW: So that was a unique need that cast member had that you then adapted and met.
BH: Yes. Our jobs are fun, there’s never a dull moment, really, even on a simple show.
LW: It’s so intense though!
BH: It can be. But then I always remember what my theatre director in college would say in a high stress situation. I remember I was cutting some scenery and I was so stressed out about it because it wasn’t perfect. He stopped and asked if I was okay. I said yes and that I just didn’t understand and I didn’t want him to think I was slacking in any way. And he said, “It’s just theatre.” So I have to remember that, because I don’t want that negative energy in the rehearsal room, I don’t want people to feel that I’m frantic, because it starts from the top down. If you’re frantic, you can feel the rest of the room is going to be frantic, and you don’t want that.
LW: What’s your favorite part of the rehearsal process?
BH: You know, it’s actually the tablework. Hearing a read through for the first time, that’s what made me want to do theatre. Like in Quack, for instance, all the uncomfortable stuff Dr. Baer talks about at the beginning of the play, about how he’s anti-vax - I know that’s not exactly what his stance was - but stuff that makes me uncomfortable and I kind of blow past it when I’m just reading it alone.
LW: Oh, interesting. Because you can.
BH: Because I can, exactly. But when it’s read to you, you squirm in your seat. I love that part of the rehearsal process, getting into all the characters.
LW: And the thing that really amazes me with the first table read is that it’s always surprising, even with our Resident Acting Company members, who are so familiar to us. I was gob-smacked at the Crimes of the Heart first read. I know Melissa, I know Jay, and Dylan, but to see them inhabit those roles with their own specificity was to know those characters anew. I mean, you’ve known the twenty times longer than I have…
BH: You’re exactly right. And really, this is one of the few times — you know I went away for awhile and then I came back after 8 months?
LW: And you were where?
BH: In Delaware, the Resident Ensemble Players through the University of Delaware. But you know I think a lot of them, especially Dylan Godwin, or Chris Hutchison, in the past they weren’t given the meaty roles they are now, with the new Artistic Director, the new Alley way of doing things. So, to see them go from smaller roles to these really intense and complex roles, that’s what makes me think “wow, I’m so glad to be back.” For me, it’s the perfect time to be back at the Alley.
LW: What were you doing in Delaware?
BH: Stage managing. They gave me an offer right before Hurricane Harvey hit. I left two and a half weeks before Harvey.
LW: And was the plan to not come back?
BH: Correct. I mean that was going to be my new job.
LW: We almost lost you!!!
BH: I know! It’s a great company up there. But this is home, it’s always been home. I’ve been here 20 years now.
LW: So what brought you back?
BH: James Black.
LW: It’s always James.
BH: You know, it’s funny because my Artistic Director in Delaware, Sandy Robbins, he was actually directing here when they made me the offer to stage manage The Cake, he was directing Picasso at the Lapin Agile. And I was like “uh, I can’t, because I promised Sandy.” But I said, “Sandy, I really want to do this new play called The Cake, it’s been done a few times before, but it was part of the Alley All New Festival and I really enjoyed the read when I heard it, and I want to be a part of this project.”And he goes, “Okay, I would love for you to do that.” He’s always been in love with the Alley, he’s directed here several times, and he knew this was home for me.
LW: He sounds like a very artist-driven person.
BH: He is. He said “You go ahead and do that, and we’ll have you back next season.” I was just going to do this one show at the Alley, and then go back to Delaware. And then they said, “How about for the rest of the season?” Ten Eyck Swackhamer (former Alley Theatre General Manager) gave him a call and said “Sandy, we’re going to make her this offer, just so you know.” Sandy called me on the phone the next day and said, “So I heard,” and I said yes, and he said, “What do you want?” and I said I wanted to go back to Houston, and he said “Then that’s what you should do.” I said “Sandy, I want to honor my commitment,” he said “But you’re going to do something that makes you happy. I don’t want you to be in a company and resent it.” And I said okay.
LW: So what was it like to walk back into this building, thinking you had left it after 19 years?
BH: It felt like, in some ways, I had never gone, but then it was also a brand new energy. James Black was Interim Artistic Director, and everyone was so happy to have him as Artistic Director - it was something I had never seen before. Everybody was just ecstatic. It was very special, coming at a time when things were still being rebuilt. By the time I got back, they had just done Lover, Beloved, which was the first show after the renovation, and there was a sense of community that I had never seen before.
LW: There was this kind of amazing parallel thing happening, where the theatre was both literally and figuratively being rebuilt. Rebuilding the staff, rebuilding the culture, rebuilding the building. What was the first show you worked on here?
BH: Misalliance, 1999. I hung lights for that. I started out as an overhire electrician. I’ve worked in every single department here.
LW: Wow, you’re a woman of many talents.
BH: I learned how to weld here, learned how to tie all my knots in the scene shop.
LW: What’s your fondest memory of your 20 years here?
BH: How do I pick one? Everything is just so memorable. I guess one of my fondest memories was working with Elizabeth Bunch on her one woman show Grounded.
LW: Oh my God, I saw that play, and I did not want to get up afterwards, I did not want the lights to come up. And you watched that every night…
BH: It was such a tech-heavy show, I had lights, projection, sound, automation...Similarly to Elizabeth, I never stopped talking. She and I would pretty much do everything together from the moment we got to the theatre. We would wish each other "good show" before I went up to the booth, I would check on her every night before she went home. It was kind of perfect. My production assistant, Rachel Dooley-Harris, she was in the room as well. That was another great thing about it, it was just women in the room. I loved coming to work every day for that show. I love coming to work every day anyway.
LW: How much time do you spend at the theatre?
BH: When I'm on contranct for a show, I work six days a week. Usually I get here about an hour and a half before the actors, and I leave an hour and a half after the actors, so usually nine or ten hour days.
LW: 50 weeks a year, 6 days a week, 10 hours a day...
BH: When you get to tech, it’s more - 14 hour days - but I’m living the dream. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it.
Some words of appreciation from the Resident Acting Company:Elizabeth Bunch: “One of my most important relationships at the Alley is with the stage manager. My most challenging performance to date was Grounded, which is often called a 'one-woman show' because I was the only actress on stage. The truth is that show was two women piloting the story for 90 minutes. The audience could witness my part of the creation but what they couldn't see was Becky calling that show. She and I were co-pilots, working in perfect rhythm and synchronicity.”
Todd Waite: "Stage managers set the tone... energy, calmness, resolve...They are hyper organized machines one minute and shoulder-to-cry-on counselors the next. We love them, and we adore Becky. Even when she’s sweaty after her endless marathon runs!”
Chris Hutchison: “Without a doubt, stage managers are the hardest workers in our world and their job requires the most finesse, noting every minute change that occurs as a play is built. When a show is up and 'running' they not only have to be on their toes calling every cue, but must also be paying attention to the most subtle details moment-to-moment keeping the show within opening night parameters while also allowing for growth. Becky, a constant presence since my first moment here, is one of the best, most graceful, and unflappable SMs I have ever had the pleasure to work with.”
Melissa Pritchett: “The first time I worked with Becky, she rubbed freezing cold glitter gel all over my arms every night. Even then, I knew she was a special person, but I had no idea what a confident, strong, caring, AMAZING stage manager she would become. I look forward to every single show I work on with her."
Dylan Godwin: “If you are lucky enough to be in the room with Becky, you feel taken care of every moment. By commanding love and admiration through her sweetness and incredible competence, Becky inspires everyone around her to do their best work and wear their biggest smiles.”
David Rainey: “When Becky was working backstage, she often grabbed props for me before I could think to do it, and as the captain of the ship, she is extraordinary. I always feel like I have a safety net whenever Becky is involved on a show. She is so deserving of the spotlight.”
James Black: “There is nothing more to say. She is simply the best.”