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When it comes to the hard-working people behind the scenes on your favorite shows, maybe no one works harder than the stage manager. Acting as a liaison between the team and the creatives and between the creatives and the company, the title of “manager” is an umbrella term for the many roles these individuals play who bring order to the chaos of the setting up a production.
Each month, BroadwayWorld spotlights stage managers from across the theatrical spectrum, highlighting the breadth of responsibility these theatrical jack-of-all-trades take on and the heart, hope and humor they bring to their work. as Broadway returns from its long closure.
This month we talk to Julie Devore, production manager for one of Broadway’s most exciting productions, David Byrne’s American Utopia.
Julie is a seasoned Broadway veteran with numerous credits to her name, including King Kong, school of rock, On the city, Wicked, the motherfucker in the hat and good job if you can get it and national tours of Once, the Addams family, and Bad. Julie graduated from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. When not managing gigantic productions, Julie also teaches stage management at SUNY Purchase College.
Many managers I’ve spoken to seem to agree that our current circumstances have changed their priorities when it comes to their productions. It seems that over the last two years the human element and emotional well-being of staff has really taken over. Is this something you’ve noticed as well?
One hundred percent. And I also think for me, I became a production manager during the pandemic by doing virtual things. Then I came back in person, promoted to production manager for American Utopia. I had been an assistant stage manager for a long time, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to be a production stage manager in this new world and put that foot first, with a benevolent heart, and make decisions based on what is best for the people we work with and not always what’s best for the production.
It has always been important to me. I think the pandemic has just given a path to managers who have found it important to lean into it and really direct with it. I was lucky to have found management offices and producers to really support this program, which is so useful and hopeful and gives a little faith in humanity.
What was your relationship with David Byrne and his music like before joining the American utopia business?
I didn’t know a lot of David Byrne songs when I was originally hired on the show. I knew some of the greats, but I didn’t know them all. (Laughs) Then I got hired on the show and I started falling in love with these songs and I was working with all these amazing musicians and then the pandemic hit and there was no work and things became very dark. I remember being in my car, driving home to my family in North Carolina to spend a few months because I had no money to live here, and I put on a song from the show entitled “Road to Nowhere”. I listened to this song while leaving town and this music changed me in a way that I will never be able to express without tears. Then, for the next four months in North Carolina, I did nothing but listen to our album. I just missed the theater and I missed being home because for me, backstage is where I call home. So all these songs just played a special role and I was really lucky that this music came into my life at such a difficult time.
So after using this music as a boon to your mind during such a difficult time, what were the emotions like when you came back and saw the company again and heard it live after so long?
Well, for one thing, I knew all the music so much better. I knew every inch of it this time. Whereas last time I was madly trying to memorize the music and the set list to memorize the order. Now I knew it in my soul, and it was hopeful and so joyful to hear that music again. I remember walking into the room and everyone said hello, and everyone had to put on their masks and didn’t know whether or not to kiss, and filled out their forms and showed their vaccination cards. After about 30 minutes of testing and doing all of this, you heard the music and it filled every inch of me with happiness and joy. And there are tough and stressful times, and every time we reach those times, I just close my eyes and listen to music because I feel so lucky that it’s my job. My job is to sit in the room and listen to David Byrne and his amazing musicians play music. I’m so grateful to be here every day, more than before. Before, I think I was jaded and tired and exhausted, then the pandemic hit and we lost everything. I will never be grateful again.
In the past few weeks, you’ve done something quite unusual for Broadway; you completely changed production for “Unchained” performance at the height of Omicron’s rise. How did this idea come about and how was the process?
I felt very down at the time as we were dealing with the closing of our show on Christmas Eve. We were supposed to do two shows and we weren’t going to be able to do it because we didn’t have enough people. I went to a theater where I thought I should tell everyone we’re cancelled. But this magical thing happened where David had arrived early, tested early, he and I had phone calls so he knew the shows weren’t going to happen, and he came downstairs and told everyone like the true leader he was. And then someone said, “Well, maybe we should just put you on stage with a guitar.” Then everyone starts coming up with ideas and you saw David get upset. And then all of a sudden, he’s gone.
So I go to his dressing room and I find him and Mauro [Refosco], our percussionist, is preparing a set list. Then we all go home and in the back of my head, I think that’s never going to happen. I wake up on Christmas Eve and I have an email from David which is a set list. Then [bassist] Bobby Wooten had started creating vocal charts and was adding them to a Dropbox, so we’re starting to put together a score. By the end of Christmas Day, we had a plan.
So the question becomes, “How can we actually accomplish this?”
As a manager, people often ask you questions. Like, is it possible? Could we make this work? And as I started to skim through my brain, I started to see the path and I said, “You know what? In fact, I think we could do that.
Then I called the general management and they wondered how we would do this at the box office, and they started doing a bit of the same thing as me. Then they began to see the way. Each department had to find their way through this crazy idea. Then I felt like I blinked and we had an audience on Tuesday. We were doing a totally different show.
What kind of adjustments did you have to make technically for the physical production?
We have an amazing team that was able to take light cues that already existed on our show and string them together in a way that worked for it. David wanted it to be as honest as we were. The band had learned like 12 new songs or something crazy. So they wanted it to look like a rehearsal. Guitar and keyboards were a tricky thing to figure out because we didn’t have a keyboard in this show. So it took a lot of extra work on the guitar, the other instruments and the band to kind of fill that void. So everyone took a bit of the keyboard action. So figuring it all out took us about two full days.
On the 26th we went in, rehearsed all day, then went home. Monday was supposed to be our day off, but everyone was working at all levels and we were all on Zoom, phone, text and email. Then we arrived on Tuesday, we did a rehearsal and we were ready. We did the show with desks and white light. It was really simple.
One thing that was tricky was that almost my entire management team was away, except me. So I had to bring in an assistant stage manager who knew nothing about the show, Jason DePinto, who did a fabulous job. I had him call the show and I stayed backstage and oversaw all guitar transfers and curtain calls etc. I also had a microphone with me so while we were doing the show I could talk to the band and keep them on track. We needed to communicate with them, to keep them updated on what was going on in this brand new show that we had created in less than two days.
What’s it like collaborating with a living legend like David Byrne?
David is very serious in his work, but he is the nicest of humans, and what I like about his collaboration is that he gets his point across without being rude. He has this light around him. He has such a sense of humor and a very big heart. There was a cold in the building in 2019 before COVID and he brought soup for everyone. It’s wonderful that way. And when it comes to collaborating on art, he’s always very clear and direct about what he wants, what he likes, what he doesn’t like, but he’s always very approachable. I find it very wonderful to work with him. “He’s one of the only bosses who might call you on Christmas and your family isn’t mad at you. In fact, they think it’s really cool.” (laughs) And he calls for two reasons. He calls to say, “Happy Holidays and I’m so sorry to bother you over the holidays,” but he also calls to say, “We have a building full of people who want to come to work and keep doing shows. How do we keep the living room open so people can have work?” For me, that was the most admirable thing about Unchained’s shows.”
What is your favorite thing about being a manager?
What I like most about my job is that I work with musicians, then dancers, then a team, then journalists, then managers like me. I get such a range of personalities, and they’re all unique and interesting people. So I find it all fascinating and I love being around it. Whether it’s with someone who’s easy or hard [to work with], I enjoy finding where people are and helping them succeed no matter the challenge. That’s what I thrive on.