Ah, how young I looked! Well, younger than I am now for sure. The photo was taken in May of 2002. I was in a western bib shirt phase and this was just one of them. This particular shirt was stiff and a bit itchy I remember. I have my hand up, Batman watch on and mouth open. I am pretending to yell. Normally I would have actually yelled, and I did but the photographer missed it. So, I faked it and he got a good shot for the Sunday paper. Yes, this photo was published in the Sunday Seattle Times along with a very nice article on me by Times feature columnist Nichole Brodeur. Full color, below the fold on the Arts section. Now why would someone want to take my picture in such a pose? That is the odd tale I’m telling today. It really begins though a few years before 2002…
(everything slowly fades….)
1997, I was hired by the Seattle Children’s Theatre to be one of their house managers. I had worked in front of house in other theatres during my years at the Cornish College of the Arts (The Seattle Rep and the Intiman) and after a few years of managing a video store, I found myself as house manger for the Eve Alvord Theatre. I was to work school shows (SCT had around 10 performances per week, running two different shows in two spaces, Tues-Sun) and have the weekends off. But then, the Front of House Managers unexpected pregnancy led to me also working on the weekends as Assistant House Manager in the larger space; the Charlotte Martin Theatre. The next season I would take over as House Manager for the Martin, for both school and public shows, and then as Front of House Manager over the entire FOH (front of house, of course).
I felt my job at SCT was to make sure the audience had a good time as soon as they walked in the door. I wanted to make the lobby as welcoming, warm and exciting as I could. That way, even if they didn’t care for the show they saw that day, it was such a fun place the patrons would still look forward to coming back. I chose my staff accordingly and told them they were the diplomats of the theatre. The FOH were the ones the audience saw, not the admin, not the directors or crew; the box office and FOH staffs were the ones the audience interacted with every time and set the tone for the organization. I had a volunteer staff of mostly families on weekends helping me out, and I worked to get the message across when briefing them about their jobs and the show. I knew if I could make them feel a vital part of the operation (they were) they would feel invested. They really rose to the occasion making my job less about watching them and more about seeing to the needs of the audience. As I was there ten out of eleven shows (my boss made me take a couple days off to stay sane) I was able to shape the program into pretty much what I needed it to be. Which was not easy.
To be honest, I was not that popular when I started. Some people felt I was trying to make SCT “The Tom Stewart Show” and worked to undermine me, or complained to management that I was an egotistical jerk (there was one actor who complained at least once a week, and I heard did a good but mean imitation of me). I would often tell the kids at school shows as I was lining them up to give them the rules that SCT was my theatre (I found that if you personalize something that the kids are less likely to mess with it) and some staff thought I was serious. I threw out the very formal speech they gave me to introduce the shows and shortened it by half. I also worked to make it entertaining. If you make someone laugh, they tend to actually listen to you and shut off those phones; dry announcements pass unheeded one ear to the next. The version they gave me timed out at around three minutes; mine was usually a minute and a half, or less. The audience laughed, and listened to me. This was part of the problem to some, part of my egotistical grandstanding.
One crewmember as he passed me said:
“That was different.”
“That wasn’t a compliment.”
“I know.” And kept on walking.
Later, he told me he respected me for that remark. We became friends. I suspect I became okay to some because he said I was okay. First time I made a friend for being flippant.
I was also loud (see photo). They gave me a bullhorn to talk to the kids, which I hated using; I felt like riot police. Instead I used my Alexandrian actor training and projected my voice. I wasn’t yelling, but I was loud enough to be heard by all the kids gathered outside. In fact, I could be heard at least a block away, according to the surrounding offices. I also found that holding my ‘good morning’, stretching it out until all eyes turned towards me, saved me a lot of time and got their attention faster than all the shushing in the world. After a while of clicking lights at intermission and working to round up all the kids so we could start again, I used the same method; a call of “five minutes” that I stretched out as long as I could. I quickly became known for it. In fact, it was something people looked forward to watching me do; the kids would come out at public shows and follow me around waiting to join in my call. More would hang out around the balcony just to watch.
After a few years, I became something of an institution at the theatre; people stopped me in public, yelled five minutes as they drove by, renewing subscribers would ask for the days I was there, surveys found customer satisfaction was up and cited me and my staff as the reason. SCT marketing and schools used a lunch or dinner with me as a prize at auctions; development always made sure I was around at fundraisers, as the donors all knew me and liked seeing me there. Subscriptions were down and tickets sales flat when I was hired, but after three-fours years, they were all up and still climbing. Linda Hartzell the long-time artistic director took me to lunch and told me the praise she would hear and how she considered me one of her key people. She credited me with helping the renewed subscription levels, which was a nice thing for her to say. At this time, SCT was undergoing a management change with an acting managing director and things were a bit up in the air but I felt very much at home with the staff, volunteers and patrons of SCT.
I know how braggy that all sounds, but I told you that so I could tell you the rest.
Now, about that photo.
Nichole Brodeur, Times columnist, was one of our subscribers and her son Brooks was a fan of mine (or at least thought I was funny). He told her she should do a column on the ‘five minute man’ (yes, that is what they called me). She had seen me running around the lobby (I was rarely standing still when at work) and thought an article on me might be interesting. I didn’t know about that so, and I still don’t. Nichole contacted the marketing people, who contacted me about whether I wanted to do that or not. Now, at this point in my life, I was a lot less cynical. No, really. I said (this has to be pretty close to an exact quote) “Sure! Whatever I can do to help the theatre.” So I agreed. This set odd things in motion.
First person I ran into after agreeing to the interview was our acting managing director. She asked if I was going to do it, and I said sure, why not? She got very serious:
“I wanted to warn you about Nichole Brodeur. I have friends who said we should watch out for her.”
“Well, she might not have the best interests of SCT at heart.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
“Well, just watch out for yourself. You are the default face of the theatre, while that might not be the best thing, you should remember that.”
She hurried off. I didn’t really understand. I had read Nichole’s column for years. It consisted of mostly human interest pieces about, well, interesting humans. It was the ‘Humans of NY’ of its day. I didn’t see it as any attempt to ambush me, or the theatre.
A day or so later the marketing person who set the interview up came to find me (I was easy to find, I was always in the lobby) and told me she was supposed to sit in on the interview.
“Really? What for?”
“Well (Acting MD) said she was worried about it.”
“About what? I’m sure Nichole will be fine…”
“No, she’s worried about you.”
” ….. ”
I had been at SCT for nearly five years. I’d had my problems in the past and at that point in my life I could be pretty emotional about things, but I hadn’t had any real problems at SCT. I was happy if overworked and underpaid (it was a non-profit after all) and hadn’t planned on doing anything in this interview but answering questions; why would I? I felt insulted.
“I told her that if she was worried about you, she should talk to you.”
“So, you don’t need me there…?”
“No, but thanks.”
I didn’t know what to think about the situation. I really didn’t. I felt a bit betrayed frankly. During my last meeting with the acting MD, she didn’t bring up any problems; I got a raise, and got praise, she told me how the donors and board really liked me, and her own son wanted to have my job because it looked so fun. And then she asked me to give up my day off and work 6 days a week. I told her I could (once again; “Anything for the theatre”, yes, I said that) but that would put me into overtime. That wasn’t a problem, thanks for being understanding. So, there’s that. Something was up, but as I was told (a couple years too late), I don’t do politics well.
I am not the greatest interview subject. I’m nervous, not that great at talking about myself for publication, and tend to wander off the exciting topic of Tom to anything that might be more interesting to me. Once Nichole showed up to do the interview, I was nearly outside my body with anxiety. She followed me around during a school show, the photographer took that picture, and then we went over to the Center House to sit and chat. We probably talked for maybe 30 minutes. She was pleasant and never once tried to ambush me. And that was, it. It was a sunny day in Seattle, so I walked home.
The article came out the next Sunday. There was that picture, with comments from various people and staffers. I had some people bring it to me sign (one mom asked me to sign her clipping ‘To Debbie’ for her daughter. I knew her daughter, and her name wasn’t Debbie), I sent a copy to my mom and that was it. Or so I thought. There were things going on I didn’t know about. At least not yet. The publication of that interview was pretty much the beginning of end of me at SCT. In less than two years I would be gone.
But that’s a story for another day.
Here's a link to the published article, sans pic as they don't archive those:
(You'll have to cut and paste as I can't get the live function to work.)
See part two of this post: "Anything for the Theatre"