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Jul 17

Backstage at Disney’s The Lion King

Camp Broadway recently sent me backstage at Disney’s The Lion King for the chance to watch the show from the technical booth, get a backstage tour, and have an in-depth conversation with the man that runs the ship day-to-day, Ron Vodicka.  Ron is the Production Stage Manager, and in this interview he describes his position, how he got there, and the full extent of his involvement in keeping one of Broadway’s largest and most celebrated shows as fantastic as it was 15 years ago. Whether you’re an aspiring Stage Manager or just interested to know a little about this pivotal role in the backstage world, I hope you’ll find something here for you! Enjoy!

In the Stage Manager’s Office with Ron Vodicka

Me: So Ron, this is a big show.

Ron: It is, it really is. What I would say about this show is that it is big in every direction. There’s a ton of dressers.  There’s a ton of automation. There’s a ton of light cues.  There may be some shows with more than one of those things, but it’s very rare that there are a lot of shows with more of all of those things. Plus it’s a big cast- there are 52 equity contracts.

Me: Wow, I didn’t realize…

Ron: Yah, we have about 125 people from the pit to the back wall to make the show happen each night.

Me: How long have you been with the show?

Ron: I’ve been here almost eight years, which is longer than I’ve ever had a job in my life. The longest job I had before this was 18 months.

Me: And how would you describe your position exactly? You’re the “Production Stage Manager.” What does that entail?

Ron: My job is to manage all those people from the pit to the back wall.  And my main focus is to make sure that we have all of the resources, for whatever it is we are doing in the theater, in the right place at the right time. So, that means at rehearsal, that means at a work call, that means whatever we are doing at the show- that everything is where it needs to be. That everybody knows what wardrobe we need, what puppets we need, and where- whether it be the rehearsal hall, or the lobby, or on stage.  If it’s on stage, I also organize whatever automation we may need for that day. Then, this all stems into the performances, making sure that everybody is in the right place, and making sure that the show is covered properly if people are out that night.

Me: You’re very busy.

Ron: Yes, but then after that, I’m also the manager of all those people.  For lack of a better term, the job is a lightning rod for all of the information. So, everybody can leave their problem at my desk.  Whether it’s something in the show that’s wrong, backstage traffic, or whether it’s the leaky sink or whatever… if the carpet needs replacing… it doesn’t mean that I have to replace the carpet, but I’m the one that communicates all of it. So, essentially everything goes through this office, and through me.

Me: Let’s take a step outside of this theater.  Are you also the liaison with the producers at Disney?

Ron: Well, I’m really the liaison in all directions- from the cast to the resident choreographer, or resident director and music director, to the Nederlanders who own the theater, to the Disney management, to the crew… and then just back and forth in every direction.

Me: How does The Lion King differ from other productions you’ve worked on in the past, apart from just the sheer size of the thing?

Ron: You know, I have to say, with Disney as the producer and manager of the show, I’ve never seen such a total commitment of resources to the production as complete and comprehensive as they’ve had. They simply don’t cut corners. At all. They expect it to look a certain way every night.

Me: And you can see that on stage.  It looks like it opened yesterday, not fifteen years ago!

Ron: Well thank you for saying that. But that’s possibly because we are supported by a producer that wants it to look that way and gives you the resources to do that. Often, producers want it to look that way but they don’t necessarily give you the proper resources. I feel, and I’m not trying to suck up, but I truly feel totally supported by them in every sense, and it’s been consistent and has never slowed down.  We recently had our fifteenth anniversary.

Me: Yes, I was lucky enough to be at the performance.

Ron: Oh, cool.

Me: It was quite the evening.

Ron: Yes, they pulled out all the stops.  We were doing all this new stuff just for that night, and we had all the creatives in and they each wanted to have their time to work with the cast. And Disney will do what’s necessary to make it possible even if that means paying for the union penalties: break penalties, meal penalties, etc. But, that allowed us to work for every possible hour for two and a half or three weeks.

Me: To make it all happen.

Ron: And not just that, but to get all of the creative team’s notes in. So, there was a whole team of associates that came in first, then the actual creatives came in and had their whack at it, and then we had to create that special celebration piece for the end of the night. Plus, there was tons of press. We did a whole broadcast of “Circle of Life” from the theater to Good Morning America and that required a 4:00AM load-in. To the highest degree, they are supporting the production both financially and otherwise.  I mean, they just give us every bit of support. And that’s been totally different than anything I’ve ever done.

Me: I can imagine.

Ron: Then on top of that, it’s just not your typical musical in any way. Given the puppetry aspects and such, every day has specific technical needs. To compare to most shows that I’ve done, a good example would be your understudy rehearsals once a month. You usually get a rhythm to it where you figure out what your needs are, and you know what you need to place where and what you need for a mock-up of props and scenery.  But, with this show, every single rehearsal is a custom built event because of the various puppets and automation. You can’t rehearse this show for very long on a flat floor. You have to have stuff. So those technical needs have been different than I’m used to.  Usually you find a rhythm and everybody knows what it is. But every rehearsal in this theater is a custom built event. It speaks to the complexity of the show, and to how well built it is. It really needs all these different things. You need to tick all the boxes to make it work.

Me: And would you say that the complex puppetry just adds to that?

Ron: Of course, I mean, it’s another layer. It’s not just wardrobe, it’s another department in this theatre. Another department separate from wardrobe that wouldn’t be on another show.

Me: Like I mentioned earlier, the show is beautifully maintained, and not just in production values.  The tightness of the production and the actors are still right up to par.  What is the process behind this maintenance? How often does the original team come in, and how much of a hand do you have in that process- aside from the aforementioned put-in rehearsals?

Ron: Well, there are three layers. We have what we call the ‘local team’ which is me, the resident director, the resident dance supervisor and the music director. We are constantly maintaining the show. On smaller shows, I would actually work the general staging rehearsals because there wouldn’t be a resident director, but we need this full team due to the size of the show, and thus I don’t have to deal with that at all. But we all oversee the day-to-day constant upkeep, in both rehearsals and giving notes. Then, there is the ‘associate team’, and they are the team that puts the show in around the world. They rehearse the show in new productions, and then they come to us once or twice a year and do clean-up rehearsals. They’re a fresh set of eyes.  Then, the final level, once every year or so…

Me: Julie Taymor.

Ron: Exactly. We get Julie Taymor, Garth Fagan… once a year we have Don Holder the lighting designer in for clean-up. So, the original team certainly has an involvement, it’s just less frequent. Because, of course, they have other projects going on that take them away from us.

Me: Absolutely.

Ron: When those people come it means work for us, but it’s always great to have them. We get a little bit myopic because we are looking at the show so closely every day, so it’s great when they come in with a little distance and can say, “These things are fine, but this thing needs work.” You know what I mean? They find new things to work on that, you know, we weren’t even looking at that, or had become accustomed to that or whatever.  But then Julie comes in and she can do something that nobody can do. She can speak to it as only the director can.  For example, with the grass heads, if they’re crooked we’ll give notes about it. But only Julie can say, “I don’t know what to tell you, but it just has to be perfect.” And that’s not a note that I can give. Only the creator can do that, because she created it!

Me: So, how do you get here? How do you become the stage manager on such a huge production like this?

Ron:. I started as a stage hand doing electrics in San Diego, and I really had a knack for the electrics and lighting. So, I started doing little lighting calls at places like the Globe and La Jolla Playhouse that are over there. When fancy lighting designers for Broadway shows would come to town, I would talk to them. Ultimately I introduced myself to the guy who was a New York lighting designer that came in and ran the opera company in San Diego. He sort of mentored me, but as a lighting designer and an assistant lighting designer.  I did a lot of opera with him, but he was also a stage manager.  So, somewhere in my early twenties he took me on the road as his assistant as a stage manager.  Then, I was trying to do both ends- touring as a stage manager, and doing my own lighting at regional opera companies and theaters. Somewhere along the line I sort of got disenchanted with the way I had to make a living as a lighting designer.  I still love to do lighting, and I still do.  In fact, Disney has been great about that too- they afford me time where I can go to an opera company and light an opera once or twice a year.

Me: Oh nice. It’s a good break.

Ron: Oh yah, it gives you a whole new set of things to think about.  But anyway, I was out on the road with Hairspray as a stage manager, and I decided that what I really wanted to do was to come home to New York, get a job on a Broadway show (this is all in my head of course) and then do some lighting on the side, but not have to make a living at it. Eventually, I got the call to come here from my good friend who was the first assistant stage manager here at the time.  They hired me as the second, and I’ve been here ever since just moving up the chain.

Me: Do you still call the show, even in this management-driven position?

Ron: Oh yah, I’ve called this production more than a thousand times.  I still try to call the show at least once a week, unless there is something crazy going on like that 15th Anniversary.  But, generally, I try to call once a week.  I find that if I give myself any more time between calling than that, I’m uncomfortable when I have to call it.  And who knows when I might have to step in- so it’s better to do it once a week.

Me: Makes sense.  So, the Minskoff is used for a lot of other events as well- for example, Camp Broadway is involved with Jimmy Awards which are hosted here. Do you work when those events come in as well?

Ron: Typically, yes.

Me: Well, thank you very much for setting this up for us, and allowing a glimpse into your life here at the Minskoff.

Ron: My pleasure.

“The Lion King” plays at the Minskoff Theatre on 45th Street.  For more information, visit www.lionking.com.

Photo via The Hollywood Reporter

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