The journey of a Black stage manager on Broadway 00:00

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The journey of a Black stage manager on Broadway

One of Broadway’s most sought-after stage managers, Lisa Dawn Cave has helped to create a new professional networking organization for stage managers of color. She talks about her journey from dancer to stage manager to activist.

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Only 4 out of the 37 shows scheduled to open for the 2020 Broadway season had two or more artists of color on their principal creative and/or design teams. Source: Theater Mania

Jeff Lunden: In pre-pandemic times, Broadway employed close to 100,000 people in roles onstage and off, and contributed $14.8 billion to New York’s economy.  Of course, all those artists and craftspeople have been unable to do their jobs since March, and Lisa Dawn Cave is one of them. One of Broadway’s most sought-after stage managers, she was working on Disney’s Frozen, but she’s been busy.  With two other theater veterans, she founded “Broadway & Beyond: Access for Stage Managers of Color,” in response to calls after George Floyd’s death and the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement to respond to the lack of representation in American theater. This new professional networking group provides opportunities to aspiring and current stage managers of color to learn from industry insiders, meet industry leaders, and provide insights to help BIPOC stage managers start, maintain, and advance a career in the theatre through free networking and educational events. The Brooklyn native spoke with me about her long career — both as a dancer and a stage manager — and what led her to create this new organization.  

Lisa Dawn Cave: A stage manager is a person that is, like, the glue to a production of a show, whether it’s a play or whether it’s a musical. We make the rehearsal schedules, we make the costume schedules for fittings, we talk to the director and we hear what the director’s vision is. We connect with the designers to know what their needs are going to be. The designers, you know, can range from set designer, sound designer, costume designer, lighting designer, video designer, special effects designer, all of them now. And basically, the stage manager is the one that pulls all those people together. And then, when the show is up and running, of course, we are the ones that are running the show daily.

MUSIC  “Let it Go” from “Frozen”

Lisa Dawn Cave’s first big show was “Cats,” in which she played Victoria, the white cat. Cave appreciated the makeup artists on the set, who did not try to overly paint her face or her hands white. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Dawn Cave)

Lisa Dawn Cave: I started out as a dancer/singer. I actually went to [the] High School of Performing Arts as a dancer, graduated, and I went to SUNY Purchase and I got my degree, BFA, as a dance major. And then, when I got out of school, you know, I was fortunate. I actually started working, I think, it was about eight or nine months after I got out of college. And I was doing national tours. I did Cats” on Broadway.

MUSIC – “Cats” overture, instrumental

Lisa Dawn Cave: As a performer, “Cats” was one of my favorites, because it was my first big show. It was very challenging, you know, ‘cause it was like the ultimate dance show at the time. So, it showed all the skills I had. I was the first Black white cat. You know, I was very balletic. So, I had the experience to play Victoria, the white cat. Yet, I was a Black female, you know. And, um, I remember such a positive thing that when they said, we’re going to do this and they did my makeup, they didn’t overly try to paint my hands white, overly try to paint my face white. No. They actually used my skin to come through, you know, the white subtle paints and they put little browns in it. They made contrasts; even my white wig, they actually put little brown light streaks in it. They were not trying to cover her up. So that was a fantastic experience.

MUSIC Jellicle Cats” from “Cats”

Lisa Dawn Cave: In my 10 years as performing, I did experience a really bad case of discrimination. Back when I did “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” national tour. I was the only Black female in the cast of over 70. And unfortunately, there was a rehearsal that we had. And Robbins was pretty disturbed by… Well, he said he was disturbed that I stood out too much in the chorus, and that he felt that he needed to add arms to my costume and add legs to my costume to cover up my skin. And it was a little shocking. So as he was going through the notes and saying this, it kind of passed in, then I kind of brought it up still in the notes session with everyone sitting there. And I raised my hand and I said, “I really don’t understand what you’re saying and why they have to do this to my costumes that you’re saying I stand out too much.” And he said “you’re standing out too much because of your Black skin.”

MUSIC –  “Somewhere” from “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” 

Lisa Dawn Cave: I was pretty taken back and I could not go back out. And I went to my stage manager and then I went to my deputy and they were there, so they knew what was going on. And I said, “I’m sorry, but I cannot go back out there and rehearse.” And of course, I was crying and upset and going, “why is this happening? I don’t understand.” And they said, “well, if you don’t feel you can go back out there, then you can’t go back out there. And we’ll just let him know that, you know, and we’ll bring it to the attention of the, you know, general managers and everybody that this is what happened,” because they were also in shock and not happy about it. But long story short, they stood by me. I did not go back on stage. Robbins, of course, was not happy about that. And we had a conversation. It was not a good conversation. He was very unhappy that I, you know, as this chorus girl was demanding to not have to go into a rehearsal and demanding him basically to stop his rehearsal. And I basically, after the conversation was over, said to my deputy, and to my stage manager, you know, I will go out there and do my job because that’s what I was hired for and I will not breach my contract. But this is on record of what just happened.

MUSIC –  “Guys and Dolls” overture

Lisa Dawn Cave: I was doing “Guys and Dolls.” I was, you know, in my 30s. You know, your life as a dancer is a little shorter than the singer and the actor. Right? I did not want to leave the business. So, what else can I do in theater? I started looking around and I started really now noticing what the stage manager does, and I said, I wonder if that’s something that I can transition into. 

“Everybody’s story is different,” says Lisa Dawn Cave. “And when everybody’s stories come together, then that shows the wideness and the realm of the world, basically, and it only is advantageous to have those other voices in the room and those other ways of looking at things in the room and experiences in the room.”

MUSIC –  “Bushel and a Peck” from “Guys and Dolls”

Lisa Dawn Cave: Unfortunately, I was in a really bad car accident. And the car accident kind of stretched my ACL out, in my knee, and kind of really busted my arch, in my foot. And I, of course, panicked. And while I was in the emergency room, you know, I remember myself just saying, “I’m a dancer, you have to help me. I’m a dancer. What can you do?” You know? So, then I was in physical therapy and I had to tell the show what happened. And I had to take a, you know, medical leave. I went back in for my evaluation. And my doctor, my orthopedic said, you know, “I don’t have great news. You’ve done really well with your physical therapy. But you’ve kind of plateaued. It’s not that you can’t walk and you can’t run, but you’re not going to be able to dance eight times a week on that knee.” Of course, I was devastated. But that had to jumpstart me into the career that I was thinking about.

MUSIC – “Cotton Blossom” from “Show Boat”

Lisa Dawn Cave: I got my first gig as an assistant stage manager on Broadway, the revival of Show Boat with Hal Prince as the director. 

MUSIC – “Cotton Blossom” from “Show Boat”

Lisa Dawn Cave: And I remember my final interview and they said, “Lisa Dawn, you know, we know you don’t have any experience in actual stage managing, but there’s something about you that we really see. And we are looking for someone in particular, and we’re going to be very honest with you. If we told you that one of the major reasons that we’re going to hire you, because you have no experience, is because you’re Black and you’re female. And that’s what we really need right now.” And I said I’d take the job. And I’d prove myself in that job, but the next time you call me, it was because I’m going to be an experienced stage manager and that’s why you’re going to hire me. 

MUSIC – from “Parade”

Lisa Dawn Cave: My next show, “Parade”, was with Hal Prince again. He actually was the first person that gave me my first production stage manager seat. And it was on a regional show that he was doing. And he called me up and he said, “I’m doing this new show and I want you to be the production stage manager.” And of course, I said, “what? Are you kidding? No, I don’t know if I’m ready yet.” And he was like, “Kid, you can do this. I know you can do this and I want you on board.”

Music: from “Fun Home”

Lisa Dawn Cave: “Fun Home” was one of my favorite shows because of the storyline. And, you know, just being a part of that from the very beginning and seeing all the different, uh, states of what it was becoming until it became the Broadway show was just an unbelievable experience.

Music: “I’m Just Wild About Harry” from “Shuffle Along”

Lisa Dawn Cave: And then “Shuffle Along” was always amazing. I love working with George Wolfe. I’ve worked on him many times. I love working with him. And that show, in itself, being a history of black theater, you know, was amazing. 

MUSIC – “Harry” from “Shuffle Along”

CAVE: But here in New York, even on Broadway and even off-Broadway, I just noticed that I could count the stage managers on one hand, the BIPOC stage managers, much less black stage managers. We found that what would happen a lot of times is the way a lot would get gigs was because the show itself either was a black show or it was a show that had predominantly black casts, so, they wanted that diverse on the team. And that’s how a lot of times it was looked at it. Not all the time, but sometimes that’s how it was looked at. So that leads us up to “Broadway & Beyond: Access to Stage Managers of Color.”  What we’ve all been sitting in right now with 2020, with everything that’s been happening, and all these things have come up, you know, about racial inequality and systemic racism. And people started looking at different areas of where they see that, and then some people say that they can see some of it in the theater. So, what can I use, you know, to lift and bring forth other BIPOC stage managers to help them get through the door if they’re having any barriers, for whatever reasons they’re having them, whether it’s them or whether it’s the outside world, I’m just going to help that. And the reason it’s called “Broadway & Beyond” is because we said we don’t want to just be Broadway-centric. Yes. Everybody’s like, I want to go to Broadway and I want to do that. But Broadway is not the only place there’s theater. So, we wanted to spread it out all over the country, where there’s viable, beautiful, wonderful theater. And there’s beautiful, wonderful BIPOC stage managers out there. And we need to let everybody know that we’re right here in your backyard and you didn’t even know about it. In our mission statement, we want to eliminate the phrase of “the reason I didn’t hire anyone is because I didn’t know they were out there and I didn’t think there they were there.” So, we’re basically saying, here they are and now it’s your opportunity to call them up and to have an interview.

Lunden:  Lisa Dawn Cave says that when she and two other theater veterans created “Broadway and Beyond: Access for Stage Managers of Color,” over 70 stage managers participated in their first zoom meeting, as did Broadway producers, general managers and representatives of regional theaters across the country.  And when theater gets up and running, after the pandemic passes, Lisa Dawn Cave feels certain rehearsal rooms will better reflect the world in which we live.

Lisa Dawn Cave: Everybody’s story is different. And when everybody’s stories come together, then that shows the wideness and the realm of the world, basically, and it only is advantageous to have those other voices in the room and those other ways of looking at things in the room and experiences in the room.

Music: “Let it Go” from “Frozen” posts for a few seconds, fades.

Lunden: For iPondr, I’m Jeff Lunden.

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