Behind the Curtain
Though they rarely step into the limelight, theatre directors, producers, stage managers, agents, and designers of all iterations comprise the engine that keeps theatre running. For decades, alumni of SMTD’s Department of Theatre & Drama have been successfully filling those roles on and Off-Broadway, in regional theatre companies, and on national tours. Now, as the department embarks on its centennial celebrations, we are pleased to highlight a small cross-section of behind-the-scenes artists who are making an impact on American theatre.
Wendy Goldberg, BA ’95 (theatre & comparative literature), who returns to U-M this fall to direct Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, is the artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut and director of the National Directors Fellowship; she also serves on the Executive Board of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers. Goldberg believes that experiencing live theatre is integral to “unplugging” from media and technology. “Theatre is ancient; we listen to stories that allow us to contemplate our place within the world,” she said. “I’ve always loved stories and believe that sitting and listening to a live event will always be something we need and crave as humans.” While pursuing her BA, Goldberg also studied with Kate Mendeloff at the Residential College, which was revelatory. “I had no idea being a director was actually something to pursue professionally, and had no idea how difficult it was to actually pursue. Kate encouraged me to take an advanced directing seminar working on new plays, where I met a number of my future professors.” Goldberg was the artistic director for Basement Arts in her junior and senior years and learned about management from Jeffrey Kuras, director of University Productions. “At Michigan,” she said, “I focused on getting the best education I could on the history of my art form.”
THE SET DESIGNER
The opportunity to blend a variety of visual arts practices is what drew Caleb Levengood, BA ’03 (theatre), to set design. Levengood has designed shows at a number of theatres and universities, including a new ballet, The Princess and the Goblin, which premiered in Atlanta. He works as a freelance designer in New York City, most recently as the art director on a new DIRECTV series, Billy & Billie. “Painting, sculpting, installation art, and forms of storytelling are all integrated into the task of designing a set,” said Levengood. “It’s incredible how many different mediums a set designer gets to work in, and the huge variety of ideas you can play with. Once I discovered that I wanted set design to be a part of my future, I jumped in with full force. The design department professors gave me great opportunities to learn and quickly develop the skills for my career.” A production with particular resonance was After A Fashion, a work by Professor Holly Hughes, which didn’t utilize a traditional script. “It really allowed for a lot of creative opportunities as a designer, working with something that was fully developing in front of your eyes.” Levengood’s passion for his work is ultimately connected to his love of storytelling. “The experience of the story, and having it unfold in real time, is incredibly engaging. It pulls you in and asks for your participation.”
“Theatre is an actor’s lifeblood; it’s magical, exciting, and feeds the creative spirit,” said Melissa Berger Brennan, BA ’82 (theatre), an agent at the Los Angeles office of Cunningham-Escott-Slevin-Doherty Talent Agency (CESD). Berger Brennan started as an actor. At U-M, she appeared in The Inspector General and participated in the Summer Rep programs, which included productions of Blithe Spirit and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After graduating, she pursued an MFA and an acting career. She gradually segued into talent management, while continuing to act and produce with Bottom’s Dream, a theatre company founded by fellow SMTD alum James Martin and Mitchell Gossett, her management partner. Gossett was offered an agency position at CESD, which then hired Berger Brennan. “By the time that door opened, I found that I enjoyed working at representing actors far more than participating in the audition process myself. I happily accepted and haven’t looked back since.” A deep understanding of the audition process has shaped Berger Brennan’s approach to her career. “I like to know what my clients are working on in terms of their skills and any outside projects they are creating,” she said. “I work very hard to represent them, and I can do that more effectively if I have a clear picture of what they are passionate about.”
As a four-time Tony Award winner for productions of The Norman Conquests (2009), La Cage aux Folles (2010), Memphis (2010), and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (2013), Richard Winkler, BA ’70 (speech), has achieved success at the highest level in a theatre career that spans 45 years. Following 35 years as a lighting designer for theatre, opera, and ballet, he now produces in London’s West End, U.S. tours, and on Broadway, where he is currently represented by the hit shows Hand to God, and Something Rotten! His experience as a lighting designer informs his current role as a producer. “Lighting designers take the vision of the director, the scenic designer, and the costume designer and put them together,” said Winkler. “The producer does the same thing, but on a much larger scale. I’ve always had a larger vision, and now I’m able to put it to work.” A strong creative background is one of the qualities Winkler credits for his success. “I’m an artist as well as a businessman. It’s very important for a producer to have 360-degree vision. We need to see and encourage creativity and talent in every department, even as we honor the traditions that continue to make live theatre such an exciting combination of art and commerce.” But Winkler doesn’t put much stock in luck. “You can catch lightning in a bottle once, but you can’t catch luck time after time,” he said. “Producing is hard work. It takes a high degree of planning and incredible attention to detail. On the other hand, I’m personally very lucky: I’ve been able to make my passion into my profession; I’ve achieved a degree of commercial success; and every day there are new adventures and new opportunities around the corner.”
THE STAGE MANAGER
Melissa M. Spengler, BA ’01 (theatre), has worked on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and at several regional theatres across the country. Most recently, she joined the stage management team of If/Then for the end of its Broadway run, and is currently working on a new musical, Theory of Relativity, at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut. “I fell into stage management accidentally,” Spengler said. “I was the set designer for a Basement Arts show, and our board-op was injured and couldn’t run the show. I stepped in and ran sound and called the lighting cues.” After the show, a friend suggested that Spengler take Nancy Uffner-Elliot’s stage management classes. She did, thus providing the foundation for her career. One of the many interesting aspects of stage management is the multitude of responsibilities it entails. “You have to be super-organized, good with people, and able to anticipate problems and solve them before they even happen. I like to think of the stage manager’s primary roles as being, first, to ensure safety in the room, and second, to support everyone to do their best possible work.” Spengler relies on her collaborations with directors, designers, production teams, and assistants. “Theatre is intensely collaborative; my job is to facilitate these ideas and make them work together,” she said. “I’ve come to realize that we fuel each other’s creativity and we do our best work together.”
By Brandon Monzon, communications generalist and assistant editor of Michigan Muse.