The Unlikely Journey of a Stage Manager

Music begins, curtains open, lights go on, and you are immediately pulled into another world. Seamlessly, scenery floats in and out, moving you through a story. Lights change with a singular musical note. The atmosphere shifts with smoke billowing onto the stage rolling along to the sound of a melancholy violin. If done well, it’s easy to think that this magic happens all by itself. But that is not the case. The name of the magician behind this magic is the stage manager. He sits quietly in the shadows, running the whole show. Without him, the curtains wouldn’t even open.

At the Estonian National Ballet, the stage manager’s name is Anton Osul. Anton is a man of many trades. Throughout his life, he learned many different skill sets, many of which seemingly had nothing to do with art. In the end, however, they gave him all the tools he needed for his role in the theater.

Anton Osul : Photo by Tanel Meos

Anton grew up in Parnu, in a very athletic family.

“I was born in 1977, I am 44 years old. My sports lifestyle began when I was 10 years old. My father, mother, and sister were kayakers. So yes, I am from a sports family.”

Though having an athletic upbringing, his family didn’t shy away from the arts. At age 11 he also started attending dance classes at the will of his father.

“This, the real sport, the sport of dancing. That wasn’t my idea, it was my father’s. Because he cannot dance, he never took classes or anything, he decided to send me to learn, so then I could teach him. But this never happened. He still cannot dance.”

Anton began in ballroom but ended up quitting at age seventeen because his dance partner left for America, but that didn’t stop him from dancing elsewhere.

“We tried to get another partner from Tallinn, but ballroom dancing means money. And we didn’t have that much money, so we decided to quit it. I tried to continue dancing but this time show dancing. I was in school during the day, and in the evenings I would be performing and even dancing in nightclubs. After this, I got into the university, “Viljandi Culture Academy” and got a dance teacher, choreographer diploma.”

But not long after, this Anton was faced with a hardship that came in the form of a knee injury and then later, a surgery gone wrong. It was a huge hit that caused Anton to shift gears quite dramatically. Anton bounced around jobs, looking for what was for him. He didn’t sit around waiting for something to fall in his lap, but actively searched for what he was meant to do, and ended up learning a lot along the way.

“I tried to find myself. I joined the military and got to the Sargent rank. I even became a teacher there for a weaponry class. After the military, I joined the casino, this is also where I met my wife. My wife was a performer there at the time and I was a dealer. I was actually really good as well. But something happened at the casino that caused me to quit. Right after quitting, I started dancing on the cruise ships and ferries. There I met Andrus Kambre (manager of the Estonian National Ballet), and later took his position as a dance coach. Again, however, something happened, and I decided to quit. After this, I became a tiler. I worked in the construction business for many years. I have also been a teacher in school, I’ve been a teacher for a wheelchair dancing class, I have even been a dishwasher in a pizzeria… It was a hard time for me, especially in my early twenties, trying to find what was for me, but, yes, I’ve done everything everywhere.”

Anton and his wife, Ljubov.

Now 12 years ago, Andrus Kambre, called up his old friend and asked Anton if he’d be interested in becoming the stage manager for the Estonian National Ballet. Anton’s quickly agreed to this new position and took to learn yet another set of skills.

“It was interesting, the old stage manager told me how the stage needs to look like, but all the secrets to a great show were given to me by Thomas Edur (previous director of the Estonian National Ballet). He was the one who told me how it needs to be and how to make the stage almost like a movie.”

Anton’s first ballet was Coppelia: a ballet full of sets, props, and many moving pieces followed by the Nutcracker, another very complex stage production. But even in all of this Anton says he doesn’t get nervous.

So what does a show for Anton look like?

“I always talk with the stage crew, but, actually I get the stage once it’s ready. In some theaters, the stage manager needs to be there when then they build up the stage. We don’t have to because we have extra people who are responsible for the setup. Before the performance I need to check that all the dancers are ready, in the house, or in their position before the curtain opens. We have had times when someone is late or missing, so I’m responsible to contact them and call in someone else. I have the musical score that contains all the queues for scenery and light changes. I’m connected to all the stagehands via radio and tell them when to move their prop or piece of scenery. It takes a lot of trust. I can’t see if they are sitting there in the darkness or not? I say, “go”, if the set moves, yes, they are there. I really cannot do this job without them. Without a team, I am zero on stage.”

From curtain open to curtain closing Anton is leading the stage crew in relaying a seamless, movie-like story. But when it comes to new productions, the staging of premieres, there is even more work to be done.

“Unlikely many theaters we start only maybe one or two weeks before the premiere. The first step is generally to establish the technical movements of the fly bars. We need to try different speeds at which they should move to be in sync with the musical cue the choreographer wants. This is when I get stressed, sometimes. We, the choreographer, the set designer, lighting, tech people, who are sitting in the audience, want to see the movements many times, but the stage crew gets nervous because every little change needs to be completely reprogrammed and it takes a lot of time. It always ends up with the choreographer screaming at the stage crew. So yes, we get nervous then. I also have to write in my score all the cues, but after these rehearsals, there are so many changes, the score is garbage.”

Anton says that he doesn’t have a favorite part of his job, but just that he wants to do every part well.

“Every part needs to be done well. I don’t think ‘this’ is my favorite part, and ‘this’ is not. I need to do this job correctly. The emotions I leave somewhere else, maybe that’s why I’m not nervous during a show. I learned it in the army. You need to do what you need to do. Because if you do something wrong, you have ten or twenty people behind you who are affected.”

Anton has now worked faithfully at the theater for the past twelve years. It has been one of the longest jobs he’s decided to keep. But all the previous jobs gave him a pretty incredible tool belt for this position.

“I’ve thought about working somewhere else, as it’s not possible but for me to work in one place all the time, for all my life. I try to change places, learn something new, but in this theatre, yes, I have worked so long. It’s the longest job that I’ve had, so I like it. All my past jobs have helped me to work well here. I’ve been a student, a teacher, a soldier, a dishwasher. I know how to lead, how to follow, and how to work in a team.”

It’s so fascinating, the life choices that lead people to where they are today, the life events that lead a person from one place to another. And not only that but also, who people become in the process. Who knew that the stage manager could also be a soldier, a dishwasher, and a teacher. Now I’m even more curious to hear the other stories of people that work more in the shadows of the theater but are nonetheless important to the theater experience.

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