Checklists: Never be Surprised

That Time I Realized My Father and I Have the Same Job.

When people ask me how I ended up in theatre, I’ll usually tell them about my mom taking me to musicals when I was a kid, about picking up my high school’s tech class freshman year, that point where my director told me, “actually yes, this is a thing you can do for the rest of your life.”  I grew up going to shows, especially musicals, all the time. Every season at The Pantages, Ahmanson Center, or OCPAC, my mom would be flipping through brochures with her friends, figuring out who was interested  in what show.  I saw my first Broadway show when I was six, and went to festivals and such to see theatre across the country over the years.  In high school, I worked productions all four years before starting college for the same.

Working in stage management, I am not only a product of my mother’s love for The Phantom of the Opera and A Chorus Line.  You will not see me in the limelight. I will be hunched in the back, headset on, a script in one hand and a checklist in the other.  That checklist is the reason I am my father’s son.

I should back up a minute.  My father is an airline pilot.  He’s been doing his job for a long time now, and he’s very good at it.  He’s weathered strikes, furloughs, 9/11, bankruptcy, and mergers.  He’s flown destinations on six continents and certainly has stories to tell.  His job is to get 400 people a few thousand miles away with as little disturbance as possible.  No big deal, right?

His job is one of method, an order of operations that cannot be bypassed, interrupted or ignored.  That approach to life is part of everything he does, everything I grew up with.  Camping trips involved detailed lists of every bit of food involved in every single meal (usually repackaged himself to conserve space), as well as the dining room covered in piles of gear before it was packed into the car in an elaborate game of tetris.  Driving lessons were like going through a line check on a 747.  Contingency plans were in place at my house for every eventuality, from blackouts to earthquakes, including disaster kits, generators, and lists of people to check in with.

I hear over and over people asking him the most dangerous place he’s been, the scariest thing that’s ever happened to him at work, most of them hoping for stories involving inflatable slides.  Time and time again, his answer is the same: “The 10 freeway to the airport, every time I’m headed to or from home.”  He’ll also tell you “my job is dull, boring, and uneventful, and I work as hard as I can to keep it that way.”

A week into my show this month I texted him remarking that if I’m turning in a rather boring performance report at the end of the night, it generally means nothing went wrong.  If nothing went wrong that night, I probably did something right that time.  He replied that it’s all a matter of elaborate what-ifs, if you try never to be surprised, you won’t get bit in the ass.

Playing what-ifs is indeed what we do, planning for contingencies no matter how outlandish or absurd, from sick actors and burnt out lamps to a dead audience member.  Once rehearsals are over and the show is running, Stage Management becomes not only an art, but a science. Calling your cues exactly as needed.  The right people need to be in the right places.  At call, fights are practiced.  Effects are tested.  The house is swept, the lights are set.  Every prop, every set piece is checked and re-checked to be sure it’s in the right place, standing by for its moment.

Lists are confirmed, all clear is given, and we begin.

Everyone is in their seats.
Flaps, wheel blocks, cabin pressurized, clear from tower.
Cell phones off. The safety briefing.
Lights up, curtain go.  Takeoff.
Intermission.  You are now free to move about the cabin.
Act two.  Seatbelt sign on.
Final approach. Curtain Call.  Landing.
Lights up, seatbelt sign off.  Gather your belongings and exit via the aisle.
A few hours gone, we return to the real world.

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4 Responses to Checklists: Never be Surprised

  1. croixhaug 2012-10-19 at 1:43 PM #

    Some of this hits a little close to home

    • Ben 2012-10-23 at 12:44 AM #

      Hello brother Tyler
      I have just informed Philipe that your name ought to be pronounced “Kwuss-hog” like “Croissant” but better.
      Please be advised this would be awesome.
      Love,
      Ben

    • pasta monster 2012-11-22 at 1:42 PM #

      Agreed; some of this is straight on target. You…I could not have said it any better. Beautiful- what a excellent piece. We love you.

  2. Brett 2012-10-21 at 6:11 PM #

    G\’day PW,

    Love this! As the son of another pilot that you know, I can identify with all of it 😉

    Hope to be in NYC in mid-late Jan, and would love to catch up then.

    BDT

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