Artist of the Week: Michael Cavanaugh: A Backstage Wizard


By Alison Myers, Arts Writer


After an early exposure to theatre, and without the draw of the limelight, Michael Cavanaugh, an alum of the University of Utah, found that he had a sense for the backstage life and directing. As he was growing up, both of Cavanaugh’s parents taught high school theatre, and this early introduction sparked his interest in the profession.

When he came to the U in 2001, he intended to graduate with a degree in the theatre teaching program to instruct university students. As Cavanaugh discovered that the focus would be geared towards teaching kindergarten through 12th grade, he began to look for schools to transfer to that would better suit his interests. Of course, during this liminal stage, destiny decided to tap him on the shoulder. Or, more accurately, the arts administrative assistant, Faye Baron, stepped in. Her encouragement to entertain the idea of going into stage management was enough. “I took to [stage management] like a fish takes to water,” Cavanaugh said. 

At the time that Baron pushed Cavanaugh in this direction, he was already enrolled in a stage management class. His professor noticed his “keen mind for organization” and involved him in the department’s production of “A Raisin in the Sun.” This show presented the perfect opportunity to learn from the show’s primary stage manager as he was able to walk around in her shadow to try stage management on for size.

While still feeling it out, he also overlooked prop organization. With “A Raisin in the Sun,” the job entailed deciding what household belongings from the set should be slowly placed into boxes in order to give the appearance of a family packing to move. He said that there were failures, and he had to assess “what worked, what didn’t work.” According to Cavanaugh, the process of “trial and error” is a big part of stage management. At the time that Cavanaugh was enrolled in the U’s stage management program, students had to manage seven shows over the course of four or five years as their requirement. Cavanaugh did so in three years. 

After graduating from the U in 2006, Cavanaugh left for California to attend a clown college where he studied physical theatre. After this experience, he felt a calling to move on, and the Bay Area seemed like the next step. He first stepped into the Marin Shakespeare Company for three seasons. From these experiences comes one of his favorite in his stage management career. Three years ago, in 2016, he acted as the stage manager for “Othello.” The title character came from a slightly unexpected background, though. Interested in social justice, the Marin Shakespeare Company has offered classes to men at San Quentin State Prison since 2003. Recently, that work has expanded to additional prisons, connecting incarcerated individuals to poetry and emotional expression.

Dameion Brown, one such student, after having served 24 years in jail, asked to play Othello after release and became the first actor from this outreach to perform on their professional stage. This offered different depth to the character, giving him a new point of view. Brown didn’t have experience performing in front of a paying audience but had the encouragement of the cast and crew. “I didn’t hold his hand,” Cavanaugh said, “but I did take him under my wing a little.” Both Brown’s performance and the show received high praise from critics. 

After his experience with the Marin Shakespeare Company, Cavanaugh found an opening as a stage manager at the San Jose Stage Company on the Actor’s Equity Association website that seemed to be “a good fit.” That might be putting it lightly, though, as the contract Cavanaugh had signed lasts for 11 months, and he is extremely grateful. Given the length of each job, it might seem like there’s not a lot of job security in stage management.

“There’s not a lot of job security in theatre in general,” Cavanaugh said. He hopes to be with San Jose for a few years, though, hoping that this will be long term if not permanent.

“They seem to like me and I like their personality,” he said, laughing. “We’ll see, we’re only a couple months into the relationship.” Although still a young couple, it sounds like love.

As the stage manager, Cavanaugh works with everybody at San Jose.

“Let me give you a cohesive definition of what a stage manager does,” he said. “A stage manager is responsible for the smooth running of the production, on stage and backstage, during pre-rehearsal, rehearsal, production and post-production.” 

He needs to be the right hand of the director to understand and enact their vision. He needs to coordinate with designers and be at every rehearsal to see what decisions are working. He may need to communicate with designers later, for example, if somebody “needs to do the splits we need to ask if we can make those adjustments.”

During production, he acts like an air traffic controller, calling cues and signaling effects. In other words, his job requires mediating between all the moving parts.

“With a good stage manager, you would never know they were there,” he said. “We’re the most responsible and the least praised. But we also get the biggest paychecks. My paychecks are bigger than Romeo’s.” Which seems fair, given the amount of work Cavanaugh does. It’s refreshing to see people in the back appreciated for their essential contributions. 

Currently, San Jose is putting together the iconic “Rocky Horror Show.”

“It’s a blast,” he said. “The music is rocking.”

Aside from engaging audience participation, the excitement of the production comes from the dedication of the people behind the scenes. This includes Allison Rich, who is directing, acting, arranging the score and playing the piano during rehearsal. The show no doubt will bring its own delightful flavor to a lineage of wonderful adaptations.

Cavanaugh himself has a taste for the absurd and would like to work with “timely pieces,” such as ones touching on immigration, later down the road. His role in the theatre world places him at the center of many spinning gears and it will be exciting to watch as his ideas come to light in every capacity. 

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