In 1914, Arthur Fitzgerald took to the pages of The New York Times to admit to the world that, yes, fine, he is temperamental.
Fitzgerald, the stage manager for "The Law of the Land" -- "a grisly melodrama" on Broadway with "Julia Dean in the role of the woman who kills her husband" -- at first took issue with that "nom-de-theatre." That is, until a producer explained it, "You are so very particular."
Oh, yes, Fitzgerald agreed, I sure as heck am.
"Our stage machinery works like a perfect clock," he wrote in "Agonies of a Stage Manager," striking a tone that suggests he was not the kind of man who allowed his friends to call him Fitzy, not even at the after party.
"The curtain rises punctually, the necessary properties are checked and rechecked, and are always in their places. When a telephone bell on stage is to ring 'in the middle of a word,' as we say, the man off stage who pushes the button does it just as carefully and just as seriously as if he were playing his part in full view of the audience."
The role of stage manager, Fitzgerald wanted us to know, requires this type of precision, organization, devotion and attention to detail.
Stage manager Ginger M. James at Arts Center of Coastal Carolina shared a story with me the other day that is considered a classic in the theater world. When the (fake) gun in a (fake) murder scene didn't go off as planned during a show, the actor saved the day by grabbing another prop that happened to be on stage and force-fed his victim "poisoned jam" instead.
It's a fun scene to consider, a man, in an act of desperation, spooning gobs of Smucker's into another man's face while loudly narrating the action to the audience just to catch them up on the punt, all because someone maybe should've, you know, checked the fake gun.
At "Ring of Fire," the Johnny Cash musical now on stage at the Arts Center, it's James' job to make sure that things always go as planned -- and if they don't go as planned, to find out why and fix it.
On Wednesday night, James took her spot in the sound booth exactly 10 minutes before the show was to start, as she has been doing at Arts Center shows for 13 years.
Dressed in all black, with both arms and all fingers outfitted in more bracelets and rings than I have ever seen in one place, she is the type of person who it would not surprise me to find has "put on jewelry" and "remove jewelry" as items on her personal to-do list. That is to say, she would meet Fitzgerald's very high standards were he still around, God bless that finicky man.
A stage manager, she said, is in charge of a production "from the edge of the stage back -- the actors, the show itself, all the lights, all the cues, the state of the props. Generally, I make sure the show that the director put together stays the same throughout."
James took her spot high above the audience and stage and put on her headset (oh how you would've loved the future, Arthur Fitzgerald). In a low, calm voice -- like that of a late-night radio DJ who offers musical salvation to the heartbroken -- she begins to call the show: "Places please. Places please. Places please."
Throughout the night she smoothly calls out cues and commands, one hand turning pages of the very thick book she uses to guide the show -- a satisfying compilation of script, score, drawings, notes and colored tabs that would set any Type A person's heart ablaze. Her other hand takes notes or moves along to the music in subconscious enjoyment or sometimes snaps to punctuate the execution of a call.
Every night she's up there, show after show.
"It's actually fascinating," she said, "because it's not the same show every night. Every actor has a slightly different performance every night."
James, a mom and wife who lives on Hilton Head Island, doesn't usually have time to see shows as an audience member but said she likes having the opportunity to watch the actors grow in their roles.
"Like with 'A Boy Named Sue'?," she said to me. "Those guys really nailed that last night ... they just nailed that number."
Count James among the lucky to have found a career that she loves.
"I don't really know of anything else I would do that I would enjoy," she said. "Air traffic control might be fun."