String theory

Stage manager Matthew Compton ensures that the show will go on

At Capital Stage, Matthew Compton’s job is part stage management, part diplomacy.

At Capital Stage, Matthew Compton’s job is part stage management, part diplomacy.

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If the director of a play is the puppeteer and the players the marionettes, the stage manager is the one that makes sure all the strings work correctly. It’s these behind-the-scenes workers, after all, who ensure that every performance, every light, every sound works in perfect harmony.

Matthew Compton, 36, has served as production stage manager at Capital Stage for two years. It’s a full-time gig—and one that only a select few in the local theater scene can claim to possess.

And, he says, it’s one that’s often fraught with unique challenges. Take, for example, the language barrier that popped up when Compton worked on a touring, bilingual production of The Inspector General with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival.

“The Russian director didn’t speak any English,” Compton remembers. “All the designers were Russian. I had one translator, [and] all I heard was a lot of, ‘Nyet, Matthew! Nyet!’ It was insane.”

Of course, the show must always go on.

“It came together, of course,” Compton says now.

It takes a keen mind and a diplomatic tongue to deal with actors, directors, props and stage directions; Compton possesses those qualities in full. A stage manager’s mind, after all, is trained to deal with split-second decisions.

“[Theater’s] a well-oiled machine,” says Carolyn Howarth, former artistic director of the Foothill Theatre Company, where Compton worked for nearly a decade. “If you don’t have somebody at the hub who’s really got those skills to make that happen, I’m not sure a show could ever really get together—well, it probably could, it would just be clunky and bad.”

Howarth, who also worked with Compton when she directed Capital Stage’s Mistakes Were Made, says his ability to be empathetic and level-headed make him a natural.

Compton says he keeps everything on track with regular communication.

“It’s important that we meet once a week to make sure we’re touching base and getting our jobs done,” he says. “Is the [set] build going OK? Are we getting the plans in for lighting designs on time? Does [the] props [department] need help finding a double bed and a working toilet?”

All of the pieces have to fall into place. More often than not, those pieces aren’t simple to fit—rather, it’s a process that takes extreme organization and concentration. The payoff, however, can be huge.

The recent Cap Stage hit Enron, for example, took the techno cake when it came to its stunning, seamlessly executed lights and sound. The work that went into its smooth execution, Compton notes with a grim smile, was painstakingly detailed.

“I’ve done shows off Broadway in New York all the way to California,” he says. “[Enron] was the hardest show I’ve ever done. I had 741 cues—that’s a lot of cues.”

Compton started his work in theater when he was 17 as an intern for the Sacramento Light Opera Association (now California Musical Theatre), and continued his education working for theaters such as the Music Circus, Sierra College and Lambda Players.

He then found a home at the Foothill Theatre Company in Nevada City, where he worked for nearly a decade before it closed its doors in 2008.

After a stint helming the stages for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Compton returned to Sacramento to work for Capital Stage where, he says, he not only manages his crew, but also fosters connections on a larger scale.

“We have such good relationships [in Sacramento],” Compton says. “We can just call each other … and say, ‘I need some help.’”