Roger Burleigh has a leading role in every production staged at Farmer’s Alley Theatre, but audience members likely will never see him.
Though the 50-something Burleigh has acted in a fair number of local theater productions, these days he has a behind-the-scenes role which finds him taking charge of the actors, the props and the sound and lighting for each show. While these responsibilities may seem like they should be under the director’s pervue, they’re not.
“The technical job description of the stage manager is to maintain the artistic integrity of a show,” Burleigh said. “Once the director sets the show, that’s when he says, ‘Now it’s yours.’ I take that show and make sure it stays the same as it did at that point in time, so in case I have actors who decide to do something different, I’m the one who makes sure stays it stays within the vision of the director.”
Oftentimes, directors from locales such as New York or Chicago will come in and set the show and leave before the production starts its run. Having someone with Burleigh’s acting and staging knowledge provides for a seamless transition.
“First of all, you have to understand where they’re coming from and know when you’re assigning things like a huge scene change, equity actors can only move furniture if it works with their character on stage,” Burleigh said. “As an actor I can go through and say that this person shouldn’t be moving around a lamppost. It also helps because I have experienced that side of it and can be empathetic towards them.”
This ability to empathize often goes well beyond the theatre.
“We’re always getting new casts and a lot of them are coming from New York, Chicago or Los Angeles,” Burleigh said. You’re dealing with different egos and actors are sometimes fragile and you’re their sounding board for everything like housing arrangements.”
On stage, he is dealing with different challenges. Because Farmer’s Alley is an equity theatre, the actors cast in various productions are professionals who know that their job is to do what the director tells them to do and that the time to experiment is during the rehearsal process. Still, Burleigh said there have been a few times when actors have veered away and were told to put the focus back on what the director intended.
Being a shy person will lead to an early exit stage left for any stage manager.
Burleigh said he is an extrovert who took an unconventional route to snagging his dream job seven years ago as a paid professional with Farmer’s Alley. After earning a Business Management and Marketing degree with a Theater and Music Performance minor from Olivet College, he took a job as a store manager with a McDonald’s restaurant and also worked in management for Burger King and Wendy’s – what he calls the triple crown of fast food - telling himself that if he didn’t become a District Supervisor by age 35, he was done.
He went on to work in management for a Disney Store and when those stores closed, he landed a job as an Associate Trainer with Panera Bread. He also volunteered his time as an actor and stage manager with the Civic Theatre in downtown Kalamazoo.
“When I got involved with the Civic in 1986, I started out as an actor and then started doing more and I joined their stage management program and had to work all of the backstage positions by myself,” Burleigh said.
The experience that prepared him for his current job, was learned during his time with the Civic where he met brothers, Adam and Robert Weiner and husband and wife, Jeremy Koch and Denene Mulay Koch, who founded Farmer’s Alley Theatre. They offered him opportunities to act in their earliest productions and when the opportunity to become a paid stage manager presented itself, Burleigh took it.
He admits to missing being in front of the curtain, but said the acting jobs available to him at his age, such as being cast as a grandfather, don’t hold the same appeal. He said he never aspired to become a stage manager on Broadway and considers himself fortunate to land a job that he never thought he’d be doing.
“I’m living one of my dreams of having a fulltime job in the theater,” Burleigh said. “To have this opportunity is really special to me.”