How does a techie get to 100 productions? One show at a time

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In the world of live theater, 100 productions seems like a very large number.

But in order to get a real feel for the number’s significance, especially for someone who’s involved in it only on a part-time basis on the East End, you have to use it as a factor: 100 times a conservative average of four weeks of rehearsals and three weeks of performances yields a commitment of 700 weeks. Since there is rarely a time when a stint at the “office” lasts less than three hours, that adds up to about 2,100 hours—a period covering nearly three months, 24/7—devoted to putting on shows.

And John Zaleski, who will give the cue for “lights up” on his 100th show when “Wait Until Dark” opens in Quogue on Thursday, January 15, has loved pretty much every minute of it.

Ever the soul of modesty, Mr. Zaleski, who lives in Southampton, will tell you that he never spent that much time on shows when he got started some 20 years ago, rolling out some flats (painting panels of a set) and breaking too-reflective panes of glass out of some French doors for the Community Theater Company production of “Steel Magnolias” at the John Drew Theater of Guild Hall in East Hampton.

And he most likely won’t tell you that ever since he got hooked on doing tech work for live theater, and especially since he worked his way up to his present status as one of the most respected stage managers in the East End theater community, he spends a lot more time on every show than the averages would suggest.

Actors who appear on East End stages in more than a dozen productions tend to become familiar names for audiences; “techies,” as they are known in the theater world, toil in relative obscurity. And Mr. Zaleski is fine with that.

“If we do our jobs right,” he said in a interview last Friday, dropping in at the Southampton Press office on his way to a rehearsal, “the audience doesn’t know we’re there,” except possibly as shadowy figures changing scenery in semi-darkness.

Like all long journeys, Mr. Zaleski’s excursion into live theater began with a single, simple step. “Mary Ryder stopped in to the East Hampton Post Office,” where he worked until his retirement a month ago, “and asked a favor: could I roll out a few flats?”

He stopped over at Guild Hall after work and pitched in with a paint roller. Then he was asked to break out the French door windowpanes so they wouldn’t reflect the stage lights into the audience. He also wound up loaning a chair for use on the set.

Sitting in the audience when the play opened, Mr. Zaleski confessed that he didn’t focus that much on the show or the characters or the acting: he was too busy examining the details. “I did that,” he said to himself with some measure of gratification as he looked at the painted scenery, and his chair, and the French doors that weren’t bouncing distracting light into the house.

He enjoyed the experience enough to offer to help out on the CTC production of “Wait Until Dark”: his second show turned out to be his 100th as well. He began the process “helping out” with props, he said, but by the time the show went up he had been put in charge of that component of the production. He was hooked.

“Being backstage and making it work … It wasn’t the magic yet,” he said, “but I thought it was pretty cool, and I wanted to learn more.”

He credits Judy Militaire, the longtime stage manager for CTC and other productions, for showing him the ropes backstage. “Judy is a great teacher,” he said with heartfelt gratitude, “she taught me so much.”

Along with hundreds of how-to tips and procedural details, perhaps the most important concept Ms. Militaire shared with him related to “the respect that the theater family has to have. We need the actors,” Mr. Zaleski said, speaking for the tech side, “and the actors need us. We’re working in real time and there are no do-overs. Just like in a family, if you have an argument, you have to work it out and move on. Everybody has to check their egos at the door.”

As for the magic that he would come to appreciate as he worked on more shows, a large measure of it, at least for him, derived from translating the techies’ art and artifice into the kind of authentic experience that would allow audiences to suspend disbelief. In other words, like magicians in parlors and nightclubs around the world, Mr. Zaleski learned the trade of an illusionist.

“What we’re watching in the audience is real,” the stage manager said with a knowing smile, “but everything on the stage is fake.”

He began collecting posters signed by cast and crew from the different shows he worked on near the beginning of his career, then stopped for a time because he was running out of wall space. Having resumed the practice a little while later—wall space be damned—he now has 85 custom framed posters providing a fairly comprehensive history of his work backstage in East Hampton, Quogue, the Westhampton Beach PAC, the former Southampton College, Dowling College, LTV Studios and area high schools.

And while he admits there is a wide gap in his specific memories of the middle of his career to date—“I remember most of my first 10, and most of my last 10; the 80 in the middle are a bit of a blur”—he has a very clear memory of the first time he called a show as the stage manager. The play was the CTC’s production of “Death Trap,” and he was at his station stage left, talking on the headset with Meg Gage on the stage right side of the set.

“How’re you doing?” Meg asked him just before 8 p.m., with two minutes to go until lights up.

“I don’t know,” he said nervously, not at all sure if he’d be able to pull it off. “My hands are ice cold, but they’re wet.”

“You’re right on schedule,” the answer came back with a laugh.

Now, with 99 shows under his belt, Mr. Zaleski’s nerves aren’t really an issue anymore. Asked if he ever considers the notion that the stage manager is both orchestra conductor—cuing all lighting, sound and special effects and maintaining the technical rhythms of the show—and field marshal, in charge of keeping track of the actors and getting them into their places in time for their entrances, he said, “I try not to think about it, because it is a tremendous responsibility.

“There’s a danger of paralysis through analysis if you think about it too much,” he continued. “And it calms actors and crew if you have a firm hand on the wheel.”

Along with such jobs as “sitting on the book”—following along in the script during rehearsals in order to feed the actors their words when they call for a line—Mr. Zaleski learned how to enter cue notations (Q 27) in a stage manager’s blown-up copy of a script pasted onto pages in a three-ring binder, and other organizational tricks. He also learned a lot about the precision and efficiency required for scene changes from his mentor, Ms. Militaire.

He compares the backstage helpers in these situations to “a NASCAR pit crew: everyone has a job,” he said. “It is choreographed and rehearsed as much as anything that happens on the stage.”

He learned how to be able to walk out on a dark stage and start moving things right away: closing his eyes just a few lines before the lights are going to go down, then opening them as the actors clear the stage and he goes out in the dark, with his eyes already adjusted.

Along the way to 100 shows, there have been plenty of adventures: A “magic” tree stump overfilled with flash powder sparked “a fire the size of a Volkswagen” on the set of “Finian’s Rainbow” at the John Drew; an actor in drag walked out on stage in Quogue wearing two different colored high heels in “Sylvia,” and he was “the only one in the house, onstage or off, who didn’t know” about the mistake. The John Drew production of “Hamlet,” with more than 400 light cues, special effects (f/x), and costume and scene changes, was probably the most difficult show, even though he wasn’t the stage manager. The Hampton Theatre Company’s “Lobby Hero” at the PAC, with just six light cues, was probably the simplest.

What keeps him coming back, he said, is the same thing that he thinks would likely repel a lot of other people: repetition. Mr. Zaleski, who became a member of the Hampton Theatre Company board of directors last year, enjoys developing the rhythms and noting how “each time it gets a little better,” he said. “It might seem the same but there are subtle differences” between the shows on successive nights.

“It gets a little better every time,” he said. “It’s new all over again.”

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