December 6, 2016
Don’t ask Nic Steffes to tell you his favorite Broadway musical — he’ll tell you it’s like asking a parent to choose his favorite child.
But “Wicked” will always hold a special place in his heart, as the first Broadway musical he watched, in seventh grade, and the one that made him realize he wants to work in theater.
Now, the 2014 Kuemper Catholic High School graduate is less than two weeks from an experience he still can’t believe is happening — and he’s known about it for a year and a half.
Steffes, a junior studying theater arts at the University of Iowa, along with a minor in communications and a certificate in performing arts entrepreneurship, will complete a month-long stage management internship with Broadway’s “Wicked” in New York City during his winter break.
While going through high school with a tight-knit class of fewer than 90 students whom he’d grown up with at Kuemper schools, Steffes participated in all of the musicals that he could, having grown from a kid who performed made-up plays on a homemade stage in his basement with his older sister to a middle-school student watching “Wicked” in Chicago and feeling as though he’d experienced a breakthrough to a high schooler onstage for “Godspell,” “Anything Goes,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The Music Man” and more. He also sang in choir and played french horn in band at school and in All Strings Attached.
But as much as he enjoyed being onstage, discovering the stage manager role while flipping through a Broadway playbill made everything fall into place.
It’s difficult to explain what a stage manager does, Steffes said — much simpler is explaining what a stage manager doesn’t do. The role includes running everything happening backstage, handling scheduling for a show, overseeing communication between actors, the director and sound, lighting and set directors, smoothing out disagreements that pop up, making sure actors and crew are safe and fixing problems that happen during a show before the audience learns about them or the show is affected — when a prop table collapses backstage, for example, or a young actor responds to the audience’s laughter by ad-libbing his lines.
“The fact that something could go wrong with a show and I could be the one who solves it excites me,” he said. “I like the problem-solving — it’s like a big puzzle.”
It’s an unseen job, Steffes said.
“When you see a show, you see the light and sound happening and think, ‘Oh, cool,’ but we’re the ones making that happen,” he said. “We always say we’re doing our job if people don’t know we exist. If it goes smoothly, they don’t think about it.”
Stage management allows Steffes to incorporate many different parts of theater — that’s one of his favorite things about it, he said.
“An actor is so different than a designer, but they all have their art, and they bring it together and put it together and it’s like a giant piece of art,” he said. “I like the magic of going to a show — the lights go down, and you forget about everything else.”
Steffes, 20, is the son of Gary and Kathy Steffes. Gary works at Pella Corp., and Kathy is a teacher at Kuemper Catholic Schools. Steffes’ older sister, Hannah, is in graduate school at the University of Northern Iowa.
He’s taken every opportunity to learn more about being a stage manager, shadowing backstage during several shows at the Civic Center in Des Moines, serving as stage manager for “Alice in Wonderland” at Kuemper and “Annie” with the Carroll Community Theater in high school and filling the role for several shows at the University of Iowa — and, before that, selecting a school with a stage management program and multiple faculty members specializing in that area.
His first semester of college, he was involved in three shows — he estimated that there were only about two weeks during the entire semester that he wasn’t in rehearsals. Last summer, he interned at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, assisting the stage managers for “The Little Mermaid Jr.”
Four years ago, as a junior in high school, he contacted as many people as he could find who were involved with “Wicked” when it was showing in New York City while he was there on a family vacation. That effort ultimately led to a conversation with a stage manager, a one-day stage-managing workshop and an invitation to apply for an internship.
He found out last summer that he’d be interning with the show “Wicked” on Broadway this December.
“I said, ‘Oh my gosh, now I have to wait a year and a half,’” Steffes said. “I tried to almost forget I got it, because it was gonna kill me to wait.”
The stage-management internship will allow him to see the show’s backstage goings-on and how the hair, props and costume departments work. He’ll also sit in on rehearsals with new cast members. He’ll interact with names he’s followed for years, including Jennifer DiNoia, Kara Lindsay and Sheryl Lee Ralph.
And it all comes back to his start in Carroll, Steffes said, adding he appreciates having Susan Glass, Kuemper Catholic High School’s play director, and Laura Comito, president of the Carroll Community Theater, allow him to try out stage management in high school.
“I think it’s great that Carroll has the chance to have great performing arts; I think it’s a really important thing that more people should get involved with or support,” he said. “It brings people together, and I think that’s awesome.”