By John Campbell
The Civic Theatre was empty, save for a few people in the front few rows. The actors were going through their show, preparing for the opening night of “The Miracle Worker.” The director, Kristen Chesak, sat in the third row, making sure everything was running smoothly. Stage manager Savannah Draper sat in the front row, aluminum coffee cup in tow, taking notes in her script as she made sure everyone was doing and saying the right things.
Chesak stopped the rehearsal after seeing a bit of a problem with the set. After telling the actors to pretend that a platform was extended, she asked Draper where in the script they should pick back up. Draper gave the line and the rehearsal kept going forward.
However, a few years ago, Draper was not managing theatre; she was managing her troubled health. Draper had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“Hodgkin’s helped me learn to just go with the flow, which you have to do sometimes with stage management,” Draper said. “There are things that are within your control and others than aren’t and you learn very quickly which are which. Cancer and stage management both keep you on your toes and you need to stay on top of things, whether it’s medications or blocking (movement of actors on stage).”
“After cancer I realized life is short and I should be making the most of it,” Draper said. “I’ve always been passionate about theatre, but now more so. I need to live my life that I’ve been given to the fullest and in a way that makes me happy, and theatre makes me happy.”
Draper’s condition was diagnosed only after Draper began feeling easily short of breath just walking. She attributed this to being a smoker and a little overweight. She thought she had developed asthma. The night sweats and itchy skin didn’t make life any easier, but she thought it was from using the heater that winter. Begrudgingly, Draper went to her doctor, had an x-ray taken and went home.
A couple days later, the doctor called. She had developed a grapefruit-sized tumor on her sternum, as well as smaller tumors under her clavicles and in her neck. After more tests, it was determined that these tumors were cancerous.
After two years of chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant and radiation, Draper was declared to be in remission, which has lasted three years and two months. In two more years, she will be considered cured. During remission, Draper has been able to return to something she loved, the theatre.
Draper started getting into theatre during her time in high school. “I played as a pit musician in my high school musicals and learned a little about backstage at the same time,” Draper said. “I started working with lighting and sound for my high school drama productions after that. It was a fun way to meet people and I felt really in my element. I stopped doing theatre after high school to pursue college.”
Draper kept learning more about backstage production until she found stage managing, which she has been doing for a year and a half since she did “The Tempest” at Celery Flats.
The realm of chaos that is backstage during a show is not limited to the performers. The crew is the engine of the show; without them, the show falls apart. The crew can’t get lost in the chaos, but must embrace it. Stage managers like Draper make order of all the chaos.
“I love chaos,” Draper said. “I get bored without chaos. You just have to take a deep breath and carry on. There is a solution to everything and you just need to remain calm enough to find that solution.”
Chaos may not be constant in life, but when it is around, Draper has a way to deal with it.
Draper is currently the stage manager for the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre’s production of “The Miracle Worker.” Her assistant stage manager is Alyssa Herter, who is doing stage management for the first time. Herter is taking this opportunity to learn from Draper, who has learned a lot during her time as a stage manager.
“Especially with stage management, you’re there for every process from start to end,” Draper said. “You see everything. Having been on stage, there’s just a different sense, at least for me, a different sense of pride being on stage versus being in the mix of putting it all together. It’s just a different sense of accomplishment.”
Draper explained what a stage manager’s role is in a production.
“You kind of start out as the director’s right-hand person, and once the director steps aside, once the show is actually open, it’s the stage manager’s show,” Draper said. “They are ultimately in charge of it at that point.”
Draper prefers the run of the show over rehearsal because of the audience reaction and the feeling of a finished product.
“Seeing all the hard work of every single person in this production, cast, crew, directors, choreographers, just seeing it all come together and hearing the audience reaction is probably the most rewarding, and just my favorite part of this job,” Draper said. “Even if something went wrong, the audience doesn’t know that.”
Draper said her life-changing experience with Hodgkin’s lymphoma has changed her life for the better, getting her friends to push her back into theater.
“I just want to say that I have never been happier in my life,” Draper said. “I have had such an uphill battle for the last six years of worrying and dealing with a very terrifying disease. I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without all the love and support I’ve received. I’m very blessed that I am healthy and that I was able to take something so terrible and turn it around and rekindle my love of theatre and to be able to start building my life again.”