New faces in theatre: behind the scenes with stage manager Isabel Bergquist

They’re young. They shine brightly. And their talents are already lighting up the Edmonton theatre scene. 12thnight talked to six starry and sought-after up-and-comers, artists whose work, on- and backstage, will have a big impact on theatre here when the doors are open again, and we can once more share the live experience.

Meet stage manager Isabel Bergquist. And look for the others in this continuing New Faces series. First up was actor Helen Belay; then designer Alison Yanota.  

Stage manager Isabel Bergquist. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

ISABEL (Izzy) BERGQUIST, stage manager

If you caught a pair of entwined political comedies at the Citadel last year, you’ve got to have wondered how on earth The Party and The Candidate could be running at the same time, with the same 10 actors playing the same characters nine months apart, in two different theatres. Behind the satirical stingers whizzing by onstage was a high-speed behind-the-scenes farce, itself an achievement in precision timing and logistics.

Martha Burns and Amber Lewis (front), Glenn Nelson, Jesse Lipscombe, Thom Allison (rear) in The Candidate, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker

This lunatic timetable and a daunting sheaf of organizational charts were the work of a team of crack enablers (with stopwatches and high stress thresholds) — among them an apprentice who’s steadily becoming one of this theatre town’s most sought-after stage managers.

“Problem-solving, negotiation, what the costume needs are, what the prop needs are, where we are with the pre-set, lots of being on your toes and improvising….” The job backstage at The Party in the Citadel’s Rice Theatre that Isabel Bergquist happily describes is complicated in itself. Then synchronizing it to the milli-second with another production, the multi-door farce The Candidate in the Maclab, makes air traffic control look like a yawn. “We worked as a cohesive unity, and it was thrilling!” It was, she says, a tangible reminder of “the real joy and privilege of a live experience….”

Isabel Bergquist. Photo supplied

The route by which Bergquist has found herself in the stage management brigade, with its rarefied skill set, is mysterious — not least to her. “A fluke, really!” says the 2018 U of A Fine Arts grad in stage management. She was never the kid who sang along to show tunes and pined to be in the limelight centrestage. “I fell into theatre.. I just thought it was sort of magical. What attracted me as a 13-year-old was the community element; the sense of family really hooked me in.”

Bergquist’s first gig out of university was Nextfest, Theatre Network’s celebration of emerging artists, where, in a total immersion experience, stage managers do everything. At large-scale operations like the Citadel, the duties, calibrated among the stage manager, the assistants, the apprentices, are much more rigidly parsed, as defined by the Equity system. For a couple of seasons, Bergquist has been apprenticing at the Citadel on big productions like As You Like It and A Christmas Carol, as well as at the Freewill Shakespeare Festival and Opera Nuova. And for the last two years Bergquist has stage managed Alberta Musical Theatre’s original musical fairy tales as they prepare for the public launch of their exceedingly long tours. “Really fun!” she says. 

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Opera director Brian Deedrick appreciates Bergquist’s calm expertise. “She was still a student when we worked together at Opera Nuova, and yet she already had the brilliant organizational and empathetic skills needed for a great stage manager: I’d happily share a rehearsal hall with her any time, anywhere….”

“I feel like I don’t really fit the mould,” says Bergquist, an exuberant and thoughtful sort.  “Stage managers are fairly to themselves, not seeking attention, quiet…. I love people; I love to make them laugh; I’m kind of loud!”

The job, she thinks, asks that “you be open and receptive to everything at play. For sure, patience is required…. You find ways to be respectful but also have boundaries.” And in a world of big personalities and outsized, fragile egos, the stage manager “also requires a certain amount of social awarenesses … grounded in kindness I think.”

As every stage manager knows, the odd outburst and tantrum isn’t exactly unheard of in theatre. “I try to hold my ground and not really engage…. Normally I’m met with sincere apology,” she says genially. The idea is not to forget that “it’s a big thing that’s being created, with a lot of moving pieces and a lot of people. It’s not about me. Or them. It’s about storytelling.”

“She laughs. “Sometimes I do have to bite my tongue.”

Bergquist has role models, Kerry Johnston, Molly Pearson, Beth Dart, and Wayne Paquette among them. Some are specialists; others have diversified into other career paths. Since the stage manager is involved with the script in all its minutiae, as well as acting and directing, exploring direction or dramaturgy isn’t a leap into the wild blue yonder. Bergquist is up for that. “Stage management feels like part of my career, not all of it….My ideal of a fulfilling life is a variety,” she says.

With theatre doors shut for an indeterminate time, Bergquist has put her plan to go abroad and explore arts communities elsewhere — Belgium, the Netherlands, Scotland for a couple of years — on Pause. She looks on the bright side (another stage manager trait): “OK, instead of six days a week, 10 hours a day, it’s an opportunity to read plays, find stories and art that matter to me.”

And Bergquist is even finding out, first-hand, what online stage management looks like, in a production of Mac Brock’s Tracks, slated originally for a May run in Fringe Theatre’s Off-Season lineup. It’s not like there’s a guidebook for pandemical transformations; she’s inventing as she goes.


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