Countdown to Curtain

Steve Priesman stage manages his last Christmas Carol at Playhouse

He’s the unseen master of the house, calling cues on his radio headset or flipping switches to turn on red, green and yellow cue lights. The script says, “slurp, slurp, slurp,” as Ebenezer Scrooge noisily spoons his soup, and the words tell Steve Priesman to signal the next change in lights, sound or set piece. He’s been doing it 24 years as stage manager for A Christmas Carol at the Omaha Community Playhouse, but Steve will announce his final countdown to curtain — “five, four, three, two, one” — at this Thursday’s closing performance. “I’ll miss the audience reactions,” he says, but “I won’t miss six days a week of rehearsals and six shows a week” during a 10-week stretch ending Dec. 23. And it comes in a season when Steve and wife Marion, a cast member all those years, want more time with their granddaughter and another grandchild expected next year. Both still plan to volunteer at the Playhouse, and Steve expects to continue stage managing such musicals as this spring’s Guys and Dolls. If all goes well during the final week of Carol, he’ll have stopped the show only once during a run of more than 700 performances. “We had a mechanical breakdown and couldn’t fly Scrooge” (Dick Boyd then) to join the Ghost of Christmas Present on top of the bed. Most mishaps are minor, but when directors aren’t around, Priesman and music man Jim Boggess are in charge. Since Boggess is down in the orchestra pit, most trouble-shooting falls to the stage manager at his podium-type desk to the side of the stage. There he sees the audience view of the stage on a monitor, and scans a script and assignment sheet, headset in place, his right hand near those three cue switches. The worst has never happened — neither Boyd for 30 years or Jerry Longe the past five years has called in to say, “Sorry, I can’t play Scrooge tonight.” If that had ever happened, Priesman says, “I’d get Carl on the phone,” referring to artistic director Carl Beck. But the stage manager makes do if illness takes a youngster out of the children’s ensemble, and if a Cratchit child is missing, others can pick up the lines. When Mike Farrell had a “very rough voice” one night, Priesman and Boggess cut his “Boar’s Head” song from the show. They also have a Playhouse employee present as “staff on duty” each night. This evening it was production coordinator Greg Scheer, so Priesman passed on a crew complaint about tight quarters for a set piece when it’s moved on and off stage. “We’ve got three feet,” Scheer explains. It’s his 21st year, so few issues are apt to surprise him. Steve talks into his headset to announce, “Warm-ups on stage in five minutes.” Among the cast members arriving, not yet in costume, is wife Marion, again playing Mrs. Dilber, one of the two crones who cackle as they strip Scrooge’s bedding and empty his purse. Scrooge’s bed, Priesman points out, is smaller than it used to be since the remount of the show in 2006 after Boyd’s retirement. Smaller means only one “bed bug” now rolls it about the stage. “There’s not room for two anymore.” Steve didn’t do bed bug duty before stepping up as stage manager, but he once was that huge Ghost of Christmas Future, long before fiber optics replaced it. “I was inside that frame covered with black fabric,” where he raised the long arm that pointed ominously to Ebenezer’s tombstone. Anyone who’s seen the production knows it includes a tombstone that rises from the floor and a hole in the stage to lower Marley’s ghost to the nether regions. If everything goes on Priesman’s cues, nobody besides Marley falls in a hole. Steve first worked as a volunteer in 1984’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and first served as stage manager for the musical Can-Can in 1986. He’s done most of the spring musicals ever since. He enjoys similar longevity in his employment. The son of a printer, Steve is manager of Printing and Publications Services for Omaha Public Schools. The family’s involvement with A Christmas Carol started with son Brian, who once played Tiny Tim. With mom and dad stepping aside, only daughter Jennifer Priesman (she’s Millie this time around) continues with the annual classic. A Christmas Carol’s final show of the season is Thursday, Dec. 23 at 7:30 p.m. Visit

posted at 09:22 pm
on Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010


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