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By SAM THIELMAN
When there's something strange in Delacorte, who ya gonna call? Buzz Cohen, probably, who's stage managed fourteen of the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park productions at the Delacorte Theater. (This summer, she’s overseeing The Merchant of Venice.)
Actors and directors may get all the applause, but few of them will face the level of insanity that a stage manager faces every day—especially a stage manager who’s working on an outdoor show in Central Park. Cohen, whose job has included sheep wrangling and recovering sinking ships, recently regaled TDF with tales of her decades-long tenure at the city's least-predictable venue.
TDF: So how did you get started doing all this?
Buzz Cohen: Well, I'm from Broomall, Pennsylvania - you've heard of it, of course. While I was in high school, I became involved in the experimental performance group there at that time. It was the 70's, and open theatre and living theatre were in the mainstream of what we aspired to. And I fell desperately in love. But I didn't know if I was in love with theatre or the people I was working with, because it's easy to confuse those things.
Then at Wesleyan, [my alma mater,] I decided to choose the most demanding, least glamorous job I could in the theatre, which was stage management. And it was a perfect fit.
TDF: How is running a show at the Delacorte different from running a show at an indoor space?
BC: The park is its own event—each show has its own demands, though there are certain constants, like becoming the world's leading authority on the weather. And you do, as time passes, get very brave and come to realize that you can really keep working under very challenging circumstances. The actors want to continue to perform, and the audience desperately wants them to—they've worked very hard for those tickets and no one wants to go home.
[Tickets for Shakespeare in the Park are free, and they’re distributed via several methods. Many audience members line up at the Delacorte before sunrise in order to get tickets from the first-come, first-served distribution line. Anyone who has done this knows that it’s very hard work indeed. --- Ed.]
TDF: Is rain the only weather problem?
BC: The heat can be very challenging. I can recall during our production of The Tempest having Igloo coolers backstage with Ziploc bags full of ice, because it was over 100 degrees when we went up. The same thing happened at Merchant of Venice last week, actually. It's physically very taxing, particularly for the actors—I'm a woman of leisure.
TDF: So there's the heat, the rain...
BC: Hamlet [in 2008] was the first time I've ever had to stop a show for a whirlwind.
TDF: How did that happen?
BC: There was a freak violent storm in the Park. The lights had come up on one of [actor] Michael [Stuhlbarg]'s soliloquies, and you could literally see debris swirling around him. The wind was blowing boxes off one of the carts. We pulled up the radar, and to say that it was an angry red blob bearing down on the park does not do it justice. I ran out and said, "Everyone go home and leave the park." And you don't do that lightly.
TDF: But once you've mastered the weather, you've pretty much got it sorted, right?
BC: My shows with live animals add a different layer.
TDF: I'm almost afraid to ask.
BC: In As You Like it, there are shepherds, and [in 1992 we hosted] an Adrian Hall production designed by Eugene Lee. And if you know Adrian and Eugene, you know that they like real things, so of course we had a flock of real sheep. But I learned a useful skill, and if stage management doesn't work out, I can always have a career shoveling sheep muck.
TDF: Sheep are fairly stupid, though, right?
BC: Well, the smartest sheep also managed to get out of the pen during the performance. The audience adored it, as they always do when life intervenes. And then the other sheep all had a moment where they seemed to think, "Alice was here. Alice isn't here. Alice was here. Alice isn't here. Oh my God, they've killed Alice!" And then they all started bleating for her. The audience liked that, too.
TDF: So we've got blistering heat, driving rain, windstorms, and wild animals.
BC: I have also done a number of water shows in the park. You can tell Joel de la Fuente I've forgiven him for sinking my boat.
TDF: Sinking your what?
BC: [For 1994's Two Gentlemen of Verona,] there was a four-foot-deep river that encircled the stage at the Delacorte and went under a bridge so you could sail the boat offstage. And then we had another boat with similarly-dressed actors out on Turtle Pond, and the audience could go out and wave goodbye to the actors as they sailed away. And the actors had to step on the gunnel of the boat as they were loading the luggage in, but each time they did, it took on a little more water, and Joel stepped on it one time too many. I will always have a picture in my mind of Joel standing four feet deep in water holding an expensive, rented gramophone over his head. He was very brave. I suspect that wardrobe was probably not as thrilled with his bravery as I was.
TDF: But it sounds like you love your job, for all the craziness.
BC: I will say that there is a magic to doing the shows outdoors. There are things which are literally unrepeatable. I focus on weather, but when I was doing the Henry V with Andre Braugher [in 1996], as in fact occurred at Agincourt, we had rain. And the image of our British army going off upstage into the rain... unrepeatable. Doing the George Wolfe Tempest [in 1995] was glorious. When Ariel and Caliban were freed, they went upstage into a hut, and the walls of the hut petaled out like a flower, and you shined light through the hut out into nature, lighting it up as they went back out to it. To be able to call those cues! Remarkable. As you can tell, I enjoy what I do.
TDF: Are there other moments that stand out?
BC: Well... it's a story that has been told before. This was Othello with Raul Julia in the park, directed by Joel Dowling [in 1991]. It was Raul Julia, Chris Walken, Kathryn Meisle, and Mary Beth Hurt. We do a signed performance in association with Hands On every summer, and we didn't know that Raul had spoken to the signers and asked how to sign one of his lines. And when Othello arrives in Cyprus, he turned to Desdemona and signed, "O, my fair warrior!" And the deaf section of the audience went mad. So much of the work of the Public Theater is about inclusion, and it was very moving to see.
[TDF's Theatre Access Programs also sponsor an open captioned and audio described performance at the Delacorte each summer --- Ed.]
That was also the last show where we saw Mr. Papp. I think it was a dress rehearsal. I knew him as a very gentle man, which is quite different from the firebrand image that everyone else has. He was always very kind and generous to me. He sat in the front row, and of course the lights went down and the daylight went away, and the last image that any of us had was Mr. Papp fading into the dark. He died that October, I believe.
TDF: The Public itself must mean a lot to you, too.
BC: It's been a privilege for me to work with all the artistic directors. I used to love George Wolfe's saying that the lobby of the Public Theater—this is an inaccurate quote—should look like a subway station. It should look like New York. That's always been the mission. I remember being at the post office with a package from the Public Theater, and the man behind me said, "Do you work there?" and I said yes. And he said, "I can't believe that people like that do shows like that for people like me."
Sam Thielman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He contributes arts and news reportage to Variety, Publishers Weekly, World Magazine, and Newsday. He reviews fiction, movies and live performance and writes a bimonthly column on graphic novels and cartoons for Newsday.
Photo: Buzz Cohen with director Brian McEleney