Center Stage With: Bill Walters

We are blessed with a wonderfully organized, talented and helpful Stage Management team. Bill Walters is one of those amazing individuals on that team whom we are incredibly grateful for. He has a very unique position at Lyric in that he not only works as an Assistant Stage Manager but he is also our Super Captain, he explains in this interview what that means. As you can imagine he stays extremely busy as he is involved in every show at Lyric. In addition to the multiple hats he wears in his positions with Lyric, he also has extensive experience as a performer. In fact, in some productions you might have the opportunity to see him onstage with us. Most recently he was seen in our fall production of “Luisa Miller” as a soldier. He refers to himself as usually being assigned the 3rd ASM. (Meaning he gives staging cues in very busy shows requiring a 3rd or when a cue is needed other than on stage left or right. For example in “Dead Man Walking” while our other two Assistant Stage Managers were giving cues to our principal artists, Bill was in the back giving the female choristers and quartet of the Principals portraying the roles of the victim’s parents our all clear and go ahead to get preset after the vehicle was removed from stage by our Stagehands.) He has been in his current position since the beginning of the 2004-2005 and prior to that season, he was in a couple productions at Lyric as an actor. He really does have quite a fascinating background as you can see, has a great sense of humor and is always incredibly helpful with a welcoming smile on his face every time you see him. Thank you, Bill for all your hard work, dedication and contributions to each and every production. The show certainly could not go on without you.

Q: Where did you grow up?

Walters: I was born in Hinsdale, IL. When I was ten years old my family moved to the Little Village neighborhood in Chicago. I lived there until going to the theatre school at Loyola University.

Q: You have a very unique and multi-faceted position at Lyric. Tell me about your job, your different responsibilities and how you got into this field. 

Walters: I’m an Assistant Stage Manager, usually assigned the 3rd ASM position for three or four operas per season. I’m often stage manager for Ryan Opera Center and Lyric Unlimited concerts.

I’m also Lyric Opera’s Super Captain. I’m responsible for finding, auditioning, scheduling, and supervising the non-singing, non-speaking AGMA actors, as well as the adult and child volunteer supers needed for each season.

I began my career as a singer and dancer. I was a performer at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Summit, IL, and the AEA contract allowed a member of the chorus to also function as an Assistant Stage Manager. Since the scene shifts were mostly done by cast members, it became my duty to organize and assign them. I also took staging notes and worked with the understudies. When the long-time Stage Manager gave notice, the producer asked me if I would consider taking her place. I guess you know I said yes.

Q: How long have you been at Lyric?

Walters: My first opera as an Assistant Stage Manager and Super Captain was Carmen in the 2005/2006 season. This is my fourteenth year at Lyric.

Q:  What is your favorite opera and why?

Walters: When I want to listen to an opera at home, it’s Nixon in China. I love the poetry and feel the music captures the persona of each character. The music for the chorus is beautiful. 

Q: Who is your favorite singer?

Walters: My favorite male singer right now is Lawrence Brownlee. My favorite female singer is Yvette Smith – and I get to work with her almost every day. I love to listen to Sondra Radvanovsky, Patricia Racette and Susan Graham, too.

Q:  What is your favorite opera production/cast/performance at Lyric thus far?

Walters: Last season’s Cendrillon. It was beautifully sung by everyone; the set and costumes were fun; the cast and production team were a treat to work with. It’s a good holiday opera.

Q:  What do you do on your days off from Lyric?

Walters: I go to musicals whenever I can. I also spend a lot of time working on our home in Edgewater.

Q:  Tell me some of your most memorable moments from your time at Lyric.

Walters:  My poodle Chester appearing with Jimmy Odom in La Cenerentola’s storm scene.

Anytime I get to appear onstage is fun. During Midsummer Marriage, the set design made it difficult for the stage manager (Caroline Moores) to see crucial moments onstage. I was in costume and on headset in all the chorus scenes to give Caroline a “clear” when the artists were in position on a lift or platform and it was safe to call the cue to raise or lower them. 

Q: Tell me about some funny and interesting mishaps onstage.

Walters: In 2007/2008, Boaz Daniel sang Ford in Falstaff. He was consistently late for an entrance in Act Two. One performance, he came running through the door singing his line and ran right into the scrim. He ran into it with such force that the scrim was left with a perfectly recognizable imprint of his face.

At Candlelight Dinner Playhouse I played “headband boy” in A Chorus Line for six months He is an auditioning dancer in the first scene who is cut, and traditionally understudies a number of the other dancers. I understudied four. In our third week of performances, in the opening number “a 5…6…7…8,” the dancer playing Paul twisted his ankle. You see, it’s ironic because that’s what happens to Paul later in the show. We scrambled to take care of the situation while Zach was calling out the dancer’s numbers and forming groups. Well, it caused the familiar chain reaction. Paul’s understudy played Richie, and would have to go on as Paul. I understudied Richie, and would have to go on as yes, that Richie – “Gimme the ball, gimme the ball…gimme the ball, yeah!” You see, it’s ironic because Richie’s last name is Walters. When he’s asked to tell a little about himself, he ends by saying “…and I’m black.” Since I couldn’t say that, I said “…and I’m bald.” I played Richie for two weeks.

Q:  Do you have any interesting stories or events you were involved in from before you started at Lyric or not pertaining to Lyric (related to opera or otherwise)?

Walters: In 1987, I appeared in Little Shop of Horrors, which moved from Candlelight, and opened the Royal George Theatre on Halsted. I was the matinee Seymour performing three times a week, and also understudying the voice of Audrey II. Due to an actor’s illness, there was a week that I had to alternate between the two roles. It’s not easy singing either part, but listen to “Feed Me Seymour” sometime and think of me.

In 2007, Ravinia was presenting a semi-staged concert of Gypsy! starring Patti LuPone. I received a call from the Lonny Price, the director who said he was in a bind. After a week of rehearsal, Patti threatened to walk if the stage management team wasn’t replaced. A few members of the cast recommended me for the job. When I arrived the next day, I found the “semi-staged concert” included the original choreography, full costumes and their accompanying changes, scene shifts, furniture, props, children, a dog, and a lamb. They hadn’t found the lamb yet, and the props were in unorganized piles on tables in the rehearsal room. I don’t think anyone was prepared for the size of this show. I later found out why Patti had been so angry. There is a telephone ring in the penultimate scene and in rehearsal, stage management consistently forgot to call out “ring.” In the script, the telephone call comes after a page turn, at the very top of the following page. I’ve always said that the stage manager of the original production of Gypsy! had laid out the pages of the script to sabotage all future Gypsy! stage managers.

Q: I understand you have worked with many companies other than Lyric. Tell me about your career outside of your time here at Lyric.

Walters: My first professional (non-union) contract was playing George M. Cohan in “Music America!” for the 1976 opening season of Marriott’s Great America (now Six Flags) in Gurnee, IL.

I toured for two years with a Broadway-themed night club act called 4 Star Review. We performed at hotels and resorts around the country, playing dance music followed by our Broadway Revue. Two sets of each.

Starting in1982, I was a member of the acting company at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Summit, IL for eight years, and then stage manager for seven years

After Candlelight closed their doors in 1997, I was stage manager at Drury Lane Oakbrook for five years, followed by one season at Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN. When that season was over, I decided I would freelance, rather than work for a single theatre and I began auditioning as a performer again. I was cast as an actor in Lyric Opera’s Sweeney Todd in the 2002/2003 season, and Madama Butterfly in the 2003/2004 season.

From 2004-2015 I was stage manager at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Michigan. Four musicals and three plays in twelve weeks. Hurray for summer stock!

At Opera Theatre of St. Louis, I was stage manager for the US premiere of Michael Berkeley’s Jane Eyre in 2005 and I Puritani in 2006

For Chicago Folks Operetta, I directed Emmerich Kalman’s Arizona Lady in 2010 and The Circus Princess in 2012.

Since 2015, I’ve stage managed four musicals for Porchlight Music Theatre’s Revisits series: Chess, On a Clear Day…, Do! Re! Mi!, and Minnie’s Boys.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your love for musical theater and your connection with Susan Stroman.

Walters: When I was a high school sophomore, friends talked me into auditioning for “Hello, Dolly!” I was cast as Barnaby Tucker. I think my nervousness at the audition was right for the part. It might sound cliché, but musicals changed my life. I had new friends – more colorful, dramatic, and fascinating. Musicals are silly, hilarious, graphic, illuminating, realistic or stylized. And people sing and dance.

I admire Susan Stroman’s stylized concepts. I am always amazed at the way she uses props and set pieces in her choreography. Instead of moving things out of the way for a dance break, everyone dances on top of crates, desks, rooftops, or the hood of a car. They use mops, pans, silverware, and pretty much anything on stage to beat out the rhythm. In Crazy for You, the women dancers become upright basses, plucked by the men. Well, it was 1992 – but it was effective.

When it was announced that she would be directing at Lyric, I was, of course, excited to meet and work with someone I have admired for so long.  I met Susan Stroman for the first time in room 350 when we auditioned supers to play waiters in The Merry Widow.

QWhat composer would you want to write the opera of your life and why?

Walters: Stephen Sondheim. His music is both cerebral and emotional. I identify with his artist’s point of view in Sunday in the Park with George, and his revelations about the choices you make as you grow older in A Little Night Music and Follies.  

Q:  Tell me a little about your family (partner, children, close relatives) and their significance in your life and career.

Walters: At first, my parents were not happy with my desire to be on stage. They had no exposure to theatre and the evening rehearsals that kept me out late at night were a problem. Once I was in college and not living at home, it wasn’t a problem anymore and they were very supportive.

My brothers and sisters were always supportive and we’re very close. I’m the oldest of seven with two brothers and four sisters. They would come to stay with me when I would perform out of town. Not all at the same time, though.

I met my husband Kim in January 1980, as we were getting off a bus to audition for Camelot at a theatre in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey. We were both cast in the show and got to know each other during the forty-five minute (each way) bus trip. The show ran for three months and by the time it closed, we had become very close. We were finally able to get married when it became legal in December 2013.

Kim and I performed in many Theatre for Young Audience productions together at Drury Lane Martinique in Evergreen Park and at Drury Lane Oakbrook.  Kim was also an actor in a few operas at Lyric. He was in Satyagraha, Doctor Atomic, played the front end of a lion in The Magic Flute, and a Koken in Madama Butterfly. He is a terrific pianist as well.

Q:  If you weren’t an Assistant Stage Manager, what would you be doing and why?

Walters:  I would be auditioning as an actor. It’s what I know.

Q: As someone who has never worked in stage management, I would love a better understanding of your prep work and your role backstage. Can you be more specific about how you familiarize yourself with the productions and how you prep your scores/supers coming in and working on operas?

Walters: For the opera itself: I listen to the music, go through the score, and find out as much information about the production as possible. We are provided with a lot of material if it’s a production that’s been done before. If I don’t know the director, conductor or designers, I also try to find out as much as possible about them. I look at other productions they’ve staged and where they have worked.

For the actors and supers: I find out where they appear, what characters they play and what they do physically. If there is a video of the production, I look at that. If I can reach the director, I ask him or her to describe what they envision for the supers. I talk with the rehearsal department to schedule the audition and to create the super rehearsal schedule. I write up the audition notice and email it to approximately 2500 men and women in my audition database. At the audition, since they don’t sing or speak, the director may ask them to improvise short scenes with other supers based on the characters they will play. If the production has been done before, a lot of the casting will depend on fitting into a costume. We will have them available at the audition to make sure. Most of the supers have no stage training or experience. It is sometimes a challenge to get to the point where they understand what is required and are comfortable performing.

For myself: As the 3rd ASM on productions, my role backstage isn’t as defined as the stage right and stage left stage managers. I identify moments in the opera where there is activity in more than two areas and I “fill in the gap.” It usually means being stationed in the basement when artists enter from below, or out into the lobby if there is an entrance through the audience. I also direct traffic backstage to keep groups of singers from being injured by moving set pieces.

Q:  What kind of music do you listen to outside of the opera house?

Walters: Mostly Broadway musicals.

Q:  What do you do in your down time backstage?

Walters:  Since I am involved with every production, I prepare for the next rehearsal or opera. I go to the gym but not as much as I could or should. We have two futons in our office that are great for a twenty-minute power nap.

Q: What advice do you have for young aspiring singers and those wishing to enter the stage management field?

Walters: Singers: I’m sure you’ve heard that a career in the performing arts is difficult. You’ve probably heard that having talent isn’t enough. Both are true. I’m sure you’ve heard you have to know someone or get a lucky break. Both are not true. You need to be disciplined enough to practice and work outside of rehearsal on your own. Know the material before each rehearsal so you arrive prepared, and – most importantly – BE READY TO START AT THE CALL TIME. I’ve seen many talented people overlooked by directors because they are habitually late. You are not on time when you walk in the door at the call time – then still have to take off your coat, get a drink of water, change your shoes, and greet everyone. If you are truly serious about your profession, it is a huge commitment.