Bringing it backstage: Ella Poon shares experience stage managing upper school productions

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Photo credit: Siena Ferraro

Ella Poon (’23) takes a breath outside the Zeller Student Center while the middle school choir rehearses behind her. Moments before, Poon had been taping up the windows behind her with black paper in preparation for “Kaleidoscope,” the 2022 Winter Concert. “This is my arm workout for the day,” Poon said.

By Siena Ferraro, Staff Reporter

Behind the curtains of the stage, cast and crew prepare for performances. Cast members warm up their voices in a melodic chorus of “oohs” and “ahs” and travel around racks of costumes and over tangled nests of wires to their respective stage entrances. Crew members secure microphone packs and place a myriad of props — from faux swords to baked goods crafted from foam — on their designated table. For stage manager Ella Poon (‘23), leading this operation is her top priority. 

“I’ve always liked theater, but I knew that I didn’t want to be center stage and obviously didn’t want the attention,” Poon said. “I always had the idea of doing backstage work.”

Poon has been stage manager for every upper school production — plays, musicals and both the winter and spring concerts — since 2019. As stage manager, Poon is responsible for ensuring the safety and wellbeing of those involved in the production, as well as taking notes during rehearsals, making sure props are in place for showtime and leading the cast and crew through the entire production process from auditions, to closing night. 

“I kind of see [stage managing] as being the mother of everyone,” Poon said. “Making sure everyone is safe — that’s a big thing.”

Poon’s first show was the 2019 upper school musical “The Addams Family,” where she began her career as assistant stage manager. At the time, Poon was a freshman and was new to the realm of stage managing. For three out of the four years she’s spent backstage, Poon closely collaborated with Archer alumn Quincy Gordon (‘22), who had previous experience in stage management. In total, the duo have completed four shows together. 

“Ella is amazing to work with. Even as a ninth grader, she was always so driven and just really passionate about everything she does,” Gordon said. “It was always amazing when I would look at the crew list and see a show had Ella on it because she’s not only a lovely person, but she’s also such a reliant and really strong stage manager.”

Poon also works alongside theater teacher Tracy Poverstein to bring upper school productions to the stage. Over the past three years, Poverstein and Poon have directed five shows together. 

 “She’s really good at anticipating what is needed to bring a vision together,” Poverstein said. “People want to have her backstage. She knows what she’s doing.”

During rehearsals, Poon begins by taking attendance to ensure each cast member who has been called for that specific rehearsal time is present. As for what comes next, Poon said that depends on how far along the cast and crew are into the rehearsal process. Typically, she takes blocking notes by writing down where actors are located on stage throughout the duration of the show. She also keeps a copy of the production’s script open during rehearsal and feeds actors their lines if they forget.

According to Poverstein, Poon is not one to shy away from a challenge. In 2020, just before COVID-19 shutdown schools nationwide, the upper school play, “Every Brilliant Thing,” was set to light up the stage. Due to the increase in COVID-19 cases, the production was moved from stage to screen. Audiences experienced the production by watching a livestreamed version of the show on Zoom. However, that didn’t thwart Poon from giving audiences the show they wanted.

“I remember seeing Ella was upset, but then she just stopped and got everyone organized,” Poverstein said. “She was one of the leaders who kept the actors calm and [said], ‘we’re going to have a large livestream audience. We’re going to do this for our audience because we all need this right now,’ while we didn’t know very much about COVID at the time.”

In November, Poon worked on “Into the Woods,”  her final musical in her high school stage managing career.

“It was quite a chaotic show, but I love being challenged in that kind of way,” Poon said. “It’s fulfilling when it gets to the end, and you’re like, ‘We did it. We made it work. We pulled it off.'”

Poon is not planning on leaving her stage managing career in high school. She looks forward to doing technical theater in college and applying the theatrical leadership skills she’s acquired over the past four years to the university she attends. 

“I feel like she’ll work professionally and be an asset to the theater program at whatever college she goes to,” said Poverstein. 

Reflecting on her career over the past four years, Poon offered advice to the future stage managers and fellow cast-mates that are a part of Archer’s theater department.

“What can set you apart is your ability to interact with other people,” Poon said. “Try to connect with people whenever you can.”