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October 24, 2014

Penelope Daulton: In Comes Company Manager

Some children wanted to grow up to be firemen; some wanted to be ballerinas. (Some of us had fathers who wished that we would want to be firemen and not ballerinas.)

But no child has probably ever said “When I grow up, I want to be a company manager!”

Penelope Daulton didn’t either, although she was a theater fan at a young age. “My parents became subscribers to Actors Theatre of Louisville since its earliest days,” she says. “It was our neighborhood theater.”

What, a kid who didn’t fall in love with theater by going to the local enormous “performing arts center” to see THE SOUND OF MUSIC, ANNIE or BEAUTY AND THE BEAST? No -- the Daultons were into pithier fare, although Penelope says “I think we saw CAMELOT once.”

Nevertheless, of the 19 Broadway shows that Daulton has company-managed, almost half – nine -- have been musicals. In fact, six of his first seven were, dating back to her first -- THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW in 2000, which, she found, posed a challenge after 9/11. It closed a mere 12 days later along with four other Broadway productions because thousands of people were afraid to venture to New York City. “But then we thought that if we could renegotiate contracts, we could run a little longer,” says Daulton. “And we did, getting everyone through some difficult times with at least a little more money.”

The next show turned out to be more significant: MAN OF LA MANCHA, for that’s where she met Thom Sesma, who became her good friend. “We found we both loved the Yankees,” she says. “We started a practice where we’d call each other during the third inning of every game and say ‘Happy third inning!’” Last year, the third finger of Daulton’s left hand received a wedding ring from Sesma.

The third show was WONDERFUL TOWN followed by BOBBI BOLAND. Oh, well, into each life a little flop must fall. But most months of the new century have seen Daulton’s name in Playbills as company manager, including the ones for A DELICATE BALANCE, which began previews on Oct. 20, her 18th month anniversary with Sesma. (She doesn’t say if she plans to call him during the third act.)

Being company manager has allowed Daulton to rub elbows with Martin Short (FAME BECOMES ME), Harvey Fierstein (A CATERED AFFAIR), Tovah Feldshuh (IRENA’S VOW), Kristin Chenoweth (PROMISES, PROMISES), Daniel Radcliffe (HOW TO SUCCEED), Jessica Chastain (THE HEIRESS), Tom Hanks (LUCKY GUY), Daniel Craig (BETRAYAL) and Denzel Washington (A RAISIN IN THE SUN). In fact, they were happier to see her than she was to see them -- at least on Thursdays, when she gave each a paycheck.

“That’s one thing a company manager does,” she says. “So during the run of a show, when I run into them on the street, they say hello. Six months after the show has closed, they don’t remember me. I’m used to that,” she says with a thick-skinned shrug. “I know I’m not an integral part of their lives after I stop bringing their paychecks. The best I can hope for is ‘I know I know you.’ And let’s face it -- these people work with thousands of people so I can’t expect them to remember me.”

Daulton belongs to ATPAM, the union for Theatrical Press Agents and Managers. “When I talk to our apprentices, I tell them that this job is not about being friends with the actors,” she says. “If that’s what they want, they should consider becoming personal assistants. Company managers instead are respectful of actors and their processes partly because,” she says, with a coming-down-to-brass-tacks raised eyebrow, “they’re greatly responsible for our livelihood.”

Many of us in our times have second-acted anywhere from a few to a few hundred times. Daulton does it eight times a week. “Near the end of each show, I’m there,” she says. “With a musical, I arrive as much as an hour before the final curtain because it involves more people and has more moving parts. LUCKY GUY was the biggest play I’d done, so I came a little earlier to that one, too.”

She’s not there to catch a good eleven o’clock number. “I must check in with each actor and with each technical department to make sure that everybody’s happy,” she says. “I report on everything from a computer glitch or a cue that didn’t happen or a major problem such as when a show had to be stopped. If there’s an injury, I must start a paper trail. Luckily, the worst injuries I’ve had to deal with have been sprained ankles and occasional heads hit on scenery. But no matter how small an injury, I report it, because it may result in a worker’s compensation insurance claim and I have to make certain that everything’s covered. Along the way, I deal with union benefits and sign the box office receipts. And,” she says with a whoosh of a breath, “I’m also the first person a vendor calls to ask ‘Where’s my money?’”

Daulton didn’t immediately find her place in the theatrical world. “In high school, I found I was really bad at acting, so that was out,” she admits. “I wanted to be involved somehow, so after sophomore year I went into assistant directing and worked with costumes.”

She decided on Smith College as a theater major with an economics minor. “I got into stage management, and did THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST and CLOUD 9 during the academic year. Studying costume design led to a work-study job for $40 a week at Mount Holyoke College Summer Theatre. Later I later spent three years with a children’s theater affiliated with Mount Holyoke.”

Daulton spent time in the school’s scene shop, too. “And because it was a women’s school,” she says with a smile, “there was no man there to say ‘Don’t touch that power tool; we’ll take care of that for you.’ We just did it all ourselves.”

But no thought to company management? “Honestly,” she says, “I didn’t know the position existed until I moved to New York – which I never thought would happen. I assumed I’d be in the regional not-for-profit world where I would have to report to work with a board of directors and people with money. I knew I’d have to learn to talk to them in the language they’d understand.”

Hence, Yale Business School, which also allowed her to take classes at Yale Drama. “In 1993, a great teacher who was director of presentations at the Metropolitan Opera said she was going to hire an assistant, and I called her twice a week until she hired me,” Daulton says. Among the facts she learned was that the ABC ads in the Times were not free. “To think that a production must pay $5,000 a week for them,” she says, her voice still filled with indignation.

While assisting, Daulton learned about company management and said “This is what I want to do!” A friend recommended her to a dance company where she got a job but not a company credit card. “So I had to use mine,” Daulton recalls. “I accrued a LOT of miles in the process. Not only that, we’d get to a city and I would have to cash our guarantee checks in order to pay the hotel and our dancers their per diems. I still remember walking around Cleveland with a bag filled with $35,000 in it.” Later she did a two-year road stint with TAP DOGS (and still managed to retain her hearing).

But working with the general manager of American Ballet Theatre was a disappointment. “It was sitting at a desk, not really being involved in the creative part of the process,” she says. “With my MBA, I could have gone and just worked at an investment bank. No – company management was it.”

She started off-Broadway with COMMUNICATING DOORS, THE MOST FABULOUS STORY EVER TOLD and then two years of STOMP. (Nevertheless, she STILL has her hearing). Then came Broadway and, eventually, her election as vice-president of ATPAM. “We meet every three or four weeks to discuss what needs to be settled,” she says. “We just lost the house-manager job at the National in D.C., but we have to be happy that we gained one in Foxwoods. We also consider concession requests from producers, and try to be understanding without setting precedents that will hurt us in the future.

“I’m an employee of each show,” she says, “which means when my show closes, I’m out of work.” When that occurs, Daulton isn’t content playing bingo and not paying rent. She teaches on the undergraduate level at NYU and the graduate level at Columbia. “I tell the students that a good company manager must have skill with people, communication and math. You can’t be good at just one or two but all three.”

Still, Daulton makes her profession sound so appealing – and reports on it with such zest -- that some children may well start saying “When I grow up, I want to be a company manager!”

         — Peter Filichia



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