Larry Smiglewski is working 24/7. “We’re in tech [rehearsal], so basically an all-hours thing.”
Smiglewski is the production stage manager for “TINA: The Tina Turner Musical.” The show’s national tour is launching this week from the Providence Performing Arts Center.
This is the 21st show to use PPAC as its launch pad for a national tour.
“I got here two weeks ago today,” said Smiglewski when we chatted last Friday. His production team arrived over the weekend, and the first day on stage for the cast was Wednesday, August 31.
“Sometimes, you feel like you’re getting to the tech process at square one,” he said. Not so here. “We’re lucky. Our associated director, Sharika Niles, was stage manager for ‘TINA’ on Broadway. She was in the room with us while we rehearsed in New York, providing a wealth of knowledge, things to look for, things to avoid.”
The transition to the stage is important to the show’s blocking and flow. In the rehearsal hall, set pieces are marked off with tape on the floor. On stage, they’re solid and three-dimensional.
The set pieces were all built and shipped to Providence. “That load-in process takes a couple of weeks. They were loading in the show in Providence while we were rehearsing in New York. So, we’re pretty close to having everything we need here, which is amazing.”
This is the first national tour of “TINA,” but “there are iterations all over the world. What we have [in Providence] was created specifically for this cast and this version. When we got here, we were able to take our creative vision from the rehearsal room to the stage directly.”
That’s important, says Smiglewski, because “even in the best of circumstances, tech can be tedious. We need all the time we can get for tech, with the set pieces in place.’
The first step was what Smiglewski called “dry tech, for the designers and crew and myself.” Then they add the actors and musicians and step through the whole show. “We add in lighting, scenic pieces, to be sure we’re all on the same page.”
For Smiglewski and his crew, that’s the first time “I’m seeing the vision for real. Tape on the floor only goes so far.”
This is Smiglewski’s fourth visit to Providence as a production stage manager. “Providence is a great place to start. He was here with “White Christmas” and “School of Rock.” In PPAC’s last season, he stage-managed “Ain’t Too Proud,” the Temptations musical. “I was literally here just four months ago.”
Every show, says Smiglewski, “has different moving parts. ‘School of Rock’ was hard because there were children and 16 instruments.”
“TINA” will have its own challenges. “Some we know, some will come up. What we have to do is figure out the best way to present this show in this place at this time.”
The biggest known challenge is the “touring in Covid time. It brings so many challenges to the schedule. You never know what you will wake up to on testing day.” Cast and crew test three times a week.” Since the return of Broadway and touring productions about a year or so ago, “we haven’t had a show without a Covid scare. It underscores the importance of understudies.”
If you try to find a positive out of the negative of Covid, says Smiglewski, “the positive is raising up understudies and swings and just how valuable they are to a production.”
This tour has nine off-stage covering performers. “Gone are the days of one male understudy, one female understudy.”
Another challenge is having two actors portraying the title character. “There are big roles, and then there’s Tina,” says Smiglewski. “It’s unreal the amount of stage she has to do. Lots to go through in just two hours.”
This isn’t the first time Smiglewski has worked a tour where they’ve had such a split, but “it’s the best I’ve seen. These women are fantastic. They are such allies for each other. It could very well have been tricky, but they are so wonderful about it.”
Because of the split, “we’re teching two shows at the same time. All the costume changes, wig changes. Even though they’re playing the same part, they each bring a different energy. It’s made tech a challenge I haven’t had before. It just really keeps the process a bit more alive.”
Smiglewski has been stage managing full-time since 2015. “I was stage managing here and there when I was younger. One of my first experiences was as a production assistant on ‘White Christmas’ before it came to Broadway.”
After a while, Smiglewski left New York to teach college. He’s taught at Sam Houston State University, Westchester University and the University of Miami. “I love teaching whenever I can balance it with stage managing.”
By chance, he ran into Randy Skinner, the choreographer he’d befriended working on “White Christmas,” at a party. “He said, ‘Hey, “White Christmas” is going back out on the road, and we just lost our stage manager. Would you be interested in going out with us?’”
“You just have to remember that you never know when someone’s going to come back into your life and hand you an opportunity.” He’s been on the road since. “I found the thing I really loved. I love figuring out how the show fits in each place.”
Smiglewski truly loves his job. “It’s six days a week, weird hours. So, I don’t want to do anything that feels not great, not supported. From day one, this [show] has been a dream. Everyone’s amazing. We’re really lucky because it’s hard to do theater now.”
The first national tour of “TINA: The Tina Turner Musical” launches from the Providence Performing Arts Center, through September 18. For tickets and information, call 401.421.ARTS or visit www.ppacri.org.