Backstage tour with Cinnabar Stage Manager Ross Brown

Ross Brown is washing dishes.

Wine glasses, to be specific - props in the upcoming production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People,” opening this weekend at Cinnabar Theater. Brown, of Cotati, is the show’s stage manager, a role he often fills at Cinnabar, along with a number of other theaters and performance spaces around the North Bay. This evening, roughly an hour before the actors and director arrive for a “Good People” rehearsal, Brown is readying the many, many props required in the show. Caring for and arranging such props is one of the many tasks a stage manager generally undertakes when working on a show.

Washing dishes being one more.

“Yeah, this is my favorite part of being a stage manager,” Brown says with an ironic grin. “I just did another show here - “My Way,” the Frank Sinatra show - that had a full bar. So I had to wash martini glasses every night. And I managed to make it through the whole run, only breaking one glass. So that was pretty good.”

In “Good People” - a twisty-and-turny comedy-drama about an unemployed South Boston woman (Sarah McKereghan), desperate to make a better life for herself and her disabled daughter - characters serve coffee and wine, stack up catering dishes, deliver envelopes full of cash, and play bingo.

All of that requires careful placing of props.

“There’s coffee in the first act, with at least three mugs, and then red and white wine served during the second act,” explains Brown, giving a tour of the backstage area where the various items stand waiting for the actors. Those props include the actual “coffee” and “wine” consumed by the performers. “For wine, I use water and food coloring,” he says. “I mix that up myself. I have my own recipe.” Pointing to a pitcher of fake red wine, he adds, “I’ve made all kinds of drinks for all kinds of shows, and I kind of have it down to a science now. Using water allows me to avoid complaints, since every actor has their own dietary restrictions. Some don’t do sugar, some don’t do caffeine, some can’t drink certain kinds of juices. Some stage managers use iced tea for things like scotch or bourbon, but there’s caffeine in that. So I just use food coloring in water and it works out fine.”

Brown has acquired many skills he wold never otherwise have learned.

In “Good People,” he primarily assists director Michael Fontaine during the rehearsal phase, organizing schedules and managing any number of details. There are various set pieces to move, and in some case, learn how to operate, as in the current show’s gliding walls that slide in and out of view on tracks affixed overhead. Once rehearsals are through, he then essentially runs the show on performance nights, all while maintaining the set, props and equipment, seeing to the needs of the cast, calling light and sound cues during performances, and often physically pressing the buttons that fire sound cues and light changes.

On rare occasions, he even gets to perform a little. Sort of.

“In this one,” says Ross, “during the Bingo scenes, where an offstage priest is supposedly calling out the numbers, Michael has me sit up at the sound board and read the Bingo numbers.” He points across the empty auditorium to the board up in the back row of the audience area. During performances, there will be a microphone in place for Brown to call out the numbers. This requires a very careful metaphorical dance between the actors, their props, and Brown’s timing of lines and other cues. “The timing,” he allows, “has to be exactly right, or the whole thing won’t work.”

Asked if he’ll wear a collar to play the priest, he laughs.

“Uh, no,” he says. “But I will be wearing black. All stage managers wear black. It’s the standard uniform, because black blends in when you have to move things around in the dark. I have a lot of black clothes in my closet. It’s just part of my life.”

Brown has been stage managing in Sonoma County for over a decade now. Originally from Walnut Creek, he attended high school at Clayton Arts Academy, in Concord, where he initially pursued an education in video production before making the leap to theatrical production. After graduation, he went on to earn a degree in theater tech at Sonoma State University, in 2005. Following that, he balanced working as a barista at Peets, in Walnut Creek, with various theatrical opportunities, including a stint building sets at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, and one-year stint studying theater in the Netherlands. Eventually, having relocated to Sonoma County, he began getting gigs stage managing shows at various theaters, including Cinnabar, where he continues to work several times a season.

Brown estimates that he now works as stage manager of an average five shows a year, though has no clear idea how many shows he’s managed to date. If forced to guess, he’d estimate between fifty and sixty shows.Stage

“I should probably have a list of all the shows I’ve stage managed,” he admits. “But I do tend to hold onto the scripts, with all of my notes, and I have enough of those after all these years, I just bought a storage shed, where I’ll keep those scripts in banker’s boxes.”

“Hello Ross,” calls director Fontaine, arriving a bit early for tonight’s rehearsal. As he disappears into the wings to examine some recent set changes, Brown puts the final touches on the evening’s preparations, organizing the Bingo cards and related Bingo ephemera.

“The actors go through a lot of Bingo cards every performance,” he says.

Finally, he’s ready for rehearsal to begin.

“There’s a lot going on in this show,” Brown says. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun. I’d rather have lots to do during a show than just sit in the dark and wait to start washing the dishes.”

(Contact David at

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