Going Through a Stage: Joe Ruffner

While auditioning for a production of Six Degrees of Separation, Joe Ruffner realized he was too old to be cast as one of the kids in the play and too young to be considered for the role of their parents. Ruffner came up with a better idea; he’d stage manage it instead. That was years ago and the stage manager turned producer for the famed Second City in Chicago hasn’t looked back since.


Imagine working on a show that never closes—ever. It sounds like a stage manager’s nightmare, but it’s a dream come true for Joe Ruffner, who was initially hired by The Second City in 2003 to stage manage its now-shuttered Cleveland operation and again in 2005 to stage manage a touring show. He has worked full-time for the theater in Chicago in several different capacities since 2008, including stage-managing the Second City e.t.c. until 2010.

At The Second City, a theater recognized internationally as the launching ground for comedy icons including Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, and countless others, a show never truly closes. Instead, the ensemble members use the tools of improvisation to workshop material daily that it will then put up in front of a new audience nightly in hopes that it will generate enough laughs to be considered for the forthcoming show and continues that process until it has enough material to open a brand new revue.

As one can imagine, that can be both a high-wire balancing act and cause frustration for a stage manager who might be given just several hours to find props and design the lighting for a scene that may end up getting killed after just one performance. “Because of our roots, we’re always making theater out of nothing,” says Ruffner. “You know, six chairs on stage and nothing else. You’re creating on the fly.”

Ruffner can handle it. The theater program at Hiram College, a liberal arts college in Ohio where Ruffner was enrolled from 1990-1994, was small enough that it tasked its students with learning every aspect of the business and preparing the budding young actor with the behind-the-scenes work he would eventually pursue. 

Currently in the role of associate producer at the Second City, Ruffer spent some time with us recently waxing effusively about his stage managing days.

Get In Media: What was your initial interest in theater and the arts?

Joe Ruffner: The initial draw was my mother looking for a way to address my ADD. I was never diagnosed, but I wasn’t overly into sports. I enjoyed track and running but there was not a lot of post-school time taken up by those activities. I went to a relatively small liberal arts college in Ohio, Hiram, which had a pretty fantastic program under a relatively small roof.

Part of what ended up working out well was that the professors recognized that we didn’t have a lot of venues to play in; we had this old crusty auditorium with a ballroom upstairs and found a way to turn it into several different venues. We also got the experience, in relatively limited resources, of making it up as we went along. So a lot of my education was finding ways to do shows either off site or on a small budget and by the end of my education we were putting up shows several times a quarter, producing our own shows in odd venues and sort of looking at creative solutions, which is a path I followed throughout my career.

GIM: How did you end up a stage manager?

JR: It’s interesting because I started as an actor. My goal was always to be onstage. I didn’t stage manage until late in my career. When I was attempting to work as a professional actor, I found that I was in a pretty limited market in Cleveland. There were only so many shows a year that you could audition for and for some reason it didn’t occur to me to move to a bigger metropolitan area.

I ended up stage managing partially because I was real picky about projects that I worked on; I think somebody who is interested in theater for the love of it will also be drawn to a project sometimes more than a role. I chose to stage manage David Mamet’s Oleanna, rather than play Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar because at that time it was the more exciting project to be on.

GIM: Talk about the stage-managing gigs you had leading up to Second City.

JR: I’d stage-managed in college where every stage manager learns how to do it a specific way. You don’t quite realize that it’s a job you kind of mold everywhere you go based on the on the needs of the theater and the staff at that place. I remember I stage-managed a show at Karamu House in Cleveland. There’s no way I’d be doing this show if I weren’t the stage manager.

It was almost an entirely African America cast dealing with contemporary issues in a family abuse situation. I had a friend who was directing it and he hired me to stage-manage. It was an historic theater where Langston Hughes had come up and so I was blessed to be the guy in the booth running the show. Everything I knew was essentially from a book from doing it as school. Again, I had a good education and an education that sort of prepared me for everything.

GIM: It sounds like diversifying your portfolio early really helped your career. Would you say that’s the case?

JR:Yes and a fear of job security probably played into it. The people that make it are the people that can really put it all on the line and say, “I’ve got to succeed in this or else.” I’ve always had backup plans, but my backup plans were always stuff that I also enjoyed doing, so I never felt like I was potentially throwing away some performing because I was still involved in the theater in one way or another and that’s when Second City came along. It was a real happenstance situation.

In 2003, Second City had started Second City Cleveland, which was essentially a theater project that started in 2002. I had accepted a stage management job that was next door to the Second City Cleveland. They went through a cast turnover and their stage manager wasn’t returning to the next show. Through a little bit of happenstance, I ended up being asked to stage-manage that run.

GIM: As a stage manager in general, what are the duties and responsibilities?

JR: You’re making sure the show happens. At the end of the day, you’re the brain in the room that’s seeing all of the angles, that’s taking everything into account and making sure that the actors are prepared and ready to go on, making sure the director’s idea and vision is being maintained, fitting the show into the space, maintaining the relationships between all the elements of the creative team, coordinating things between the business side and the artistic side. Essentially, you’re really the businessperson for the artistic half of the production. Your job begins with curtain up; you’re really the person in charge of that show until the lights come down.

GIM: That sounds high pressure. Is it?

JR: If you’ve used your rehearsal time well, then it’s like clockwork and you’re really there just making sure it’s running smoothly. Obviously, there can be crises that occur mid show and in those situations there might times where you have to dig yourself or the cast out of a hole. Because you are in a booth in the back of the room, there’s not much you can do if something blows up, but you are ultimately responsible for making sure everything happens satisfactorily. And if not, that it gets repaired or put back into place relatively quickly.

GIM: What is unique about stage-managing at the Second City versus other places?

JR: The biggest thing is that we never close, so even when you’re rehearsing a show, you’re running a show. As a stage manager in a regional theater, [there’s] that week where you’re just having production meetings, you’re talking to your lighting guy, you’re talking to your sound people, that kind of stuff doesn’t necessarily happen [at Second City]. They’re bringing me a new running order two hours before the show [and] I’m working through my lunch break to make sure the light board is correctly programmed for that evening; that was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I don’t think there’s anybody that really does it that way.

As a Second City stage manager you’re the guy, whereas in a regional theater you might have a creative and a design team. You’re the lighting designer; you’re the sound designer as well. You have to figure out if you can get the props in time for a scene and you want to support the creative process as much as possible. That’s really your job, supporting the hell out of the [ensemble] who are writing the show. They’re spending a lot of their time writing, so you certainly don’t want them to have to worry about making sure they also have golf clubs and a football and streamers that can come out of the ceiling. They’re trusting you to be the creative force behind a creative idea they’re pitching potentially for the first time in front of an audience.

GIM: Can you think of a time where a crisis occurred and you had to think on your feet to get the job done?

JR: Because of the way we doing things at Second City, we’re always doing a revue. When you’re in process that show changes on a nightly basis. I certainly had a couple nights early on in my career when my on-the-fly lighting design wasn’t exactly what the show needed and [I was] blacking out at the wrong time.

I had an incident where we had an audience member literally throw fruit; he claimed he was in the model of one of the groundlings at the Globe Theater. He threw a lemon wedge or whatever from a drink and I knew I had enough time to go down and talk to the audience member. I’m sure the house staff was happy to handle it, but it was one of those times where in my internal clock I figure I’ve got six minutes here, I might as well have a conversation with this patron.

GIM: Generally speaking, are pay and benefits good in stage management?

JR: People who strike out for this kind of life, for the most part, know what they’re getting into. Some people are going to break through and they’re going to end up doing very well for themselves. It comes down to quality of life for me. It’s something that I love doing and I am doing well at it. My goal has always been to support a field I’m passionate about, to be a part of the arts, and so it’s possible that is wasn’t as important to me as it might be to other people. I think the people that do it are here for a reason.

GIM: What do you love about being employed at Second City in particular?

JR: There is no other place like us. We influence so many different places and you can see that every day you read the headlines or you’re at Playbill.com and see one of our alumni on Broadway or in film. Just being a part of that universe … that’s what I love about being here and in the hub of it all.

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